“Have you heard about the Terence McKenna thing?”
A few months ago I came home from a particularly triumphant adventure to find an inbox full of anxious agitation awaiting my return. It took me a while to get to the bottom of it all, since, while many of my doubtlessly well-intentioned informants seemed almost giddy with the hope of being the first to bring me a juicy piece of gossip about one of my most beloved icons, nobody actually included any major spoilers in their notes. I was, however, repeatedly warned that I was in for quite a nasty shock if I’d somehow been living under a rock for the past however many hours. (Which it happens that I happily had been.) Some of the messages seemed vaguely smug, whilst others exuded an almost palpable air of existential panic. All of them contained a link to the Notes from the then-most-recent Psychedelic Salon podcast. Many of them solicited my opinion.
It’s taken me quite a while to formulate one. I listened to that podcast over and over again. I thought about the matter for a long time. In the end, I believe that what I initially experienced as an extremely unsettling revelation has actually served to help me sculpt a yet more emotionally satisfying portrait of a truly fascinating and profoundly inspiring human being. And since I figured that most of my readers are probably big Terence McKenna fans, too, I hope that sharing my thoughts here might help others to process their reactions.
But first for the brief debriefing, so as not to keep those of you who don’t already know the basic contours of the story in an unnecessarily annoying state of extended suspense. (Yeah, yeah–too late.) If you haven’t already heard about this, I suggest that you take a deep breath and prepare yourself for a mildly disorienting download.
As most of you no doubt know, Terence McKenna and his brother Dennis were instrumental in broadening popular awareness of psilocybin-containing mushrooms. They were among the first representatives of our modern culture to really interact with the mushroom at any depth, and they shared several profound experiences as a result of their experimentations. Of particular note was a 1971 expedition to the Amazon, ripples from which were destined to resonate throughout their entire lives, and indeed throughout the fabric of psychedelic culture at large.
Those seminal experiences intensely activated and inspired both of the brothers, but their approaches to processing what had happened to them and the tenor of their ongoing relationship with the plant teachers turned out to be as different as their temperaments. Dennis ended up going the scientific route and becoming a respected enthopharmacologist, whilst Terence tried to take the message to the people as a sort of self-proclaimed psychedelic gadfly. They both excelled at their chosen professions, and Terence actually got to be a little bit famous in a kind of a nerdy way, at least on the psychedelic circuit.
Which is really no big surprise considering that he was dazzlingly brilliant, extremely well-read, and possessed of an almost freakish ability to manipulate the English language. It was always fun to listen to him talk, even if some of the things that he had to say would have sounded patently preposterous if they’d been proposed by a person who was even a little bit less persuasive, articulate, charismatic, and amusing. He was well known for his inspired and inspiring descriptions of his own strongest and most fully immersive psychedelic experiences. The rap that he built his career on rhapsodically romanticized the “heroic dose”, and he often encouraged his fans to press past the borders of their comfort zones and to dive just as deep as they dared.
And now Dennis is saying that Terence himself basically stopped taking mushrooms sometime in the late 1980s, more than ten years before terminal illness put an untimely end to his enthusiastic evangelism. It seems that he had an anomalous mushroom experience in Hawaii that made him extremely reluctant to continue with his practice. According to Dennis, he thereafter abjured the mushroom almost entirely, and partook of ayahuasca and DMT only very rarely, and always at relatively low dosage levels.
These fun facts hit the Internet after Lorenzo Hagerty, who hosts the well-known Psychedelic Salon podcast, played a few clips from a two-day workshop entitled “Terence McKenna: Beyond 2012” that he and scientist/designer Bruce Damer had facilitated at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California in June 2012. In one of those clips Damer reads some sneak preview excerpts from Dennis McKenna’s much anticipated book, The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, in which Dennis spills the beans about Terence’s decade-long abstinence and talks a bit about the self-doubt and existential angst that apparently haunted at least the last few years of his late brother’s unusual career.
There is a whole long-and-involved discussion to be had about the importance of right-sizing our heroes and the mores surrounding the outing of dead people and the value of integrity and whether or not a celebrity’s fans and/or potential imitators have a right to know the unvarnished truth about that person. I’m not particularly interested in pursuing that discussion in this forum, but I will admit that I had a variety of knee-jerk responses to all of these issues, and I’ll tell you that every single one of my initial reactions was profoundly challenged at some point in the days and weeks of intense processing that followed my first rush of revelation shock.
I first came across the bard of the lower bardos while house-sitting for a rather eccentric friend in what may have been the summer of 1994. He’d told me to feel free to ransack his enormous audio collection while he was away, pointing me toward a drawer full of blank tapes and a dual-cassette boombox. (This is how file sharing was done in the early 1990s, kids.) I don’t recall what originally inspired me to pick one of his many Terence tapes out of the slushpile, but I do remember that I spent the majority of the next week lying around in a highly receptive state of mind, listening to this strange man’s distinctive voice work its magic. By the time I left that house, I had fifty hours’ worth of copied tapes in my backpack. I had also successfully reformatted my entire mind.
Part of it was timing. I discovered Terence right after my first big wave of experimentation, which happened to have taken place just before the true onset of the Internet. If you don’t remember what it was like to be into psychedelics before the Internet, trust me that you have no idea how good you’ve got it. Especially if you live in a small town. It used to be that your local library had maybe two or three books that even mentioned psychedelics at all, and that’s pretty much what you had to go on. Heads were more closeted back then, too. That treasure trove of Terence tapes therefore represented some of the very first nuanced discussions about psychedelic drugs that I had ever encountered, and it came at a time when I was bubbling over with raw experience that I was desperately eager to contextualize.
Terence McKenna conjured a cosmovision in which my most powerful and confounding experiences were both valid and meaningful. Here was someone who had obviously undergone transformational ordeals at least roughly isomorphic to my own, and it even seemed that he had come away with some of the same uneasy conclusions. Except unlike the budding Prefaerie, this guy was actually able to articulate these things! Which is a damnably difficult thing to do, as many an effer of the ineffable has had the occasional occasion to discover firsthand. Listening to Terence talk was like watching somebody do a slow motion magic trick right in front of my eyes whilst simultaneously describing and correctly analyzing a recurring childhood dream that I’d never told anybody about. Something that I had written off as indescribable, in fact. And for the very first time in my life, I suddenly realized that I had a mission. No, really.
I could go on and on about Terence’s inestimable influence on me, but suffice it to say that he was simultaneously my hero, my teacher, and my role model. He ignited my nascent intellectualism, gave me permission to take my deepest intuitions seriously, and even shored up my faith in the human spirit.
So the Psychedelic Salon podcast kind of knocked me for a loop. It seemed like my hero had lied to me, and that made feel both hurt and angry. He’d talked thousands of people into taking truly ridiculous amounts of drugs, all the while concealing the fact that he’d long ago lost his legendary courage, and with it the will to totally surrender himself to the epic plunge. I felt like he’d somehow tricked me personally into taking five dried grams of mushrooms alone in silent darkness. (One of his most oft-repeated prescriptions.) I mean, if Terence McKenna could handle that much then the Teafaerie could handle it, right? Oh, sure! Only now it comes out that it was really some kind of a horrible prank all along. And he totally got me! Me and the thousands of other fools who had doubtlessly done the same damned thing just because they’d been impressed by his bullshit bravado and they wanted to feel like they were in some non-existent psychedelic superheroes club. Some of them probably had pretty terrible trips, too. (I eventually did have to call my sitter in when I tried it myself, and while I won’t go so far as to say that I regret having gone there, I’ll admit that I only did it to get the merit badge. I’ve never been seriously tempted to repeat the experience. Five dried grams really is kind of a lot, and I find that lights and friends and music can all be great sources of comfort when the universe starts turning itself inside-out on me.)
But that wasn’t even the worst part. I was far more dismayed to hear that Terence had harbored serious doubts about the validity of his own theories. This was a much bigger deal as far as I was concerned. Darkly, I wondered exactly which parts of his rap he privately perceived as bullshit and yet cynically continued to peddle to the true believers who practically thought that he was some kind of a Messiah. I spent a lot of my childhood waiting for the sky to fall for religious reasons, I knew that there were kids of all ages out there who were having a similar experience about the upcoming end of the Mayan long-count merely because Terence McKenna had said that it was going to turn out to be a big thing. Had the silver-tongued sham-man ever really even believed in that stuff in the first place? Or was he simply playing us the whole time to pay the bills? It was like finding out that a lover has been cheating on you for a good long while. Suddenly everything that you thought that you knew about that person seems suspect.
I’m not exactly proud of any of these feelings. I’m just sharing them because they were a real part of my process. It’s natural to have big feelings when you first find out that things are not as you have previously supposed. It’s (sadly) fairly normal to start looking around for somebody else to blame for those feelings, too. Fortunately, I was shortly to encounter a phenomenon that was far more upsetting to me than that podcast had been. One that provided a much better target for my unfocused anger, while at the same time forcing me to clarify and articulate my thoughts about the matter.
If there’s anything that human beings love more than hoisting one of our own number up onto a high and wobbly pedestal, it’s standing around looking smug when the poor bastard inevitably takes the fall that we so thoughtfully set him up for. I was unsurprised, therefore, to find that the Internet’s psychedelic suburbs were all sticky with troll droppings in the wake of the aforementioned revelations. Normally, of course, I wouldn’t touch that sort of thing with a ten-foot bong. I vigorously detest gossip of all kinds, and the very notion of arguing about the personal habits of a dead celebrity with some ass-breathing douchebag who’s really just trying to get my goat in the first place makes me want to puke.
I honestly did try to stay out of it. Partly for dignity’s sake. But also because my own feelings were somewhat unclear. And then one day I happened to be on the wrong spoke of my menstrual cycle when I chanced across some asshole comment suggesting that Dennis McKenna was selling out his dead brother’s legacy just to promote his upcoming book. I guess that I totally snapped or something. In any event I sat up all night writing a rather impassioned response. When morning came, I read over what I had written and I realized that I had finally worked it all out for myself. I wasn’t angry at Terence anymore. In fact, I had developed a whole new breed of respect for the man.
I also realized that the person who had made that comment was entirely unworthy of my response. Fortunately I happen to write a column for Erowid. It’s because of Terence McKenna that I do. And I’m absolutely delighted, humbled, and honored to be vouchsafed such a wonderful opportunity to publicly stick up for the guy whose inspiration first made me realize what I wanted to be when I grew up.
So first I’m gonna give it to you in short form. Terence would appreciate the fractaliness of that approach, and it amuses me to arm a bunch of people with a Facebook-post-sized refutation of all this nonsense.
Frankly, I don’t see what the big deal is. There’s absolutely nothing shameful about Dennis’s recent revelations. There’s nothing dishonorable about taking a break. Even a good long break. And if you don’t feel profound doubt about your understanding of the psychedelic experience, then as far as the Teafaerie is concerned you might as well still be a virgin. You’ve certainly never hit the center of the target.
Terence McKenna was under no obligation to share the details of his personal practice with his fans. Considering his unique circumstance, I can think of quite a few legitimate reasons why he might not have wanted to.
Imagine that you’re a psychedelic superstar. In particular you’re a mushroom-taking superstar. You honestly think that taking mushrooms is a wonderful thing! It’s easily one of the most fascinating experiences that you’ve ever managed to find out about, and you feel ridiculously honored that it seems to have chosen you as its spokesperson. It’s also kind of heavy though, because part of the message seems to imply that the work you’re doing might be ultra-important to the survival of your species. Which on the one hand makes you feel like you might be going crazy, because: How likely is it that you would actually be heading up the movement that’s destined to catalyze the transformational crisis and take the whole thing to the next level, right? Yet it honestly really does feel like your work is cosmically important, and you’ve constructed your entire identity around that narrative. Then one night the tricksy genie totally turns on you and casts you into the Outer Darkness. Surprise! It’s like suddenly getting mauled by Lassie. Except it’s a million times worse because on top of the ass-whooping and the pain of an intimate betrayal, you also get to find out what its like to have your fragile little ego exposed to the hard vacuum of the existential abyss for a timeless eternity.
So now what do you do? Do you tell your fans about this rather awkward turn of events right away? Why or why not? And if you DON’T end up telling them right away, when DO you tell them? My husband and I had a mutual girlfriend for about five years, and even though we eventually got fairly comfortable with telling people, there were still a few more distant friends and family members that never actually ended up finding out, mainly because we didn’t want to have to then explain why we hadn’t already told them about it several years before. I mean, maybe he thought that he was eventually going to get over it, you know? Picture a 70-year-old Terence talking about how he once took a long break from psychedelics, recounting the story of how he finally managed to screw up his courage just before the big 2012 thing, and how enormously relieved he had been when his long-lost friend finally welcomed him back with open arms and infused him with fresh ideas. I can totally see how I might have wanted to hold out for that, if I had been him.
I can also see how he might have felt like he sort of had a rep to protect. Which would have partly just been his ego talking, obviously; but professional considerations are also a real and valid motivation, especially if one happens to be raising a family. And then of course there were the sacred missions. Would I even feel like I had a “right” to purge my conscience at the expense of possibly endangering an enterprise that I honestly (if intermittently) thought might literally be the most important endeavor ever to be undertaken in the history of the universe?
Maybe he should have made a good example out of himself by coming forward and demonstrating that even the best of us need to hang up the goddam phone once in a while. But surely nobody can argue that he ought to have disqualified himself from even speaking about the matter just because he decided to take a little break. Should Neil Armstrong have voluntarily stopped fronting for NASA simply because he hadn’t been to the moon in a few years? Does a man have to land on the moon every other weekend in order to speak out about all of the awesome possibilities implied by space travel? And who says that taking more drugs always leads to a clearer understanding, anyway? Many psychedelic philosophers contend that you only need to do it once if you get the whammy, and I’ve known plenty of people over the years who really do take psychedelics all the time, and yet somehow mysteriously fail to become ever wiser and more cogent.
I don’t think there’s anybody who would dare to suggest that Terence McKenna has never actually been there. In fact, I’m willing to bet that he took (at least!) five dried grams of mushrooms more times than he could easily have recounted, and he was doubtless sincere in his recommendation of that practice. Many of the most profoundly promising features of the psilocybin trance simply don’t manifest themselves at socially manageable doses, and that’s just the way that it is. Plus it’s not like he told people that it was all rainbows and warm fuzzies in the first place. He was always the first to say that the mushroom could be something of a harsh mistress. He even openly admitted that every single time that he immersed in the tryptamine space he went in with his knees knocking and his heart leaping out of his chest. He said that he would never take it on at all, in fact, if he wasn’t so thoroughly convinced that the experience might very well represent the tip of the most important iceberg ever. He figured that somebody had to do it, or we might be missing an evolutionary opportunity. And I think that he was right about that. But I also think that he personally convinced enough people to take up the good work that he earned the right to honorably retire from active duty whenever it suited him.
I myself took a break from smoking DMT for almost seven years once, and I kept facilitating for people all along without ever telling anyone that I just hadn’t been able to work up the clit to do it since that one time when I got eaten by a carnivorous space-plant. I did tell everybody that they had to re-roll the proverbial dice every single time that they smoked, though, and that there was always a small but real chance that they might end up having a very difficult experience indeed. You buys your ticket and you takes your ride.
You’re welcome to call me a hypocrite if you want to, though I don’t think that would really be the correct use of the word because I really did and still do truly believe that the experience has enormous value. I also believe that you should only do it when it calls you, and sometimes it lets people go for a while. You’ve really got to learn to listen to your system. It’s part of the whole fine art of the thing. You can also totally think I’m a coward if you want. But you didn’t see that plant. And none of us have ever experienced the exact trip that Terence got whacked by on that fateful night in Hawaii, either. Maybe you think that you’ve survived something that sounds kind of similar; but frankly, there’s no possible way that you could actually know that. I wouldn’t start getting too cocky about how you can take the Terence McKenna-crushing void in stride, because the range of existential abysses is wide, and some of them scream much more loudly than others.
I think that Terence was actually very courageous to stop when he did. I mean, does anybody actually believe that it somehow would have been more honorable if he had kept on taking drugs for egotistical reasons and then ended up burning out and cracking up in a messy and theatrical meltdown that totally would have endangered the entire mission? That would have been the far greater tragedy, I think. So under the circumstances I feel like he made the right decision for all concerned. He found the brake pedal and used it to take the break that he needed. Others who were perhaps neither so wise nor so lucky have pressed on to discover their actual breaking points and subsequently ended up throwing a bunch of distorted shadows over all of the intelligent things that they ever said.
Then there’s the thing about Terence experiencing profound doubt about the validity of his own mythos. But most of the things that I have to say about that essentially boil down to: “WELL, DUH.”
Frankly it’s the people who actually do seem to believe in their own raps that scare the pants off of me. Terence McKenna was openly opposed to the whole notion of belief itself as a matter of general principle. He thought that it was beneath our collective dignity to stoop to the level of believing in things at all, mainly because the nature of the universe is inherently far too paradoxical and self-contradictory to be adequately described. He was constantly telling people that he was merely a philosophical entertainer, and that they should take everything that he said with an industrial-sized salt lick. He said that most of his theories were ever-evolving, and in the end he mainly considered them to be pieces of cognitive art that were intended to amuse, and perhaps to inspire a yet more nuanced and complex discussion about these things. He never said that he thought that they were God’s own truth. He even came right out and said that he had absolutely no idea what’s going on at all, that it’s impossible to tell from our default vantage point, and that the only thing that he truly held as an article of faith was that the core of the Mystery was literally going to turn out to be something much stranger and more wonderful than our tiny minds are presently capable of imagining.
The shaman’s job is to take in raw experience and then to excrete it in an intellectually accessible format. Terence McKenna was a masterful storyteller, but the Storyteller is also the Trickster. He or she is the divine liar who points out well-hidden truths through a subtle form of misdirection. I mean, how does one go about expressing something that literally cannot be put into words because it’s fundamentally irrational? What do you do when the experience that you’re trying to convey happens to entirely transcend all of the categories of rational thought upon which the fundamental assumptions of your language are inherently (and perhaps necessarily) dependent?
This is a trick question, and Terence quite naturally responded to it with a trick answer: You simply surround the truth with a loose patchwork of mutually exclusive metaphors. And then you TELL people that they’re just metaphors and you try to get them to hold as many of them in their minds at the same time as they possibly can.
That part of the message always came through loud and clear to me, and it’s probably my favorite aspect of the whole rap. The Teafaerie is a proud cherry-picker and I’ve always been able to entertain a few especially appealing aspects of an idea without having to buy into it hook, line, and sinker. I personally never felt like I really understood Timewave Zero, for instance; but I do resonate with the basic intuition about the enfolded nature of time and I have developed a rather uncanny relationship with the I Ching over the years. Likewise, I’m agnostic about the Stoned Ape Theory; but I do think that it’s more than possible that our remote ancestors did eat mushrooms once in a while, and it does makes sense that under the right circumstances they might have conferred some measure of survival advantage upon those who chose to partake. I’ve also been openly making fun of the whole 2012 phenomena since long before Y2K failed to cause anyone any significant inconvenience. It does seem like history as we have known it is a self-limiting process, though, and I do have the sense things are somehow speeding up and coming together in an entirely unprecedented way. It’s the same thing with the aliens, the elves, the talking plants, the Gaian Logos, the End of Time, and all of the rest of it. I’ve treated it all like an intellectual smorgasbord overflowing with a variety of delicious starting points. And I always assumed that this was the spirit in which it was all intended, mainly because Terence himself kept saying so over and over and over again.
Alas, a bunch of people simply insisted on taking it all literally anyway, and I can see how that must have been a difficult cross to bear. Who wouldn’t be a little bit freaked out by that? To the degree that he just decided to run with what the people wanted to hear sometimes because it was easier than trying to force them to think for themselves, he probably did deserve to feel a little bit like a charlatan. I’m not exactly sure how he could have played it much differently at that point, though.
The people who feel that Dennis should have kept all of these things to himself for the sake of his brother’s legacy would do well to remember how deeply Terence and Dennis actually knew one another. Who but Dennis can claim to truly understand the complex exigencies that underlie the McKenna brothers’ subtle and unique relationship? Who has to deal with the karma? To sit in judgment upon what must have been a very difficult decision from the comfort of one’s metaphorical armchair seems more than a little bit arrogant to me, and to presume to cast any doubt upon Dennis’ motivations is totally out of line in my opinion, especially if you don’t happen to know him personally. The truth makes a better story, anyway. (It usually does.) I bet that Terence would actually think so, too, when it comes right down to it. At least now that all is said and done and he no longer has to conserve the marketability of his personal mythos on the psychedelic superstar circuit.
Hero worship can be a dangerous thing. It’s great to have people to look up to, but it’s important to keep it real. Sometimes that takes some adjustment. Terence McKenna was a human being. He wasn’t always right about everything and he certainly wasn’t a saint. He may have been some sort of a prophet, but time will have to teach us what that means. As I write this, the 2012 Winter Solstice is only a couple of months away. I kind of always assumed that the passing of that date would help to put the whole McKenna Memeplex into context. We’ll just have to wait and see.
In the end, I think that Terence McKenna will primarily be remembered as the best psychedelic shit-talker who ever lived. Even Timothy Leary implied as much. Terence dominated the field pretty much all by himself right up until he left the party. In the process, he set the bar so high that nobody else has even grazed it with their fingertips in a dozen years. And nobody will ever be able to truly tarnish that glorious and wholly honorable legacy, because hundreds and hundreds of hours’ worth of him totally killing it have been lovingly preserved on the Internet, where they’ll probably continue to inspire budding psychedelic explorers until the actual End of Time. Or at least until the end of our time.
Terence McKenna was good art. He played his unique character in the divine play exceedingly well, and I have an enormous amount of respect for that. It takes a lot of guts to keep calling them like you see ’em when the shit gets weird, and Terence wasn’t afraid to be ridiculed for his admittedly ridiculous convictions. He just kept trying to throw language at the damn thing, even when it refused to stick. And he made ten times as much progress with that method as everybody else put together ever made by trying to talk sense.
He also had the rare courage to suggest that the universe might turn out to be more awesome than we dare to dream. Heck, he even seriously seemed to believe that the future was going to turn out to be significantly better than the past. And that’s about as crazy as it gets, right?
On the other hand, maybe that’s just exactly the kind of crazy that we need.