Plants - Drugs Mind - Spirit Freedom - Law Arts - Culture Library  

The Terence McKenna Thing

teafaerie | Musings | Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

“Have you heard about the Terence McKenna thing?”

Terence McKenna, Photo by Jon Hanna

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.

McKenna Audio Tapes, photo by Jon Hanna

McKenna Lectures
Audio Tapes from 1988 to 1999

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.

Magician Mushroom © Danny Gomez  2002

Magician Mushroom
© Danny Gomez 2002

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.

5204 © Lichtbilder 2006

© Lichtbilder 2006

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.”

Opening Doors © Nemo Boko 2004

Opening Doors
© Nemo Boko 2004

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.

Reflecting the Vocal Chords of Gaia © C-A Shaman 2002

Reflecting the Vocal Chords of Gaia
© C-A Shaman 2002

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.


  1. It’s refreshing to hear an even-handed, broader perspective on this whole affair. While my experience was initially much like yours–disbelief, following by a sneaking sense of betrayal–I came to understand it, and ultimately, empathize with T.McKenna. While I think his fantastic thick description of “self-transformational bejeweled basketballs” or whatever kooky DMT creepy-crawlies is the thing for which he’ll be most remembered in the popular imagination, this essay makes the truly cogent point: McKenna was an impresario AND a scholar. Perhaps even an impresario BECAUSE he was a scholar. And the purview of the scholar is methodology: trying to figure out the HOW of new ways of knowing and describing phenomena and processes (even weird psychedelic/phenomenological processes). In the end, the much hyped “5 dried grams in total darkness” is a methodology, a tool for exploring the construction of consciousness/spirituality/group dynamics. In the same way that freshman biology students stain onion cells to get a look at cell walls and cellular bodies, and then once they’ve learned it, move on to more complex stuff, getting insanely loaded and confronting a monumental heirophany is a learning experience that allows us to observe and be taught. Biology doesn’t move ahead if we all sit around and stain onion cells all day for our entire careers as scholars, and psychedelic research/ontology/anthropology doesn’t move forward if we all sit around and recreate the same experiment over and over again (no matter how fundamentally idiosyncratic the results of this experiment tend to be). So McKenna moved on to trying to formalize this language, to proselytize for an experimental course of action that seemingly worked for him, and to exploring the ramifications of integrating this perspective into the mainstream via pop culture.

    Anyway, thanks; it was a refreshing reprieve from having to listen to people whine about Terence McKenna being a “pussy” and how he “couldn’t hold his drugs.”

    Comment by Charles Grimaldi — November 7, 2012 @ 8:53 am

  2. you’re an idiot. if you listen carefully you can hear him implying what you’ve recently learned in later recordings. how could you be so harsh. i mean, think about it, can you really blame him for stopping taking so much so often, when the experiences clearly rocked him to the bone and beyond. he was definitely on the track and wasn’t fooling anyone. he always told his listeners to never take what he was saying seriously, if you truly understood what the psychedelic experience told you, you would understand his point. i always felt terence left out important aspects to the most transcendental world view, including determinism etc., and perhaps he could have dropped some of the shit that was literally untrue to reality. i have too much to say on this. please revise your wording and try to appreciate him for what he truly is, a fucking god.

    Comment by apophatic — November 7, 2012 @ 10:11 am

  3. Fantastic article!

    I for one am not surprised that Terence wasn’t off taking heroic doses at regular intervals despite his strong advocacy for it, and his admonishment of those who had only dabbled with low doses. Even though he said his depictions of the DMT breakthrough were distilled from some eighty-plus experiences, he often mentioned how many people found that a single experience was more than enough, and I’ve also noted that his description of his very first DMT experience set the scene for all his subsequent visits.

    Personally I do not believe that I could handle “five grams in silent darkness” without the assurance of a team of professional sitters observing from the other side of the locked door of a padded cell. I envy the experience, but fear the potential for disaster.

    In my mind, the two (or three) gram dose (as with the Johns Hopkin spirituality study) offers plenty to learn from and relate to without the risk of acute psychosis. Yes, higher doses offer higher rewards, but also come with higher risks.

    Unfortunately, those who claim to have taken heroic doses on multiple occasions rarely have anything interesting to report. Those who had that one “life changing” experience, as did Terence and Dennis in La Chorrera in 1971, and spent years trying to make sense of it all that tend to tell the best stories.

    Comment by Derek Snider — November 8, 2012 @ 5:03 pm

  4. wow…he stopped eating mushrooms…that’s the complaint?

    I have heard that it’s common for indigenous shamans and curanderos to stop using sacred plants once they are able to travel without them. Sounds true and resonates with my own experience. Perhaps some people are confusing the vehicle with the destination.

    Comment by spookyss — November 8, 2012 @ 5:33 pm

  5. Fantastic article!

    I for one am not surprised that Terence wasn’t off taking heroic doses at regular intervals despite his strong advocacy for it, and his admonishment of those who had only dabbled with low doses. Even though he said his depictions of the DMT breakthrough were distilled from some eighty-plus experiences, he often mentioned how many people found that a single experience was more than enough, and I’ve also noted that his description of his very first DMT experience set the scene for all his subsequent visits.

    Personally I do not believe that I could handle “five grams in silent darkness” without the assurance of a team of professional sitters observing from the other side of the locked door of a padded cell. I envy the experience, but fear the potential for disaster.

    In my mind, the two (or three) gram dose (as with the Johns Hopkin spirituality study) offers plenty to learn from and relate to without the risk of acute psychosis. Yes, higher doses offer higher rewards, but also come with higher risks.

    Unfortunately, those who claim to have taken heroic doses on multiple occasions rarely have anything interesting to report. Those who had that one “life changing” experience, as did Terence and Dennis in La Chorrera in 1971, and spent years trying to make sense of it all that tend to tell the best stories.

    Comment by Derek Snider — November 9, 2012 @ 9:29 am

  6. It’s a very well thought out post and I agree with most everything you said. I still wish T Mckenna would’ve shared his experience while alive just to shine a truer light on psychedelics. As anyone who has tripped long enough knows, and as you mentioned, every trip you’re rolling the dice. It’s insane to give a blanket endorsement to heroic doses or whatever and NOT acknowledge that you may not like what you see. Even worse is pretending like its somehow bad to back off… as if there is something cowardly in preserving your sanity.

    To only acknowledge the good of psychs is an uneven portrayal, and it would’ve gone a long way to dispel all the psychedelic bravado bullshit if he shared his experience. He was human like everyone else; anyone who would’ve blamed him for sharing his vulnerability would’ve been an asshole. For the reasons you mentioned, I don’t blame him for keeping it quiet. But I still wish he would’ve spoken up.

    Comment by Nate Dawg — November 10, 2012 @ 8:53 pm

  7. Thank you for the really good article! I’m actually quite surprised about the whole shock reaction this bit of info on Terence has caused in the psychedelic movement, as I somehow always thought that it was obvious from Terence’s talks that he took psychedelics less and less frequently than he used to. I also always enjoyed his rap not as the gospel of truth, but entertainment and nourishment for the imagination and, like you said, I think he himself stated that this is how it was meant to be enjoyed, again and again.

    Having experienced a couple of really rough trips myself, I feel like I understand exactly why Terence later in his life didn’t take the heavy mushroom doses he used to – yet still he must’ve felt like the experience was worthy of a little advertisement and he always said that 5 grams in silent darkness would not always be easy – otherwise why would he call it the “heroic dose”?

    I also feel like I can relate to the devastating trip that scared him. This actually happened to me some years ago when I took a big hit of Salvia extract – this was like the 50th time in my life I did it, so I thought I knew what would follow – but instead the trip that followed was the most soul-crushing thing ever to have happened to me. I can’t even begin to describe it adequately. Years have gone by since and I’m still absolutely horrified by the idea of doing it again – although I’ve still somehow managed to muster the courage and done Salvia a couple of times, and actually got some really good trips out of it, even though I’ve been scared shitless beforehand. I feel like playing Russian Roulette when doing it. And I’d rather die right away than experience what I did again.

    But the weird thing is, this horrible experience that I had actually made a more permanent contribution to my spiritual development, than all the good ones combined. True, I was on the verge of psychosis for quite some time afterwards. True, I got panic attacks where I felt like I was about to once again enter this hell I had experienced, for months and months. True, I learned to really FEAR death – and I actually started to hope that there was no afterlife, and while this is something that I as an atheist used to be convinced was the truth, ever since that one trip I’ve had the feeling that we all have an eternity waiting for us on the other side, a state we were in before birth and will again enter after death.

    And this state is, I feel, a blissful cosmic consciousness that is without ego, ever playful and all powerful. I’ve been there quite a few times in my pleasant Salvia trips. Other psychedelics have given me glimpses of it. But before we can enter the other side, we have to walk through this narrow gate made entirely of death and torment. After my bad Salvia trip I’ve been calling this transitional place “limbo”, and I feel like this might be something similar to what Terence described as “the meat locker”.

    My bad trip was just an endless transition between this joyful state of collective being and my tiny human life, and it felt like being ripped to pieces again and again and again and again. Every time I was sure that there was no way to ever become human again, I was once again forced to become human. And every time I became human again for a short while, I tried to say to my wife how sorry I was for doing this to myself and my family, how sorry I was that I couldn’t watch my son grow old, how sorry I was that I couldn’t stay with the people I loved so much, the world was once again ripped from my grasp and my soul destroyed, piece by piece. I literally felt like hanging from the edge of a black hole, slowly but surely being pulled into it. And if this is what the cycle of rebirth is, who on earth would want to be reborn at all?

    But somehow I climbed back to the world, never being totally absorbed into the abyss. And it gave me tremendous joy in life, a huge boost of creative energy etc.

    And I feel joy, because on the other side of this black hole there is like this cosmic being of pure timeless joy. Like millions of lives all felt at once. And if the death of the human self happens fast enough, you won’t even notice the painful transition. So this is why these days I never have the courage to take a little hit of Salvia – I’m afraid that I’ll once again be suspended in this limbo, this in-between state. I only take huge doses of the strongest extract I can get my hands on, and I advocate it to others too, while telling about my bad trip beforehand just to make sure they understand at least a little bit about what they are about to do to their very souls. I haven’t had a bad trip since and I pray to cosmos that I won’t before my death, which I hope will be quick and painless.

    And this has given me tremendous joy in life, an energy boost the casual tripping could never have given me.

    And there are these people in the psychedelic community who trip often and do a lot of different drugs, and I used to be one of them – but now I feel that this kind of a life style doesn’t really contribute to one’s spiritual development and can actually be detrimental and dangerous. It’s better to do these things rarely, and it’s better to actually fear them, because these things are not toys – they demand respect and will TAKE IT FORCEFULLY, if one isn’t humble enough to begin with. I know I wasn’t.

    So back to the subject at hand, I really feel that Terence never lied and did what he felt was the right thing to do. I don’t recall him ever telling people he took mushrooms all the time, or any other psychedelics for that matter – on the contrary. The people who now diss him as a charlatan and a liar because what Dennis has told us, I think, have never truly felt the touch of the abyss, and neither the brush of eternity. Because what these things force us to face, is the insignificance of our own mortal existence.

    And damn BTW, I wish I could get my hands on The Brotherhood of The Screaming Abyss, but unfortunately it isn’t yet available here in Finland. :)

    Comment by Joni Koskimaa — December 3, 2012 @ 9:19 am

  8. Wow, interesting immersion in Deep Dive wake, well-written, thoughtful. Even more notable: some gutsy honesty about the conflicted difficulties DD hath wrought.

    DISCLOSURE: My notice was alerted to this essay, via posts about it (at another site) – denying the factuality of DD disclosures. And reading a riot act to TF for the contradiction to such denial implicit in boldly acknowledging ‘inconvenient truth’ — daring to face the music, rather than dubiously (and vainly) declare: “its all lies!” Kudos to TF.

    Among those TM impressed, depending on how deeply, it seems -basic ability or willingness to face up has been almost completely lost or tossed in exuberant excess of adulation. Abandonment of better reason seems to be among distracting effects TM’s sliver-tongue inspiration has had on many fans – too many perhaps. Will a day come when better reason is needed, perhaps fatefully?

    One standard of assessment I seldom see applied to TM’s theories, amid excited direction of attention to them, is: that we might assess something ‘by its fruits’ not its roots. Apart from how a ‘theory’ sounds intuitively – what hatches out from it? Regardless where it comes from, or what it purports – what kind of discussion follows it? Where does it lead, where does it go? What’s at the end of its line?

    Seems TM not only charmed, but also ingratiated many fans who find him more than just entertaining, or his ‘theories’ amazing (the ‘customary and usual’ comments long heard). Many say they owe him a debt of gratitude. Some cite specific tangibles (e.g., wouldn’t have a column, if not for TM). Others, more general e.g., “I’d never have heard about DMT (etc) if not for him.” From there, the express gratitude widens into murkier, less intelligible notes. A recurrent one sounded in grateful praise (according to Lorenzo, DD), is for TM having given fans “permission to think.’

    In many a charismatic movement, a common recruitment tactic is enticing personal investment. When prophecy fails, feeling and thought of those invested in it are drawn into conflict, a personal struggle inflicted within. Something like a bailout crisis arises, a dilemma of whether to ‘throw good money after bad’ and how much. Beyond the personal horizon looms a larger expansive one of effects on society, cultural patterns, immediate and long term fallout.

    Among shadows TM cast seems to be a fundamental question about reasoning and its application, for those ‘touched’ and thus facing prospects painfully unthinkable – up to and including divestment. How much range of thought remains amid rubble and debris of DD’s ‘disillusioning revelations?’ How much freedom to be rational rather than forced into rationalizing, does reason have left? After the share diverted to damage control and salvaging savaged sentiment has been deducted, how much power of reason is still available?

    Such questions are disconcerting in their uncertain ramifications, certainly. But the most unsettling reflection seems to be a markedly ideological hostility. To have clear thought or not is one thing, but aggression is another. Psychotics, for all their disordered ideation, are mostly not violent. But when self-righteous indignation and abusive even malicious rage become evident – implicit ramifications are those of fanaticism in whatever form. Whether in name of one prophet or another becomes irrelevant fast, for issues such naked psychosocial pathology poses – to one and all. Like vigilante film trend of recent decades, inverted – its not just personal anymore.

    It seems better angels of conscious rational choice are opposed, even targeted, by Other darker impulses – unconscious reactive behavior of animal reflex. Depending how the situation devolves, TM’s main legacy may prove to be intensifying anti-social fragmentation, defensive alienation. Forecast: eight percent chance fans will determine, for better or worse – judiciously or wily-nily.

    Before DD, fans seem to have focused ‘nay saying’ (origin of ‘knee’ – Monty Python’s Knights?) in a single beam outward; rarely on their own. As a rule, fan rebukes trained crosshairs on ‘the paradigm of Western Civilization’ (Culture is not our friend). In various iterations, ‘bad rap’ was for the miscreant society, perhaps recalling Don Quixote’s gauntlet hurled down: “hear us now, oh thou bleak and unbearable world.”

    But a fracture has broken out with DD, dividing TM fandom in two, with no twain. One side, more self-critically honest, bears burden of processing, reconciling inconvenient fact to sentiment. TF’s essay strikes appreciable notes with a refreshingly raw, relatively rare unflinching look at inner conflicted, as inflicted.

    The other side of the fissure seems unable to cope. There a more desperate reaction is evident – driven need to deny, as fact, the info disclosed. Its apparently too stressful and upsetting for some to accept as true, symptomatic of traumatized cognition (dissonance). Some actively affect a quasi-official broadcast, crying “Disinfo” in damage control mode as if to cleanse the record, like airbrushing a photo.

    The loss or toss of reason, implicit abandonment or enslavement of mind and rationality, poses a troubling outline. But an even more alarming indication emerges. It seems the distress inflicted is enough to trigger hostility and aggression – against fellow fans.

    Its not absolutely unprecedented. DD cited ‘vicious personal attacks’ of fans on one of their own as far back as the 1990’s, for inquiring too closely of TWZ, exposing its fatally flawed foundation. Watkins became perhaps the first fan treated to such surprise by fellow celebrants, for perceived blasphemy or betrayal.

    Somewhere along the way, unwritten rule seems to have hatched out, communicated mainly by show not tell – a kind of content-based speech code, ‘permission denied.’ If one can’t say something nice about TM, or anything bearing his monogram, don’t say anything at all (unless one prefers to face – consequences). Its hard to escape a sense of distracting contradiction to almost any notion of a vague ‘permission to think’ many fans grant TM, according to Lorenzo (DD podcast), as a blessing he bestowed

    Amid admonition to ‘question everything’ repeated and recited (as Lorenzo notes with irony), while propounding theories calling for ‘serious consideration’ – earnestly insisting while slyly resisting – one can almost hear echoes of time-honored Liar’s Paradox at the heart of the message.

    To speak truth to power, as a matter of personal integrity and self-critical strength of character – is a delicate proposition, wherever taboo holds sway. A core issue in the TM legacy seems to be one not of theories or intellectual ideas, but of values and integrity. The targeting of aggressive attacks turned not only outward but now also within suggests an expulsion of conscience, and is alarming to see. A subversive war on culture is one thing. Its no mystery that a critical outsider might find himself in a lion’s den, if he tempts it. But fans who toe the Disinfo line, training crosshairs on other fans who don’t, en masse, is a new spectacle – resembling to my eye, tigers eating their young.

    The TM-devoted website with posts going postal on this TF essay, is what brought it to my attention in the first place. I only learned of that website from a poster (“Janistus”) at Reality Sandwich – who cited it as a display case of a what appears to be an emerging TM cultism – evident to some well before DD (

    * * * * *

    Research has verified the fact of a religious-mystical experience facilitated by psilocybin (also reported for other such compounds) in many subjects. The personal intensity and conversionary power of of such is well known, and can perhaps shed light on the missionary like zeal and psychedelic proselytism that seems to have become a pattern in the counterculture since Leary. There is writing on the wall. More than a century ago, Wm James emphasized the inherently double-edged sword – inherent to religious inspiration and visionary experience: healthy-mindedness vs the ‘sick soul’. The dark side of that force, and light side, seem to undergo a close encounter in the spell TM cast upon those he captivated, capably, with his verbal skill, and cognitive illusions he conjured capably.

    Comment by Brian Akers — December 6, 2012 @ 9:46 am

  9. I’m not a huge commenter, but I wanted to say thank you for this. I hadn’t heard about the controversy before reading this.

    Comment by Benjie — December 7, 2012 @ 11:50 pm

  10. By total coincidence I just finished reading the book “True Hallucinations” by Terence today. It goes into great detail, moment by moment and day by day, into that transformative time that Terence and Dennis had in the Amazon outback eating psilocybin. Details their loopy theories about how verbalized sounds are resonating their bodies’ electrons to absolute zero, or how the world is ending and they’re the Messiahs because they got really high. And about being simultaneously able to see the theories and also see how they look insane. It really reads like some of what friends have told me during their manic, staying up for weeks at a time feverishly working at useless stuff, mentally unbalanced phases of life.

    Interestingly, Dennis was the one who went way the furthest out (for weeks); Terence was left as his Watson (reassurred by a Mental Voice of the Mushroom telling him that in the end his brother wouldn’t end up crazy).

    I ended the book with simultaneous disrespect for Terence for actually writing down such claptrap as serious theories, and respect for him having the balls to expose himself to that much ridicule for honestly trying to write how they were feeling at the time.

    (I never met Terence. I’ve met Dennis a number of times.)

    Comment by Cheese with a Bite — December 8, 2012 @ 5:12 am

  11. Akers. Your high brow attempts to undercut the legacy of Terrance McKenna fail in my view
    to do so. The TM “canvas” is open for all to see and hear free of charge. It is true he advocated the use of psychelics. But to me his greatest value was his nearly heroic attempt to fuse all learning and the human imagination he could digest and spit it back to his audience with humor, humanity, and connect-the-dots intelligence.
    TM was saying, in effect, I am only one man doing what I can to relate to you MY understanding and theories about what it means to be a human being. And not only do I have the right, but I believe the greatest advancements in human learning have come from the adventurous individual, not the institution.
    So there may be TM “groupies” who got the “wrong” message. But most of us, I bet, just love the guy for being a brave human being, warts and all.

    Comment by Will Beerman — December 16, 2012 @ 4:23 pm

  12. Thanks for the long essay, it was an entertaining and thoughtful read. I appreciate your hard work in putting it together.

    Likely it’s because I’m not from the hippie/psychedelic/whatever crowd, but I was never shocked to learn Terence McKenna stopped taking mushrooms in his final decade. Indeed, if you’re observant, you’ll notice how his tone in the 1990s shifted away from his youthful optimism and confidence, and instead embraced doubt, uncertainty, and an almost punk-like glee in questioning everything. And he alluded many times to nightmare trips, and how it’s really a young man’s game.

    McKenna appeals to me because of his many contradictions. “Is he putting us on?” “Did he really just say that?” “Does he really believe that, or is he just pushing our buttons?” I can never pin the man down. But his doubt, his questioning, that’s genuine. But that’s just my take. I prefer ’90s Terence McKenna; many others prefer the younger, 1980s model.

    I really don’t get the not-taking-drugs thing. Is that something that people in that scene are supposed to do all the time? I assumed that most of his trip stories hailed back to the 1970s, or were allusions to his famous 1971 Colombian voyage. Maybe that’s just me.

    Anyway, thanks for the essay, and thanks to everyone for this website. I’ll be sure to light a candle for the site owners when they’re being shipped off to Guantanamo….

    Comment by Daniel Thomas MacInnes — March 15, 2013 @ 9:46 pm

  13. Find the red blooded Mushrooms. Red pill not the blue pill. The truth is here. Find it. Dink and eat of earth blood to find yourself. Inner one (INR1)

    Comment by Merlin kin — March 16, 2013 @ 6:07 pm

  14. Many thanks for this wonderful article — you have articulated so much of what I have been thinking here!!I was very much in your position when I discovered the McKenna thing on a forum….earlier today as in I somehow missed all of this until now!!!!

    You really hit the nail on the head. You articulated almost everything I was feeling. From his perspective, he had a larger responsibility than to himself. How can people even try to imagine what they would do having not been in his position.

    Now knowing that he faced the Abyss and did not cross it makes the mythos of the Mushrooms power that much more awesome. I have sucked it up and taken more solely because I would think that he would do more if he was in my position. Pushing myself is what has led to Self Knowledge..and I have barely scratched the surface in terms of the path. McKennas heroic dose thingy is what I have to thank…even if it was for a merit badge the first time.

    This news ultimately liberated me in a way I cannot describe. I had a trance a few nights ago…coming down I realized that I always bring some conceptual map to the experience and Terence is always a part of that in some way. Only now do I realize that I always brought a little bit of Terence to my Mushroom trances. The Mushroom is so much bigger than one terrestrial being, I can finally let go of him. He was human, he got scared too. I realize I need to bring nothing to the table. I need to leave all mind and mystical teachings behind and just experience it.

    Thanks again for your amazing words here.

    Much peace!!


    p.s – in my opinion, there is someone who speaks of Mystical states of consciousness in a way that surpasses even McKenna. Believe nothing of what you have heard and read Book 4 by Aleister Crowley.

    Comment by Panda — March 28, 2013 @ 6:53 pm

  15. 40 years of altering one’s consciousness chemically without becoming a junkie, burnout, institutionalized brain dead non-contributor to society is no easy feat. Two of the most important things I have learned in my search for meaning using spirit guides are, first, COMPASSION, and second, LOVE of life, all life. I have shared the long road with many, some of whom were seeking some thing, some experience that would answer the questions, who they were and why they were. Others were “runners”, driven to trying every substance and abusing their drug of preference as if they were trying to get away or escape their consciousness and avoid commitment .Some wayfarers baffled me by their attitude towards their consciousness, they behaved as if that precious awareness were to be beaten like a snake with a stick until all of it’s attributes were dead. That suicidal attitude is sad and will always remain a mystery to me.
    Teafaire , you have a good heart and you have my thanks for dealing with an often serious and occasionally enlightening subject, however, I do not believe TM’s choice to suspend or even stopping his use of any substance is a matter of “great” concern to anyone except historians or philosophers. This whacked out attempt to discredit or vilify Terence or his personal history is invalid from any prospective. His readers or fans ( in this case, critics) have missed the boat entirely as to his writings or rants and the fact that he decided to cut back or quit his use of a substance that he continued to expound upon does not make him a hypocrite or a “scammer”.His ongoing emphasis on his past experience was what travelers or wayfarers do, it’s what any explorer does, brings back and shares his discoveries! Even though Terence was often funny and seemingly light hearted, the activity and substances of which were the core of his talks were neither. Terence was a gift to us all, we should be thankful not moronic critics.
    Thank you and please carry on!

    Comment by Mycomind — June 13, 2013 @ 6:34 am

  16. I met Terence in 1987 in Chicago, after several years of corresponding with him. He was definitely a delightfully witty and entertaining bard of the mushroom. That he had a challenging experience in 1988 and did not feel the call to continue working with the mushroom in the same way does not surprise me. The experiences with the mushroom teacher are deep and powerful, sometimes unfolding over decades, not just the few hours following ingestion. This is an ancient tradition and we are just beginners in understanding the power of this amazing teacher. I bow to Terence for his courage and willingness to support people who are called to this ancient path. That was his mission in life and he performed it very very well. I would advise people, however, to be cautious about blindly following his high-dose advice, and combining it with high dose cannabis. Terence had a cannabis habit that he could not let go of, and it definitely had an influence on his rap. The mushroom teacher, at least in my experience, has something to say and the message comes through most clearly when there is no other noise factor getting in the way. In fact, in my experience, the mushroom made it very clear that in order for the deeper visions to be vouchsafed, it was necessary for me to let go of all self-destructive habits. The spirit in the mushroom has been true to its word and, unlike Terence, I continue working with it now as I enter my 6th decade on this Earth.

    Comment by Elfstone — June 16, 2014 @ 9:18 pm

  17. McKenna ultimately had a scientific attitude towards reality. And a huge part of science is discourse- discourse grounded in making a claim with which it is possible to disagree.
    I think he made preposterous claims in order to inspire skepticism, disagreement, and independant thinking in his audience. He frequently reinforced the notion that everyone had to do their own personal investigation, and even went on polemics about gullibility.
    This is not betrayal, it is intellectual challenge.

    Comment by Isaac — October 3, 2015 @ 4:54 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment