Terence Mckenna on Schizophrenia and Shamanism I’m working on a Mental Health Unit Plan for an assignment I transcribed this lecture so I could better access it for essays etc. The NWT Health Curriculum is sadly dated and is lacking in personal mental awareness and perception. McKenna’s delightful insight would not fall on deaf ears.
Schizophrenia is just a catch all term for forms of mental behaviour that we don’t understand. In the 19th century there was a term ‘melancholia’ which we would now call bipolar depression, and so forth and so on, but all forms of sadness, unhappiness, and maladaptation were poured into this label melancholia. Now, schizophrenia is a similar thing. I can remember years ago when I was in the Tolman library at the University of California, which is the psych library, and I was looking up some drug or something and I just saw a book and I just pulled it off the shelf, a book about schizophrenia, and it said “the typical schizophrenic lives in a world of twilight imagining, marginal to his society, incapable of holding a regular job, these people live on the fringes, content to drift in their own self-created value systems…” That’s it! Now, I understand!
We have no tradition of shamanism, we have no tradition of journeying into these mental worlds. We are terrified of madness, we fear it, because the western mind is a house of cards and the people who built that house of cards know that, and they are terrified of madness. Timothy Leary once said: “LSD is a psychedelic substance which can occasionally cause psychotic behaviour in people who have not taken it.” Right? And I would bet you that more people have exhibited psychotic behaviour from not taking LSD but just thinking about it than ever exhibited it from taking it. Certainly in my family, I watched my parents both go psychotic from the mere fact that LSD existed, they would have never of taken it.
There is a great phobia about the mind; the western mind is very queasy when first principles are questioned. Rarer than corpses, in this society, are the untreated mad, because we cannot come to terms with that. A shaman is someone who swims in the same ocean as a schizophrenic, but the shaman has thousands and thousands of years of sanctioned technique and tradition to draw upon. In a traditional society, if you exhibit ‘schizophrenic tendencies’ you are immediately drawn out of the pack and put under the care of tutelage of master shamans. You are told: you are special, your abilities are very central to the health of our society, you will cure, you will prophesy, you will guide our society in its most fundamental decisions. Contrast this with what a person exhibiting schizophrenic activity in our society is told: you don’t fit in, you are becoming a problem, you don’t pull your own weight, you are not of equal worth to the rest of us, you are sick, you have to go to the hospital, you have to be locked up, you are on a par with prisoners and lost dogs in our society. So, that treatment of schizophrenia makes it incurable, imagine if you were slightly odd and the solution were to take you and lock you in a place where everyone is seriously mad. That would drive anyone insane. If you have ever been in a mad house, you know it is an environment calculated to make you crazy and to keep you crazy, this would never happen in an aboriginal or traditional society.
I wrote a book called The Archaic Revival (1992). The idea there is that we have gone sick by following a path of untrammelled rationalism, male dominance, attention to the visible surface of things, practicality, and bottom-line-ism. We have gone very sick and the body politic, like any body, when it feels itself to be sick, it begins to produce anti-bodies or strategies for overcoming the condition of dis-ease and the 20th century is an enormous effort at self-healing. Phenomena as diverse as: surrealism, body piercing, psychedelic drug use, sexual permissiveness, jazz, experimental dance, rave culture, tattooing, the list is endless. What do all these things have in common? They represent various styles of rejection of linear values. The society is trying to cure itself by an archaic revival, by a reversion to archaic values. So when I see people manifesting sexual ambiguity, or scarifying themselves, or showing a lot of flesh, or dancing to syncopated music, or getting loaded, or violating ordinary cannons of sexual behaviour…I applaud, all of this because it is an impulse to return to what is felt by the body, what is authentic, what is archaic, and when you tease apart these archaic impulses, at the very centre of all these impulses is the desire to return to a world of magical empowerment of feeling, and at the centre of that impulse is the shaman, stoned, intoxicated on plants, speaking with the spirit helpers, dancing in the moonlight, and vivifying and invoking a world of conscious, living mystery. That’s what the world is. The world is not an unsolved problem for scientists or sociologists. The world is a living mystery. Our birth, our death, our being in the moment, these are mysteries; they are doorways opening on to unimaginable vistas of self-exploration, empowerment, and hope for the human enterprise. And our culture has killed that, taken it away from us, and made us consumers of shoddy products and shoddier ideals. We have to get away from that, and the way to get away from that is by a return to the authentic experience of the body. And that means sexually empowering ourselves and it means getting loaded, exploring the mind as a tool of personal and social transformation. The hour is late, the clock is ticking, we will judged very harshly if we fumble the ball. We are the inheritors of millions and millions of years of successfully lived lives and successful adaptations to changing conditions in the natural world. Now, the challenge passes to us, the living, that the yet-to-be-born may have a place to put their feet and a sky to walk under, and that’s what the psychedelic experience is about, is caring for, empowering, and building a future that honours the past, honours the planet, and honours the power of the human imagination. There is nothing as powerful, as capable of transforming itself, and the planet, as the human imagination. Let’s not sell it straight. Let’s not whore ourselves to nitwit ideologies. Let’s not give our control over to the least among us. Rather, claim your place in the sun, and go forward into the light. The tools are there, the path is known; you simply have to turn your back on a culture that has gone sterile and dead, and get with the program of a living world and a re-empowerment of the imagination.
«You have to keep choosing recovery, over and over and over again. You have to make that choice 5-6 times each day. You have to make that choice even when you really don’t want to. It’s not a single choice, and it’s not easy.»
- 'What It Means To Choose Recovery' (via sociolab)
«The pioneer, the creator, the explorer is generally a single, lonely person rather than a group, struggling all alone with his inner conflicts, fears, defenses against arrogance and pride, even against paranoia. He has to be a courageous man, not afraid to stick his neck out, not afraid even to make mistakes, well aware that he is, as Polanyi has stressed, a kind of gambler who comes to tentative conclusions in the absence of facts and then spends some years trying to figure out if his hunch was correct. If he has any sense at all, he is of course scared of his own ideas, of his temerity, and is well aware that he is affirming what he cannot prove.»
There’s this shitty thing that happens when you learn about the reality of racism, sexism and misogyny. You start to hear it from the mouths of your parents, grandparents, friends and siblings and you can’t ignore it anymore but you’ll see how many of them will ignore you when you speak out about it.