Terence McKenna: The DMT Preacher

Terence McKenna was to DMT what Timothy Leary was to LSD. In books such as The Archaic Revival (1990) and in numerous lectures, McKenna would attach great importance and value to the DMT experience. He went to great lengths to make sense of – and translate – an experience that for him remained the most bizarre, intense and perplexing experience that a person could have. For McKenna, it was alien in the truest sense of the term. The Archaic Revival details his experiences with the tryptamines, including psilocybin and DMT (both as ayahuasca and freebase). In a conversation with the inventor of LSD, Albert Hofmann, he points out:

On a good strong hit of ayahuasca at about the hour-and-twenty-minute mark you will very slowly come into a place indistinguishable from having smoked DMT. The same thing happens on psilocybin, at the thirty-milligram level, at about the hour and twenty-minute point.

McKenna first tried DMT in 1967, as a student at the University of California, Berkley. After his first experience, he exclaimed: “This isn’t a drug, this is magic!” It was really DMT which got him interested and intensely focused on the psychedelic experience. He said it raised:

…all kinds of issues about what is reality, what is language, what is the self, what is three dimensional space and time, all the questions I became involved with over the next twenty years or so.

It was also in The Archaic Revival that McKenna spoke about the entities that one meets in the DMT realm. He refers to them as “self-transforming machine elves”, which really gets across how utterly bizarre these entities are. When smoking DMT, McKenna describes the experience as follows:

Once smoked, the onset of the experience begins in about fifteen seconds. One falls immediately into a trance. One’s eyes are closed and one hears a sound like ripping cellophane…An ascending tone is heard. Also present is the normal hallucinogenic modality, a shifting geometric surface of migrating and changing colored forms. At the synaptic site of activity, all available bond sites are being occupied, and one experiences the mode shift occurring over a period of thirty seconds. At that point one arrives in a place that defies description, a space that has a feeling of being underground, or somehow insulated and domed. In Finnegan’s Wake such a space is called the “merry go raum”, from the German word raum, for “space.” The room is actually going around, and in that space one feels like a child, though one has come out somewhere in eternity.

McKenna was at once both highly sceptical of the supernatural claims found in the New Age movement, but also felt compelled to radically change his view of reality based on his psychedelic experiences. McKenna was interested in what French phenomenologists like Maurice Merleau-Ponty were interested in; namely, the primacy of the felt presence of direct experience. And when experimenting with DMT, what he undeniably felt, directly so, were entities who inhabited this space.

These loving fractal elves, McKenna said, “…are the denizens of this other dimension.” According to McKenna, this dimension falls outside the purview of science. In writing and speaking, McKenna seems to move between speaking about these beings as a psychological phenomenon – “like reflections of some previously hidden and suddenly autonomous part of one’s psyche” – but at other times seemed to talk about the DMT realm as objectively real, with its own independent existence. For example, in his lecture ‘Psychedelics Before and After History’ (1987), he describes the DMT experience as “a revelation of an alien dimension”, and added that “to call that a drug is ridiculous”.

But perhaps this kind of cognitive dissonance comes from the fundamentally astonishing nature of the experience. Coming down from one experience, McKenna repeated over and over, “I cannot believe this; this is impossible, this is completely impossible.” McKenna also maintained that psilocybin involved “the same confrontation with an alien intelligence”, the difference being that the mushroom experience builds and is sustained for a much longer period of time – a couple of hours, instead of a matter of minutes.

McKenna, like many people who have had the DMT experience, finds it nearly impossible to communicate it to others who haven’t had the experience. He said, “The more one is able to articulate what it is, the less others are able to understand.” This is one of the key features of the experience – the struggle to translate it into neat concepts, words and descriptions that retain its essence and meaning. The experience is “unenglishable”, as McKenna describes it.

Language simply cannot describe the experience accurately. McKenna knew this, and so would remind his audiences that his descriptions were inaccurate and tantamount to lies. The DMT experience is not something that comes neatly packaged; easily and comfortably examined by the analytical mind. The mind does not go “Ah yes, I have a conceptual framework ready that can make sense of all of this. Instead, it goes “What is this!?” The content of the experience cannot be downloaded into a clunky medium such as English. The whole quality of the experience becomes downgraded to the point of nearly being lost, when translated into curious combinations of words, such as McKenna’s description of the entities as “jewelled self-dribbling basketballs”.

McKenna would always emphasise the distinctly alien nature of the DMT experience. But paradoxically, “human history and art reflect so little of it”, but at the same time, he describes the visual language one experiences in the DMT ecstasy as “…an Arabian maelstrom of color and form, and one senses somehow the Sistine Chapel, the Kaaba, and Konarak.” This “hyperdimensional language” was a recurring motif for McKenna. On the one hand, the experience is completely distinct from any cultural tradition, but on the other hand, there are also aspects to it which can be compared to certain cultural styles.

McKenna also described these “elf-infested spaces” as “wild” and “zany”. He said:

Nothing prepares one for its crackling, electronic, hyperdimensional, interstellar, extraterrestrial, science fiction quality; it is a complex space filled with highly polished curved surfaces, machines undergoing transformation into beings, and thoughts that condense into visible objects.

In ‘Psychedelics Before and After History’ he conveys his first experience with DMT, again using the most suitable metaphors he can muster up which point to the bizarre nature of the substance:

I sank to the floor. I [experienced] this hallucination of tumbling forward into these fractal geometric spaces made of light and then I found myself in the equivalent of the Pope’s private chapel and there were insect elf machines proffering strange little tablets with strange writing on them, and I was aghast, completely appalled, because [in] a matter of seconds . . . my entire expectation of the nature of the world was just being shredded in front of me. I’ve never actually gotten over it. These self-transforming machine elf creatures were speaking in a colored language which condensed into rotating machines that were like Fabergé eggs but crafted out of luminescent superconducting ceramics and liquid crystal gels. All this stuff was just so weird and so alien and so un-English-able that it was a complete shock — I mean, the literal turning inside out of [my] intellectual universe!

In his lectures, McKenna could not contain his long-lasting astonishment about the experience. This was the thing that should be on the tip of everybody’s tongue and at the forefront of our minds. In ‘Rapdancing into the Third Millennium’ (1994), McKenna expressed his continued amazement with this drug in his unique, amusing manner:

Why this is not four-inch headlines on every newspaper on the planet I cannot understand because I don’t know what news you were waiting for, but this is the news that I was waiting for.

McKenna would use his natural flair as a wordsmith to creatively string together words in such a way to communicate why the DMT experience is as intriguing as anything can possibly get. The thing that McKenna wanted to draw people’s attention to were the DMT entities, who in this space are “squeaking”, “chirping”, “squealing”, “tumbling”, “singing” and “chanting”. And the space itself is oozing with a kind of yummy goodness that McKenna called ‘luv’. It has the flavour of love, but it is remarkably distinct from sexual attraction or the feeling of love we are familiar with. It is a “glue that pours out into this space” – a liquid, gooey substance that permeates this dimension and which is fed into you.

There is a “state of incredible frenzy” where the entities are all rushing around, elbowing each other aside to try to get to you and get your attention. And what they are doing is offering you “elf gifts” or “celestial toys”, which are “alive” and “impossible”. Then when McKenna would come down from all of these busy and inviting interactions, the entities would bid farewell to him, with the confounding message “deja vu, deja vu.” But what exactly did McKenna think about these entities? Who or what were they? And what was their purpose? McKenna actually entertained many theories about these entities, each one peculiar in its own way. Depending on your inclination, you may find one of them attractive, fun to consider, or just baseless and fantastical speculation. In any case, McKenna reserved a level of scepticism in this endeavour and underscored that he was “not sure” about any of them.

McKenna speculated they could be extraterrestrials, which may be made of an entirely “different biology” or “may not even be made of matter”. Perhaps if an alien race wanted to visit or communicate with us, they might decide that sending signals we can physically detect doesn’t suit them, or that landing a giant inter-galactic ship on the planet carries too many problems. So instead they somehow inhabit this altered state of human consciousness produced by DMT. If that wasn’t wacky enough an idea, McKenna also proposed that these entities could reside in a parallel continuum, in a nearby dimension which can be accessed through “magical doorways”, which open in response to certain rituals (i.e. smoking DMT, and enough of it!) Another possibility is that the entities are actually the souls of dead people. McKenna based this idea on his experience of the entities caring about him, loving him, and welcoming him. His last theory was that the entities are “humans from some extraordinarily advanced future where human beings are now made of language…”

McKenna’s creative speculations no doubt add further mystery to the DMT experience. It is also thanks – in large part – to McKenna’s lectures, that this substance is now more widely known about. DMT has gained a certain reputation among those who read and hear about it, who are tempted by it, and who go on to try it.

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