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Nature is the centre of the mandala; by Terence McKenna

The formal title of the lecture is “Nature is the centre of the mandala”.  This is simply a structure to anticipate and discuss where nature lies in the cultural future that is unfolding in front of all of us. 

I have always had a relationship with nature that I pretty much took for granted but perhaps was somewhat unique and more intense than most peoples'.  I grew up in a small town in Colorado.  I was very early into being a rock hound and a butterfly collector.  The attraction of tropical butterflies was the exuberant expanse of colour, the affirmation of the patterned richness of the universe that was seen to be thrown out like a spark by these things.  This search for iridescence thrown off by nature, seen first in the glint of metallic ore crystals and then in the colourful expanse of butterflies and then in tropical fish, reached a kind of apotheosis with the discovery of the psychedelic plant hallucinogens, where suddenly the colour, the flash, the iridescence, is not two or three dimensional, it is multi-dimensional, it is inside the body, it is outside the body.

I came to see that nature, as experienced – meaning as it hits you when you walk around in it and pick at it and carry it with you – has been bred out of the repertoire of images that most people bring to bear on their reality.  Consequently the reality is de-spirited.  The spirit resident in nature is not visible when these mechanistic grids are laid over it.  The lux natura, the salvational radiance that can be found in the organic kingdom, a term of Paracelsus, has slipped from the grip of modern human beings.

It seems to me that nature is psyche, in a way that has been occluded by the perverse development of language.  We take nature to be external to ourselves and sustained by the laws of physics.  It is not that at all.  It is a kind of stratum of expectation that has been laid down by the human journey through time.  There are elements of nature which are not aspects of the human journey through time, but they are occult.  This has been the strategy of science; to use an instrumentality to reveal the occult side of nature.  The problem is that this occult side of nature, once explicated, does not reveal a satisfying reflection of ourselves.

It seems to me that a small miracle is taking place, the thing that we least expected to happen.  It is that our point-of-view is actually gaining ground.  Sitting on the mountainside in Hawaii, you think you're like Lenin in Germany; you have to politically think it all through so that, to the extent to which one's voice can be heard, mistakes are not made.  All this New Age hustle and bustle, though 95% of it is just intellectual noise and efforts to coin the perfect analogy that fail, appears to have become the cutting edge of the guiding image of this mega-culture.  So it becomes important for people who identify with the human potential movement, spiritual development, the rebirth of intuition, to make a place in the plan for the role of nature. 

The Gaia response claims nature as a stabilising feminine force.  That's definitely the image that has to emerge.  The recognition of the presence of control mechanisms that are not coercive, that are Taoistic, is a way of coming to terms with nature that we have resisted. 

It's a simple idea.  Before technology people had to store firewood in the autumn for the winter, in the spring they had to sharpen tools for the late spring planting.  There was an implicit rhythm laid down by nature that entered the human cosmos at every level and was reflected in poetry, culture building and the evolution of language.  There has been a flattening of the human dimension.  Urbanisation and other factors removed the influence of these rhythms, with the final culmination being the modern city, where life under electric light goes on 24 hours a day.  There is no more a sense of being embedded in flux, there is instead the myth of the eternal culture.

I was at a conference recently where someone proposed the notion that our time is not special, that there is nothing unique about this moment.  I think nothing could be further from the truth.  There is no question that there is a deepening ambiguity in the present moment.  There is a something coming over global civilisation.  It registers in all of us as how weird it is, how compressed time is, how complicated the interconnections are.  I think this is a real phenomenon which will eventually be elucidated.  Eventually, there will be a break with the prevailing paradigm of historical process. 

In case you're not aware, the current prevailing paradigm is the one that calls itself the “trendlessly fluctuating theory”.  It says, “We trendlessly fluctuate; and to search for a trend is to be drawn into a cultural hysteria.”  Standing outside of the cultural hysteria, the trend is fairly clear.  It is a trend toward temporal compression and the emergence of ambiguity. 

Nature anticipates all of this, and anchors it.  Nature is actually the goal at the end of history.  We are getting closer and closer to the end of history and we will not go past it with a moment of blindness.  There will be vouchsafed intuitions about the emerging structure of the Other into which culture is being subsumed.  You're all familiar with the image of the Ouroboros, the snake which takes its tail in its mouth.  The end of history is an archaic revival.  The ground of being in which the original archaic renaissance occurred was nature.  In terms of the expression of design elements, in terms of the expression of human relationships and political agendas, the economies of nature are going to set the guiding images.

I read Edward O. Wilson's book Biophilia in which he describes his work with ants in Suriname and how there are ants who grow fungi in their nests.  They cut leaves off trees and chew them up into a mash which they then store in rooms underground.  They bring the right spores in and grow them there and it produces a sugar which the ants then eat.  They tend the fungal gardens and remove foreign spores.  This is a symbiosis between a social organism, the ant, and a fungal organism, which produces an enzyme, sugar, which drives the ant society to a greater state of activity.  Activity, in an insect economy, defines how well you can survive.  This provides a curious analogy for the situation that exists in human society vis-a-vie hallucinogenic plants. 

Hallucinogenic plants act as enzymes that stimulate imagination.  Imagination is reconnected to this feedback loop in which we ask ourselves, “How can I make more of this hallucinogenic plant that is giving us all these great ideas?”  So then you get the invention of agriculture, but one can't grow all plants in one place.  So then the feedback loop from the presence of hallucinogenic plants in the diet asks the question, “How can we get the plants that we can't grow?” and the answer is, networks of trade and systems of barter, and behind that lies the need for language.  

These types of symbiotic processes are implicit in the human experience.  Some of you have heard another lecture I give in which I go into this in great detail.  I try to show that mushrooms in the dung of undulate animals on the veldt of Africa 150,000 years ago drove a series of processes which resulted in self-reflecting human beings.  That process didn't end with the invention of language or the domestication of cattle, it continues right up to the present day.  

It is as though, from a planetary point of view, an enzyme system called the human species was deputised into an information-gathering mode.  It was sent out as a kind of prodigal subsystem, a kind of episome of the social environment, to cognise the organisation of the natural world through a process called "human history" or "the historical advance toward understanding and sufficiently complete modelling".  That I think is what is happening. 

The human species was deputised for Gaia into the Fall; the fall into profane time, the time of non-participation in the immediacy of the Tao, through a series of successive linguistic declensions.  This begins to sound almost Biblical, because it says there is a Fall, and the Fall is somehow related to a confusion of languages, not one from another, but from the object of experience.  As the language became less and less natural, the world of the species using this language became less and less natural, because the evolution of symbols moved toward the abstract, it became the realisation of ideals.  In Platonic philosophy we get the enunciation of abstractions, great over-weaning concepts that subsume entire areas of particulars.  This ability to subsume particulars under a class name is the beginning of this process of replacing the particulars with the symbolic structures.  The reason for this process we can only guess at.  It seems as though nature requires this reflection upon itself; that the completion of nature is in the hands of a single target species, which acts as an enzyme within the global organism of Gaia.  

From the point-of-view of an extraterrestrial looking down on the surface of the planet there are not discreet organisms, there is simply a gene swarm.  Through viruses and many non-genetic ways in which genes are transformed, the previously imagined sharp declensions between species are actually somewhat illusory.  Within the confines of my body, the unfolding of gene expression and the molecular assembly of enzyme systems and proteins is simply under a tighter regimen of control than are the same kind of processes which are going on between people.  We are really a loosely regulated organism that has a tendency to ever-tighten the connection between its sub-units. 

So you can see that with the evolution of language, the evolution of technology being at the service of media, the rise of cities, oral poetry, we seem to strive for greater and greater cohesion, greater and greater free-flow of thought among ourselves.  What we're looking toward is a moment when the artificial language-structures which bind us within the notion of ourselves are dissolved in the realisation that we are a part of nature.  When that happens the childhood of our species will pass away and we will stand tremulously on the brink of the first moments of coherent human civilisation. 

This, I think, is already beginning to happen.  It's a slow process but it's a kind of cascading phenomenon such that once it begins to happen it happens faster and faster.  The mirroring of psyche that was always the glamour that stood behind nature is correctly perceived with greater and greater clarity as this process proceeds.  This correct perceiving of nature's relationship to self and language is the essence of all of these cultural vectors that are converging; feminism, the exploration of space, the perfection of the thinking machine, or of the human-machine interface and the mysterium tremendum at the core of the psychedelic experience.  All of these things are anticipations of the post-historical state which lies beyond the working out of the themes that have been set in motion by materialistic science.  

These forces have been set in motion and sustained by so-called “new thought”, New Age thinking.  It seems that we all noticed early on a trend in society which is now going to have tremendous repercussions and because this seems to be happening, there is a responsibility to clear thinking about what this thing is and how it works.  There seems to be a rush to get in line with the sloppiest metaphor as quickly as possible.  There have been a number of syncretic fates, new myths, that have arisen and competed with each other with greater and lesser degrees of success.  I suppose this is a healthy thing, except that it gives such comfort to the people who think we're all just airheads.  They observe all this and it confirms to them that it's a hopeless lot. 

Everybody has their own version of what is the mistake that is being made.  So here's my version.  There is a confusion between scientific materialism and reason.  Science has set itself up as a kind of new pontificate and brooks no challenge.  It expects to make judgement on any idea emerging from any realm of human endeavor.  It has set itself up as judge and jury.  The fact of the matter is that this is only by virtue of its spectacular acts of technological prestidigitation.  What science is really most successful in telling us about are realms which none of us have ever penetrated nor are ever likely to.  I mean, how much do you wish to know about the rings of Neptune or the quark? 

We are continuously sold the line that somehow, when the metaphors of consciousness are fully mapped onto quantum physics and biology that a great step forward will have been taken.  It seems to me that since the information coming out of quantum physics and molecular biology is so removed from the realm of common experience that if we succeed in mapping mental phenomena onto those realms we will have succeeded in the final act of alienation; because we will have at last totally removed our experience of ourselves from the realm of felt cognition.  

Instead of the idea that there needs to be an erection of an overarching metaphor from the physical sciences into the social and psychiatric sciences, there should be the recognition and celebration of mystery.  

We are an intelligent species caught in a historical process.  No generation which preceded us knew what was going on.  There is no reason to assume that we know what is going on or that the generation which follows us will know what's going on.  And what kind of trip is it anyway to insist on knowing what's going on?  It's a highly unlikely enterprise.  Look at the data sample.  The data sample is your lifetime, on one planet, in one tiny corner of the universe.  From this, via the fallacy of induction, certain principles of uniformity are extended to the far-flung corners of the cosmos in space and time.  A bunch of fancy metaphors are built up that nobody can check on anyway and then this is called understanding.  You see, it isn't understanding.  Understanding issues into appropriate activity.  A model of the universe which doesn't issue into appropriate activity in the here and now is a curious model indeed.  Appropriate activity in the here and now is the sine qua non.  Everything else is unconfirmed rumour.  

Nature is the visible manifestation of this mystery, it entirely surrounds and completes us.  It is there to be beheld and imbibed in.  It is simply that one must either replace the sterile language of scientific materialism or one must bring no language whatsoever to it, so that it speaks for itself.  

Ayahuasca, the South American visionary vine, unlike the mushroom, does not speak, it shows; its language is visible; a fractal hieroglyphic surface of intermediate dimensions that contains an endless unfolding of phenomena, at level after level into the micro-physical realm.  This is a correct seeing of what is.  The mystery is co-present with its denial.  It is a matter of changing points of view and changing points-of-view is a matter of retooling language.  If nature is psyche, ayahuasca is the auto-poetic self-reflecting cloud of cognition that manifests as language.  It is partly based in the structure of matter, it is partly based in the implicit syntax of the perceiver, it is partly an interference pattern between the two; but it is as close to the ground that one can approach without theory.  

The key to the forward-looking expression of the archaic revival, the key to making the New Age fulfill its best hope and not fall into a crypto-fascism of paradigmatic warfare, is to enunciate two principles.  The primacy of experience and the toxic nature of ideology.  This to me is the core.  If the New Age, the archaic revival, can exemplify these two principles then we can navigate past the dangerous shoal that threatens any idea that attempts to leave its cult status and enter the mainstream.  

I connect the primacy of experience to Heidegger's notion of what he called "care for the project of being".  The primacy of felt experience begins with a notion as simple as "be here now".  We must take ourselves more seriously, more lightly and more seriously.  We are not at the bottom of a pyramid of goods and information production where we pay the sucker's price for everything as it is handed down through pieces of intractable cultural machinery that we have no effect on.  That is the myth that is being promulgated by those very institutions; the myth of the hapless consumer; the myth of the meaning of faddism.  As if there is a meaning to switching from one ideology to another the way hemlines and perfumes and decorator colours come and go.  This is allowing ourselves to be self-victimised.  

The other side of that is the toxicity of ideology.  Ideology itself is poisonous.  In the 15th and 16th centuries there was 120 years of intermittent religious warfare because people were so uptight about whether you were a Catholic or a Hugenaught or a Walloon.  These were life-or-death issues.  Finally people just became sick of it.  I hope, I choose to believe, that we may be approaching such a watershed with the social ideologies that have been dinging themselves into the global population for the past hundred years.  They are extremely bankrupt.  The notion of any kind of serious competition between Marxist-Leninism and capitalist-democratic techno-fascism, or whatever it is, is ludicrous.  Neither system works within the need to wage ideological warfare against the other.  

Ideology has become an anachronism.  It's a kind of lack of good taste.  It's like being a nut.  You come on with some ideology and people just look at their plates; they're embarrassed for you.

The ideology that naturally claims our attention is pretty well understood.  It says in the Old Testament, “You can know the truth, the truth is the still small voice in your heart.”  You don't have to take courses in theology and ethics to get all this down.  The political agenda is fairly clear; you feed people, you cure disease, you anticipate and solve social problems having to do with sewerage disposal, distribution of land and wealth.  None of this stuff is controversial unless you're living inside a locked ward.  

This anti-ideological position has to be articulated by causing language to evolve.  You cause language to evolve by saying new and intelligent things to each other.  And then other people say, “Oh so this thing that I've always thought but never felt like saying is actually legitimate and okay and I can say it and I will say it”.  It begins to move like a wave through society.  

You will be told that for me to advocate the poisonous nature of ideology without calling it anarchy is to peddle my own private ideology.  But this is absurd.  It's like saying that if someone tells you not to drive they're advocating a certain style of driving.  That's not it at all.  It's a translation of levels, it's something entirely different. 

We cannot afford the continued existence of the unconscious.  It is a neurotic excuse for not getting our act together as a species.  The way in which the unconscious is eliminated is by turning the language machinery back upon itself and reflecting on the process of attention.  This is what Buddhism is all about; attention to attention.  Awareness of the modality of the cognitive process.  Doing that to oneself has a kind of morphogenic field effect, a kind of chain-reaction which sweeps through society.  It's simply that the act of conscious self-inspection creates more conscious people which creates a more conscious society, which erodes the possibility of the poisonous and toxic effects of ideology. 

This is what psychedelics are about in terms of their social and legal position in society.  Psychedelics are illegal not because a loving government is concerned that you may leap out of a third-storey window.  Psychedelics are illegal because they dissolve opinion structures and culturally laid-down models of behaviour and information processing.  They open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong.  Government and society spend a lot of money educating you into being a loyal worker, consumer, debt-payer and citizen. 

I think anarchy is the great future for human society.  Only responsible human beings can exist in an anarchistic society.  To the degree that people are responsible, we will have anarchy.

I want to leave you with the notion that nature, the linguistically expressed topological manifold of the psyche, is indeed a historical object that is pulling us forward.  When we cross over into the eschatology that appears fairly eminent, we will find it to be anticipated by the human relationship with nature, the embedding of psyche in nature, the mysterious relationship mediated by language.  

The key to unfolding a sane society, in my single humble opinion, is an obligation to reason that clearly distinguishes between reason and science, an obligation to self-involvement in immediate experience, which means psychedelics, sexuality and what I call “time”; a deep literary involvement with the felt present.  Psychedelics, sexuality and time.  To empower the individual.  To make the individual naturally responsible.  To create the basis for a caring global society that will transcend the historical cultures as though we were just moving very naturally out of winter and into spring; no apocalypse, no millennium, no rescue by flying saucers, no Mayan return, simply the unfolding of a programme of mutual caring and responsibility.  This is the highest aspiration of the New Age and I feel that it is attainable.


An abridged transcription of a Terence McKenna lecture from sometime in the 1980s.  From Psychedelic Salon podcast #197, "McNature" .
Unedited, unimproved audio from  

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