During 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 “path.” 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.”