I first met Terence in the early 90s, and I feel blessed to have been able to spend
some time getting to know him a little better during the last six months of his life.
I found him kind, generous, and unpretentious, although he clearly had a potent dark
side. He was even more brilliant and well-read than I had expected, with fistfuls
of references at his command. But most remarkable for me was how he seemed to face
his situation: with an admirable blend of humor, compassion, stoicism, and a willingness
to stay open and awake in the midst of the big awful questions without trying to console
yourself with answers. And that, for my money, is the ultimate lesson of the psychedelic
path -- not the Gaian mind, or the onrushing apocalypse, or those ridiculous elves,
but a radical openness to ambiguity and the unknown.
At one point I asked him what advice he had for someone about to down 100 ml of
potent ayahuasca alone in a rainforest. His words were spare, the utter opposite of
the guru some made him out to be: "Pay attention. And keep breathing." Words to live
by, until you stop.
Interview with Terence Mckenna
on Death and Dying
TM: These cancer doctors give you very little hope. They tell you, Nobody
escapes, it will return, you have 6 to 9 months to live, go home and make your will,
you can eat anything you want do anything you want because, fella, there's nothing
we can do for you.
ED: How did you initially react?
TM: With disbelief. I still find it very hard to emotionally connect with it.
When I was taking high doses of steroids we had what I called the "tears and philosophy
hour" ever morning, where it all came into focus and the tragedy of my passing was
starkly confronted. [LAUGHS] But over the weeks, hell, we're used to it by now. The
paradox is that you don't feel bad, or at least I don't. So its like being an actor
in a play. Pretend you have a lethal disease.
ED: Tell me what that play is like.
TM: There are various options. One is cure-chasing, where you head off to Shanghai
or Brazil or the Dominican Republic to be with these great maestros who can save you.
The other thing is, do what you always wanted to do. So that means, head to Cape Canaveral
to see a shuttle launch, on to sunrise over the pyramids, on to a month in the Grand
Hotel de Paris, on to Jerusalem. I wasn't too keen on that either. My tendency was
just to twist another bomber and think about it all.
ED: What did you think about?
TM: I was interested in how I got into this mess. Was it my lifelong enthusiasm
for recreational drugs? Was it my messing around with rocket fuel as a kid, or chemicals
associated with collecting plants and insects? Was it sitting in front of my computer
and firing it up morning after morning? How do you get into a mess like this? There's
only about 16 of these glioblastoma multiformes a year, so its a rare disease. I never
won anything before, so why now?
ED: What about the fact that it's a brain tumor?
TM: The irony of it for me is incredible. I always made my living as a brain
guy, thinking. That was my department. Perturbing the brain physically, with drugs,
ideas, and so forth. And I offered these doctors the chance to scold me. So what about
it? A lifetime of recreational experimental drug taking, you wanna hammer on me about
that? They said, Oh no, absolutely not. Well how about a lifetime of daily cannabis
smoking? Oh no, look, we have data here, cannabis may actually retract tumors. I said,
Listen, if cannabis retracts tumors, we would not be having this conversation. I am
a study of one that can be considered definitive.
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, its a kind of blessing.
Its 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 your going to be dead in four months
definitely turns on the lights.
It makes life rich and poignant. When it first happened, and I got these diagnoses,
I could see the light of eternity, a la William Blake, shining through every leaf.
I mean, a bug walking across the ground moved me to tears.
Nothing lasts. That's one thing I think you learn from life, psychedelics, or just
paying attention. Very little lasts.
These Buddhists aren't kidding: you are here for a very brief moment, and you can
sit on your thumb and do whatever you want, but in fact the clock is ticking. What
are you gonna do about it? Are you gonna blow it off, or be a hedonist? What are you
gonna do with that? If most people took it seriously, a hell of a lot more would be
done with more attention to quality and intent. And they're always talking about this
stuff -- intent.
I have to say I do feel lucky, even at this late stage of the game, I feel lucky
to have lived the life I lived, and even though I have this horrific thing I feel
lucky in terms of dealing with it. I don't feel like its a death sentence.
TM: Until I'm able to run upstairs I think I just have to yield to fate.
Its not clear entirely what's happening with me. If I'm getting well, that's pretty
easily managed. If I'm in fact slowly slipping away, you just want to do it right
and set a good example and not be a pain to your relatives, friends, and fans. And
that seems pretty easy to me. It all gets very private once they tell you're about
ED: "It" being?...
TM: Life, or the management of your persona and reputation. So it's all about
getting through life without disgracing oneself in some fundamental way.
ED: Do you think your illness might be turned into a spectacle?
TM: Not unless I would cooperate. Leary must have originated all those plans
of dying on the net. At this conference [AllChemical Arts, September, 1999], somebody
kept coming up to me and saying, Are you read for the cryogenic discussion yet? And
I said, No, I don't think were going to be doing that. I don't seek to live forever.
I don't want the removal of my head to become a Net event. I think part of what death
is about biologically is reshuffling the gene-pool. If genes were to last forever,
death would never have entered the scheme of things.
ED: Does it bother you that you probably wont be around for 2012?
TM: I'd always assumed I'd live to see 2012. It doesn't bother me very much.
Very few prophets live to see their prophecies -- Joachim de Fiore didn't, Marx didn't.
If its gonna happen, its gonna happen, it doesn't need cheerleading. Its built into
the morphology of space and time.
That's all a very funny thing about me and my career that's different from Leary,
different from all of these people: this strange relationship to prophecy and the
eschaton. My fans don't understand any of that stuff, and my critics don't understand
much of it either. So we all just have to put up with it until it clears itself out
of the way.
I find to my surprise about myself, that I'm not really afraid of death. I'm pretty
concerned about dying. I don't want dying to turn into some kind of wet, sticky, thrashing
kind of thing. Death, hell, what are you buying? You have no idea, so why even give
it a moments' thought?
ED: Your website is pretty cool.
TM: It needs work, especially if its gonna be me for eternity. It definitely
ED: What do psychedelics say about all this?
TM: I don't know what psychedelics say about death. I think they say a great
deal about dying. I think they model dying. In a way, shamanism is proto-Buddhism.
Taking plants and spending your life in esoteric philosophy and taking drugs is basically
on a meditation on death. Buddhism is some form of learning how to die. And that seems
worth doing. And unavoidable. If you're a serious person, how could you not confront
this kind of stuff?
ED: How have you changed emotionally?
TM: I'm much more resonant and in tune with the Buddhist demand for compassion.
The world needs to be a more compassionate place. It is not moving toward that as
I see it. More and more people are exploited by fewer and fewer people, more and more
effectively. And the tools of exploitation, which are advertising and propaganda and
all of that, grow ever more powerful and irresistible.
This is really the challenge for the future. We can build a civilization like nothing
the world has ever seen. But can it be a human, a *human* civilization? Can
it actually honor human values? It's one thing, the rate of invention or gross national
product or production of industrial capacity -- all of these things are all very well.
But the real dilemma for human beings is how to build a compassionate human civilization.
The means to do it come into our ken at the same rate as all these tools which betray
it. And if we betray our humanness in the pursuit of civilization, then the dialogue
has become mad.
So it is a kind of individual challenge for every single person to demand that compassionate
civilization. It calls for a uniquely human response from each person. And the way
to be motivated to do that is to take on the fact of human mortality, your own and
When I think about dying, the thing that surprises me is how much of the future
I regard as history, and how I don't want to miss it. I want to know how it all comes
out. I haven't a lot of money riding on my vision of things, but I would like to know
how the universe came to be, what's up with extraterrestrials, where biotech is going,
where the Internet is going, about robot/man space-flight to the outer planets. Because
the next century will be it. We are on the brink of a posthuman existence, or we are
into the early phase of the posthuman existence. So what's it gonna look like? What's
it gonna feel like?
Hipparchus, in the second century BC, was asked what he feared most
about death, and he said, Not being able to follow the latest discoveries in astronomy.
Well, that's precisely my position.