Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Mayan Apocalypse

I wrote this piece for nprophet, a blog.

The Mayan Apocalypse
Daniel Pinchbeck

Over the past decade, I have engaged in an intellectual and spiritual odyssey that began when I was in my late twenties, in the depths of an existential crisis. At that time I was a journalist whose work had appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Wired, among others, and the editor of a New York-based literary magazine, Open City. I was brought up as an atheist in a countercultural milieu – my mother was a novelist, book editor, and former member of the Beat Generation; my father was an abstract painter living in SoHo. I had internalized the modern scientific view of a world lacking a sacred or transcendent dimension – the “universe in ruins” described by Bertrand Russell. Suffering from nihilism, I found that I desperately needed to interrogate my world view, and to see if there were any other options.

The only events in my life that suggested the possibility of other forms of consciousness or other realms of being were my psychedelic journeys on mushrooms and LSD, back in college. I decided to return to psychedelics and systematically study this culturally suppressed and forbidden area. I explored the substances I had known, and learned about many I had never heard of before. I tried ayahuasca, the sacred “medicine” of the Amazon basin, brewed from two jungle plants, in a ceremony in downtown Manhattan. I also took an assignment from a music magazine to go through a tribal initiation in Gabon, on the West African equator, using a psychedelic rootbark, iboga, that sent me on a long trip back through my childhood, also featuring prophetic hints and telepathic views. I wrote about these experiences, and many others, in my first book, Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism, published by Random House, in 2002.

The upshot of my study – which included doing shamanic work with the Mazatec Indians in Mexico and the Secoya tribe in the Ecuadorean Amazon, visiting the Burning Man festival in Nevada, and exploring synthetic compounds invented in the last decades – was that I became convinced, through my experiences, that the shamanic, occult, or mystical worldview was more accurate than the materialist worldview I had inherited. I transferred my allegiances from Freud to Jung, whose acceptance of synchronicity, of archetypes belonging to a collective unconscious, and the “reality of the psyche,” seemed to support the shamanic worldview through the prism of modern depth psychology. Over the course of my research, I encountered extraordinary numbers of synchronicities and various forms of psychic phenomena in which I had no “belief” beforehand. My world view was forced to expand to allow for this new data.

Among the substances I tried was the superpotent fast-acting psychedelic, dimethyltryptamine, known as DMT. DMT was the subject of a 1990s study by Doctor Rick Strassman at the University of New Mexico, the results compiled in his book, DMT: The Spirit Molecule. Strassman noted that DMT was an endogamous chemical in human beings, naturally occurring in our brains (perhaps produced by the pineal gland) and spinal column. Strassman was a Buddhist, and he had noted that Buddhist texts described the soul reincarnating seven weeks after death. The pineal gland appeared in fetal development exactly forty-nine days after conception. Strassman wondered if this was a more than accidental conjunction – if DMT, or some other compound produced by the pineal gland could be the “spirit molecule,” a kind of conductive medium drawing the soul down into the body and releasing it at death. When I smoked DMT, I found that I completely lost contact with this reality, and entered another dimension or realm that seemed fully convincing, yet almost overwhelming in its otherness. The best I could describe this other realm was “Tibetan mandalas meets Disney World in the Twenty-Fifth Century” – it seemed simultaneously geometric, hyper-organic, hyperreal. I had the sensation of much higher levels of consciousness watching over this realm, and inspecting me as I passed through it – the entire trip lasted less than ten minutes. Although DMT is a naturally occurring compound in the human body and in many plants, it was made illegal by the US Government in the late 1960s.

I was left wondering why Western culture found it necessary to drastically repress not only psychedelic chemicals, but the entire worldview of shamanism with its focus on intuitive and magical aspects of reality, represented by the burning of witches in the Inquisition, and the destruction of native traditions during Colonialism. It seemed to me that this suppression masked some deep ontological threat to the modern mind. Since I had validated the precepts of shamanism for myself, I also began to wonder about the prophecies that many indigenous cultures hold about the time we are in right now – from the Hopi Indians of New Mexico, who believe we are on the verge of transitioning from one “world” to another, to the Classical Mayan civilization of the Yucatan, obsessed with time and astronomy, who seemed to predict that the imminently approaching year of 2012 represented a transformational threshold for human consciousness. I began to realize that prophecy was more than specious prediction – as Armin Geertz, a Hopi anthropologist, noted, “Prophecy is a thread in the total fabric of meaning, in the total worldview. In this way it can be seen as a way of life and of being.”

My investigation of prophecy became the core of my new book, 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, to be released in April by Viking-Penguin. Four years in the making, it synthesizes a vast range of philosophical ideas and approaches, outsider scholarship about the Mayan Calendar, and my own personal investigation of a range of phenomena that fall utterly outside the current mainstream paradigm, including the bizarre narratives of alien abductions, the UK-based evolution of the crop circles over the last thirty years, and the Santo Daime, a Brazilian religion that mixes Christian and indigenous elements and uses ayahuasca as its sacrament. For the book, I absorbed ideas from Carl Jung, Rudolf Steiner, the psychedelic pundit Terence McKenna, and the German philosopher Jean Gebser, author of The Ever-Present Origin, a study of the evolution of consciousness that influenced Ken Wilber and William Irwin Thompson, among others. I also evaluated the recent wave of mystical interpretations of the discoveries of quantum physics, including Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics and books by the Indian physicist Amit Goswami, The Self-Aware Universe and Physics of the Soul.

My perspective also takes the Judeo-Christian tradition into account, especially focusing on the Gnostic Christianity revealed by the “Gospel of Thomas,” discovered in the Naj Hammadi desert in 1945, but potentially dating from the same era as the canonical gospels. Over the last decades, there has been a great wave of interest, in progressive cultural circles, in spirituality and mysticism, but almost entirely of the Eastern and non-Western variety, from Hinduism and yoga to Buddhism, and now shamanism. For people in my secular world, the hardest tradition to examine or assimilate has been our own – partially, this is because of the destructive effects and blood-soaked character of this tradition, which proclaimed Christian values while committing genocide against indigenous populations across the world, and whose missionaries still seek to impose Christianity on tribal and non-Western cultures, even today.

Steiner and Jung gave me access to my own tradition. I consider Jung’s essay, "Answer to Job," one of the most important texts of the Twentieth Century, providing a psychoanalytic portrait of the Western "god-image," Jahweh, as he developed, in a dialectical relationship with his chosen people, the Jews, through the Old and the New Testaments. Jung notes that the Western god-image has been undergoing his own evolution – in the earlier works of the Old Testament, Jahweh often seems to have the personality of a primitive war-lord or despotic king, inciting increased consciousness by inflicting suffering on the Jews. Job is the first human being to recognize that the god-image is not simply beyond judgment and understanding, but contains antinomies, schisms within his own nature, that make him the "dark god" of the unconscious as well as a benevolent life-giving deity. According to Jung, Job’s realization forces a concomitant realization on the part of the god-image; the creator fears the skeptical gaze of his creature, and he is forced to incarnate as Christ, a manifestation of the "good god," as a dialectical compensation for his previous amorality. Jung realized that the incarnation of Christ was preparation – that the god-image intended to incarnate in the collective body of humanity, and that this event was approaching quickly. Jung saw the flying saucer phenomenon of the 1950s as a sign of an imminent transformation in the nature of the psyche.

Jung’s follower Edward Edinger thought we had entered the archetypal frame of the Judeo-Christian Apocalypse, which he interpreted as, essentially, a momentous psychic event – the “coming of the Self” into conscious realization. I agree with this interpretation, which also fits the understanding of the Mayan Calendar developed by the visionary thinker Jose Arguelles (The Mayan Factor) and the Swedish biologist Carl Johan Calleman (The Mayan Calendar and the Transformation of Consciousness). According to Edinger, the “Book of Revelation” is a text of oppositions, suggesting the extraordinarily difficult task facing the Western psyche, of reconciling, and bringing to consciousness, the negative and positive poles of the psyche. He notes that the “Whore of Babylon” in the Book of Revelation drinks the “disgusting filth of her fornication” out of a “golden cup,” which is a symbol of the precious vessel of the higher self. We are being forced to recognize, and assimilate, all of the suppressed contents of the psyche, in order to evolve to a higher state of consciousness – Apocalypse literally means “uncovering” or “revealing.”

The process of Apocalypse involves a realization that Western civilization is founded on a fundamentally flawed conception of time. Through our solar calendars, desynchronized from natural cycles, and our technological projections, we have reified a conception of time as an unvarying linear extension akin to space, in which ultimate fulfillment or completion lies in a far-distant and undefined future condition. We are constantly projecting our hopes, dreams, and desires onto the future – acting as though the present moment is somehow insufficient, founded upon a lack or failure of being. Part of Christ’s mission on the earth was to directly challenge this misconception through his parables and elegant paradoxes. He said, for instance, “The hour is coming, and now is.” Christ spoke and acted from the perspective of what Gebser calls “origin,” the transcendent domain, outside of space and time, given rigorous formulation by quantum physics.

Indigenous groups such as the Hopi or the Australian Aboriginals live in a form of time that is vastly different from our modern conception of it. The Hopi have a “continuum consciousness” in which “all time is present now,” and events follow a pre-set pattern. `For the Aboriginals, there was never a “fall of man” into a degraded state. Every day is the “first day,” the origin point, and the purpose of their rituals and ceremonies is to maintain the perfection of creation.

I consider this revelation of the existence of other orders of time to be one of the great values of the psychedelic experience, as Aldous Huxley described it in his classic work on mescaline, The Doors of Perception: Psychedelics have the potential to act as tremendous deconditioning agents, revealing the numinous and eternal quality of the present moment, scrubbing away the accumulation of mental habits and conditioned responses that keep us wired into a delusory social reality based on perpetual postponement. This may be the main reason they are perceived as a threat – they threaten the value system of mainstream society, not peripherally, but directly and ontologically. They are, as Ralph Metzner noted, “Gnostic catalysts.”

While Christianity is certainly opposed to direct experience of non-ordinary states produced by psychedelic compounds found in plants, it is far less certain that Christ would have shared this perspective. “Open the doors for yourself, so you will know what is,” he proclaims in the “Gospel of Thomas.” I believe that Christ, as a revolutionary Gnostic figure, can be reclaimed for a progressive and contemporary spirituality that does not believe Christ somehow “saved our souls” through the crucifixion. Instead, by acting from the transcendent domain, he provided a model for the selfless action required in an Apocalyptic age. Christ only “saves our souls” if we follow his lead, which requires a tireless engagement with contemporary social and spiritual reality. His “doctrine” is one of immanence instead of transcendence.

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