Daniel Pinchbeck Interview:

Planetary Initiation, Donald Trump, Psychedelic Shamanism, Ecological Crisis, and the Return of Quetzalcoatl


In this Banyen interview author & consciousness explorer Daniel Pinchbeck discusses how we may be in the midst of a radical planetary initiation. The author spoke with us via Skype from New York.
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Banyen: In your TEDx talk and also in your new book How Soon Is Now?, you've compared the climate crisis to indigenous initiation saying that we have "unconsciously self-willed a harrowing experience in order to bring about a transcendence of our current condition." Can you explain what you mean?

Daniel Pinchbeck: Absolutely. A focus of my work has been this idea of initiation, which is something that I sort of stumbled into in my 20's when I went through an existential "spiritual" crisis. I was working in the media in New York and had been a scientific materialist and so on, and I really didn't have any spiritual beliefs or any idea that consciousness might exist outside of the brain or wherever, but I remembered my psychedelic experiences from college (I had had a handful of LSD and mushroom trips) as being very fascinating. And when I had this terrible crisis, I decided to explore that more systemically. I ended up writing my first book Breaking Open the Head about psychedelic shamanism. I visited cultures: I went to an initiation in West Africa with a tribe that uses a visionary plant sacrament called iboga as their tool for initiation, and also went and did ayuahuasca with a tribe called the Secoya in Ecuador, and so on. I had all these incredibly profound experiences that ultimately changed my worldview. I also have a lot of psychic experiences. I ended up shifting from being a materialist and sceptic to having more of a shamanic worldview. And so having these direct experiences, I understood that there were other levels of consciousness, other levels of reality. The more that I researched I discovered that initiations using tools like visionary plants, as well as other types of ordeals, whether its Walkabouts or Sun Dances or fastings, or whatever, were basically prevalent all over the world in almost every society until modern civilization. Instead modern civilization dismissed this idea that you needed to go through these types of rites of passage, and became obsessed with materialism and technology and science and a certain model of progress. We kind of got obsessed with the rational part of the brain, but ignored the intuitive and the visionary, and the greater mysteries that these other cultures were fascinated by. The more that I studied I also got interested in people like Joseph Chilton Pearce who wrote a book called The Biology of Transcendence. In that book he explored the idea that the types of initiations that these cultures have for adolescence, for young adults, not only have a cultural reason, but also a kind of biological and neurophysiological function. That we are actually hard-wired for transcendence, and if we don't have it it is almost like the neo-cortex - which is the part of our brain that makes us distinctly human - can never reach its full functioning, or its full flourishing. And what happens instead, without an experience of cosmic consciousness or the spiritual aspect of nature, or union with the universe as a whole, is that we're kind of trapped in this egoic identity, and therefore we can only think about our individual survival, our individual desires and so on. In a way if you look at somebody like Donald Trump, he is like the apotheosis of someone who is trapped in a very limited egoic conception. I feel in a way he is a perfect collective shadow reflection of where we are as a society. And this ecological crisis that I write about also becomes a political-economic crisis with what's happening. So essentially the idea would be that since we are hardwired for transcendence, we are going to make it happen one way or the other. And if there are not culturally defined containers and rituals for people to have transcendent experience, then unfortunately we are going to push towards disaster and wars and really destructive episodes because this yearning for some type of ecstatic union with the cosmos has to be answered by our human experience in one way or the other. So I think that because our society as a whole has closed itself off from these types of initiatory experiences, we are now precipitating it in a destructive way. And the hope is that, maybe on a species-wide level, as we confront the psychological crisis, it acts as an initiation which actually evolves us to another level of consciousness as a society and as a species where we shift from the egoic kind of adolescence phase that we are in to really taking responsibility for the human family and for the earth as a whole system.

Banyen: Are you suggesting that these initiations need to happen on an individual level, or is this a global initiation that happens collectively?

Daniel Pinchbeck: I'm basically arguing that this is something that has to do with our evolution as a species and is an evolutionary process that we are in which is functioning individually and collectively on the level of consciousness. So we can individually go through our own awakenings & initiations through things like yoga, meditation, ayahuasca, and esoteric practices. Individually a lot of people have been going through that in the last decades, but collectively humanity as a whole is going to be forced to go through that process, and subconsciously we have forced that scenario by ignoring the impacts we're having on the biosphere as a whole.

Banyen: Russell Brand has called How Soon Is Now? a "blueprint for the future". What did he mean by that?

Daniel Pinchbeck
: The book tries to look at our situation in a systemic and comprehensive way. As an overarching paradigm I propose that we are undergoing initiation. At the moment, as we can see, our social systems and our technical industrial systems are malfunctioning and producing aberrant results that actually threaten our continuity as a species, whether it's nuclear, or climate change, or species extinction. If we were to realize that this is our call to action, this is our rite of passage, this is our initiation, then we have to think about What is the world we want to live in? What is the world that we want to create?

So in a way, someone like Steve Jobs or somebody had the idea for an iphone but to get to the iphone you had to have a plan of action, a tactical and strategic plan: you need this kind of software, and this kind of screen, and these kinds of factories, and these kinds minerals, and so on. We don't think about our social & political-economic system in the same way - as a human-made construct that we can influence and change - but actually it is. The American Revolution and the Constitution were made by people just like us who were forced to innovate and construct something that they thought would be better for the people of the time and for the future.

So once I've laid out the systemic model for why I think this happening and what it means, then the book explores what would be the alternative model that we would like to see. Like what would it look like on technical level? We have an energy system that's destructive and using fossil fuels, can we actually transition to a more renewable energy system in a short period of time? We have an industrial agriculture system that's causing a lot of pollution and CO2 and methane, how could we shift to a more regenerative farming system that actually replenishes topsoil and doesn't lead to deforestation and so on? We have an industrial system that removes masses of raw materials from the earth and causes tremendous pollution and waste, is there a way we can transform the industrial system so it is more like a "cradle to cradle", where it supports the health of the environment as we make our things - modelled more on natural systems which are actually more beneficial to the earth, regenerative, restorative. And then if we look at the economic changes that we need to make to bring about the technical changes, we need to think about what types of changes in our government and in our money systems are necessary: How do people organize themselves? How do they share resources? How do they work together in a community? And what type of tools they need to make that shift?

So the blueprint on the one hand is the technical infrastructure, areas like energy and the agriculture industry, and on the other hand it is the social infrastructure and the political and economic system. And the last area is consciousness. Consciousness is form. In a way our subjectivity is largely a construct, it's something that's produced by the type of media we consume, by the education system, by society, by our peers, by our beliefs, so those three areas of the technical infrastructure, the social-political-economic system, and then consciousness (which is shaped by culture, media, values and beliefs), those are the three areas that will need to evolve if we are going to survive as a species on the planet from my perspective. So I try to offer a full spectrum model for what that looks like.

In a way over the last 30 or 40 years we've seen a lot of New Age spirituality, people like Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra and the Aquarian Age and the music of the 60's and so on, and we have the idea that we are supposed to live more in the now, and embrace love and so on, but that also requires a structure underpinning it if it's going to be workable. So that is what my book seeks to offer as a vision or a plan for humanity.

Banyen: Do you see this as connected to the return of Quetzalcoatl?

Daniel Pinchbeck: I hope so. As I mentioned, my first book Breaking Open The Head was about psychedelic shamanism. My second book 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl looked at indigenous spirituality, cosmology, and philosophy, and tried to create a relationship between those traditional cultures around the world and modern Western culture. So I looked at figures like Heidegger and Nietzsche and Carl Jung and Rudolph Steiner, and I looked at ways that their ideas were very similar or the same as the ideas you find in cultures like the Hopi and the Maya and Eastern metaphysics and so on. So it was really an attempt to synthesize. In the book I argue that the Mesoamerican figure Quetzalcoatl is an archetype. Jung talks about how archetypes are aspects of the collective psyche that are beyond anybody's individual will or imagination; they function collectively. And the archetype of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, for me is a symbol of integration - the meeting of the feathers of a bird and the scales of a snake, which is like the meeting of the sky and earth, or heaven and earth, or spirit and matter. So yes, I think it is by integrating our spiritual aspirations - our best hopes for humanity, with the material, the practical, and the physical. With the technologies and the social tools and so on. That actually would be the return of Quetzalcoatl, yes.

Banyen: You mentioned Donald Trump earlier in this conversation. What do you see as the role of individuals on a spiritual path, or seeking to Awaken, in relation to say the political climate since the US election or injustices in the world in general?

Daniel Pinchbeck: I think first of all we have to realize that it's not enough anymore to be insular. To be like "Okay I have to work with my own feeling, my own self-development, and I know that if I get better that vaguely helps the collective to heal." We have to recognize that we also have to be in service to this collective process of transformation. For each person they have their own way to do that depending on the skills and talents that they have to offer: for someone who's a gardener, their gift might be to create a permaculture landscape. Someone who's a lawyer, their gift might be to protect indigenous rights or fight against destructive corporate practices. Someone who's an artist might make art that helps support people to see the world in this different way.

One area that I do think is going to be very important in the future is creating stronger local communities. Building local communities, connecting people who share the same values, and actually gathering together to take action on various fronts.

Banyen: Many people today talk about the value of community but doesn't it seem much more rare that people are willing to actually make the sacrifices necessary to build real community?

Daniel Pinchbeck: It's quite difficult. I made a first effort at it; I have a non-profit called the Evolver Network and we had about 40 or 50 groups who were meeting, and it is time consuming. If we see that the shift is from this kind of fake democracy which is now, where you usually have this choice between two horrible candidates from two horrible parties that both represent Wall Street, then an alternative would be a real participatory democracy which would be a very different structure that would be much more time and energy consuming. It may be that we need the crisis to get to such a level that people realize it is "do or die" and actually depend on their local communities. In How Soon Is Now? I reference the book A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit about what happens during disasters. She writes about how people often band together in disasters, and often people remember those parts of their lives as actually being the best parts of their lives because they were free of the ego and really working from the heart and so on.

That's why I come back to the idea that the ecological crisis - where we haven't even seen yet what it's going to do to us - is maybe the necessary catalyst for this evolutionary mutation.

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Daniel Pinchbeck is a bestselling author and philosopher. He is the founder of the web magazine Reality Sandwich and co-founder of Evolver.net. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and ArtForum. He lives in New York. 

Interview © March 1, 2017 Banyen Books & Sound