If you are on any of the same email lists as I am, you may have been getting some messages lately about the impending end of the world. The evidence cited for this upcoming apocalypse ranges from approaching asteroids and rare planetary convergences to the prophecies of Nostradamus and mystical codes hidden in the Hebrew Bible.
One friend emailed me an article that claimed that a new technology for inserting computer chips into the human body, ostensibly for medical purposes, was actually "the Mark of the Beast," foretold in the Book of Revelations, a sign that "the end is nigh." Christian conspiracy theorists are convinced that these implantable microchips are the forerunner of the "New World Order" and coming world government, which will track and control its citizens electronically.
My New Age friends, on the other hand, send me channelled prognostications about the upcoming "shift in consciousness," as well as word of Native American prophecies hinting at rough times, if not outright doom, ahead. The best-known of these derives from the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, which, according to some calculations, is slated to end on Dec. 21, 2012. Many believe that the end of the Mayan calendar will be marked by a catastrophic event such as the sudden shift of the Earth's magnetic poles, or the solar maximum, a period of intense sunspot activity that will bombard Earth with dangerous radiation and wreak havoc on our electrical grid. Others accentuate the positive and put their faith in a glorious new era of spirituality and peace, which they claim will arise Pheonix-like out of the ashes of the corrupt age that is currently coming to a close.
The ancient Mayans would likely have been surprised by these New Age interpretations. The end of one calendrical phase, such as that approaching in late 2012, while regarded as significant and the cause for celebration by the Maya, was not freighted with the millennialist implications that New Agers ascribe to it, according to most Mayanist scholars. The world won't end, in other words, but it will be one hell of a time for a party!
As a spiritual writer and host of small meditation and discussion groups, I am often asked what I think about the glut of predictions about the impending spiritual transformation of the planet. My answer is that I scarcely think about them at all, but that doesn't mean that I don't take seriously the unique plight of the planet at this juncture in human history.
Clearly we have reached a critical turning point: either we evolve as a species (renounce our age-old prejudices, repudiate war as a tool of public policy, learn to share equitably in the world's resources, treat the Earth with tender loving care and respect), or we die out as the dinosaurs did before us. The truly mind-boggling advances in technology that have allowed humans to impose their will upon the natural world (and increasingly on one another) now pose a threat to our collective survival, if we don't learn to use them with a lot more wisdom and restraint than humanity has exercised in the past.
So I understand why so many in our society are apocalypse-minded nowadays. A bit of millennialist anxiety seems frankly realistic and not at all paranoid given the real threats of environmental holocaust, global war, and economic meltdown that loom over civilization like swords of Damocles, only I am not convinced that the Mayans, or anyone else, for that matter, possessed a crystal ball to gaze into our collective future.
Over 70 years ago, the renowned "sleeping prophet," Edgar Cayce, predicted that there would be drastic physical alterations of the planet before the end of the 20th century: "The earth will be broken up in the western portion of America. The greater portion of Japan must go into the sea." Granted, Japan did have a run-in with the sea earlier this year, but the last time I checked, California was still attached to the North American mainland.
Believers cite anecdotal evidence to support the efficacy of some of Cayce's remedies. But as with so many other modern-day prophets (Gordon Scallion, Major Ed Dames, and Benny Hinn come to mind), a lot of what he said about the future has not panned out.
I remember showing up at Chaco Canyon, the ceremonial center of the Pre-Columbian Anasazi people in western New Mexico, inadvertently on the day of the Harmonic Convergence, an astrological conjunction in August 1987 touted by New Age author Jose Argüelles. Hundreds had gathered at this sacred site to soak in the vibes on the day that supposedly marked the shift in the Earth's energy from warlike to peaceful. That was before 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Rwandan genocide...
So, you'll excuse me for being skeptical of the latest crop of predictions. Not only are such prognostications often wrong, but they help to foster a paralyzing fatalism and a form of magical thinking that imagines that doom or salvation are somehow endowed by fate rather than earned by us here and now by the actions we take in the world.
One of the reasons that the future is so hard to predict may be that Joker in the pack of destiny called "human freedom." Physical events are relatively easy to forecast. Apples always fall down, not up, and water invariably freezes when temperatures go below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. But the human mind and spirit are far more unpredictable and creative. We don't just respond in a knee-jerk fashion to stimuli in the world around us; we make choices. And these choices in turn help to remold the external world in a dynamic feedback loop of unraveling possibility. This is our great strength, and also our peril as a species, for human freedom always comes with risk: that it may be abused, that things can go disastrously wrong.
Freedom also entails living with a degree of uncertainty in our lives. None of us is handed in advance a blueprint for how everything is going to turn out. And that is a good thing; it counters our natural tendency toward complacency and keeps us spiritually striving and on our toes.
New Agers and Christian believers in the end time share the same fundamental conceit -- namely that their insider's knowledge of the "coming changes" means that they are members of the elect who will ascend or be raptured, rescued by UFOs, transformed in consciousness, or what have you, while the rest of benighted humanity gets wiped out. This belief is cruel, not to mention insufferably arrogant. Even worse, it prevents its adherents from putting in the hard work to face their own personal shadows of violence, fear, greed, and despair and actually transform their minds and hearts, which in the end is the only way that the world will be remade -- one struggling human person at a time.
There are indeed signs that this is beginning to happen. To my mind, the Occupy Wall Street movement marks a turning point in which millions are awakening to the inequities and deception that underly business as usual in our world. Maybe this does mark the beginning of the end of the world -- that is to say, the end of the greedy, corrupt, and predatory world that we presently inhabit.
One can only hope that this is the case! If this newly awakened enthusiasm to change our public life gets matched by a courageous willingness on all of our parts to examine and transform ourselves, then the prospects for 2012 -- and beyond -- may be brighter than we think.