This story is over 5 years old.

Tao of Terence

Beyond "Existentialism"

I learned of Terence McKenna on September 14, 2012, when I was 29 years old. Over the following week or so I watched footage of him on YouTube for probably ~30 hours and have been fascinated by him ever since.
Image by Courtney Nicholas

I learned of Terence McKenna (1946–2000) on September 14, 2012, when I was 29 years old. It was the day after I had completed the main final draft of Taipei, my first book to include psychedelics and which ends with a scene in which a character wonders if he has died after eating psilocybin mushrooms. I was in my room, zombielike and depressed after a period of time embodying a "whatever it takes" attitude regarding amphetamine use and completing my book. I had somewhat randomly clicked a YouTube video in which Joe Rogan (whom I was vaguely aware of as the host of Fear Factor, the TV show, a long time ago) was aggressively, excitedly talking about DMT, a neurotransmitter-like, illegal, psychedelic compound found in human (and other animal) brains and in at least ~50 species of plants worldwide. I did not have firsthand experience with DMT at the time, and had only read about it online.


At one point Joe Rogan began referencing someone in a "if you think I sound crazy, listen to this other guy" manner. He was talking about Terence McKenna, a person who would smoke DMT and, after ~15 seconds, without fail, find himself in an "unanticipated dimension" infested with "self-transforming machine elves"—also called "fractal elves," "self-dribbling jeweled basketballs," or "little self-transforming tykes"—that spoke English and a kind of visible language while jumping into and out of his body, "running around chirping and singing." These entities, which McKenna described in a word as "zany," were maybe either "dead people" in "an ecology of souls," "human beings from the distant future," or things with their own hopes, fears, problems that inhabit a parallel universe.

Over the next week or so, hiding in my room, I listened to Terence McKenna make "small mouth noises" (a term he used for human speech) on YouTube for probably ~30 hours—including in a ten-hour, 23-minute recording of a three-day workshop—with sustained, intrigued interest.

I estimate this to be ~25 more hours than I'd ever spent listening to an individual talk on YouTube. I was surprised by my unprecedented level of interest. I tweeted that the things which seemed to energize McKenna had been expressed in my just-finished novel as sources of bleakness and confusion. He spoke on a myriad of what increasingly seemed less like disparate or interdisciplinary interests than one purposed, interconnected, developing "web" of topics. He addressed consciousness, language, the imagination, literature, art, memory, time, religion, dreams, octopi, math, aliens, the origins and evolution of life, alchemy, shamanism, schizophrenia, psychotherapy, alienation, culture, sex, light, death, DNA, information, computers, the internet, virtual reality, nanotechnology, biology, botany, chemistry, family, history, butterflies, holograms, science-fiction, self-empowerment—and at the center of it all, the impetus and sustaining force for the web's construction and elaboration, was "the psychedelic experience," specifically the effects of DMT and psilocybin.


I liked his model of the universe with a singularity at the end—an attractor, pulling us into the future—instead of at the beginning, as with the Big Bang, a theory that McKenna called "the limit test for credulity" because it asks you to accept the unlikeliest scenario possible, that everything appeared instantly from nothing for no reason. "If you can believe that, you can believe anything," he said, taking something I'd always passively felt "nothing" toward, despite having encountered it probably hundreds of times in my life, and successfully representing it to me, with the energizing suddenness of an epiphany, as a comically egregious, almost eerie, even surreal, altogether remarkable absurdity.

In one talk, describing one narrative of his life, McKenna recalled some questions he had as a 14-year-old: "What are we? Where did we come from? And where are we going?" His response, a reasonable one, was to check the cultural database. "Surely there are answers to these questions," he thought.

He found that:

Our best efforts are nothing more than half-completed stories told around the campfire. We don't actually know what our predicament is. We are up against a phenomenon which we can barely bring into focus in our cognitive sphere, and it's the phenomenon of our own existence. What does it mean? What does it mean, first of all, to be a biological creature—to be, as an animal—what is that? And then—what is it to be that, embedded then in a culture with histories and languages and aesthetic canons and literatures and scientific hypothesis about the cosmos, so forth and so on.


He continued:

And my personal journey, if you want to put it that way, lay through a successive series of, um, I almost would—I almost said "disappointments" but "awakenings" could be another word, as I realized that nobody has their finger on what's going on. These religions that are so freighted with their own pomposity are no better than inspired guesses. And science works its miracles by turning its enterprise into a kind of parlor game confined to the category "matter and energy."

He was unsatisfied with the conventional answers. But, via Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception, he had been introduced, also at age 14, to "the whole array of consciousness-altering substances"—cannabis, LSD, DMT, psilocybin, mescaline, to name a few—that, in the last hundred years, had "come into the toolbox" for Westerners for the first time. (In this column I refer to these substances as "psychedelics," which I feel was McKenna's preferred usage. "I am not an advocate of drugs; I am an advocate of psychedelics," he said in 1989.) These substances "accelerate [and] accentuate the dissolution of sanctioned paradigms, basically."

In other words, McKenna explained:

All these things you might cling to—Catholicism, democratic ideals, Hasidism, Marxism, Freudianism—all of these things are exposed as simply quaint cultural artifacts, painted masks and rattles assembled by people of good intent but clearly not great grasp of the situation. Well, I thought that that process of deconstruction of cultural reality would end in a kind of liberation of cynicism, where you become sort of really street smart, you know—nobody can put anything over on you, you've been there, you've done that. It turns out that that existential phase, which I reached at about age 18, is itself simply a place, along the way.


I think I reached something like this phase around 20 or 21, though in a vague, already alienated way (I didn't like, or feel that I understood, the Sartre I'd read, and I didn't like The Stranger, which I found melodramatic and unrelatable, though I also often found myself melodramatic and unrelatable) and began to view the phase as "simply a place" maybe a year or two later. It was a place whose "landscape" no longer stimulated or comforted me, but I remained there. I remained there even after, at 27, I had what I consider my first psychedelic experiences via psilocybin mushrooms. And I was still there after I had contemplated and described those experiences over the next two years and felt "done with" them, on some level, upon completing Taipei.

Before encountering Terence McKenna, and listening to him talk for ~30 hours, I felt mostly only alienated by the admittedly not-much I'd read, seen, and heard about psychedelics and psychedelic experiences. People seemed "superstitious," irrational, and/or incurious when discussing them, even (sometimes especially) if they were speaking positively about and promoting them. People, not unexpectedly, seemed satisfied to express and embody the same stereotypes—and embodying stereotypes is something I do too, an example being arguably the amphetamines/"whatever it takes" mindset mentioned earlier—about psychedelics that, among other factors, had successfully kept me away from psychedelia for most of my life. Alienated from what the world had to say about psychedelics—and, on some level, feeling like I had, via my just-completed book, learned that I was even alienated from, or at least not significantly affected by, my own psychedelic experiences—my interest in them dwindled, and I became nearly as uninterested in what they had to say about where I was, where I came from, and where I was going as what "the existential place" had to say about those questions.


After my 30 hours of McKenna, I was interested in psychedelics—and the aforementioned questions—again and in new ways, within an extremely much larger context. I now began to view psychedelics—and everything—within a framework spanning at least from the unknown origins of the universe to 4.54 billion years ago, when Earth was formed, through the emergence and development of biology, from single-celled organisms to fish, reptiles, mammals and, 200,000 years ago, anatomically-modern humans, and finally, 15,000 years ago, the beginning of a finite process called history, which Terence McKenna has likened to the gestation period in the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly, except instead of gaining wings as an individual, we will be "turning ourselves inside out" as a species.


It's now almost two years later and you're reading the first of 12 posts in a weekly column titled "The Tao of Terence." One way I like to view my intention with this column, because it seems like a direct and worthwhile intention, is that, with it, "I want to spread Terence McKenna's memes." I mention this because I think it will be helpful to the reader. McKenna said this in 1990 about himself and memes:

I used to think of myself as simply a cunning linguist, but now I realize that I am actually a meme replicator. A meme, as I'm sure you all have been told many times, is the smallest unit of an idea that still has coherency. Memes are to ideas what genes are to proteins.

I want to replicate (at times with slight mutations and in various forms, such as quotes, and sometimes more than once) 50–100 of McKenna's memes, plus a number of my own (like some of the biographical memes about myself I've already downloaded from the imagination into this column), a number of memes I've found in books Terence McKenna referenced or recommended, as well as any of the particularly notable offspring that may result from any of these memes encountering one another—and replicating—in the environment of my consciousness. (I won't mention the word "meme" again in this column.) I will also interview Terence McKenna's children, Klea McKenna—about The Butterfly Hunter (2008), a limited edition book about her father—and Finn McKenna (whom Terence, when comparing the experience of Salvia and DMT in a Q&A, once referred to as being more knowledgeable about "these things" than anyone he knew), and write about The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss: My Life with Terence McKenna (2012), a memoir by Terence's younger brother, Dennis McKenna, whom I may also interview.

"I represent to myself—and I hope to convince you of this—radical ideas, innovative ideas, even peculiar ideas, but not loose or preposterous ideas," said McKenna. As an introduction to his worldview, personality, sense of humor, and some of his ideas, I'll be organizing a wide-ranging list of my 30 favorite Terence McKenna's memes—along with my thoughts, analysis, and elaboration on some of them—which will be published here on Tuesday of next week.

Follow Tao Lin on Twitter.