There are few McKenna talks out there that I haven’t heard, and even fewer that I don’t gobble up with immense pleasure. The latest installment of Lorenzo’s Psychedelic Salon actually fits the former. It’s typical McKenna, and if you’ve heard and read enough of his material you will inevitably hear him repeat certain well-timed jokes and other McKenna-isms, but this talk is prime time, featuring all the linguistic acrobatics, ironic positivism, and singularly imaginative notions I’ve come to expect from the psychedelic bard of the late 20th century. I mean, really. Who can hear this rant and not marvel at the man’s mind? Certainly his was not a personality that everyone can enjoy, but it’s hard to deny his genius. In Rational Mysticism John Horgan aptly describes McKenna as a man who dares you to take him seriously. “All his confabulations,” Horgan writes, “were intended to make us see that the world is ‘a weird, weird place.'”
It’s that winking grin behind every word that I find so irresistible about McKenna. His way of relishing in his own absurdities, his oratorical laser show, and his unparalleled combination of learnedness and imagination make him one of the great intellectual rebels of recent history.
Listen to or download the podcast here. It’s episode 128.
I am sometimes tempted to take down certain quotes, and then I end up transcribing long paragraphs to give the quote context, before I realize it I’ve transcribed ten minutes of McKenna’s effortless poetics, and by then he’s arrived at an even more provoking idea. So here’s some excerpts from the last fifteen minutes of the talk. Though I think it’s more impressive to hear him improvise this stuff, you can read a bit if you can’t listen:
We each can make whatever peace we can or cannot make with our own deaths, but we get much more agitated when we contemplate the death of the species or the death of the planet because that seems to involved such higher stakes, such greater loss. What I observe in nature is that nature is a very high stakes gambler. Nature is like the good shepherd in the gospel story – she will leave the ninety-nine to save the one that is lost. Her interest in complexity, and her willingness to let it adumbrate in ourselves at such excruciating levels is basically a willingness to put every great whale, lion, parakeet, and spotted owl on notice that the human enterprise is somehow an acceptable risk for them to endure.
We are not lost in a mute, uncaring, purposeless universe – how anybody could ever suppose this takes an extraordinary power of the denial of simple observation; to come to this conclusion. Nevertheless, this is what modern science tells us. If this isn’t obvious to you, then you probably need to do five grams in silent darkness on an empty stomach and weigh the various ideas that are being peddled in the intellectual marketplace. You know: big bang, god’s love, transcendental object at the end of history. It’s a small number of items on the menu. Most of these items on the menu are simply ideologies. None, except for psychedelics, I would submit, are an experience – a direct experience, and this is what gives it a leg up. It’s not an appeal to reason.
All this western breast-beating and blame-taking about what we did and how we fucked up is a bunch of nonsense. Nobody screwed up. You have to have an enormous sense of your own self-importance to believe that you got away from the control of nature, and against her wishes were able to set the planet up for armageddon. It’s such a typical western fantasy of freedom and opportunity to do evil. History is not evil, its misguided and messy and very redundant, but it isn’t evil. For some reason, ten, twelve, fifteen-thousand years ago, the human family divided into two camps: the sacred ritual, eternal, shamanic style of existence, which lived lightly on the land and was tribal and non-technologically based, and our style, which was a style of conquest and denial – virtual reality building… The earliest technology for virtual reality implementation was language, followed quickly by the hardwiring we call urbanization. Once you have an urban setting you are walking around inside a virtual reality; an ideology that has been turned into matter. It’s as virtual as anything could possibly be. There is nothing knew about setting up symbols and taking them for truth, this seems to be our unique curse, as it were. What the psychedelics do is de-condition us from all the media induced ratios of perception and value systems, and then you see that culture is just some story… all culture. It doesn’t matter if you’re rain forest Pygmies or Japanese bankers or whoever you are, your story is just some story that has a certain amount of drama, a certain amount of self-congratulation, a certain amount of risk. And it keeps thought away, that story. But if we dissolve our cultural story, then we discover what it is we’ve been ignoring for twenty-thousand years, which is the nature of nature.
Consciousness is a kind of omni-directional threat-detection and assessment system that a very paranoid and small monkey put in place in a grassland environment frequented by very large hunting cats. And so the purpose of consciousness is to inform you if something horrific is about to happen in the hope that you can then take some action against it. But in the bottom of a cave or high up on a tree or on a small island or somewhere where you feel safe, if you will then intoxicate yourself with psychedelics, the evolutionarily defined and paranoid threat detection configuration of consciousness breaks down and you discover that you have an angel inside your head and this angel is the non-paranoid, non-carnivorous monkey who is still nevertheless you. From this angelic point of perception, both the past and the future have an immediacy- a co-presence in the moment – that they lack in ordinary experience.
I believe that as we create a non-paranoid world – a loving world, a world where people can operate in trust of each other – that consciousness is slowly trying to relax and recast itself. And the grease for these skids is of course the psychedelic experience because it forces the dissolving of cultural values, it catalyzes it. What it might take you 40 years to do through a process of rational analysis and psychotherapy and deconstruction can happen literally overnight on a sufficiently alarming dose of a psychedelic substance. The reason I am willing to speak to this is because I think it’s not without reason that in this final moment of historical culmination that our inventory-ing of the life of this planet has brought to our attention these aboriginal practices because they are the other half of the equation. What we have brought forward is little truths like energy equals mass times the velocity of light squared, so forth and so on. We are the masters of matter and energy, but not the masters of our own dreams, our own spiritual striving. For that, we are going to have to infuse our sense of technical accomplishment with: the heart, basically. The heart that these aboriginal cultures have kept intact.
The next few years are going to be wild and woolly; wilder and woollier than anything we have seen so far. This tendency of things to appear to be getting both better and worse is going to be itself exacerbated tremendously. And people who have outmoded or silly or incomplete or insufficient models of reality are going to find themselves running very very hard to catch up with a rising sense of anxiety. I think it’s going to necessitate a discussion about times direction, the meaning of history…
The universe has been at this game a long, long time – it knows what it is about far better than do we. And if we wish to align ourselves with cosmic purpose, we have to find out what it is. And to find out what it is, we have to go outside our cultural values and our programming, and we are not, fortunately, without helpers – without aids. The plants have always been there. They are the repositories of this transforming gnosis, and if we avail ourselves of it, we can overcome the dis-ease of culture, and begin to function for each other as we should, which is as nodes of trans-formative information and domains of permission, surrender and affirmation that recover the real meaning of humanness that history has tended to mitigate and betray.
I intend to start posting a regular stream of McKenna material (as if there’s a lack of it on the internet these days), so stay tuned. Perhaps I’ll pick a day. McKenna Mondays maybe?