INTERVIEW BY XERXES COOK ON REVOLUTIONS
ARTWORK BY DAVID SHERRY
PORTRAIT BY ARI MARCOPOULOS
Is it mere coincidence that we’ve witnessed our global economic system collapse, an increasing number of environmental catastrophes, and more and more conflicts over the Earth’s dwindling natural resources at a time considered by an ancient calendar to mark a moment of dramatic transformation for our planet and its inhabitants? Is this the end of the world? Is there something we can do about it? And if all of these events aren’t random happenings, is there an unseen order governing the symmetry? Purple discusses these issues with Daniel Pinchbeck, America’s most curious public intellectual.
The rebellion that once characterised youth culture may have been commoditized to a point that the self-knowingness of ‘hipsters’ renders them nothing more than pure pastiches of themselves — yet bubbling beneath the surface of the mainstream there is a true counterculture arising. One that is not defined by the brands you wear or your musical taste, but instead by the consequences of your actions. It can be found in the proliferation of alternative energy organizations, digital democracy advocates, yoga retreats, urban homesteaders, organic food outlets, and of course the Occupy movement. Spearheading this movement is Daniel Pinchbeck, a New York based writer whose alchemist ancestor discovered the compound — and came up with the formal terminology — of “Fool’s Gold.” However, unlike Occupy, and taking inspiration from alchemist philosophy, Pinchbeck believes our economic system and corporations — the poisons — we have created have the potential to act as remedies to the chaos they have contributed to our planet today.
Pinchbeck came to this realization after the death of his good friend Robert Bingham — with whom he founded the literary journal Open City — from a heroin overdose led him to assess the direction and purpose his life was taking. Born in 1966 to a painter father and a mother who dated Jack Kerouac at the time of On The Road, Pinchbeck’s existential crisis took him to Africa, the Amazon and across North America, living with tribes and alternate communities to experiment with their psychedelic plant sacraments and be initiated into shamanic methods of understanding the world. The result was 2002’s Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism. In it, he describes the transformative effects of powerful plant medicines such as Ayahuasca and Iboga, which are widely considered as inspiring a generation of consumers to rethink their relationship with the Earth and its inhabitants. The work drew comparisons to the writing of Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna (though Pinchbeck more readily identifies with Allen Ginsberg, whom he knew as a child).
From his experiences, Pinchbeck is convinced that reality is “increasingly malleable, responsive to psychic energy and conscious intention.” With this knowledge, he continued his line of inquiry by exploring Mayan prophecies about the year 2012 being a time of radical transformation for the planet. The result was the literary and metaphysical epic 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl (2008). It was littered with references to Rudolf Steiner’s ecological theories, Martin Heidegger and Marshall McLuhan’s critiques of Western notions of progress, as well as ruminations on the nature of time itself. The book’s central message is that this transition will lead us from “ego-based materialism, alienation and individuation” toward the next stage of human evolution, characterized by a greater awareness of the “fractal expression of the infinite” and acknowledgement of the interconnectivity of life. For Pinchbeck, 2012 is not the apocalypse or the second coming — notions he considers “spiritually lazy” — but instead the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. The evidence, he believes, is all around us.
Xerxes Cook — You were the co-founder, in 1990, of the influential literary journal Open City, publishing writers such as David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, Geoff Dyer, and even a poem by Monica Lewinsky, to name just a few. What then inspired you to travel around the world, live with indigenous American and African tribes, and experiment with their psychedelic plant sacraments?
DANIEL PINCHBECK — I wrote a piece about the decline of the human sperm count for Esquire, an ecological problem, which it seemed people could only take as a joke. Most people weren’t ready to focus on the environmental crises we’re facing and which grow more and more threatening. I began to realize that underlying everything is a materialistic belief system that is actually nihilistic. Most people in our culture believe consciousness is purely brain-based; therefore, there can be no continuity of being — of any sort — after death. Following that assumption, you can’t really care all that much about the environment or the future, because you don’t have an investment in anything but getting the most you can from your moment. I was a secular materialist, but I began to wonder, how did I really know that was the case, and could I make an inquiry into that? When I came to that realization, I recalled my psychedelic experiences in college as the most profound tools that suggested or pointed toward other aspects of reality, other potencies of being and experience. I realized this could become a subject of inquiry. As a journalist I could also write articles about it. I could actually get funding to go to exotic countries and take strange drugs. So that’s what I did.
XERXES COOK — In your writing, you note that the discovery or popularization of certain psychedelic compounds and entheogenic plants seems linked to points in history when humanity is threatened or is undergoing a paradigm shift. For example, the discovery of LSD appeared in tandem with the spread of National Socialism and the beginnings of the Manhattan Project; the popularization of DMT — a psychoactive chemical thought to be released by the pineal gland at the time of death, which leads to out-of-body experiences in parallel worlds — showed up during the early days of Web 1.0, inspiring the pioneers who developed the fractal universe of digital communications. Today, as we approach a point of no return in our destruction of the environment, there arises a growing popularity of ayahuasca, which reveals the interconnectivity of life and the importance of nature. Are these developments merely coincidental?
DANIEL PINCHBECK — Scientists now propose that the Earth is a living entity, a kind of sentient being, as James Lovelock described the atmosphere in his Gaia hypothesis. Human beings are part of this planetary intelligence, the consciousness of an evolving planet. So if consciousness evolves, the process could be akin to the fetal development leading to birth — fetal processes are exquisitely timed, so during their development, different chemical signals have to be released at precise intervals to bring the developing fetus along. The discovery of LSD seems like a profound allegory for the emergence of a new level of awareness. Albert Hoffman was a chemist for Sandoz, living in Basel, Switzerland. In 1938 he first synthesized LSD-25. Scientists at Sandoz were working with ergot fungus. They knew that midwives used ergot in the Middle Ages to induce muscle contractions during pregnancy. They also knew that ergot could infect a loaf of bread and then drive a whole town temporarily crazy if everyone ate it. So they produced LSD-25 in a series of syntheses. The compound didn’t seem to do anything, so they shelved it. Five years later, in 1943, in the middle of the Nazi’s Final Solution — and with Switzerland being this tiny island of neutrality in Europe, and Basel being a medieval centre of alchemy, where Paracelsus had lived — Albert Hoffman began to have recurring dreams of the molecular structure of LSD-25. For the first time in his life, after making thousands upon thousands of compounds, he felt compelled to remake this particular molecule. Somehow, one day, he managed to get specks of it on his hands or breathe it in; so he had the first LSD trip accidentally. A week later, he took his first actual LSD trip, which is the famous bike ride. This happened during the same week that the Nazis were clearing the Jews out of the Warsaw Ghetto. Interestingly, ergot has a place within cabalistic mysticism, so it does seem like some numinous correspondence happened there — where a tool for liberating consciousness opened the closed Western psyche’s repressed doors to new intuitions and psychic capacities. Which occurred during a moment of horrifying darkness and cruelty in Germany.
XERXES COOK — Speaking of fetal development, the pineal gland develops in the human embryo after 49 days, which is the exact number of days described in The Tibetan Book of the Dead that it takes for the soul to migrate to another physical incarnation. Is this synchronicity a “cosmic giggle”?
DANIEL PINCHBECK — The “cosmic giggle” was Terence McKenna’s phrase to describe the winks and synchronicities that tend to multiply when you take psychedelics. When you get into shamanism and psychedelics, you often find that your psyche is like a battery that stores up a bigger and bigger charge, and suddenly that charge begins to find correspondences in the outside world. You begin to have the uncanny sense that what you thought was inside you is very much outside you — that the psyche and the physical world are not separate at all, but inextricably meshed together. This very much corresponds to Carl Jung’s notion of synchronicity, which he defined as “an a-causal ordering principle,” suggesting that underlying the apparent chaos and confusion of the material, physical world that we inhabit, there is actually a kind of order, even a purpose, and that these correspondences, synchronicities, and cosmic giggles are indications that there are patterns that emerge through an individual’s journey and through the collective journey as well.
XERXES COOK — Terence McKenna wrote extensively on the idea that the 21st of December, 2012 — the last day of the ancient Mayan calendar — could be a transformation point for the human species, a culmination of a time wave into a singularity. Mainstream culture has interpreted 2012 as the coming of the apocalypse, which made it easy to dismiss and ridicule. What is your interpretation of what the 2012 prophecies represent?
DANIEL PINCHBECK — From my perspective, the prophetic shift is already happening — it’s ongoing and deepening. Over the past few years, we’ve seen an acceleration in climate change; massive, industrial catastrophes are happening more and more frequently, like the Gulf Oil spill from British Petroleum, along with natural disasters such as the earthquake that caused the Fukushima meltdown, species extinction, and depletion of natural resources. At the same time, the capitalist superstructure is beginning to crack — a system that is based on constantly intensifying debt, which keeps people trapped in a state of artificial scarcity and competition. Now that we’ve integrated the whole world into one global market and now that we’ve consumed a great deal of the world’s resources, the constant increase that’s necessary for a parasitical system like capitalism to continue is just not possible. We are forced to confront what we are as a planetary community and decide how we want to move forward.
XERXES COOK — Many ancient civilizations kept, and indeed many societies today still keep, calendars that are different from those used in the West. What is so special about the Mayan method of keeping time that you consider to be so prescient?
DANIEL PINCHBECK — I have never proposed that the exact date of 21/12/12 was going to be a transfiguration or an apocalypse or anything like that. The classical Mayan calendar — the Long Count — is a 5,125-year sequence, based on the T’zolkin, a 260-day count. The 13 x 20 matrix of the T’zolkin calendar was a profound discovery of the Maya and bears a relationship to the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching, as José Argüelles explored in his amazing book, Earth Ascending. By studying the patterns of the stars and correlating it with this mathematical model of development and change, the Maya foresaw that our time would see a far-reaching transformation of humanity and the earth. Much like a doctor pointing toward the birth date of a baby, they saw that somewhere in our time, a new level of consciousness would emerge on Earth. The indigenous cultures of North and South America described this as the shift from the Fourth World to the Fifth World, or the age of the Fifth Sun transitioning into the age of the Sixth Sun. One way to look at it is by thinking of the four elements — earth, wind, water, fire — and then a new element becoming prevalent, which is spirit, or ether. That’s one of many ways you can seek to explain it. There are many ways to look at what’s happening now. We have the acceleration of climate change and the meltdown of the global financial superstructure, which is very much an artificial and cynical mechanism that feeds on the life of the planet. I see the Occupy movements as prophetically significant — a foreshadowing of this birthing of the next level of human consciousness, which transcends separation and egotism.
We can survive only by returning to a cooperative and sharing-based way of life, which is how tribal societies functioned. But we must enact that on a planetary level. Another crucial aspect, I believe, is through conscious realization and a regaining of our psychic capacities. This is already happening for people who are becoming more aware of synchronicity and intention, and who are awakening to the process that is already underway. Many of us are starting to realize that our psychic capacities are intensifying; it’s almost as if there was once a very firm and impermeable boundary between the physical and the psychical, and that boundary is becoming more and more permeable, more available, and more subtly interactive, like when you remember someone after not thinking about them for a while and you run into them or they call you. Or when you’re having destructive thoughts and they can come back on you when someone punches you at a party. I think we’re seeing a magnification of the psyche, which is actually the world reflecting back at us, amplifying our level of psychic awareness. This very well could be connected to the increasing solar flares in the sun cycle, which seems to be one reason the Maya pointed to this time — as we’re now having the most intense solar cycle we’ve ever had and the Earth’s electromagnetic field has weakened dramatically. We’ve discovered consciousness itself to be very much an electromagnetic phenomenon, so changes to the electromagnetic environment of the Earth can have a direct effect on our consciousness.
XERXES COOK — One thing that really stuck out in the documentary film made from your book 2012 — a title that will instantly make some people think of the Hollywood disaster movie — was that to believe in the Apocalypse, the Rapture, or that saviors in the form of Jesus Christ, the Mahdi saint, or extraterrestrials will come to join us, is spiritually lazy.
DANIEL PINCHBECK — Absolutely. A system of indoctrination is designed to make people passive and obedient to authority — and to make them dependent and disempowered. That’s what this system has done to us: it’s made us reliant on distant authority figures. Specifically, that fantasy has been transferred into technology, in what’s often called the Singularity, which is a movement that has become the dominant religious faith of technologists in Silicon Valley and those types of people. We need to question the idea of a salvation point and shift to a different relationship in terms of what’s happening in the world. I propose that it’s time for us to put our life energy into our media genius, our technical capacity, and our communication skills to protect indigenous people and our natural resources, and to construct an alternative system for communities to share power more equitably. This is what I have been seeking to model with my company, Evolver.net, and with our nonprofit initiative, The Evolver Network.
XERXES COOK — People debate the exact meaning of the Singularity, but it is generally thought of as the point when computers develop sentience or, at the very least, when computer technology becomes all-encompassing and inescapable. It’s really interesting to draw parallels between psychic communication, nonphysical communications, the prevalent synchronicities of bumping into people, and what is happening online and the ability of the Internet to bring people together and to communicate regardless of geographic location. There’s been a lot of speculation about the influence of LSD on the early pioneers of the Internet and on the computer technology in the 1970s. Do you see the Internet as a series of parallel worlds or — with its invisible hum of information above the Earth transferred via satellites — to be a manifestation of Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere, his word coined in the 1920s to mean “mind-sphere?” Is the Internet the last strata of Gaia?
DANIEL PINCHBECK — I think that technology is an aspect of conscious process and of evolution. On one level, we’re a tool-making and tool-using species. We learn about ourselves by using tools and then by iterating new tool sets, which then reflect back on ourselves in other, more sophisticated ways. So it’s interesting, right now, that so much of our metaphorical language, when talking about consciousness, subjectivity, or memory, is all coming from the computer world. In that regard, we do have to take seriously the prospect that our technological evolution, if it continues much further, could have tremendously revolutionary implications in terms of extending the human life span. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but there needs to be more of a public referendum or an intervention by civil society into technology, because what we have with runaway technology until this point is a law of unintended consequences. From my perspective, it’s not about going back to some kind of Luddite state, against technology. We need to have a more deliberate dialogue concerning the pros and cons of technological development and to recognize that we can actually go back or change direction. In terms of the Internet and the noosphere — the idea that there is a layer of thought around the Earth — which was developed simultaneously by the Russian geologist Vladimir Vernadsky and by the paleontologist and Catholic mystic Teilhard de Chardin: they thought that at some point humanity would consciously interact with this layer of thought around the Earth and at that point we would recognize ourselves and life as a single organism. Nobody anticipated how quickly we would develop this global nervous system of communications infrastructure.
XERXES COOK — You’ve written on the importance of the language we use in shaping our world. Is the development of language itself one of the unexplained leaps of human evolution?
DANIEL PINCHBECK — It’s become a catchy phrase of the New Age that our thoughts create our reality. While we can’t just wish away the reality that surrounds us, I feel it’s true that our thoughts and our use of language co-create our reality. Words are powerful, magical instruments through which we create possibilities — or limit ourselves, if we are not careful. If somebody tells you they are trying to write a book or trying to stop smoking, you can almost guarantee that they are not going to finish the book or stop smoking anytime soon, because they are literally trying to do it. So our language has this capacity, and the more we can use it with exactitude and clarity, the more it manifests the capacity that is built into it, as techniques like neurolinguistic programming explore. We don’t know how the whole system of language develops in the brain, and it doesn’t seem like it could have happened incrementally. There’s a phenomenon called “punctuated equilibrium,” according to which, during crisis, there’s a leap into a much higher order of complexity, and from that crisis, novelty emerges.
XERXES COOK — How do you counter some of the knee-jerk reactions to your thoughts on expanded consciousness and human evolution, which we’ve discussed — and indeed the stigma against psychedelics in general?
DANIEL PINCHBECK — While much of the book is carefully reasoned, 2012 also has a prophetic aspect. By the end of the book, one could easily think I’ve gone off the rails and have become possessed with this idea that I’m some kind of avatar or incarnation of Quetzalcoatl or some messianic figure. In the book I do describe some very powerful experiences, including receiving a voice during my ayahuasca ceremonies in the Brazilian Amazon that expresses itself as a Meso-American deity. These experiences happened to me. And as a truth teller, I felt it was necessary to express them honestly. In the end, I leave it up to the reader to decide. I don’t claim that I am this or that. It was too much for my editor at Random House. When he understood what the book said, he rejected it and I had to find another publisher. But I had anticipated such a strong reaction — and maybe welcomed it. The book overturns aspects of the basic paradigm — the accepted ideology of our postmodern world. Part of being a pioneer involves taking the initial volley of arrows that come in the form of personal attacks and criticism. The 1960s manifested a massive social explosion of psychedelic consciousness, which affected culture, music, and art, and impacted the development of technology, as you noted, with people creating what later became the personal computer and the Internet. These, too, inspired psychedelic insights into interconnectivity, the fractally distributed nature of information, and so on. When that Pandora’s jack-in-the-box opened up, mainstream culture needed to create a defensive boundary around it, and to keep that energy from having the transformative effect it threatened to have. One way of doing that was to create cultural tropes that became clichés around psychedelic culture, but simultaneously they instigated governmental and subsequently police oppression against any experience of an expanded consciousness, especially one that could be attained through visionary plant and chemical substances. Now, once again, I see everything as an evolutionary process, so maybe humanity wasn’t quite prepared to reckon with these potencies. I think it was necessary that brakes were put on it, and that the inspiration of the shamanic and mystical experiences went underground and took on different forms, as they did during the past three or four decades. But recently, more and more people have been going to South America and building relationships with these shamanic traditions, including the influence of ayahuasca, which is done in a group setting with a properly trained guide or shaman to contain the energy. This is very different from LSD experiences, which can be very chaotic. So, over the last 40 or 50 years, the West has undergone a deep development that has involved the integration of mystical traditions into the Western psyche. In the mainstream this has been happening through yoga, Tibetan Buddhism, and meditation. There has also been an integration into the Western psyche of Eastern concepts such as nonduality, enlightenment, and nonattachment. So it’s not a trend, it’s a real shift in priorities for the West.
XERXES COOK — Are there any parallels with the spores or localized hubs of the Evolver social network and the nonhierarchical organizational systems of the Occupy movement?
DANIEL PINCHBECK — Yes, there are parallels. But our idea is to make use of the tools of the corporate business structure rather than protest against them. We apply the principles of permaculture — an approach to agriculture and land use based on observation, where you accept exactly the conditions that you have, then look around, see what can grow best, which species are permanent and sustainable. That is something I will only come to once I’ve truly understood the land I’m standing on and the society as a whole. We have to say, Okay. We have corporations. We have business structures that are destructive. But they can be remediated to have a positive impact. In alchemy, they talk about poisons and medicines being the same — that a terrible poison can become a great medicine. If a corporation has been so destructive to the planet, it can also have the potential to be extremely beneficial. You have to see it as an evolutionary advance: we’ve created artificial life forms out of brand insignia, financial data, and legal codes, which have been unleashed via an artificial game that we’ve created through the stock market. And we’ve given them one principle directive: to maximize profits for investors and shareholders. That’s exactly what corporations seek. If a corporation encounters an environmental restriction or regulation, it intrinsically seeks to corrupt or evade it. So it’s not the corporation’s fault, it’s our fault, as the creators of the game system. We’ve constructed the game, but with the wrong rules. Now we must step back, take a meta-systemic approach, and reinvent the game. This is very much in alignment with ideas that Buckminster Fuller and that groups like Archigram had in the 1960s.
XERXES COOK — In the 1960s the revolution wasn’t going to be televised. What role does the media have to play today?
DANIEL PINCHBECK — I think the revolution is television. The revolution of media is an absolutely necessary part of the evolution of consciousness. People who create media have to get out of the mindset that they’re passively reflecting culture. By what you choose to focus on, you create culture. And if you’re wasting people’s time with meaningless messages, you’re part of the problem and not part of the solution.