Terence McKenna’s Psychedelic Compressionism
Updated: Mar 20
This excerpt forms the draft introductory section of the chapter “Timewave” from Terence McKenna: The Strange Attractor (a biography by Graham St John, forthcoming with MIT Press).
Terence McKenna, Lisbon, 1994, on the set of Manual of Evasion LX94, directed by Edgar Pêra. Courtesy of Edgar Pêra.
But upmeyant Prospector you sprout all your abel and woof your wings. . . 
In a favored passage from Finnegans Wake, Terence McKenna lit upon the word “prospector.” It was a status with which he had identified as a young rock hound who upgraded the scouring of Black Canyon for fossils to a quest for the “stone” of alchemy. This quest eventually turned over an idea. Originally called the Eschaton (actually originally named the "Eschatron," but that is another story), the Timewave was his identity-defining artifice. McKenna was an avid prospector who loaded this device with a kaleidoscope of signifiers: “mathematical mandala,” “score of the bio-cosmic symphony,” “holographic modular hierarchy,” “hyper-novelty” map, “interference pattern” detector, “puzzle garden,” “fractal time,” “time machine.” It might have been the stand-up philosopher’s showstopping act, but more than a “bit” in a stage routine, the Timewave was a performance, vision, prophecy, theory, and marketed software with an oracular application all rolled into one. An enigmatic conjuration animated by his own doubts and hopes, insecurities and desires, it was cardinal to the myth of Terence McKenna, the substance of his inner workings, his spiritual compass. His opus.
There are several elements to this mckennaism with which we’re already familiar. McKenna hacked the I Ching to uncover its lost calendrical function. The Psilocybe logos had revealed a “hyper-temporal” vision in which historical time could be charted in cycles called “waves” that flow in both temporal directions and which are resonant across time. As a Neoplatonist, McKenna early contemplated that when all the boundaries are dissolved, there remains the plenum, “the one.” While pursued from the vantage of a comparative religionist, an abiding fascination with eschatology illustrated that his break from the Church was far from clean. Hazelle McKenna’s date of death signified the start of the original 64-day wave. The wave-of-time also resonated with the morphology of DNA, which the brothers imagined could, at the height of their psi-fi fantasy, be switched on with psilocybin and harmine. And like any good myth, the prophecy was resilient, an end-of-time fixation sustained, despite the false starts, to his own end.
The Timewave gave expression to a long-embraced alchemy. While the brothers trekked to the Amazon in search of the lapis, Terence emerged from the jungle with the vision that “the stone” lay in the future as the Transcendental Object at the End of Time. The union of opposites was to be an event horizon that would collapse the future and the past (and death/birth, subject/object, creativity/teleology). He understood that he had been gifted a predictive model that could not only plot the peaks and troughs of history, but pinpointed its end (i.e. 21 December 2012).
If we can imagine 2012 as a stage or film production, the inspiration was La Chorrera, which in 1971 was the principal location for field-trialing a modest version of the later production. He may have failed to achieve the cosmic terminus a “DNA year” from the day his mom woofed her wings, but Terence had acquired a taste for conquering death and squatting eternity. Having known the thrill of surviving an apocalypse, he grew compelled to produce a sequel that was super-optimized and at greater scale. The script was layered with poetry and prophecy. In the fullness of time, Timewave Zero featured an evolving bricolage of insight that honored and augmented the original revelations. Like a trademark brew of known and trusted ingredients, the Timewave was decocted, refined, and served for increasingly popular audiences. McKenna sometimes explained how his dimensional travails inaugurated an exchange relationship brokered with the habitués of hyperspace he recognized as “meme traders” – those who “trade hyperspatial notions from across the cosmos.” These entities courted him like “primitive art collectors,” and in exchange for what he knew about the I Ching they gave him their model of time. The result was a device as mutable and self-replicating as the original elf gift bearers. As the trickster warranted, the original quantification was established through a set of operations that were at once logically rigorous as they were intuitive. Less interested in the precise origins or algorithm of the Timewave, or its transdimensional source, this chapter documents a phenomenon suffused with the familiars, fantasies, and foibles of its architect – an exploration that opens a window on his soul.
Having finally returned to the U.S. from his exotic travels in the outer and inner realms, McKenna developed a unique naturphilosophie. Implicit was a theory of novelty in which a system expands to a “density of connection” where every point in the system is cotangent to every other. His novelty theory relied on the observation of two interrelated principles. First, from its inception, the universe has grown more and more complex, a process of complexification affecting all matter and energy in the universe (including notably humans, the apotheosis of complexity in the universe). Second, the movement towards complexity accelerates asymptotically, such that, as was related in the late nineties, the amount of novelty produced in a billion years five billion years ago is now generated in just twenty years. When it came to offering abridged versions of the long view of evolution, McKenna was a convincing rhetorician. The big picture was broken down for John Horgan over lunch atop the Millennium Hotel next to the World Trade Centre in Manhattan in May 1999. It was two weeks before his seizure, and two years before a local event that should surely have pulled serious zeros on his charts. From the Big Bang on, Horgan was apprised, the universe has been complexifying, with each level of complexity becoming the platform for further ascensions into complexity. “So fusion in early stars creates heavy elements and carbon. That becomes the basis for molecular chemistry. That becomes the basis for photobionic life. That becomes the basis for eukaryotic stuff. That becomes the basis for multicellular organisms, that for higher animals, that for culture, that for machine symbiosis, and on and on.” By contrast to the “cheerful” gradualism of Newton, the acceleration of novelty was such that “we’re slamming into omniscience.” At this rate, “we’re redefining ourselves so fast that we are becoming unrecognizable to ourselves.” With connectivity and acceleration as its defining characteristics, then, novelty became the “primary term” applicable to temporal systems, not unlike the way charge, spin, velocity, and angular momentum are primary to the description of any physical system. The thesis had been set forth in rap after rap over twenty-five years. In the immediate wake of La Chorrera, the organismic process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead gave McKenna the inspiration to decipher his waveform as an expression of temporal dynamics. From Whitehead there derived an understanding of the alternation of habit and novelty in the universe, with the idea of nature’s ebb and flow traceable to Pythagoras, Heraclitus, and the Tao.
Via the English mathematician McKenna grew to comprehend purpose in a complex universe, an understanding with far greater appeal than the precept that the universe is driven by chance, that nature is mute, or that humans are random actors. In Process and Reality, Whitehead offered grist for a form of panpsychism encapsulated in concrescence, meaning the growing together of many processes into one. McKenna surmised that everything flows together, like a “tightening gyre.” “The future is not yet completed,” he wrote, “but it is conditioned.” Out of the set of all possible events, certain events are mysteriously selected to undergo, in Whitehead's parlance, “the formality of actually occurring.”
Rupert Sheldrake was similarly disposed. As the two bounced ideas off each other for the better part of two decades, Whitehead, the process theorist, was the beacon to whom McKenna and Sheldrake concresced. Sheldrake’s “morphic resonance,” neither formed entirely by chance nor governed by a system of fixed laws, held that the universe is an evolving system of conserved memories, or habits, an idea informing McKenna’s understanding of the conservation of complexity in evolution. It was Sheldrake who suggested his friend name his wave’s novelty-conserving tendency “habit,” and McKenna occasionally referred to his “special theory of morphogenesis.” While never entirely convinced of McKenna’s ad hoc enthusiasms, Sheldrake in turn was inspired by the creative drive inherent to the ingression of novelty McKenna envisioned.
In the psychedelic prospector’s estimation, he and Sheldrake were complementary trailblazers of Compressionism. Dedicated to the radical revision of time, “Compressionists,” or “Psychedelic Compressionists,” hold that “the world is growing more and more complex, compressed, knitted together, and therefore holographically complete at every point.” This style of thought appears to have been incubated at La Chorrera 2.0 when Terence faced-off with the Great Compression of his birth-death day. Imagined as the intellectual cadre of a loose panpsychic movement, “Compressionism” was introduced at LA’s Philosophical Research Society in October 1987. McKenna’s novelty theory, Sheldrake’s morphic resonance, Abraham’s dynamic attractors, and Frank Barr’s fractal hierarchies were embryonic of the new paradigm. “It's really the great intellectual adventure of our time,” McKenna stated, while qualifying that Compressionism is unlike other paradigms since, rather than an abstraction sanctioned by a professional elite it is an understanding of the world that is “felt.” With a “reemergence of the presence of the spirit” as its metier, “the discovery of relativism with regard to consciousness” was rated to be the main cultural force behind this movement, implying not only the significance of psychedelic drugs and hallucinogenic plants, but “media . . . literary expectation, reorientation of the senses through design, urban planning, the entire spectrum of effects which feeds consciousness back into itself.”
Compressionism may have been little more than an inspired moment that folded in upon itself in the wake of McKenna, but its qualities are noteworthy. The moment was pregnant with the transformative humanism championed throughout his career, a theory of evolutionary change in which humanity is not only cast a staring role, but is pivotal to an ultimate transform. If the universe is a “novelty-conserving engine,” then, as evidenced in the poetry of Blake, the equations of Einstein, and the paintings of Rembrandt, and so forth, we are the most exulted and consequential ingression of novelty in the universe. Through the seventies, absorbing the ideas of Ilya Prigogine, Manfred Eigen, Eric Jantsch, and Kenneth E. Boulding, among others, evidence was accumulating of “a counterforce against the excesses of Social Darwinism, Marxism, sociobiology, behaviorism, and other isms thought responsible for displacing humanity from our rightful place in the cosmos.” The enthusiasm shone in a Zygon review of Boulding’s Ecodynamics: A New Theory of Societal Evolution. The review – likely McKenna’s first – was supportive of Boulding’s rejection of the fallacy that humans are mere spectators, giving credence to the idea that humanity is a catalyst in “the becoming of the cosmos.” These ideas are consistent with the visions of immortality visited upon McKenna throughout his life. The ultimate novelty was perplexing and unimaginable, but the panoramic vistas frequently painted in dense sprawling language before hyper-attentive audiences depicted humanity poised on the threshold of the divine.
At the conclusion of the Q&A at Fort Mason, San Francisco, in December 1998, not much more than a year before the end of the millennium, and his life, McKenna struck the nerve of the zeitgeist. His model made a dramatic contrast, he thought, to “what the competition is peddling,” i.e. the received wisdom of positivist science that cannot regard the universe, the Earth, and its life-forms, as anything more than the product of a “cosmic accident.” In this story, in which we dwell “on an ordinary star, at the edge of a typical galaxy, in an ordinary part of space and time,” humans are essentially disenchanted – devoid of meaning. But if he were right, “that the universe has an appetite for novelty,” Terence enthused as the curtains were descending, “then we are the apple of its eye.” That the universe was purportedly born from nothing at a single point and without discernible purpose – i.e. the Big Bang – is what he often called “the limit case for credulity.” In other words, if you can believe that, you can believe anything. By moving the “ultimate singularity” to the end of the world, he sought to turn the consensus at the bedrock of physics on its head. As had been the vision humped from La Chorrera, time possesses a spiral structure in which events are organized into tighter and tighter spirals that lead inevitably to a “final time” imagined to be like the center of a black hole – infinite novelty. It was as if we were being sucked into the body of eternity – a temporal rather than gravitational “black hole.” Perturbing the laws of physics, this event horizon invoked an intelligent design, resonating with Whitehead’s conjectures “about an aboriginal god that is growing toward itself through time.”
That the future – and perhaps God – casts a shadow over the present is endemic to McKenna’s thinking. Integral to the inverted telos in his cosmogony and central to the teachings he received in tryptamine consciousness, history is not that which blunders along blindly. It is being pulled by a strange attractor lying in the future which “throws off reflections of itself,” which ricochet into the past, illuminating mystics, saints and visionaries. Moreover, with fragmentary glimpses of eternity we can build a “map of the future.” At times, the strange attractor was imagined to be like a spinning mirror-ball thatsends out scintillations of light that sparkles throughout the cosmic disco. “All around this transcendental object, and at greater and lesser distances, are all the people who have ever lived.” And if you are a Buddha, a Christ, a Mohammed, or a guru you are just “dumb lucky” to be struck by a divine reflection from the transcendental mirror-ball at the end of time, its thousands of twinkling, refractive surfaces representing “religions, scientific theories, gurus, works of art, poetry, great orgasms, great soufflés, great paintings, etc.” Given his own awareness of the great attractor, McKenna may have himself caught a refracted scintilla.“Something is calling us out of nature and sculpting us in it’s own image,” he breaths on “Timewave Zero,” the release produced from a live performance at San Francisco’s Transmission Theatre on February 26-27, 1993. Presaging Morpheus from The Matrix, he continues: “You can feel it. You can feel it in your own dreams. You can feel it in your own trips. You can feel that we’re approaching the cusp of a catastrophe, and that beyond that cusp we are unrecognizable to ourselves. The wave of novelty that has rolled unbroken since the birth of the universe has now focused and coalesced itself in our species.” The statement iterates an animate mythology which, in conversation with acid-house artists The Shamen, was earlier transmitted on their single “Re: Evolution,” likely the single most popular promotion of McKenna’s apocalyptica.
History is ending. I mean, we are to be the generation that witnesses the revelation of the purpose of the cosmos. History is the shock wave of the Eschaton. History is the shock wave of eschatology, and what this means for those of us who will live through this transition into hyperspace, is that we will be privileged to see the greatest release of compressed change probably since the birth of the universe. The twentieth century is the shudder that announces the approaching cataracts of time over which our species and the destiny of this planet is about to be swept.
Throughout his career, McKenna was not only a vocal enactor of his own prophecy, but a loquacious advocate of the botany, practices, and conditions optimal for explorers to reconnoitre with the Transcendental Object. While the eschaton might never be fully revealed, it could be sensed in augmented states. History is characterized by growing anticipation, with the entire back catalogue of apocalyptic and millenarian movements amounting to, as the mushroom informed, the “shockwave of the eschaton.” What’s more, the extraordinary supranovel event ahead frustrates all efforts to understand it. “We’ve drifted near some kind of cataract, a chronosynclastic infundibulum,” announced the psychedelic sage, referencing a phrase used by Kurt Vonnegut in The Sirens of Titan, denoting “a black hole in the narrative.”
The “transcendental object at the end of time “shares elements in common with the ideas of anomalist Charles Fort, for whom the future acted as “a kind of occult attractor or magnet, pulling everything in the past and the present toward its own superstate.” But while I have seen no evidence of a direct Fortean influence, the ideas of French geologist, paleontologist, philosopher, and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, were formative. In his controversial The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard argued that humans and the universe are coevolving toward greater complexity and consciousness, and that evolution would culminate at an Omega Point, a fully realized Christ. The book pursued a unique perspective on “orthogenesis” – i.e. that evolution is predetermined toward a future goal or end: Christogenesis. McKenna made surprising little comment about the book in later years, perhaps for the reason that The Phenomenon of Man grew popular within the new age awakening that he was loath to be stitched up with. And this despite the reality that Christian myth and metaphor were freely grifted and grafted by the intelligent designer in a fashion inspired by the French Jesuit. “We are the crowning achievement of the evolutionary process. Let's not betray it. Let's make it the ascent to angelic being that is, I am sure, the intention of the Gaian Mind.” Asked where he diverged from Teilhard, McKenna once replied that “he's me without drugs or immediacy.” His own position, he felt, would probably earn him greater credence if his “object” were in the remote future, as is the case with the Omega Point, rather than arriving within his own lifetime under the aegis of accelerating complexity; a theory that drew celebration and castigation as the weirdest candidate on the apocalyptarian circuit.
Although McKenna sought to establish the Timewave as a mathematical theory, it better represented an epic vision in which history is a “strategy for the conquest of dimensionality.” In the future forecast, humanity was to be released from three-dimensional space, with the consequent transit to hyperspace imagined as a “continuation of a universal program of self-extension and transcendence that can be traced back to the earliest and most primitive kind of protoplasm.” This epic story of transformation was a vision of liberation thought to hold resonant patterns: freedom from the tyranny of matter, the soul’s liberation from the body (in death), human species escape from the planet, from habit, from the unconscious, from history. As a McLuhanesque transit “from the 3-D animal to the 4-D posthuman mind,” this concrescence was nothing short of a quantum leap into the imagination. Ongoing pronouncements around this theme amounted to a spinning vortex of speculation the accumulation of which seemed to echo the accelerating advent of novelty implicit to the Timewave itself.
One event appears to retain centrifugal value within the vortex: the passing of Hazelle McKenna. The Timewave can be read as a sustained meditation on death and a compensation for the absence of closure in the wake of Hazelle’s passing. Enshrining her date of death as the ground zero event, the original wave-of-time was the advanced mechanism of a grief stricken son. Decisions at the turn of the seventies were shaped by the trauma of grief, with the early charts serving as a means to extend her memory. As the expression of bereaved young men, the early modeling permitted the reanimation of Hazelle McKenna in charts, graphs, and mathematical mandalas. The “novelty” here was not so much her life – in which case, her date of birth could have been recognized as significant – but the impact of her death on Terence, who had been denied her death bed and last rites, who was generally guilt ridden about his miscreance, and who subsequently sought redemption. Curiously, Terence shares something in common with futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil: grief, and in particular grief associated with loss of a parent. In Kurzweil’s case, his “singularitarian transhumanism” is reckoned to have been inspired by the desire to reanimate his father. In both cases we find expression of the “Promethean assumption that humanity has the power within itself to solve even the daunting challenge of death.” Hazelle’s DoD does not appear to have been retained in later modeling, when the discovery of atomic energy and the dropping of “Little Boy” stood out as the ultra-novel event at the inception of a final 67 year cycle. And yet Terence’s grief permeates the Timewave, a device that celebrates victory over mortality.
An obsessive accounting of the Timewave such as has been attempted here risks discounting the unique abilities of its creator — abilities that are difficult to textualize. The effort to provide a rationale for this most syzygyztic of contrivances seems destined to neglect the levity that the stand-up eschatologist carried to hundreds of public appearances — the raps that were the chief means of McKenna’s transmission. In doing so, we overlook how the Timewave may have been among the most obsessive jokes in the 20th century. Indeed, the Timewave sometimes comes across as an elaborate caper, a deliberate hoax, a trickster's device perhaps more pataphysical than metaphysical. After all, McKenna held the French symbolist Alfred Jarry in esteem, naming Pataphysics as a significant novelty peak in the path towards the Transcendental Object — a collision of the past and the future which also lies at the intersection of dada and gnosis. If a joke, the Transcendental Object appears to have been among the grandest; a complex pun eking out its own career. But the dadagnostic transcendentalist departed without delivering the punchline. In the trailing era of escalating crises that echo a lifetime of premonitions, the grand jest lingers like a haunting fart in a cosmic elevator.
1. James Joyce, Finnegans Wake.
2. Terence McKenna, “Understanding and Imagination in the Light of Nature,”
Philosophical Research Society, Los Angeles, 17-18 October 1987,
3. Terence McKenna, “Mind and Time, Spirit and Matter.” In this variation of the story, the “hyperdimensional map of spacetime” was not sourced from the mushroom "teacher," but was the product of transactions with “self-transforming elf machines” during DMT flash episodes. Terence McKenna, “Understanding the Chaos at History's End,” Esalen Institute, California, June 23, 1989. The Library of Consciousness, https://www.organism.earth/library/document/understanding-the-chaos-at-historys-end.
4. Terence McKenna and Dennis McKenna, The Invisible Landscape, 1975, 151.
5. John Horgan, Rational Mysticism: Spirituality Meets Science in the Search for Enlightenment (New York, NY: Mariner Books, 2003), 186-187.
6. Charles Hayes, “A Conversation with Terence McKenna,” in Charles Hayes, Tripping: An Anthology of True-Life Psychedelic Adventures (London: Penguin, 2000), 411-449 [437, 441].
7. Terence McKenna, “Temporal Resonance,” ReVISION: The Journal of Consciousness and Change, vol. 10 no. 1 (Summer 1987): 25–30 .
8. Terence McKenna, “New Maps of Hyperspace,” in The Archaic Revival, 90–102 .
9. Terence McKenna, True Hallucinations: Being an Account of the Author’s Extraordinary Adventures in the Devil’s Paradise (New York, HarperCollins, 1994), 169.
10. Tom Hodgkinson, “Interview with Terence McKenna,” The Idler, no, 1, 22 August (1993): https://web.archive.org/web/20141001032028/http-//idler.co.uk/article/terence-mckenna-interview/.htm
11. Terence McKenna, 1994, “The Plot Thickens, the Stakes Rise,” Maui, Hawaii, The Library of Consciousness, https://www.organism.earth/library/document/plot-thickens-stakes-rise.
12. David Jay Brown & Rebecca McClen, “Interview: Terence K. McKenna,” Critique: A Journal Exposing Consensus Reality, #31 (Summer 1989): 58-60 .
13. Terence McKenna, “Understanding and Imagination in the Light of Nature,” Philosophical Research Society, Los Angeles, 17-18 October 1987, Day 1, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_km2CclJYg.
14. Terence K. McKenna, “Ecodynamics: A New Theory of Societal Evolution by Kenneth E. Boulding,” Zygon, vol 16, no 1 (1981): 100-101 .
15. Terence McKenna, “Dreaming Awake at the End of Time,” 13 December 1998, Fort Mason, San Francisco, California.
16. Terence McKenna, True Hallucinations, 198.
17. In Hayes, “A Conversation with Terence McKenna,” 437.
18. From “Re: Evolution” on The Shamen’s 1992 album Boss Drum. Written by McKenna, Angus, and West (Evolution Music). http://www.deoxy.org/t_re-evo.htm.
19. Terence McKenna, “Taxonomy of Illusion”; Terence McKenna, “Approaching Timewave Zero, Views From the Edge of History, Part II,” Magical Blend, 45 (1995): 26-28,30-32,105 .
20. From Space Time Continuum with Terence McKenna, Alien Dreamtime (album, Astralwerks, 1993).
21. From “Re: Evolution.”
22. Terence McKenna, in Sheldrake, McKenna, and Abraham, Chaos, Creativity and Cosmic Consciousness, 5.
23. In Hayes, “A Conversation with Terence McKenna,” 439.
24. Jeffrey Kripal, Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), 137.
25. Once asked why he does not talk about Teilhard, McKenna admitted that he was a major influence: “Maybe the reason I don't mention it is that my mother was very big on pushing it on me!” T McKenna, at Wetlands Preserve, New York City, 28 July 1998. Transcribed by Abrupt, https://www.abrupt.org/abruptlog/terence-mckenna-at-wetlands-preserve-nyc/.
26. Terence McKenna, “Psychedelic Empowerment and the Environmental Crisis: Re-awakening our Connection to the Gaian Mind,” in J. P. Harpignies, ed., Visionary Plant Consciousness: The Shamanic Teachings of the Plant World (Rochester VT: Inner Traditions, 2007): 56-62 .
27. Gyrus & John Eden, “Interview with Terence McKenna,” 11 October 1996. ICA, London, http://www.capnasty.org/taf/issue4/mckenna.htm.
28. In Rupert Sheldrake, Terence McKenna, and Ralph Abraham, The Evolutionary Mind: Conversations on Science, Imagination & Spirit (Rinebeck, NY: Monkfish, 2005), 48.
29. In Hayes, “A Conversation with Terence McKenna,” 441.
30. See Egil Asprem, “The Magus of Silicon Valley: Immortality, Apocalypse, and God Making in Ray Kurzweil’s Transhumanism,” in Ehler Voss, ed., Mediality on Trial: Testing and Contesting Trance and Other Media Techniques (Walter de Gruyter, 2020), 397–412 .