Tao of Terence

Cannabis: The Central Practice of Terence McKenna’s Life

By Tao Lin

GIF by Dan Stuckey

Terence McKenna smoked cannabis for the first time during Easter vacation in 1965 when he was 18 years old. He had inherited “the programming,” as he called it, from his “middle class straight parents” that “the road to hell was paved” with cannabis. But he had also read Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and others who had been more specific, informative, and curious about the plant. It took McKenna “a couple, or three” encounters with cannabis before he figured out what it was doing to him. As an adolescent, he’d been “what they call ‘a nervous child’”; now, as a young adult, it came to him “with the force of a revelation” that:

The mere smoking of a small amount of vegetable material could completely invert the structures of my personality and socialize me, as it were, into a reasonably functioning member of the community in which I found myself.

He said in “Cannabis Trialogue” (1991):

Within a few months, I had integrated [cannabis] into my lifestyle as really the central practice of my life. And it has remained so up until just two or three months ago when, under the pressure of my apparently dissolving marriage, I stopped smoking in order to see, really, what sort of effect it would have.

McKenna explained:

I was in sort of the absurd position of being in psychotherapy with a woman who I respected very much, and who seemed to be a very skilled psychotherapist—except that she had no sophistication whatsoever about cannabis, and the therapeutic process kept looping back to the issue of my cannabis ingestion.

This conversation would happen:

Psychotherapist: Well, now, how many times a day do you do this?

McKenna: Eh, ten to fourteen.

Psychotherapist: And how many years have you been doing this?

McKenna: Well, 25, 26, 27?

McKenna discerned that cannabis was “impeding the therapeutic process”—not due to its effects on him, but because of its effects on his psychotherapist’s attitude toward him—and so, “to remove this issue from the menu of issues we were dealing with,” stopped smoking it. He said:

And I’m happy to report that, though I was at that time the heaviest and most continuous cannabis user that I have ever known or ever heard of, it was no big deal: I simply stopped smoking it, and took up reading in the evenings, and it seemed to have no impact on my psychological organization at all, except that, I must say, my dream life became considerably more interesting in the wake of that decision.

After a number of months without cannabis, McKenna continued smoking again—every day for the rest of his life, except when his “access to cannabis was interrupted,” due to travel or other reasons. But he didn’t necessarily recommend this constant, daily cannabis use, as he explained in 1998:

I’m an inveterate cannabis user, and I wish in a way that I could get a slightly better grip on my cannabis use, because I think the real way to do cannabis is like once a week, by yourself, in silent darkness, with the strongest stuff you can get, and then immense amounts of it.

Why Did McKenna Smoke Cannabis “So Assiduously Over the Years”?

He asked himself this question in “Cannabis Trialogue.” I’ve organized some of his answers into a list:

1. Cannabis Thins the Boundary Between the Conscious and Unconscious Mind

McKenna formed this theory, he said, just for his own edification. In his model of this theory, he imagined the unconscious as a system under hydraulic pressure. He said: “If you smoke cannabis, the energy which would normally be channeled into dreams is instead manifest in the reveries of the cannabis intoxication.”

2. Cannabis Seems to Dissolve a Local, Personalistic Perspective

McKenna explained:

If I don’t smoke cannabis, I worry about balancing my checkbook, the state of my immediate short-term career concerns. In other words, all the anxieties of the petit bourgeois pour in to claim my attention. If, on the other hand, I avail myself of cannabis. I’m able to rove and scan through a vast intellectual world that is composed of all the books I’ve ever read, all the people I’ve ever known, all the places I’ve ever been.

3. Cannabis Allows One to Be Surprised by One’s Own Knowledge

McKenna said: “What I really value about cannabis is the way in which it allows one to be taken by surprise by unexpected ideas.” Without cannabis, his creativity was “a kind of brick-by-brick, linear extrapolation of certain concerns.” With cannabis, he could “go in one moment from thinking about Goethe’s color theory, to in the next moment puzzling over a particular instance in Mayan historiography.”

McKenna felt that his experience in this was generalizable. He cited “the architectural and art historical motifs” of places in the middle east, such as Punjab and Bengal, where cannabis had been institutionalized for thousands of years. “Islam is a civilization, to my mind, that is largely, if unconsciously, under the influence of the visions and attitudes imparted by hashish,” he said.

4. Cannabis Allowed McKenna to Work Twice or Three Times as Long as Normal

Both creatively:

I find that when I’m writing books that I can only write for about three hours, and then either the day is finished for work, or I smoke hashish and twenty minutes later I’m ready to go two hours more at it—and I can do that twice in a day. If I judiciously control my intake of cannabis, it like gives me a second wind and a third wind to go forward with creative activity. Now if you just sit down and smoke into a stupor, you’re not going to be able to do this. But if you just stop this now tiresome and boring activity and have a couple of puffs, and then you sit and have a few interesting thoughts, and you feel completely revitalized and able to go back to it.

And physically:

For instance, if I’m stacking wood, I’ll stack half a cord of wood and then I’ll think, “Well, I’ll finish stacking it tomorrow.” And then I’ll go in and smoke some cannabis and a half an hour later I’ll say, “Well, why wait until tomorrow? I’ll just go and finish it right now.”

This has seemed true for myself, and I find it remarkable and interesting because cannabis, in my experience, doesn’t seem to steal willpower, energy, or motivation—or whatever it is that allows one to work longer—from my future self, like caffeine and other stimulants seem to do. Instead, cannabis seems to involve me, at least to some degree, in the generation of willpower via different means than self-theft.

5. Cannabis Improved McKenna’s Sexual Performance

McKenna’s early sexual encounters “were haunted,” he said, by the possibility of “premature ejaculation.” (He noted parenthetically: “And I think this is a problem of many young men, simply because they have so much juice going.”) Cannabis, he discovered, gave him “an incredible ability to control my ejaculation” while also increasing his “sexual stamina.”

6. Cannabis Improved McKenna’s Verbal Facility

McKenna cited a memory he had of the second time he got stoned: “I was able to hold forth for an hour in a pseudo Melvillian style I created on the spot without hesitation—a short story in the style of Herman Melville that was dazzling, apparently, to my hearers. This is verbal facility of an extraordinary sort.”

*

“Cannabis Trialogue,” from which I’ve organized the above list, was one of the dozens of public discussions McKenna and his friends/colleagues Rupert Sheldrake (an English biologist) and Ralph Abraham (an American mathematician) conducted from 1982 to 2000. These three-way discussions, or “trialogues,” were recorded. Many of them, though not “Cannabis Trialogue,” were then published, in edited form, in the books Chaos, Creativity, and Cosmic Consciousness (1992) and The Evolutionary Mind (1998).

McKenna, Sheldrake, and Abraham (left to right) discussed light, vision, psychedelics, computers, fractals, the apocalypse, psychic pets, "human mushrooms," Riane Eisler, John Dee, and other topics.

The three thinkers shared an interest in—and an advocacy of—psychedelics, and seemed to agree on most topics, or at least disagree somewhat synergistically. In “Cannabis Trialogue,” Sheldrake and Abraham agreed with McKenna that cannabis was desirable for humankind and obviously much less destructive to society and the human body than tobacco and alcohol. But they did not agree with McKenna on the plant’s effects. Sheldrake said that, in part because it produces “a kind of physical relaxation,” cannabis “doesn’t produce a tremendous urge to go empty the dustbin, or do chores around the house.” He observed that “the mental expansion is bought at the price of a certain physical lethargy.” Abraham said (and Sheldrake concurred):

My impression, Terence, is that your experience is not typical, and I would say that most of the things you described aren’t typical of my experience, personally.

Why This Disagreement, Even Among Friends That All Enjoyed Cannabis, on Its Effects?

One reason, McKenna observed, could be that people are referring to different experiences. McKenna felt that, for purposes of testing cannabis’ pharmacological effects, the conversation “should almost” be restricted to “high-grade, Lebanese hashish, which is truly nothing but the compressed resin of the female cannabis plant.” He explained:

This question of does it make you lazy, does it give you energy, does it destroy your memory, does it enhance your memory—because I’ve smoked so many years, so many different kinds of dope, of cannabis, I’ve come to hold pretty strong opinions about its various forms, and I think that number one, charas is a debilitating drug. It has opium in it, it has datura in it, it has various additives and binders that are not good. Marijuana, which is how most Americans smoke their cannabis, involves the incineration of too much inert vegetable material, so that you are getting pesticide residues, carbon monoxide, tars—all of these things are complicating the question of what does cannabis do?

The discussion in “Cannabis Trialogue” sort of lost focus—digressing into legality issues regarding drugs in general—after McKenna observed the above, and so other reasons for why people disagree on cannabis’ effects were not explored. But I’ve organized a list of four more possible reasons, citing McKenna’s other work, below.

1. Every Person Is Genetically Unique (Even Identical Twins)

McKenna observed in “Appreciating Imagination” (1994):

Like your blue eyes, your height, your body weight, your intelligence—and everything else about you that makes you unique—your inherited allotment of drug synapses is unique. This is why some people are sensitive to drugs, some people insensitive, some people extremely sensitive.

An example of this is in a story McKenna told in “Hermeticism and Alchemy” (1992) about a course he took at Berkeley called “Biochemical Markers for Individuality” that was taught by Alexander Shulgin, “the great drug designer.” In the class, Shulgin brought in a vial of some kind of chemical and passed it around. One-hundred and ninety-eight of the 200 students couldn’t smell the chemical at all, but two people were so overwhelmed by the smell that they became physically sick. McKenna said:

And then [Shulgin] explained to us that these people were probably up to 50,000 times more sensitive to this chemical than most people, and that this is a gene you carry for sensitivity to this thing. Well, those kinds of compounds—aromatic compounds, compounds with an electronically active ring structure—are the very nearest relatives to drugs, and so it’s reasonable to suppose that there are genetic differences in the way we relate to drugs, which doesn’t mean racial differences, it means from person-to-person.

3. Cannabis Is a Both-and Substance

In Q&As, when asked if something was one way, or another way, McKenna often answered “both and“—stressing both words. He mentioned this “both-and” way of thinking in “I Understand Philip K. Dick.” Regarding the science fiction author, whose books he enjoyed, he wrote: “The logic of being that he sought, and largely found, was not an either-or logic, but a both-and and and-and kind of logic.”

Cannabis—unlike “downers” or “uppers” which could be called either-or substances—seems to be a both-and substance. At least some of its effects seem to be on a domain that includes both stimulation and relaxation, among other possibilities. Therefore it could be that people who say it makes them lazy/unmotivated and people who say it energizes/motivates are equally accurate in their descriptions.

3. People Have Been “Brainwashed” By ~80 Years of Deceptively Biased Information

McKenna observed in Food of the Gods (1992) that cannabis in the United States was “neither stigmatized nor popularized” until the early 1930s, when Harry J. Anslinger, US Commissioner of Narcotics, “created a public hysteria” at the apparent “behest of American chemical and petrochemical companies” that wanted to eliminate hemp as a competitor. McKenna wrote:

Anslinger and “the yellow press” characterized cannabis as the “weed of death.” William Randolph Hearst popularized the term “marijuana” with a clear intent of linking it to a mistrusted dark-skinned underclass.

This has arguably continued nonstop to the present. McKenna said in “Hermeticism and Alchemy” (1992):

Society misrepresents drugs tremendously. For example, we all know the stereotyped image of the pothead. You know—the pothead can’t work, can’t remember, it’s the inarticulate, dumb hippy image. Well, I’ve never met anyone with a deeper devotion to cannabis than myself, and, you know, I’m very proud of my memory, and my ability to get verbally organized almost under any conditions. So I completely violate the stereotype of what it is to be a pothead. Well, how many people are there like that? I mean, I’m always amazed when people say “no, I don’t want to smoke any pot, it will mess with my memory.” I mean really? How peculiar. So, what you have to do is just like every other thing: Everything you’ve been told is wrong, and you have to take life by the handlebars and figure out what’s really going on.

Due to cannabis’ both-and nature, it may be the case that convincing people to any degree, even subconsciously—or maybe even simply by authoritatively stating—that it has certain effects will, for a number of people, actually cause the existence of those effects. But this might also mean that cannabis can, to a degree, have whatever effect its user wants—and knows how to sort of slyly convince—it to have. In this way, as with most or all psychedelics, cannabis has something of a “mind over matter,” or magical, element to it.

*

Due to “all of the above,” and probably many more reasons, people seem unable to agree on what cannabis does. But it is known, via research—mostly by institutions wanting to find something wrong with it—that, as McKenna said in 1987, “of the major intoxicants known to mankind, surely Cannabis must be the most benign.”

Like the two compounds he advocated most—DMTand psilocybin—cannabis has been “user tested,” McKenna observed throughout his work, by thousands (maybe tens or hundreds of thousands) of generations of humans, beginning since perhaps the emergence of the human imagination in the physical world in the form of musical instruments, cave/rock art, figurines, and other artifacts ~35,000 to 60,000 or more years ago. Plant of the Gods, a compendium of psychedelic plants written by Richard Evans Schultes, Albert Hoffmann, and Christian Rätsch, estimates conservatively, I think, that the partnership of cannabis and man “has existed now probably for ten thousand years.” Today cannabis, DMT, psilocybin—and many other psychedelic plants and compounds—are, somehow and absurdly, schedule I drugs. From the DEA’s website:

Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Schedule I drugs are the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.  

Next week, I’ll examine McKenna’s views on why psychedelics are illegal. As he said in “Nature is the Center of the Mandala” (1987):

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 behavior and information processing. They open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong.

Until then, here’s a 12-second video of McKenna smoking a joint in 1996 in the Valley of Rustlers, South Africa.

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