Toward 2012

02/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With the ongoing meltdown of our financial system, we have entered a new epoch of uncertainty, a time of improvisation and discovery. At the same time, we face much deeper threats to our future that must be addressed. The absurd deficit numbers and quadrillion dollar bailouts mean nothing compared to the far more ominous data on the health of the biosphere. Human activity is rapidly eroding the planet's natural capital, with 90% of the large fish gone from the oceans, with tropical forests and coral reefs disappearing. As climate change accelerates and Peak Oil approaches, sea levels rise and agricultural tables shrink. It is estimated that 25% of all mammallian species -- perhaps all species in general -- will go extinct within the next three decades.

Such problems go beyond the scope of current policy discussions. My personal hypothesis is that we have reached an evolutionary crisis as a species, and the only way we can hope to resolve this crisis is through a self-willed evolution -- a spontaneous mutation -- in human consciousness itself. We will need to change the basic operating system of our civilization within the next few years. To make a shift to sustainable patterns and resilient local communities in an accelerated time frame may require something like a spiritual revolution, accompanied by a deep transformation in our basic values and ethics.

I developed my unusual perspective on current affairs through my research into the abstruse, occult, and esoteric. I am the author of two books, Breaking Open the Head (Broadway Books, 2002) and 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl (Tarcher/Penguin. 2006). My first book is a study of tribal shamanism and the psychedelic experience, a subject avoided by the mainstream since the tumultuous '60s. My second book explores the prophecies about our time held by indigenous people and traditional cultures around the world. I studied the Classical Maya, whose 5,125 year Long Count ends on December 21, 2012, and the Hopi in Arizona, who believe we are in a transition between two planetary states, the Fourth World and the Fifth World. Many indigenous cultures have prophecies about this time as a transformative threshold for our world.

I began my research as a skeptic -- a Manhattan atheist who had written for The New York Times Magazine, Wired, Esquire, and many other publications. However, I was a skeptic with a longing to know if any other dimensions of the soul or the spirit existed, despite the reductive materialism of modern science. In my quest for illumination, I underwent a tribal initiation in Gabon, eating iboga, a bitter-tasting psychedelic root bark that induces a visionary state. I visited the Mazatec Indians in Oaxaca, taking mushrooms in ceremony. I went to the Amazon in Ecuador, drinking ayahuasca, a potion brewed from plants, with shamans of the Secoya tribe. I also explored the postmodern neo-tribal culture of the West Coast, and experimented with new substances created in labs.

Over the course of my journeys, I had a series of psychic experiences and also collected a vast amount of anecdotal data from others who had followed a similar path. While writing Breaking Open the Head, I switched from a Freudian view of the psyche to a Jungian one. In his work, Jung developed a capacious model of human psychology that validated psychic experiences such as telepathy, dream foretellings, synchronicities, and so on. If such experiences have validity, then consciousness is not brain-based. Instead, the brain could act like a receiver and transmitter for consciousness, which is ultimately non-local.

Breaking Open the Head offered an argument for reconsidering the psychedelic experience. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, psychiatrists considered substances such as mushrooms, LSD, DMT, and peyote to be astonishingly safe "wonder drugs," and the most profound tools for exploring the depth dimensions of the human psyche they had ever found. The upsurge of interest in shamanism and psychedelics during the '60s led to a ferocious backlash. Psychedelic substances were demonized and legitimate research on them was stopped for several decades. In the last few years, there has been a resurgence of research in psychedelics, replicating the positive results of experiments conducted more than a generation ago. A recent John Hopkins study gave psilocybin to volunteers who had never taken a psychedelic before. According to The Wall Street Journal and CNN, many of the participants reported a long-term positive change in their worldview from the experience.

The Dionysian excesses of the 1960s produced opportunists like Timothy Leary, who proclaimed that an entire generation should "turn on, tune, in, and drop out." Since then, we have learned a great deal about the pros and cons of psychedelic exploration. Used haphazardly, psychedelics such as LSD can occasionally induce psychological problems or expose previously undiagnosed conditions, such as schizophrenia. However, many drugs that our society condones pose significant health risks, such as alcohol, tobacco, and anti-depressants. A larger question is what our society might gain from the legitimate use and study of psychedelics, if their benefits as well as risks were well understood and articulated.

In indigenous cultures, these substances are considered to be "medicine," healing for both the body and the mind. There are very few reports of natural psychedelics such as ayahuasca and peyote inducing psychological problems. Personally, I have found ayahuasca, especially, to be a positive influence, leading to personal insights and an integrative understanding. Ayahuasca is still illegal in the United States because it contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a psychedelic compound produced in our own brains and expressed by many plants. However, a recent US Supreme Court decision protected the sacramental use of the potion by Uniao do Vegetal, a Brazilian religion that uses ayahuasca in its ceremonies.

I propose that our society did not outlaw psychedelic drugs because they endangered health or sanity. The psychedelic experience was ridiculed and demonized because it challenged the values and beliefs of mainstream society and revealed gaps in Western rationalism. When young people took psychedelics, they explored the inner realms of their consciousness and developed a deeper connection to nature. They lost their drive to dedicate themselves to wage labor or corporate jobs. As they became more sensitized to their environment, they were more likely to protest against environmental destruction and military assaults. Psychedelics remain powerful tools for self inquiry that can lead to an awareness of social conditioning.

Rather than a freaky aberration, the 1960s might be considered the first phase of an initiatory process for the modern Western psyche. Forty years later, it is possible that we are entering the next, deeper phase of our initiation. There is a growing movement of people studying shamanic practices in the US and Europe, as well as many other spiritual traditions. From Jack Kerouac to Ekhart Tolle, the modern West has developed a deepening fascination with Eastern disciplines such as Buddhist meditation and yoga in the last fifty years. The study of mysticism can no longer be dismissed as a fad or a trend, but should be seen as a real shift in priority for many millions of us.

One lesson of shamanic initiation is that each person has to take responsibility for themselves, and not depend on outside authorities. Despite Obama's victory, there is no sign that our government - trapped by inertia and beholden to hordes of special interests - can confront the biospheric crisis that our species has unleashed on the earth. If this is the case, it means that we as individuals have to organize to bring about social transformation. One great model is Transition Town, a grassroots form of social organizing developed in in the UK. Transition Town provides motivated individuals with a set of techniques to unite their community around critical issues like climate change, energy, and food production.

The effort to bring ecological responsibility into our daily lives and build resilient local communities could be part of a spiritual practice that integrates all aspects of life. Rather than being passive victims of circumstance, we can become active co-creators of our world. According to the Hopi, "We are the ones we have been waiting for." The question is whether we will get here in time.