High Times Greats: Interview With Terence McKenna

Ethnobotanist Terence McKenna (1946-2000) talks about psilocybin, shamanism, and the meaning of life in the April, 1992 issue of High Times.
High Times Greats: Interview With Terence McKenna
High Times/ © Chip Simons

Counterculture icon Terence McKenna was born November 16, 1946 and died April 3, 2000. The late psychedelic drug advocate changed the way Americans think about drugs, and in this April, 1992 print interview from High Times, David Jay Brown and Rebecca McClen ask him all about it.

Did hallucinogens play a crucial role in human evolution? Terence McKenna has devoted most of his life to exploring this question. A specialist in the ethnomedicine of the Amazon Basin, McKenna along with his partner Kat Harrison McKenna founded Botanical Dimensions, a nonprofit foundation devoted to rescuing Amazonian plants that have a history of shamanic uses. They move the plants to a 19-acre site in Hawaii and preserve the details of the plants’ uses by storing the information in a computer database. In addition to preserving these important plants, as a nonprofit organization, Botanical Dimensions solicits donations to publish a newsletter and to aid in carrying out the preservation of the folk knowledge of the peoples native to the Amazon area. The combination of McKenna’s academic approach—he has a BS from the University of California at Berkeley with a distributed degree in ecology, resource conservation and shamanism—his vast travel experiences, and uniquely visionary perspective, combine to make him a most sought-after speaker and author. His newest books include Food of the Gods (Bantam) and The Archaic Revival (Harper/San Francisco)—in which an abridged version of this interview appears. A slightly different version [appears in a book] by David Jay Brown and Rebecca McClen.

HIGH TIMES: Tell us how you became interested in shamanism and the exploration of consciousness.

Terence McKenna: I discovered shamanism through an interest in Tibetan folk religion. Bon, the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet, is a kind of shamanism. In going from the particular to the general with that concern, I studied shamanism as a general phenomenon. It all started out as an art historical interest in the pre-Buddhist iconography of thankas.

HT: This was how long ago?

TM: This was in ’67, when I was just a sophomore in college. And the interest in altered states of consciousness came simply from—I don’t know whether I was a precocious kid or what—but I was very early into the New York literary scene. Even though I lived in a small town in Colorado, I subscribed to the Village Voice, and there I encountered propaganda about LSD, mescaline, and all these experiments that the late beatniks were involved in. Then I read The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, and it just rolled from there. That was what really put me over. I respected Huxley as a novelist, and I was slowly reading everything he’d ever written, and when I got to The Doors of Perception I said to myself, “There’s something going on here for sure.”

HT: Recently you addressed close to 2,000 people at the John Anson Ford Theatre in Los Angeles. To what do you attribute your increasing popularity, and what role do you see yourself playing in the social sphere?

TM: Well, without being cynical, the main thing I attribute to my increasing popularity is better public relations. As far as what role I’ll play, I don’t know. I mean I assume that anyone who has anything constructive to say about our relationship to chemical substances—natural or synthetic—is going to have a social role to play, because this drug issue is just going to loom larger and larger on the social agenda until we get some resolution of it. By resolution I don’t mean suppression or just saying no. I anticipate a new open-mindedness born of desperation on the part of the Establishment. Drugs are part of the human experience, and we have got to create a more sophisticated way of dealing with them.

HT: You have said that the term “New Age” trivializes the significance of the next phase in human evolution and have referred instead to the emergence of an archaic revival. How do you differentiate between these two expressions?

TM: The New Age is essentially humanistic psychology ’80s-style, with the addition of neo-shamanism, channeling, crystal and herbal-healing. The archaic revival is a much larger, more global phenomenon that assumes that we are recovering the social forms of the late neolithic, and reaches far back in the 20th century to Freud, to surrealism, to abstract expressionism—even to a phenomenon like National Socialism—which is a negative force. But the stress on ritual, on organized activity, on race- /ancestor-consciousness—these are themes that have been worked out throughout the entire 20th century, and the archaic revival is an expression of that.

HT: From your writings I have gleaned that you subscribe to the notion that psilocybin mushrooms are a species of high intelligence— that they arrived on this planet as spores that migrated through outer space, and are attempting to establish a symbiotic relationship with human beings. In a more holistic perspective, how do you see this notion fitting into the context of Francis Crick’s theory of directed panspermia, the hypothesis that all life on this planet and its directed evolution has been seeded, or perhaps fertilized, by spores designed by a higher intelligence?

TM: As I understand the Crick theory of panspermia, it’s a theory of how life spread through the universe. What I was suggesting—and I don’t believe it as strongly as you imply—is that intelligence, not life, but intelligence may have come here in this spore-bearing life form. This is a more radical version of the panspermia theory of Crick and Ponampurama. In fact I think that theory will probably be vindicated. I think in a hundred years if people do biology they will think it quite silly that people once thought that spores could not be blown from one star system to another by cosmic radiation pressure. As far as the role of the psilocybin mushroom, or its relationship to us and to intelligence, this is something that we need to consider. It really isn’t important that I claim that it’s an extraterrestrial, what we need is a body of people claiming this, or a body of people denying it, because what we’re talking about is the experience of the mushroom. Few people are in a position to judge its extraterrestrial potential, because few people in the orthodox sciences have ever experienced the full spectrum of psychedelic effects that are unleashed. One cannot find out whether or not there’s an extraterrestrial intelligence inside the mushroom unless one is willing to take the mushroom.

HT: You have a unique theory about the role that psilocybin mushrooms play in the process of human evolution. Can you tell us about this?

TM: Whether the mushrooms came from outer space or not, the presence of psychedelic substances in the diet of early human beings created a number of changes in our evolutionary situation. When a person takes small amounts of psilocybin their visual acuity improves. They can actually see slightly better, and this means that animals allowing psilocybin into their food chain would have increased hunting success, which means increased food supply, which means increased reproductive success, which is the name of the game in evolution. It is the organism that manages to propagate itself numerically that is successful. The presence of psilocybin in the diet of early pack-hunting primates caused the individuals that were ingesting the psilocybin to have increased visual acuity. At slightly higher doses of psilocybin there is sexual arousal, erection, and everything that goes under the term arousal of the central nervous system. Again, a factor which would increase reproductive success is reinforced.

HT: Isn’t it true that psilocybin inhibits orgasm?

TM: Not at the doses I’m talking about. At a psychedelic dose it might, but at just slightly above the “you can feel it” dose, it acts as a stimulant. Sexual arousal means paying attention, it means jumpiness, it indicates a certain energy level in the organism. And then, of course, at still higher doses psilocybin triggers this activity in the language-forming capacity of the brain that manifests as song and vision. It is as though it is an enzyme which stimulates eyesight, sexual interest, and imagination. And the three of these going together produce language-using primates. Psilocybin may have synergized the emergence of higher forms of psychic organization out of primitive protohuman animals. It can be seen as a kind of evolutionary enzyme, or evolutionary catalyst.

HT: There is a lot of current interest in the ancient art of sound technology. In a recent article you said that in certain states of consciousness you’re able to create a kind of visual resonance and manipulate a “topological manifold” using sound vibrations. Can you tell us more about this technique, its ethnic origins, and potential applications?

TM: Yes, it has to do with shamanism that is based on the use of DMT in plants. DMT is a near- or pseudo-neurotransmitter that when ingested and allowed to come to rest in the synapses of the brain, allows one to see sound, so that one can use the voice to produce, not musical compositions, but pictorial and visual compositions. This, to my mind, indicates that we’re on the cusp of some kind of evolutionary transition in the language-forming area, we are going to go from a language that is heard, to a language that is seen, through a shift in interior processing. The language will still be made of sound, but it will be processed as the carrier of the visual impression. This is actually being done by shamans in the Amazon. The songs they sing sound as they do in order to look a certain way. They are not musical compositions as we’re used to thinking of them. They are pictorial art created by audio signals.

HT: You’re recognized by many as one of the great explorers of the 20th century. You’ve trekked through the Amazonian jungles and soared through the uncharted regions of the brain, but perhaps your ultimate voyages lie in the future, when humanity has mastered space technology and time travel. What possibilities for travel in these two areas do you foresee, and how do you think these new technologies will affect the future evolution of the human species?

TM: I suppose most people believe space travel is right around the corner. I certainly hope so. I think we should all learn Russian in anticipation of it, because apparently the US government is incapable of sustaining a space program. The time travel question is more interesting. Possibly the world is experiencing a compression of technological novelty that is going to lead to developments that are very much like what we would imagine time travel to be. We may be closing in on the ability to transmit information forward into the future, and to create an informational domain of communication between various points in time. How this will be done is difficult to imagine, but things like fractal mathematics, superconductivity, and nanotechnology offer new and novel approaches to the realization of these old dreams. We shouldn’t assume time travel is impossible simply because it hasn’t been done. There’s plenty of latitude in the laws of quantum physics to allow for moving information through time in various ways. Apparently you can move information through time, as long as you don’t move it through time faster than light.

HT: Why is that?

TM: I haven’t the faintest idea. What am I, Einstein? [Laughter.]

HT: What do you think the ultimate goal of human evolution is?

TM: Oh, a good party….[Laughter.]

HT: Have you ever had any experiences with lucid dreaming—the process by which one can become aware and conscious within a dream that one is dreaming—and if so, how do they compare with your other shamanic experiences?

TM: I really haven’t had experiences with lucid dreaming. It’s one of those things that I’m very interested in. I’m sort of skeptical of it. I hope it’s true, because what a wonderful thing that would be.

HT: You’ve never had one?

TM: I’ve had lucid dreams, but I have no technique for repeating them on demand. The dream state is possibly anticipating this cultural frontier that we’re moving toward. That we’re moving toward something very much like eternal dreaming, going into the imagination, and staying there, and that would be like a lucid dream that knew no end, but what a tight, simple solution. One of the things that interests me about dreams is this—I have dreams in which I smoke DMT, and it works. To me that’s extremely interesting, because it seems to imply that one does not have to smoke DMT to have the experience. You only have to convince your brain that you have done this, and it then delivers this staggering altered state.

HT: Wow.

TM: How many people who have had DMT dream occasionally of smoking it and have it happen? Do people who have never had DMT ever have that kind of an experience in a dream? I bet not. I bet you have to have done it in life, to have established the knowledge of its existence, and the image of how it’s possible, but then this thing can happen to you without any chemical intervention. It is more powerful than any yoga, so taking control of the dream state would certainly be an advantageous thing and carry us a great distance toward the kind of cultural transformation that we’re talking about. How exactly to do it, I’m not sure. The psychedelics, the near death experience, the lucid dreaming, the meditational reveries…all of these things are pieces of a puzzle about how to create a new cultural dimension that we can all live in a little more sanely than we’re living in these dimensions.

HT: Rupert Sheldrake has recently refined the theory of the morphogenetic field—a nonmaterial, organizing, collective-memory field which affects all biological systems. This field can be envisioned as a hyperspatial information reservoir which brims and spills over into a much larger region of influence when critical mass is reached—a point referred to as morphic resonance. Do you think this morphic resonance could be regarded as a possible explanation for the phenomena of spirits and other metaphysical entities, and can the method of evoking beings from the spirit world be simply a case of cracking the morphic code?

TM: That sounds right. If what you’re trying to get at is do I think morphogenetic fields are a good thing, or do they exist, yes, I think some kind of theory like that is clearly becoming necessary. And that the next great step to be taken in the intellectual conquest of nature, if you will, is a theory about how out of the class of possible things, some things actually happen.

HT: How do you view the increasing waves of designer psychedelics and brain enhancement machines in the context of Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphogenetic fields?

TM: Well I’m hopeful, but somewhat suspicious. I think drugs should come from the natural world, and be use-tested by shamanically-oriented cultures, then they have a very deep morphogenetic field, because they’ve been used for thousands and thousands of years in magical contexts. A drug produced in the laboratory, and suddenly distributed worldwide simply amplifies the global noise present in the historical crisis. And then there’s the very practical consideration that one cannot predict the long term effects of a drug produced in a laboratory. Something like peyote, or morning glories, or mushrooms have been used for vast stretches of time without detrimental social consequences. We know that. As far as the technological question is concerned—brain machines and all—I wish them luck. I’m willing to test anything that somebody will send me, but I’m skeptical. I think it’s somehow like the speech-operated typewriter. It will recede ahead of us. The problems will be found to have been far more complex than first supposed.

HT: Don’t you think it’s true that the designer psychedelics and the brain machines don’t have any morphogenetic field, so in a sense one is carving a new morphogenetic field with their use. Consequently, there would be more possibilities for new things to happen—unlike the psychoactive substances which you speak of that have ancient morphogenetic fields, and are much more entrenched in predictability and pattern—and therefore not as free for new types of expression?

TM: Possibly, although I don’t know how you grab the morphogenetic field of a new designer drug. For instance, I’ll speak of my own experience, which is ketamine. My impression of ketamine was—it’s like a brand new skyscraper, all the walls, all the floors are carpeted in white, all the drinking fountains work, the elevators run smoothly, the fluorescent lights recede endlessly in all directions down the hallways. It’s just that there’s nobody there. There’s no office machinery, there’s no hurrying secretaries, there’s no telephones—it’s just this immense empty structure waiting. Well I can’t move into a 60-story office building. I have only enough stuff to fill a few small rooms, so it gives me a slightly spooked-out feeling to enter into these empty morphogenetic fields. If you take mushrooms, you know, you’re climbing on board a starship manned by every shaman who ever did it in front of you, and this is quite a crew, and they’ve really pulled some stunts over the millennia, and it’s all there, the tapes, to be played, but the designer things should be very cautiously dealt with.

HT: It’s interesting that John Lilly had very different experiences with ketamine. Do you think that there’s any relationship between the self-transforming machine elves that you’ve encountered on your shamanic voyages and the solid state entities that John Lilly has contacted in his interdimensional travels?

TM: I don’t think there is much congruence. The solid state entities that he contacted seem to make him quite upset. The elf machine entities that I encounter are the embodiment of merriment and humor, but I have had a thought about this recently which I will tell you. One of the science fiction fantasies that haunts the collective unconscious is expressed in the phrase “a world run by machines.” In the 1950s this was first articulated in the notion, “perhaps the future will be a terrible place where the world is run by machines.” Well now, let’s think about machines for a moment. They are extremely impartial, very predictable, not subject to moral suasion, value neutral, and very long-lived in their functioning. Now let’s think about what machines are made of, in the light of Sheldrake’s morphogenetic field theory. Machines are made of metal, glass, gold, silicon, plastic—they are made of what the earth is made of. Now wouldn’t it be strange if biology is a way for the earth to alchemically transform itself into a self-reflecting thing. In which case then, what we’re headed for inevitably, what we are in fact creating, is a world run by machines. And once these machines are in place, they can be expected to manage our economies, languages, social aspirations, and so forth, in such a way that we stop killing each other, stop starving each other, stop destroying land, and so forth. Actually, the fear of being ruled by machines is the male ego’s fear of relinquishing control of the planet to the maternal matrix of Gaia. Ha. That’s it. Just a thought. [Laughter.]

HT: The recent development of fractal images seems to imply that visions and hallucinations can be broken down into a precise mathematical code. With this in mind, do you think the abilities of the human imagination can be replicated in a supercomputer?

TM: Yes. Saying that the components of hallucinations can be broken down and duplicated by mathematical code isn’t taking anything away from them. Reality can be taken apart and reduplicated with this same mathematical code—that’s what makes the fractal idea so powerful. One can type in half a page of code, and on the screen get river systems, mountain ranges, deserts, ferns, coral reefs, all being generated out of half a page of computer coding. This seems to imply that we are finally discovering really powerful mathematical rules that stand behind visual appearances. And yes, I think supercomputers, computer graphics and simulated environments, this is very promising stuff. When the world’s being run by machines, we’ll be at the movies. [Laughter.] Oh boy.

HT: Or making movies.

TM: Or being movies.

HT: I’ve thought at times that what you view as a symbiosis forming between humans and psychoactive plants may in fact be the plants taking over control of our lives and commanding us to do their bidding. Have you any thoughts on this?

TM: Well symbiosis is not parasitism, symbiosis is a situation of mutual benefit to both parties, so we have to presume that the plants are getting as much out of this as we are. What we’re getting is information from another spiritual level, their point of view—in other words—is what they’re giving us. What we’re giving them is care, and feeding, and propagation, and survival, so they give us their elevated higher dimensional point of view. We in turn respond by making the way easier for them in the physical world. And this seems a reasonable trade-off. Obviously they have difficulty in the physical world, plants don’t move around much. You talk about Tao, a plant has the Tao. It doesn’t even chop wood and carry water. [Laughter.]

HT: Future predictions are often based upon the study of previous patterns and trends which are then extended like the contours of a map to extrapolate the shape of things to come. The future can also be seen as an ongoing dynamic and creative interaction between the past and the present—the current interpretation of past events actively serves to formulate these future patterns and trends. Have you been able to reconcile these two perspectives so that humanity is able to learn from its experiences without being bound by the habits of history?

TM: The two are antithetical. You must not be bound by the habits of history if you want to learn from your experience. It was Ludwig von Bertalanffy, the inventor of general systems theory, who made the famous statement that “people are not machines, but in all situations where they are given the opportunity, they will act like machines,” so you have to keep disturbing them, ’cause they always settle down into a routine. So, historical patterns are largely cyclical, but not entirely, there is ultimately a highest level of the pattern, which does not repeat, and that’s the part which is responsible for the advance into true novelty.

HT: The part that doesn’t repeat. Hmm. The positive futurists tend to fall into two groups. Some visualize the future as becoming progressively brighter every day and that global illumination will occur as a result of this progression, others envision a period of actual devolution—a dark age through which human consciousness must pass, before more advanced stages are reached. Which scenario do you see as being the most likely to emerge, and why do you hold this view?

TM: I guess I’m a soft Dark Ager. I think there will be a mild Dark Age, I don’t think it will be anything like the Dark Ages which lasted a thousand years—I think it will last more like five years—and will be a time of economic retraction, religious fundamentalism, retreat into closed communities by certain segments of the society, feudal warfare among minor states, and this sort of thing. I think it will give way in the late ’90s to the actual global future that we’re all yearning for. Then there will be basically a 15-year period where all these things are drawn together with progressively greater and greater sophistication, much in the way that modern science, and philosophy has grown with greater and greater sophistication in a single direction since the Renaissance. Sometime around the end of 2012, all of this will be boiled down into a kind of alchemical distillation of the historical experience that will be a doorway into the life of the imagination.

HT: Rupert Sheldrake’s morphic resonance, Ralph Abraham’s chaos theory, and your time wave model all appear to contain complementary patterns which operate on similar underlying principles—that energy systems store information until a certain level is reached and the information is then transduced into a larger frame of reference, like water in a tiered fountain. Have you worked these theories into an all-encompassing metatheory of how the universe functions and operates?

TM: No, but we’re working on it. [Laughter.] Well it is true that the three of us, and I would add Frank Barr in there, who is less well known, but has a piece of the puzzle as well. We’re all complementary. Rupert’s theory is—at this point—a hypothesis. There are no equations—there’s no predictive machinery—it’s a way of speaking about experimental approaches. My time wave thing is like an extremely formal and specific example of what he’s talking about in a general way. And then what Ralph’s doing is providing a bridge from the kind of things Rupert and I are doing back into the frontier branch of ordinary mathematics called dynamic modeling. Frank is an expert in the repetition of fractal process. He can show you the same thing happening on many many levels, in many many different expressions. So I have named us Compressionists, or Psychedelic Compressionists. Compressionism holds that the world is growing more and more complex, compressed, knitted together, and therefore holographically complete at every point, and that’s basically where the four of us stand, I think, but from different points of view.

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