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The Anti-Guru Guru


“Terence McKenna's Mysterium Tremendum,” Abrupt, 2002.


The following is a draft excerpt from Terence McKenna: The Strange Attractor (forthcoming with MIT Press by Graham St John).


Radicals on sabbatical, outsider engineers, recalcitrant philosophers, dissident scientists, Terence McKenna’s heterodoxy appealed to friends, followers, and fans with a broad interest base. McKenna's friend of many years, morphic resonance theorist, Rupert Sheldrake, answers to the latter, having forged a career from unusual inquiries, like: “How do pigeons find their way home?” Such was the title of a trialogue in which Sheldrake addressed the significance of the pigeon in the story of Noah — a bird that returned with new information, transforming the way Noah thought.[1] Thirty years later, I inquired of Sheldrake if the principle of the pigeon applies to his departed colleague. In response, he began tracing the outlines of a fresco. McKenna’s “gift,” he affirmed, was “a kind of prophetic gift.” He was reminded of the old Testament prophets who possess a visionary quality, by contrast to the temple priests, whose gifts are of a different order. Parallels were observed in India where there are sadhus and visionaries, “the holy men who live in caves in the Himalayas or in the forests.” McKenna was in that region, i.e. “a shaman, sadhu, visionary, prophet, rather than a sort of priest, professor, academic, professional.”

Smudging his mural with fresh paint, Sheldrake worked on the comparison. “Sadhus are these wondering holymen who are very individualistic, and they don’t work for institutions. Sometimes they settle down and have an ashram and followers come to them.” A portrait emerges of “prophetic holy man” to whom followers gravitate, attending lectures and buying books, activities necessary for the economics of the operation. As such, Terence was “a bit like a guru figure.” In India, sadhus who become gurus are highly individualistic and independent from institutional support. To complete his painting, Sheldrake is firm that McKenna’s prophetic vision was not shallow optimism nor blind dogma, but a “faith that there’s something else going on that is guiding what is happening.”[2]

This candid image of our subject has greater detail and warmer colors than some of the portraits that have begun to circulate within academia where the opportunity is missed to address the role of visionary, sadhu, bard, or shaman that McKenna adopted within his community. This lost opportunity might have been best evidenced in Eric Cunningham’s authorship of the “Terence McKenna” entry in Phyllis Jestice’s Holy People of the World encyclopedia. There, a risible contraction is adopted – i.e. where McKenna is regarded as “a good example of an American holy person of New Age spirituality.”[3] Observing the hybrid stature of prophet, scholar, guide, and healer, another commentator goes so far as to identify “McKennan religion,” with McKenna boiled down to “a guru guiding Psychonauts into a holistic cosmology.”[4] With hagiographic iconography and devotional artworks compared favorably with St. Mary or the Amida Buddha, you can almost hear St. Terence heaving in hyperspace, a likelihood magnified in the wake of AI video regeneration platforms.

Loath to be associated with any cultic, mendacious, or predatory religion, there is little doubt that McKenna will have laughed off this growing corpus of comparisons and rampant visual restorations. And yet an authority he did become, a stature not unrelated, as it transpires, to his own sojourns in India, which he routinely credited as a source of enlightenment. But the wisdom hadn’t arrived through self-realization achieved at the feet of a yogi. Wisdom had been ostensibly acquired from precisely the opposite: by observing the charade of the spiritual marketplace, where ashrams were considered the public face of a large-scale “hustle” named “religion.” Tales are repeatedly told of “visiting the local sadhus of great reputation” in India, of meeting spiritual figures who failed to convince him of their importance — although they might have supplied him with strong charas. “You're not empowered by placing your spiritual development in the hands of a guru,” he announced. “You're spiritually empowered by taking responsibility for your spiritual development.”[5[

McKenna’s depth of experience with the spiritual traditions of India and East Asia is questionable. His most common interactions with sadhus are likely to have been as a haggler – for while they may have been rejected as spiritual mentors, they were authorities on good hash. Terence was ultimately ambivalent about the mantle of “healer.” Esalen was not only a staging ground for this career, but it was a prime location for gathering intel for a stage act that relied to some extent upon a scornful disdain of the spiritual cognoscenti. In On the Edge, a satirical novel prizing open Esalen, Edward St. Aubyn captured the metier of the spiritual authorities McKenna disdained. One such figure, fictional “ambiance director” and new age Prometheus, Kenneth Shine, is identified by a competitor as a “bumpersticker,” a derisory identification that could ironically find application to McKenna twenty years later, when his insights became routinely condensed into prosaic digital billboards shared on Facebook feeds.[6]

In many respects, McKenna’s public persona depended upon the distinction he maintained between those who were potentiating themselves through safe and sheltered modes of othering, such as yoga and meditation, and the rugged psychedelicism he endorsed. Besides, he persistently claimed that the “seeking” was over. “No opening of chakras or revelation of shastras or passing of mantras or building of yantras is going to carry you any further than where you finally arrive.” With DMT, “you have found the answer.”[7] Mocking “squirrelly LA types,” and those who led them, was all part of the entertainment. “All these gurus need to find honest work.” The guru class, he railed, “base their success on their failure, so if you have a technique, which never works, which never is effective, chances are you can pedal it forever and make a good living for yourself, laying on hands or stroking with feathers or lemon balm oil.”

Classification is a fraught exercise, but we can learn much about someone by the way they elect to order their world. However we define McKenna, his brand relied heavily on his own sharp classificatory system. A particular object of scorn was typecast as a kind of spiritual puritan who sought the answers to life’s questions, but flinched from the hardy methods available at the business end of town. Any “new-age twit” can be a “seeker,” the firebrand declared. But to “face and execute the real answer requires courage. . . . How many people ever went into an ashram to meditate with their knees knocking in terror over the realities of what was about to overcome them?” By contrast to what he characterized as lifestyle industries reliant on unsuccessful outcomes requiring crystals, dorges, spiralena, and other “malarkey,” there was the ontologically unsettling world of psychedelics. On the menu was a psychedelic habitus which drew its appeal from the transgression of the stable “ground of being,” from its gravitation to the unknown. “If you were to suggest [to the new agers] that they take 500 mics of acid . . . they’re so appalled that you could even mention such a thing. It's like a fart at the opera.”[8]

Amidst a long campaign of targeted disdain and biting witticism, antipathy towards middle-class seekership was echoed in the distaste for the word “entheogen,” an increasingly popular concept evoking substances and practices through which one becomes divine. While “entheogen” was disputed for its tendency to sanctify mystery, the preferred nomenclature – “hallucinogen” or “psychedelic” – evoked destabilising hierophanies of the unspeakable. Further, in the modern context, “psychedelic shamanism” did not imply redressive psychotherapy for afflicted (post)moderns, and was irreducible to enhancing human potential – an implication of the contraction entheogenesis – but was integral to a dramatic and yet ultimately unknowable phase shift in consciousness.

If McKenna was on the prowl for peddlers of middle-class malarky, no-one observed this behavior more closely than Kat Harrison. The relentless derision of new agers, crop circlers, and other others echoed McKenna’s untiring commitment to divide the world into people who “got it” and those who are “marks.” As Harrison observed, this fundamental distinction motivated a great deal of her ex-husband’s conduct, becoming a focal point of their ethical differences, causing a rift in their relationship.[9] Ultimately, his behavior was in accord with his myth. How else might we expect someone to behave who was burdened with the knowledge that the “shockwaves of the eschaton” are upon us? What is an individual marriage next to the species union with the cosmic attractor? How can one measure a human’s capacity for good parenthood against the birthing of a species?

As we know, shouldering this prophetic legacy, it was the figure of the shaman, rather than the sadhu, to which McKenna rallied. Anyworthy depiction of his stature will acknowledge the valence of this visionary figure who draws power and attracts a following from a natural ability to enter altered states of consciousness and interact with the spirit world. A unique access to and mastery of powerful organic technologies manipulated for the purposes of therapy, aesthetics, and consciousness evolution goes a long way to understanding the strength of McKenna’s reputation and the depth of his following (right into the present).

We now have the foundations for a mosaic, to which we could supply ever finer tessellations on the character of an individualist “holy man.” Our portrait would, then, be incomplete without acknowledging the psychedelic substance of McKenna’s visionary sensibility, which implies experience that is both transformative at the same time as transgressive; a practice potentially liberatory and boundary dissolving while simultaneously illicit and hedged about by risk and danger. As we enter the presence of a figure uniquely enigmatic, our mosaic depicts one who was, and remains, quite reflexively, an anti-guru guru. The authority who rejected authority. The prestigious outlaw. Celebrity anarchist. Freak scientist. Notorious recluse. Dark showman. The anti-hero of the “heroic dose.” A figure who embraced paradox as a virtue. The psychonaut’s psychonaut. Such an anomaly attracts a certain type of following. Those who do not follow. The workshopper who never does workshops. The seminarians who don’t do seminars. Ironic. Cynical. The McKenna milieu.

McKenna wasn’t the priest or professional claiming control over access to secret knowledge to which members are initiated at the price of fealty and a lifetime of sacrifice. Those drawn were not “seekers” native to the new age tradition. As he would have his followers believe, the tryptamine grail in all of its alchemical glory had been discovered and was readily available to all. The psychedelic shepherd had already guided them towards the answers – they just needed the courage to face the truth. The secret was out and yet the mystery remained for each person to discover in their own unique way. Further, he understood his role as temporary (which indeed it was). As McKenna averred late, “I’m not proud of the fact that . . . Esalen seems to be where I top out. Had I greater courage I would go further . . . but,” he said laughing, “I don’t.” It was his hope that “you my graduate students, as it were,” go further and report back.[10]

Comprehension of McKenna’s significance requires a broad, detailed, and well informed investigation of the impact of his thinking and practice, during his life and after. A large network, including many influential scientists, artists, and musicians, have adopted McKenna as a source of inspiration. This includes the “self-selected group of . . . Orphic eccentrics” and “go-betweens” who converged at his Esalen workshops.[11] It includes those drawn to his admissions of fallibility, notably, as we have seen, at a critical posthumous moment when his integrity was called into question. The “Deep Dive” incident served to strengthen the support of fans for whom McKenna became humanized as a figure even more fallible than they had known. Tie-Dyed in the wool psi-chonaut, Teafaerie, for example, transited from the anger of feeling betrayed by “the silver-tongued sham-man,” to accepting his apparent decision to desist. “Should Neil Armstrong have voluntarily stopped fronting for NASA simply because he hadn’t been to the moon in a few years?”[12]

McKenna’s humility and self-deprecating humor left a great impression on filmmaker Edgar Pêra, for whom McKenna was “someone you didn’t follow, he showed you your own path. So I followed mine, with Terence in my heart. His conscience lives in all of us who found his life and work inspiring in so many ways.”[13] According to NASA Ames Research Centre scientist, Creon Levit, “McKennaism” is “more honest and appealing than other religions.” It is a broad synthesis of scholarship and speculation.


He seeks dialogue. He is amusing. He preaches tolerance for all (except Catholics ;-} ). It is testable (just wait till 2012). You can grow your own blessed sacrament. If the Timewave is correct, which I doubt but do not rule out, then it's certainly one of the most important discoveries (inventions?) in human history. If not, it's still a beautiful piece of art.[14]


The “collegeless meta-professor” has served the role of virtual psychopomp for those living through anxious times, not least of all novelist Tao Lin, who in his first work of non-fiction, Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation and Change, Lin wrote: “I never felt awe, and never felt wonder, before incorporating psychedelics and McKenna’s ideas into my life.”[15]

Could it be the case that McKenna now serves the guiding role for contemporary psychonauts that he once attributed to the logos? Would he not become a sort of “informing voice” for Esalenites and more contemporary enthusiasts? Rather than supposing that the McKenna hagiography is “devotional,” which implies idolization and worship, we may be better served to understand why popular artworks are permeated with irony, irreverence, and offer subversive celebrations of outlawed practice, quite consciouslydétourning McKenna’s language and philosophy. Moreover, through sharing the means, techniques, and aesthetics of psychedelic gnosis, among McKenna’s significant achievements is that he gave countless people the confidence to be authors of their own experience.

Utterly and consistently de-institutionalized, McKenna was without formal students and apprentices. And yet, his “graduates” are to be found everywhere. Take Rupert’s son, Merlin Sheldrake, for whom McKenna became a figure of fascination. McKenna, was very good with children, and had a presence in Merlin’s life from the time he was a toddler. In his book Entangled Life, Merlin recalls the time, aged seven, when his family were visiting the McKennas on the slopes of Mauna Loa. He'd come down with a fever.


I remember lying under a mosquito net, watching as McKenna ground up a preparation in a large pestle and mortar. I assumed it was a remedy for my sickness and asked what he was doing. In his zany metallic drawl, he explained that it was no such thing. This plant, like some types of mushroom could make us dream. If we were lucky these organisms could even speak to us. These were powerful medicines that humans had used for a long time but they could also be scary. He grinned a languorous smile. When I was older, he said, I could try some of the preparation – a mind altering cousin of sage called Salvia divinorum, as it turned out. But not now. I was transfixed.[16]


Rupert clarifies that Entangled Life is “a modern manifestation of the influence of Terence McKenna.” When Merlin was fifteen, he borrowed the True Hallucinations “talking book” from his father. He copied all the tapes and shared them with his friends. McKenna was among Merlin’s great inspirations.[17]

Countless others have been equally impacted. Among those guided posthumously is cyberspace pioneer, space mission designer, and “origin of life” scientist, Bruce Damer, who was instructed by McKenna to “keep telling the story, but make it your own story.” A self-identified “spectrumy” nerd who built early user interfaces for personal computers in the eighties, led the multi-user virtual worlds movement in the late nineties, and later ventured his “Hot Spring Hypothesis” on the origins of life, Damer understood McKenna as “perhaps the one person who most kept the pilot light lit on the psychedelic experience” through the dark times and who “re-valorized that experience after the crash, suppression and ridicule of the post-60s period.” The two hit it off in the late nineties, and were set to collaborate. Damer later organized the “Terence2012” events designed to honor and explore McKenna’s life and work, and initiated a data recovery project in 2005. Despite his departure, McKenna remained a guiding influence for Damer, who became something of an “amanuensis” in his wake.[18]



Endnotes

[1] Sheldrake et al. The Evolutionary Mind, 88.

[2] Rupert Sheldrake, interviewed on Zoom, 16 February 2021.

[3] Eric Cunningham. “Terence McKenna.” In Phyllis G. Jestice, ed, Holy People of the World: A Cross-Cultural Encyclopedia (3 Volume Set), (Santa Barbara, Cal: ABC-CLIO, 2004), 567–568.

[4] Andrew Montieth, “‘The Words of McKenna’: Healing, Political Critique, and the Evolution of Psychonaut Religion since the 1960s Counterculture,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion (2016), 1–29 [23].

[5] Levin, “In Praise of Psychedelics,” 18.

[6] Edward St. Aubyn, On the Edge: A Novel (New York, Picador, 1998). St. Aubyn name-checks McKenna as a “genius” (p. 144), who stands beyond the pilloried subject matter.

[7] T. McKenna, “Our Cyberspiritual Future,” 1997.

[8] Anon, “Terence McKenna — The Re: Evolution(ary) Shaman,” Freakbeat, no. 8 (Apr 19 1993): 17-19, 23-24 [19].

[9] K. Harrison, interviewed by author, 20 April 2022.

[10] T. McKenna, “Appreciating Imagination,” Esalen, 1994.

[11] Terence McKenna, “Hot Concepts and Melting Edges,” Esalen 1994.

[12] Teafaerie, “The Terence McKenna Thing,” 30 October 2012, Erowid, https://www.erowid.org/columns/teafaerie/2012/10/30/the-terence-mckenna-thing/.

[13] Edgar Pêra, “Terence McKenna 2020,” 3 April 2020, https://edgarpera.org/2020/04/03/terence-mckenna-2020/

[14] Burns, “Terence McKenna: Mind Contagions,” Disinformation.

[15] Tao Lin, Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation and Change (Vintage, 2018), 21, 15, 193. Trip commenced as VICE column “The Tao of Terence” (originally “Beyond Existentialism).

[16] Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures (London, The Bodley Head, 2020), 110-111.

[17] Rupert Sheldrake, interviewed on Zoom, 16 February 2021.

[18] Bruce Damer, email to author, 23 November 2021.

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