Terence Kemp McKenna (1946–2000) was an American ethnobotanist, mystic, lecturer, author and advocate for the use of psychedelic plants as a means of exploring human awareness (a psychonaut). In particular, he advocated for the ingestion of psychedelic mushrooms, ayahuasca and DMT, which he believed was the apotheosis of the psychedelic experience. Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead called McKenna “the only person who has made a serious effort to objectify the psychedelic experience.”
McKenna was accepted into the Tussman Experimental College at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1965. There, he began studying shamanism through the study of Tibetan folk religion. Leaving school in 1967, he embarked on what he called his “opium and kabbala phase.” (McKenna later returned to Berkeley and graduated with a degree in ecology, shamanism, and conservation of natural resources). First traveling to Jerusalem (where he met his future wife, Kathleen Harrison), he went on to Nepal in 1969. In Nepal, he sought out the Buddhist shaman of the Bon tradition, trying to learn more about their use of visionary plants. After his mother’s death from cancer in 1971, McKenna, along with his brother Dennis and three friends, then traveled to the Colombian Amazon in search of oo-koo-hé, a plant preparation containing DMT. Instead, they found fields full of gigantic Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms, which became the new focus of their expedition. Experimenting with the mushrooms, McKenna claimed the use put him in contact with “Logos”: an informative, divine voice he believed was universal to visionary religious experience. The voice’s reputed revelations and his brother’s simultaneous peculiar psychedelic experience prompted him to explore the structure of an early form of the I Ching, which led to his “Novelty Theory”.
McKenna’s Novelty Theory of the universe states that the world is constantly changing and creating increasing novelty, or complexity. Much like noted futurist and current Google Director of Engineering Ray Kurzweil, McKenna believed this complexity would reach a zenith or singularity, which he called “The Omega Point.” Claiming the nature of time was based on fractal patterns he discovered in the I Ching, McKenna predicted a transition of consciousness in the year 2012. (He later synced the exact date with that of the Mayan calendar’s Dec 21, 2012 milestone). Of course, history did not bear this out, and his Novelty Theory is now considered pseudoscience. But many of McKenna’s accompanying observations about our future are still credible and prescient:
“Without sounding too cliché, the Internet really is the birth of some kind of global mind.”
McKenna foresaw virtual reality as a means to revolutionize human interaction forever, by finally allowing us to see ourselves in a truer way, removed from the pre-conceptions of reality. He believed a complete linguistic understanding –a type of telepathy– would eventually evolve in the virtual world. Recognizing the opposite human tendency towards entropy, he also suggested we could use virtual reality as an outlet for our destructive behavior, leaving the Earth and the realm of the physical as a preserve, ensuring own survival.
“Nature is not our enemy, to be raped and conquered. Nature is ourselves, to be cherished and explored.”
While McKenna’s interest in some type of technological Global Mind might seem to indicate a dualistic mindset, it is clear from other writings that he saw the universe as having a singular, unifying property:
“Light is composed of photons, which have no antiparticle. This means that there is no dualism in the world of light. The conventions of relativity say that time slows down as one approaches the speed of light, but if one tries to imagine the point of view of a thing made of light, one must realize that what is never mentioned is that if one moves at the speed of light there is no time whatsoever. There is an experience of time zero. The only experience of time that one can have is of a subjective time that is created by one’s own mental processes, but in relationship to the Newtonian universe there is no time whatsoever. One exists in eternity, one has become eternal, the universe is aging at a staggering rate all around one in this situation, but that is perceived as a fact of this universe — the way we perceive Newtonian physics as a fact of this universe. One has transited into the eternal mode. One is then apart from the moving image; one exists in the completion of eternity.”
McKenna’s focus was most often on the benefits of psychedelia, but his defense of Nature and our Oneness with it are also explicit:
“We can begin the restructuring of thought by declaring legitimate what we have denied for so long. Lets us declare Nature to be legitimate. The notion of illegal plants is obnoxious and ridiculous in the first place.”
Sadly, McKenna’s library of over 3000 rare books and personal notes was destroyed in a fire at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, on February 7, 2007. However, remaining literature from McKenna makes it clear that he opposed Christianity and most other forms of organized religion and guru-based forms of spiritual awakening. Instead, McKenna advocated for shamanism, which he believed provided the purest spiritual paradigm:
What I think happened is that in the world of prehistory all religion was experiential, and it was based on the pursuit of ecstasy through plants. And at some time, very early, a group interposed itself between people and direct experience of the ‘Other.’ This created hierarchies, priesthoods, theological systems, castes, ritual, taboos. Shamanism, on the other hand, is an experiential science that deals with an area where we know nothing. It is important to remember that our epistemological tools have developed very unevenly in the West. We know a tremendous amount about what is going on in the heart of the atom, but we know absolutely nothing about the nature of the mind.
Put simply, McKenna embraced an approach to knowing favored by every pantheist: Reject dogma in favor of self-discovery:
“Avoid gurus, follow plants.” ~Terence McKenna