Now, when a society feels itself to be in crisis, the unconscious response is to look back into time to attempt to find a previous model that seemed to work and then to crystallize energy around that model in an effort to reorient society. The last time this happened was with the breakup of the medieval stasis of the pseudo-eschatology of Christianity, and out of that chaos, that sense of disconnectedness came classicism.
In other words, people were looking back into time for a serviceable model that could step in to the vacated shoes of the discredited medieval church. And what they came up with was platonic philosophy, Roman law, the esthetics that ruled Periclean Athens, and so forth. To a degree we are still living in the twilight of that return to classicism, but it no longer serves. And in its place is this inchoate groping for yet another historical paradigm that can somehow be contextualized in the late 20th century and give meaning to the experience that is coming, is sweeping over the world.
To my mind, the Freudian breakthrough, what the surrealists were doing, what the abstract expressionists were doing, the replacement of phonetic alphabetic linear print culture by electronic media that has happened over the last 25 years, these things are all well and good, but they are insufficient because once you begin to zero in on the notion of the archaic mentality and what it really means, you discover that at the center of it is, God forbid, the psychedelic experience.
Now, the psychedelic experience is as much a part of life as birth, death, making love, eating, conniving, so forth and so on, except in this particular kind of culture that has evolved out of western European traditions. Why this is is a very complicated question; many factors bear on it. But what I would like to talk about this evening is just offer you a model of history, how we got into the dilemma that we’re in, and what we might be able to do about it. So I will tell my version of the story of human emergence. And it goes like this:
At some time in the past—experts vary, but the numbers are in millions of years—the adaptation of advanced primates to the canopy ecosystems of the climaxed rain forests of the African continent was disrupted by the cycles of desertification that periodically affect the planet. This had the effect of forcing these primates out of their arboreal niche and into evolving grasslands.
To my mind, the important point in the argument that I’m about to put forward is the idea that the previously unidentified factor impinging on human evolution and shaping the evolution of our species was tertiary mutagenic constituents of the human diet as we made the shift from a specialized fruit eating diet to an omnivorous diet that included meat. Most animal species have a very limited repertoire of acceptable foods. This is reasonable because it’s a strategy for avoiding contact with mutagenic tertiary compounds that may be elaborated by plants. But when a species comes under pressure it has to expand what it considers acceptable dietary constituents. At that point the organism is subject to mutagenic influence because testing in the diet is bringing the body in contact with all kinds of toxic compounds—tumor producing compounds, compounds which interfere with the endocrine system, compounds which are neuroactive, compounds which affect fertility. This has never really been discussed by evolutionary biologists as perhaps a critical factor in the emergence of the human species. My scenario goes something like this:
These primates already had a fairly complex linguistic repertoire because they had developed a pack signaling system in the treetops. They transposed this system into hunting bands, or carrion-gathering bands that were following along behind the large herds of ungulate mammals that were simultaneously evolving in this African environment. In that situation, they came upon coprophytic—dung-loving, fungi—that were occurring coincidentally with the presence of these evolving ungulate animals.
At that point the stage was set for what I believe is the greatest leap that organic organization has made probably in the last 100 million years. There was nothing miraculous about it. Psilocybin, which is the psychoactive amine that occurs in these mushrooms, was studied by Roland Fischer in the 1950s, and the first thing he learned was that small doses of psilocybin—doses so small as to be undetectable as an actual experience—nevertheless conferm improved visual acuity. He did elaborate tests on thousands of graduate students. In other words, you see better if you take small amounts of this drug. Fisher said to me in his wonderful Viennese accent, "You see, this is a situation in which you actually have a better picture of reality if you take a drug than if you don’t take a drug." And he had the data to back him up. Well, you don’t have to be an evolutionary biologist to realize that a constituent of the diet which improves visual acuity in an animal that is surviving through its hunting skills is quickly going to be inculcated as an extremely favorable adaptation.
Now, when slightly larger doses of psilocybin are ingested accidentally or deliberately the immediate effect is increased arousal, and that includes sexual arousal. This is typical for the bioactive amines. So what you begin to see is, here is a constituent of the diet whose first effect is to make those who use it more effective hunters, whose second effect is to increase instances of what primatologists call successful copulations. And the combination of increased sexual activity on the part of those animals admitting this constituent into their diet becomes a kind of reciprocal feedback loop.
Now, at yet higher doses, psilocybin flowers out into a profound hallucinogenic experience, so profound that, in truth, it is utterly confounding to 20th century human beings; we have no metaphors for this; we can’t take its measure; we prefer to turn away from it. This is our cultural response to the presence of this dimension. But the idea that it is in any way understood, or its implications have been assimilated, is absurd.
I believe that what we have here, in this prehistoric situation, is an insipient symbiosis. I want to make clear what I mean here: I am not suggesting that there was a true symbiosis between human beings and mushrooms, because a true symbiosis requires millions of years to be established and it's actually almost a genetic bonding of two species. It was an insipient symbiosis. Given enough time it might have turned into a true symbiotic relationship. Unfortunately, it was disrupted by the very forces which had created it, which was a further exacerbation of this climatological aridity which was overtaking the African continent.
So the notion is that these biogenically-active amines acted as a kind of catalyst on the evolving neurophysiological organization of these primates. One of the most interesting effects of psilocybin is that it seems to stimulate the language forming capacity. This has been remarked upon by writers such as Henry Munn and Gordon Wasson. I mean, it is literally true that the mushroom shaman is a man of language. It seems to facilitate a kind of release of the logos and this linguistic facility, which is the great watershed in the evolution of our species out of animal organization that has never been satisfactorily explained. There had to be a catalyst for it. I am suggesting that in this early situation this catalyst was this self-reinforcing cycle where group sexuality, visual acuity, frequent copulation, and a devotion to ecstatic trance all combine to create an entirely different psychology, a psychology in which the ego barely existed. It’s almost as though you could say psychedelic drugs are an inoculation against the formation of the narcissistic ego.
Now, why should this be? It’s because, operationally speaking, what these psychoactive compounds do, not if you look at one trip, but if you look at thousands of peoples’ trips, and say, "What is the common denominator of these experiences?" what they do is, they dissolve boundaries. This is what gives them their power, and it’s what makes them so controversial because the dissolution of boundaries is something around which we have profound anxiety both as individuals and our institutions are even more anxious about this. Any compound or dietary constituent which dissolves the boundaries between human beings poses a profound problem for the kinds of social organization that we have been familiar with throughout recorded history.
As the drying of the African continent continued, this orgiastic communal use of the mushroom became less and less frequent simply because the mushroom itself was less and less available. Ultimately, I believe, there’s evidence to suggest, that honey was discovered as a method for preserving mushrooms through periods of scarcity, and it’s still done this way in Mexico; however, there’s a profound problem here. Honey itself, after it has gone through chemical changes involving fermentation, becomes a psychoactive compound; it becomes crude alcohol. If your mushroom supply fades slowly enough, and there isn’t sufficient attention paid to what’s going on, over a couple of millennia an egoless ecstatic mushroom-using cult can turn into essentially a cult of alcohol. And the psychology of an alcohol cult is entirely different from the psychology of the psilocybin cult.
Around 12,000 years ago people began moving out of Africa and settling in the Middle East, in Palestine. Before that time, the stratigraphic record in Palestine indicates that it was very sparsely populated. These new people appeared called Natufians. There’s considerable argument about where they came from. The general assumption is that they came from the area that Marija Gimbutas calls "Old Europe." But this is based simply on the belief that they were so advanced that they couldn’t possibly have come from anywhere else, when in fact, an analysis of the wall paintings of these people and an analysis of the pottery, seems to indicate that they came from Africa; that these were African peoples.
At first they settled under rock escarpments. This is exactly the settlement pattern that we see in the Tassili n’Ajjer Plateau in Algeria where there are actually paintings on the rock walls dated 7,000-8,000 BC where we see shamans with mushrooms sprouting out of their bodies, thousands of them. Now, this mushroom using culture established itself in Palestine at Jericho. Jericho, at its triumph, was the most advanced civilization in the world. The tower at Jericho was, by all measures, the most sophisticated culture of its time.
Later these same people settled into Çatalhöyük in Southern Turkey. Çatalhöyük is 3,500 years in advance of any other civilization on earth at that time. The chief investigator of the site, James Mellaart, called it a premature flash of complexity and brilliance. And it disappeared. Mysteriously. The motifs may have been transferred to Crete, but as far as we can tell, that was the last vestige of this psychedelically motivated partnership society. It was destroyed by the Kurgan invaders, the wheel chariot people who came from north of the Black Sea with an entirely different psychology. You see, their psychology was shaped by the domestication of the horse, which was a permission for a raiding psychology, a psychology of nomadic plunder, while the domestication of cattle in Africa some 5,000 years before had created the opportunity for this goddess/mushroom/cattle kind of psychology to evolve.
The mushroom-using peoples of the ancient Middle East and of pre-desert Africa were living in a dynamic equilibrium with the environment; this was the endemic state. If you read the story of Genesis carefully it is clearly the story of a drug bust. It is clearly the story of a woman’s transgressions, and Yahweh, walking in the garden, says to himself, "If they eat of the tree they will become as we are." There’s no shillyshallying about this. What was at stake here was whether or not human beings should claim a stake in godhead, and the decision was made that they should not. And they were cast out of Eden. And an angel was set at the gate of Eden with a burning sword so that they cold not find their way back. This is the story of centuries of continual drought, shattering the back of a partnership civilization that was at equilibrium in central Africa 15- to 25,000 years ago.
Now, we are the sad inheritors of this situation. The mysteries survived in a very attenuated form for several millennia in Crete. Crete then became the bastion of the mystical impulse in Hellenistic religion, at the mysteries, at Eleusis, for example. What the ancient authors said, what was practiced secretly at Eleusis was practiced openly at Gnosis. There’s considerable evidence that the mushroom cult may have persisted a long time in Crete. These puzzling so-called aniconic pillars that are erected in the center of many of the rooms of the palace at Gnosis seem very much to argue that there was a memory of this ancient religion that the linear B tallies on opium use yielded such high numbers when translated that the early assumption was that the glyph for opium must be the glyph for wheat. Now it’s understood that this is not the case. It is true that the twilight of Minoan religion was an opiated twilight.
My belief is that our proclivity for drug use—this itch that we can never scratch—which really places us in a completely different category from the rest of animal organization, and I am perfectly aware that elephants intoxicate themselves on papayas and all that malarkey, but those animals that have preference for intoxicants usually prefer one or two. We have scoured the biosphere for drugs of all sorts. And a drug that was used 200 years ago by 5- or 6,000 people can probably be bought within minutes if you walk out of this building, because the news spreads.
We have an absolute obsession with the alteration of consciousness. I believe it’s because we are in a state of … I don’t know … call it trauma, denial. We, as a species, are the victims of a dysfunctional childhood. We were torn from that which gave life meaning by climatological and cultural factors which forced us then into the nightmare of history. It is from that nightmare that we must awaken or the lethal momentum of egocentrism is going to shove us right over the edge.
The ego is like a calcareous tumor on the personality of each of us. This tumor must be psycholytically removed. It must be dissolved. Not that we must have no ego. After all, when you take someone to dinner you want to know whose mouth to put food in. The big ego, that flowers out beyond the operational need to identify with a single body, is an entirely maladaptive response, and we are sick with it, through, through and through. No less a bastion of conservative and establishment thinking than Arthur Koestler in his book, The Ghost In the Machine, finally concludes we have to have a drug which inhibits the territorial impulse. (That was when the territorial impulse was a big buzzword.) But what he meant was, we have to interfere with the ego; It’s completely unnecessary; It’s a burden to everyone who has it, and the collective impact of it is absolutely thanatoptic.
The archaic revival is an impassioned and unconsciously-driven, reaching back into time: nope, the Renaissance won't do it; nope, the Greek ideals are not sufficient; no, Pharaonic Egypt is not enough, no, no no, until finally we reach the brink of the last glaciation and there we find people who are functioning. Their fertility levels, their supply and demand relationship with their environment—all of this is working.
Now, it's easy to object to the notion that an adaptation that worked for nomadic herders 15,000 years ago has any relevance to today's problem. The fact of the matter is, it is the psycholitic effect on ego that makes it necessary to take the psychedelic experience extremely seriously because we want to live. We want to turn off the series of lethal cascades that seem to be leading toward a very heart-stopping conclusion, which is that this is a sinking submarine and that we cannot get out unless we change our minds. There's no question that we have the resources, the intelligence, the infrastructure to save our neck. But do we have the sense to change our mind? It is the mind that is intractable, and into our hands has then been placed this tremendously powerful tool, which our institutions immediately leap upon and attempt to stigmatize, drive under ground, criminalize, and discredit. But they have a vested interest in continuing momentum of all of this insanity.
Ok, so that's a kind of political argument for why this is a very good thing, and I trust I've convinced you all. Now I want to say something different about it which appeals more I think to us, not as political animals, but as dreamers, and philosophers, and that is that people have not been straight with each other about how weird these psychedelic experiences are. This stuff is absolutely confounded. It is not sensory distortion; it is not a delusion of reference; it is not recovery of traumatic material from the personal past. All of these psychoanalytic models fail utterly because ultimately the psychedelic experiences hardly seems to be addressing the personality of the individual, rather it is some kind of insight into a tremendum before which we are as helpless as the herders of Africa of 35 millennia ago. We don't understand what it is. We haven't got a clue. We believe in matter, causality, the here and now, the discreetness of objects, the unknowability of the future and so forth and so on. It's just a laundry list of wrongheaded notions that you can immediately disabuse yourself of with five grams of dried mushrooms. I mean, it is the Gordian Knot of all of these, or it is the sword of Damocles cutting the Gordian Knot of these philosophical conundrums. So then we line up on two sides. People who say well it's not natural and it induces psychosis. This is all nonsense.
This is our birthright. It is profoundly our birthright in the same way that our sexuality is our birthright. The notion that a person would call themselves intelligent and aware and present in the world and that they would go from the cradle to the grave without ever having a psychedelic experience is nothing short of obscene; it's absurd. It makes my flesh crawl in the same way that celibacy and virginity make my flesh crawl. What a horrible, horrible waste of a human life.
The Muslims used to say of the city, Isfahan, in Iran, at its architectural height, that it was half the world—Isfahan is half the world. The psychedelic experience is half the world. If you don't have this under your belt, you don't know what's going on, you haven't got a clue about what's going on. And it's not a big deal, you don't have to sweep up around my ashram for 15 years before I'm going to put the whammy on you. It requires nothing more than a personal act of courage to discover whether or not what I'm saying is true or horseshit. You know, you just have to go and look. People want to talk about it, they want to argue about it. This is not a philosophy, or a theory, or a position, this is an experience; it's an experience. Talking to people who have not taken psychedelics and trying to convince them of the worth of it is like trying to talk a 9 year old boy out of his aversion to sexuality. He knows that it's a bad thing and should be stayed away from. But we, who have found ourselves, by hook or by crook, in positions of prominence and influence cannot have the luxury of this kind of "know-nothing" attitude. If the expansion of consciousness does not loom large in the history of the human species then in the future of the human species then what kind of future is it going to be?
Now these compounds were originally just given a phenomenological description, they were called "consciousness-expanding drugs." We must investigate this possibility. If there were only 1000:1 chance that it was so, it would still merit intense investigation by the scientific community and everyone else with an interest in it. And yet it's fairly clear that these things do expand consciousness; that they do promote insight; that they do catalyze the release of ideas into society; that they do diminish the ego; that they do provide real insight into the functioning of things that then allows everything to move more smoothly toward a reasonable conclusion. So, it's incumbent upon anyone who is concerned about the fate of the earth, their own well-being, so forth and so on, to investigate these things. We cannot allow a frightened and constipated establishment to control this agenda.
I am perfectly aware that there is a drug problem. There is a terrible drug problem. But it’s a different problem. It’s not a problem caused by people who are seeking expanded or higher consciousness, it is caused by people who are blotting out how the consequences of living in this kind of civilization make them feel.
We need a mature dialogue in which each drug is dealt with on a case by case basis, and we examine the social consequences, the risk benefit picture, and then commit ourselves to those compounds and courses of action that seem promising. It is an absolute disgrace that science has tolerated the intrusion of small-minded politicians into what is traditionally its bailiwick. Doctors are allowing the government to tell them what compounds they may or may not investigate? Where is the AMA on this? How can we tolerate the least informed among us controlling the agenda, when the agenda deals with the question of planetary survival?
Now, I used to think of myself as simply a cunning linguist, but now I realize that I am actually a meme replicator. A meme, as I’m sure you all have been told many times, is the smallest unit of an idea that still has coherency. Memes are to ideas what genes are to proteins. My notion in coming here tonight is to replicate the meme, to give permission to discuss this. What I think should be kept center stage in thinking about this is the depth of the mystery, the mysteriousness of it, how confounding it is. I mean, there are psychoactive drugs in use in shamanic contexts, which, when purified and smoked for instance, give experiences of which the duration is only minutes. And yet these experiences are such a profound dissolution into another dimension that they seem to imply that we have moved hardly off the dime in terms of getting a grip on the real nature of reality.
One of the things that I find very interesting, I said in the early part of this talk, that psilocybin synergized language, and I described how it synergized consciousness in this early African situation, but it continues to act; it’s acting even as we speak. What it seems to be holding out to those who have explored it at depth, are things like an ontological transformation of the basis of language. For instance, language seems to become something visible. You know, Philo Judaeus writing about the logos, said he was concerned with what he called the more perfect logos. As you all know, the logos was an informing voice that was the sine qua non of Hellenistic spirituality. And when you got right with the world, this voice opened in your head, and informed you and guided your actions.
So Philo Judaeus was talking about the more perfect Logos, and he says, "The more perfect logos would go from being heard to being beheld without ever crossing over a quantized moment of transition." This actually happens on psilocybin. The project of communication which, in ordinary reality devolves down into the generation of small mouth noises which move across space to be decoded inside private minds using what we hope are congruent dictionaries, can potentially be replaced by a logos beheld—a thing seen.
The clue to this is that in our own language our notion of linguistic facility is always backed up by visual metaphors. We say, he spoke clearly, I see what you mean, she painted a picture. This is saying that at unconscious levels our notion of truth is rooted in the visual. I believe that, in a sense, history is a psychedelic experience. We are unfolding endlessly into the consequences of the contact with the tremendum that raised us to self-reflection 25- or 30,000 years ago. The question then becomes, how do we make sense of this in the future? What kind of world incorporates these kinds of insights?
Well, I believe that the place to lean is on a new modality for language, that syntax, properly understood, is beheld. It’s very interesting to me that the most powerful of these hallucinogens are also endogenous neurotransmitters. DMT, without contest, is the most terrifyingly powerful hallucinogen that exists in nature, and it occurs in the human brain as a normal part of human metabolism. The fact that the experience only lasts a few minutes is a profound statement about the brain’s ability to identify and render inactive these compounds. I mean, the brain is hit by a wave of DMT and it says, I know what this is. And we can shunt this to indoleacetic acid and excrete it in a matter of minutes. So this state is not far away from us. It could be as little as a one or two gene mutation away. The pineal gland is generating adrenoglomerulotropin. This is an MAO inhibitor of the beta-carboline class, very similar to the compounds that occur in ayahuasca and yage. It appears that the chemistry of thought and the chemistry of shamanic ecstasis are simply points on a continuous spectrum.
To my mind, this is the great untold secret of our civilization. To not know about this is to be absolutely in the dark about what is going on. And how many people do know? Some of you may know a story by the Argentine poet, Jorge Luis Borges, called The Cult Of The Phoenix. He says that there is a cult; its practitioners have suffered in every pogrom in history; its practitioners have participated in every pogrom in history; it honors no class, no race, no place, no time; one child may initiate another; ruins are propitious places. The initiate do not speak of it, and to some it seems absurd. What he is describing is the fact that in this world of ours, there is in fact an umbilical knot. There is in fact a blind spot that we have all overlooked, or many people have overlooked. The people in this room, I assume, are an exception.
The fact of the matter is that if you search far enough, if you look at the oldest places the densest jungles, if you talk to the least assimilated tribes, sooner or later you are going to confront the psychedelic experience. At that point your relationship to reality becomes very different from that of everyone around you because everyone around you is searching for the answers. The task of the person who by one means or another has found their way to the psychedelic experience is to face the answer. The answer is found.
We have arrived at the end of the road in terms of a powerful tool for inducting us into what Wittgenstein called the realms of the unspeakable. We need no more powerful tools than what we’ve inherited from these shamanic cultures. It’s a question, pure and simple, of courage, of having the guts to use it, of surrender. Of course it had to be that because surrender requires the abandonment of the ego. It is the ego’s house of cards that is entirely at risk if we begin to look more deeply at the psychedelic experience. So it is a challenge for the society. It is a challenge for the individual. You are not an ingénue if you have arrived at this place in the spiritual quest. Now the tools and the information are put into our hands and it’s up to us to decide what we’re going to do with it and how we’re going to apply it.
The evidence that this is our birthright, that this is what we came from and yearn to return to, is all around us. But it has been suppressed by a male dominated phonetic alphabet, yack-yack-yack kind of culture, which we are all unquestionably embedded in. I can’t stress enough that the consequences of not taking this seriously, are, I believe, the death of the planet. I don’t think that through exhortation and preaching, and legislation, and manipulation through propaganda, that we’re going to get people to do what must be done in order to set this ship right. They are going to have to be touched by the tremendum.
I scoured India, and sat with these roshis and rishees and geishas, and gurus, and went through the whole nine yards. As far as I’m concerned it’s a skin game. They’re standing in for the real thing. The real thing is the felt presence of immediate experience and that’s what this is giving back to us. It is putting you back into your place, and your time, with the knowledge, now, that there is a goal, there is reason to hope, there is something to say.
The inner richness of the human being causes everything else to pale by comparison. I could loot Madison Avenue to my heart’s content and furnish my apartment, and it would be as garbage compared to the inner richness of the mind of one of these Mexican or Amazonian shaman. We have to find our way back to the authenticity of the body and to the connection to the vegetable matrix of the planet.
We are not apart from nature, but are if we cut off our channels of communication to it, and I don’t mean this in some airy-fairy way. I mean that if you are not embedded in the use of a plant hallucinogen, there is no way for you to get your instructions in the larger dance of what is happening because the gaian mind, the over soul, whatever you want to call it, this is how it controls the global mega system, through the shedding and release of chemical messengers of all sorts that move all kinds of organisms around, including self reflecting higher organisms.
Well, I think you get the drift. Why don’t we knock off. Now you can bring out the knives.
JB: Terrence, what's this "inside" stuff? You talk about Whitehead, and then insist upon this notion of interiority. I object to your attack on "Harry Winston". I don't see the difference between "Harry Winston" and the inside of your "soul". If you want to talk about preeminence of language, or the idea of language as decreation, that languages strips something away and reveals, then, as Wallace Stevens noted, it's the "to be said" that you might want to strive for, and then you can't differentiate between "gems" or "inside the mushroom", inside the "soul". You go on about interiority, this idea of depth, when language is surface. Language doesn't go inside. It doesn't go outside.
MCKENNA: Yes, you're right. The trick is to realize that operationally. And it's very hard to get from here to there in the present situation.
JB: But that's the accretive principle, going from a to b, from here to there. That's the same as interiority.
MCKENNA: Yes. This is true. But if everybody had a devotion to Harry Winston the politics of South Africa would be much more complex. And it's funny, this Harry Winston argument goes clear back to The Doors of Perception. You probably all remember where Aldous Huxley says, we like gems because they remind us of the things glimpsed in interior worlds. So he's saying really that the material world at its best is a poor simulacrum of this other place. And culture strives for it. Design is clearly this effort to drag ideas into matter. And yet for them to retain their quintessential aura as nonmaterial things, it seems to be the most successful ones as that.
JB: But aren't you saying that we're talking about something that can't be talked about? And aren't all these phrases merely comfort words?
MCKENNA: Oh, absolutely.
Q & A
QUESTION: Is it essential to your argument, Terence, to establish that there were in fact more or less egoless societies, partnership societies, pre-patriarchal?
MCKENNA: Is it necessary to establish it? I'm sure you recognize this as Riane Eisler's notion. Her word. She and I have worked together. She doesn't care to publicly embrace my conclusions, but she does say, you're right, there is something going on where pastoralism emerged. And the emerging of pastoralism and the discovery of the mushroom would be very much intertwined. I don't see how a society could use psilocybin orgiastically without being egoless. I believe the concern with paternity, with tracing the paternal line, which could have only arisen post ego was what then shut down these orgiastic religions, because men were more concerned with determining paternity than they were with having a good time, in fact.
QUESTION: They were getting egos that needed to be defended that way.
MCKENNA: They needed to know who their sons were and they wanted to pass on their property, their cattle, their cash, affluence, or whatever it was.
QUESTION: Do you think the evidence for these more or less egoless societies is pretty strong?
MCKENNA: No, I would say that I wish it were a lot stronger. How in the world, through archaeology, are you going to establish the egoless nature of a society? What I would like to see done would be someone to go into southern Algeria, to the Tassili n'Ajjer Plateau, and carry out a serious archaeological project.
To my mind, if you could find a Çatalhöyük-style site in Algeria that was 3- or 4,000 years older than Çatal, it would be perfectly reasonable to headline it as Eden dug up. In other words, that would prove that this high civilization was flourishing in Africa and that it was disrupted by desertification. And that would pretty much make it circumstantially fall into place.
QUESTION: The archaeologists in Budiš, as you know, have presented something that looks like evidence. Whether it's conclusive or not is another question. Cities without walls, for example, burials without battle-mutilated bodies, burials without the typical trophies that are found in patriarch suit. And heroes, too.
MCKENNA: Around 10,000 BC we get what's called the ten point techno complex, meaning the sudden accumulation of pointed flints at village sites rather than in hunting areas, indicating that there were large concentrations of arrows fired near habitation sites. This was not hunting. The indirect evidence for this kind of egoless society, to my mind, is in the Amazon today. I've spent a lot of time down there taking ayahuasca, for example, with these up-river folks. Harmine before it was found to become specific with an alkaloid taken from a cereal plant, was called telepathine.
It is literally true that these Amazonian small hunting-gathering societies achieve a state of profound group-mindedness under this drug. And it's in those situations that they decide whether to go to war or whether to move the village, what crops should be planted, whether to take slaves. It's a state of group-mindedness. I have participated in these states and if you want anecdotal evidence I can give anecdotal evidence that very odd things are going on in these sessions. What you think are your own private hallucinations can suddenly begin to be critiqued by the guy sitting at your elbow. This is very impressive.
QUESTION: One last thing, a speculative kind of thing. Do you think that if you allow that there are things that should be salvaged from our ego and scientific culture, do you think the best of our culture might be salvaged in a synthesis culture?
MCKENNA: Oh, yes. I'm not an anti-science person or anything like that. I think everything went toward a purpose. I look at western man through the metaphor of the prodigal son. We are the prodigal son. We wandered from the family hearth into history. And then we returned to the way of our fathers. But we have made the peregrination of the history that descended into a Faustian relationship with matter. Now, knowing what we know about matter, those techniques in the hands of a shamanically inspired society will create the global solution that we're seeking. But in our own hands we can seem only to use these techniques to destroy our enemies and poison ourselves.
QUESTION: It seems to some extent that you're preaching to the choir in this particular group.
MCKENNA: Well, what a relief.
QUESTION: There's an attitude you have towards the establishment in some way as if they object to this. I don't think they have an objection. The mega hospitals are filling up with narcissistic personalities and borderline personalities, and hysterical personalities. Do any of you know roughly what I'm talking about? Now, we could very easily, if you tell me the dose, send a grant in. Or the makers of leading drugs would be happy to find something for this group of people. It has nothing to do with objecting. If you have the right dose of psilocybin, which will, theoretically, these people are a narcissistic personality, is the extreme of it. If you set it up in a scientific way, they'll buy it.
MCKENNA: I'm very close to efforts to do this kind of thing and I can tell you it's an absolute nightmare. A drug as innocuous as MDMA is a schedule one drug. That means it's to be treated like heroin.
QUESTION: No, no, no. For prescribing. But you can use a lot of drugs in the research. So you get special numbers and things like that.
MCKENNA: There are no protocols for human administration of psychedelic drugs in this country, nor have there been for 15 years.
QUESTION: This was Humphry Osmond and other peoples' agenda many years ago but it was shut down fully.
QUESTION: It starts with Timothy Leary. What you're saying gives me deja vu of Timothy 20 years ago.
MCKENNA: Only because you misremember what he said. He never said anything like this. The rhetoric of the '60s was entirely devoid of any sensitivity to shamanism, of any awareness that these things had ever been done in the human past. They thought it was a miracle drug that had come out of a Swiss laboratory. They didn't realize that it was the way religion has always been practiced except for the last 2,000 years.
QUESTION: Can you comment on the ways of triggering these experiences, psychedelic experiences, electromagnetically? You know, Persinger's work in Canada?
MCKENNA: For those of you who don't know, Persinger believes that UFO encounters are caused by geomagnetism in the earth, which then can be sufficiently strong to actually disrupt neurological functioning. But the general answer to your question is, no, I don't believe you can do this any other way. I mean, theoretically perhaps electromagnetism or something like that, but practically speaking, nothing works like this does. Yoga is futile. It's absolutely pointless.
A DMT trip lasts seven minutes. And five minutes after you come down you cannot tell that you have taken a drug, you don't have a headache, you're not tremoring, you don't even have a dry mouth. It is the most profound psychedelic experience a human being can have this side of the grave. So what's holding everybody up?
QUESTION: Terence, you don't want to admit that some people don't want to have an experience that they'll never forget.
MCKENNA: Well, you're right.
QUESTION: Will you talk about the relationship between psychedelics and the materialization of objects or the ability to transmute matter?
MCKENNA: Well, this is a very fringy sort of thing. It has to be anecdotal. You know, Whitehead, who I base a lot of what I think and feel on Whitehead, and he enshrined in the English language the phrase, the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness." This means believing that that's there, and this is here—the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. The most puzzling aspect of the psychedelic experience, and I'm loathe to even raise it because I don't want to defend it, is, if you do it enough and you watch it enough, you come to the conclusion that there are no boundaries; that the world is some kind of linguistic structure. It is not made of quarks or electromagnetic fields or mu-mesons. It's made of language. And the objection always brought against this point of view is, okay, so say something and make it come to be. And of course this is quite a challenge.
But on the other hand, perhaps that's not a fair approach. After all, everything around us as we sit in this room, for miles and miles in all directions, is an exudate of the human imagination. There is nothing that didn't come out of human minds. We have surrounded ourselves with a self-generated hallucination. We are like coral animals and we excrete ideas. We take matter and we lay into it platonic forms of tremendous complexity. So I think I'm fearful of this area because I think that you can sail off the edge. I'm fearful of it all. I am impressed by the awesome power of it. I think all of these things should be studied with an absolutely unbiased mind. And in no other area do I think this is possible.
QUESTION: Let me ask you this question. You're very persuasive that at some period in time if the shamanistic culture had not changed very much the world might be a rather peaceful and glorious society today without much population growth, without much technology and so forth. But take the world as it is today, which I guess you have to do, and assuming, let us say, that because of the tremendous power of this little group, the day after tomorrow your message has gotten across and we are back in the shamanistic world. Could you sketch in your own mind what the society that we now have, which is hugely overpopulated and highly over technologically-encrusted and so forth, give us five or six minutes of your wonderful words as to what you see the society coming to.
MCKENNA: The thrust of history is toward the imagination. This was Blake's position—that our destiny was in what he called the divine imagination. Now, I know that virtual reality was slammed up one wall and down the other, so I don't want to clutch it to my breast this evening. But I do think that some combination, that the difference between computers and drugs is going to migrate toward the vanishing point, that the computers of the future will be drugs, and the drugs of the future will be computers. In other words, they're both information processing systems. Obviously microminiaturization and greater insight into the functioning of these compounds and so forth … everything is syncing toward the microphysical realm. My fantasy of an implementation of a psychedelic future is a world that looks very much like the world of 25,000 years ago, except that if you are a person in that world, when you close your eyes, there are menus, there are choices, there is an invisible interface. In other words, the imagination has become hardwired as the cultural dimension in which we all live.
By referring to New York as an excrescence of the imagination, but New York has tremendous solidity, a tremendous lump in momentum because it is made of matter. But if the implementation of design ideas were nothing more than the pushing of a button and skyscrapers a thousand stories high could spring up in virtual reality, then design will become the leading edge of culture. This is our future. Our future is in art. Our future is in realizing the imagination. And then, inhabiting it. And I grant you, in five minutes I cannot explain to you exactly how do we back out from 5 billion people, how do we feed everybody while this is going on.
The politics of the psychedelic experience are such that you introduce people to the idea of inner riches. Why bother with Harry Winston? Because the better stuff is inside. The better stuff costs nothing. The stuff cult, which is sweeping the planet and emptying the earth of its metals and polluting the rivers could be chalked off in a world where the imagination was the value that was being maximized. The short answer to your question is, a radical mentalization of culture to pull back from resource extraction and toxification of the environment.
Once you unleash psychedelics in the population the dreams that will be dreamed are large dreams, indeed. It's very clear that within the next 50 years we will understand the human genome to sufficient depth to probably take control of the human form, we will become who we want to be. We will design ourselves into being the kind of organism that is consonant with our politics. Strangely enough, the only kind of organism I can think of that is congruent with our politics would be something like a mushroom.
A mushroom is a mycelial network through the soil. It has as many connections as a neuro network. If it's a psilocybin mushroom it's a network filled with neurotransmitters, yet it's as fine as a cobweb. Look at how delicately the mushroom touches the earth; it lives only on decaying matter. But if it has menus inside of itself, then it may be living in situ, a fuller, deeper, richer, more feeling filled existence than we can imagine. So I don't think we should cling to the monkey form. Shedding the monkey is a real potential possibility. Techno freaks will want to download us into a solid state cube on the dark side of the moon. I would rather download us into planktonic life and put is into the oceans.
I was recently in Mexico and these huge stratocumulus clouds float over the Yucatan Peninsula. And I was looking and thinking, you know, if a person were the size of a water droplet every one of us could fit into one of these clouds. And look how non-destructive these stratocumulus clouds are. They just drift around, and around.
QUESTION: Terence, do you suggest that civilization or whatever the form is, to change from the forest to the grasslands goes back about 30,000 years? Two questions: First, with that you suggest that Africa is where the cradle of civilization is. Are you also suggesting that civilizations don't go back anywhere in the world farther than that? And what about South America?
MCKENNA: Oh, yes. I accept all ordinary dates. I am no friend of Atlantis.
QUESTION: Unlike Thor Heyerdahl?
MCKENNA: What I've done here this evening is just create a string of metaphors to try and pique your interest. Not once did I do justice to the truth of the situation or the depth of the psychedelic experience, because it cannot be told. It cannot be told. My technique is to tell the wildest, strangest story I can think of, claim that's the psychedelic experience, and leave it at that. But you should all know that the journey begins where the words stop.
QUESTION: I want to go back historically for a minute. If we can. The shift of psilocybe, obsidian versus what appears to be a later shift to copper and amanita. Do you see a relationship with the shift from psilocybe to amanita in the ego context?
MCKENNA: I'm not sure I accept your premise. Were these two mushrooms ever overlapping in their range? Amanita is a creature of the arctic, generally, the arctic.
And psilocybin, in the stropharia cubensis, which is the worldwide one associated with cattle, was a lowland tropical mushroom. Gordon Wasson, who was a wonderful man, spread a lot of confusion about amanita muscaria, and it would take an evening to sort that all out.
QUESTION: On the Pacific coast of the northwest amanita and psilocybes grow virtually side-by-side.
MCKENNA: Although there is no proof that the people of the northwest coast ever were aware of those mushrooms.
QUESTION: I have an answer to that. I was in a place called Magadan, Soviet Far East, in the fall. I had a conversation with a Soviet scientist, who showed me a photograph that they had of a man, which they discovered on Kamchatka, which had a mushroom on his head. And that same exact figure was found in Mayan culture. So it seemed when people came across, they worked their way down and they brought the mushroom culture with it.
MCKENNA: Well, that's a theory that doesn't give much credit to the mushroom. You don't require cultural diffusion theories if you believe that the mushroom simply speaks.
QUESTION: But you have a DMT experience that …the one that you will never forget. . .
MCKENNA: Well, it depends on your personality. I've seen people smoke DMT and give an entirely convincing display while they were on it, and then come down and say, number one, "I will never do that again," number two, "I don't remember anything," number three, "please leave."
QUESTION: Could you trigger this without mushrooms?
MCKENNA: It's a very interesting question. Once a person has smoked DMT it's possible to have a dream in which the subject is raised, the pipe is produced, and it happens. I find this profoundly interesting because it's absolute proof that all the machinery necessary is present in the unstoned natural brain.
At one point, in grappling with the UFO problem, I tried to think in terms of perhaps DMT was loading into adipose tissue and some kind of stimulus could suddenly cause all this stuff to drop out into your system and you would have this sense of hackle-raising strangeness and a rising sense of energy, then a descent into hallicinogenesis.
When DMT was first discovered people were jumping up and down. They thought they had found the schizogen—the chemical key to psychosis. The current thinking about DMT coming out of this University of Alabama, is that probably DMT mediates attention. They believe that when you scan a room, lock on to a face, and grock it, that something is happening with DMT there. It's very useful, these compounds which can be activated and deactivated so quickly. And this is what the body needs to make use of. And many neurotransmitters have this spiking ability where they can shift from one catalytic state to another very rapidly.
There's a generation of hard science that needs to be done here. You can think up great experiments and find projects forever. None of it has ever been done because it's forbidden. It's taboo.
QUESTION: Let's go back to the issue of menu. This is more of a technical question for you. You've been emphasizing psilocybin and mushroom-based psychedelics. How would you, for instance, compare them with mescaline or lysergic acid, or ketamine, or ibogaine, or yage, the same thing, all appear to address some portion of this opening, this ascending door. Now, if we have a collectivistic culture, that is, to say the least, and we are fusing, would you produce a hierarchy of availability? Would you produce a kind of synthetic mix of all these sources, or would you recommend a kind of graduated measurement of intake? How would you appropriate each of these substances with specific forms of psychedelic insight?
MCKENNA: I don't want to talk as though I would make social policy because I think people should be free to do what they want. What I would tell you, though, is to my mind the word psychedelic has been used far, far too broadly, and that where we need to concentrate is on the tryptamine hallucinogens. Specifically psilocybin, DMT, DET, DPT. Then secondarily, the indole hallucinogens including LSD and ibogaine. Mescaline, I consider to be a visually active amphetamine. And not nearly so interesting.
QUESTION: So you would produce a hierarchy?
MCKENNA: Let me tell you my rules. If you're going to take a drug, here are the three questions you should ask yourself about this drug, to my mind. Number one, does it occur in nature as a metabolite in some organism? This tells you already that it's not pernicious to life. The next question is, does it have a history of human usage? This makes it even more acceptable. If you have a plant or a drug that has a history of human usage over thousands of years, you don't have to worry about tumors, blindness, infertility, anything weird like that. You've got your human data in hand in the form of the anthropological record. The third and most difficult test for a compound to pass is, does it occur as a constituent of normal human metabolism? The only drugs which can pass all three of these filters are tryptamine hallucinogens, specifically DMT.
You see, serotonin is 5-hydroxytryptamine, this major neurotransmitter system in the brain. Psilocybin, 4-phosphoyloxy and N-dimethyltryptamine. DMT, dimethyltryptamine. I prefer thinking of these things not as drugs really, but as diddling with levels of endogenous neurotransmitters.
QUESTION: It's interesting that you excluded ketamine from your hierarchy.
MCKENNA: Oh, no, that stuff is … I found it very interesting, I have played with it too, but it's not in this ballpark.
QUESTION: What is the natural form of DMT?
MCKENNA: Dimethyltryptamine occurs in the human brain and certain deep sea fish, in many generative plants. In fact, interestingly enough, DMT is the most widely distributed hallucinogen in organic nature.
QUESTION: What is the most common one? Or the most optimally used by traditional cultures?
MCKENNA: It's used in ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is a combinatory drug where, if you take an MAO inhibitor, and that causes the DMT to become active if taken orally, if you don't back DMT with an MAO inhibitor you take it orally, it will be destroyed. So ordinarily it's smoked. In terms of a shamanic religion that is regularly accessing DMT for sure it's these banisteriopsis cults in the Peruvian, Ecuadorian Amazon.
QUESTION: And is there a tradition similar to that going on in another culture, in another part of the world?
MCKENNA: One of the puzzles of psychedelic botany that has never been successfully dealt with is the tremendous concentration of these plants in South America. The Asian tropics are almost devoid of hallucinogens and the South American tropics have like up to 53 species. No one has ever created a satisfactory model for how evolutionary forces could end you up in a hemispheric segregation of drug molecules.
QUESTION: Based upon what you said earlier, might that not leave you to believe that South America could be the cradle of civilization rather than Africa?
MCKENNA: No, because I see ample evidence in Africa, and there's a mountain of paleontological evidence that you would have to go against to move the human origin point to South America. I have enough troubles of my own without taking on somebody else's battle.
QUESTION: Why do you need the notion that we are in a bad moment in time? Why do you need for your argument the notion that, you know, you are going to go and rediscover your roots, and this will solve the problem? I have a problem with anybody's talking with the crisis in order to explain a viewpoint that can be valid or not valid without a crisis.
QUESTION: Could I put a rider on this one? You took us down one side of the view, this stereoscopic view is, you have you and history, and that which you didn't get to say tonight, which was that software and that reading of the pattern of the evolution of what's going on. This is where the crisis moment and the chaos moments come in. I was just wondering if you would, as you respond to this, tell us a little bit about that.
MCKENNA: I attempted to compartmentalize my intellectual life to make it easy for you. When John asked me here, I said, "Okay, I'll talk about my theory of time." And John said, "Oh, no, if there's a computer involved nobody will come." So I said, "Okay, I'll drop that." Well, next time, if you ever get a next time with the Reality Club. It seems to me that cultures do not create new paradigms except under pressure of crisis. Because if there's no crisis there's, you know, if it ain't broke, why fix it?
My view of history is that time is a kind of variable. Novelty is a previously unrecognized constant in the universe, and novelty ebbs and flows; it's the force which builds up and tears down—empires, love affairs, species, investments—it operates on all scales. Out of a deep inspection of the functioning of our own nervous system we can extrapolate maps of a fractal nature and a mathematically formal nature that, lo and behold, can be overlaid over the whole of reality. Again, feeding back into my conclusion that reality is made of language.
It would be fairly disingenuous in any context to argue that we're not facing crisis. And then, in terms of the politics of this position it's necessary to remind people that they're facing a crisis because otherwise there is no impetus to an act of courage. In other words, who's going to jump out of a fourth floor window? But everybody will jump out of a fourth floor window if the building behind them is on fire. You have to get people aware of what's going on.
Part of the ego sickness of our society is our incredible ability to deny what's going on. It's all around us. This is a dying planet. It's been dying for 10,000 years. The species count is falling exponentially. What does it take to get people off the dime?
QUESTION: We're not facing a crisis, we're facing thousands of crises, all different kinds of crises and they're very different in nature. I find your talk very problematic, because I'm in favor of taking psychedelics into adulthood. I like the drugs, but there's something about the way in which you argue for it. You propose an evolutionary and very globalizing model instead of an ideological model. It's as if something inevitably will happen through the use of these drugs rather than a sensitivity to the many different kinds of things which will happen through the use of substances like this, depending upon the culture into which they fall.
There's been quite a similar debate in anthropology in terms of literacy, where, in the '70s people like Goody in England, and Havelock, thought that literacy inevitably produced certain kinds of phenomena in society, and then a spate of evidence showing that that's not the case. Literacy is used in many different ways. It's in favor of both secrecy and the free dissemination of information, in abstract thought and non-abstract thought. And the differences are not available.
MCKENNA: I don't agree with your premise that we have thousands and thousands of problems. We have one problem; it's the ego. And the retraction of the ego, it will all fall into place. You know? Humility: the ability to defer to the other person; the ability to forestall gratification; the ability to assess consequences. If we can get a hold on the ego, all the rest will fall into place. And I think if we can get a hold on the ego, the best-intentioned programs will come a cropper.
QUESTION: Terence has spoken a lot this evening about the shrinking of the ego. Okay. And I'm curious, and it's a bit rhetorical question, but when your ego shrinks and when your personality shrinks, what do you find beyond the veil of the personality? Because your denial of, let's say, an Akashic record or something like that, a membrane of life that one can visibly turn to and view, presupposes an understanding reincarnation is not possible, that perhaps the empathy within different life forms, where a human and a plant can communicate, or an animal can communicate. I wonder, Jimi Hendrix put it, "Are you experienced?"
MCKENNA: As I understand your question, it is, what do I feel when I shrink my ego? The felt presence of immediate experience. That's what the ego dams from reaching the self.
QUESTION: Have you passed into a place where the colors disappear, a void appeared before you? A pure void of consciousness where perhaps the bubble of the personal self breaks and you will then open up into a sea of consciousness that was much higher than you are personally?
MCKENNA: Well, you have those kinds of experiences, but you can't navigate through the world like that.
QUESTION: Isn't that what tribal cultures do? They're synesthetic cultures. From what I've heard the only place that happens in western civilization is when people like us are on psychedelics.
QUESTION: What do you think you're going to get, and don't get, when you get it? When you get rid of the ego, then, what happens to all of us in our endeavors?
MCKENNA: We mis-define it. We can all keep doing a lot of what we're doing. You just feel differently about it. Probably most of the people in this room, powerful as they are, have their ego under control because when you have your ego under control you don't take yourself seriously. That's all. You know, it's provisional. You know, it's all a game. But the people who take it seriously, my God, they're like another species.
QUESTION: Are you sure that it's not excessive testosterone?
MCKENNA: No, I have stayed very clear of gender-specific denigration or association.
QUESTION: There are theories that anything with testosterone climbs hierarchies and is very egotistical, even if it is raised as a woman and has some organ producing testosterone that's not we're not aware of.
MCKENNA: Stoned men don't participate to the same degree in those kinds of monkey games. I don't mean us. We probably do. I mean, in pre-history. This was while it was being taken. Imagine a culture where, at every new and full moon, let us say, everybody took a strong hit of mushrooms and made love in a heap. Well, how are you going to come out of that talking about my cattle, my hut, my land because you don't even know who your children are. And it's a different head.
QUESTION: Is your experience of South America, that any isolated tribes such as these people are devoid of ego?
MCKENNA: Yes, there are tribes for whom all they know is cooperation. How about the Machiguenga?
QUESTION: I've been with the Machiguenga, in Peru and I noticed among them a very warlike tendency. They said that we don't like those people up the river. I was on the Manú River. We don't like those people up there. They had bows and arrows. I have them at home. They're very violent people.
MCKENNA: Within the group.
QUESTION: But that's essential. Part of its essential. Then your group is always localized, always provincial.
MCKENNA: But we have a global tribe. We know that.
QUESTION: I'm really curious, because at one time in Africa you painted a picture, at least from the impression that I got, that these cultures which existed were devoid of aggressive tendencies through the mushrooms. Got rid of our ego. And we do not worry about our children, about copping somebody else's cows. Now, am I to believe that these two isolated cultures still exist in some place in the Amazon?
MCKENNA: No, because a number of factors that were present aren't present.
QUESTION: Is it possible that they could be? Because as you all know there are still cultures down there we cannot get in contact with.
MCKENNA: Almost. Yes. Theoretically there's nothing against it but there's going to be 20 people who are probably nomadic and who flee at even the sound of an outboard motor. You're not going to get a lot of satisfying interaction with these folks.
QUESTION: It's very idealistic and I accept everything you say. But what about the fallout? Do you think everybody can react this way, this wonderful way and … a shaman, to see the world wonderfully, lose their egos, good, nice, clean, and interact? We'd have chaos.
QUESTION: In the '60s, when LSD came out, there was no stigma. Everybody was roaring and ready to do research on that. I was doing research; I was injecting it into patients with focal cerebral disease. I had all sorts of phenomena, and I wrote it up and it was great. Then you start carrying the people in who overdosed and did too much of it and so on and it became a real mess. I'm from the standard society that says no drugs or anything like that. I'd give drugs to everybody, legalize the whole damn thing. But to envision an idealistic world coming out the way you picture it, is absurd. It ain't gonna happen.