Terence McKenna: Life, Lectures, Philosophy, & Quotes

The life & philosophy of one of the most influential psychonauts of the 21st century. 

By Justin Cooke Last Updated: June 26, 2023
Last Updated: June 26, 2023

Terence McKenna (1946-2000) was once called “the Timothy Leary of the 90s” by Timothy Leary himself.

Professionally, McKenna was an ethnobotanist and ecologist. He spent most of his time traveling to exotic regions of the world to study the use of entheogenic plants and fungi, writing books, and giving lectures.

McKenna was a big proponent of psychedelic substances, which were a vital source of inspiration for his philosophy on life, his writing, and his work on the origins of human consciousness.

He’s one of the leading authorities on the ontological foundations of shamanism and the theoretical origins of human consciousness. He and his brother, Dennis McKenna, are credited with the formation of the “the stoned ape theory.”

Birth & Death1946-2000
Personality TypeINFJ | 5w4
OccupationWriter, Philosopher, & Ethnobotanist

The Life of Terence McKenna

Terence McKenna grew up in Paonia, California. He was passionate about science and psychology at a very young age through his experiences hunting for fossils with an uncle. He also developed a deep interest in consciousness after reading Carl Jung’s book — Psychology & Alchemy.

He first became interested in psychedelics at the age of 14 after reading an essay in LIFE magazine titled Seeking the Magic Mushroom by R. Gordon Wasson. He later read two psychedelic-inspired books by Aldous Huxley — The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell — which steered the direction of his academic study.

He began his academic journey in art history at the University of California, Berkeley. He eventually graduated with a bachelor’s degree in ecology, shamanism, and conservation of natural resources in 1975 after taking several breaks from his studies to explore Southeast Asia and South America. 

His first trip was to Nepal in 1969, where he studied the Tibetan language and learned about the traditional use of psychedelic plants and mysticism.

During this time, he was smuggling hashish from Nepal and India to the U.S. After one of his shipments was seized, he fled to Indonesia, where he became a professional butterfly collector.

In 1972 Terence and his brother, Dennis McKenna, went to South America to look for an entheogenic plant preparation they had heard about called oo-koo-hé (yopo).

After arriving in Colombia, they discovered large swaths of Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms (magic mushrooms) while venturing through the Amazon rainforest. The duo then decided to abandon their initial goal and study the mushrooms they found instead.

The brothers brought samples of the mushrooms and their spores home with them for further study. While in the rainforest, they learned about cultivation methods from the locals, which they used to develop a new cultivation technique that they highlighted in their book — Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide (1976).

Up until this point, nobody had successfully been able to cultivate magic mushrooms outside their natural habitat. The McKenna’s are credited with bringing the production of psychedelics into the hands of the general public. The techniques the duo had innovated and adapted remain some of the most effective methods of magic mushroom cultivation used today.

Terence McKenna got married to fellow ethnobotanist Kathleen Harrison after meeting at a conference. Together, they formed Botanical Dimensions and bought land on the big island of Hawaii, which they dedicated to the collection, protection, and propagation of ethno-medically significant plant species.

Terence McKenna spent his time studying entheogenic plants and fungi, exploring the origins of consciousness, writing books, and performing various studies and experiments with his brother, Dennis McKenna, and others.

Some of the more outlandish experiments performed by Terence and Dennis McKenna involved the attempted bonding of harmine (a compound produced in Banisteriopsis caapi) with their own neural DNA. They believed this would give them access to the collective memory of the human species.

Terence was the subject of this study. He claimed the experiment put him into touch with Logos — the divine voice. He refers to this voice often in his lectures, which he sometimes calls “the mushroom” or “the teaching voice.”

The revelations Terence experienced from the voice led him to deeply explore the I Ching — AKA The Book of Changes — which is a Taoist divination tool and philosophical text.

This research is what led to the formation of what he calls “the novelty theory” (more on this later).  

How Did Terence McKenna Die?

Terence McKenna died in 2000 at the age of 53 from a rare form of brain cancer called glioblastoma multiforma.

After suffering from a seizure, brain scans found a large tumor in his brain, after which he was given only a few months to live.

In one of his final interviews, McKenna was quoted as saying:

“I always thought death would come on the freeway in a few horrifying moments, so you’d have no time to sort it out. Having months and months to look at it and think about it and talk to people and hear what they have to say, it’s a kind of blessing. It’s certainly an opportunity to grow up and get a grip and sort it all out. Just being told by an unsmiling guy in a white coat that you’re going to be dead in four months definitely turns on the lights. […] It makes life rich and poignant.”

Why Was Interpol Looking For Terence McKenna?

McKenna used to smuggle hashish from Nepal to the United States. In 1969, one of his shipments was confiscated by the U.S. Customs, which alerted INTERPOL. This forced McKenna to flee Nepal to Indonesia, where he laid low for a few years pursuing other passions.

Nothing ever came from this, and McKenna was able to return to the U.S. without experiencing any issues related to his history as a drug-smuggler.

What Was Terence McKenna’s Philosophy?

McKenna had a lot of interesting theories and philosophies that are still discussed today in the field of psychedelics. He was a strong advocate for the use of psychedelic plants and fungi for the purpose of personal and societal growth and expansion.

McKenna believed DMT (dimethyltryptamine) and other psychedelics acted as a sort of gateway to trans-dimensional travel.

He believed the visions experienced by psychedelics were taking place in another dimension. Here, he would often encounter “higher dimensional entities.” In some of his lectures and books, he refers to these beings as “self-transforming machine elves.”

He also believed psychedelics acted as a doorway to the “Gaian mind,” — which suggests the planet has a form of intelligence that can channel information to humans. This communication is facilitated through the use of psychedelic plants and fungi.

Here are some of Terence McKenna’s many philosophies and theories:

1. Psilocybin Panspermia Speculation

Terence McKenna believed magic mushrooms were an intelligent entity that migrated to Earth through space. Once arriving on Earth, they sought a symbiotic relationship with humans.

He believed intelligence (not intelligent life, but intelligence itself) migrated to Earth on these spores. This theory leads to his stoned ape theory.

He pointed out several qualities of mushroom spores that make them well-suited for space-travel:

  1. The encasing on a spore is the hardest organic material known
  2. The spore casing is electron-dense — which makes it more akin to metal than living matter
  3. Psilocybe spores are purple in color — which is the ideal color for reflecting radiation in the far U.V. spectrum, which damages genetic material (protection of genetic material from radiation)
  4. Fungi spores exhibit Brownian motion — the randomized movement and percolation of spores throughout the planet and universe is statistically increased by the release of billions of spores from each mushroom body
  5. The genetic instructions inside the spores encode a generalized organic matter decomposer — they can live off virtually any nondescript organic material they may encounter in the universe

2. The Stoned Ape Theory

One of the most intriguing theories Terence and Dennis McKenna put forward was the stoned ape theory — which is highlighted in detail in one of Terence’s books Food of the Gods.

The McKennas’ suggested that early apes’ ingestion of magic mushrooms lead to the increased brain size and evolution into humans (Homo sapiens). Mushrooms in this context were an “evolutionary catalyst” — directing and speeding up the evolution of apes into early humans.

Here’s how the theory goes in a nutshell: Pre-human apes used to live in the large swaths of rainforest on the African peninsula. As the rainforests dried up and formed deserts and savannas, the apes were forced to venture outside the forest and forage in the surrounding grasslands. Psychedelic mushrooms living in these fields were ingested by the apes, fundamentally changing the path of brain development over the course of several thousand years.

The McKennas’ believed the psychedelic experience brought on by the mushrooms caused the ape’s brains to increase in size. This led to improved visual acuity, more advanced language centers of the brain, and created “brave leaders” of the group. These leaders established stronger social and societal structures within the ape communities.

They also believed the ingestion of these mushrooms dissolved the ego, leading to the formation of the earliest forms of religion.

3. The Novelty Theory

The novelty theory was suggested as a way to predict the ebb and flow of “novelty” in the universe. The idea was that time is not a constant but instead has tendencies towards exhibiting either “habit” or “novelty.”

  • Habit = entropic, repetitive qualities.
  • Novelty = creative, random, chaotic, or progressive qualities.

McKenna believed the universe is an engine that generates novelty in time. As novelty increases, so does the complexity. As complexity increases, time moves more quickly. Essentially, the idea is that more experience happens in the same moment of time in a more novel or complex system. More things happen in the same moment compared to simple or habitual systems. 

He also believed an early form of the I Ching (The King Wen Sequence) effectively codified the nature of time’s flow in the world. This sequence consists of 64 hexagrams, each made up of a series of 6 broken or unbroken lines (yin and yang lines, respectively). The fundamental principle of this text is duality and change — that everything is in constant flux. The changing order of these lines is used as a model for the way time waxes and wanes throughout the universe.

Terence used the King Wen Sequence to create a mathematical algorithm to measure the changing of time, which he later incorporated into computer software he called “Timewave Zero” (1987).

He used this software to predict the period of “maximum novelty,” which he believed to be December 21, 2012.

This theory is highly criticized. British mathematician Matthew Watkins of Exeter University performed a mathematical analysis of the program and concluded there were many flaws in the math used for the formula.

What Did Terence McKenna Believe?

Terence McKenna didn’t subscribe to any particular religion but was most aligned with shamanistic religious practices. In his lectures, he often refers to ideas from Eastern philosophies such as Taoism.

He directly rejected the idea of monotheism, most organized religion, and guru-based religion in favor of shamanism.

What Was Terence McKenna’s Stance on Psychedelics?

Terence McKenna was an outspoken advocate of psychedelics during a time when it was unpopular to do so (the 90s).

McKenna was particularly fond of natural psychedelics and considered DMT and ayahuasca to be the apotheosis of the psychedelic experience.

When asked about the use of synthetic psychedelics, his response was this:

“I think drugs should come from the natural world and be use-tested by shamanically-orientated cultures … one cannot predict the long-term effects of a drug produced in a laboratory.”

He was a proponent of taking heroic doses of magic mushrooms. He believed the messages of the mushrooms only become clear after someone has been “slain” by their power.

One of his first psychedelic experiences involved the morning glory seeds (LSA), and he smoked marijuana on a daily basis since his early teens.

Despite recommending large doses of psychedelic substances, Terence was upfront and often stressed the importance of safety when using psychedelic plants:

“Experimenters should be very careful. One must build-up to the experience. These are bizarre dimensions of extraordinary power and beauty. There is no set rule to avoid being overwhelmed, but move carefully, reflect a great deal, and always try to map experiences back onto the history of the race and the philosophical and religious accomplishments of the species. All the compounds are potentially dangerous, and all compounds, at sufficient doses or repeated over time, involve risks. The library is the first place to go when looking into taking a new compound.”

Terence McKenna’s Books

Terence McKenna was an avid writer — releasing more than a dozen books on the topics of mushroom cultivation, philosophy and metaphysics, ethnobotany, and shamanism.

  1. The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens, & the I Ching (1975)
  2. Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide (1976)
  3. Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution (1992)
  4. The Archaic Revival (1992)
  5. History Ends in Green (1992)
  6. True Hallucinations (1993)
  7. Global Perspectives and Psychedelic Poets (1994)

Related: The psychedelic reading list.

Best Terence McKenna Quotes

On Ego & Morality

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.

We’ve been to the moon, we’ve charted the depths of the ocean and the heart of the atom, but we have a fear of looking inward to ourselves because we sense that is where all the contradictions flow together.

Unexamined cultural values & limitations of language have made us unwitting prisoners of our own assumptions.

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.

If you’re not the hero of your own novel, then what kind of novel is it? You need to do some heavy editing.

You don’t want to become so open-minded that the wind can whistle between your ears.

My technique is don’t believe anything. If you believe in something, you are automatically precluded from believing its opposite.

It’s pretty simple, the ethical life. It’s just demanding.

On Consciousness & Ontology

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.

Only psychos and shamans create their own reality.

Half the time you think your thinking you’re actually listening.

Nobody is smarter than you are. And what if they are? What good is their understanding doing you?

There is a transcendental dimension beyond language… It’s just hard as hell to talk about!

The real truth that dare not speak itself is that no one is in control. Absolutely no one.

Nowhere is it written that anthropoid apes should understand reality.

Take it easy man, but take it.

The real tension is not between matter and spirit, or time and space, the real tension is between information and nonsense.

Nothing lasts but nothing is lost.

On Death

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.

I’ll try to be around and about. But if I’m not, then you know that I’m behind your eyelids, and I’ll meet you there

The purpose of life is to familiarize oneself with this after-death body so that the act of dying will not create confusion in the psyche.

On Society & Policy

If you don’t have a plan, you become part of somebody else’s plan.

Western civilization is a loaded gun pointed at the head of this planet.

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

What civilization is, is 6 billion people trying to make themselves happy by standing on each other’s shoulders and kicking each other’s teeth in. It’s not a pleasant situation.

Psychedelics are illegal not because a loving government is concerned that you may jump out of a third-story window. Psychedelics are illegal because they dissolve opinion structures and culturally laid down models of behavior and information processing. They open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong.

Authority will lead you into ruin.

The global triumph of Western values means we, as a species, have wandered into a state of prolonged neurosis because of the absence of a connection to the unconscious.

The way you stretch the envelope of culture is by creating language.

On Ecology

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

Nature is not mute; it is man who is deaf.

Related: Best psychedelic quotes.

Best Terence McKenna Lectures

Terence McKenna gave countless lectures throughout his life. He often spoke about psychedelics but also covered other topics, including metaphysics, language, technology, environmentalism, Eastern philosophy, culture, alchemy, the I Ching, and more.

Here are some of the best Terence McKenna lectures to get started:

1. Time is Speeding Up

2. Terence McKenna At Esalen Institute 1989

3. Opening The Doors of Creativity

4. Time & The I Ching

5. Reject Authority, Trust Yourself

Summary: Who Was Terence McKenna?

Terence McKenna is a prime example of a polymath — someone who’s achieved a deep level of understanding across a broad range of topics.

He was an avid writer, researcher, ethnobotanist, philosopher, psychonaut, and cultivator.

Terence McKenna was ahead of his time. His lectures cover an incredibly wide range of topics, and his ability to distill and explain extremely complex topics regarding consciousness and time was second to none. A lot of his ideas were outlandish and highly criticized, especially at the time, but have left a permanent mark on society and the field of ontology and ethnobotany.

Today, Terence McKenna lives on in the form of recorded lectures on Youtube and podcasts, as well as his many books.

If you’re interested in learning more about Terence McKenna, check out the lectures posted above, or pick up one of his books (I recommend Food of the Gods or True Hallucinations).

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