On this day in 2000 the world lost a great champion of freedom, creativity, and our inalienable right to increase both of these by partaking of nature’s rich pharmacy. Terence McKenna was a thinker, explorer, writer and raconteur obsessed with the role of drugs in human evolution and culture, with our modern failure to truly take on board the invisible alien landscapes that substances such as dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and psilocybin unravel, and with a bizarre model of the nature of time that, for him, indicated a profound transformation of reality itself in the year 2012.
Born in 1946, Terence was raised, alongside his brother Dennis, in the tiny Colorado town of Paonia. They fed each other’s thirst for the strange and fantastical, hunting for fossils and reading H.P. Lovecraft. In 1963, having relocated to California, he became aware of the world of psychedelics through reading Aldous Huxley and the underground press. He began experimenting with morning glory seeds and LSD (imbibing huge doses of pure Sandoz in San Francisco’s summer of ’65), as well as beginning a life-long daily relationship with cannabis.
During the Summer of Love he was introduced to DMT, smoked in its pure synthesized form – “a benchmark, you might say.” He was gobsmacked by his encounters with “objects which looked like Fabergé eggs from Mars morphing themselves with Mandaean alphabetical structures,” and the compass of his life, already in the grip of the magnetic pull of psychedelics, began to point in a direction tangential to the realities of even the most arcane literature he knew. He travelled through Asia, paying his way as a hash smuggler, covering his underworld activities with the engrossing diversion of collecting butterflies, and staying in Nepal to study Tibetan art. He was convinced through his LSD use that some hallucinogenic experience lay behind this tradition’s radiant Buddhas and enflamed demons. But further DMT experiments convinced him that here was something way off any known map of mystical experience.
Besides helming a Magellanic ship into the unchartered realms of our collective consciousness, that summer of 1968 also found Terence “fighting the police at the Berkeley barricades shoulder-to-shoulder with affinity groups like the Persian Fuckers and the Acid Anarchists.” But while radical politics certainly fuelled his ideals, his practice – while more informed by scientific empiricism than by cosmic hippydom – was firmly in the smaller-scale and larger-pupilled world of psychedelic research. Following his mother’s death in 1971, he, his brother Dennis, and a few other friends, set off for the heart of the Amazon. While the initial draw had been the indigenous shamanic use of DMT-containing plants, it was the plentiful golden psilocybin mushrooms they found luxuriating in the Zebu cattle shit that really fired their alchemical furnaces. Dennis went off the rails with his fantastical theories about altering their DNA with ‘shrooms and harmonic chanting, convinced that their world was being engineered by a post-mortem James Joyce. Terence briefly become a “psychedelic bliss bunny”, and then had his ontology severely rattled by a close encounter with an honest-to-god flying saucer that condensed out of a group of lenticular clouds.
Out of this heady mixture of gnostic curiosities, Terence distilled a theory of time. He extracted a waveform from the internal structure of the I Ching, using some highly dubious reasoning, and mapped the wave’s peaks and troughs onto history. Deeply idiosyncratic events and synchronicities in his own life formed initial anchor-points, but then he extended his correlations to our collective history. He became intrigued by the fact that the wave – which he took as revealing the influx of novelty into the universe – seemed to reach an end, a climactic zero-point. After fudging it around a little, the end-point seemed to fall somewhere in 2012. Later, discovering that the Mayan ‘Long Count’ calendar seemed to reach the end of a cycle on December 21st of the same year, he shifted his wave to match this.
What is omitted from ‘True Hallucinations’, his otherwise in-depth account of the formation of his “timewave”, is the fact that when he returned to the Amazon later in 1971, he expected the end of time then and there, on his 25th birthday:
“I met my natal day by sitting down and sincerely preparing myself for an Apocatastasis, the final Apocalyptic ingression of novelty, the implosion really, of the entire multidimensional continuum of space and time. I imagined the megamacrocosmos was going to go down the drain like water out of a bathtub as the hyperspatial vacuum fluctuation of paired particles that is our universe collided with its own ghost image after billions of years of separation. The Logos assured me that parity would be conserved, all sub-atomic particles except photons would cancel each other, and our entire universe would quietly disappear. The only particles that would remain, according to my fantastic expectation, would be photons, the universe of light would be exposed at last, set free from the iron prison of matter, freed from the awful physics that adhered to less unitary states of being. All mankind would march into the promised garden.”
Like the very early Gnostics who expected Christ’s return to be immanent, gradually revising their hopes as reality failed to meet them, McKenna lost his initial impatience, and shifted his predictions forward – far enough to give reality time to catch up, but not so far that the hope for eschatological salvation was unreachable by his lifetime.
Terence and Dennis went their separate ways after their Amazonian escapades, Dennis forging the beginnings of a distinguished career in enthnopharmacology, and Terence gestating the public speaking and writing skills that would see him become a sought-after ‘stand-up philosopher’ and advocate of psychedelic plants during the ’80s and ’90s. They found time in the ’70s to co-author a pioneering guide to growing psilocybin mushrooms at home, an underground achievement whose impact on the wider culture is as impossible to fathom as the mycelial root structure of a few scattered fruiting fungi in the forest. Certainly, they did more than their share to bring mushrooms to the masses, to infuse our shared reality with the rich marvels of this humble, humbling fungus.
As I write these words, we are less than nine months away from the McKenna-Mayan end-date. Yet Terence himself is more than twelve years dead. It is certainly a great tragedy that he did not live to see this year, though one can only guess what he would be saying by now. He was temperamentally as far from fundamentalist as can be, and those who have latched on to his more fevered pronouncements about 2012 must inevitably brush aside his tricksterish inconsistency about what this “end-date” may involve. He once said he thought it might simply see everyone starting to behave appropriately – which would, of course, be a gargantuan change in itself. Timewave acolytes must also ignore his repeated, emphatically anarchist calls for individuals to find their own way.
“People love to give away their power, and follow Christ, or Hitler, or Shree Bhagwan… They don’t understand that no one is smarter than you, no one understands the situation better than you, and no one is in a position to act for you more clearly than you are yourself. But people endlessly give away this opportunity, and subvert their identity to ideology.”
Timewave was far from an ideology, but in the end it was Terence’s own map through reality, certainly extending a little into all our territories, but ultimately grounded in his corner of the world. The great gift of this aspect of his thinking is the effort to see resonances in time, to see the fractal interconnections between large and small events, and to break out of the linear nightmare that so many have been happy to call “progress”.
Amplified by psychedelics into a baroque meshwork of theories, intuitions, historical poetics and rip-roaring yarns, Terence’s life’s work was ultimately a bold, inspired, and compassionate attempt to sincerely grapple with living in the terminal phase of Western civilization. Forget dates on your calendar to fuel expectation, prepare disappointment, and excuse inaction. The cherished ideals and lazy assumptions of the historical stream we have fallen into are being dissolved and unravelled right now, every day, all around us. There may be catastrophes to dwarf our fears; there may be a slow-motion unravelling that sees each generation gradually acclimatized to increasing deprivation and horror; there may be utterly unforeseen twists of joyful liberation. Most likely, there will be a strange hybrid of these fantasies, mixed with a whole load of mundanity, that will be lived through suffering, boredom and exhiliration, in a world always in need of the expression of whatever courage we might be saving for our own “end-date”.
Facing his death from a rare form of brain cancer, Terence showed great courage, and reflected on the silver linings of imminent mortality. “Just being told by an unsmiling guy in a white coat that you’re going to be dead in four months definitely turns on the lights. It makes life rich and poignant. When it first happened, and I got these diagnoses, I could see the light of eternity, a la William Blake, shining through every leaf. I mean, a bug walking across the ground moved me to tears.” And such empathic intensities naturally extended to his final thoughts on our collective achievements:
“I’m much more resonant and in tune with the Buddhist demand for compassion. The world needs to be a more compassionate place. It is not moving toward that as I see it. More and more people are exploited by fewer and fewer people, more and more effectively. And the tools of exploitation, which are advertising and propaganda and all of that, grow ever more powerful and irresistible. This is really the challenge for the future. We can build a civilization like nothing the world has ever seen. But can it be a human, a human civilization? Can it actually honor human values?”
It is a challenge that is met continuously, or not at all.
[Written by Gyrus]