Prejudice Against Psychedelics

Extract from a Terence McKenna interview with Neville Drury

ND: You feel, don't you, that you are accessing quite different spiritual realms from those described by mystics and gurus from the Eastern traditions?

TM: Yes. Their stress on energy centers in the body, levels of consciousness, the moral perfection of spiritual dimensions - none of this I found to be reliable. What the psilocybin experience seems to argue is that there is a kind of parallel universe that is not at all like our universe, and yet it is inhabited by beings with an intentionality. It is not recognisably the universe of astral travel or of the Robert Monroe out-of-the-body experiments. What has always put me off about occultists is the humdrum nature of the other world. They talk about radiant people in flowing gowns – ascended masters and so on. My overwhelming impression of the other realm is it’s utter strangeness - its "Otherness." It is not even a universe of three-dimensional space and time. The other thing about it, which the esoteric traditions never confront directly is the reality of it. I am not an occultist. I am spiritual only to the degree that I have been forced to be by experience. I came into it a reductionist, a rationalist, a materialist, an empiricist - and I say no reductionist, no empiricist could experience what I have experienced without having to seriously retool their philosophy. This is not a reality for the menopausal mystic, the self-hypnotised or the soft-headed. This is real, And the feeling that radiates out of the psychedelic experience is that it has a historical implication, that what has really happened in the twentieth century is that the cataloguing of nature that began in the sixteenth century with Linnaeus has at last reached its culmination. And the cataloguing of nature has revealed things that were totally unexpected - for example, the existence of a dimension that our entire language set, emotional set, and religious ontology deny.

What has happened in the twentieth century is that we have found out what the witch doctors are really doing, what the shaman really intends. This information cannot simply be placed in our museums and forgotten: it contains within it a nugget of incontrovertible experience that appears to argue that our vision of reality is sorely lacking. Somehow we have gone down a road of development that has hidden from us vast regions of reality-areas that we have originally dismissed as superstition and now don't mention at all.

ND: Do you feel that the shamanic reality is now the broadest paradigm available to us? Is it broader, say, than the Eastern mystical model?

TM: Oh, yes, I think so. What I think happened is that in the world of prehistory all religion was experiential, and it was based on the pursuit of ecstasy through plants. And at some time, very early, a group interposed itself between people and direct experience of the "Other." This created hierarchies, priesthoods, theological systems, castes, ritual, taboos. Shamanism, on the other hand, is an experiential science that deals with an area where we know nothing. It is important to remember that our epistemological tools have developed very unevenly in the West. We know a tremendous amount about what is going on in the heart of the atom, but we know absolutely nothing about the nature of the mind. We haven't a clue. If mathematical formulation is to be the bedrock of ideological certitude, then we have no certitude whatsoever in the realm of what is the mind. We assume all kinds of things unconsciously, but, when pressed, we can't defend our position.

I think what has happened-because of psychedelics on one level and quantum physics on another - is that the program of rationally understanding nature has at last been pushed so far that we have reached the irrational core of nature herself. Now we can see: My God, the tools that brought us here are utterly inadequate.


ND: Is the human potential movement currently re-evaluating the role of psychedelics in understanding the nature of consciousness? Or do you find yourself somewhat out on a limb among your contemporaries?

TM: Well, it's a little of both. The human potential movement at times seems like a flight from the psychedelic experience. It will do anything provided there can be certain confidence that it won't work. Therapies have their place, but they are not addressing the question, What is the ground of Being?

ND: What then is your answer to people who continue to dismiss psychedelic experience as artificial? Surely your view is the exact reverse of that?

TM: Well, there's nothing artificial about it. These things were part of the human food chain from the very beginning. Where the mis-understanding comes is with the label - these are "drugs," and "drug" is a red-flag word. We are hysterical over the subject of drugs. Our whole society seems to be dissolving under the onslaught of criminally syndicated drug distribution systems. What we are going to have to do if we are to come to terms with this is to become a little more sophisticated in our definitions. I believe that what we really object to about "drugs is that we are alarmed by unexamined, obsessive, self-destructive behavior. When we see someone acting in this way we draw back. That is what addiction to a drug such as cocaine or morphine results in. However, psychedelics actually break habits and patterns of thought. They actually cause individuals to inspect the structures of their lives and make judgements about them. Now, what psychedelics share with "drugs" is that they are physical compounds, and you do put them into your body. But I believe that a reasonable definition of drugs would have us legalize psilocybin and outlaw television!

Imagine if the Japanese had won World War II and had introduced into American life a drug so insidious that thirty years later the average American was spending five hours a day "loaded" on this drug. People would just view it as an outrageous atrocity. And yet, we in America do this to ourselves. And the horrifying thing about the "trip" that television gives you is that it's not your trip. It is a trip that comes down through the values systems of a society whose greatest god is the almighty dollar. So television is the opiate of the people. I think the tremendous governmental resistance to the psychedelic issue is not because psychedelics are multimillion-dollar criminal enterprises – they are trivial on that level. However, they inspire examination of values, and that is the most corrosive thing that can happen.

ND: So why is there such a tremendous prejudice, both in the East and West, against psychedelics?

TM: I think People are in love with the journey. People love seeking answers>. But if you were to suggest to them that the time of seeking is over and that the chore is now to face the answer, now that's more of a challenge! 

Anyone can sweep up around the ashram for a dozen years while congratulating themselves that they are following a path to enlightenment. It takes courage to take psychedelics - real courage. Your stomach clenches, your palms grow damp, because you realise that this is real - this is going to work. Not in 12 years, not in 20 years, but in an hour! 

What I see in the whole spiritual enterprise is a great number of people supporting themselves in one way or another on the basis of their lack of success. Were they ever to succeed these enterprises would be all but put out of business. But no one is in a hurry for that.

ND: In your scheme of things, is there any place for institutionalized religion, for orthodox religious beliefs?

TM: Yes. What I have found is that all of these systems that are offered as spiritual paths work splendidly in the presence of psychedelics. If you think mantras are effective, try a mantra on twenty milligrams of psilocybin and see what happens. All sincere religious motivation is illuminated by psychedelics. To put it perhaps in a trivial way, the religious quest is an automobile but psychedelics are the petrol that runs it. You go nowhere without the fuel no matter how finely crafted the upholstery how flawlessly machined the engine.

ND: Where do you personally think the human potential movement is heading now, and where do you position yourself in the spectrum?

TM: I believe that the best idea will win. We are all under an obligation to ourselves and to the world to do our best - to place the best ideas on the table. Then all we have to do is stand back and watch. I have this Darwinian belief that the correct idea will emerge triumphant. To my way of thinking, psychedelics provide the only category that is authentic enough to be legislated out of existence. They're not going to make quartz crystals or wheat grass juice illegal - these things pose no problem. But I think that we are going to have to come to terms with the psychedelic possibility. We would have a long time ago in America except for the fact that, on this issue, the Government acts as the enforcing arm of Christian fundamentalism. Life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are enshrined in the Constitution of the United States as inalienable rights. If the pursuit of happiness does not cover the psychedelic quest for enlightenment, then I don't know what it can mean. I think we are headed for a darker period before the light, because the self-deceiving cant of the Government on this issue is going to have to be exposed for what it is. I see the whole "hard drug" phenomenon as an enormous con game. Governments have always been the major purveyor of addictive drugs-right back to the sugar trade in England, the opium wars in China, the CIA's involvement in the heroin trade in Southeast Asia during the 1960s, and the current cocaine distribution coming out of South America. We’re going to have to abondon this Christian wish to legislate other people’s behavior "for their own good".

ND: You have said that an important part of the mystical quest is to face up to death and recognize it as a rhythm of life. Would you like to enlarge on your view on the implications of the dying process?

TM: I take seriously the notion that these psychedelic states are an anticipation of the dying process-or, as the Tibetans refer to it, the Bardo level beyond physical death. It seems likely that our physical lives are a type of launching pad for the soul. As the esoteric traditions say, life is an opportunity to prepare for death, and we should learn to recognize the signposts along the way, so that when death comes, we can make the transition smoothly. I think the psychedelics show you the transcendental nature of reality. It would be hard to die gracefully as an atheist or existentialist. Why should you? Why not rage against the dying of the light? But if in fact this is not the dying of the light but the ‘Dawning of the Great Light’, then one should certainly not rage against that. There's a tendency in the New Age to deny death. We have people pursuing physical immortality and freezing their heads until the fifth millennium, when they can be thawed out. All of this indicates a lack of balance or equilibrium. The Tao flows through the realms of life and non-life with equal ease.

ND: Do you personally regard the death process as a journey into one's own belief system?

TM: Like the psychedelic experience, death must be poured into the vessel of language. But dying is essentially physiological. It may be that there are certain compounds in the brain that are only released when it is impossible to reverse the dying process. And yet the near-death experience has a curious affinity to the shamanic voyage and the psychedelic experience.

I believe that the best map we have of consciousness is the shamanic map. According to this viewpoint, the world has a "center," and when you go to the center - which is inside yourself -there is a vertical axis that allows you to travel up or down. There are celestial worlds, there are infernal worlds, there are paradisiacal worlds. These are the worlds that open up to us on our shamanic journeys, and I feel we have an obligation to explore these domains and pass on that information to others interested in mapping the psyche. At this time in our history, it's perhaps the most awe-inspiring journey anyone could hope to make.

- Extract from a Terence McKenna interview with Neville Drury 
- for ‘Nature and Health’ magazine (published in Australia, 1990)