Terence McKenna's Last Trip
The psychedelic philosopher and mushroom advocate Terence McKenna sometimes seriously and sometimes playfully predicted that a transformative event for planetary consciousness - a Singularity or Eschaton would happen on December 21, 2012. As we approach that date, many of us do feel that events are speeding up, that creativity, novelty, and destruction are happening in faster and faster spirals of time. As the Middle East erupts in revolution and Japan experiences nuclear meltdowns, as the Gulf of Mexico turns black and the global economy trembles on the brink of collapse, as social media proliferates and biotechnological enhancements become available, McKenna's wildest ideas of psychedelic apocalypse and cosmic gnosis look less and less farfetched. Nowhere, however, do you find a serious reconsideration of the work and legacy of this maverick philosopher with the unforgettable gravel voice. That is why Evolver Intensives is offering "Psychedelic Adventures at the Edge of the Abyss: The Ideas of Terence and Dennis McKenna ", a unique, groundbreaking series - hosted by Terence's brother Dennis, in his own right a well-known ethnobotanist and entheogenic advocate - where we will dive deep into McKenna's ideas and explore their relevance for us, right now. The course starts on Sunday, June 5.
A version of this profile first ran in Wired, 8.05; this version appeared in Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica, by Erik Davis (Yeti Books, 2010)
In May 1999, the psychedelic bard Terence McKenna returned to his jungle hideaway on Hawaii's Big Island after six weeks on the road. He was relieved to be home. Since claiming the mantle of tripster king from Timothy Leary, McKenna has earned his keep as a stand-up shaman on the lecture circuit, regaling groups of psychonauts, seekers, and boho intellectuals with tales of mushrooms, machine consciousness, and the approaching end of history. Weird stuff, and wonderfully told. But the teller was getting tired of the routine. A recluse at heart, McKenna wanted nothing more than to surf the web, read, polish up some manuscripts, and enjoy the mellow pace of Hawaii with his new girlfriend, Christy Silness, a kind young woman he had met the year before at an ethnobotanical conference in the Yucatán.
Soon after McKenna arrived home, he was hit with ferocious headaches. He'd long suffered from migraines, but nothing in his fifty-two years could match the ice picks now skewering his skull. On May 22, after dragging himself to the john to vomit, McKenna's mind exploded. Hallucinations cut in like shards of glass; taste and smell were bent out of shape; and he was swallowed up in 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.
When McKenna came to, he was flat on his back, staring at the ceiling as his extremely agitated girlfriend called 911. Then he swooned again. In addition to being much younger than McKenna, Silness is also much shorter, but somehow she managed to load his lanky, 6'2" frame into their truck and drive down the mountain to meet an ambulance. To keep McKenna awake, she coaxed him into reciting a Robert Service poem his grandfather used to chant, "The Cremation of Sam McGee." But then a grand mal hit, and McKenna was out cold.
The ambulance guys knew McKenna's rep and were convinced he had OD'd. But a CAT scan in Kona revealed the presence of a walnut-sized tumor buried deep in McKenna's right frontal cortex. The growth was diagnosed as a glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), the most malignant of brain tumors. To McKenna's amazement, his doctor described the thing as a "fruiting body" that sent "mycelia" throughout the surrounding tissue - mycological lingo straight out of The Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide that McKenna had published in 1975 with his brother, Dennis, now an ethnobotanist. The rest was less amusing. Without treatment, McKenna would die within a month. With treatment, the prognosis was six months. "No one escapes," said the doctor.
McKenna was facing something that no shaman's rattle or peyote button was going to cure. With barely time to breathe, he had to choose between chemotherapy, radiation treatment, and the gamma knife - a machine that could blast the tumor with 201 converging beams of cobalt radiation. At the same time, friends and comrades were stalking more ethereal treatments. On the Big Island, Hali Makua, a Grand Kahuna of Polynesia, hiked up the side of the Mauna Loa volcano to meditate about McKenna, He was illuminated with a handful of Hawaiian power words, words that he later phoned in to his ailing friend. From the wilds of Nevada, paranormal radio jock Art Bell went on the air and asked his 13 million listeners to participate in "great experiment no. 8." At 2 pm Pacific time on Sunday, May 30, Bell's listeners sent McKenna a mass blast of good vibrations. "It's not something I really believe in," says McKenna. "But I am much more sympathetic to the idea of a huge morphogenetic field affecting your health than the idea that one inspired healer could do it."
Even after he went under the gamma knife, McKenna couldn't quite believe what was happening to him. "There are only about 1,000 of these GBMs a year, so it's a rare disease. I never won anything before - why now?"
Like everybody else, McKenna suspected a lifetime of exotic drug use may have been to blame. "So what about it?" he asked his doctors. "You wanna hammer on me about that?" They assured him there was no causal link.
"So what about thirty-five years of daily dope smoking?" he asked. They pointed to studies suggesting that cannabis may actually shrink tumors.
"Listen," McKenna told them, "if cannabis shrinks tumors, we would not be having this conversation."
Word of McKenna's condition spread like taser fire through the listservs that are the backbone of the psychedelic community. The suddenness of his illness freaked folks out. "It was almost like the night when Howard Cosell came on Monday Night Football and said John Lennon had been shot," says Jordan Gruber, an attorney who works at NASA and the founder of Enlightenment.com, a Web site devoted to spiritual psychology. "It was a similar sort of terrible shock to the nervous system." Within thirty-six hours of his seizure, 1,400 messages poured into McKenna's email box. A typical missive: "I love you for who you are and are becoming and all of what you have meant to so much of humanity." Over the next week, almost on thousand emails came in each day.
This flood of digital well-wishing is testament to McKenna's stature in the world of psychedelics, a largely underground realm that includes the ravers, old hippies, and New Agers one might expect, but also a surprising number of people who live basically straight lives, especially when compared with the users of the '60s. McKenna serves as this hidden world's most visible "altered statesman." He has written five books - two with his brother - and has developed a worldwide following. Brainy, eloquent, and hilarious, McKenna applies his Irish gift of gab to making a simple case: Going through life without trying psychedelics is like going through life without having sex. For McKenna, mushrooms and DMT do more than force up the resonant remains of last night's dream; they uncover the programming language of mind and cosmos.
"The psychedelic experience is not the equivalent of a dust bunny under your psychic bed," says McKenna. "It's a product of the fractal laws that govern the world at an informational level. There is no deeper truth."
McKenna is the most loved psychedelic barnstormer since Timothy Leary, the self-appointed guru of LSD who died in 1996 amid a flurry of digital hype about online euthanasia and his plans - which he scrapped - to undergo cryonic preservation. Like McKenna, Leary was an intellectual entertainer, a carny barker hawking tickets to the molecular mind show. McKenna calls it "the harlequin role," a role he plays almost willingly. At the same time, McKenna is a far mellower man than Leary. "I don't seek to live forever," he says, "and I don't want the removal of my head to become a net event."
Leary spent the late '60s attempting to gather a hippie army under the battle cry of "turn on, tune in, drop out." Taking his advice, McKenna dropped out and headed to India, where he bought Mahayana art and smuggled hashish until a stateside bust forced him into hiding in the wilds of Indonesia. In 1971, he and his brother went to the Amazon to hunt for ayahuasca, a legendary shamanic brew. But when they arrived at the Colombian village of La Chorera that spring, what they found were fields blanketed with Stropharia cubensis, aka magic mushrooms.
In some ways, it was a turning point in American psychedelic culture. Back home, Leary's LSD shock troops had already disintegrated into harder drugs and bad vibes, and Leary himself was hiding out abroad after escaping from an American jail. Serious heads knew all about psilocybin mushroom from Gordon Wasson’s famous Life magazine article, but no one in the US was eating much S. cubensis in the early '70s because no one had figured out how to cultivate it. After returning from South America, the McKennas discovered a reliable method. While they were not the only heads to crack the shroom code in this era, they did publish their results. Magic mushrooms were now on the underground menu.
McKenna farmed shrooms into the 1980s. He could turn out seventy pounds of them every six weeks, like clockwork. The trade financed the middle-class existence of a relatively settled man. Then a good friend of his, an acid chemist, got busted. "They fucked him so terrifyingly that I saw I couldn't do this anymore. I had to work something else out." What McKenna worked out was "Terence McKenna," a charismatic talking head he marketed, slowly but successfully, to the cultural early adopters.
McKenna got his fifteen minutes of fame when four of his books came out in rapid succession. His 1991 collection of essays, The Archaic Revival, is particularly influential, especially among ravers and other alternative tribes attracted to the idea that new technologies and ancient pagan rites point toward the same ecstatic truths. Food of the Gods, published in 1992, aims directly at scholars. In it, McKenna lays out an unorthodox case that psychedelics helped kick-start human consciousness and culture, giving our mushroom-munching ancestors a leg up on rivals by enhancing their visual and linguistic capacities. Though anthropologists ignored his arguments, the time was right for McKenna's visions. He was tempted with movie deals, got featured in magazines, and toured like a madman. He hobnobbed with Silicon Valley hotshots like interface gurus Brenda Laurel and Jaron Lanier and performed at raves with techno groups like the Shamen. Timothy Leary called him "the Timothy Leary of the 1990s."
McKenna also was a popularizer of virtual reality and the Internet, arguing as early as 1990 that VR would be a boon to psychedelicists and businesspeople alike. But unlike Leary, who planned to use the net as a stage for his final media prank, McKenna realized that the Internet would be the place where psychedelic culture could flourish on its own. "Psychedelics were always about information," McKenna observes. "Their very existence was forbidden knowledge at one point. You had to be Aldous Huxley to even know about them." To his great satisfaction, McKenna has lived to see the psychedelic underground self-organize online on sites like Erowid and the Lycaeum. But to McKenna the net is more than an information source. He is also convinced that it is hosting an unprecedented dialogue between individual human beings and the totality of human knowledge.
"The Internet is an oracle for anyone in trouble," McKenna explains, using his illness as an example. "Within ten minutes I can be poring through reams of control studies, medical data, and personal reports. If anything, my cancer has made me even more enthusiastic about the idea that through information, people can take control of and guide their own lives."
Unfortunately, by last October, five months after the initial diagnosis and treatment, he needed a lot more than information. Despite the radiation therapy, the tumor was spreading. McKenna traveled to the medical center at UC San Francisco, where a team of specialists surgically removed the bulk of the tumor. They then soaked the cavity with p53, a genetically altered adenovirus meant to scramble the hyperactive self-replication subroutines of the remaining tissue's DNA. Gene therapy is highly experimental; as Silness put it, McKenna became "a full-on guinea pig."
At first, the doctors at UCSF were extremely pleased with the results, and for four months the tumor cooled its heels. But in February, an MRI revealed that it had returned with ferocity, spreading so thoroughly throughout McKenna's brain that it was deemed inoperable. He retreated to a friend's house in Marin County, and his family began to gather. By the time you read this, Terence McKenna will likely have died.
It is the end of 1999, and I am visiting McKenna at his jungle home during his recovery from brain surgery. He lives a mile or so up a rutted road that winds through a gorgeous subtropical rain forest an hour south of the Kona airport. His house - a modernist origami structure topped with a massive antenna dish and a small astronomy dome - rises from the green slopes of Mauna Loa like something out of the video game Myst. There's a small garden and a lotus pond, and the structure is surrounded by a riot of vegetation, thick with purple flowers and mysterious vines.
McKenna has owned land on this mountainside since the 1970s but didn't start building the house until 1993. Every morning, I ascend a spiral staircase decorated with blue LEDs to get to the study. It's here that McKenna spends the majority of his time during my visit, either staring into his Mac or sitting cross-legged on the floor before a small Oriental carpet, surrounded by books, smoking paraphernalia, and twigs of sage he occasionally lights up and wafts through the air. With his widely set and heavy-lidded eyes, McKenna looks like a seasoned nomad merchant.
Silness has shorn McKenna's usually full head of hair down to gray stubble, and the upper right side of his forehead is gently swollen and graced with a Frankensteinian scar. Though he is desperately ill, his spirits are as alive as ever: gracious and funny, brilliant and biting. But he tires quickly, and seems intensely energized only when the prospect of chocolate cookies or ice cream arises. He is also very skinny, having lost a lot of muscle in his thighs, and he moves painfully slowly when he moves at all.
McKenna and Silness have hosted a regular stream of visitors and well-wishers over the last months, but the scene is definitely not Learyland. They are living life as close to normal as possible - which is how McKenna prefers it. "There are various options when you are faced with a terminal disease," he says in his unforgettable voice, a charming nasal singsong. "One is cure-chasing, where you head off to Shanghai or Brazil or the Dominican Republic to be with these great maestros who can save you. The other thing is to do what you always wanted to do. So that means head to Cape Canaveral to see a shuttle launch, on to sunrise over the pyramids, on to a month in the Grand Hôtel de Paris. I wasn't too keen on that, either. My tendency was just to twist another bomber and think about it all."
There's a lot to think about in McKenna's lair. An altar lies on top of a cabinet over which hangs a frightening old Tibetan tangka. With McKenna at my side, the altar's objects become icons in a computer game. Click and a story emerges. Click on the tangka and get a tale of art-dealing in Nepal. Click on the carved Mayan stones and hear about a smoking god who will arrive far in the future. Click on an earthen bowl and wind up in the stone age. "Back then," he says, tapping the vessel, "this was advanced technology."
Gamers know that the most interesting objects usually lie near the obvious ones, and indeed, the real prizes here lurk inside the narrow cabinet drawers. Butterflies. Click on these hummingbird-sized beauties and you'll be transported back thirty years to the remote islands of Indonesia, where McKenna dodged snakes and earthquakes in order to capture prize specimens for the butterfly otaku of Japan.
The most prominent feature of the room are the fourteen large bookcases that line the walls, stuffed with more than three thousand volumes: alchemy, natural history, Beat poetry, science fiction, Mayan codexes, symbolist art, hashish memoirs, systems theory, Indian erotica, computer manuals. Deeply attuned to the future of consciousness, McKenna remains a devoted Gutenberg man. "The majority of my fans could not conceive of this room," he says. "They would have no idea that a printhead could push so hard against electronic culture."
McKenna derives great pleasure from pushing the envelope of the human mind, but he is equally turned on by technology. On the one hand, the house, which was only finished last year, is completely off the grid, irrigated with rainwater collected in a large cistern up the hill, and powered by solar panels and a gas generator. There are no phone lines. At the same time, Ethernet connections are built in everywhere, even out on the deck. The computers in his office - a 7100 Power Mac, a dual-processor NT, a G3 PowerBook, and Silness' PC laptop - jack into cyberspace at two Mbps through the 1,500-pound high-gain dish on his roof. Using spread-spectrum radio technology, McKenna's dish swaps packets with a similar rig on the roof of CTI, his ISP, thirty miles north. The twenty thousand dollar system carries voice traffic as well. His plan was to eventually stream lectures over the net, thus eliminating the need to travel in order to "appear" at conferences and symposia.
McKenna normally spends four or five hours a day online, devouring sites, weeding through lists, exploring virtual worlds, corresponding with strangers, tracking down stray facts. Sometimes he treats the net like a crystal ball, entering strange phrases into Google's search field just to see what comes up. "Without sounding too cliché, the Internet really is the birth of some kind of global mind," says McKenna. "That's what a god is. Somebody who knows more than you do about whatever you're dealing with."
As our society weaves itself ever more deeply into this colossal thinking machine, McKenna worries that we'll lose our grasp on the tiller. That's where psychedelics come in. "I don't think human beings can keep up with what they've set loose unless they augment themselves, chemically, mechanically, or otherwise," he says. "You can think of psychedelics as enzymes or catalysts for the production of mental structure - without them you can't understand what you are putting in place. Who would want to do machine architecture or write software without taking psychedelics at some point in the design process?"
It's a typical McKenna question: simultaneously outrageous and, in some twisty way, true. For obvious reasons, hard statistics on the extent of psychedelic use in the high tech industry are tough to come by. But Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, will tell you that both MAPS and another psychedelic research outfit called the Heffter Research Institute have raised more than fifty percent of their funding from Silicon Valley heads.
"There's a sense," says Doblin, "that the creative chaos and visionary potential that people have gotten from some of their psychedelic experiences have played a role in their accomplishments in the computer industry." Steve Jobs is on record calling his first LSD experience "wonderful," while Mitch Kapor credits "recreational chemicals" with inspiring crucial programming insights. "Psychedelics have infiltrated the computer industry," says McKenna, "because psychedelic use is a response to the environment that's been found to actually work."
Psychedelics have certainly left their mark on computer graphics, virtual reality, and animation. From fractals to Kai's Power Tools to Hollywood f/x, digital imagery has often been inspired by the mutations in perception brought on by certain drugs. In the words of Mark Pesce, the co-creator of Virtual Reality Markup Language, "How often do you go to a Web site and say, 'This is really trippy!'? Well, why? C'mon - it's because it was created by tripsters." McKenna learned about computer animation from his son, Finn, who studied at the San Francisco Academy of Art and now works in New Jersey. Together father and son would get high and go to museums to analyze the objects. "How would you CAD this? How would you get this Minoan vase, this Etruscan statue, up on the screen in 3-D? If you look at a seashell or a glass vase as a modeling problem, then everything is an animation."
Ultimately, McKenna wants something more than trippy images. He hopes that computer graphics will blossom into a universal lingo, a language of constantly morphing hieroglyphic information that he claims to have glimpsed on high doses of mushrooms. "There is something about the formal dynamics of information that we do not understand. Something about how we process language holds us back. That's why I encourage everybody to think about computer animation, and think about it in practical terms. Because out of that will come a visual language rich enough to support a new form of human communication."
In McKenna's mind we are not just conjuring a new virtual language. We are also, in good old shamanic style, conjuring the ineffable Other. McKenna argues that the images of aliens and flying saucers that spring up in numerous tripping reports are symbols of the transcendental technologies we are on the verge of creating. In other words, we are producing the alien ourselves, from the virtual world of networked information.
"Part of the myth of the alien," says McKenna, "is that you have to have a landing site. Well, I can imagine a landing site that's a web site. If you build a web site and then say to the world, 'Put your strangest stuff here, your best animation, your craziest graphics, your most impressive AI software,' very quickly something would arise that would be autonomous enough to probably stand your hair on end. You won't be able to tell whether you've got code, machine intelligence, or the real thing." McKenna thinks this is coming soon, within the next ten or twenty years.
McKenna ties all this into the Timewave, his kookiest notion. The Timewave is a strange fractal object McKenna pried out of the I Ching, the Chinese book of divination, back in the La Chorera days. He believes that it charts the degree of novelty active at any point in human history. The wave spikes in times of change, coinciding with the Black Death, the Enlightenment, and the birth of Mohammed. A computer program McKenna helped develop predicts the future as well, at least up until December 21, 2012, when novelty spikes to infinity and the Timewave stops cold. For McKenna, all of human history, with its flotsam and jetsam of books and temples and mechanized battlefields, is actually a backward ripple in time caused by this approaching apocalypse.
Coping with his own personal day of reckoning, McKenna spent much of 1999 sorting and answering fan email. As he read on, he made an unexpected discovery. "It isn't really me they support," he says. "It's a statement they are making about something that has probably provided them more insight and more learning than anything else in their lives outside of sex and marriage and a few of the other major milestones. My real function for people was permission. Essentially what I existed for was to say, 'Go ahead, you'll live through it, get loaded, you don't have to be afraid.'"
To ensure that folks give psychedelics a proper shake, McKenna has always recommended what he famously calls "the heroic dose." Chew five grams of mushrooms, lie down in darkness and silence, and you'll realize "every man can be a Magellan in his own mind." There now exists a considerable community of people who have taken his advice. They are united in a belief that it's a trip worth taking, but endlessly divided on how, or whether, to tell the world about it.
Though most trippers are highly secretive about their activities, one part of the scene is starting to poke its nose above ground. The last decade has seen the first resurgence of official psychedelic research since the early '60s. Much of this work has been supported by MAPS, whose Web site and journal is devoted to the dry, methodical language of protocols, statistics, and action studies. Though the National Institute on Drug Abuse continues to politicize the process with its war on drugs, the MAPS strategy has been surprisingly successful. "Now we can get FDA permission for various studies, and the regulatory system is pretty well open toward rigorously designed protocols," says Doblin. "The big limiting factor is the shortage of serious researchers and scientists willing to point their careers in this direction. There's still a lot of stigma attached to it."
Organizations like MAPS and the Heffter Institute emphasize the scientific and therapeutic side of the equation. "It's about as close as you can get to mainstream cultural values," says Doblin, who contrasts this approach with the hippies of the late '60s. "The idea then was that these substances were so liberating that we needed to create a countercultural movement, one inherently at odds with society. The fundamental distinction today is between those people who still have that view and those who recognize that we have to feed this stuff back into the major culture."
McKenna straddles this divide. He believes that psychedelics should be more fully integrated into society, through art, design, and pharmacology. But despite his love of science - he calls Scientific American the most psychedelic publication that crosses his desk - McKenna is ultimately a romantic, and romantics rarely shape mainstream values these days. Though he's no kook, talk of Timewaves and galactic mushroom teachers speaking a transcendental language may not be what the psychedelic movement needs as it gropes toward legitimacy. As Earth, who runs the Erowid web site, explains, "One of the primary criticisms of psychedelic users is that they're loopy as hell, and it can certainly be said that Terence McKenna's ideas are, at their best, controversial and, at their worst, confused and delusional."
Today, the psychedelic community has ripened to a point where it may no longer need a charismatic leader. In a sense, this was McKenna's goal. Because if Aldous Huxley was an aristocrat of psychedelics, and Leary was a populist demagogue, then McKenna is a crunchy libertarian. So it is perhaps fitting that, at this moment, McKenna is the last of his line, that no new harlequin hero waits in the wings. What does remain, however, is a network making sure that psychedelics remain an option, covert or otherwise.
"In the end, all McKenna is asking anyone to do is to become a shaman, journey to the numinous, and draw their own conclusions," says Mark Pesce. Even if the invisible landscapes one discovers hold no more reality than dreams or virtual worlds, the trip itself forces a direct confrontation with just how weird life is. And how deeply, profoundly weird dying may prove to be as well.
Which means that McKenna is probably as prepared as anyone can be for the final journey into the dark. As he points out, "Taking shamanic drugs and spending your life studying esoteric philosophy is basically a meditation on death." McKenna calls death the black hole of biology. "Once you go over that event horizon, no messages can be passed back. It represents a limit case in the thermodynamics of information. You just can't hand messages back over that threshold. So get yourself pointed right, do not your mantras bungle, and that's about it. When you're actually dead, all bets are off. The best answer I've gotten yet is out of Don DeLillo's Underworld, where the nun discovers that when you die you become your web site."
Like many people staring unblinkingly into the black hole, McKenna has opened up a great deal in the months since his diagnosis. “Nothing lasts,” he notes. That's one thing I think you learn from life, psychedelics, or just paying attention. These Buddhists aren't kidding: you are here for a very brief moment, and you can sit on your thumbs and do whatever you want, but in fact the clock is ticking. What are you gonna do about it? Are you gonna blow it off, or be a hedonist? What are you gonna do with that? If most people took this situation seriously, a hell of a lot more would be done with more attention to quality and intent. Now I'm much more in tune with the Buddhist demand for compassion," he says. "The real dilemma is how to build a compassionate human civilization. If we betray our humanness in the pursuit of civilization, then the dialog has become mad."
In his heart , McKenna remains an optimist. "When I think about dying, the thing that surprises me is how much of the future I regard as history, but I don't want to miss it. I want to know how it all comes out. I would like to know how the universe came to be, if extraterrestrials exist, where biotech is going, where the Internet is going. Because this is it. We are on the brink of a posthuman existence. So what's it gonna look like? What's it gonna feel like?"
Facing his end, McKenna admits that he doesn't "have a lot riding on my vision of things." But his visions are precisely what make him such an inspiration to so many people. Every day we see another talking head clawing his way toward the role of visionary, trying to convince us that their speculations about the future are true. But real visionaries are more than just futurists. Their power lies less in prophecy than in giving us new perspectives on a constantly mutating world, perspectives that manage to be simultaneously timeless and new. Real visionaries are always dodgy characters, because they embrace strange, heretical, even dangerous ideas. Terence McKenna is a real visionary.
Image: "Visual Language" by Felipe Venâncio, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet