ACCELER8OR

Jan 08 2012

2012 And The Failure Of Imagination

Advocates of psychedelic drugs often claim that psychedelics expand consciousness and stimulate the imagination. To demonstrate this point a few famous examples are often repeated, such as Francis Crick envisioning the spiral shape of DNA while high on LSD; Kerry Mullis coming up with his Nobel Prize winning PCR DNA replication method while high on LSD; or Steve Jobs seeing a world of people connected by Apple computers while high on LSD. There is some truth to these few examples, enough truth to make hipster comedian Bill Maher exclaim that taking LSD makes you a genius in a rant about how putting LSD in Halloween candy might actually be a good thing. After decades of bad press and public mockery, it seems that psychedelics have finally escaped the fringes and are ready to be embraced by the mainstream as miracle cures. More and more average people are reading about the healing properties of psychedelics, and more public figures are warming to the notion that psychedelics can create powerful and lasting spiritual experiences. Scientific publishing in psychedelic research is at an all time high. And then there is something about Mayans and 2012.

Whatever else you have to say about psychedelics, the meme of 2012 is now inseparable from psychedelic thought. Just like the term “entheogen” has replaced the term “hallucinogen,” the meme of a catastrophic or epic evolution in human culture has now replaced peace, love, and unity. Concepts of freeing your mind and seeking inner peace have morphed over the decades into dramatic tales of impending apocalypse and revolution, ending in a singularity that will engulf and change history forever. And this event may or may not happen on December 21, 2012, which happens to be at the end of the great cycle of the Mayan calendar, which coincides with our sun aligning with the galactic equator during the winter solstice, which only happens once every 26,000 years, or so the mythology goes. But the exact science doesn’t matter. What matters is that instead of eating mushrooms and having a good time, or imagining a cure for cancer, or visualizing a cleaner car engine, you instead get pulled through a singularity and come out thinking your an immortal astral shaman waiting for reality to fold inward on itself at the end of time. And then you think you have discovered the biggest secret in all of human history and you call yourself a genius, and become obnoxious about how prescient you are. And then you think you might be crazy, but then read a dozen trip reports just like yours on Erowid or The Shroomery and you wonder if everyone else has already taken mushrooms and seen this movie. And the answer is yes; we have already seen this movie.

It is easy to point to Terence McKenna as the originator of the modern psychedelic 2012 myth; his Timewave Zero idea was first introduced in “The Invisible Landscape” in 1975. McKenna’s idea came from a mushroom trip in La Chorrera, Columbia, in 1971, and was mostly ignored as insanity for many years. When McKenna’s popularity peaked twenty years later in the mid 1990s, the 2012 meme had already been adopted by Jose Arguelles and John Major Jenkins, and the Mayan connection kicked the meme out of the psychedelic underground and into astrological and New Age subculture. By the time of McKenna’s death in 2000 the 2012 mythology had become so firmly embedded in fringe culture it was even mentioned in the 2002 X-Files TV finale as the date of the impending alien invasion, the hidden secret root of all evil government conspiracies. Even though the details of the 2012 singularity, or the Eschaton, were never well defined, the apocalyptic tinge of the mythology took on a life of its own. The doomsday prophecy is a common theme in human history, and the 2012 myth fit easily into recycled bits from other ancient doomsday prophecies that people are still waiting for. 2012 is a fascinating piece of modern mythology, fascinating enough to be taken seriously by a large group of people. Fascinating enough to become a global meme.

Popular psychedelic mythology may be fun and exciting, but analyzing the worth of the 2012 meme poses some hard problems. For instance, instead of studying physics or biology or computer science and making Nobel prize winning breakthroughs in biochemistry, like the examples mentioned above, many geniuses in the psychedelic underground turned instead to studying Mayan calendars, UFOs, and crop circles, and look everywhere for signs of the end times. This is what I call the first failure of imagination. Instead of following the paths of the few rare individuals who took psychedelics and produced discoveries of great scientific importance, young psychedelic explorers turned instead to tales of stoned apes, machine elves, mushroom aliens, Mayans, 2012, and the transcendent hyperdimensional object at the end of time, as if these were matters of great importance. If taking psychedelics is supposed to turn you into a genius, then all the geniuses taking psychedelics should have been able to distinguish scientific reality from the quasi-spiritual historical fiction comprising the 2012 mythology. It’s not enough that psychedelic imagination starts with the discovery of DNA and ends with everyone connected by iPads — that is not enough. There must also be a global paradigm shift. We won’t be happy unless we get our global paradigm shift. And the global paradigm shift must be so dramatic that it renders all previous human history as obsolete. And we want it to come on an exact date, in an exact year. And it will play out just like revelations with famines and floods and plagues and catastrophic global upheaval.

Which brings us to the second failure of imagination, which can be blamed on the media and popular culture in general. Of all the memes to come out of modern psychedelic thought none has gotten more popular traction than the meme of 2012 and the “end” of the Mayan calendar on December 21st, 2012. Talk shows and news programs run stories on 2012 and the Mayan calendar; conspiracy theorists pick up whatever thread they want and tie it to 2012, and prophets point to 2012 as a time of transcendence, when the impoverished illiterate masses of the world will spontaneously realize we are an enlightened tribe of mushroom children all dancing to the same cosmic drummer. There was a movie about 2012 called 2012 that was horrible, and all the documentaries on History or Discovery channel are so obsessed with apocalypse its hard to tell which end-time prophecy they wish would hit us in the face first. What does this say about the quality of intellectual property coming from the psychedelic meme pool? Of all the progress that has been made in psychedelic research, of all the shamanic exploration through the rainforest, the thing that gets the most imaginative play is how we will destroy ourselves when the big dial on the Mayan calendar clicks over to the next pictogram? Pinning your mythology on an arbitrary, rarely occurring cosmological event seems like a desperate move to me, the kind of thing you pull out of your ass when you’ve run out of good ideas.

If you remember back to the early days of psychedelic experimentation, there was a period of time before McKenna where taking psychedelics was for fun. People turned on, tuned in, dropped out, listened to music, partied, had sex, freaked out, had bummers, got crazy, and found their inner freaky flower child. Now people take psychedelics and get serious; they seek the shamanic cure to every modern malady, or that hole at the end of time where all of history collapses and everything happens all at once. Earnest psychedelic advocates preach about the coming evolution in global consciousness where paradigms shift and the planet transcends into utopia or chaos, or the technological singularity ushers in dystopia or immortality, or something along those lines. For a group of people who used to be so focused on “being here now,” the psychedelic community morphed into a group of New Age future watchers always getting hooked on the next big hype that can never quite live up to its promise. And the biggest hype of them all is 2012. We’ve lived with the promise of 2012 for so many years, how can anything less than elves of chaos erupting out of fractal wormholes possibly satisfy us? Is there any way 2012 can possibly deliver on the outlandish promise of the prophecy?

When McKenna first presented the Timewave Zero meme it was a novelty, it actually came in a package marked “Novelty Theory.” And for many years the 2012 meme was fun and interesting because it was like a thought experiment; it was something you could fiddle with like an algorithm or a piece of software. The 2012 meme allowed all kinds of people to have quibbling discussions over the i Ching and mathematics and Mayan prophecy and Bible prophecy and ancient aliens and so on. The 2012 meme lived on past McKenna’s death and was recycled by New Age writers looking for a new hook into astrology, spirituality, prophecy, movie screenplays, and so on. The 2012 meme was such a convenient hook that people didn’t need to use their imaginations anymore — the screenplay for the future had already been written. That is fine for a thought experiment or for a whim of the popular imagination, but now it is actually the year 2012 and it will be the year 2012 all year long. I was sick of the year 2012 fifteen years ago. I’m not sure how much more 2012 I can take. The closer the December date becomes the more fixated the public consciousness will become on what it all means. The inventory on the shelves of our modern mythology cannot move forward until then, our imaginations are stamped with an expiration date, and we will be forced to eat the same old 2012 apocalypse transformation meme over and over again until it expires at the end of the year. No new memes are allowed until then. There is a singularity in time blocking any planning forward into 2013. It is a blurry space clouded by the dark side of the Force. All we can do is ride out this disaster movie until it’s over, and then its over. When 2012 passes without major incident the public imagination will be bankrupt, our modern mythology will be devoid of meaning, and we will be forced to think about what happens next. And that is scarier than having to deal with any singularity.

Latching on to a science fiction end-times prophecy is not genius. It is not expanded consciousness. And it is not a triumph of imagination. 2012 is lazy thinking and empty ideological fatalism with no hope of delivering on its promise. The 2012 meme represents the most infantile aspect of psychedelic thought; the wish to get something for nothing, believing that major change will happen by doing nothing more than waiting for a date on the calendar. By adopting the 2012 meme the psychedelic community went from being that tie-dyed hippie saying “Peace and Love” to that tattooed burner with a sign reading “The End is Near” in under two decades. That a group so fascinated with love and peace would adopt such a nihilistic and grandiose mythology and that the public consciousness would be attracted to this meme over any other offering from the psychedelic community demonstrates a fundamental failure of public imagination. It is impossible to say how many millions of people have taken psychedelics in the past few decades, but if the 2012 meme is the fittest idea to come of the psychedelic community since 1971 than we are in trouble. The mushroom’s gift to humanity has trapped us in an end-time prophecy awaiting the impending singularity. That is just embarrassing. The mushrooms clearly need new writers. But that’s too bad, because new ideas are embargoed until 2013, when our imaginations can go back to work. We’ll need a bunch of new memes for the rest of the 21st century. Our old memes have expired.

Nov 06 2011

The Seeker: A Psychedelic Suburban Youth Doesn’t Find It Tripping. An Interview with Peter Bebergal

 

“Psychedelic music  functions as tool for exploring all the myriad aspects of the psychedelic experience; the bliss, the dread, the melancholy of coming down, and the joy of having felt as though you have glimpsed the infinite.”

 

I could have quibbled with Peter Bebergal about the purpose and value of psychedelic drugs and psychedelic culture, but I decided to just let him share his experience and views.

Bebergal has written a deeply personal and very moving story about seeking god and transcendence through psychedelic drugs and mysticism in the cosmic desert that was late ‘70s/early ‘80s suburban youth culture.  Too Much To Dream: a psychedelic american boyhood takes us from the innocence of a young pothead learning mystic secrets from a likely schizophrenic old tripster while working at his job in the mall through happy acid flashes and big bummers; through hanging with ‘80s punks in Boston, and eventually through hard drug addiction and finally sobriety. All the while, Bebergal seeks spiritual satisfaction and understanding.

Bebergal also encloses satisfying bits of psychedelic history and a manifest love for psychedelic music that will make you want to punch up Sid Barrett on Pandora and absorb all the influences.

RU SIRIUS:  Yours is a very interior story of psychedelic seeking, despite some cultural referents.  My experience – in turning 18 in 1970 – was more like, “Oh yeah.  I caught a glimpse of the infinite divine again last night.  That’s cool… but on with the revolution!”   I wonder if the focus on finding god is peculiar to you or peculiar to the times you found yourself coming of age in.

PETER BEBERGAL: My generation was certainly lacking a cohesive counterculture. Even the punks couldn’t agree on what we were actually fighting for. The only thing we knew for sure was that the hippies failed. Charles Manson and Kent State were the ubiquitous images of the sixties when I was growing up in the late 70s and early 80s. Along with these dark shadows was a restless spiritual need. The aquarian age never materialized and the normative Judeo/Christian teachings felt hypocritical and empty. There were no teachers, no gurus, no grown ups we felt we could really trust. For many, myself included, this resulted in an overreaching for meaning. Looking for spiritual insight, it was impossible not to find yourself browsing through the Occult/New Age section of the bookstore. What was there but more overreaching?… a kind of schizophrenic brew; Carlos Castaneda, The Tao of Physics, the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck, and Chariots of the Gods.

Nevertheless, I also think there is something peculiar to the makeup of the addict/alcoholic, an underlying feeling of disconnection and loneliness; a deep need for divine communion of some kind. Sadly it often results in desperation towards self-destruction. So this combined with my generation’s own lack of social/spiritual authenticity meant I was essentially doomed.

RU:  It strikes me that psychedelics are both an enhancer and distorter of
pattern recognition.  It’s like once the mind becomes too conscious and too obsessive about pattern recognition, it becomes delusional.

PB:  This is probably the most succinct way of putting it I have heard. It’s essentially what we see happen with Phillip K. Dick. It’s part of the reason why no matter how non-addicting psychedelics might be from a chemical point-of-view, the capacity for the human mind to compulsively search for the same connection/insight over and over again is boundless. This same phenomena can be seen with a certain kind of occultism. Hermeticism can become an exercise in endless connection making and it’s amazing how even the most thoughtful occultists can become conspiracy theorists overnight. Psychedelics, and other forms of non-ordinary consciousness, can readily show that there is more to the human mind, and possibly the universe, than we can perceive normally, but when we lose the ability to critically distance ourselves from these experiences, the danger for delusion is great.

RU:  Could you say something about what your peak experience was with psychedelics… and then… without it?

PB:  Sadly, despite my best efforts, I never had what I call a peak experience with psychedelics. They always seemed just out of reach. I would have glimpses, moments where I could literally feel certain doorways open, but they would snap shut if I tried to walk over the threshold. During one trip I felt deeply connected to the woods I was in. It was an autumn day and the leaves rose up and applauded, winking and dancing all around me. I felt a spirit of the world moving around me and I was ready for a true communion, but of course some giggling friend I was with took me out of the reverie. I was trapped in the suburbs. The holy places for me were the copse of trees adjacent to the golf course or a rooftop overlooking the train tracks. But for whatever reason they did not signify deeply enough, and I was always looking around the corner of my experiences for something deeper.

Without psychedelics, I have had what I could call essential peak experiences, but they were more about immanence than transcendence; watching my mother die in the arms of my father as the cancer took her. I felt the spirit of the universe descend into the room that night and I believe I experienced a profound state of non-ordinary consciousness, brought on by the amazing chemistry of deep sadness and wonder. Similarly watching my son being born, and then in even more subtle moments, as when a giant blue heron flew along the window of a train as I looked out.

RU:  It always struck me as interesting that psychedelics can be used as a cure for addiction and yet — in a certain percentage of trippers — it seems to bring out the addictive personality.  How would you describe that seeming contradiction or odd contrast?

PB:  When used a cure, psychedelics are administered in a very specific context by a therapist or within a ritual context as in the Native American Church who use peyote and see a dramatic decrease of alcoholism. I cannot imagine someone getting to the other side of their addiction self-dosing and tripping on their own, but you never know. Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous used LSD after meeting Humphrey Osmond who believed that LSD could induce states akin to delerium tremems and possibly scare alcoholics away from booze. But Wilson saw another potential, a way of bringing about a spiritual experience that he believed was essential for a drunk hoping to get sober. He eventually had to give up the experiments for the overall good of AA, and later was said to have remarked that even though he had deep insights on LSD, that he also discovered there was no escaping from himself. Real recovery was going to have to be a slower, more deliberate process after all.

RU: Throughout the book you talk about a love for psychedelic rock music, which could only have emerged from the street use of psychedelic drugs, even if some who play it didn’t – or don’t imbibe.  What would you say about what this music evokes and do you feel some ambiguity about your love for it?

PB: Music has become one of the most important sources I have for experiencing and recreating current and past altered states. Psychedelic music in particular functions as tool for exploring all the myriad aspects of the psychedelic experience; the bliss, the dread, the melancholy of coming down, and the joy of having felt as though you have glimpsed the infinite. Music is capable of containing so much and it’s the best “language” I know for expressing the psychedelic experience.

It was music that started me on the path of writing this book. I found myself collecting psychedelic music again and uncovering an entirely new generation of artists working with these tropes. From the psych folk of Woods, Blithe Sons, and United Bible Studies to the dangerous stoner rock of Black Mountain to the transcendent groove of White Rainbow. And all these artists are doing something remarkable. They are, for the most part, looking inward, towards a more immanent and pantheistic notion of divinity at least musically if not personally.

As for ambiguity, I only wish that I had the sense to listen to more Stooges and Soft Machine than all that bloody Syd Barrett when I was a kid.

RU:  You remain interested in the psychedelic movement even though you feel you can’t risk taking them yourself.  What do you hope for people today who take psychedelic drugs in a way that is conscious of set and setting and so forth?

PB: I have come to believe in the absolute necessity of ritual and community, whether it’s the Native American Church or your local OTO lodge. However you can find it, try to access a group of people that share your spiritual/psychological sensibilities and that hopefully have a few seasoned elders and teachers. This is not to say there aren’t those that can handle the solitary journey, but I still think however one can position oneself into a larger context with its own myths and symbols can only be a good thing.

But more importantly I hope that those who use these drugs will see them not as a path but as doorway towards a spiritual/conscious way of life. As Alan Watts is often quoted as saying, “When you get the message, hang up the phone.”

RU:  Was it difficult writing this personally revealing book and do you hear from other American suburbanites who resonate with your experience?

PB: Writing this book was a challenge because it forced me to do away with how I had continued to romanticize my past and at the same time see that I was not unique, that I was just a kid doing the best I could during a time of great spiritual and social confusion. Being predisposed to addiction made my experience a little more dramatic than some, but in the end, I was a teenager trying to negotiate something very human that had revealed itself to me at an early age in a very intense way; there is meaning to be found beyond the conventional, beyond the mainstream. I am so glad I learned this. I have kept it close to my heart my whole life. Despite it all, I am glad to be one of the freaks.

I have some very nice conversations with others who identified with this journey, and who also see that while drugs can reveal some interesting and important things, at the end of the day we must trudge a road without special aid, with merely our own malleable and precious consciousness and that music, art, meditation, a little fasting here and there, and people to share our stories with is a path that can take us to places we never could have imagined.