“When you take into your life the gnosis of the light-filled vegetables, the psychedelic plants that have stabilized the sane societies of this world for millennia, the first message that comes to you is: You are a divine being. You matter. You count. You come from realms of unimaginable power and light, and you will return to those realms.”

— Terence McKenna (1946-2000)

Terence McKenna was something of a modern wizard. 

An American philosopher, ethnobotanist, and psychonaut, McKenna’s entrancing lectures covered everything from shamanism, language, imagination, the Internet, and consciousness to religion, dreams, the origins and evolution of life, culture, alchemy, alienation, chemistry, sex, art, and literature.

McKenna was an astonishingly polymathic mind, and at the center of his dazzling web of interests was the psychedelic experience, specifically the effects of psilocybin and DMT.

Perhaps the most stunning thing about McKenna was his masterful facility with language and vocabulary; I daresay he was one of the most poetic and eloquent orators ever to walk this Earth.

One of the few individuals capable of ‘effing the ineffable’, McKenna captured the interests, imaginations, and identities of all who listened. Similar to a feeling of kensho, listening to Terence talk was an experience that would change the way your inner universe worked.

If you’re prepared to pour rocket fuel on the embers of your soul and venture out into the extremities of the knowable, we’ve got 57 of his best ideas, ponderings, and quotes for you to sample.

Hold on, this is going to be a whirly, dizzying ride.

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Nature and Reality

“The syntactical nature of reality, the real secret of magic, is that the world is made of words. And if you know the words that the world is made of, you can make of it whatever you wish.”

“Nowhere is it writ that anthropoid apes should understand reality.”

Nature loves courage. You make the commitment and nature will respond to that commitment by removing impossible obstacles. Dream the impossible dream and the world will not grind you under, it will lift you up. This is the trick. This is what all these teachers and philosophers who really counted, who really touched the alchemical gold, this is what they understood. This is the shamanic dance in the waterfall. This is how magic is done. By hurling yourself into the abyss and discovering its a feather bed.”

“Nature is not our enemy, to be raped and conquered. Nature is ourselves, to be cherished and explored.”

“In trying to think conservatively about the possibility of a non-human local intelligence, it seems to me that in a way nature herself presents as an intelligence—that the understanding of nature is the understanding of complex integrated systems of such complexity that to deny them consciousness is just a reluctance of the reductionist mind; that for anyone not burdened by that prejudice it’s self-evident that nature is alive, cognizant, responding.

Ego and Selfhood

“Chaos is what we’ve lost touch with. This is why it is given a bad name. It is feared by the dominant archetype of our world, which is Ego, which clenches because its existence is defined in terms of control.”

“If the ego is not regularly and repeatedly dissolved in the unbounded hyperspace of the Transcendent Other, there will always be slow drift away from the sense of self as part of nature’s larger whole. The ultimate consequence of this drift is the fatal ennui that now permeates Western Civilization.”

“You are an explorer, and you represent our species, and the greatest good you can do is to bring back a new idea, because our world is endangered by the absence of good ideas. Our world is in crisis because of the absence of consciousness.”

“What is needed is a spirit of boundary dissolution, between individuals, between classes, sexual orientations, rich and poor, man and woman, intellectual and feeling toned types. If this can happen, then we will make a new world. And if this doesn’t happen, nature is fairly pitiless and has a place for us in the shale of this planet, where so many have preceded us.”

“I think that’s the job of each of us: to show our best toys and our best tricks that lift us and our friends to higher and higher levels. There is no end to this bootstrapping process. The future of the human mind and body and the future of humans together is endlessly bright.”

“The word ‘self’ is as great a mystery as the word ‘other’. It’s just a polarity between two mysteries.”

“My voice speaking is a monkey’s mouth making little mouth noises that are carrying agreed-upon meaning, and it is meaning that matters. Without the meaning one has only little mouth noises.”

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Culture and Society

“The dominator culture is increasingly more and more sophisticated in its perfection of subliminal mechanisms of control. And I don’t mean anything grandiose and paranoid. I just mean that through press releases and soundbites and the enforced idiocy of television, the drama of a dying world has been turned into a soap opera for most people. And they don’t understand that it’s their story, and that they will eat it in the final act, if somewhere between here and the final act they don’t stand up on their hind legs and howl. And it’s not done through organizing. It’s not done through vanguard parties or cadres of intellectual elites. It’s done through just walking away from all of that: Claiming your identity, claiming your vision, your being, your intuition, and then acting from that without regret. Cleanly. Without regret.”

“We have to create culture, don’t watch TV, don’t read magazines, don’t even listen to NPR. Create your own roadshow. The nexus of space and time where you are now is the most immediate sector of your universe, and if you’re worrying about Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton or somebody else, then you are disempowered, you’re giving it all away to icons, icons which are maintained by an electronic media so that you want to dress like X or have lips like Y. This is shit-brained, this kind of thinking. That is all cultural diversion, and what is real is you and your friends and your associations, your highs, your orgasms, your hopes, your plans, your fears. And we are told ‘no’, we’re unimportant, we’re peripheral. ‘Get a degree, get a job, get a this, get a that.’ And then you’re a player, you don’t want to even play in that game. You want to reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that’s being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world.”

“The imagination is the goal of history. I see culture as an effort to literally realize our collective dreams.”

“Not to know one’s true identity is to be a mad, dis-ensouled thing — a golem. And, indeed, this image, sickeningly Orwellian, applies to the mass of human beings now living in the high-tech industrial democracies. Their authenticity lies in their ability to obey and follow mass style changes that are conveyed through the media. Immersed in junk food, trash media, and crypto-fascist politics, they are condemned to toxic lives of low awareness. Sedated by the prescripted daily television fix, they are a living dead, lost to all but the act of consuming.”

“You are not naked when you take off your clothes. You still wear your religious assumptions, your prejudices, your fears, your illusions, your delusions. When you shed the cultural operating system, then, essentially you stand naked before the inspection of your own psyche…and it’s from that position, a position outside the cultural operating system, that we can begin to ask real questions about what does it mean to be human, what kind of circumstance are we caught in, and what kind of structures, if any, can we put in place to assuage the plan and accentuate the glory and the wonder that lurks, waiting for us, in this very narrow slice of time between the birth canal and the yawning grave. In other words we have to return to first premises.”

“If you’re a person of decent intent and moderate intelligence, and you read the great minds of your culture and study their thought, it’s insufficient, because everyone is bound within an illusion of language. The entire enterprise of culture is this illusion of language. Homer was as sick with it as Heidegger. So there’s no going back—no classic recension. What we have to do is reach past to some kind of experience. [Our understanding] must be anchored in an experience.”

“The spiritual atrophying of contemporary culture may be due in large measure to its loss of sensitivity to processes in the collective unconscious.”

“Every culture that’s ever existed has operated under the illusion that it understood 95% of reality and that the other 5% would be delivered in the next 18 months, and from Egypt forward they’ve been running around believing they had a perfect grip on things and yet we look back at every society that preceded us with great smugness at how naive they all were. Well, it never occurs to us, then, that maybe we’re whistling in the dark too! That the universe is stranger than you CAN suppose, and that that openness that that perception imparts is a great joy, a great blessing, because then you can live your life not in service to some fascistic metaphor but in service to the living mystery: the fact that you’re not going to understand it; it is not going to yield to logic; or magic; or any other technique that’s been developed…”

“You don’t go on bended-knee to petition the official culture for your rights. You have to take them.”

“Culture is a perversion. It fetishizes objects, creates consumer mania, it preaches endless forms of false happiness, endless forms of false understanding in the form of squirrelly religions and silly cults. It invites people to diminish themselves and dehumanize themselves by behaving like machines.”

“The major adventure is to claim your authentic, true being, which is not culturally given to you. The culture will not explain to you how to be a real human being. It will tell you how to be banker, politician, Indian chief, masseuses, actress, whatever, but it will not give you true being.”

“We cannot evolve faster than our language. The edge of being is the edge of meaning, and somehow we have to push the edge of meaning. We have to extend it.”

“Part of what is wrong with our society, and hence with ourselves, is that we consume images, we don’t produce them. We need to produce, not consume, media.”

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Psychedelics

“Even as the nineteenth century had to come to grips with the notion of human descent from apes, we must now come to terms with the fact that those apes were stoned apes.”

“Part of what psychedelics do is they decondition you from cultural values. This is what makes it such a political hot potato. Since all culture is a kind of con game, the most dangerous candy you can hand out is one which causes people to start questioning the rules of the game.”

“A hallucination is to be in the presence of that which previously could not be imagined, and if it previously could not be imagined then there is no grounds for believing that you generated it out of yourself.”

“Sometimes people say to me ‘These states that you’re talking about, can’t they be achieved without drugs?’ And my answer to that is, ‘My God, who would want to?’ What would be proved by achieving these things without drugs? If the things I’m talking about began to happen to me without drugs I would be very, very concerned and alarmed. And also I think there is something to be said for admitting that we cannot do it alone. That if you want this spiritual insight, if you want the Gaian matrix to welcome you, then humble yourself to the point of making a deal with a plant. That’s the key.”

“The movement of a single atom from one known position to another known position changes an experience from nothing to overwhelming. This means that mind and matter at the quantum mechanical level are all spun together.”

“The only difference between a drug and a computer is that one is slightly too large to swallow. … And our best people are working on that problem, even as we speak.”

“The reason for the emphasis on shamanism and on other techniques is, you will need techniques if you go into the deep water. And they can make your life very simple and save you from unnecessary suffering. Not all suffering is necessary. Maybe no suffering is necessary.”

“Inevitably out of the psychedelic experience emerges not despair, not self-indulgence, but wild-eyed idealism, that’s the inevitable product of any psychedelically driven social process.”

“LSD burst over the dreary domain of the constipated bourgeoisie like the angelic herald of a new psychedelic millennium. We have never been the same since, nor will we ever be, for LSD demonstrated, even to skeptics, that the mansions of heaven and gardens of paradise lie within each and all of us.”


“The psychedelic experience is simply a compressed instance of what we call understanding, so that living psychedelically is trying to live in an atmosphere of continuous unfolding of understanding, so that every day you know more and see into things with greater depth than you did before. This is a process of education.”

Science and Anti-Dogma

“We are asked by science to believe that the entire universe sprang from nothingness, and at a single point and for no discernible reason. This notion is the limit case for credulity. In other words, if you can believe this, you can believe anything.”

“The main difference between our world and the world that science tells us we’re living in is that science denies the quirky, freaky, cosmic-giggle, high-plottedness, completely improbable, totally quirky humor that binds everything together, and that makes it something other than an engine in which ‘atoms blindly run,’ in Whitehead’s phrase.”

“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.”

“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.”

Life and Death

“The problem is not to find the answer, it’s to face the answer.”

“[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. A book is life with one dimension pulled out of it. And life is something that 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 dimension of freedom.”

“Life lived in the absence of the psychedelic experience that primordial shamanism is based on is life trivialized, life denied, life enslaved to the ego.”

“Right here and now, one quanta away, there is raging a universe of active intelligence that is transhuman, hyperdimensional, and extremely alien… What is driving religious feeling today is a wish for contact with this other universe.”

“The artist’s task is to save the soul of mankind; and anything less is a dithering while Rome burns. Because of the artists, who are self-selected, for being able to journey into the Other, if the artists cannot find the way, then the way cannot be found.”

“There’s light at the end of the tunnel. The problem is that tunnel is in the back of your mind. And if you don’t go to the back side of your mind you will never see the light at the end of the tunnel. And once you see it, then the task becomes to empower it in yourself and other people. Spread it as a reality. God did not retire to the seventh heaven, God is some kind of lost continent IN the human mind.”

“We are the inheritors of a million years of striving for the unspeakable.”

“The main thing to understand is that we are imprisoned in some kind of work of art.”

“I don’t believe consciousness is generated in the brain any more than television programs are made inside my TV. The box is too small.”

“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.”

“We have to recognize that the world is not something sculptured and finished, which we as perceivers walk through like patrons in a museum; the world is something we make through the act of perception.”

“There is nobody who is so enlightened that they don’t need to work on themselves.”

“If we could feel what we are doing to the Earth, we would stop immediately.”

“We can will the perfect future into being by becoming microcosms of the perfect future.”

“If the words ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ don’t include the right to experiment with your own consciousness, then the Declaration of Independence isn’t worth the hemp it was written on.”

“We have changed. We are no longer, as I said, bipedal monkeys. We are instead a kind of cybernetic coral reef of organic components and inorganic technological components.”

“Time is a topological manifold. It is a surface. Events flow across it like water over land and like water flowing over land, when the land is flat, the water becomes reflective and moves slowly. When the landscape becomes disrupted, the water moves faster and chaotic attractors appear and new kinds of activity emerge and out of that new activity, there comes the new states that define the future.”

“We are consciousness. We may not always be monkeys.”

If you appreciated this, I recommend letting Terence bedazzle your neurons by watching this video or this one. I also recommend reading his book, Food of the Gods: A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution