Now, as anyone who is familiar with the study of psychedelics knows, Terence McKenna was one of the first educated Westerners to wholeheartedly plunge into the scary realm of sacred plants (and related substances like magic mushrooms and acid), not only for personal enlightenment but also to explain their cosmological significance to us residents of a jaded world of industrialized consumerism.
I never doubted that the man was knowledgeable about botany, biochemistry, linguistics, metaphysics, ancient religions and what have you. But, in my view, like many learned men in quest of the philosopher’s stone, there were so many disparate insights, ideas, theories and revelations rattling around in his head that he went overboard and what I have read of him often seems overwrought, convoluted or downright unintelligible.
One anecdote particularly struck me as evidence that he tended to go off the rails – or highway – the time his car broke down and while he was peering under the hood in vain, he cursed fate for having to waste his time on such mundane concerns when he should have been cracking the riddle of the universe. By contrast, the wise ayahuasca healers I’ve known remain calm, patient and humorous in the most trying situations.
Terence also succumbed to a fault I’ve noticed in some members of the ayahuasca self-realization circus, who, when they run into a block, blame it on the shaman, switch to another or even turn to different plant of power, when usually the obstacle is in themselves. In his case, I find a promiscuous, “anything goes” attitude to psychedelic substances: ayahuasca one day and acid or mushrooms next and sometimes several together, not least marijuana, which may be fun for a time, but eventually leads to brain fag.
I am not saying that ayahuasca is better than peyote, San Pedro, psilocybin or all the rest: further, when you start out, it is valid to experiment with different ones and different healers. But to really benefit from such entheogens, you have to settle on one and plumb its depths, which, in the case of ayahuasca, involves some turbulent moments, but dealing with them is how you learn.
If the above sounds mean-spirited about a man who is widely recognized to have been a visionary, my point is that he had the defects of his virtues and the former may enable us to better assess the latter, which were considerable, stemming from the kind of restless spirit and wide-ranging curiosity which is characteristic of the true pioneers in any field of knowledge. When sacred plants like ayahuasca were practically unknown to the West (except for a few specialists) and/or reviled as evil opiates, he grasped the profound significance of them as a way of recovering our lost spirituality and not only in theory either.
He was also an explorer of the Colombian Amazon, but (so far as I know) he and his brother, the ethnobotanist Dennis, missed the opportunity to take ayahuasca when they descended the Putumayo, where it is commonly used and it is not (or only exceptionally), a custom of the indigenous inhabitants of the place where they wound up, the remote mission station of La Chorrera.
In any case, what Terence and Dennis were seeking was another indigenous psychedelic, oo-koo-hé, which is derived from a jungle tree of the virola genus. Scraped off at dawn, the bark exudes a red sap which is then dried and formed into pellets which are ingested. The purpose is a hair-raising voyage to the land of death, in order to spot those who have cast an evil spell on you and then take your revenge on them.
Expecting such shamans to divulge the mysteries of that medicine to gringos was as quixotic as asking a Navajo for his secret name, among other reasons, because oo-koo-hé is one of Nature´s most powerful (and most dangerous!) psychedelics. The medicine men of the Murui (or Huitotos) in La Chorrera warn that it can be fatal if the user does not follow a strict “diet” (abstinence from sex and certain foods) and they restrict it to their most qualified apprentices.
Still, that they even knew of the thing was an accomplishment! But when there were so many plant medicines they could have learned about from the natives, why did they settle on a magic mushroom!: rare, and certainly potent but not qualitatively different, I suspect, from those in other climes.
Westerners were very rare birds there, especially hippies, so much so that one legacy they did leave is a body of the jungle equivalent of urban legends. One story is that when the bush telegraph alerted the people in that hamlet to their approach, the missionaries rang the bells of the church to warn the locals that hostiles were arriving. Another is that they did come across ayahuasca but were so clueless and desperate to get stoned that they powdered and smoked the roots of the vine, though, who knows, it may even work!
Legends of one sort or another continued to trail Terence. It was not only because he was colorful, it was also that he felt no shame at breaking the taboo about using what others maligned as “drugs” to establish a connection with the gods. Indeed, he vehemently asserted that the prohibitionists were the immoral ones, since they repressed the human right to a direct communion with the divine in order to uphold a rotten power structure based on money, weapons and brainwashing. Other long-hair dissenters were saying the same thing at the same time, but few combined such militancy with the sharp reasoning, eloquence and the authority he had as a seasoned psychonaut.
As a sample, consider the following preachments:
Psychedelics are illegal not because a loving government is concerned that you may jump out of a third-story window. Psychedelics are illegal because they dissolve culturally laid down models of behavior.
We have been to the moon, we have charted the depths of the ocean and the heart of the atom, but we have a fear of looking inward to ourselves.
We have the technological power, the engineering skills to save our planet, to cure disease, to feed the hungry, to end war. But we lack the intellectual vision, the ability to change our minds.
This is a society a world, a planet dying because there is not enough consciousness. And yet, we spend vast amounts of money stigmatizing people and substances that are part of this effort to expand consciousness.
I fully agree but I also have serious reservations about how to apply his discernment to the real world. Disturbing truths turn into anodyne truisms when they merely become a banner which people wave at this or that enemy of theirs, often self-invented and mostly to salve their ego.
Like others of my generation who have gone through the beat, hippy and New Age movements, I have come out of the far end without seeing the miraculous transformations –personal and societal – they promised us.
I am willing to suspend disbelief in his accounts of traveling through space-time warps, tuning into the Gaian mind, embracing the Neolithic Great Goddess, etc., but I wonder what benefit it brought him in the end. Such experiences must have been enthralling – a nourishment for both his intellect and spirit – but apotheosis as such is of little value if we cannot channel those hectic energies into dealing with the hassles of the day to day in a tranquil manner. In a lot of what he wrote, I note a certain tone of hysteria and in that and other ways, he epitomized both the glory and disappointment of the psychedelic revolution and, by extension, the hippy/New Age movement too.
Writing, as I now do, in the midst of the dreadful pandemic, I see a clear confirmation of his essential message that “Western civilization is a loaded gun pointed at the head of this planet,” because we have failed to see that “Nature is not our enemy, to be raped and conquered. Nature is ourselves, to be cherished and explored.” While our ruthless exploitation of natural (and human) resources at any cost, so long as it feeds the manic cycle of production/consumption/production, may not have been the direct cause of the virus, the lifestyle which goes with it (junk food, for example) has weakened mankind’s natural immunity to such plagues, but more telling still are the social, moral and political consequences.
There are so many evidences of the system’s collapse, it is hard to know where to begin:
A U.S. senator who took advantage of his advanced knowledge of the virus to place a winning bet on the stock exchange. The disruption of the chain for distributing foodstuffs. A world economy which is so accelerated, interconnected and remote from the ideal of a (reasonable) self-sufficiency that it only has to halt for a month or two before diving into a devastating depression. The disproportionate number of victims who are poor, displaced or belong to persecuted religions or ethnic groups. The detonation of different extremist movements. The growing disbelief in any kind of objective truth. The possibility that the draconian restrictions on the free movement of persons (valid to an extent) will lead to totalitarianism of the State far worse than that of Stalin and Hitler, precisely because it will be so sophisticated that the majority won’t even be aware of it.
In his disjointed way, McKenna foresaw it all.
Nevertheless, the hippy/New Age movement was not only unable to prevent the current catastrophe, you might even say that its adherents, unawares, actually helped to foment it, in that the energies of what Ginsberg called “the best minds of my generation” were diverted from a political or at least collective solution to the many ills of our society to a self-centered search for “spirituality.”
Zealots like McKenna and Timothy Leary turned psychedelics into a religion, with the best of intentions, I concede, because as the most profound thinkers of our age have pointed out, the crisis the world has suffered from for a century or more by now is fundamentally caused by a lack of faith (in anything more than success, power, money, fame, etc). However, a religion based on transitory and disruptive fugues lacks the core, the firmness, we need to uphold us in the trials of daily life.
In a broader sense, the same applies to the other ideals of the New Age, like self-sufficiency, renewable energy, a return to primitive wisdom and the rest. They may be valid in themselves, but they tend to place self-satisfaction above the satisfaction of others and in many cases, they are practiced too superficially to eradicate the deep-rooted conditioning we are rebelling against. Terence told us what to do but not how to do it, i.e. “You simply have to turn your back on a culture that has gone sterile and dead and get with the program of a living world and the imagination.” Fair enough, if it were not that we have been shaped by that culture and a token renunciation of it often leads to a cultish iconoclasm rather than a true mastery of ourselves.
I don’t want to sound like those Jewish lefties at City College in the thirties and forties who turned into the neo-con mouthpieces for the most reactionary segments of the United States. But while the advancing years might have blunted its combat edge, I still wield my machete. At the same time, they have given me a bit of perspective, enough to assert that the revolution of my generation has petered out. Or one aspect of it, revolving around the notion that by “raising your consciousness,” a small minority of the enlightened would somehow generate an energy that would spread to uplift the whole world.
It is not only that the corporate world wields so much money and political power that it is unassailable, nor even that it is so clever at manipulating the masses. It is also too insidious, insofar as instead of resisting challenges it cannot halt, it absorbs, distorts and capitalizes on them, with a masterly sleight of hand that deceives many of those who are opposed to it. If Terence McKenna epitomizes those who undermined its premises, I’d choose Richard Branson as his counterpart, the hipster businessman whose cool look and earth-friendly spiel conceals a rip-off artist.
So, in the end, I’m for Terence McKenna. Saul Bellow once wrote that the world is so crazy nowadays, you have to be a little crazy yourself to cope with it. Hence, I find myself in the grip of a love-hate relationship with him, caused by the manner in which he mirrored the wildness of my own thinking, on the one hand, and, on the other, had the courage to take it as far as it could go.