Terence McKenna is a legend. Regardless of your opinions on his ideas, it is tough to deny that the man forged his own path and did not let others dictate his life.
In that way, he is an inspiration to us all.
If you don’t already know, Terence McKenna was a psychedelic explorer, philosopher, and helped champion the power of psychedelics long after they were made Schedule 1 drugs. An incredibly well-read individual, Terence McKenna had a fascinating ability to describe the world with a combination of flowery language and gripping humor.
I’ve compiled a list of some of his most prolific ideas with resources to accompany those ideas. I hope you enjoy.
The Mushroom SpeaksTerence McKenna may be most widely known for his proclamations that, under the influence of psilocybin, he would occasionally be visited by talking mushrooms. That may sound crazy to you, but is a very similar story that is told by Amazonian shamans who first combined the two plants to form the hallucinogen Ayahuasca. When asked how the shamans knew to combine the plants, their response: "The plants told us to."
You may be wondering what the mushrooms said to Terence. Here’s Terence’s own words:
The mushroom said to me once: Nature loves courage. Nature loves courage, and I said – what’s the payoff on that? It said: It shows you that it loves courage because it will remove obstacles. You make the commitment and nature will respond to that commitment by removing impossible obstacles. Dream the impossible dream and the world will not grind you up. It will lift you up. This is the trick. This is what all these teachers and philosophers, the one’s who really counted, who really touched the alchemical gold – this is what they understood. This is the shamanic dance in the waterfall. This is how magic is done. It’s done by hurling yourself into the abyss and discovering that it’s a feather bed.
Sounds to me like the mushrooms have some good advice to give. Terence once asked a talking mushroom was it was doing on earth? The mushroom’s response:
Listen, if you're a mushroom, you live cheap; besides, I'm telling you, this was a very nice neighborhood until the monkeys got out of control.
No other psychedelic explorer has ever made me laugh as much as Terence McKenna. And I’m not laughing at him. He has an incredible ability to interlace humor throughout his poignant soliloquies.
Here’s a 5-minute clip of Terence’s interactions with talking mushrooms. If you’ve never heard his voice, check out this video:
CultureTerence McKenna was not one to shy away from his thoughts on Western culture and government. When discussing why psychedelics had been made illegal in America, he responded:
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 opinion structures and culturally laid down models of behaviour and information processing. They open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong.
To Terence, culture is a con game. It invites us to build a sort of virtual reality with language. It gets us to start talking about “our god” or “our race” or “our mission”, and we begin to treat these things as real objects. We build these boundaries around ourselves and proclaim them as who we are.
Terence goes on to say that this train of thought limits us – it diminishes us. Forcing us into a cultural reality, which separates us from each other. Psychedelics dissolve all boundaries. Boundaries between you and me, and those boundaries created by our culture. The dissolution of these cultural boundaries is a frightening thing for a cultural institution reliant on those boundaries for survival.
Novelty TheoryNo summary of Terence's work would be complete without examining some of his work through a lens of disbelief. As Terence speaks, though the ideas are out-there, it's very apparent to the average listener that he is well-read and his knowledge extends throughout various disciplines.
Through a series of psychedelic experiences, Terence became enamored with understanding what time really is. Novelty, which he defines as complexity or advanced organization (of organisms, technologies, language, etc), increases as we approach the present moment. Terence found that this increased organization and complexity followed an exponential path. It’s a similar argument that people make in reference to the “Singularity”, where our society loses control of our technology, which results in sweeping changes to human civilization.
Terence saw patterns in the ancient Chinese text, I Ching, that he was able to overlay over major historical events and come up with a way to predict the end of time. The date he came up with was eerily close to the date the ancient Mayan calendar predicted as well (though the Mayan Calendar didn’t actually think it was the apocalypse. It was just the end of a 25,920 year celestial cycle). This lead to wide-sweeping belief that the end of the world was coming on December 21, 2012.
Though Terence died in 2000, he received widespread ridicule for his prediction of the end of the world. This lead many people to dismiss his other ideas as the musings of a mad man. However, in May of 1999, just before he died, Terence gave an interview to a Scientific American writer, where he actually stated that he did not believe the world would end in 2012. He said he had created a mathematical model of the flow and ebb of novelty in history and that his model was,
just kind of fantasizing within a certain kind of vocabulary
An incredible AfterSkool video breaks down this concept:
The Stoned Ape Theory
This is probably my single, favorite theory Terence McKenna proposed. Though there is probably no way to ever prove this theory correct, it just makes too much sense for me to be dismissed as unrealistic. In his theory, he states that early humans were forced out of their tropical habitat in search of new food sources. As they searched, they came across psilocybin mushrooms. By eating small doses of these mushrooms (aka microdosing), their visual acuity improved, their creativity improved, and overall they became better hunters.
At higher doses, the early humans would trip and have similar mystical experiences to people tripping today. He claims that this activated the language-forming region of their brains, and increased the bond within the tribe as their ego-boundaries were dissolved – putting the tribe first over the individual, which leads to higher chances of tribe survival.
I just love the idea that all of what we know about humanity sprung up from a couple of early humans tripping balls. This AfterSkool video is a conversation between Joe Rogan and Paul Stamets as they discuss Terence’s theory. Paul Stamets knows more about mushrooms (psychedelic and non-psychedelic) than anyone I’ve ever heard speak:
ConclusionHopefully you've gotten a peek into who Terence McKenna was and some of his ideas. He has had an unquestionable impact on the psychedelic community and his ideas have pushed people (including myself) to rethink beliefs we had never questioned. If you enjoyed Terence's work and you've got more time on your hands I would suggest the following long form content:
- Food of the Gods by Terence McKenna where he goes in depth on the Stoned Ape Theory, the history of various drugs including caffeine and alcohol (plus psychedelics), and the role of psychedelics in religions.
- True Hallucinations – this one is a book and there's also a YouTube video below with some images (but it's mostly just audio). Terence and his brother take an incredible journey into the Amazon in search of psychedelic experiences and finding a connection to nature. Shit gets wild. Seriously, if you've got a few hours and I've piqued your interest in this man, this is a wild story and you won't regret checking it out. This was the first thing I ever saw about Terence McKenna, and it couldn't have been a more perfect introduction.
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