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.