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Terence Kemp McKenna (November 16, 1946 – April 3, 2000) was an American ethnobotanist, philosopher, psychonaut, researcher, teacher, lecturer, and writer. He was noted for his knowledge, and the ability to articulate his knowledge, of the use of psychedelics, metaphysics, plant-based entheogens, and subjects ranging from shamanism, language, historical and civilizational timelines, the theoretical origins of human consciousness, and his concept of novelty theory.
Terence McKenna was born and raised in Paonia, Colorado. McKenna's father was of Irish ancestry and his mother was of Welsh descent. He was introduced to geology through his uncle and developed a hobby of solitary fossil hunting in the arroyos near his home. From this he developed a deep artistic and scientific appreciation of nature.
At age 16, McKenna moved to Los Altos, California to live with family friends for a year. He finished high school in Lancaster, CA. In 1963, McKenna was introduced to the literary world of psychedelics through The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley and certain issues of The Village Voice that talked about psychedelics.
McKenna claimed that one of his early psychedelic experiences with morning glory seeds showed him "that there was something there worth pursuing." In an audio interview Terence Mckenna claims to have started smoking cannabis regularly during the summer following his 17th birthday.
Studying and traveling
In 1965, McKenna enrolled in the University of California, Berkeley to study art history. In 1967, while in college, he discovered and began studying shamanism through the study of Tibetan folk religion. That year, which he called his "opium and kabbala phase" he also traveled to Jerusalem, where he met Kathleen Harrison, who would later become his wife.
In 1969, McKenna traveled to Nepal led by his "interest in Tibetan painting and hallucinogenic shamanism." During his time there, he studied the Tibetan language and worked as a hashish smuggler, until "one of his Bombay-to-Aspen shipments fell into the hands of U. S. Customs." He was forced to move to avoid capture by Interpol. He wandered through Southeast Asia viewing ruins, collected butterflies in Indonesia, and worked as an English teacher in Tokyo. He then went back to Berkeley to continue studying biology, which he called "his first love".
After the partial completion of his studies, and his mother's death from cancer in 1971, McKenna, his brother Dennis, and three friends traveled to the Colombian Amazon in search of oo-koo-hé, a plant preparation containing dimethyltryptamine (DMT). Instead of oo-koo-hé they found various forms of ayahuasca, or yagé, and gigantic Psilocybe cubensis which became the new focus of the expedition. In La Chorrera, at the urging of his brother, he was the subject of a psychedelic experiment which he claimed 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 experience prompted him to explore the structure of an early form of the I Ching, which led to his "Novelty Theory". During their stay in the Amazon, McKenna also became romantically involved with his interpreter, Ev.
In 1972, McKenna returned to Berkeley to finish his studies. There he decided to switch majors to a Bachelor of Science in ecology and conservation, in a then new experimental section of the same university called the Tussman Experimental College. During his studies, he would also develop techniques for cultivating psilocybin mushrooms with Dennis.
In 1975, he parted with his girlfriend, Ev, when she left him for one of his friends from Berkeley. Their parting left him "tormented with migraines and living alone". He graduated in 1975. That same year, he began a relationship with Kathleen Harrison, whom he had met in Jerusalem.
Soon after graduating, McKenna and Dennis published a book inspired by their Amazon experiences, The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens and the I Ching. He also began lecturing. The brothers' experiences in the Amazon would later play a major role in McKenna's book True Hallucinations, published in 1993. In 1976, the brothers published what they had learned about the cultivation of mushrooms in a book entitled Psilocybin - Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide under the pseudonyms "OT Oss" and "ON Oeric".
In the early 1980s, McKenna began to speak publicly on the topic of psychedelic drugs, lecturing extensively and conducting weekend workshops. Though associated with the New Age and human potential movements, McKenna himself had little patience for New Age sensibilities. He repeatedly stressed the importance and primacy of felt experience, as opposed to dogma. Timothy Leary once introduced him as "one of the five or six most important people on the planet."
“It's clearly a crisis of two things: of consciousness and conditioning. These are the two things that the psychedelics attack. 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. We must decondition ourselves from 10,000 years of bad behavior. And, it's not easy.”
He soon became a fixture of popular counterculture. His growing popularity culminated in the early-to-mid-1990s with the publication of several books: True Hallucinations, relating the tale of his 1971 La Chorrera experience; Food of the Gods; and The Archaic Revival. He became a popular personality in the psychedelic rave/dance scene of the early 1990s, with frequent spoken word performances at raves and contributions to psychedelic and goa trance albums by The Shamen, Spacetime Continuum, Alien Project, Capsula, Entheogenic, Zuvuya, Shpongle, and Shakti Twins. His speeches were, and are, sampled by many. In 1994 he appeared as a speaker at the Starwood Festival, documented in the book Tripping by Charles Hayes. His lectures were produced on both cassette tape and CD.
McKenna was a colleague of chaos mathematician Ralph Abraham, and biologist Rupert Sheldrake, creator of the theory of "morphogenetic fields", not to be confused with the mainstream usage of the same term. He conducted several public debates known as trialogues with them from the late 1980s until his death. Books containing transcriptions of some of these events were published. He was also a friend and associate of Ralph Metzner, Nicole Maxwell, and Riane Eisler, participating in joint workshops and symposia with them. He was a personal friend of Tom Robbins, and influenced the thought of many scientists, writers, artists, and entertainers. Comedian Bill Hicks' routines about psychedelic drugs drew heavily from McKenna's works. He also may have been the inspiration for the Twin Peaks character Dr. Jacoby.
In addition to psychedelic drugs, McKenna spoke on the subjects of virtual reality, which he saw as a way to artistically communicate the experience of psychedelics; techno-paganism; artificial intelligence; evolution; extraterrestrials; and aesthetic theory, specifically about art/visual experience as information representing the significance of hallucinatory visions experienced under the influence of psychedelics.
In 1985, McKenna co-founded Botanical Dimensions with his then-wife Kathleen, a nonprofit ethnobotanical preserve in Hawaii, where he lived for many years before he died. In 1992 he and Kathleen divorced. Before moving to Hawaii permanently, McKenna split his time between Hawaii and Occidental, located in the redwood-studded hills of Sonoma County, California.
A longtime sufferer of migraines, in mid-1999 McKenna returned to his home on the big island of Hawaii after a long lecturing tour. He began to suffer from increasingly painful headaches. This culminated in three brain seizures in one night, which he claimed were the most powerful psychedelic experiences he had ever known. Upon his emergency trip to the hospital on Oahu, Terence was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, a highly aggressive form of brain cancer. For the next several months he underwent various treatments, including experimental gamma knife radiation treatment. According to Wired magazine, McKenna was worried that his tumour was caused by his 35-years of smoking cannabis; though his doctors assured him there was no causal relation.
In late 1999, Erik Davis conducted what would be the last interview of McKenna. During the interview McKenna also talked about the announcement of his death:
" I always thought death would come on the freeway in a few horrifying moments, so you'd have no time to sort it out. Having months and months to look at it and think about it and talk to people and hear what they have to say, it's a kind of blessing. It's certainly an opportunity to grow up and get a grip and sort it all out. 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.”
McKenna died on April 3, 2000, at the age of 53, with his loved ones at his bedside. He is survived by his brother Dennis, his son Finn, and his daughter Klea.
On February 7, 2007, McKenna's library of rare books and personal notes was destroyed in a fire that burned offices belonging to Big Sur's Esalen Institute, which was storing the collection. An index maintained by his brother Dennis survives, though little else.
“There are these things, which I call "self transforming machine elves," I also call them self-dribbling basketballs. They are, but they are none of these things. I mean you have to understand: these are metaphors in the truest sense, meaning that they're lies! I name them 'Tykes' because tyke is a word that means to me a small child, ... and when you burst into the DMT space this is the Aeon - it's a child, and it's at play with colored balls, and I am in eternity, apparently, in the presence of this thing.”
—Terence McKenna, "Time and Mind",
Terence McKenna advocated the exploration of altered states of mind via the ingestion of naturally occurring psychedelic substances. For example, and in particular, as facilitated by the ingestion of high doses of psychedelic mushrooms, and DMT, which he believed was the apotheosis of the psychedelic experience. He spoke of the "jeweled, self-dribbling basketballs" or "self-transforming machine elves" that one encounters in that state.
Although he avoided giving his allegiance to any one interpretation (part of his rejection of monotheism), he was open to the idea of psychedelics as being "trans-dimensional travel"; literally, enabling an individual to encounter what could be ancestors, or spirits of earth. He remained opposed to most forms of organized religion or guru-based forms of spiritual awakening.
Either philosophically or religiously, he expressed admiration for Marshall McLuhan, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Gnostic Christianity, Alfred North Whitehead, and Alchemy. McKenna always regarded the Greek philosopher Heraclitus as his favorite philosopher.
He also expressed admiration for the works of James Joyce (calling Finnegans Wake "the quintessential work of art, or at least work of literature of the 20th century") and Vladimir Nabokov: McKenna once said that he would have become a Nabokov lecturer if he had never encountered psychedelics.
During the final years of his life and career, McKenna became very engaged in the theoretical realm of technology. He has advocated the idea of a technological singularity. In his last recorded public talk, Psychadelics in The Age of Intelligent Machines, he outlined strong ties between psychedelics, computation technology, and humans.
"Stoned Ape" theory of human evolution
In his book Food of the Gods, McKenna proposed that the transformation from humans' early ancestors Homo erectus to the species Homo sapiens mainly had to do with the addition of the mushroom Psilocybe cubensis in its diet - an event which according to his theory took place in about 100,000 BC (this is when he believed that the species diverged from the Homo genus). He based his theory on the main effects, or alleged effects, produced by the mushroom. One of the effects that comes about from the ingestion of low doses, which agrees with one of scientist Roland Fischer's findings from the late 1960s-early 1970s, is it significantly improves the visual acuity of humans - so, theoretically, of other human-like mammals too. According to McKenna, this effect would have definitely proven to be of evolutionary advantage to humans' omnivorous hunter-gatherer ancestors that would have stumbled upon it "accidentally"; as it would make it easier for them to hunt.
In higher doses, McKenna claims, the mushroom acts as a sexual stimulator, which would make it even more beneficial evolutionarily, as it would result in more offspring. At even higher doses, the mushroom would have acted to "dissolve boundaries", which would have promoted community-bonding and group sexual activities that would result in a mixing of genes and therefore greater genetic diversity. Generally McKenna believed that the periodic ingestion of the mushroom would have acted to dissolve the ego in humans before it ever got the chance to grow to destructive proportions. In this context, he likened the ego to a cancerous tumor that can grow uncontrollable and become destructive to its host. In his own words:
Wherever and whenever the ego function began to form, it was akin to a cancerous tumor or a blockage in the energy of the psyche. The use of psychedelic plants in a context of shamanic initiation dissolved - as it dissolves today - the knotted structure of the ego into undifferentiated feeling, what Eastern philosophy calls the Tao.
—Terence McKenna, Food of the Gods
The mushroom, according to McKenna, also gave humans their first truly religious experiences and, as he believed, were the basis for the foundation of all subsequent religions to date. For example, he proposed that the biblical Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was actually an entheogenic mushroom. Another factor that McKenna talked about was the mushroom's potency to promote linguistic thinking. This would have promoted vocalisation, which in turn would have acted in cleansing the brain (based on a scientific theory that vibrations from speaking cause the precipitation of impurities from the brain to the cerebrospinal fluid), which would further mutate the brain. All these factors according to McKenna were the most important factors that promoted evolution towards the Homo sapiens species. After this transformation took place, the species would have begun moving out of Africa to populate the rest of the planet Later on, this theory by McKenna was given the name "The 'Stoned Ape' Theory of Human Evolution".
According to McKenna the universe has a teleological attractor at the end of time that increases interconnectedness. He predicted that a singularity of infinite complexity would be reached in 2012 at which point anything and everything imaginable would occur simultaneously. He referred to this as the Eschaton. He conceived this idea over several years in the early to mid-1970s while using psilocybin mushrooms and DMT.
McKenna viewed the universe as a swarm of matter waves, spiralling down the gradient of their synergetic (energetically favourable) constructive interference. He saw the universe as being "pulled from the future toward a goal that is as inevitable as a marble reaching the bottom of a bowl when you release it up near the rim...it comes to rest at the lowest energy state, which is the bottom of the bowl. That’s precisely my model of human history."
In novelty theory, when two matter waves become connected by mutual constructive interference (quantum entanglement, rapport), they imagine or grok each other. Mc Kenna believed that imagination was capable of interconnecting matter waves instantaneously, stating that "the imagination is a dimension of nonlocal information," and "novelty is density of connection."
"What is happening to our world is ingression of novelty toward what Whitehead called "concrescence", a tightening gyre. Everything is flowing together. The "autopoietic lapis", the alchemical stone at the end of time, coalesces when everything flows together. When the laws of physics are obviated, the universe disappears, and what is left is the tightly bound plenum, the monad, able to express itself for itself, rather than only able to cast a shadow into physis as its reflection. I come very close here to classical millenarian and apocalyptic thought in my view of the rate at which change is accelerating. From the way the gyre is tightening, I predict that the concrescence will occur soon—around 2012 AD. It will be the entry of our species into hyperspace, but it will appear to be the end of physical laws accompanied by the release of the mind into the imagination."
McKenna often illustrated his theory by reference to a computer program written by his collaborator Peter Meyer, which produces a waveform known as "timewave zero" or the "timewave". "Timewave zero" is a numerological formula that purports to calculate the ebb and flow of "novelty", defined as increase over time in the universe's interconnectedness, or organized complexity. Based on McKenna's interpretation of the King Wen sequence of the I Ching, the graph appears to show great periods of novelty corresponding with major shifts in humanity's biological and sociocultural evolution. He believed that the events of any given time are recursively related to the events of other times, and chose the atomic bombing of Hiroshima as the basis for calculating his end date of 16 November 2012. When he later discovered that the end of the 13th baktun in the Maya Calendar had been correlated by Western Maya scholars with December 21, not far from his own hypothesized end date, he decided that the Maya were more likely to be right on this subject and he adopted their end date. The 1975 first edition of Mc Kenna's The Invisible Landscape refers to 2012 (but no specific day during the year) only twice. In the 1993 second edition, McKenna employed the 21st of December 2012 throughout, the date arrived at by the Mayanist researcher Robert J.