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New psychic waters

The Open Hand

By Daniel Pinchbeck
From Conscious Choice, Chicago

Traditionally, writers have the job of defining the zeitgeist, but that task has never been as difficult as it is today. While this seems a singular and remarkable moment in human history, there is something indefinable about it. The weather is certainly strange—I live in New York City, where temperatures in early January remain about fifteen degrees above normal, and spring flowers started to bloom before Christmas. The political situation is most definitely peculiar—our military engages in a senseless campaign that has lasted longer than World War II, with hundreds of billions of dollars spent on spreading death and misery. We read about icebergs breaking up and a frightening lack of fish in the seas, yet there is plenty of ice for our drinks, and caviar is making a comeback.

We swim in new psychic waters. We may understand, to a greater or lesser degree, that global civilization has hit the resource limits of the biosphere, but such a general foreboding is useless. We can recycle light bulbs or build a green roof. These gestures are meaningful, but they seem almost farcical compared to the magnitude of the problem. The contradictions between our intentions and our actions are almost head-splitting…


My perspective is that we are experiencing an accelerated evolution of human consciousness. Right now, we find ourselves in an awkward transition between steadier states. For the last centuries, a limited form of scientific rationality ruled the modern world, a mindset that denied intuitive thought and saw nature as an enemy to be conquered. We developed technologies that embodied our sense of alienation and isolation. Many of us are now reaching a different perspective. As we make connections between quantum physics and Eastern mysticism, we realize we live in a participatory universe, with no place for an objective observer. Intuition is not irrational, but arational—it is the way our mind processes the overload of information that doesn’t enter our conscious filter.

My own quest for understanding led me from being a somewhat embittered New York journalist to hitting a massive spiritual crisis in the late 1990s. In the throes of existential despair, I remembered my psychedelic experiences from college, and decided to pursue the subject as a journalist. I took an assignment to undergo a tribal initiation in Gabon, in West Africa, where I ate a visionary rootbark, iboga (also known as ibogaine). I traveled to the Amazon in Ecuador to drink ayahuasca—a hallucinatory potion—with the Secoya Indians, and visited the Mazatecs in Mexico, who preserve a sacred culture using mushrooms.

The results of these investigations, and more, are recorded in my first book, Breaking Open the Head, which described my shift over time from cynical materialism to an acceptance of other dimensions and occult aspects of the psyche. By the end, I had plunged into Carl Jung, Rudolf Steiner, Walter Benjamin, Carlos Castaneda and many more, in an attempt to figure out what was going on. For my second book, 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, I investigated the nature of prophecy, particularly the sacred calendar kept by the Classical Mayans in the Yucatan, which completes a “Great Cycle” of more than 5,000 years in the year 2012. Most modern people find it far-fetched that a non-technological and myth-based civilization, such as the Maya, might have developed a different system of knowledge that is more advanced than our own, in certain respects. In 2012, I conclude that this is possible.

Somehow, from over a thousand years ago, the Maya predicted that this time would be crucial for humanity—and, indeed, it is. In the next few years, I believe that we are either going to slide into chaos, or institute a new planetary culture based on compassion and rational use of resources. The second option requires a quantum leap in consciousness—but, as I argued in 2012, our entire history has prepared us for that leap, when we view it from a certain perspective.

It has been exactly forty years since the heyday of the 1960s. That epoch could be viewed as an attempted voyage of initiation for the modern world. Today, 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. Increasing numbers of people pursue spiritual practices, such as yoga and shamanism, with disciplined intensity. Perhaps, with an inchoate sense of foreknowledge, many people are preparing themselves for the transformation just ahead.

If some elements of the 1960s are returning, they are doing so without the oppositional anger of the past. The open hand, offering friendship and reconciliation, has replaced the raised-fist symbol of old-style activism. In this column, I will offer my perspective on this on-going process of transformation, which has both psychic and physical dimensions. With its tremendous pressures and opportunities, I consider this the most exciting time to be alive in the history of our species, and I look forward to exploring it with all of you.

Daniel Pinchbeck is the author of Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism (Broadway Books, 2002) and 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl (Tarcher/Penguin, 2006). His features have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Wired and many other publications.