Feature Articles – The Hyper-dimensional ambassador
Terence McKenna was for some more guru than a man whose lifestyle had been moulded by very deep experiences of an alternative reality. For the rest of his life, he would strive to bring awareness of that dimension to our reality.
by Philip Coppens
When Terence McKenna was diagnosed with a brain tumour in May 1999, he asked the doctor whether his life of experimental drug taking might have contributed to the disease. His doctor stated that there was no evidence to say it did, but that there was suggestive evidence that cannabis might actually force brain tumours to shrink. McKenna then pointed out that this “suggestive evidence” must be erroneous, as otherwise he would never have developed one. The anecdote is typical of McKenna’s wit and reasoning, which propelled him into an almost guru-like status – though he never was or was even considered a guru in the negative meaning of the word. McKenna was not a pioneer per se. Most of the hallucinogenic research had already been performed in the early to middle parts of the 20th century by academics. If anything, McKenna was a child of the 1960s, graduating from UC Berkeley, majoring in ecology, resource conservation and shamanism – a typical Berkeley 1960 degree that was soon abandoned by the university where some suggest a whiff of cannabis can still be sensed on campus.
With his diploma in hand, McKenna set off for India and later the Amazon, where he studied the native hallucinogenic drugs used in various South American shamanic traditions. The specific search was for oo-koo-hé, a plant preparation containing DMT – dimethyltriptamine, a drug naturally produced by the brain. But study in the field implied student participation; rather than being caught up in the 1960s Western drug culture, here McKenna was confronted with the origins of the drug cult. Thus, at La Chorrera, at the urging of his brother, he allowed himself to be the subject of a psychedelic experiment which he claimed put him in contact with The Logos: an informative, hallucinatory voice nearly universal to the visionary experience.
His brother Dennis would remain an instrumental part of his life. Together they were amongst the first who brought back their experiences to the Western world. But though they were scientists, they were not reporting to other academics; they were reporting to the general public about the growth, use and knowledge these plants could teach Mankind. That the Amazonian town of Iquitos is now a major centre for “the hallucinogenic tourist” is largely the result of McKenna and the following he created to witness a native drug culture, rather than the consumerised Western equivalent of it. The drug experience in its native setting was not about pleasure; it was about knowledge acquisition; it was not about escapism; it was engaging with Nature and looking into the mirror. Terence McKenna has been described as humanity’s first ambassador to the hyper-dimensional inhabitants. That is not necessarily true – he was however the first Westerners sent back from that dimension with a message to the Western world, from those denizens.
McKenna advocated the use of drugs, and particularly organic hallucinogens, specifically ayahuasca, which contained DMT. McKenna furthermore believed that his experiences through DMT were real and spiritually significant – they were not hallucinations; they opened a doorway into another dimension. DMT was a substance native to the brain and ayahuasca played with its normal operations, thus opening the door, for a limited period of time. It allowed the mind to enter another dimension.
Once on the other side, McKenna stated that there were other forms of life in the universe. With the rising popularity of UFOs, McKenna began to preach that this phenomenon was linked with his “hyperspace”. The DMT experience was similar if not identical to the “abduction experience”, in which he believed the machine elves of hyperspace were seen as aliens in UFOs. It was merely the latest realisation, after their manifestation as faeries, elves or angels. McKenna mapped the history of drug usage, specifically of DMT and psilocybin, arguing that both drugs had been used throughout the ages in Mankind’s effort to enter that dimension and speak with these otherworldly creatures. He believed these denizens had helped Mankind throughout the ages. The extra-ordinary and anomalous wisdom that had often gone into ancient monuments (from the pyramids in Egypt to the equally enigmatic giant constructions in Middle and Southern America) might have been inspired and helped through these denizens: giving shamans specific information on building techniques – like these denizens had given the shamans specific information on other subjects, specifically medicine. McKenna would argue that if cultures across the worlds had built pyramids for their gods, then this was not evidence of physical contact. McKenna believed that the shamans of each culture might have entered “hyperspace”, where they made contact with an intelligence that had been around for a long time. The various cultures, across time and space, that contacted it, would come away with the same message. His historical study included an analysis of our modern era, where “true drugs” had been outlawed, but substitute drugs such as cigarettes, caffeine and sugar were widely available. McKenna found the notion of outlawing a plant absurd, and he viciously indicted the societal power structure that made possession of hallucinogens a capital crime, while peddling refined sugar to children and subsidizing tobacco and alcohol production. The latter had addictive qualities and negative health effects, whereas his drugs – specifically DMT – had never shown any addictive quality. Nevertheless, it was a Class A drug.
In “Food of the Gods”, largely the conclusion of his historical studies, McKenna advanced the startling theory that the evolutionary track leading to the development of modern humans was sparked by the consumption of psilocybin mushrooms by cavemen. We would not have been “us” without the mushroom. Specifically, he argued that psilocybin produced an enhanced visual acuity, theorising that primates who lived in areas where the mushrooms thrived, gained an evolutionary advantage in hunting. The mushrooms stimulated the verbal centres of the brain. With consistent use over time, the primates began to associate the sounds with communicative concepts, resulting in language.
He extrapolated from this premise towards our current society, whereby he felt that people whose life was void of the hallucinogenic experience were not truly “human”: the liberating and wisdom receiving experience of “the trip” was absent, making them more like cattle, more easy to manipulate by leaders – in short, they were not enlightened. He framed these findings in the context of various mystery traditions, which preached that through specific techniques, some of which were drug based, the initiate was “reborn” as an “Illuminatus”, an enlightened being – someone who had seen the divine light of hyperspace. From his very first experiences, the denizens of hyperspace had given McKenna a mathematical formula which became known as “novelty” and “Timewave Zero”. At first, McKenna had no apparent use for it. It was said to be a system that showed how “new things” – novelty – would spring about in our timeline. Time itself was a fractal wave of novelty – the output from this wave. Time was thus built around a series of new ideas and paradigm shifts: events that changed the world.
The problem was how to anchor the formula in our calendar – where the wave would collapse into a zero point. After some study, McKenna decided that the anchor should be on December 21, 2012 AD, which he later also identified as the end-date of the Mayan calendar.
The Timewave has remained a subject of intrigue after McKenna’s death, specifically with the September 11, 2001 attacks or the December 26, 2004 Asian tsunami. McKenna argued that 2012 would be an “eschaton” – a tremendous collapse of time, forcing us to enter a new time. Though that might indeed be the purpose of the Timewave, the denizens did not anchor it in our timeline – McKenna did. Hence, the 2012 anchor is not a certitude, but only a theory. Though the Timewave does largely coincide with significant events that the Western media reports on, no scientific classification of what comprises novelty on a global scale means – nor how to time it. Did the world change at September 11, or when Bush decided to invade Afghanistan? And though it enthralled the media, was it truly a global event? And does it matter whether or not Mankind does change, or merely that the event that might change Mankind happens? These questions remain… McKenna was a prolific speaker: if chosen as an ambassador by the denizens of hyperspace, their choice was excellent. McKenna combined a unique voice with a specific, intriguing method of delivery, whether in public or in private. Many of his phrases were used by shamanic-inspired popular artists, from The Shamen to Eat Static.
I had the pleasure of meeting McKenna twice and briefly corresponding with him. At our first meeting in July 1995, I was largely sceptical of the man behind the message, classifying him in a category of people who say a lot, but with little of any true value. But his public lectures and interventions, as well as private discussions, quickly revealed that McKenna was very glossy, but with a most intriguing core.
He was a man of many layers; for most, he was a man prophesying the benefits of drug usage. A smaller group realised that he did not see drug usage as a recreational activity, but considered the drug user as a priest, maintaining the sacred bond between us and the Otherworld – the Logos – God. A small circle realised that by following in McKenna’s footsteps, they would be able to retrieve real knowledge from that dimension. But it seems that by 1999 McKenna was tiring from constantly travelling and his missionary work. Perhaps it was merely temporarily, hoping to surrender himself more to the exploration of hyperspace, rather than talking about it. Does a priest merely have to talk about God to his flock, or have private time to seek out the divine as well?
On May 22, 1999, McKenna’s 52 year old mind exploded. Hallucinations cut in like shards of glass; taste and smell were bent out of shape; and he was swallowed up by a labyrinth that, as he later put it, “somehow partook of last week’s dreams, next week’s fears, and a small restaurant in Dublin.” Then his blood pressure dropped and he collapsed, the victim of a brain seizure. Like John Travolta in Phenomenon, McKenna had achieved a physical condition that allowed him access to another dimension – but it would also be a fatal one. McKenna was given a six to nine months life-expectancy. Experimental treatment seemed to give the desired effect and by November, scans showed the tumour had gone into remission. However, it was clear that Terence had been summoned to definitively pass through “The Gate”, and the tumour returned. He finally passed through – this time without a return – on April 3, 2000. Death had never been a specific topic for McKenna. The door to hyperspace had swung so many times… But having been given a “finality”, he realised that living in the knowledge that one will die, made life rich and poignant. He said: “I could see the light of eternity, a la William Blake, shining through every leaf. I mean, a bug walking across the ground moved me to tears.” McKenna realised that given a limited amount of time focused the brain: “If most people took it seriously, a hell of a lot more would be done with more attention to quality and intent.”
He had always assumed he would see 2012, but now wouldn’t. “Very few prophets live to see their prophecies – Joachim de Fiore didn’t, Marx didn’t. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, it doesn’t need cheerleading. It’s built into the morphology of space and time. That’s all a very funny thing about me and my career that’s different from Leary, different from all of these people: this strange relationship to prophecy and the eschaton. My fans don’t understand any of that stuff, and my critics don’t understand much of it either. So we all just have to put up with it until it clears itself out of the way.”
But at the same time, he did not want to make his death into an event, like dying on the net or entering discussions about cryogenics. “I think part of what death is about biologically is reshuffling the gene-pool. If genes were to last forever, death would never have entered the scheme of things.” Until the end, he continued to think and preach… This article appeared in Sub Rosa Magazine 1 (June 2005).