Terence McKenna Talks to the Psychozoic Press
v1.1 - Jan 19, 2012
Originally published in the Psychozoic Press, Issues 5-9 (1983-1984)
Q. When is a book more than a book?
A. When the material presented therein triggers within the mind of the reader conceptualizations greater than those which can be expected as a consequence of logical deduction.
The Invisible Landscape (1975) by Terence and Dennis McKenna is just such a book. When Terence sent me a review copy of this book some time ago, I was astounded, to put it mildly. The authors have shown how scientific knowledge in fields such as quantum physics, chemistry, genetics, and information theory interfaces with subjective metaphysical precepts manifested by the psychedelic experience. Science, they're telling us, has nearly reached the end of its rope by restricting its investigations to aspects of the physical world which can be repeatedly produced in controlled situations. Science has a difficult time getting an investigative handle on phenomena such as telepathy, UFO experiences, and similar paranormal phenomena, because these situations are difficult, if not impossible, to investigate from the laboratory bench.
Terence and his brother are also the authors of Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide (1976), written under the pseudonyms O. T. Oss & O. N. Oeric. Terence has lectured extensively on hallucinogens and consciousness at the Esalen Institute, and is currently working on another book soon to be published. His brother is busy preparing a doctoral thesis on plant hallucinogens.
You could say Grower's Guide launched the starship and provided the initial acceleration. Now that we're so close to the hyperdimensional shock wave--as we transfer into the higher dimensions--the ontological linguistic transformation that Terence McKenna speaks of becomes necessary--indeed, the most obvious choice--for communication. There is quite a shock front to get the hyperdimensional shift to become probabilistically localized, but his discussion on time and the I Ching in The Invisible Landscape make the potentialities distinctly visible. Yet what I first noticed about Terence was not what he was saying, but how he was saying it. (Those of you who have heard him speak or heard his tapes will know what I'm talking about.) Terence, and his brother too, both have a peculiar way of enunciating every word with a lucidity unlike any other speaker I've heard. Perhaps he has access to a 7-element hyperdimensional communications processor or something. "Fascinating", as Spock would say. He's probably a skilled hypnotist besides...
Terence McKenna, author, lecturer, and shamanic explorer of the realm of psychedelic states, has been described by some as being "so far out, nobody knows what he's talking about", and by others as "the most innovative thinker our times". You be the judge.
The writings of the McKenna brothers are fascinating to me, not because I agree with everything they are saying (I don't), but because they are presenting ideas which are self-propagating. The Invisible Landscape triggered more questions in my mind than it answered; the impression is that the ideas presented are just the tip of the iceberg, a single needle on the redwood tree, one cell within the nervous system. In this sense, The Invisible Landscape is a book that's more than a book. I decided to talk to the author.
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Psychozoic Press: Mr. McKenna, what's the most important shortcoming as you see it of science's approach to studying the world around us?
Terence McKenna: Science is interested in the kind of phenomena where, when you recreate the initial conditions, the same effect is always observed. And yet in life, you never experience the same sort of initial conditions; they're always different. Every set of processes that are really interesting has many end states. So you can think of science as a kind of large-grid description of the world. It only explains the simple phenomena that can be repeatedly triggered. All the complex phenomena--consciousness, memory, culture--these things slip right through it.
PP: In the lecture you gave at the Esalen Institute on "Tryptamine Hallucinogens and Consciousness", you talked about calling yourself an explorer. You referred to LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and other hallucinogens as each being a distinct phenomenological universe. Would the physics of concrescence you're talking about in The Invisible Landscape be a sort of proto-science which seeks to integrate these various phenomenological universes?
TM: Concrescence is a philosophical term taken from Alfred North Whitehead. It means the growing together of something. And on the highest level, the growing together of everything. And in that sense, yes, these psychedelic drugs anticipate future states of human consciousness. The historical process is an exploration of these psychedelic states at the cultural level. You can actually say society is becoming more psychedelic; it means that society is becoming more and more reflective of the modalities of mind, and that process can be seen as an informational "growing together", a concrescence.
You can actually say society is becoming more psychedelic; it means that society is becoming more and more reflective of the modalities of mind, and that process can be seen as an informational "growing together", a concrescence.
TM: Well, science has outsmarted itself by pushing its analysis of the physical world to such a limit that it becomes recursive. You discover that you're no longer talking about velocity and momentum and charge and spin, you're talking about syntax and language and point-of-view and perspective and emphasis. The language of psychology almost emerges as a necessary consequence of examining matter at the very deepest level. This is symbolized by the ouroboric snake taking its tail in its mouth. Any analysis pursued deeply enough will lead back to the question of who analyzes, and this is what has happened in physics.
PP: Some of the labels they have come up with to name these different qualities reflect that, too: "charm", "color", and "beauty". The problems they have with labeling these things are kind of interesting in themselves.
TM: Well, they intuitively feel them to be primary qualities, so they want to label them with primary philosophical values. It's very platonic--almost Pythagorean.
PP: Yes, I was reading something not long ago about the "truth" quark--that's getting pretty fundamental.
TM: That's right, the search is on for the truth quark, now that naked beauty has been observed!
PP: You also spoke of "tuning" images so that the intent of meaning could be beheld in 3-D space--a technique of communication for which language is just a foreshadow. I understand what you're talking about, but it seems you're avoiding the term "telepathy".
TM: Telepathy I assume to be mind-to-mind transfer of thought, but with no ontological transformation of language. In other words, if you could hear what I'm thinking without me speaking, that would be telepathy. But I'm talking about something very different. It's actually an ontological transformation of the language so that language is no longer perceived with the ears, it's perceived with the eyes. When I speak, between you and me there comes into being the subject that I am discussing, and we can both look at it. And I turn it for you, and you behold, then, my intent, rather than hearing my intent.
When you hear my intent, what happens is I make small mouth noises, which have meanings assigned to them in the language called English. You have an English dictionary in your head. So my small mouth noises impinge on your brain, and you look in your English dictionary, and you figure out what I'm saying. Because we have a more-or-less common body of meaning. Although there can be misunderstanding if the subject is subtle.
I'm talking, though, about a kind of psychedelic language. You can almost think of it as an audio hologram, where sound is used to produce visual displays that are mutually beheld.
This idea, which sounds fairly outlandish, is actually very old. Philo Judaeus, an Alexandrian Jew of the second century, talked about the more perfect Logos, posing the question: "What would be the more perfect Logos?" And he said it would be a phenomenon that would move from being heard to being beheld without there being at any point a noticeable transition from one to the other.
And this would have just remained wild theological rambling, if it weren't for the fact psilocybin and the tryptamine hallucinogens, especially DMT, make this possible. By singing and making linguistic vocalizations on these psychoactive compounds you can then produce a synesthetic glossolalia; you can control the contour of the hallucinogenic topology to such a degree that you can put meaning onto it. In other words, you are no longer the passive observer of an alien continuum; you are, in fact, through sound, imprinting onto this continuum intent and meanings. So it becomes a sculptable medium. And this is what mushroom shaman know. I think this is happening at higher doses than are usually taken in a recreational context in this society. But above five grams--if you weigh in the 140 pound range, and you take it in comfortable, dark, situations where you lie still in complete darkness with your eyes closed, no music, and you work with it--this becomes possible. The whole shamanic tradition that touches mescaline, as well, stresses the magic song--the song which is not willed, but comes through you. With ayahuasca in the Amazon, it's the same thing; the magic song is very much stressed.
So I think there is a potential technology--a fusing of language, psychoactive drugs, and thought--that could produce this ontologically different form of communication. In a sense, to return to your question, it is telepathy, But it's a whole different idea about what telepathy would be like, rather than being mind-to-mind transfer of spoken thought.
And I lecture about this. What I'm concerned to do professionally is to try and get people to redefine the psychedelic experience--at least the tryptamine-based psychedelic experience: psilocybin, DMT, and ayahuasca. It isn't the psychedelic model that we inherit from the '50s or the '60s: that you are opened to past emotional trauma, that you have deep insight into your personal existence, that you uncover traumatic material and resolve it. The Freudian and Jungian models of the psychedelic experience don't prepare you for the phenomenology of psilocybin at high doses; something else is going on. We're going to have to have a new model because it relates to all this linguistic stuff and the way in which language and the visual cortex are keyed and controlled. It hints at a new potential for an expression of humanness that is not technological, except in the mushroom as the product of technology.
And it's like language. The way in which language emerged must have been similar to this. In fact it's possible to suggest that man was formed by the interaction of curious higher primates with hallucinogenic plants. Because in experiments with monkeys where they had available DMT pipes--where the monkey could walk over and take a hit if he wanted to, but he didn't have to--certain monkeys would become literally fascinated by consciousness, by the phenomenon of watching themselves go through some kind of totally weird transformation.
That lays the basis. Once you are fascinated by a neurophysiological response, the more you trigger it, the more the credos are laid down for it to be more and more accessible. So you can just imagine these monkeys bootstrapping themselves toward Milton, Shakespeare, Bach, and Einstein, with these plant hallucinogens.
PP: So you're actually saying then that we're going through a second or higher phase of learning with these hallucinogens.
TM: Right. The cultural catalysis that is a product of hallucinogens is now entering a new phase. It's related to an ontological transformation of how we perceive and handle language. And I'm sure technology will have some role to play in this.
Information is what is loose on this planet. If you were to come in a flying saucer from another star system and observe the Earth, you would not have Linnaean bias of seeing everything in terms of competing species. What you would see is that there is a gene swarm on this planet; an immense gene swarm is furiously exchanging genes, but species are not being differentiated out of it. And that gene swarm represents an information swarm, because DNA is essentially a way of storing and transmitting and replicating information. That is what life is.
But then with culture and the advent of language, and then the further advent of alphabets and writing, information is taking on this more and more intense, rapidly replicating and self-reflecting ability. And when you get to the level of computers and technology, it's almost like consciousness is beginning to move out of the monkeys and into the excreted, reef-like, technoconcrescense that the monkeys produce. We are more like coral animals taking metal out of the earth, crimping it with ideas, and excreting it as machinery. I think it was Marshall McLuhan who said people are the genitals of technology. They exist to design next year's model and make it better. Information has this desire to self-reflect and replicate itself.
And of course, the psychedelics relate very closely to this. Because they are essentially information probes of some sort, reporting telemetric data coming in from nearby and not-so-nearby dimensions. But they are entirely interpretable as information, and in that sense probably susceptible to analysis by information theory.
PP: You've talked quite a bit too, about the UFO experience. I've read a few references to people who have had a perception of "galactic consciousness" with LSD. I've had that experience, too. But I notice you have made quite a point of differentiating the tryptamine hallucinogens from the others.
TM: Well, I'm not sure what you mean by "galactic consciousness". I can imagine that LSD gives you a vast and sympathetic perspective with nature on an astronomical scale. But what I'm talking about with these tryptamines is something a little different. It's the sense of the presence of an intellect of some sort--the sense that there are life forms, and forms of conscious organization, that really are alien and bizarre. But the problem is that they are not 30,000 light years away; they somehow, someway, interpenetrate the here-and-now.
This is a persistent claim of shamanism, and of true folkloric thinking worldwide. But it's a very alien idea to the last thousand years of Western thinking, where we have been definitely on the retreat from the idea that the universe is populated with teaming angels, demons, or anything else.
Again, the reason I link the UFO to psilocybin is because in the high-dose situation, or in the repeated high-dose situation in isolation, the psilocybin experience blends imperceptibly into what is called the "contact experience".
And nobody likes to hear this, because the UFO people are very jealous of their UFOs and absolutely convinced that they come from the stars and are made of metal and bear great hope for mankind. They think that any explanation which explains this in terms of human psychology or something like that is a reductionment. But actually, I don't think this is true. I think the UFO represents a sort of "shock wave" of concrescence; it precedes concrescence. It's a shadow of concrescence that haunts time and has always haunted time. It comes and goes, in and out of history. It is like a reflection of the end of history. It is the spiral lens-shaped topology left when everything flows together--when the temporal vectors collapse, you know, and we pass beyond description...
PP: The thing I was thinking of, just then, is that the attitude we hold toward these UFOs now probably is not much different than that which primitive men held about the moon and stars 10,000 years ago. They probably looked up in the sky and wondered what the silvery disk of white light was that moved across the sky at night.
TM: Yes, that's right. And you don't have to go back 10,000 years. A very interesting parallel to the relationship of the flying saucer to modern people is the relationship of the search for the philosopher's stone to the psychology of people in the fifteenth or sixteenth century. Here it was rumored, you know, that certain people could produce a magical object that would give you long life, transmute substances into gold; it was just this mystical substance that would do everything, the universal panacea. Certain people claimed to have seen it or possessed it at one time, and wild and fantastic speculation was launched around this thing. Thus it served as a great impetus to the exploration of physical matter. And then, as more and more was discovered about physical matter, obsession with the philosopher's stone was slowly itself transformed into modern science. And I think the UFO obsession, if it develops correctly, will slowly change from an obsession with brotherly space people who will come and save us from ourselves into a much deeper appreciation of the hyperdimensional nature of consciousness, and the realization that all mind is Mind. There is only one Mind. Humanness is a name for a section of Mind that we exercise some control over. But information passes everywhere. There's an aphorism: Understanding passes everywhere.
PP: How about the UFO experience in relation to other types of light visions, like people seeing angels and saints and Virgin Marys? Ezekiel's UFO, are you familiar with that?
TM: Sure. That's all this business of "the other" presenting itself within the context of the historical situation. In other words, what happens is that you're somebody in some historical period and you're out in the wilderness. Something very strange begins to happen. The immediate symptoms of it are that the hair on the back of your neck stands up and your knees feel weak and you see a tremendous light descending from the sky. At that point your mind throws an enormous question out in the universe, which is: "WHAT'S HAPPENING?" And the answer comes back dependent on your historical situation. It is either without doubt, a manifestation of Krishna, or the Virgin Mary, or the flying saucer, or the philosopher's stone, or your personal guardian spirit--it depends entirely on who you are. You explain. The mind just goes into a tizzy of explanation. Whenever the mind is confronted with something it can't immediately dismiss, it falls into a frenzy of explanation, and that is what happens in that situation. And again, it has close parallels with these tryptamine hallucinogens. Because what happens when you smoke DMT, and what makes it so strange, is you immediately have these very complicated three- (at least, possibly four-) dimensional hallucinations by which you are surrounded. And you attempt immediately to pour language onto them. You say, "It's a . . . it's like a . . ." And it doesn't work. And the more that it doesn't work, the monkey inside you begins to go into some kind of shock. Because language is supposed to work.
PP: So that triggers the glossolalia-like phenemenon you were talking about in the Esalen lecture?1
TM: Well, in an effort to utter what the thing is, and seeing that English is hopeless, you are abandoned to your deeper intuition. And out of that comes the glossolalia, which then is actually able to "lock" that modality and affect it or "dance" with it. You wouldn't say "control" it, but you can then enter the flow and go through these changes with it.
I think that the great failing of psychedelic reportage and research is that the content of the experience is not stressed. They say "you have vivid hallucinations". But what the hell is a "vivid hallucination"?
I think that the great failing of psychedelic reportage and research is that the content of the experience is not stressed. They say "you have vivid hallucinations". But what the hell is a "vivid hallucination"?
PP: Is the psychedelic experience, then, going to be of paramount importance in the evolution of consciousness, or would these experiences be more appropriately regarded as accessory conveniences rather than essential elements? Just how important is the psychedelic experience?
TM: I think it's absolutely central. As I mentioned earlier, I think it not only causes us to become human beings, to emerge out of the primate substratum, but it is also driving us to move beyond being human beings. Speaking specifically of psilocybin, DMT, and ayahuasca, these are the hallucinogens which most closely resemble neurotransmitters. LSD does not occur in mammalian metabolism, [lysergic acid amide] only occurs in morning glories and ergot. Mescaline occurs in cacti, ketamine occurs in no organic situation. But DMT occurs endogenously in the brains of all mammals, including man. The β-carbolines occur endogenously in the brain of man. In fact, as you ascend the primate phylogeny, more and more occurs, so that man has the greatest concentration. N,N-dimethyltryptamine is very closely related to serotonin, which is 5-hydroxytryptamine and is the major neurotransmitter that's driving the brain.
So I think it's possible even to suggest that to produce a state of mind roughly analogous to ayahuasca intoxication, all that's required is a one-gene mutation in the human genome. My hit on what these tryptamine hallucinogens are doing, is that they are literally anticipating future states of human evolution. This is the way the human mind is going to evolve. This is why, I think, there is such a persistent report that psilocybin hallucinations are science-fiction-like and seem to present these, you know, super-glossy, machine-like, highly polished surfaces that you can see into; I think that's an anticipation of cultural modalities. Like science fiction is an anticipation of the future, so is psilocybin. These things all come together. We are moving into the kinds of chemical brain states that will allow this kind of synesthesia--the visible glossolalia that I talked about. It could be a voluntary activity of normal metabolism.
PP: It seems odd, then, that the Eastern mystics haven't recognized this. Most of them are saying if there is any kind of drug involved, it's not a valid experience.
TM: Well, this is a special gripe of mine. I'm not impressed with priest craft. I think hierarchical religions are anti-progressive. This is why I have such respect for shamanism, since what it chiefly is, is very idiosyncratic. Shamanism is experimental psychology carried out by people who are not like us. It is not a religion in the sense of a set of dogmas; it's more like a set of maps that are given to you, and then you travel where you will.
I don't think that the yogic states approximate the tryptamine intoxication. In fact, part of what I'm trying to do with my career is point people to this and say look at this. This has been overlooked. Psilocybin, which is the most often contacted of these tryptamine hallucinogens, has--in the literature and the legal codes and all that--been treated as though it were like LSD. People say, "LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, etc.". But psilocybin is totally different from anything else. It has a phenomenology that we need to look at very, very carefully. It raises all kinds of questions in areas where we have never before been able to do anything. It allows you the repeated phenomena of "contacting an alien intelligence". We can do this with psilocybin in the laboratory with naive subjects. So that's big news for experimental psychology. Even if this "talking to aliens in the head" is only a psychosis, it's still big news that here is a compound that will repeatedly trigger it in a situation where you can study it.
Experimental psychology, pharmacology, linguistics, information theory, aesthetics, heuristics--all these disciplines would profit themselves by including the psychedelic experience in the province of things to be integrated.
PP: Yes, I think so. The concept of communication with an alien intelligence, which you brought out in the Esalen lecture, has been part of my own experience, too. And much more so with psilocybin than with any other type of hallucinogen.
TM: Yes. Well, because of the book we had written about growing the mushroom, we had access to name lists of people who had expressed interest in the book.2 We sent out many questionnaires about how people related to psilocybin. One of the questions was: "How much do you take?" Another was: "Do you hear voices?" We discovered that people who never took more than two or three grams (that's probably eighty-five percent of all people who take mushrooms) did not report voices. But the group using the high doses, seventy to eighty percent of those people checked that they heard voices, and some people felt inspired to write paragraphs about it.
PP: You spoke about getting in touch with the oversoul through psychedelic drugs and leaving behind an era when man is "disciplined" by messiahs and saucers and progress is halted for millenia at a stretch. But wouldn't that make us as reliant on psychedelic drugs as we now are on technological materialism and hard science?
TM: No, because I assume that once you have contact with the oversoul, ways will be found to access it without dependence on psychedelics. The idea of the oversoul is another one of these metaphors to try and explain this "voice which integrates everything".
The reference to man being disciplined by saucers and messiahs is the idea that these religions, which arise from time to time and which halt all progress in any area except the exegesis of their own religious message, are like cultural governors. They occur because society becomes neurotically imbalanced. And in order to save it from itself, a kind of stasis is imposed in the form of some very autocratic, dogmatic religious faith which holds everything together for a thousand years or so while everybody catches their breath. Then it is eroded, and then progress in psychology and science and mathematics and other things begins again. But then the culturally neurotic situation arises again. And each time the intervention by the oversoul is appropriate to the historical context.
For instance, the Hellenistic world, groaning under Roman imperialism, which was based on Greek philosophy, was totally ripe for a guy who rises from the dead after three days and preaches a certain gospel. And it's amazing, you know, where in a world where information moved no faster than a horse could gallop, Christianity exploded out of the Middle East. And the Roman authorities couldn't believe it. To them, it was just the wildest garbage! They were trained in Greek materialism and Euclidian mathematics and epicurean ethics. The idea that somebody could rise from the dead was utterly preposterous. Yet the servants were whispering and attending meetings, and the authorities dismissed it till it was too late.
Now, the flying saucer thing is very, very similar. No serious person gives it a moment's thought. It's just the stuff of the National Enquirer. Nevertheless, these polls keep coming out: thirty-seven percent of the American people believe flying saucers are real; eleven percent claim to have seen one. What's happening is that loyalty is being transferred from scientific institutions to the "space brothers". Not on the governing level of society, where everything is calm and controlled, but with the great masses who read the National Enquirer and say, "Well Ma dear, it seems tuh me th' space folk know a great deal more about it than prezydent Raygun!' That's dangerous talk. That means the official religion, which is science, is helpless in the face of this thing. They say, "It's something, but it's nothing." But they don't realize the important thing about the flying saucer is not, "What is it?" The important thing about it is, "What is it doing to human society?" What it's doing is throwing open the door to the legitimate belief in the irrational, and all kinds of other stuff.
It's changing, in other words, the social mass psychology. And that is something the government is usually the one to look after--our mass psychological images. Then here comes this other thing--out of the unconscious, I claim--to subvert the historical dreams of people who think they run things, and to instead send society in some other direction. It's like a metaphysical spanking. A mature society would not need messiahs or flying saucers to keep kicking it back into line. A mature society would just avoid being neurotic and things would develop without these lurches in one direction then another.
PP: I'm not sure if I'm going to agree with that completely, but...
TM: (laughter) If you don't, just walk out!
PP: Well, you talked along the same line about science betraying human destiny. The impression I have is not that science is betraying human destiny, but that science is dispensing its discoveries similar to the way the rain is sent on the unjust and the just. It seems that the political and economic communities have polluted science by applying that knowledge for localized and sometimes devious personal objectives. So all that comes down from science can go either way. Einstein wasn't thinking about Hiroshima, for example, when he worked out the equations of General Relativity.
TM: That's right. But on a larger scale, science has biases that have led us into the place we are: the fantastic concentration on understanding matter. What if, in the thirteenth century, they had become as obsessed with psychology as they become with matter; where would we be today?
PP: We'd probably be in our caves and huts meditating.
TM: Possibly. Or maybe that route would have taken us to the stars far sooner. What if shamanism had not been stomped on and pushed to the edge of the empire? What if instead we had pursued a route such as the Druids or the Incas or the Mayans? Because these were high civilizations; they attained levels of civilization comparable to where Europe was around 1200.
But we chose a certain path--a bias in favor of certain rules of evidence, certain ideas about what constituted claims on our cultural attention.
PP: I think that was necessary, though, to lay the foundations for more metaphysical developments later.
"What I often say in my public lectures is that civilization is the 10,000-year dash from the campfire to the starship." -- TM
PP: You also talked about the primary and secondary qualities of matter such as mass, location, and velocity as opposed to color and texture, and then gave some discussion about these qualities being equivalently real, and pointed out that there's no justification for holding one set more real than the other.3 This brings us to the question: Is there any objective reality, or should we dispense with what is called objective reality?
TM: I think we should probably dispense with that notion. At bedrock, I don't believe the universe is made of quarks, or particles, or electromagnetic fields, or God's love, or anything like that. What I think it is made of is language. And where does language come from? It seems like it comes from inside our heads.
All these things--the Universe is this, it's that--these are just word nets. The Universe seems to be what you say it is. And to some degree, not what I say it is, or what you say it is; we are embedded in a cultural voice which says what it is. Then within that cultural voice we have our own small voice and we can "tinker" with the cultural definition of reality to some degree.
But over millenia, the cultural voice has changed its mind several times about what reality is. So I think we need, not a physics of what reality is, but a syntax, a grammar. We need to approach reality the way we would approach a work of literature, rather than the way we would approach a material system.
We need to approach reality the way we would approach a work of literature, rather than the way we would approach a material system.
TM: It's self-transforming. Language begets meta-language, and so on. It's a bootstrapping effect.
PP: How does this sound: The probability that objective reality exists at all varies between zero and certainty as a function of the state of mind?
TM: Oh, I could "fly" with that.