by Daniel Pinchbeck
Daniel Pinchbeck explains, “Shamanism is a technology for exploring non-ordinary states of consciousness in order to accomplish specific purposes: healing, divination, and communication with the spirit realm.” In his book, 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, Pinchbeck takes the role of a modern shaman and embarks on a journey of exploration into what he calls the “extravagant thought experiment” that revolves around 2012, engaging in exhaustive research, including the use of psychedelics. In his book, he investigates Burning Man, Stonehenge, crop circles, aliens, and many other phenomena, ultimately becoming a journalistic expert on 2012 and what the next decade has in store for us. In the following essay, he gives readers an overview of his most current realizations related to 2012, and describes how we might use a Tantric path to escape destruction and pursue a new age of consciousness.
That we could interrupt our current suicide march and institute a harmonic and peaceful planetary civilization within the next few years, embrace a non-dual realization of the universe, and institute practices of deep ecology and collective psychic ritual may seem farfetched to some. The history of human thought, however, reveals an extraordinary tendency for ideas that at first seem radical, absurd, or beyond comprehension to quickly become commonplace, even truisms, leading to new conditions and transformed social structures. Before the eighteenth century, for example, people knew about lightning but nobody had any idea that electricity could be shaped to human purposes and made into a transformative energy for the world. Once someone learned this trick, we engineered industrial civilization and changed the entire surface of the Earth in less than two centuries — not even a blink of evolutionary time. If we did it then, we could do it again, under different conditions, with different goals, on a far more concentrated timescale.
This is an unprecedented moment for humanity. The material progress of the last centuries has slammed against the limits of the biosphere, putting our immediate future in jeopardy. Equally surprising to the modern mind, many indigenous cultures around the world recognize this time through their prophecies and myths, and may possess insight into its deeper meaning. For these cultures, we are transitioning between World Ages; this shift not only involves changes in the physical body of the Earth, but a transformation of human consciousness — a regenerative cycle of initiatory death and rebirth, leading to a higher level of manifestation.
Knowledge of the importance of this time appears embedded in the harmonic gyres and fractal intricacies of the Mayan calendar, which completes its great cycle of thirteen baktuns on December 21, 2012. The classical-era Maya created a sophisticated culture on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and in Guatemala, before mysteriously vanishing in the ninth century AD. Despite the increasingly glaring deficiencies of our civilization, most modern people find it far-fetched that a non-technological and myth-based society, such as the classical-era Maya, might have developed a different form of knowledge that in crucial respects, was more advanced than our own. Contemporary scholars outside academia have advanced the hypothesis that the Maya attained a precise realization of cyclical patterns in human development, linked to astronomical cycles. In the works of John Major Jenkins, Carl Johan Calleman, and Jose Arguelles, this argument has been developed with compelling sophistication.
In my two books, Breaking Open the Head and 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, I first stumbled upon and then rigorously pursued the puzzle-pieces that indicated our modern world was constructed on an “irrational rationality,” a reductive empiricism requiring a rigorous suppression of psychic, intuitive, and shamanic dimensions of being. While earlier civilizations and shamanic cultures may have been incapable of constructing a cell phone or an iPod, they did possess a participatory and holistic relationship to the universe, encapsulated in the alchemical catchphrase, “as above, so below.” They reified their wisdom traditions in monumental structures such as the stone circles of England or the Mayan pyramids that were carefully attuned astronomical instruments and ritual centers. They utilized non-ordinary states of consciousness, accessed through psychedelic plants and other means, in an applied shamanic science.
As huge populations across India and China grasp Western style material comforts for the first time, an elite subset in Europe and the United States has shifted its focus to ecological sustainability, new and ancient alternatives to modern medicine, and spiritual disciplines. Today, forty years after the first irruption of shamanic consciousness into the modern psyche during the curtailed psychedelic era of the 1960s, we find increasing numbers of people recovering elements of these lost traditions, exploring shamanic practices, tantra, yoga, and other ancient and indigenous techniques for attaining intensified states of awareness.
Those of us at the vanguard of this transformational process are learning that the participatory rituals and spiritual wisdom of indigenous and myth-based cultures hold tremendous significance for our lives. We have embarked upon a new phase of the initiatory journey begun a generation ago — with the opportunity to avoid the tactical mistakes, strident statements, and polarizations of the past. Whatever the Maya may or may not have known about this time, we are confronting the most critical juncture for our species since our origins. During the winter of 2006-2007 alone, climate change appears to have passed a tipping point — in New York City, in early December, temperatures were fifteen degrees higher, on average, than they were the previous year. Flowers that usually do not appear until March bloomed in Central Park. These are only the most tangible indications of the traumatically inconvenient truth of our current predicament—a truth that is still avoided and strenuously suppressed by government functionaries and corporate CEOs.
The four hundred year paradigm of modern civilization, as currently conceived, has reached the end of its line. Without a radical reorganization and rapid transformation of global practices, there is a high probability that the human species will soon crash and burn, as so many species have before us. While climate change accelerates, polar ice caps melt and rainforests are cut down, more than 25 percent of all species will be extinct within the next thirty years — the global disappearance of frogs and amphibians indicate a future that may be inhospitable to many forms of life, including our own. From a purely materialist and rational analysis, the next few years represent a decision point for humanity, and most of the U.S. population, as well as millions upon millions outside of this continent, are sleepwalking through the supermarket aisles, hypnotized by programmed infotainment, assuming that the present situation can continue without a radical rupture from what has gone before.
While paralysis and avoidance are common reactions to the crisis looming over us, an alternative vision is possible. What appears as unavoidable chaos and collapse is actually a natural process accompanying an evolutionary advance in human consciousness. What we are destined to experience within our lifetimes is not the end of the world, but the birth of humanity’s higher mind. We are not helpless spectators in this drama but powerful actors, with an opportunity to directly influence the results.
In what follows, I will sketch out the bare rudiments of this alternative paradigm, based upon psychic realities as well as material ones. Following this, I will briefly describe some developments and techniques that, if implemented in time, could have a positive influence on the course of events. By this hypothesis, a desirable outcome can be realized if an elite vanguard overcomes all obstacles and prior conditioning to attain an intensified awareness of the situation, and then works efficiently and collaboratively to propagate this new paradigm across the Earth.
In 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, I theorized that we are currently in the process of shifting from one form of consciousness, one way of being, to another. As a byproduct of developing empirical and scientific thought, the modern mind trapped itself in a mechanized conception of the universe, a limited realization of time, and a denial of spirit and intuition. Quetzalcoatl — the feathered serpent of Mesoamerican myth — symbolizes the meeting of bird and snake, or Heaven and Earth. I propose that this archetype also represents the integration of rational and empirical thought with shamanic, intuitive, and esoteric knowledge. I compiled evidence for this thesis from many fields and diverse philosophical traditions, isolating three trends that seemed the most crucial indicators. The first, as described above, is the ecological crisis, including accelerated climate change, species extinction, and depletion of resources. The second is the rapid development of new technology, especially communication and media technologies, ranging from social networks to cell phones, as well as the potentially disruptive capabilities of nanotechnology and other future, increasingly plausible advances.
The appearance of new media and communications tools accompany profound changes in the human psyche, along with new forms of social organization. This is obvious when we look at past examples, such as spoken language with tribal culture, written language with hierarchic civilization, and the invention of the printing press with the emergence of mass democracy. Currently, the use of cell phones, the Internet, and social networks is reformatting human consciousness in ways both trivial and profound. Because we find ourselves enmeshed in these developments, adapting new habitual and subliminal patterns, it is difficult to analyze how they affect us.
My hypothesis is that these new tools impact our inner experience of personal identity, and reformat our sense of self. Through the last centuries, the modern Western person developed a strong sense of individual autonomy, alienation from the natural world, and existential isolation. The new communication tools soften and diffuse the boundaries of the ego. Increasingly, with our networked lifestyles, we experience our identity as contextual, fluid, and relational, rather than a separate entity that is fixed and permanent. Academics have long argued that identity is a social construct, but this phenomenological shift makes it explicit. Our individual sense of self depends upon greater networks of connectivity, while the pervasive media, surrounding us like a second skin, continually reshapes collective viewpoints, personal boundaries, and moral structures. Through numbing repetition, the virtual sphere of electronic media can make actions that were once reprehensible, such as government-sanctioned torture, socially acceptable. As media and communication tools unify the collective mind, mass delusions become a greater danger. Yet, a new social movement or a more authentic awareness could also spread quickly, just as a flock of birds responds to danger with efficient coordination.
The third trend is harder for many to grasp and impossible to quantify, as it can only be realized subjectively. I propose that an evolution is also taking place in the nature of the psyche, and that one expression of this is an accelerating surge in synchronicities, telepathic hints, and psychic as well as psychophysical episodes of all types. For those who are paying attention to this subtler level of phenomena, material reality seems less dense and, in quickening degrees, more psychically responsive. The veil between matter and consciousness is becoming thinner and more permeable. This is evident when we consider the rapid evolution of technology. Technology allows us to turn our “thought forms” into fully realized manifestations, at an ever-increasing rate of speed. This is literally happening, and it is undeniable. Fifty years ago, you might have imagined a complex sculptural form or musical composition, and been able to execute it after years of effort. Today, assuming you have the resources, digital tools allow you to produce any form or soundscape, in a matter of hours. The extensions of technology allow the imagination to realize its projections with greater accuracy and speed, drawing the psychic and the physical into an ever-more intimate relationship. Beyond these overtly material expressions, the shift in the nature of the psyche reveals itself in a transformed relationship to reality.
In the twentieth century, psychoanalyst Carl Jung realized “the reality of the psyche,” the interconnection of mind and world, the psychic and the physical, expressed through synchronicities and other occult correspondences. Jung understood that a deep transformation of the human psyche was underway. According to Jungian theorist Edward Edinger, we are currently experiencing the “archetype of the Apocalypse,” a word that has familiar destructive connotations but is also defined as “revealing” or “uncovering.” As a negative archetype, it represents the smashing of previous forms of thought and ways of being; as a positive archetype it represents a momentous event — “the coming of the Self into conscious realization.” In the Jungian model, the “Self ” encompasses the complete expression of our being, including both conscious and unconscious elements. Our limited egos dread the coming of the Self, yet paradoxically yearn to incarnate it. As Jung described in Answer to Job and other writings, the archetype of Christ and the Second Coming represent the fusion of the ego and the Self, a process that takes place within historical time, yet is, paradoxically, atemporal. As Christ expresses this paradox, “The hour is coming, and now is.”
If the end of the Mayan calendar signals the completion of this archetypal process in historical time, we can begin to appreciate the momentous psychic distance we will travel in the next few years. Today, most of us identify with our individual path and egodefined goals. As we complete this apocalyptic passage, we will conceive ourselves, increasingly, as fractal expressions of a unified field of consciousness, and sentient aspects of a planetary ecology — the Gaian mind — that is continually changed by our actions, and even our thoughts. When the collective shares this understanding, we will move beyond the threshold of history, with its narrative of wars, conquests, and competing belief systems. Humanity will unite as a global tribe, ensuring all of its members equal rights and equal status in a planetary community. Having resolved internecine discord, we will be ready to make our entry into galactic civilization, where we will discover new myths, new companions, and new dimensions of being.
It seems likely that such a profound shift in the collective psyche can only take place as a response to a series of traumatic events, much like the contractions and convulsions accompanying birth. The most comprehensive description I have found of how this process may unfold over the next few years is presented in Christopher Bache’s excellent book, Dark Night, Early Dawn, an extension of Stanislav Grof’s theoretical work on non-ordinary states of consciousness and the perinatal matrices. In a series of visions that Bache received during LSD therapy sessions, he foresaw a drastic meltdown of society due to environmental cataclysm, and then a recrystallization into a planetary culture.
“The events that had overtaken Earth were of such scope that no one could insulate themselves from them,” Bache writes. “The level of alarm grew in the species field until eventually everyone was forced into the melting pot of mere survival.” New collaborative social structures and expansive family models developed in response to the peril. “It was as if the eco-crisis had myelinized connections in the species mind, allowing new and deeper levels of self-awareness to spring into being.” He recounts an extraordinary compression of events: “The pace of the past was irrelevant to the pace of the future. The new forms that were emerging were not temporary fluctuations but permanent psychological and social structures that marked the next evolutionary step in our long journey towards self-activated awareness.” According to the timeframe developed by Carl Johan Calleman in his book, The Mayan Calendar and the Transformation of Consciousness, the years 2008-2010 will be the crucible during which the new form of human consciousness emerges as the old structures collapse.
Of course, this prophetic paradigm is only theoretical until events actually come to pass. Each of us will decide for him or herself whether there is validity to what is presented here, and how such a hypothesis will influence his or her activity. If one takes it seriously, as I do, then one is faced with a number of fascinating paradoxes and subtle nuances, as the precipice draws near. One basic reaction is to consider escaping the technocratic nightmare and relocating to a rural community on high ground, learning to grow food, and regaining the basic skills that modern society forfeited. While this may be the best option for some people, for many of us it is out of the question due to family and financial obligations. Personally, my intuition is that any hasty action, motivated by fear, is likely to backfire. Those of us with foreknowledge have a tremendous opportunity — and, perhaps, a responsibility — to reorient the collective consciousness in this interim period. It may be possible to begin constructing those “permanent psychological and social structures” of the future, before the breakdown begins. The dissemination of a deeper awareness, along with tools for addressing our immediate situation, could dramatically reduce the approaching crises’ destructive repercussions envisioned by Bache and Calleman, dystopian novelists like J.G. Ballard and Cormac McCarthy, and many others.
Despite its threatening material aspects, the basis of this transition between world ages is our psychic reality. If it is the case that mind and matter are increasingly interpenetrating as we approach the 2012 phase-shift, then our level of consciousness and the power of our intention will determine how events play out for us, and upon the greater world-stage. If we treat this transition as an initiatory ordeal, we will embrace the paradox of becoming increasingly relaxed, open, cheerful, clear, and compassionate as events take their course.
The inner attitude required for this challenge evokes the philosophy of tantra, as defined by the scholar Georg Feuerstein: “The formula ‘samsara equals nirvana’ implies a total cognitive shift by which the phenomenal world is rendered transparent through superior wisdom,” he writes. “No longer are things seen as being strictly separated from one another, as if they were insular realities in themselves, but everything is seen together, understood together, and lived together. Whatever distinctions there may be, these are variations or manifestations of and within the self-same Being.” From the perspective of tantra, which fuses the radical techniques of alchemy and shamanism with Vedantic and Buddhist nondual philosophy, reality is a matter of what we choose to perceive — despite any appearance to the contrary. If samsara is nirvana, then everything is always happening just as it is meant to unfold.
Through tantric techniques, the practicioner recognizes any “other,” whether cremated corpse or gorgeous dakini, as an aspect of the Self. When we hold this view, we find there is no problem at all, no crisis requiring some anxious and urgent response. In fact, fearbased reactions can only exacerbate the apparent negative aspects of our current situation. We best serve the transformational process — for ourselves and for the world — by attaining a level of being that is without judgment, anxiety, or negative projections.
Our ability to help the world and heal humanity’s traumas is dependent upon the inner work we have done to master ourselves and attain equanimity of mind, or what Buddhism defines as nonattachment. Nonattachment is subtly yet profoundly distinct from detachment. While detachment implies glacial remove and lack of emotion, a nonattached person still experiences the full range of their feelings, their pain, and their joy, but they do not identify with these emotional states. The change required of us is not an unfelt, intellectual shift to some “spiritual” or psychic perspective, but a fully embodied and intimately personal process. We are being called upon to open our hearts, as well as our minds, to the radiant flame of transformation. For those who are willing to take up this challenge, the rewards will be far greater than the sacrifices.
We confront paradoxical difficulties in envisioning and then establishing interim systems to support a large-scale transformation of human society in an accelerated timeframe. While “sustainability” has become a trendy buzzword, we lack a strategy for creating a truly sustainable global culture with the current level of population. We find fragments of such a plan in the work of many visionaries, ecologists, radical economists, and design scientists; it should be possible to assemble these scattered projects into a holistic model. However, any solution-based approach will have to remain nonprogrammatic, open to change and indeterminacy. As human consciousness is making a phase-shift to steadier states of mind, our transitional efforts will reflect the awkwardness and uncertainty of this process.
Since we have embarked upon the second stage of the initiatory journey for the modern psyche that was begun in the 1960s, we can expect the typical cycle of shamanic dismemberment and spiritual death-and-rebirth on an individual and collective level — part of the acceptance and integration of deeper levels of the psyche that Jungians call individuation. Over the last decades, those segments of the population with a regressive, authoritarian mindset — bypassing the individuation process entirely through hypocritical belief systems and an atavistic denial of personal responsibility — organized effectively to exert a baleful influence on public discourse and policy. By contrast, the progressive sector remains uncoordinated and disempowered, hampered by psychological complexes leading to dysfunctional behavior. It would seem that at this point in time, the Left — or at least the majority of its pivotal figures and powerbrokers — have not resolved their individuation crisis.
Rather than overcoming divisiveness, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), nonprofits, and like-minded companies create allegiances and sentimental attachments to a particular cause or entity. This works against an efficient coordination of forces, on a larger scale, to achieve a collective goal. In many cases, progressive campaigns address particular symptoms but ignore the root cause of the disease. A more productive attitude might echo Nietzsche’s definition of the Superman, who combines “the mind of Caesar” with “the soul of Christ.”
While U.S. prestige has waned, our popular culture remains a global force. A revival of the Transcendentalist impulse in American life could incite a spiritual revolution within our society. If that were to occur, the extraordinary power of our electronic media — which currently functions, for the most part, as a control mechanism, holding the mass consciousness in a low frequency of anxious materialism — could be repurposed into a super-efficient force for positive change. This could happen through existing media channels, or through the creation of new portals on the Internet or television.
A skillful marketing campaign might package and promote the green movement, a DIY approach to problem solving, pacifism, and spiritual development as the new hippest thing. Our revamped media would decondition great masses of people from archaic belief systems and manipulative ideologies, while educating them on subjects ranging from permaculture to metaphysics. Conflict resolution and nonviolence training will also be essential — as our current social paradigm melts down, various segments of society may be tempted to regress into violent expressions of frustration. As Thomas Hartmann noted in The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, what holds our current social system together is, ultimately, “cheap calories.” If these were to become scarce due to shortages, tempers would, no doubt, become short as well. The new media paradigm must be positive as well as proactive, promoting compassion and patience and instilling great hope for a fair and equitable future, once the transition is complete. If our media machinery dramatically shifts gears to transmit a different message across the planet, this will have tremendous reverberations.
The still-unrealized social networking potential of the Internet could provide the basis for a new societal paradigm and a collaborative infrastructure, allowing for the precise orchestration of resources and manpower in a time of crisis. Such a development would mean retooling the operational logic of the progressive movement — from struggling against the status quo to creating a new institutional framework for the imminent shift into planetary culture. Technologists have developed protocols for an invisible, underlying network that integrates user-centric profiling, data interoperability, and open standards. Such a network would allow for like-minded organizations and businesses to share information at a deeper level, encourage transparency, empower individuals rather than corporations, and support the rapid development of local and virtual communities based on resource-sharing, specialized interests, and other affinities. [see wiserearth.org , bioneers.org ]
According to this hypothesis, skillful repurposing of advanced technologies will play an essential part in the transitional process, but archaic practices have an equally central role. We must reckon with a post-modern “flatland” — to use Ken Wilber’s term — where “natural hierarchies” based on the acknowledgment of different but complementary skill sets have collapsed. To address this complex issue, we can adapt elements of the ritual techniques and decisionmaking tools of indigenous tribal and aboriginal cultures, and bring them into post-modern institutions and boardrooms. The design principles and organizational wisdom that allowed indigenous communities to thrive in a sustainable relationship with the natural world for thousands or tens of thousands of years constitute an extraordinary bequest to us moderns, who have lost proper relatedness to the natural world and one another, and face the challenge of remaking those broken connections. No matter our intentions, we will not be able to accomplish this without guidance from past and present wisdom-keepers.
Since our current transition involves the recovery of the shamanic and psychic aspects of being, we may institute programs — global ceremonies — to utilize the latent capabilities of the mind for undoing the damage unleashed by industrial society. In this area as well, the living knowledge of tribal societies could prove invaluable. In the same way that we once learned to make use of electricity, we will master the subtle domains of psychic energy and use this power to transform the Earth. From indigenous cultures, we can learn the principles of utilizing ritual and trance to concentrate psychic energy, interacting with elemental forces to influence climactic conditions and alleviate suffering. The encroaching ecological crisis, may compel humanity to make a quantum leap into a psychic way of being, combining scientific experimentation and shamanic participation in a new form of engagement.
Going deeper into the transition, we might expect our reality to ripple into increasingly unfamiliar forms, crossing new thresholds of novelty. As the “reality of the psyche” becomes more tangible, the development of future technologies may require the input of consciousness at a deeper level of intentionality. The proliferation of ancient and new alternative healing modalities based on the use of subtle energies (chi, prana, etheric currents, and so on) may point toward a different realization of consciousness that will have technical applications in the near future. The “Eschaton” or “singularity” theorized by Terence McKenna may be that meeting of mind, quantum mechanics, and material machinery that awaits us just ahead. Our capacity to realize such potential may depend upon the level of mental discipline and intensified psychic acuity we develop during this interim period — as Nietzsche put it, “The deed creates the doer, almost as an afterthought.”
In the meantime, we are best served by adapting a tantric approach to planetary transformation — one that is collaborative instead of confrontational, absorptive rather than oppositional. The open hand, offering friendship and peaceful reconciliation, replaces the raised fist, symbol of 1960s-style activism. One way to envision the shift between world ages is as a snake shedding its skin: while the new scales form underneath, the surface layer has to remain functional or the snake will not survive. While the old skin of our civilization and its accompanying mindset appears to be fraying, the system must remain in place long enough for the new texture of consciousness and its matching infrastructure to mesh together. According to this thesis, as the universal consciousness guides the process, we should have no doubt that we will succeed.
Daniel Pinchbeck has written features for the New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Wired, Harper’s Bazaar, the Village Voice, Salon, and many other publications. He is the author of Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism, and 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl. To learn more about his work, go to: www.breakingopenthehead.com . Excerpted with permission of the author and publisher from THE MYSTERY OF 2012 (Sounds True, 2007).