The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge
A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution
I recently read this book originally published in 1992 while doing some research on psychoactive plants and their use in healing and spiritual traditions. I was the right age in the 60s and 70s but missed the whole psychedelic experience. Terence McKenna was a big voice in the 90s advocating for legalizing marijuana and other plants that had been used in ancient rituals since the beginning of life on earth.
In this book, he makes a case for his theory that human evolution is tied to the availability and acceptance of the use of psychoactive plants. That might at first sound like an “out there” claim. His theory is worth considering. So, here are some excerpts from the introduction.
Psychoactive plants have been on the earth for a very long time. Logically, we can assume that animals and early humans consumed the plants. The psychoactive compounds in the early human diet directly influenced the rapid reorganization of the brain’s information processing capacities and could well have been responsible for the emergence of human self-reflection. We know that human brain size suddenly increased. These plants could have enhanced our information processing activity and environmental sensitivity and thus contributed to this sudden expansion.
At a later stage these same plants could have been a catalyst in the development of imagination.
The Garden of Eden, eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. This symbol or metaphor has been given many meanings by the philosophers and spiritual teachers of our time. What if it is a symbol for our consumption of psychoactive plants that gave us knowledge of the transcendent, helping us understand our origins and place in nature?
McKenna traces human advancement from these earliest of stages up to today. He shows how the acceptance or not of psychoactive plants shaped each of the cultures he has studied.
Why, as a species, are we so fascinated by altered states of consciousness? What has been their impact on our esthetic and spiritual aspirations? What have we lost by denying the legitimacy of each individual’s drive to use substances to experience personally the transcendental and the sacred?
The suppression of the natural human fascination with altered states of consciousness and the present perilous situation of all life on earth are intimately and causally connected. When we suppress access to shamanic ecstasy, we close off the refreshing waters of emotion that flow from having a deeply bonded, almost symbiotic relationship to the earth.
When asked how frequently he used psychoactive plants, he said once or twice a year. He was serious in his belief that if we each had a spiritual altered state experience, it would shift each of us and therefore shift the way we live in this world.
A sharp distinction is drawn between psychoactive plants, occurring naturally, and manufactured drugs and alcohol. Alcohol because it is legal and widely used as an escape mechanism is a product of the dominator culture. Rather than expanding consciousness and giving an experience of the transcendent, it imprisons and dulls.
He feels fundamentalist Christianity and their values have corrupted our government. The government acts as an enforcing arm for the values of right wing fundamentalism. The right is currently determining our food and drug preferences.
We have lost the ability to be swayed by the power of myths, and our history should convince us of the fallacy of dogma. What we require is a new dimension of self-experience. The age of imagination is dawning. The shamanic plants and the worlds that they reveal are the worlds from which we imagine that we came long ago, worlds of light and power and beauty that in some form or another lie behind the visions of all the world’s great religions.
We must reject the image of ourselves as that of a creature guilty of sin and hence deserving of exclusion from paradise. Paradise is our birthright and can be claimed by any one of us. Nature is not our enemy, to be raped and conquered. Nature is ourselves, to be cherished and explored. Shamanism has always known this and has taught the path required allies – the hallucinogenic plants and the mysterious teachings that lie in the nearby dimension of ecstatic beauty and understanding that we have denied ourselves.
So, there you have it. McKenna has some very interesting ways of looking at the world. Many of his lectures are on YouTube if you want to explore him and his ideas further.
I am a strong advocate for personal freedom of choice. I agree with him that if I choose to have a spiritual, conscious expanding experience which a naturally occurring plant can provide, then I should be able to legally have that experience.
And, I agree with him that the religious right is way too mixed up in our laws. Whatever happened to the separation of church and state?