Terence McKenna: Memes are the Key to Societal Evolution
By Tao Lin / vice.com
Aug 11, 2014

.Gif by Daniel Stuckey

Last week, in Beyond “Existentialism," the first installment of this series, I told the story of how I first encountered Terence McKenna. This week, I’ve organized a list of my 30 favorite Terence McKenna memes. McKenna defined a meme as “the smallest unit of an idea that still has coherency” and said he was very conscious of creating them during his talks. He explained in 1996:

What a gene is to biology, a meme is to ideology ... Madonna is a meme, Catholicism is a meme, Marxism is a meme, yellow sweaters are a meme ... rainbow-colored dreadlocks are a meme. Launch your meme boldly and see if it will replicate—just like genes replicate, and infect, and move into the organism of society. And, believing as I do, that society operates on a kind of biological economy, then I believe these memes are the key to societal evolution. (memes, drugs, and community)
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)—who, like McKenna, stressed experience via the body as the sole source of knowledge—wrote, in reference to his main work, The World as Will and Representation (1818), that “every part supports the whole just as much as it is supported by the whole ... no part is first and no part last ... the whole gains in clearness from every part, and even the smallest part cannot be fully understood until the whole has been first understood.” This is increasingly my impression with McKenna’s oeuvre*, and it’s how I view this list, which was edited down with difficulty from 100+ memes. I’ve included links to references whenever available.
*His books The Archaic Revival (1992), Food of the Gods (1992), True Hallucinations (1993); his books co-authored with Dennis McKenna The Invisible Landscape (1975) and Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide (1976); his trialogues with Ralph Abraham and Rupert Sheldrake, published in book-form as Chaos, Creativity, and Cosmic Consciousness (1992) and The Evolutionary Mind (1998); hundreds of interviews and talks from the early 80s to the late 90s; and essays on topics ranging from ayahuasca to The Voynich Manuscript to Finnegan’s Wake and Philip K. Dick’s Valis.

1. “My technique, which I recommend to you, is don’t believe anything. If you believe in something, you are automatically precluded from believing its opposite.” (Under the Teaching Tree)

Not believing was crucial to McKenna’s thinking and life. “In order to be free I must not believe anything,” he said. “Then all things can be freely commanded in the mind.” (Bootstrapping Ourselves) And: “I once said to the mushroom: Why me? Why are you telling me all this stuff? And it without hesitation said ‘because you don't believe anything.’” (McKenna called the voice he dialogued with after eating psilocybin mushrooms “the mushroom.” I will explore this in week 6 of this column.) 

But it seems he was often asked if he “really” believed one of his models or theories. “People ask me if I believe in the 2012 prediction,” he said in an interview in 1996. “I don’t believe in anything. My anti-ideological stance makes it very important to believe nothing.” A final quote on this frequent misunderstanding: 

I have been vehemently accused by people who didn’t understand me of not believing in anything. I don’t believe in anything. This is not a statement of existential hopelessness for which you should light a candle for me at night. It’s a strategy for not getting bogged down in some weird trip. After all, what is the basis for believing anything? I mean, you have to understand: You’re a monkey. In some kind of a biological situation where everything has been evolved to serve the economy of survival—this is not a philosophy course. So belief is a curious reaction to the present at hand. It isn’t to be believed, it’s to be dealt with—experienced and modeled. (Gathering Momentum for a Leap)

2. “You have to take seriously the notion that understanding the universe is your responsibility, because the only understanding of the universe that will be useful to you is your own understanding.”

McKenna says this after observing:

One of the reasons I like to make this argument about the mushroom and the extraterrestrial is to show people how one can see things differently. If things can be seen that differently, how many ways can they be seen differently? Try to get people to stop waiting for the president to enlighten them. Stop waiting for history and the stream of historical events to make itself clear to you. (Transhuman Encounters)

3. Psilocybin is the only 4-phosphorylated indole on this planet.

McKenna explains why this characteristic of psilocybin, the psychedelic substance found in Stropharia cubensis and other mushrooms, is significant:

[If] you have a molecule useful in a biological system, then in other biological systems you will get that same molecule or tiny variants; methylated or o-methylated. [...] Well now, they search for extraterrestrial life with radio telescopes waiting for a signal. Fine. Another way would be to search the biological inventory of this planet for something that looks like it did not evolve from the main, broad flow of animal and plant evolution. [...] I've never seen anybody discuss this kind of thing. (Interview with James Kent)

4. “The mushroom said to me once, ‘For one human being to seek enlightenment from another is like a grain of sand on the beach seeking enlightenment from another.’” (Appreciating Imagination)

5. “To paraphrase J.B.S. Haldane: Our situation may not only be stranger than we suppose; it may be stranger than we can suppose.” (True Hallucinations)

J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964), a British geneticist, wrote in Possible Worlds and Other Papers (1927): “Now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” McKenna paraphrased this often, observing, also in True Hallucinations, that life is stranger than “even the strangest among us” can suppose. 

6. A mystery will not collapse into solution. 

The myths of science and religion and shamanism all represent a polarity between the mystery of the Self and the mystery of the Other—and remember a mystery is not to be confused with an unsolved problem; a mystery is by its nature mysterious and will not collapse into solution. We are unfamiliar with that kind of thing. We think that if there’s a mystery, then experts of whatever kind can get it straightened out and issue a report. But this approach only works for trivia. (The Archaic Revival)

7. True enough.

As an introduction to McKenna’s distinctive voice—called “a cross between George Bush and Roger Rabbit” by San Francisco Chronicle—and mannerisms, watch him explain this idea, which he got from Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), in the first minute and 20 seconds of this video. He ends with a termite story:

It’s amazing to me—I mean, if you were to meet a termite to state that his or her goal in life was the perfect modelling of the cosmos you would think it was quite a comic undertaking, and yet how different are we that we should presume to more than a shadow of a shadow of the truth.

8. “All our previous positions are now exposed as absurd. But people don’t draw the obvious conclusion: it must also mean then that our present situation is absurd.” (The World Could Be Anything)

9. “As the universe aged, it complexified. This is so obvious that it’s never really been challenged, but on the other hand it’s never been embraced as a general and dependable principle, either.” (Eros and the Eschaton)

10. Complexification is accelerating.

A single species, ourselves, has broken from the ordinary constraints of animal nature and created a new world, an epigenetic world—meaning a world not based on gene transfer and chemical propagation and preservation of information, but a world based on ideas, on symbols, on technologies, on tools, on ideas downloaded out of the human imagination and concretised in three-dimensional space as choppers, arrowpoints, particle accelerators, gene sequencers, spacecraft, what have you—all of this complexification occurring at a faster and faster rate. (Eros and the Eschaton)

11. History is the shockwave of eschatology.

My notion is that out of the broad moving stream of animal evolution, a species was selected, or fell victim to—the terminology can vary—the influence of an attractor pulling in the direction of symbolic activity. This is what we’ve been involved in through chant, magic, theater, dance, poetry, religion, science, politics, and the cognitive pursuit of all kinds, occupying, for all practical purposes, less than 25,000 years—a blink of an eye on the cosmic scale. This is the shockwave that precedes eschatology. An analogy can be seen in the undisturbed surface of a pond. If the pond begins to churn, it indicates some protean form moving beneath the surface, about to make its presence visible. This is the appearance of history on the surface of nature, a churning anticipation of the emergence of the concrescence, or the transcendental object at the end of time. (The Evolutionary Mind)

12. A plan in the mind of the world soul to survive.

When I look at human history, I see the accumulation of a sense of urgency long before anyone started worrying about ecocide or population. It’s almost as though the world soul is the thing that wants to live and, sensing instability, it is trying to build a lifeboat out of the clumsy material of protoplasm. The world soul may actually sense the finite life of the sun, and it may be trying to build a lifeboat for itself to cross to another star. How in the world can you cross to another star when the only material available is protoplasm? Well, it may take fifty million years, but there are strategies. They have to do with genetic languages, and with developing a creature who deals with matter through abstraction and analysis, eventually creating technology. This is all an enzymatically mediated process, a plan in the mind of the world soul to survive. (Chaos, Creativity, and Cosmic Consciousness)

13. A birth looks like something unnatural.

Everything is right on track, developing the way that it should. The trick is to know that, so that one can contribute to it, rather than being frozen by anxiety. I make the analogy to birth. A birth looks like something unnatural; somebody’s being split apart, and there’s a lot of blood, guts, and gore. You’d swear that this is death, not life. But in fact, it’s a completely natural process. (The Archaic Revival)

14. "Worry is preposterous; we don't know enough to worry." 

McKenna often paraphrased this from Wei Boyang, a 2nd century Chinese author and Taoist. It seems to me both more true and more comforting than what I normally think about worry/worrying.

15. “Nature is not mute, it is man who is deaf.” (Opening the Doors of Creativity)

This is in response to Sartre’s “nature is mute” statement. “The legacy of existentialism and the philosophies constellated around it is the belief that there is no attractor, no appetition for completion,” said McKenna in Chaos, Creativity, and Cosmic Consciousness.

16. The cost of sanity in this society is a certain level of alienation.

The reason we feel alienated is because the society is infantile, trivial, and stupid. So the cost of sanity in this society is a certain level of alienation. I grapple with this because I’m a parent. And I think anybody who has children, you come to this realization, you know—what’ll it be? Alienated, cynical intellectual? Or slack-jawed, half-wit consumer of the horseshit being handed down from on high? There is not much choice in there, you see. And we all want our children to be well-adjusted; unfortunately, there’s nothing to be well-adjusted to. (The World and Its Double, 2:25:28)

17. “A secret is not something untold. It’s something which can’t be told.” (Under the Teaching Tree

18. The body is the nexus of the mystery of life.

No one knows how it is that I can command my hand to make a fist and that it will do that. I mean, that’s mind over matter: that’s the violation of every scientific principle in the books. [...] The body is the nexus of the mystery of life. And our culture takes us out of the body, and sells our loyalty into political systems, into religions, into inanimate objects and machines, collections, so forth and so on. The felt experience of the body is what the psychedelics are handing back to us; that’s why it’s called escape, because it’s escape from HBO, from walking the mall, from seeing what’s on the tube, from consuming trash media—it’s escape from all of that, into the authenticity of the body. (Eros and the Eschaton)

19. “I’m not willing to climb aboard the Buddhist ethic because Buddhism says suffering is inevitable. That’s not a psychedelic point of view.” (The Archaic Revival)

20. “My life is a mess. My message is my message.” (A conversation between Terence McKenna and Ram Dass)

Dennis McKenna, in The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss (2012), provides context/insight on this:

One of [Terence’s admirers] told me a story that revealed Terence’s healthy perspective on his celebrity. The moment occurred at an appearance he made with the spiritual leader Ram Dass, who has had his own issues with guru worship and cult followers. It happened during the nineties, at a time when Terence was dealing with his share of personal setbacks. In their dialog, Ram Dass said, “Your life is your message,” a typical guru-esque pronouncement; Terence replied, “My life is a mess. My message is my message.” 

21. Time is a fractal.

Time is a fractal, or has a fractal structure. All times, moments, months and millennia, have a pattern; the same pattern. This pattern is the structure within which, upon which, events "undergo the formality of actually occurring," as Whitehead used to say. The pattern recurs on every level. A love affair, the fall of an empire, the death agony of a protozoan, all occur within the context of this always the same but ever different pattern. All events are resonances of other events, in other parts of time, and at other scales of time. (I Understand Philip K. Dick

22. There is confounding, paranormal material in the psychedelic experience.

I say this as a reasonable person. I want to keep stressing that. I won’t sit at the same table as the channelers, and the people who have good news about Atlantis, and all of this stuff. [...] But in the psychedelic experience there is confounding, paranormal material. It’s the only place I’ve ever found it. (A Stiff Dose of Psychedelics, 10:00)

23. Absolutely no one is in control.

Conspiracy theory is a kind of epistemological cartoon about reality. Isn't it so simple to believe that things are run by the greys, and that all we have to do is trade sufficient fetal tissue to them and we can solve our technological problems, or isn't it comforting to believe that the Jews are behind everything, or the Communist Party, or the Catholic Church, or the Masons. [...] I believe that the truth of the matter is far more terrifying, that the real truth that dare not speak itself is that no one is in control. Absolutely no one. You don’t understand Monica? You don’t understand Netanyahu? It’s because nobody is in control. (Terence McKenna on Who’s in Control)

24. We need the diaries of explorers.

It’s too early for a science. What we need now are the diaries of explorers. We need many diaries of many explorers so we can begin to get a feeling for the territory. (The Archaic Revival)

25. The cultural enterprise is an effort to turn ourselves inside out.

This is from one of the first McKenna talks I watched (I tweeted on September 14, 2012 that he seemed “delightful,” a word I rarely used and later learned he used often, in it). The talk, given in 1995, was focused on McKenna’s Stoned Ape theory—which is explained in Food of the Gods (1992)—but includes a tangent about the internet that I found beautiful and moving:

The way in which [the internet] will dissolve boundaries is by making us transparent. To each other. I mean, I can imagine a child of the future, we all bring home our drawings to stick on refrigerators, and things like that—in the future we won’t stick them on refrigerators, we will stick them in our website. And everything will go into our website. And by the time we’re 25, or something, our website will be the size of the American Museum of Natural History. And you can wander through it. And as a gesture of intimacy you can invite someone else to wander through it. Well that’s who you are—it’s your imagination. And, I think, in a sense, I’ve said, at times, that: The cultural enterprise is an effort to turn ourselves inside out. We want to put the body into the imagination, and we want the imagination to replace the laws of physics.

26. The two concepts, drugs and computers, are migrating toward each other. (The Archaic Revival)

McKenna explained in 1999:
Both computers and drugs are what I would call “function-specific arrangements of matter,” and as we develop nanotechnological abilities as we move into the next century, it will be more and more clear that the difference between drugs and machines is simply that one is too large to swallow. And our best people are working on that. (Psychedelics in the Age of Intelligent Machines)

27. We have a symbiotic relationship to a nonmaterial being which we call language.

The new vision of nature is not as matter or energy, but as information, and information is expressed in the DNA. It’s expressed epigenetically in culture. What’s happening is that information was running itself on a primate platform, but evolving according to its own agenda. In a sense we have a symbiotic relationship to a nonmaterial being which we call language. We think it’s ours, and we think we control it. This isn’t what’s happening. It’s running itself. It’s time-sharing a primate nervous system, and evolving toward its own conclusions. (The Evolutionary Mind)

28. The world is made of language.

The world is not made of quarks, electromagnetic wave packets, or the thoughts of God. The world is made of language. Language is replicating itself in DNA, which, at the evolutionary apex, is creating societies of civilized beings that possess language and machines that use languages. Earth is a place where language has literally become alive. Language has invested matter; it is replicating and defining and building itself. And it is in us. (The Archaic Revival)

29. The world is a novel in which you are a character.

And people have asked me, then...is the goal to make the novel about yourself? I don't think so. The goal is to become the author of the novel. Then you can write any damn ending you want for your character or any other. And this ‘becoming the author’ is this psychedelic detachment. And suddenly you go from being a chessman on the board to the chessmaster looking at the board. It’s empowering.” (The World and its Double, 1:16:30)

30. Life lacks a dimension which death will give it.

I often like to think that our map of the world is so wrong that where we have centered physics, we should actually place literature as the central metaphor that we want to work out from. Because I think literature occupies the same relationship to life that life occupies to death. In the sense that a book is life with one dimension pulled out of it. And life is something which lacks a dimension which death will give it. I imagine death to be a kind of release into the imagination in the sense that, for characters in a book, what we experience is an unimaginable degree of freedom. (Philosophical Gadfly, 1:09:55)

Next Tuesday I’ll share one narrative of McKenna’s life, from his childhood in Paonia, Colorado—where, he said, you were considered an intellectual if you read TIME magazine—to his travels in Asia and the Amazon as a hashish smuggler and English teacher and butterfly collector, through his years growing psilocybin mushrooms and lecturing and writing books, to his death at age 53, in the year 2000, from a rare form of brain cancer.

Follow Tao Lin on Twitter.

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Terence McKenna: Memes are the Key to Societal Evolution