Terence McKenna was for
some more guru than a man whose lifestyle had been moulded by very deep
experiences of an alternative reality. For the rest of his life, he
would strive to bring awareness of that dimension to our reality.
Terence McKenna was diagnosed with a brain tumour in May 1999, he asked
the doctor whether his life of experimental drug taking might have contributed
to the disease. His doctor stated that there was no evidence to say
it did, but that there was suggestive evidence that cannabis might actually
force brain tumours to shrink. McKenna then pointed out that this “suggestive
evidence” must be erroneous, as otherwise he would never have
developed one. The anecdote is typical of McKenna’s wit and reasoning,
which propelled him into an almost guru-like status – though he
never was or was even considered a guru in the negative meaning of the
was not a pioneer per se. Most of the hallucinogenic research had already
been performed in the early to middle parts of the 20th century by academics.
If anything, McKenna was a child of the 1960s, graduating from UC Berkeley,
majoring in ecology, resource conservation and shamanism – a typical
Berkeley 1960 degree that was soon abandoned by the university where
some suggest a whiff of cannabis can still be sensed on campus.
With his diploma in hand, McKenna set off for India and later the Amazon,
where he studied the native hallucinogenic drugs used in various South
American shamanic traditions. The specific search was for oo-koo-hé,
a plant preparation containing DMT – dimethyltriptamine, a drug
naturally produced by the brain. But study in the field implied student
participation; rather than being caught up in the 1960s Western drug
culture, here McKenna was confronted with the origins of the drug cult.
Thus, at La Chorrera, at the urging of his brother, he allowed himself
to be the subject of a psychedelic experiment which he claimed put him
in contact with The Logos: an informative, hallucinatory voice nearly
universal to the visionary experience.
His brother Dennis would remain an instrumental part of his life. Together
they were amongst the first who brought back their experiences to the
Western world. But though they were scientists, they were not reporting
to other academics; they were reporting to the general public about
the growth, use and knowledge these plants could teach Mankind. That
the Amazonian town of Iquitos is now a major centre for “the hallucinogenic
tourist” is largely the result of McKenna and the following he
created to witness a native drug culture, rather than the consumerised
Western equivalent of it. The drug experience in its native setting
was not about pleasure; it was about knowledge acquisition; it was not
about escapism; it was engaging with Nature and looking into the mirror.
McKenna has been described as humanity’s first ambassador to the
hyper-dimensional inhabitants. That is not necessarily true –
he was however the first Westerners sent back from that dimension with
a message to the Western world, from those denizens.
McKenna advocated the use of drugs, and particularly organic hallucinogens,
specifically ayahuasca, which contained DMT. McKenna furthermore believed
that his experiences through DMT were real and spiritually significant
– they were not hallucinations; they opened a doorway into another
dimension. DMT was a substance native to the brain and ayahuasca played
with its normal operations, thus opening the door, for a limited period
of time. It allowed the mind to enter another dimension.
Once on the other side, McKenna stated that there were other forms of
life in the universe. With the rising popularity of UFOs, McKenna began
to preach that this phenomenon was linked with his “hyperspace”.
The DMT experience was similar if not identical to the “abduction
experience”, in which he believed the machine elves of hyperspace
were seen as aliens in UFOs. It was merely the latest realisation, after
their manifestation as faeries, elves or angels.
mapped the history of drug usage, specifically of DMT and psilocybin,
arguing that both drugs had been used throughout the ages in Mankind’s
effort to enter that dimension and speak with these otherworldly creatures.
He believed these denizens had helped Mankind throughout the ages. The
extra-ordinary and anomalous wisdom that had often gone into ancient
monuments (from the pyramids in Egypt to the equally enigmatic giant
constructions in Middle and Southern America) might have been inspired
and helped through these denizens: giving shamans specific information
on building techniques – like these denizens had given the shamans
specific information on other subjects, specifically medicine. McKenna
would argue that if cultures across the worlds had built pyramids for
their gods, then this was not evidence of physical contact. McKenna
believed that the shamans of each culture might have entered “hyperspace”,
where they made contact with an intelligence that had been around for
a long time. The various cultures, across time and space, that contacted
it, would come away with the same message.
historical study included an analysis of our modern era, where “true
drugs” had been outlawed, but substitute drugs such as cigarettes,
caffeine and sugar were widely available. McKenna found the notion of
outlawing a plant absurd, and he viciously indicted the societal power
structure that made possession of hallucinogens a capital crime, while
peddling refined sugar to children and subsidizing tobacco and alcohol
production. The latter had addictive qualities and negative health effects,
whereas his drugs – specifically DMT – had never shown any
addictive quality. Nevertheless, it was a Class A drug.
In “Food of the Gods”, largely the conclusion of his historical
studies, McKenna advanced the startling theory that the evolutionary
track leading to the development of modern humans was sparked by the
consumption of psilocybin mushrooms by cavemen. We would not have been
“us” without the mushroom. Specifically, he argued that
psilocybin produced an enhanced visual acuity, theorising that primates
who lived in areas where the mushrooms thrived, gained an evolutionary
advantage in hunting. The mushrooms stimulated the verbal centres of
the brain. With consistent use over time, the primates began to associate
the sounds with communicative concepts, resulting in language.
He extrapolated from this premise towards our current society, whereby
he felt that people whose life was void of the hallucinogenic experience
were not truly “human”: the liberating and wisdom receiving
experience of “the trip” was absent, making them more like
cattle, more easy to manipulate by leaders – in short, they were
not enlightened. He framed these findings in the context of various
mystery traditions, which preached that through specific techniques,
some of which were drug based, the initiate was “reborn”
as an “Illuminatus”, an enlightened being – someone
who had seen the divine light of hyperspace.
his very first experiences, the denizens of hyperspace had given McKenna
a mathematical formula which became known as “novelty” and
“Timewave Zero”. At first, McKenna had no apparent use for
it. It was said to be a system that showed how “new things”
– novelty – would spring about in our timeline. Time itself
was a fractal wave of novelty – the output from this wave. Time
was thus built around a series of new ideas and paradigm shifts: events
that changed the world.
The problem was how to anchor the formula in our calendar – where
the wave would collapse into a zero point. After some study, McKenna
decided that the anchor should be on December 21, 2012 AD, which he
later also identified as the end-date of the Mayan calendar.
The Timewave has remained a subject of intrigue after McKenna’s
death, specifically with the September 11, 2001 attacks or the
December 26, 2004 Asian tsunami. McKenna argued that 2012 would
be an “eschaton” – a tremendous collapse of
time, forcing us to enter a new time. Though that might indeed
be the purpose of the Timewave, the denizens did not anchor it
in our timeline – McKenna did. Hence, the 2012 anchor is
not a certitude, but only a theory. Though the Timewave does largely
coincide with significant events that the Western media reports
on, no scientific classification of what comprises novelty on
a global scale means – nor how to time it. Did the world
change at September 11, or when Bush decided to invade Afghanistan?
And though it enthralled the media, was it truly a global event?
And does it matter whether or not Mankind does change, or merely
that the event that might change Mankind happens? These questions
was a prolific speaker: if chosen as an ambassador by the denizens of
hyperspace, their choice was excellent. McKenna combined a unique voice
with a specific, intriguing method of delivery, whether in public or
in private. Many of his phrases were used by shamanic-inspired popular
artists, from The Shamen to Eat Static.
I had the pleasure of meeting McKenna twice and briefly corresponding
with him. At our first meeting in July 1995, I was largely sceptical
of the man behind the message, classifying him in a category of people
who say a lot, but with little of any true value. But his public lectures
and interventions, as well as private discussions, quickly revealed
that McKenna was very glossy, but with a most intriguing core.
He was a man of many layers; for most, he was a man prophesying the
benefits of drug usage. A smaller group realised that he did not see
drug usage as a recreational activity, but considered the drug user
as a priest, maintaining the sacred bond between us and the Otherworld
– the Logos – God. A small circle realised that by following
in McKenna’s footsteps, they would be able to retrieve real knowledge
from that dimension.
it seems that by 1999 McKenna was tiring from constantly travelling
and his missionary work. Perhaps it was merely temporarily, hoping to
surrender himself more to the exploration of hyperspace, rather than
talking about it. Does a priest merely have to talk about God to his
flock, or have private time to seek out the divine as well?
On May 22, 1999, McKenna’s 52 year old mind exploded. Hallucinations
cut in like shards of glass; taste and smell were bent out of
shape; and he was swallowed up by a labyrinth that, as he later
put it, “somehow partook of last week’s dreams, next
week’s fears, and a small restaurant in Dublin.” Then
his blood pressure dropped and he collapsed, the victim of a brain
seizure. Like John Travolta in Phenomenon, McKenna had achieved
a physical condition that allowed him access to another dimension
– but it would also be a fatal one. McKenna was given a
six to nine months life-expectancy. Experimental treatment seemed
to give the desired effect and by November, scans showed the tumour
had gone into remission. However, it was clear that Terence had
been summoned to definitively pass through “The Gate”,
and the tumour returned. He finally passed through – this
time without a return – on April 3, 2000.
had never been a specific topic for McKenna. The door to hyperspace
had swung so many times… But having been given a “finality”,
he realised that living in the knowledge that one will die, made life
rich and poignant. He said: “I could see the light of eternity,
a la William Blake, shining through every leaf. I mean, a bug walking
across the ground moved me to tears.” McKenna realised that given
a limited amount of time focused the brain: “If most people took
it seriously, a hell of a lot more would be done with more attention
to quality and intent.”
He had always assumed he would see 2012, but now wouldn’t. “Very
few prophets live to see their prophecies – Joachim de Fiore didn’t,
Marx didn’t. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to
happen, it doesn’t need cheerleading. It’s built into the
morphology of space and time. That’s all a very funny thing about
me and my career that’s different from Leary, different from all
of these people: this strange relationship to prophecy and the eschaton.
My fans don’t understand any of that stuff, and my critics don’t
understand much of it either. So we all just have to put up with it
until it clears itself out of the way.”
But at the same time, he did not want to make his death into an event,
like dying on the net or entering discussions about cryogenics. “I
think part of what death is about biologically is reshuffling the gene-pool.
If genes were to last forever, death would never have entered the scheme
of things.” Until the end, he continued to think and preach…
article appeared in Sub Rosa Magazine 1 (June 2005).