Spotlight on Psychedelic Pioneers: Terence McKenna

By Brian Lissak

Terence McKenna, born November 16, 1948, was one of the foremost advocates for the responsible personal use of psychedelics. His personal quest for healing, connection, and transformation informed his life’s work as a public speaker and author. Referred to as the “Timothy Leary of the 90s,” he helped pave the way for the current direction of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.

Opium and Kabbalah: McKenna’s Quest For Divine Encounters

Beginning what he dubbed his “Opium and Kabbalah” phase, McKenna enrolled in Tussman Experimental College at UC Berkeley in 1965. He became acquainted with Shamanism through his Tibetan Folk Religion curriculum. Around this time, he also began experimenting with psychedelic morning glory seeds and marijuana. The next few years took him on a world tour where he sought to deepen his existential understanding and expand his consciousness. In 1967 he traveled to Jerusalem to study Kabbalah, and in 1969 to Tibet to learn about hallucinogenic shamanism.

In 1970 McKenna went to the Colombian Amazon with his brother Dennis. They were in search of oo-koo-hé, an indigenous plant preparation containing DMT. Instead of oo-koo-hé they found fields overflowing with Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms. The focus of their trip now switched. On this expedition, McKenna experimented with psilocybin, in combination with a meditative technique involving the vocal cords. He had a transcendent experience, and came in contact with a divinity that he called “Logos.” This is a philosophical term meaning “Word of God.”

McKenna believed the divine encounter to be intrinsic to every religious revelatory experience. Similar to Leary and Ram Dass, he was in search of a universal method of transcendence, free from religious dogma and hierarchy. He believed nature holds powerful tools – psychedelics – for helping humans connect to the divine. The trajectory of his life can be traced back to this Amazon expedition, which he so colorfully recounts in True Hallucinations

Afterward, McKenna returned to UC Berkeley, graduating in 1975 with a degree in ecology, shamanism, and conservation of natural resources. Shortly after, McKenna and Dennis published The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens and the I Ching, inspired by their experiences in the Amazon. So it was their way of trying to answer the question:What are psychedelics?

Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide

Using spores they’d brought back to America, the McKenna brothers developed a simple technique for cultivating psilocybin mushrooms. In 1976 they published “Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide.” Ordinary kitchen items were the only necessary equipment. Suddenly, ordinary people were able to produce potent psychedelics, simply and cheaply. By 1986, Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide had sold over 100,000 copies.

McKenna: “The Timothy Leary of the ‘90s

By the early 1980s, McKenna began speaking publicly about psychedelics. In addition to writing, he led workshops and lectured extensively, emphasizing the importance of “felt presence of direct experience” over intellectually distilled dogma. In other words, he emphasized the necessity of personally experiencing transcendence, not just reading about it.

McKenna quickly became a popular figure. Timothy Leary once introduced him as “one of the five or six most important people on the planet.” Like many in the counterculture, McKenna was deeply concerned with environmental and humanitarian issues. Indeed, he believed that the root cause of these problems was a lack of connection to ourselves and nature. Societally enforced rigid ways of thinking bolstered this disconnect.

McKenna advocated the responsible use of psychedelics as a solution to this. He said, “It’s clearly a crisis of two things: of consciousness and conditioning. These are the two things that the psychedelics attack. We have the technological power, the engineering skills to save our planet, to cure disease, to feed the hungry, to end war; But we lack the intellectual vision, the ability to change our minds.” He wrote many popular books on this topic, spoke on countless public platforms, and garnered a huge following.

Advocacy For The Responsible Use of Psychedelics

Unlike Leary, McKenna was a serious advocate for the appropriate, intentional, and responsible use of psychedelics. He held an intense reverence for the power of psychedelics and the depths humans are able to reach. In fact, similar to the protocols in place for current-day psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, he believed that preparation for the experience was crucial. “Experimenters should be very careful. One must build up to the experience. These are bizarre dimensions of extraordinary power and beauty. There is no set rule to avoid being overwhelmed, but move carefully, reflect a great deal, and always try to map experiences back onto the history of the race and the philosophical and religious accomplishments of the species.”

Archaic Revival

Like many of his contemporaries, McKenna believed that Western society was “sick” and beginning to undergo a healing process. In a Jungian style analysis, McKenna saw the intense interest in Eastern philosophies, shamanism, and psychedelics as akin to a body fighting infection by creating antibodies. This “archaic revival”, or renewed interest in ancient wisdom, was humanity’s collective strategy “for overcoming the condition of dis-ease”. Indeed, psychedelics, and specifically psilocybin and DMT, were integral for this return to our roots. And it worked.

The Stoned Ape Theory

McKenna’s “Stoned Ape” Theory, described in his book Food of the Gods, argues that psilocybin mushrooms caused human evolution. This may sound a bit outrageous. But there is actually a decent argument to be made.

Homo Erectus (humans) diverged from the genus Homo around 100,000 BCE. Due to the desertification of the African Continent, human ancestors were forced to seek new food sources by following herds of wild cattle. The psychedelic mushroom Psilocybe cubensis would have grown out of their dung and become a part of their diet. This caused a rapid evolution of cognition that led to abstract thought such as language and art. “We ate our way to higher consciousness,” McKenna theorized.

The theory is neither provable nor disprovable. But it points to McKenna’s belief in the power of psychedelics and humanities’ intrinsic relationship with them. This is not just about evolution up to this point in time. He argued, and many agree with him, that proper use of psychedelics can shape our evolution as a species and society going forward.

Dying Well

In 1999, McKenna was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Reminiscent of Ram Dass’s Living/Dying Project, McKenna had this to say about his upcoming death:

“I always thought death would come on the freeway in a few horrifying moments, so you’d have no time to sort it out. Having months and months to look at it and think about it and talk to people and hear what they have to say, it’s a kind of blessing. It’s certainly an opportunity to grow up and get a grip and sort it all out. Just being told by an unsmiling guy in a white coat that you’re going to be dead in four months definitely turns on the lights. … It makes life rich and poignant. When it first happened, and I got these diagnoses, I could see the light of eternity, à la William Blake, shining through every leaf. I mean, a bug walking across the ground moved me to tears.”

McKenna passed away on April 3, 2000. His public advocacy for the healing benefits of psychedelics has left a lasting legacy. Indeed, clinical trials of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy for various ailments are underway and untold numbers have already benefited.

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