I often find myself advising friends, family and fans that there is no better time than NOW to pursue what it is you are passionate about. But everyone is susceptible to the dreaded tendency to put off the pursuit of alluring life changes. And the reason runs deep: Beyond our upbringing, beliefs, and experiences, human history tell a story of just how difficult it is to manifest change on a global level. My friend, Daniel Pinchbeck (Breaking Open the Head, Reality Sandwich, Evolver) wrote a new book, How Soon is Now: From Personal Initiation to Global Transformation, that addresses just how these layers formulate a collective consciousness that shapes us and the world we live in. Daniel offered an exclusive excerpt for you to preview below.
I particularly like this aspect because it speaks to something I often say our culture sorely lacks: Rites of passage.
Be sure to pick up your copy of the book—as of now, it already ranks in Amazon’s top ten books on environmental philosophy and prophecy.
How Soon is Now: From Personal Initiation to Global Transformation
by Daniel Pinchbeck
Ecstatic Contact with the Cosmos
When I was a child, I remember feeling certain that a great secret was waiting to be revealed to me. I felt the whole world trembling with this mystery that lurked behind the surface of ordinary reality. It was hidden under the sidewalks of New York City, within the windows of the apartment buildings that stared out at me like ten thousand unblinking eyes. It was whispered by the wind that blew teasingly through the leaves of the trees, causing ripples across the Hudson.
I was sure this mystery waiting to unveil itself to me was the core of existence. When I found it, I would know my purpose and mission and become a whole being. I assumed all adults had passed through the portal of this unfathomable event. I believed this must be the secret subtext of their conversations, which otherwise seemed nonsensically dull and boring.
In high school, I began to grasp, then to accept morosely, that no hidden revelation awaited me or anybody else. It slowly dawned on me that the adults I knew did not have access to anything beyond the ordinary and day-to-day. I felt baffled, betrayed, by this realization.
I think many of us can recall the anticipation, the expectancy, that the world was designed to reveal a great secret. We can also recall the sense of despair we felt when our hope was extinguished.
The yearning we feel as adolescents, when all of our senses strain for some deeper intensity of being, is the desire for initiation and transcendence. We seek access to something sacred – something greater than ourselves. Because our culture denies us the fulfilment of this yearning, we become alienated and jaded. Over time, we learn to accept our disappointment, to forget our hopes. We are forced to accept degraded substitutes – to find a limited form of transcendence in media spectacles, sporting contests and artworks.
I believe modern civilization is founded on this original betrayal. All traditional societies around the world – all premodern cultures – had some form of rites of passage, of initiations, which marked the transition from childhood to maturity. At some long-ago point in our history, Judaeo-Christian civilization abandoned the techniques of initiation, which allowed each person to reach self-knowledge or gnosis, in favour of indoctrination. Spiritual knowledge was no longer available to everyone. It was controlled, held in secrecy, by the priests and the rulers.
This history can be traced back to the closing of the Mystery Schools that were crucial institutions up until the rise of Christianity. All of the great figures of antiquity congregated annually at Eleusis in Ancient Greece, where they imbibed a potion together, the kykeon, which most probably contained psychedelic plants. In the Middle Ages, the Church stamped out the European remnants of plant shamanism with the Inquisition, where those who possessed second sight, who used substances like belladonna and henbane to undertake visionary flights, were burnt at the stake as witches.
A civilization developed that promoted only one kind of consciousness – a rational, day-lit form of awareness, denigrating the intuitive, the visionary and the mystical. These forms of holistic right- brain awareness can also be considered feminine. Modern civilization not only repressed women and demonized female sexuality; it also suppressed the feminine, intuitive aspects of consciousness. It only considered the left-brain or masculine aspect to be valuable. As this patriarchal civilization developed science, logic and military discipline, it was able to extend its reach across the world, constructing a global empire.
Because it is innate to us, the yearning for transcendence and initiation always reappears in some form. If it is not integrated into the culture in a healthy and useful way, it expresses itself through nightmarish deviations. Writing between the First and Second World Wars, the German Jewish critic Walter Benjamin thought that humanity could not avoid collective experiences where we enter into ‘ecstatic contact with the cosmos’. Either we create such ceremonies consciously, or they will be inflicted upon us through catastrophes. Benjamin saw the First World War as an example of this. It was an ‘attempt at a new and unprecedented mingling with the cosmic powers’, unleashing gargantuan powers of death and destruction.
Today, we see our innate human yearning for transcendence displaced onto technology. In Silicon Valley, the Singularity has become a quasi-religious faith supporting the ideology of corporate progress. The idea of the Singularity is that humanity’s destiny is to merge with our machines or be replaced by them entirely. As I will discuss in more depth later, I think this is a wrong direction. I don’t believe we should reject technology. I believe our evolution of technology is part of the evolution of consciousness. But we should seek to master our mechanical and virtual tools for humane, regenerative purposes.
The world wars that defined the twentieth century could be seen as expressions of the suppressed, primitive parts of our collective psychology – what Carl Jung called the shadow – projected on a massive scale. They reflected the level of unconsciousness existing at that time. In the same way, I believe we have unconsciously unleashed the ecological mega-crisis in order to force a collective awakening and to bring about the next level of our unfolding as a species.
Our governing elites and educated classes have known for over a half-century that we are charging towards ecological collapse. Abundant data, the Club of Rome reports, books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring made this clear decades ago. But we have been unable to change our direction and, in fact, we have continued to accelerate towards disaster. Underlying the momentum of post-industrial civilization is a deep well of suppressed grief over our assault on the biosphere. This also must be brought into our awareness, and acknowledged.
We see the same pattern occurring in ourselves and in the lives of the people around us. People will persist in addictive and self-destructive patterns until they find themselves forced to choose between a path of self-knowledge or disintegration and death. On a neurological level, they seek to push themselves to the limit, pursuing different states of consciousness – seeking some intensity of communion that the normal world has denied them.
Collectively, the human species is revealing the same pattern of self-destructive impulsion – suppressed yearning leading to heedless abandon – that we see on the individual level. We are pushing against the boundaries of ego-based individualism, seeking to reach the next expression of our human being-ness. In order to evolve, we have to recognize the pattern.
A Collective Rite of Passage
We can conceive of the biospheric meltdown humanity has caused as a rite of passage for our species as a whole. Anthropologists have noted that rites of passage invariably pass through a series of stages. In the first stage, the candidates are taken away from their homes. They are forced to undergo a process that is shrouded in mystery, considered life-threatening as well as sacred. During this stage of separation, they undergo certain ordeals that force them into an altered state of consciousness, where they receive visions. The elders help them to understand and interpret what the spiritual world has revealed to them. In the final stage of reunion, they are welcomed back into the community, which celebrates their return.
Initiations can take many forms. They can involve long fasts, vision quests, solitary walkabouts in the wilderness. Initiation can mean taking psychedelic plants like peyote, iboga, mushrooms or ayahuasca. They vary widely in intensity and duration. One form of initiation, for Australian aboriginals, involves being buried up to your neck in the earth for one excruciating, interminable night. In the tradition of the Kogi people who live in the mountains of Colombia, the young boys who are destined to be the Mamas, the teachers of their community and those who perform divinations, must spend many years in darkness, to develop their visionary capacities. For an initiation ritual of the Hopi snake clan, poisonous snakes are collected from the wilderness. The members of the clan sit in a circle, with their knees touching. The snakes are dumped out of a sack into the centre of the circle. The men must remain in absolute stillness until all the snakes have slithered away, passing over them.
Modern civilization maintains faint vestiges of initiation rites in ceremonies like baptisms and Bar Mitzvahs, or hazing rituals at college fraternities. For the most part, these ceremonies are comparatively sedate. They do not force people to risk their lives, undergo personal transformation, face their fear of death and the unknown, or access a visionary trance. A diploma rather than any threshold of inner realization tells us we have reached adulthood.
We seem to be subconsciously impelling ourselves towards planetary catastrophe to break our alienation and ego-centrism, to reach a new intensity of communion. We are making this happen through collective catastrophe because we no longer have rites of passage which create the same effect through intentionally guided ritual. But the chaos and catastrophe we are unleashing may have an unforeseen result. Collectively, humanity can realize love – universal, unconditional love – as the root of our solidarity, the basis for healing our world. Through a shared experience of catastrophe as well as the witnessing of mass suffering, we may be forcing ourselves to open our hearts individually and collectively.
In A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit visited communities in the wake of major disasters, such as New Orleans after Katrina. We are conditioned by the mass media to believe that people will behave like monsters or criminals when society breaks down, but Solnit found the opposite. For the most part, people go out of their way to help each other when catastrophe strikes. ‘In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing, or a major storm, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbours as well as friends and loved ones,’ she writes. Years after a disaster, many people recall their experiences as the best time of their lives, when they briefly felt a sense of belonging and togetherness. Ironically, before modern civilization, this was our natural state, going back tens of thousands of years.
‘Disasters, in returning their sufferers to public and collaborative life, undo some of this privatization, which is a slower, subtler disaster all its own,’ Solnit writes. ‘In a society in which participation, agency, purposefulness and freedom are all adequately present, a disaster would be only a disaster.’
Our current civilization artificially keeps us alienated and isolated, in competition with each other. The system functions mechanically to benefit those at the top of the financial pyramid, who control humanity through mass media and government, instilling fear and insecurity. We subconsciously strain against this condition of slavery and serfdom. We require a breakthrough to a new system to express the full range of our humanity – our innate altruism, our empathy for one another. The oncoming emergency will force us to access the deep reserves of intelligence, compassion and creativity that we need to bring about this metamorphosis.
As individuals, we don’t need to wait for catastrophic rupture of our planet’s support systems before we shift into an actualized, empathic state. We can make it our conscious choice; we can live that way now.