6 Empowering Lessons from Terence McKenna

Psychedelic image representing Terence McKenna
A psychedelic madman

Terence McKenna did a lot of drugs.

That’s an understatement. Timothy Leary, the figurehead of the 60s LSD counterculture, called him the “Timothy Leary of the 90s.” An ethnobotanist by trade, and a “mystic” by choice, Terence McKenna wrote and gave lectures on the merits of psychedelic drug use.

His work can be found all over YouTube. The lectures are filled with tales of taking “heroic” doses of mushrooms and prophetic insights about the future. He was a critic of western culture and a champion of authentic human expression.

Using substances, he took his mind and bent it, twisted it, toyed with it, bedazzled it, and flattened it.  When you put your mind through that, you have things to say.

Here are six lessons from the other side of wherever Terence McKenna’s been:

1. “Nature loves courage. It shows you that it loves courage because it will remove obstacles.  Dream the impossible dream, and the world will not run you under, it will lift you up.”

I don’t believe in the law of attraction. I don’t believe that mentally committing to something forces the world to mold itself around your desires. But, I do believe in the old saying, “fortune favors the bold.” No one makes strides without boldness.

I once heard my grandmother say, “Haven’t you heard that God helps those who help themselves?” Maybe she and Terence McKenna were making the same point.

It’s a cool thing to imagine that something in nature reacts positively to your striving.  As for how literally you take that, I’ll leave it up to you. Just remember that the bolder you are, the more likely you’ll live the life you want.

2. “This is how magic is done. It’s done by hurling yourself into the abyss and discovering that it’s a feather bed.”

Taken from the same lecture on courage, Mckenna describes the process of wading into uncertain waters and finding treasure at the bottom.

The things we think will obliterate us are often the things we need to do most.

I used to play this game to combat my social anxiety. The objective of the game was to get rejected on purpose in a harmless way. For instance, you would approach a stranger and ask to borrow $100. If they reject you, you win the game. You break your fear of rejection by diving straight into it.

It was my first attempt, and I was trembling. I was by myself in a shopping mall, and I approached two guys walking together. I said, “H-hey, excuse me, um…is it possible that I could borrow $100 from one of you guys…?” They looked at each other for a second. One spoke up in the most American accent you could imagine, and said, “Uhhh, no hablo Inglés.”

As I was walking away, I thought to myself, “Those guys definitely spoke English.” And I laughed. I faced a terrible fear and it turned out fine. It was nothing at all. A feather bed.

3. “If it’s real, it can take the pressure. You don’t have to pussyfoot around the real thing. If they’re telling you you must lower your voice and avert your gaze, then you’re probably in the presence of crap.”

In this lecture, McKenna was referring to the sacred aspects of religions and ideologies.

Something that speaks for itself doesn’t require that you rush to defend it. If what you believe has such a flimsy foundation that a single comment would tear it down, then maybe it isn’t as legitimate as you think. If you’re discouraged from speaking against something, you have to wonder why.

I think of this quote when I feel afraid to question something I believe in. What if my criticism ruins it? Then I remember that if a few questions are enough to take away its power, then it wasn’t worth believing in the first place.

Form your own evaluations of a belief system. If you feel reluctant to question something, that’s a red flag. And if you’re afraid to consider your own opinion, then you might be in a cult.

4. “That’s like believing you understand Los Angeles if you have the telephone directory. They can tell us where the genes are. The coding of the proteins. But does this tell us anything about a broken heart, a messiah, a Hitler? I don’t think so.”

Terence McKenna was big on the primacy of individual experience. He felt that modern science, for all its worth, is reductionistic in its view of humanity. It treats people more like organisms reacting in an environment than conscious agents acting in a world.

That’s all up for debate, but more than anything, Mckenna wanted people to make their own judgments. If someone makes a claim that doesn’t jive with your personal experience, do you automatically believe them? Or do you trust yourself first?

He wasn’t saying that people shouldn’t trust science. He was saying there is more to being human than what appears on a brain scan.

This lesson helps to remind me that I’m something more significant than a bag of chemicals. Science can make you feel that way.

5. “Don’t worry. You don’t know enough to worry. That’s God’s truth. Who do you think you are that you should worry?”

Worrying about loved ones or your own life is one thing. But when worrying reaches a certain scale it starts to become ridiculous.

If you’re worried about the biggest questions in the universe, you’re making assumptions about things you can’t possibly be sure of. Are you some all-knowing sage whose job it is to figure it all out?

It’s interesting to speculate on who we are, why we’re here, and what it’s all for, but these questions have no obvious answers. And you’ll go crazy thinking about them.

I used to always get bogged down by the big questions. But this lesson helped stop my overthinking in its tracks. The mystery is all we’ve got, and I’m ok with that. Now I can finally get back to living. Maybe that’s where the answers are.

6. “It’s a wonderful thing to learn to stand up and yell, bullshit! I first did it when I was 18 years old. It blew their minds. It was uncivil!”

It takes a lot to call people out, even if you aren’t a shy person. But if no one took that leap, movements wouldn’t have started, tyrants would’ve remained in power, and bad ideas would’ve been left unchallenged.

I’m hesitant to call people on their B.S. I try to avoid unnecessary conflict. But if someone says something that upsets me, I have to remember that yelling “Bullshit!” can be the most empowering thing you can do.

Some people have never been called on their B.S. before. That’s why they’re obnoxiously spouting whatever they believe and ruining your good time. You could be the first.

Sometimes, it’s ok to be uncivil.

Essential Lessons From Terence McKenna

  • Courage makes waves. Fortune follows the courageous.
  • Hurl yourself into things that scare you. You’ll find that they aren’t as scary as you thought.
  • The real thing can handle criticism. Don’t be afraid to criticize.
  • There is wisdom in your subjective experience of life.
  • You don’t know enough to worry about the big questions of the universe.
  • Call B.S. You might be doing the world a favor.