On Diving Deeper Into the Mind of Terence McKenna Beyond the Screaming Abyss

It's All About LoveDuring the past few weeks I have immersed myself into the world of Terence McKenna — that legendary psychedelic bard beloved by many thinkers, rebels, and psychonauts from all walks of life. As of this writing, I have already watched and listened to more than a hundred videos and audios of his talks that are available on YouTube and the Psychedelic Salon podcast. I can now confidently say that I have caught up with most of McKenna’s materials — his philosophy, psychedelic riffs, theories, dialogues, rants, social and political commentaries, and his idiosyncratic personality. In short, I can now talk with long-time McKenna followers and understand their lingo and cryptic references.

The next phase of my intellectual exploration into the Terence McKenna Wonderland is to dive deeper into what made him tick; what made him so articulate and intellectually compelling even if some of his narratives were way out there, beyond the leading edge of his time. Fortunately for me this exploration can be done easily through the Psychedelic Salon podcast hosted by Lorenzo. The Psychedelic Salon podcast is a treasure trove of Terence’s talks, interviews, lectures, dialogues, and discussions of people who have been greatly influenced by McKenna’s body of work. In the latest podcast Lorenzo published an audio of Bruce Damer‘s talk on “A Deep Dive Into the Mind of McKenna“. In this podcast, Damer read excerpts from Dennis McKenna’s (Terence’s brother) upcoming book which tells the real story on why Terence stopped using mushrooms. Apparently, Terence had a horrying experience when the mushroom “turned on him” and he was plunged into a meaningless abyss. Terence was so terrified of the experience that he stopped using mushrooms altogether. This story was recounted by Dennis McKenna in his upcoming book, The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss.

I find this very interesting and I believe that I have a conceptual understanding of what had happened to Terence.

In the Buddhist Theravada tradition there are “Stages of the Path” — a map on “Progress of Insight” or a “Map to Enlightenment.” Here is an easy-to-understand contemporary explanation of what that map is, courtesy of Aloha Dharma:

“What the map shows is that there are a series of predictable states and stages that constitute the β€œpath.” Like signposts on the way to enlightenment, the states and stages are signals that one is doing the technique correctly and making progress. These signposts are universal, automatic and impersonal. They happen to everyone who does the technique correctly and have nothing to do with personal growth or individual needs. Rather, they provide a way of seeing clearly into the nature of reality. There are 17 stages on the path to enlightenment, and I will describe each one in detail…” [read more here]

Based on the Buddhist “Stages of Insight” I believe that McKenna was plunged into the “Extinction (aka The Dark Night)” phase with full awareness. His experience with the mushrooms had gone beyond the romantic phase and he was catapulted into the “Dark Night” phase. The result of which was a horrifying experience of the utter meaninglessness of it all. Note that the Dark Night phase is characterized by a series of stages: Dissolution, Fear, Misery, Disgust. In my opinion, McKenna’s terrifying experience with the mushrooms fit the Dark Night phase perfectly.

Terence McKenna’s approach to consciousness exploration through the use of psychedelics was radically “democratic.” As much as I resonate with his egalitarian approach, I believe that the guidance of experienced inner explorers, or dharma teachers, are still indispensible. Even radical Psychonauts still need guides who know the inner “territory” and “stages” very well. Terence was a systems thinker and a wide reader. He was familiar with Western and Eastern philosophical and mystical traditions. However, I’m not sure how deep his understanding of Buddhist practice was, or whether he had a dharma teacher who guided him in his inner explorations. I can only assume that Terence, radical and independent-minded as he was, did his explorations on his own with no guidance from an accomplished spiritual teacher. I believe that that was one of Terence’s blind spots as a consciousness explorer.

Whether Terence McKenna had gone beyond the Dark Night phase or not is another area for speculation. Maybe Dennis McKenna’s new book would shed some more light onto Terence’s more private inner explorations. But judging from the stories I’ve heard about Terence’s last days, I’m inclined to speculate that Terence was able to cross that screaming abyss as he breathed his last few breaths and uttered his now famous last words, “It’s all about love.”

Comments (5)

  1. I write to mention a scholarly lit source, “Mysticism and Psychedelics: The Case of the Dark Night” by C. Bache, Ph.D. — in the event you’ve not already checked it out, and might like to.


    For directing my attention, my thanks to Sam Mickey, Ph.D. (Univ of San Francisco, Dept. Theology and Religious Studies): http://becomingintegral.wordpress.com/

    In larger frame, ‘deep dive’ – I realize question of concern, perhaps — whether “bottom” can be reached, with the Terence McKenna legacy? Or are the wake effects bottomless in some sense?

    Do divers eventually find bottom and – come back up for air? Or does deep diving only lead to — deeper, deeper diving? Never to come back up again?

    In other words, is the legacy of T. McKenna mainly a cognitive dissonance trap — into which those who’ve fallen don’t get back out? And, swept away by the exuberance and inspiration of it all – in turn become fishers of men, casting his lines themselves?

    Can McKenna’s ‘theories’ or ‘ideas’ foster cognitive dissonance, and a conviction — of ‘possibility’ not certainty (goes the refrain) — that mainly spawns abandon of reason or better interest? In other words, what is its potential for ‘inspiring’ new forms of irrationalism, even fanaticism, in his following?

    Wednesday, July 4, 2012 at 7:11 am #
  2. c4chaos wrote::

    thanks for the link. i haven’t read that yet. will definitely check it out!

    excellent questions! from what I understand so far, the legacy of Terence McKenna is both a cognitive dissonance trap and a means to transcend that trap. McKenna taught people how to think from a higher and multiple hyper-spatial perspectives.

    i guess it would depend on the individual how deep and wide he/she wants to go and whether to come out *sane* on the other side of the Terence McKenna rabbit hole.

    Friday, July 6, 2012 at 4:35 pm #
  3. You’re welcome, a pleasure. I hope it proves interesting, seemed possibly relevant to points in your discussion.

    Thanks for your reply too. I find question in suggestion, if I understand — that a cognitive dissonance trap does or can do, anything but … trap…

    Mine is mainly inquiry, and gathering sense of concern about myriad issues and considerations.

    I’m sure you know about the fox who merely decided: why, he never wanted those grapes after all — after Plan A (grab ’em and feast) didn’t work out.

    A similar (to my eye) spectacle seems to be unfolding now, for better or worse. Whatever might matter, other than Must Love Terence, is getting a mighty heave ho. A new “Woman Scorned” theory about TM’s ex, letting on about “TM’s Last Mushroom Trip” … And, Dennis jealous of his late brother.

    All kinds of new reasons are spawning from the woodwork, crawling out — why TM is simply above reproach or question.

    Till this week’s news — I thought we’d have to wait for Dec 21, to hear why we all love Terence “Now More Than Ever” (as we must) — and why his ideas are more true and brilliant, why his stock has gone up now (what’s this talk about bankruptcy??).

    That’s the problem I find in general for any such ‘psy ops’ — those who bite the hook most can’t ever get it out — only reeled in furthur than ever been before. And then furthur.

    What perspective to put it in, is the final redoubt, as I find. What will TM’s followers have inherited, when the final die is cast?

    Thanks again, I respectfully mark your words.

    Saturday, July 7, 2012 at 10:37 am #
  4. c4chaos wrote::

    if you’re on Facebook and you haven’t seen this yet, there’s some passionate discussion on Lorenzo’s page on this issue. see ~ https://www.facebook.com/LorenzoHagerty/posts/241870905932396

    Saturday, July 7, 2012 at 6:48 pm #
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