Psychedelic Heroes: Terence McKenna
Terence McKenna was— and remains— a giant in the psychedelic community. However, his reach went much further than just those in the know of entheogens. McKenna became a pop culture icon, an author, lecturer and formidable advocate of psychedelics on the world stage. You’ve probably heard him name-checked in many of our other articles and blogs. You may even have tried the mushroom strain named in honour of him, McKennai! He was one of the few voices that remained loud, during the psychedelic wilderness, after the criminalisation of psychotropic substances in the early 1970s. Dying in 2000 of a brain tumour, it is sad to think that he did not get to see, or be part of, the current ‘psychedelic renaissance’. This includes the changes in law, and revival of research into the therapeutic benefits of these substances that he advocated so strongly for.
McKenna is an essential character to know about in your psychedelic education; a cultivator of both shrooms, and outlandish theories (some of which are currently being revisited). In many ways, society is only starting to catch up with him today.
Unusual From A Young Age
Terence McKenna was born in 1946 in Colorado, USA. From a young age he had unusual interests. There are not many 10 year olds who would choose to read the works of Carl Jung. It was also around this age he first learnt about magic mushrooms. He discovered and subsequently devoured the now iconic 1957 LIFE magazine article ‘Seeking The Magic Mushroom’. In 1963 McKenna delved further into psychedelic literature, reading Huxley’s ‘The Doors Of Perception’, as well as articles in The Village Voice. At this point the ‘psychedelic era’ was simmering away quietly, ready to burst into popular consciousness in 1965. McKenna claimed to have smoked cannabis every day since his teens, and had his first psychedelic experience with morning glory seeds.
In 1965 McKenna was accepted into the Tussman Experimental College of The University of California, Berkeley. During this time, through his study into Tibetan folk religion he discovered, and became intrigued by, shamanism. In 1967 (a year he dubbed his ‘opium and kabbala’ phase) he journeyed to Jerusalem. There he met his future wife, an ethnobotanist named Kathleen Harrison. Over the next couple of years McKenna travelled to Nepal to learn from shamans of the Tibetan Bon tradition. He also studied the Tibetan language and smuggled hashish.
In 1971 McKenna travelled with his brother Dennis, and three friends to the Columbian Amazon. They were on a mission to find the oo-koo-hee, a plant based mixture containing DMT. However, this changed when they discovered the abundant growth of Psilocybe cubensis in the area. Suddenly they were surrounded by something they had only previously read about in books. Of course the McKenna brothers set about experimenting with this new found bounty. Terence recounted he spoke to a divine voice, which he referred to as ‘Logos’. This, as well as his brother’s similarly profound experience lead to his exploration into the I Ching which would influence his future Novelty Theory.
McKenna graduated from Berkeley in 1975, having attained a degree in ecology, shamanism and the conservation of natural resources. Soon after this the brothers published a book based on their Amazonian adventure titled ‘The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens and the I Ching’. This trip would also be fruit for Mckenna’s 1993 publishing ‘True Hallucinations’.
Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide
Another fruit, as such, that they would bring back from their trip, was the shroom itself. The brothers had brought mushroom spores back with them, from the Amazon to America, and developed a technique to cultivate them at home. In 1976 they shared their findings in a book published under pseudonyms. By the time the revised edition of Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide was published in 1986, over 100,000 copies had been sold.
In the early 1980s McKenna began to make waves in the psychedelic community by speaking publicly on psychotropic substances. McKenna’s main focus was on natural psychedelics, stemming from his study of ethnobiology and shamanism. He believed that psychedelics that were connected to the Earth such as shrooms, cannabis, ayahuasca and DMT (a plant derivative) were avenues in which to explore our universe and history. McKenna spoke on numerous and diverse subjects, ranging from self-improvement, to extraterrestrial life, to the internet— which was just a fledgling invention at the time.
McKenna soon became something of a counterculture hero. He spoke at raves and festivals, and his voice featured on psychedelic and trance records. Timothy Leary described him as “one of the 5 or 6 most important people on the planet” and even “the Timothy Leary of the ‘90s”.
McKenna both formulated and popularised many different theories and beliefs. Here are a few of his most well known:
The Best Psychedelics are Natural:
McKenna was a strong believer that the best psychedelic substances to explore the mind were natural ones. Due to this he was not so enthusiastic about compounds that had been synthesized in a laboratory. He stated “I think drugs should come from the natural world…one cannot predict the long-term effects of a drug produced in a laboratory.” He also subscribed to the idea that the Earth is a living being in itself, explaining: “the planet has a kind of intelligence, it can actually open a channel of communication with an individual human being”
The Heroic Dose:
McKenna recommended the ‘Heroic Dose’, which he claimed was highly likely to provide a profound psychedelic experience. The ‘Heroic Dose’ consists of 5 grams of dried psilocybin mushrooms, taken on an empty stomach, in the dark, alone. McKenna explained that once you were “slain” by the mushroom (i.e. ego death) then the message of the universe would reveal itself to you.
Psilocybin Panspermia Speculation:
McKenna speculated that mushrooms were a highly intelligent alien life form. Having travelled through space as spores, and finding themselves on Earth, they are now trying to live alongside humanity. He stated: “ I think in a hundred years if people do biology they will think it quite silly that people once thought that spores could not be blown from one star system to another”
Stoned Ape Theory:
This is a theory that has recently been re-popularised by the mycologist Paul Stamets. This theory postulates that the evolution of ancient human was vastly accelerated due to the consumption of psychedelic mushrooms. For a more in depth exploration of this theory, click here.
McKenna formulated this pseudoscientific theory based on his exploration into the I Ching. Novelty theory postulates that time is made up of an endless swing between ‘novelty’ and ‘habit’. ‘Novelty’ being significant changes, events, innovations and developments, and ‘habit’ being repetition and stagnation. This theory is quite complex, so for a more detailed explanation, click here.
A regular theme, and title of one of McKenna’s books, archaic revival postulates that humanity is trying to heal itself from ‘sickness’. Parallels can be drawn with a body producing antibodies to cure disease, McKenna suggests that society is beginning to return to archaic values and habits. According to McKenna, these include; drug use, sexual liberation, experimental dance/music (including rock and roll and jazz), tattoos and piercings and surrealism, among others.
McKenna died in 2000 after a short battle with an aggressive form of brain cancer. He was only 53 years old. However, in an interview given in the months before his death, he said of his diagnosis;
‘It makes life rich and poignant. When it first happened, and I got these diagnoses, I could see the light of eternity…I mean, a bug walking across the ground moved me to tears’
Hopefully Psychedelic Heroes: Terence McKenna has gone some way to explain the importance of this dedicated psychonaut!