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Reviews of books, film, and other media

The Return of Quetzalcoatl

by Daniel Pinchbeck
(Penguin, 2006, hardcover $26.95)

2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl may be one of the most outrageous, troubling, and thoroughly disorienting books to come out of a major publishing house in the last decade. Melding personal memoir and philosophical inquiry, the scope and length of Daniel Pinchbeck’s new book is enormously ambitious. It traverses the author’s secular upbringing in New York City during the seventies, his exploration of psychedelics in his twenties, and his growing fascination with UFOs, crop circles, indigenous peoples, as well as the occult, shamanism, and the apocalypse. All the while Pinchbeck integrates the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, Carl Jung, and Martin Heidegger, bolstering his thesis with intellectual weight.

The essence of his thesis is this: Contrary to our modern super-rational and materialistic prejudices, consciousness is the “ground of being rather than an epiphenomenon of physical processes” and at this moment in history, consciousness is undergoing a series of dramatic changes that will culminate in a final shift on December 21, 2012. The Mayans ended their calendar on this date when they created it in the sixth century, and Pinchbeck is one of a growing number of people around the world who believe that the Mayans were prophesying a major paradigm shift in consciousness, one that will liberate the West from its “constricted rationality,” usher in a “worldwide resurgence of shamanism,” and give rise to a “new planetary civilization.”

Pinchbeck is an accomplished journalist and author whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Artforum, Esquire, the Village Voice, and many other publications. His previous book, Breaking Open the Head (2002), detailed his experiences while traveling to Africa and South America to take psychedelics with indigenous peoples. In his second book, Pinchbeck is still talking about psychedelics, but he also explains how he discovered the “2012” theory: by way of the infamous psychedelic prophet and writer Terence McKenna. McKenna, who died in 2000, believed that the 2012 shift would kick-start an “archaic revival” that would bring “shamanism, ecstasy, orgiastic sexuality, and the defeat of the three enemies of the people,” which he believed were “hegemony, monogamy, and monotony.” Inspired by McKenna’s work and a handful of others, the idea that the Mayan end time is a schedule for humanity’s collective return to the mystical worldview of the original tribal cultures (a worldview that is often misunderstood as being more holistic, peaceful, and spiritually enlightened than that of the modern and postmodern eras) is more popular today than ever before.

Unlike McKenna, Pinchbeck is reticent to completely endorse the idea that we should revert to a prerational, premodern, pretechnologicalway of life come 2012. Perhaps this is because he has absorbed the work not only of thinkers like McKenna—who see our tribal past as a Golden Age we have fallen from and must return to—but also of philosophers and theologians with an evolutionary, developmental view of human history and consciousness. Indeed, the works of Teilhard de Chardin, Jean Gebser, and Rudolf Steiner, each of whom posit that evolution is a process moving us toward greater levels of complexity, integration, and ultimately wholeness, are cited throughout the book. So where does Pinchbeck ultimately stand on this question? Is the next stage of human development going to move us forward or backward? With Pinchbeck, it’s when you start trying to define what “backward” and “forward” would look like that things begin to get reallyconvoluted.

Indeed, the closest he comes to offering a vision for the future is describing the drug-induced, neoshamanic bacchanalia, or festival, called Burning Man, held in the desert of Nevada every year. Pinchbeck describes it as the “occult nexus of avant-garde chaos” and in one peculiar passage writes how a couple of years in a row he carried on a “telepathic chat with an alien intelligence—introducing itself as a representative of the enlightened hive-mind of the praying mantis.” In 2003, Pinchbeck gave a talk at the festival in which he told the audience that come 2012, “we will be able to consciously transform the planet in whatever way we like. . . . The planet will become Burning Man . . . with running water!”

Claims such as these will strike any thinking person as bizarre. Indeed, despite Pinchbeck’s noteworthy brilliance in being able to synthesize the ideas of an incredibly diverse group of philosophers and theories, 2012 only gets stranger the more you read. Sometimes, it calls to mind the spiritually eclectic literature and far-out explorations into consciousness published during the sixties and seventies: think of Carlos Castaneda’s psychedelic mysticism mixed in with Aldous Huxley’s perennial philosophy and visions of a sexually liberated utopia presented in his 1962 novel Island. But the underlying quality of 2012 is dark, expressing an emblematic sense of Gen-X nihilism, moral confusion, and profound impotence and fatalism in response to today’s global crises. One could say that under the surface, 2012 evokes more of the mood of Apocalypse Now than Be Here Now. As if to confirm this, the last fifty pages of 2012—in which Pinchbeck travels deep into the Amazon rainforest on a boat surrounded by Wiccan priestesses drinking copious amounts of the hallucinogen ayahuasca—appear to be a parody of Captain Benjamin Willard’s journey up the Mekong River and his descent into insanity.

The book’s finale is even more bizarre and includes the author’s confession that he is in fact the vehicle for the ancient Mayan god Quetzalcoatl’s return to earth, in part because he was born in June of 1966 (666). Pinchbeck seems vaguely aware that after many years of exploring the occult, the paranormal, and his own subconscious through psychedelics such as iboga, ayahuasca, LSD, and DMT, he’s landed himself directly in what the writer Robert Anton Wilson dubbed, “Chapel Perilous, that vortex where cosmological speculations, coincidences, and paranoia seem to multiply and then collapse, compelling belief or lunacy, wisdom or agnosticism.” Though he cites this quote three times in the book, Pinchbeck remains ambiguous to the end, leaving it up to the reader to decide which category he is in.

According to its author, 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl is “a gift handed backward through space-time, from beyond the barrier of a new realm.” But by the end of the book, this claim feels utterly unconvincing. Rather than being on the leading edge of a shift in consciousness that we will all experience on December 21, 2012, it seems more likely that Pinchbeck is entrapped in the same generational dilemma so many of us find ourselves struggling with—craving a higher spiritual context with which to face the future but as of yet unwilling to transcend our narcissism and emotional immaturity in order to truly forge one. More so than Mayan prophecy or the gods of old, it’s this issue that seems most worthy of our attention.

Maura R. O’Connor


Open to the Source
Selected Teachings of Douglas E. Harding
Edited by Richard Lang
(Inner Directions, 2005, paperback $15.95)

Currently approaching his ninety-eighth birthday, Douglas Harding has been teaching his fresh, down-to-earth brand of enlightenment for over half a century now. So it’s only fitting that his latest book, Open to the Source, embraces a spirit of commemoration, offering not only a basic introduction to his life’s work but a bona fide hit parade of its many highlights.

Composed of excerpts from Harding’s entire catalog of writings, this anthology begins with a dramatic account of his spontaneous awakening that first appeared in his 1961 spiritual classic, On Having No Head. The year was 1943, and he was walking along a Himalayan ridge overlooking a broad valley when his mind suddenly went still, time fell away, and he forgot everything he thought he knew about himself. In that breathtaking instant, Harding realized to his surprise that there was “a vast emptiness” where his head should have been, a space of open presence and perception that was entirely free of himself—and thus entirely available to everything else. “I had lost a head,” he writes, “and gained a world.” Eventually developing a pragmatic approach to self-inquiry that was reminiscent of nondual traditions like Zen and Dzogchen yet unadorned by religious trappings, he took up the teacher’s mantle in the early sixties and began guiding seekers directly into the spacious, empty ground of awareness at the heart of their own immediate experience of being.

Open to the Source thoughtfully captures Harding’s methods and philosophy, which he named the “Headless Way” after his initial life-altering insight. It also showcases his flair for creative wordsmithery as, page after page, he marvels at the depths of that consciousness beyond time and space with unusual warmth, novelty, and precision. Yet the spiritual shine that glimmers through Harding’s meditations starts losing some of its luster as he applies it to the complex questions and challenges of life in the world of time and space. For example: “It is unnecessary . . .,” he writes, “to worry about what to say or do, or think or feel: the fitting expression of First Personhood occurs as a matter of course, spontaneously. . . . When they are really required, the right things are done.” This common idea about enlightenment—that an always appropriate response to life will automatically result from the experience of mystical or nondual states—may be true in some cases, but as a blanket teaching, it is problematic. In the postmodern era, we’ve discovered that one’s interpretation of those higher states—and thus, how one expresses them in action—is always dependent on the degree of one’s development and filtered through the many layers of one’s historical and cultural conditioning. In this respect, there is much more to spiritual liberation in the twenty-first century than experiencing mystical oneness, staying in the present moment, and then just letting the rest flow naturally.

That being said, Harding himself is still brimming with vitality and inspired conviction at almost a hundred years old—no small feat, and no small testament to the kind of irrepressible strength that pours forth from those who dare to venture into that trackless territory which lies forever beyond the mind.

Ross Robertson


How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless

by Steve Salerno
(Crown Publishers, 2005, hardcover $24.95)

What do the popularity of Oprah Winfrey, the famous McDonald’s “coffee burn” lawsuit, and lower standardized test scores have in common? They are but three of the dangerous and troubling results of the “Self-Help and Actualization Movement” (SHAM)—that is, according to Steve Salerno, author of SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless. With such an intriguing title, you might hope for an insightful analysis of a cultural trend that many critics have noticed—that independent, strong America has somehow become a land of helpless victims. However, you realize you’re in for a ride when Salerno starts out by defining self-help as “an enterprise wherein people holding the thinnest of credentials diagnose in basically normal people symptoms of inflated or invented maladies, so that they may then implement remedies that have never been shown to work.” From that inflammatory beginning unfolds a star-studded, sensationalistic tract that is far more polemical than analytical. The bottom line, Salerno goes so far as to say, is that “SHAM” is an 8.6-billion-dollar “industry” that has not only failed to help anyone but has cynically never intended to do so. Even worse, he claims, it is actually the cause of our society’s moral decline.

What, specifically, does this industry produce? First and foremost, Salerno says, it is an endless stream of useless self-help books, workshops, motivational speeches, and life coaching sessions that have scores of uncredentialed “experts” filling their pockets with your hard-earned money. But these are just the packages delivering a double-sided message that boils down to one thing: You need help, either because you’re a victim of oppression, childhood trauma, or biological makeup or because you’re all-powerful and only lack the knowledge of how to do whatever you set your mind to (or some combination of both). His primary point is that “SHAM artists” have successfully sold us the notion that our personal satisfaction is paramount, and this has not only made us more needy (and therefore kept us purchasing ever more advice), but it has led to such widespread social ills as the proliferation of crazy victim-driven lawsuits; higher divorce rates; increased use of medications for depression and anxiety; poor performance in schools, where “self-esteem” is valued over healthy competition and academic accomplishment; and a general acceptance of the notion that if we have a problem, someone else is to blame.

But someone must be responsible for this decline in our nation’s values, right? Despite his exhortation to stop blaming others for our woes, Salerno’s answer is an unequivocal yes, and he doesn’t hesitate to name names. In a flurry of celebrity gossip that would put People magazine to shame, he attempts to discredit just about every well-known self-help guru there is, devoting considerable attention to impugning the motives and messages of Dr. Phil McGraw, Tony Robbins, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, John Gray, Marianne Williamson, Suze Orman, John Bradshaw, and Oprah Winfrey (for shamelessly promoting such self-promoters), as well as many lesser-known authors, motivational speakers, relationship counselors, and productivity consultants.

Not content just to disempower those who advocate empowering yourself through positive thinking, Salerno also excoriates the recovery movement for convincing us all that we are addicted to something, and he condemns alternative heath care for such techniques as homeopathy and healing touch, which, along with a whole host of other methods, he claims are nothing more than modern versions of snake oil. He never quite explains how groups like AA fit in with his insistence that it’s all fundamentally about money (all of the “anonymous” meetings in the recovery movement are free), but Salerno wholeheartedly believes that nontraditional healing methods and the notion that our psychology can affect our physiology simply add up to a major medical scam that has countless self-aggrandizing practitioners laughing all the way to the bank.

While these “exposés” are well written and make for entertaining beach reading, they are a disturbingly superficial treatment of a serious national trend. Most would agree that our individualistic postmodern times are marked by an unprecedented level of self-absorption. Perhaps some would even concede that self-help only feeds our narcissism. But presuming, as Salerno does, that there is an industrial behemoth whose agents have somehow conspired to overthrow everything that made America great stretches the point beyond recognition. In fact, it is part of the problem itself. That is why any recommendation for this diverting anti-self-help book should come with an ironic caveat: Beware of buying a simplistic explanation for all that ails our world. To do so would be to fall prey to Salerno’s conviction that you have been victimized by a “movement” whose sole devious purpose is to convince you that you’re a victim. And where’s the responsibility in that?

Wren Bernstein

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This article is from
Our 15th Anniversary Issue


September–December 2006