"My life is like a James Joyce scratch pad," declares Terence McKenna. "I have a lot of fun, a kind of reverse paranoia. I think reality is a plot for my own amusement and advancement -- which it seems to be. It's absolutely eerie." Ethnobotanist, radical historian, and co-steward of a botanical garden in Hawaii where he collects endangered planet species and their lore, McKenna is, as well, a world-class psychedelic researcher.
In the Sixties, it was not uncommon for friends or colleagues to leave for awhile, then return. These travelers, however, had not made round trips to such identifiable exotic stops as Tibet or China, or even Mexico. Rather, they had tripped on acid or mushrooms: new territory. Upon reentry they would be asked the usual questions one asks a traveler: "What did you see? Who did you meet? How long were you gone?" And they'd show their slides, as it were.
In those years, taking psychedelic drugs was viewed as self- experimentation. One's goal was informational -- to learn and explore. And taking drugs carried an unstated mandate: It was incumbent upon you to contribute to the unofficial databank -- report the efficacy of varying settings, elapsed duration, potential uses, and so forth. It was not uncommon to ask, "Why did you take it?" -- truly a statement of inquiry. Terence McKenna comes from this tradition.
Born in 1946 in western Colorado, McKenna moved to Los Altos, California, when he was in high school. He graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a major in shamanism and the conservation of natural resources. Collecting Asian art in the East, for years he also made his living as a professional butterfly collector. In his 1992 book Food of the Gods, McKenna delineates a radical history of drugs and human evolution, chronicling our descent from "stoned apes" and extolling the virtues of psilocybin mushrooms and DMT (dimethyltryptamine), a potent psychedelic compound. Eve achieves top billing in our collective history as "the mistress of magical plants."
Heralded by some as the "New Scientist," McKenna admits that "defenders of orthodox science find me a pain." When he was younger, this so bothered him that he sought the counsel of Gunther Stent, the pioneering Swedish genetic biochemist. McKenna sat in front of his hero and earnestly laid out his research, theories, and ideas of science. "What I am interested to know is," McKenna concluded, "are these ideas fallacious?" Rising from behind his desk, Stent crossed the room, placed his hands on McKenna's shoulders, and delivered the following: "My dear young friend, they aren't even fallacious!" Although crushed and shattered by the encounter, McKenna persevered to become a high-voltage speaker, storehouse of remarkable information, and prolific writer of worldwide repute.
Before this interview, McKenna offered friend and interrogator Sukie Miller the following tip: "Being able to pun, sing, or riddle will usually get you through fairy checkpoints. To deal with real fairies is to enter a realm of riddles and puzzle settings where what they punish is stupidity and what they love is intellectual cleverness."
OMNI: You've been called a prophet, madman, the most important visionary scholar in America, a bard of our psychedelic birthright, and more. How did you grow up? Was there something in the water at your house?
MCKENNA: I was born in a Colorado cattle and coal-mining town of 1,500 people called Paonia. They wanted to name it Peony but didn't know how to spell it. In your last year of high school, you got your girlfriend pregnant, married her, and went to work in the coal mines. An intellectual was someone who read Time. My mother went to secretarial school and had a very large vocabulary. She was aware of classical music and writing and was my grandfather's favorite daughter.
His Metier was language. He frequently used the phrase "the fustilerian fizgigs from Zimmerman!" I reconstructed it. It means "a shrewish fish-wife from a town named Zimmerman." Whenever he got excited, he'd yell, "'Great God!' said the woodcock when the hawk struck him." A nut, a poet is what he was.
OMNI: How early in your life were you into altered states?
MCKENNA: Until I was three, we lived in my grandfather's house. I've had regression-hallucinations where I see myself in my child body playing with my trains alone in that living room. Then something catches my attention and I turn and look: A DMT hallucination is pouring out of the air, into this house, into the room. This is not supposed to be happening. This is not permitted! It was as if an invisible teapot were beginning to pour some heavy, colored liquid swimming with objects and shapes, a flowering geometry. It was as if reality got broken, like a window could get broken, and the outside -- poured through the teapot -- came rushing in. I go to find my mother to show her. Then, of course, it's not there.
OMNI: And now? Toward what end is your research directed?
MCKENNA: I can't stomach the human tragedy of somebody going to the grave ignorant of what is possible. I make the analogy to sex. Few people can avoid some kind of experience with sex -- sex informs the experience of humanness; sex is a great joy and travail. I don't like to think about someone going to the grave without ever having contacted it. This work is that big. It's ours. It makes available an entire domain of being that somehow got lost, to our detriment.
OMNI: What is DMT's effect?
MCKENNA: My best guess is that it mediates attention so that when you hear a noise coming from someplace within your peripheral vision, you turn and focus on what the noise might be. Somehow this very rapid focusing of mental functioning is driven by DMT. It is also a Schedule I drug. So technically, we are all bustible all the time! The paradox is that DMT is the safest and quickest hallucinogen to leave your system -- safest, that is, in terms of any accumulated detriment to the organism.
OMNI: Food of the Gods relates DMT to psilocybin. What's the connection?
MCKENNA: Psilocybin and DMT are chemically near relatives. My book is about the history of drugs; it tries to show drugs' cultural and personality-shaping impact. People have attempted - - unsuccessfully -- to answer the question of how our minds and consciousness evolved from the ape. They've tried all kinds of things to account for this evolution, but to my mind, the key unlocking this great mystery is the presence of psychoactive plants in the diet of early man.
OMNI: What led you to this startling conclusion?
MCKENNA: Orthodox evolutionary theory tells us that small adaptive advantages eventually become genetically scripted into a species. The species builds upon this minute change to further its adaptive advantage until ultimately it out breeds all of its competitors for a particular niche or environment.
OMNI: So prehistoric humans got a leg up on the apes by ingesting a drug?
MCKENNA: Yes. Lab work shows that psilocybin eaten in amounts so small that it can't be detected, as an experience, increases visual acuity. In the Sixties, Roland Fisher at the National Institute of Mental Health gave graduate students psilocybin and then a battery of eye tests. His results indicated that edges were visually detected more readily if a bit of psilocybin was present in the student's body. Well, edge detection is exactly what hunting animals in the grassland environments use to observe distant prey! So here you have this chemical factor; when added to the diet, it results in greater success in hunting. That, in turn, results in greater success in child rearing and so increases the size of the next generation.
As we descended from the trees and into the grasslands, began to experiment with bipedal gait and omnivorous diet, we encountered mushrooms. At low does, they increase visual acuity; at midrange, they cause general central-nervous system arousal, which in a highly sexed primate means a lot of horsing around, which means there is more pregnancy among females associated with psilocybin-using behavior. Higher dosages of psilocybin leads to group sexuality and dissolved boundaries between ecstasy. We can assume that as the level of ingestion became high enough, egoless states were quite common.
The way I analyze the modern predicament -- pollution, male dominance, there are a million ways to say it -- the overriding problems are brought on by the existence of the ego, a maladaptive behavioral complex in the psyche that gets going like a tumor. If it's not treated -- if there's not pharmacological intervention -- it becomes the dominant constellation of the personality.
OMNI: How did all this play out?
MCKENNA: From 75,000 to about 15,000 years ago, there was a kind of human paradise on Earth. People danced, sang, had poetry, jokes, riddles, intrigue, and weapons, but they didn't possess the notion of ego as we've allowed it to crystallize in Western societies. The reason for this lack of ego was a social style of mushroom taking and an orgiastic sexual style that was probably lunar in its timing. Nobody went more than three or four weeks before they were redissolved into pure feeling and boundary dissolution. Community, loyalty, altruism, self-sacrifice -- all these values that we take to be the basis of humanness -- arose at the time in a situation in which the ego was absent.
OMNI: If this was all so wonderful, why did it end?
MCKENNA: The most elegant explanation is that the very force that created the original breakthrough swept away its conditions. The climatological drying of Africa forced us out of the forest canopy, onto the grasslands, and into bipedalism and omnivorous diets. We lived in that paradisiacal grasslands situation, but the climate was slowly getting drier. Mushrooms began to be less available. There could've been many strategies for obtaining mushrooms, all detrimental. The first would be to do it only at great holidays, and only a certain class of people -- shamans, for example.
Eventually the mushroom only existed around water holes in the rain shadows of certain mountains; finally, the mushroom was gone. At that moment, under great pressure from the drying climate, agriculture was invented. Agriculture represents an intellectual understanding of how cause and effect can be separated in time. You return to last year's camp, look where you discarded the trash, and there all in one place are the food planets you so carefully gathered. Women, the gatherers, put this together: Wow! Bury food, come back a year later, and it's there. This was a watershed in the development of abstract thought.
At the same time, men were understanding that the sex act, previously associated with this group orgiastic stuff, was the equivalent of burying food and coming back a year later! Male paternity is recognized as a phenomenon. The road to hell is paved -- eight lanes! -- from that point on. The man thinks my - - my children, not our children -- and therefore, animals I kill are food for my woman and my children. Woman are seen as property. The ego is rampant and in full force.
OMNI: How does data on psilocybin support your theory?
MCKENNA: Well, here's the problem: Psilocybin, discovered in 1953, not chemically characterized until 1957, became illegal in 1966. The window of opportunity to study this drug in humans was only nine years. People working with psilocybin never dreamed they'd be forbidden by law to work in this area. When LSD was first released into the psychotherapeutic community, it swept through the physics community. People thought, "Ah-ha! Now we're going to understand mental illness, trauma, and obsession, this being only the first of a family of drugs that will lead to an operational understanding of the genesis and curing of neuroses!"
When the scientific establishment was informed that there would be no government-grant support for psychedelic research, they just bowed their fuzzy heads and went along with it. The consequences of their failure to stand up to that decision is a mangled society and a science that hasn't fulfilled it's agenda. In no other instance has science laid down so gutlessly and allowed the state to tell it how to do its business.
I'm not trying to make a revolution in primate archaeology or theories of human emergence. My scenario, if true, has enormous implications. For 10,000 years, with the language and social skills of angels, we've pursued an agenda of beasts and demons. Human beings created an altruistic communal society; then, by withdrawing the psilocybin or having it become unavailable, we've had nothing to fall back upon except old primate behaviors, all tooth-and-claw dominance.
OMNI: You're giving an enormous amount of power to a drug. What can you tell me about psilocybin?
MCKENNA: We don't know what DMT means. It's like Columbus sighting land, and somebody says, "So you saw land; is that a big deal?" And Columbus says, "You don't understand; it is the New World."
For the last 500 years, Western culture has suppressed the idea of disembodied intelligences -- of the presence and reality of spirit. Thirty seconds into the DMT flash, and that's a dead issue. The drug shows us that culture is an artifact. You can be a New York psychotherapist or a Yoruba shaman, but these are just provisional realities you're committed to out of conventional or local customs.
OMNI: Well, it gives one something to do, Terence.
MCKENNA: Yes, but most people think it's what's happening. Psilocybin shows you everything you know is wrong. The world is not a single, one-dimensional, forward-moving, causal, connected thing, but some kind of interdimensional nexus.
OMNI: If everything I know is wrong, then what?
MCKENNA: You have to reconstruct. It's immediately a tremendous permission for the imagination. I don't have to follow Sartre, Jesus, or anybody else. Everything melts away, and you say, "It's just me, my mind, and Mother Nature." this drug shows us that what's waiting on the other side is a terrifyingly real self-consistent modality, a world that stays constant every time you visit it.
OMNI: What is waiting? Who?
MCKENNA: You burst into a space. Somehow, you can tell it's underground or an immense weight is above it. There's a feeling of enclosure, yet the space itself is open, warm, comfortable, upholstered in some very sensual material. Entities there are completely formed. There's no ambiguity about the fact that these entities are there.
OMNI: What are they like, Terence?
MCKENNA: Trying to describe them isn't easy. On one level I call them self-transforming machine elves; half machine, half elf. They are also like self-dribbling jeweled basketballs, about half that volume, and they move very quickly and change. And they are, somehow, awaiting. When you burst into this space, there's a cheer! Pink Floyd has a song, "The Gnomes Have Learned a New Way to Say Hooray." Then they come forward and tell you, "Do not give way to amazement. Do not abandon yourself." You're amazingly astonished. The most conservative explanation for these elves, since these things are speaking English and are intelligent, is that they're some kind of human beings. They're obviously not like you and me, so they're either the prenatal or postmortal phase of human existence, or maybe both, if you follow Indian thinking. You're saying, "Heart beat? Normal. Pulse? Normal." But your mind is saying, "No, no. I must be dead. It's too radical, too fucking radical. It's not the drug; drugs don't do stuff like this." Meanwhile, what you're seeing is not going away.
OMNI: What are these elves, these creatures about?
MCKENNA: They are teaching something. Theirs is a higher dimensional language that condenses as a visible syntax. For us, syntax is the structure of meaning; meaning is something heard or felt. In this world, syntax is something you see. There, the boundless meanings of language cause it to overflow the normal audio channels and enter the visual channels. They come bouncing, hopping toward you, and then it's like -- all this is metaphor; they don't have arms -- it's as though they reach into their intestines and offer you something. They offer you an object so beautiful, so intricately wrought, so something else that cannot be said in English, that just gazing on this thing, you realize such an object is impossible. The best comparison is Faberge eggs.
The object generates other objects, and it's all happening in a scene of wild merriment and confusion.
Ordinarily language creates a system of conventional meanings based on pathways determinate by experience. DMT drops you into a place where the stress is on a transcending language. Language is a tool for communication, but it fails at its own game because it's context-dependent. Everything is a system of referential metaphors. We say, "The skyline of New York is like the Himalayas, the Himalayas are like the stock market's recent performance, and that's like my moods" -- a set of interlocking metaphors.
We have either foreground or background, either object or being. If something doesn't fall into these categories, we go into a kind of loop of cognitive dissonance. If you get something from outside the metaphorical system, it doesn't compute. That's why we need astonishment. Astonishment is the reaction of the body to the ineffectiveness of its descriptive machinery. You project your description, and it keeps coming back. Rejected. Astonishment breaks the loop.
OMNI: What other experiences can you liken to the DMT trip?
MCKENNA: The archetype of DMT is the three-ring circus. The circus is all bright lights, ladies in spangled costumes, and wild animals. But right underneath, it's some fairly dark expression of Eros and freaks and unrootedness and mystery. DMT is the quintessence of that archetype. The drug is trying to tell us the true nature of the game. Reality is a theatrical illusion. So you want to find your way to the impresario who produces this and then discuss his next picture with him.
OMNI: So the circus is really just a doorway. How does it end?
MCKENNA: This crazy stuff goes on for 90 seconds; then you fall away from it. They bid you farewell. In one case, they said to me: "Deja vu, deja vu!"
OMNI: You've devoted a good part of your life to mapping the DMT and psilocybin terrain. How would you interpret all of it?
MCKENNA: These drugs can dissolve in a single lightning stroke all our provisional programming. The drugs carry you back to the truth of the organism that language, conditioning, and behavior are entirely designed to mask. Once on the substance, you are reborn outside the envelope of culture and of language. You literally come naked into this new domain.
OMNI: What do you say to doubters?
MCKENNA: DMT is utterly defeating of the drug-phobia. We could get rid of all drugs but DMT and psilocybin and have thrown out nothing. The fact that DMT is so brief and intense makes it look as if it's designed for doubters. Someone will say, "I can't risk five hours on a drug. It's nuts." The unspoken thing they're saying is, "My career, my life, will be ruined, so keep it away from me." But if you say to these people, "Look, you're making these statements about drugs. Can you invest ten minutes? . . ."
DMT is inhaled. The entire trip last that long with no after- feelings. They, fools that they are, with a naive version of linear time, think, "Well, ten minutes, How bad can that be? Then you have them. If they won't join after that, they'll at least shut up.
OMNI: Do you think there is such a thing as a bad trip?
MCKENNA: A trip that causes you to learn faster than you want is what most people call a bad trip. Most people try to hold back on the learning inherent in drugs. But sometimes the drug releases the information and says, "Here's what you need to know." The information may be, "You treat people wrong!" and nobody wants to hear that or, "You have some habits you need to think seriously about," and who wants to do that?
OMNI: How can you advocate drugs so strongly when such pain, disruption, and chaos may be associated with taking them?
MCKENNA: We should talking about the word ecstasy. In our world, ruled by Madison Avenue, ecstasy has come to mean the way you feel when you buy a Mercedes and can afford it. This is not the real meaning. Ecstasy is a complex emotion containing elements of you, fear, terror, triumph, surrender, and empathy. What has replaced our prehistoric understanding of this complex of ecstasy now is the word comfort, a tremendously bloodless notion. Drugs are not comfortable, and anyone who thinks they are comfortable or even escapist should not toy with drugs unless they're willing to get their noses rubbed in their own stuff.
OMNI: What people specifically should not take them?
MCKENNA: People who are mentally unstable, under enormous pressure, or operating equipment that the lives of hundreds of people depend on. Or the fragile ones among us -- those to whom you wouldn't give a weekend airline ticket to Paris, those you wouldn't expect to guide you out of the Yukon. Some people have been so damaged by life that boundary dissolution is not helpful to them. These people are trying to maintain boundaries, their functionality. They should be honored and supported and not encouraged to take drugs. If because of genetic or cultural or psychological factors it's not for you, then it's not for you.
We're not asking everybody to feel that they must take drugs, but rather, just as a woman should be free to control her body, for heaven's sake, a person should also be free to control his or her mind. Everyone should be free to do it and be well informed of the option. Drug information isn't that much different from sex information. We make a gesture toward sex education in schools. And we've come a long way. We no longer make adulterers stitch large letters on the fronts of their clothing. But the issues of drugs are more complicated because there's a vast spectrum, from aspirin to heroin, and each has to be evaluated on its own strengths and weaknesses.
OMNI: Would you want education of the joys of drugs in high schools?
MCKENNA: Absolutely, because these kids are already self- educating and informing each other through an underground body of unsanctioned, scientifically unexamined knowledge. We stand with the issues of drugs where we were with sex in the Twenties and Thirties. You learn by rumor. So people have funny ideas, knowing far more about crack than they know about mescaline or psilocybin.
Animal life has been transfused with something either willfully descended into matter or trapped by some cosmic drama. Something in an unseen dimension is acting as an attractor for our forward movement in understanding.
MCKENNA: It's a point in the future that affects us in the present. For example, if you were to do your Christmas shopping in July, then Christmas is an attractor for your summer shopping habits. Our model that everything is pushed by the past into the future, by the necessity of causality, is wrong. There are actual attractors ahead of us in time -- like the gravitational field of a planet. Once you fall under an attractor's influence, your trajectory is diverted.
OMNI: Does the attractor have a kind of intelligence?
MCKENNA: I think so. It's what we have naively built our religion around: God, totem. It's an extradimensional source of immense caring and reflection for the human enterprise.
OMNI: How will science explore the after-death state?
MCKENNA: By sending enough people into this other dimension to satisfy themselves that this is eternity. Here the analogy of the New World holds: A few lost sailors and shipwreck victims like myself are coming back, saying, "There was no edge of the world. There was this other thing. Not death and dissolution, not sea monsters and catastrophe, but valleys, rivers, cities of gold, highways." It will be a hard thing to swallow, but then the scientists can go back to doing science on after-death states. They don't have to throw out their method.
OMNI: Where is your hope?
MCKENNA: With psychology and young people. They have what we never had: older people who went through a psychedelic phase. I'm meeting old freaks in Berlin, London, who are mentoring this thing and trying to keep it away from what we perceive as our mistakes, mainly political confrontationalism. LSD was a direct frontal assault on society. An inspirited undergraduate in biochemistry with his roommate's $20,000 trust fund can turn out 5 to 10 million hits of this drug in a long weekend. This immediately created pyramids of criminal activity of such size and potential earning power that the government reacted as though a gun had been pointed at its head. Which it had. The proper strategy is stealth, subversion, and boring from within.
OMNI: Terence, my friend, does anything scare you?
MCKENNA: Madness. People always ask, "Will I die on drug A, B, or C?" That's the wrong question. Of course you can die, but what is at risk is your sanity, because it seems as though the deconstruction of reality has no bottom, and you can just move out into these places. I worry about not being able to contextualize these things, losing the thread allowing me to return to the human community. We're trying to build bridges here, not just sail off.
OMNI: How do you see the future?
MCKENNA: If history goes off endlessly into the future, it will be about scarcity, preservation of privilege, forced control of populations, the ever-more-sophisticated use of ideology to enchain and delude people. We are at the breakpoint. It's like when a woman comes to term. At a certain point, if the child is not severed from the mother and launched into its own separate existence, toxemia will set in and create a huge medical crisis.
The mushrooms said clearly, "When a species prepares to depart for the stars, the planet will be shaken to its core." All evolution has pushed for this moment, and there is no going back. What lies ahead is a dimension of such freedom and transcendence, that once in place, the idea of returning to the womb will be preposterous. We will live in the imagination. We will quickly become unrecognizable to our former selves because we're now defined by our limitations: the laws of gravity; the need to eat, excrete, and make money. We have the will to expand infinitely into pleasure, caring, attention, and connectedness. If nothing more -- and it's a lot more -- it's permission to hope.
Dimethyltryptamine is chemically related to the LSD, psilocybin class of hallucinogenic drugs. It is a serotonin agonist; that is, it mimics the neurotransmitter serotonin, but interferes with its normal action. This class of drugs enhances the brain's sensitivity to many kinds of incoming information. As an agonist, DMT locks into receptors of neurons usually available to serotonin and competes with -- often "winning out" over -- serotonin at the receptor site. To find out more about DMT's mechanism of action, we consulted leading neurobiologist and serotonin investigator, Dr. George Aghajanian of the Yale University School of Medicine.
AGHAJANIAN: I'm finding that except for the fact that is has a very short duration of action -- 30 to 45 minutes -- DMT has the same effects on various receptors, particularly the serotonin-2 (5-HT2) receptor, as the other hallucinogens -- LSD or mescaline -- that can have effects for up to eight hours.
OMNI: Is 5-HT2 a postsynaptic receptor?
AGHAJANIAN: Yes. DMT also works on a presynaptic receptor, but that is not the action responsible for its hallucinogenic effects.
OMNI: Since DMT binds at these receptors, does that mean it is found naturally in the brain?
AGHAJANIAN: Enzymes able to synthesize DMT exist in certain tissues, such as in the lungs. But there's no evidence that more than a trace of DMT exists in the body, not enough to have any pharmacological effect.
OMNI: What's the difference between DMT and LSD, psilocybin and so forth?
AGHAJANIAN: All the other psychedelic hallucinogens I've looked at in tissue -- brain slices -- have a remarkable prolonged effect. So it's interesting that in the same preparation, DMT has a short-lived effect corresponding to its brief action clinically.
OMNI: Why do the other psychedelics have more prolonged effects?
AGHAJANIAN: I think the other hallucinogens are taken up in lipid [fat] compartments of the brain, cell membranes, and elsewhere and that the drug is released slowly from these compartments. The persistence of effects depends on the continued presence of the drug. DMT is not very lipid soluble, so it's not stored in the lipid compartments and thus washes out rapidly.