Shamanology of the Amazon

Ojai Foundation, Ojai, California


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Terence McKenna: The Amazon in 1970 became, very shortly, impressed with the need to attempt to preserve living plants that had a potential medical impact, plants with a folk history of healing of psycho activity, or some other function that made them worth saving. And the first notion was that we would buy land in Colombia, and in fact I did this and to this day own 10 unclaimable hectares near Florencia in Southern Caqueta, but I would have to wrestle with cocaineros and M19 and several other factions to be able to even walk that land. So, over the years the idea sort of was fallow. And then about 6 years ago Kat and I decided that our 9 acres of land that we owned in Hawaii could be turned into a non-profit foundation and put toward this project. And we did that and we organized to buy 9 and a half additional adjacent acres. So what we have is a project in Hawaii of 19 acres of rainforest land, that’s land at about 2200 feet with 80 inches of rainfall a year. And 2200 feet in Hawaii at 19° north latitude is roughly equivalent to 7000 feet in the Andes at 0°, which means it quite nicely approximates what’s called the mountain or cloud rain forest of the Amazon. So we found we could bring plants there and propagate them and they would survive. And this is what we’ve been doing. Nicole was someone that I met, let’s see, 1980 when I was down there on a joint Harvard University of British Columbia expedition that was getting my brother his PhD, we knew Nicole’s books, her book. But in the course of bringing in all these plants from the bush and spending time with her at Unap, the botanical facility there that Francisco Aiala runs, her knowledge, her enthusiasm for all of this stuff, her conviction that there really was a medically important dimension to all these plants, spurred us onward. Well, now the foundation has been up and running for several years, many of you are contributors to it and generously support it. Those who are not aware of it I call it to your attention. It seems pretty clear that the destruction of the rainforest, the war against drugs, the issue of higher consciousness, the issue of the first world’s relationship to the third world, all of these disparate socio-political concerns are somehow spun together. The issue has to do with plants, people, land, resources, and the future. If botanical, ethno-medical heritage in the warm tropics is not preserved in the next thirty years it will just be lost forever, and this is not only a South American problem, the forests of Africa are even more heavily impacted by human usage and unsound extraction processes. The forests of Eastern Indonesia are next I’m sure. And in each case the whole… you know they say there can be a technological fix for almost anything, but once a species becomes extinct that’s it, for all eternity. That particular genome, that particular solution to life’s vicissitudes will never be expressed again, so what we’re trying to do is save that which is literally priceless, no price can be put upon it. Now the argument is being made that sound extraction processes are more profitable than clear-cutting and turning rainforest into pastorage, this is certainly true but we can’t be certain that this message is going to be heard. Also, and this is the particular focus of our concern, rapid as the destruction of the rainforest is, even more rapidly the human knowledge is fading. Because these people are being absorbed into a global capitalist economy, they don’t become shamans, they become outboard motor repairmen, tour guides, hotel managers, this sort of things, they work in saw mills. If this knowledge is lost, the presence of the plants doesn’t really mean anything in terms of its impact on human health and quality of life. So, and then the area where this is most acute, most controversial, most controversial, most subject to manipulation by dominator philosophies, is the hallucinogens, the linch-pin of the shamanic ability to access these higher dimensions of information. And as we know governments are extremely concerned to suppress any sort of chemical strategy that dissolves social conditioning. And shamanism is precisely this in his hallucinogenic incarnation. So one of the things Botanical Dimensions has stressed is the collection of the magical plants, the plants which have psychoactivity, the plants which allow these people to stretch the envelope of what is possible in the domain of cognitive activity. And I will argue I’m sure some time before this meeting is over that this is very important, that the archaic revival, which is this larger umbrella phenomenon under which the entire 20th century is operating, the archaic revival is going to include the revivification of these shamanic forms. In a way human history for the past several thousand years is nothing more than an awakening to the power of the archaic revival. You know, it’s a cliché of social dynamics that you never appreciate something until you lose it. And some people think this is what first marriages are for. History, is a kind of horrified realization, that something has been lost. That there is an itch hard to scratch in the civilized context, that we have out of fear really, descended into patterns of domination of each other, of the environment, of our children, of our social relations with exogamous groups, we have descended into a dominator pattern that is basically based on clutching, on fear. And I’m sure most of you have heard me argue that this is the consequence of ceasing basically to do enough hallucinogens in the diet. That, in fact, what human beings were flirting with for many many tens of millennia, let’s say from 100 thousand years ago to 15 thousand years ago, human beings were in a flirtatious situation with a symbiotic relationship with this mind, resident in vegetable nature. Now, you all know what classic symbiosis is in biology. It’s where, let’s take the example of the little fish who lives in the sea anemone, and the big fish don’t bother it, it gains protection, the sea anemone gains access to larger prey, which come to investigate the little fish. That kind of symbiosis is genetically locked in. And if you take the little fish away from the anemone and put it let us say in an aquarium without anemone it doesn’t die, it doesn't go into an immediate physiological crisis, no what happens is it simply has a low body weight and a short life span. In other words it is under stress. And I believe, I hope I’m not deluding myself, but I believe that the lost secret of human emergence, the undefined catalyst that took a very bright monkey and turned that species into a tormented self-reflecting poet dreamer, that catalyst has to be sought in these tertiary alkaloids in the food chain that were catalysing higher states of intellectual activity. And I’ve pointed out to you, at nauseam I’m sure, the reciprocal feedback relationship that was working there in the case of the mushroom in the veldt situation in Africa, it was promoting at low doses visual acuity, which was feeding back into the hunting and gathering process, making those animals with this increased visual acuity more adaptively successful, hence more reproductively successful, hence they’re outbreeding their competitors. At higher doses psilocybin actually cause a generalized arousal, which includes sexual arousal. Again, it becomes a catalyst for reproductive success. More instances of copulation in a situation like that lead to more successful births into family structures where the alkaloid has been accepted into the food chain. Well this would be only an obscure topic of interest to primatologists were it not for the fact that it is a crisis in consciousness which confronts us globally. Consciousness is the commodity that if we do not have enough, do not produce it fast enough, then the momentum of the processes we set in motion in our ignorance is going to sterilize the planet and do us all in. So we have to have consciousness. Well, then you look at the smorgasboard of ethnographic possibilities and you discover this institution of shamanism. It is the institution of planner, of visionary, of manager, of large system coordinator. That’s what it’s about. You call it magic on one level. You call it curing. You call it folk’s psychiatry, or weather prediction, shamans have been involved in all of these things, but as Nicole made so eloquently the point last night, to these deep-forest-people it is ordinary. It is ordinary. They live in a different cultural dimension than we do. Dimensions which to us are completely value-dark are to them completely transparent. And dimensions which to us are extremely rich and complex, the inner world of the nucleus of the atom, let us say, are for them totally value-dark. They don’t even cognize the possibility of asking the question. But nevertheless the specialization in these various domains is not something where one is as good as another. Consciousness is the domain of immediate experience. How are we going to save this planet, how are we going to take the lethal cascade of toxic, technological, and ignorance-producing habits that are loose on this planet and channel them toward some kind of a sane and livable world. Well the answer is emerging in culture out of the collectivity of global consciousness, it is what I call the archaic revival, it is this very large turn over in the mass mind. Some people call it a paradigm shift. It’s an effort to recover the sensory ratios, the feelings and the attitudes of 15 to 20 thousand years ago. Before fear, before ego, before male dominance, before hierarchy, hoarding, warfare, propaganda, child abuse, all of these things. And the answer lies, was indicated last night, in integration into the dynamics of nature. Well, so far as my analysis gives it to me, the only way you can abandon yourself to the dynamics of nature is to break through the language shell, you must cut through the aura of programming and cultural assumptions that surround us from the moment we are able to speak. The only way this can be done is by dissolving the boundaries of ego. Ego is a structure that is erected by a neurotic individual, who is a member of a neurotic culture against the facts of the matter. And culture, which we put on as an overcoat, culture is the collectivized consensus about what sort of neurotic behaviours are acceptable. Now, I don’t know, so, what I see going on in the Amazon is a very radical psycholytic therapy, where they are dissolving, literally dissolving the boundaries of self, culture, and ego assumption, and then what you discover is not the white light, or what William James called the blooming buzzing confusion, although in the first few minutes it can be like that, what you really discover is sentient, organized, living, loving nature, that nature is a force, nature is a mind, a personality, organized with intentionality, organized with feeling, humor, grace, and conviction. Conviction. And if you can get right with that conviction, then that’s the secret of dancing in the waterfall, that’s the secret of the shaman’s apparent transcendence the rules of mundane statistics, because that’s what it is. The shaman doesn’t violate physics, he or she simply knows how to push the improbable to its greatest extent. And in eastern philosophy this is called the Tao, you know, abandonment to the flow, fitting of the small pattern into the larger pattern. Well, I think these things are very important because I think that psychology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis is a good idea, but it will never reach any kind of operational effectiveness until we look to these native healers all over the world and study their methods, and their methods are chemical and personal. It’s a combination of care, attention, intention, and chemistry that allows consciousness to be made malleable and then recast in other forms. So, I find myself this weekend explaining myself, that’s what I feel like I’m doing. Why does someone who extols the self-transforming elf machines of the DMT space also claim to be a conservationist, also you know have a mathematical dog and poodle show? Well, it’s because all of these things emerge out of the concrescence of consciousness, its intention toward its own transformation. Nature is the answer. It’s not enough be like wordsworth, it’s not enough to, this is not, you know, Mao Tse Tung said the revolution is not a dinner party, and certainly the ecological revolution is not a dinner party. And certainly the ecological revolution is not a dinner party. Poetic sensitivity to the depths of the planet is now what we’re striving for here. What we’re striving for is to halt, overturn, and back out of the impending death of the planet. It is very clear now that consciousness will decide. That the planet, there are not rosy futures of suburban housing and ratatouille to be extended endlessly into the future we are approaching a bifurcation where it is either going to become heaven or hell. One or the other. And I think that this archaic intuition, which I see reaching clear back to the birth of the 20th century and the 19th century, back to people like Alfred Jarry, and Guillame Apollinare, the pataphysicians, the surrealists, the physicists around Einstein, Freud, modern art, modern dance, Jazz, all of this stuff is an effort to reclaim the primitive, to reclaim the archaic, to reject all that powdered wig algebra that comes down through the French, English, German tradition of constipated male dominance, and instead, you know, intuit. That’s what it is in Freud and Jung, and the new age and that, intuit your way out. But now the intuition is rising to the surface, we no longer have to operate with the presence of the goal firmly in hand. The goal can now be stated, what this is all about is a return to archaism with the lessons learned in history, that’s where we were happy. The fall was a fall, into a veil of tears, into a world of limitations and pain and suffering and infectious diseases, and so forth and so on. It’s a prodigal journey into a lower dimension that can now be ended by a collective cultural decision to commit to this Taoist, shamanistic, feminized, cybernetic, caring, aware, present, kind of being. I mean it’s nothing more than what each of us is in our very best moments. But we have to extend those very best moments to fill whole life times. You know, think of the number of people that suffered and died that we could sit under this tree this morning. I mean, in the last million years nine times the glaciers have ground south from the pole freezing the world into ice and confining human populations to subtropical valleys and the warm tropics. Nine times the interglacial periods have come and human populations have spread out over the Earth. They didn’t have radio, they didn’t have antibiotics, contraception, statistical analysis, or the partial differential equations, and somehow they managed to get us here. Are we then, as the heirs of that wavefront, as the inheritors of a one billion years process, are we in one generation to turn it into a mass of pottage. I think not. I certainly hope not. I would like to believe that we could make that leap to conscious awareness that would allow us to take hold. Now the problem, it was easy the first ten years that I sat before you, because what we were doing was getting to know each other, to verify that we in fact existed, that I wasn’t crazy, you weren’t crazy, so forth and so on. Now what looms ahead is the mass of politics. And this I’m sure you have no stomach for. I certainly don’t, I’d rather be stoned and rocked in the arms of the goddess. But as a matter of fact this dominator thing is not going to be unhooked is not unhooked and put to bed without a struggle. Everyone is going to have to be counted. I’ve talked to you in recent months about memes. Memes being the smallest potential units of ideas, they’re like genes. We are the nucleus of a mutant meme. The meme of plant consciousness, hallucinogenic consciousness, shamanistic consciousness. We have to refine this meme, replicate it through repetition and spread it through society in the same way that a plant sheds seeds into an ecosystem. The idea will compete, the idea is a good one, it’s adaptive, it’s clever, it’s tough, it’s invasive, it can make use of many contexts to promote its existence, but it can’t do any of that if we don’t replicate it and get it out. So I see these kinds of meetings as an opportunity of building community, as an opportunity for people to look around themselves and connect with the other people who are here. We cannot be told from the rest of the population unless we self select and gather together at a single point in space and time. When we do that we recognize each other. When this meeting is concluded we will merge again into the larger stream of the body politic. But carrying this meme of the Gaian resurgence, the Gailanic wave, that must come. I mean people say it’s so wonderful that you articulate these feminist ideas. I do it because I don’t want to be dead. I do it because I don’t want my children to have no world to live in. There is no choice. The walls are high. And the current is moving very fast. What we need to do is merely to keep our spirits high, and learn to sing the song. That’s just something or other. Nicole would you like. Well, don’t be daunted, here let me give you, would you like the little black one

Nicole Maxwell: I got one

TMK: Well but does that do this?

Nicole: I think… Does it?

Audience: No

Nicole: It doesn’t?

TMK: Here you are my dear, do you want to hold this or do you want to bellow

Nicole: thanks you

TMK: there you are

[28:59] Nicole: [...] whereas you see it very large, you see it all, I’ve seen a very small bit of it, yet I have seen that little bit up close and it’s not a bit that has been in everybody’s window, they don’t have... 

[hardly audible]

And she was immediately available for marriage. Well that doesn’t sound very matriarcal. When the [...] goes out is almost like a rebirth, her beauty is reborn

[41:17] TMK: Well I think going to these people with an attitude of interest in their medicine has given them a sense that they didn’t have from the petroleum people or the rubber people.

N: Well they don’t get that anyway because there are so many of us doing that. They are accustomed to seeing people who have these marvelous chains, the magic swords that can cut a tree in 10 minutes that would take them all day to hack through with a macete and they have the machine who would land on water, the planes. Those people must be superior and they act superior and they impose their will. So the kid are very much impressed, they don’t want to, those people [...] wrapped up in paper. If you are author of an oil-driller, [...], he’s going to laugh at you, and he’d probably say don’t be dumb, and so they get very much ashamed. And they not only will confess to know anything, they will not learn anything, so it’s all being lost. And that’s why we’ve had to scurry around so, and try to get [...].

Have you had that experience?

[51:46] TMK: Yes, you mean of difficulty in the psychedelic dimension?

N: [...]

TMK: Yes, you know [...]

N: You told me that, you and Dennis

TMK: Oh, that’s right. This was an ayauhaschero very accomplished and Kat and I lived with him for many weeks in 1976 and there many ayahuasca sessions, but one night about 30 people in a blackened shed and these buildings in the Amazon are built up on stilts because of flood water, and the singing had been going on for hours and hours and suddenly in the midst of a silence, or rather a song ended, and as this song ended the wind started to blow, and the dog began barking outside, and in the next room an infant began to scream, and this confluence of disruption, the shaman jumped to his feet to the middle of the room, quivering, and imparted a shivering motion to the whole house, and just made the whole house shiver, and then you could feel this thing lift. The wind died down, the baby calmed, the dog stopped barking, and nobody in that room had to be told that there had been a near pass of something very peculiar there. There are, you know, it’s a wave-mechanical medium the dimension that ayahuasca conveys into, and it’s like surfing, you know, the same wave that can lift you up and carry you ecstatically toward the shore, if you cut it wrong can drag you down and beat your head against the bottom of the ocean until your contact lenses fall out. So there are techniques, and there are moods. Something you said Nicole about the plants being aware of the approach of the match, I had an experience this summer, which brought all this home to me. It was actually a double experience, it was quite peculiar. We have a plant in the botanical plant in Hawaii called Loopuna, it’s a very, it’s a magical plant, it’s a plant that the Indians say should never been approached, except if you’re celibate, and it’s very heavy magical plant

N: is this the tree?

TMK: The tree yeah, and I didn’t know this when I first planted the plant so I planted it perhaps not in the best place, perhaps too close to public traffic ways. And near it there is an old dead tree with a big branch which sticks its way out. And my caretaker and I were down there with our macetes working in this area and we heard this sound, like the crack of a riffle and we both stood up, put down our macetes, we’re scanning around when suddenly we see this dead branch break off directly above the Pucu-Loopuna tree, this branch of an Ohia tree, which must have weighed many hundreds of pounds, was falling right toward this little tree which is about this high, and I swear, about 20 feet about the ground this log weighing several hundred pounds just exploded into pieces, which is blown literally out of the air and landed in a series of several hundred pound fragments all around this Loopuna tree. So, and I, it was, approached being supernatural, I mean I looked at Kenny and said “did you see what I saw?”. So this seemed to me an instance of a plant being able to protect itself, but I was very concerned, this is now the coda of the story, or the second half, I was concerned because this dead tree from which this branch has fallen, is a tree that we have covered with ayahuasca. And so I went running up to see how much damage had been done to this specimen plant and how much had been dragged it out and disrupted and none had. And then I recalled that, though I had trained the ayahuasca up into this tree, it had always refused to grow out on this one branch. And this was the branch that broke. And there was an old Hawaian mountain pot-grower there who looked at this situation and uttered the sage remark “it can sense instability” and so it didn’t go out on that limb? And I thought “WOW! Is it true? Could it sense instability?” And then I tried to figure how could it sense instability and then someone offered the idea that “well maybe the pressure of the wind on a dead and weakened limb has a different vibe than the pressure of the wind on a solid and growing limb and this thing could actually sense that the limb was rotted and wouldn’t go out onto it”. Well so then I began looking around at all the other ayahuasca vines climbing on dead trees on the neighbourhood and I noticed that there were certain limbs that they always avoided and no matter how densely they ramified through other parts of the tree, they would not go out onto these certain weakened extended branches. Well, for me it was like an objective lesson that some of these things we say about plants are true. Well then all you have to do is the thing that Nicole says I do best, which is pull back to the cosmic perspective, and say “if a plant in a Hawaian forest, a vine in a Hawaian forest refuses to go out on a tree branch because it senses instability, then what are the resources that a global ecosystem can bring to bear on a certain situation when it senses the instability that is represented by human history?” it means that the vegetable world is able to react. The vegetable world is sensing and processing information. Now, we can’t know its thoughts in my little example about the ayahuasca, we can’t know its thoughts, but we can see what value it was seeking to maximize by creeping out on that weakened limb. It wanted to live, it didn’t want to go into a situation of danger where then it would be jerked by hundreds of pounds of falling inert material. It wanted to live, it sought to maximize life. Well, how much greater then must be the power of the endangered rainforest?