Tao of Terence

Death and the Imagination

By Tao Lin

GIF by Joe Burger

Terence McKenna’s lectures—which ranged in length from ~40 minutes to more than two hours and, he said, were not planned in advance except for the main topic, or a list of topics—had two recurring characteristics: (1) They sometimes settled into a Q&A mindset in which he’d anticipate and satisfy and occasionally state the audience’s emerging curiosities, and (2) they often employed a wandering, winding, minimally directed, exploratory form.

I imagine that form to be like the tunnel an ant might create by entering a cube of sand at one point and exiting at another, with the cube representing McKenna’s entire knowledge on a chosen topic. An example of this form can be found in his last lecture, in Seattle on April 27, 1999, called “Psychedelics in the Age of Intelligent Machines” (some of his lectures can be downloaded here). The tunnel, which exits the cube in a manner that seems inevitably abrupt, represents the content of the talk, with places where it twists back on itself, expands into little dwellings, or branches into two parts, with one part ending after serving its purpose, representing what may seem to be digressions or tangents but are still part of the same cube, so are sort of sub-digressions and sub-tangents.

As I worked on this post, I noticed it had taken on something like the form just described, and it also, I felt, kept wanting to be a Q&A. I resisted but finally half-relented. I now view this post as a prose model of the type of McKenna lecture I described above.

What is death?

Death ends individual lives. But what does it mean to be alive? In The Archaic Revival (1992), Terence McKenna suggested:

We are not primarily biological, with mind emerging as a kind of iridescence, a kind of epiphenomenon at the higher levels of organization of biology. We are hyperspatial objects of some sort that cast a shadow onto matter. The shadow in matter is our physical organism.

The shadow metaphor reminds me of a passage from The Book of Disquiet, a posthumous book by Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935). I include it here as an immanent variation on McKenna’s model:

Outside, in the slow moonlit night, the wind slowly shakes things that cast fluttering shadows. Perhaps it’s just hanging laundry from the floor above, but the shadows don’t know they’re from shirts, and they impalpably flutter in hushed harmony with everything else.

McKenna, in The Archaic Revival, continued:

At death, the thing that casts the shadow withdraws, and metabolism ceases. Material form breaks down; it ceases to be a dissipative structure in a very localized area, sustained against entropy by cycling material in, extracting energy, and expelling waste. But the form that ordered it is not affected.

This is the point of view of “the shamanic tradition, which touches all higher religions,” McKenna wrote. It’s a point of view that introduces to life a kind of task, which is ”to become familiar with this dimension that is causing being, in order to be familiar with it at the moment of passing from life.” McKenna wrote that several traditions, including shamanism and certain types of yoga, use the metaphor of “an after-death vehicle” and “claim very clearly that the purpose of life is to familiarize oneself with this after-death body so that the act of dying will not create confusion in the psyche.” He elaborated:

Apparently at the moment of death there is a kind of separation, like birth—the metaphor is trivial, but perfect. There is a possibility of damage or of incorrect activity. The English poet-mystic William Blake said that as one starts into the spiral there is the possibility of falling from the golden track into eternal death. Yet it is only a crisis of a moment—a crisis of passage—and the whole purpose of shamanism and of life correctly lived is to strengthen the soul and to strengthen the ego’s relationship to the soul so that this passage can be cleanly made. This is the traditional position.

For the task of familiarizing oneself with the after-death state—so that one “will recognize what is happening [and] know what to do” and not “muff it through ignorance”—McKenna advocated psychedelics:

I take seriously the notion that these psychedelic states are an anticipation of the dying process—or, as the Tibetans refer to it, the Bardo level beyond physical death. It seems likely that our physical lives are a type of launching pad for the soul. As the esoteric traditions say, life is an opportunity to prepare for death, and we should learn to recognize the signposts along the way, so that when death comes, we can make the transition smoothly. I think the psychedelics show you the transcendental nature of reality.

That’s one of the many models of death McKenna entertained throughout his work. Another, which you may recognize from "Terence McKenna’s Memes," was embedded in one of his models of the world:

I often like to think that our map of the world is so wrong that where we have centered physics, we should actually place literature as the central metaphor that we want to work out from. Because I think literature occupies the same relationship to life that life occupies to death. In the sense that a book is life with one dimension pulled out of it. And life is something which lacks a dimension which death will give it. I imagine death to be a kind of release into the imagination in the sense that, for characters in a book, what we experience is an unimaginable degree of freedom ["Philosophical Gadfly," 1:09:55].

In my interpretation of this model, death releases everyone into the imagination. This contrasts with the previous model in which only those who have skillfully navigated some after-death process get to proceed. Does death release everyone into the imagination? In some ways, this to me feels more expectable; it seems too video-game-like to need to practice in order, as proposed by McKenna's telling of the traditional position, to avoid “eternal death” (though, yes, most aspects of life do seem video-game-like).

What is the imagination?

“The human imagination is the dimension beyond space and time, or it precedes all dimensions,” wrote McKenna in The Archaic Revival. And in “The Heavens” he said: “What we call imagination is actually the universal library of what’s real. You couldn’t imagine it if it weren’t real somewhere, sometime.” Throughout his work, he observed that relatively little is known about the imagination. As of today, the Wikipedia page for bagel is a little longer than the Wikipedia page for imagination.

“I can’t imagine a domain of human endeavor that isn’t impacted by the imagination,” said McKenna in a six-hour 40 minute workshop at Esalen Institute in 1997 called “Appreciating Imagination.” In the same workshop—which, from what I can gather, was a series of talks, discussions, and Q&As over several days—he described imagination, among other ways, as:

1. Almost an extension of the visual faculty

The human imagination, as I suppose it, is almost an extension of the visual faculty. Imagination is something that one beholds.

2. A faculty that allows one to command and manipulate realities which do not exist

If you take the view that biology does nothing in vain, and evolutionary economics are incredibly spare, then why have this faculty that allows one to command and manipulate realities which do not exist. I mean, that’s, to my mind, the basic function of the imagination.

3. A coordination of mundane data

Some people might say, that, for most people, the imagination is a coordination of mundane data. In other words—if I work this hard, and if I have that much money, can I afford that car?

4. A window onto realities not present

One idea that is worth entertaining, because it is entertaining, not necessarily because it’s the truth, is the idea that the imagination is actually a kind of window onto realities not present. In other words, it’s very clear from an evolutionary point-of-view that our body and our sensory perceptors are organized in such a way as to protect us—to warn of danger, to give the muscles to respond to that danger when it comes. The imagination doesn’t seem to work quite like that. If the imagination runs riot in the dimension of the mundane, it’s paranoia.

5. Inseparable from art

Separating art from imagination is simply the exercise of separating cause from effect. Art—sculpture, poetry, painting, dance—is like the footprints of where the imagination has been. The abstract expressionists—Pollock particularly—always insisted that a painting, a Pollock, is not what the process is about. The process is about making a Pollock, being Pollock in the act of creation. What the rest of us are then left with is a husk, a tracing, something left behind which says “imagination was here, imagination acted in this place, and this is what is left.”

6. An organ of perception

Nonlocality is the idea that any two particles that have been associated with each other in the past retain—across space and time—a kind of connectivity, such that if you change a physical aspect of one of these particles, the law of the conservation of parity will cause the other particle to also undergo a change at the exact same moment, even though they may by now be separated by millions of light years of space and time. This was thought to be so counterintuitive, so preposterous, that the Heisenberg uncertainty principle was chosen as the lesser of two evils. But it turns out, over the past ten years, experiments have been done in the laboratory—not thought experiments, actual apparatus experiments—which secure that nonlocality actually is real. Below the ordinary surface of space and time, ruled by relativistic physics, there is this strange domain of instantaneous connectivity of all matter, of all phenomenon.

It raises the possibility, then, that the imagination is in fact a kind of organ of perception. Not an organ of creative unfoldment, but actually an organ of perception. And that what is perceived in the imagination is that which is not local, and never can be. I myself am up in the air about this. Or, as you get to know me better, you will see I don’t feel the need to believe, to proclaim as true or untrue, but it is useful, at this stage, for understanding our mental life.

What’s something McKenna said about death that one can easily understand and feel good about?

In both models of death in this post—the traditional one and the one of being released into the imagination—death is also and equally, it seems, birth. This leads one to wonder whether one’s birth was also a death, or if it’s possible for death to “release” one into a world of less freedom. McKenna, in “Terence McKenna Discusses Death,” offers one answer:

In my highest states, I have had the insight, which I will convey to you without saying it’s true, that this is the most limited form of existence that you will ever know. You can’t be deader than this. This is the bottom line. So the good news is it’s only up from here. But of course you have to bet the farm on this cheerful rap, and there’s no whining if you’re wrong. This is an all-or-nothing bet. So naturally it brings your heart into your throat. But that’s the kind of enterprise life is.

How did McKenna view death generally?

McKenna observed throughout his work that death is part of the natural process. From The Archaic Revival:

There’s a tendency in the New Age to deny death. We have people pursuing physical immortality and freezing their heads until the fifth millennium, when they can be thawed out. All of this indicates a lack of balance of equilibrium. The Tao flows through the realms of life and nonlife with equal ease.


Next week will begin three weeks of posts on the two substances and the one plant McKenna most advocated—DMT, psilocybin, and cannabis—starting with DMT, or dimethyltryptamine. McKenna said in 1990:

People say, "Is there risk, to DMT? It sounds so intense. Is it dangerous?" The answer is yes, it's tremendously dangerous. The danger is the possibility of death by astonishment.

And in “Appreciating Imagination”:

I’ve looked at the literature of near-death experience. What those people are describing is far more mundane than a DMT trip.

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