Terence McKenna’s strange duplicity

Note: Please read this comment first as a caveat. See also Dennis’ clarification around 1:04 in this fascinating talk with Douglas Rushkoff.

Now that we’re shot of the “2012 phenomenon”, it seems to be a ripe time for reassessing the legacy of Terence McKenna. Just as significant as the non-arrival of the eschaton seems to be the public revelation that at the end of the ’80s, Terence experienced a mushroom trip that terrified him with a vision of absolute meaninglessness. Apparently he never took mushrooms again—and only took ayahuasca and DMT from that point on infrequently and with extreme trepidation. This has emerged from his brother Dennis’ recent book The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, and has gained wider attention via a podcast from the Psychedelic Salon.

In this podcast Bruce Damer takes the odd fact that Terence’s terminal brain tumour was in fact mushroom-shaped, and pairs it with his emotional opening-up as he approached death—his realization that all his cerebral shenanigans were as nothing next to the overwhelming importance of love. Damer sees Terence’s horrific final trip, and avoidance of his beloved plant teacher during his final decade, as symptoms of his inability to process a shift in his psychedelic voyages from tours of alien futurity to painful confrontations with the knots and voids in his emotional self. The tumour, and his death, thus become the teacher’s reluctantly bestowed “shock treatment”—a last resort to open the heart. I think that, like the Timewave predictions for 2012, this is a too-neat story that belies the messy mysteries of reality. But like the 2012 prophecies—which besides being wrong, were also a symptomatic truth about our intensely precarious global industrial culture—Damer’s perception contains something worth taking note of.

Of course, the fact that all through the ’90s—the peak of Terence’s career as an advocate of psychedelics, especially mushrooms, and especially “heroic doses” in silent darkness—he was living in fearful abstinence raises even more serious questions about his integrity than the complex debate around how much he really believed in his Timewave’s predictions. Dennis’ account seems to paint a quite tragic picture of his brother being increasingly trapped in the public persona he had created, splitting him between what the audience had come to expect and the realities of his own lived experience. It’s a phenomenon as old as public performance itself.

I myself never accepted Terence’s invitation to embark on the “heroic dose” path. I was fascinated with his claims that for him, LSD had quickly taught him all he needed to know about the humdrum Freudian byways of the personal unconscious, but that mushrooms and DMT had unveiled a kind of trans-therapeutic doorway into the shamanic otherworld of collective psychotopography. However, fears and neuroses always made the opening of this doorway seem to be a rash move for myself, and I remained engaged with lighter doses and therapeutic approaches. I still always wondered if the disdain with which McKenna, and some other bold psychonauts, regarded efforts to resolve personality conflicts was quite as simple a matter as they publicly claimed.

I certainly got caught up in “McKenna fever” in the ’90s, and while after a few years’ pondering the Timewave I became quite cynical about 2012, the passing of 2012 itself has felt like the shedding of a too-old skin. There is bemusement at my youthful naivety, and a freshness about facing a future without some ridiculous prophecy ahead. Still, I wonder how much my being forced to remain engaged with humdrum personal psychic issues contributed to me failing to wholly buy into McKenna’s rap. (My memory is that I lost interest in 2012 before 2000—my journal Towards 2012 was named partly as an attempt to see past as well as engage with pre-millennial fever. Nevertheless, a friend recalls me telling him in 2001 that I was still convinced something crazy was going to happen in 2012, which I don’t remember saying at all. But then, apparently this was late at night in a club. Maybe 9/11 paranoia was kicking in, too…)

In any case, over the years the awe with which I regarded people who brought back tales of this otherworld beyond the petty knots of neurosis has been tempered and seriously complexified. I have seen friends who have assaulted their psychic boundaries with staggering quantities of psychedelics achieve personal breakthroughs only through a reluctant embrace of conventional psychotherapy. I have observed that even after an adult life of dedicated psychedelic and magical practice, no one seems to escape serious ongoing struggles with personal complexes. Many people find a good-enough niche in life and remain untroubled by the thornier parts of the psyche—or at least, receive the mixed blessing of remaining untroubled-enough to be able to ignore them. I recall reading of the psychedelic pioneer Joe Vivian (a.k.a. D.M. Turner) who, after many years of plumbing hallucinogenic spaces undreamed of even by seasoned trippers, felt he only began opening his heart up after joining a Wicca coven—shortly before accidentally drowning in his bath on ketamine. All this has underlined the fact that while psychedelics are indeed astonishingly important tools, they are no magic bullet. Intent is crucial, and the startling nature of their effects can blind some people to the quieter lacunae in their souls.

To learn that McKenna, too, failed to achieve the escape velocity that his wildest trips promised, and remained up to his final release caught in the unconscious eddies of the troubled human heart, comes in many ways as no surprise, then. Perhaps the news comes with a certain charge for me, given the symbolic value that—for all my protestations of cynicism—McKenna’s image has accrued in my mind. It is a little sad to think of him trapped in his public image during that time I was so inspired by his ideas. But in the end, it seems clear that he did himself and his “mission” a disservice by refusing to discuss his bad trip, and his abstention from mushrooms, in public. No doubt the experience was tangled together with unbearably painful, irreducibly private matters, and I would never criticize anyone for refraining from bearing this kind of material in public. But McKenna was, if nothing else, a supremely competent orator, and I find it hard to believe he could not have omitted what was intolerable—or inexpressible—while still contributing the bare bones of his experience to the public discourse that he so powerfully generated. To not realize that incorporating this kind of experience into the discourse would only have deepened and strengthened it seems to be a genuine failing.

But Terence has passed on, and we remain here, still bound to the unaccountable life of the mortal heart. Make no mistake, I still hold him as a truly important thinker. Even as the Timewave settles into its place as a historical curiosity, some of his other ideas—such as the importance of drugs in shaping cultural history, and the fractal nature of the historical process—are becoming potent currency in academia (see On Deep History and the Brain and Deep History respectively). As scientifically-tinged intellectual poetry, his talks will remain provocative classics. And despite his failings, and his cerebral biases, it must be noted that he repeatedly championed the importance of emotionally open relationships and simple appreciation of the love and wonder present in every moment.

His final lesson, though, seems to be a cautionary note: Never underestimate the blindness of which we are capable—especially in the face of the captivating weirdness of transpersonal voyages, and the image we project to others—when it comes to the mysteries of our own hearts.