High Times Greats: Breaking Open The World With Daniel Pinchbeck

A 2006 interview with the author of “Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism.”
High Times Greats: Breaking Open The World With Daniel Pinchbeck
Wikimedia Commons

For the July, 2006 issue of High Times, Elise McDonough interviewed Daniel Pinchbeck, who turns 55 years old on June 15.

The end draws near, and many of us embedded in the counterculture are gripped with a sense of urgency about our political, social and environmental future. Whether confronting climate change, the quagmire in Iraq or the erosion of civil liberties, few activists foresee a widespread transformation in consciousness just around the corner.

But courtesy of a little DMT and an all-but-forgotten Mayan prophecy—and continuing in the tradition of Terence McKenna—one shamanic investigator makes just such a claim of impending salvation. In his first book, Breaking Open The Head, best-selling author Daniel Pinchbeck examined the world within through the use of sacramental drugs. In his latest metaphysical epic, 2012: The Return Of Quetzalcoatl, he explores the cosmos without, and the idea that we’re rapidly approaching the end of time.

Many people experience extraordinary visions while experimenting with psychedelic drugs, but few abandon almost everything else in their lives to explore these fleeting, mysterious realms. Pinchbeck is a veteran journalist and self-proclaimed skeptical character of “dubious repute” who has made just such a leap, weaving together disparate cosmological phenomena into a tale about his own journey and how it relates to an ancient Mayan prophecy foretelling an evolutionary leap at the conclusion of a 5,125-year cycle that ends on Dec. 21, 2012.

This mind-blowing journey carries Pinchbeck around the world to meet scientists, philosophers, shamans and self-proclaimed prophets. Along the way, he discovers evidence proving that crop circles are authentically alien, that reincarnation can indeed be measured, and that implementation of a new calendrical system tied to the moon may be all that’s needed to bring about a human future of utopian creativity and limitless imagination. A vast puzzle of alien visitation, otherworldly communication, quantum mechanics, occult crisis, and lessons learned from ayahuasca, iboga and DMT, 2012 ultimately reveals a pattern of consciousness evolving toward an entirely new state of awareness that embraces time, space and self.

Who is Quetzalcoatl, and what does he symbolize?

He’s a plumed serpent—a union of the quetzal, a bird with rainbowy feathers, and coatl, the serpent. He represents the union of spirit and matter, or heaven and earth. Also, there was an historical incarnation of Quetzalcoatl. In the 10th century AD, he was the king of a region in Mexico, responsible for unifying different aspects of Mayan and Toltec cosmology. There’s a whole prophecy about his return at the end of the cycle.

Is Quetzalcoatl a prankster god?

No, not from what I understand. He seems to be more benevolent. If you go to the Mayan ruins, there are a lot of leering, snarling, freaky-looking deities, and Quetzalcoatl seems to be one that’s really on the side of humanity. In one myth, he goes down to the underworld, after the end of the last world cycle, and finds the bones of all that’s left of humanity, and he brings them up to the surface and puts his own blood on them and revives them, sort of starts humanity up again for this world cycle.

Why is Dec. 21, 2012, a significant date?

The Mayans were really, really obsessed with time on a level that no other civilization has been, and archaeologists have had a hard time figuring out what that obsession means. It seems they had an entirely different concept of time beyond what we consider with the calendar, which is measuring linear dates. They had a model of time that was about synchronicities and vast cosmic scales of time.

And the end of a huge cycle happens on that date, Dec. 21, 2012, the end of a 5,125-year cycle—but even beyond that, it seems to be the culmination of larger and larger cycles. Mainstream archaeologists won’t take this very seriously. They say it’s just like an odometer clicking over, but a lot of other outsider thinkers and archaeologists who have created a relationship with the traditional Mayan culture believe that it’s actually an event in the evolution of human consciousness. The ancient Mayans somehow beamed into this understanding of the evolution of consciousness, and that there would be some kind of shift into another dimension. Most of their main pyramids were nine levels, beginning 16 billion years ago with the Big Bang, with each step up 20 times faster in linear time, and each step up a huge intensification of consciousness, whether it’s forming primates, then tribal people, then the development of civilization. And there seems to be the sense that this next leap would be into a more galactic, creative level of mind.

Does this date also figure in other cultures’ prophecies?

That’s a good question. Not exactly. The way I see the spiritual reality now, it seems like these different cultures beamed in on different elements, and for the Mayans, understanding the nature of time was their focus. They spent like a thousand years working it out, whereas the Tibetans had another piece of the spiritual puzzle, including reincarnation and other levels of cosmic entities.

How did your psychedelic experiences help you understand these different spiritual realities?

Well, psychedelics were a major tool for the Mayans. A lot of my understanding obviously came through shamanic investigation, and so it seems to be a phenomena that’s coming to presence in the modern Western psyche, through our re-engagement with psychedelics. There seems to be a history or lineage, in that Terence McKenna, the prophet and proselytizer of psychedelics in the ’80s and ’90s, beamed into this whole 2012 thing through specific experiences with mushrooms in the Amazon.

Psychedelics definitely give you the sense there’s potential in consciousness to go to other levels, and that we haven’t reached our full potential as a species. Psychedelics can also inspire a certain apocalyptic paranoia, which has to be turned into a kind of apocalyptic pronoia, in that apocalypse itself means a kind of revealing, uncovering. So it’s a time when everything that’s been hidden comes out, which allows you to evaluate and move forward.

Do you have a favorite psychedelic?

Ayahuasca. I think it’s the most healing and very grounding. It pulls you down into the earth and your body and the plant realm, and then it also sends you spiraling up into these kind of visionary dream realities and can give you all these different levels of insight. It’s also got a good time frame—only four hours, whereas iboga, the one I took in Africa, was like 20 hours. Also, you feel good afterwards; you don’t feel drained. You actually feel like you have an energetic charge that lasts a few days. So it’s a great medicine.

What advice would you have for people who use psychedelics recreationally, or who smoke marijuana?

Those are two very separate things for me. While I have no moral judgment on the recreational use of psychedelics and think those experiences can be very important for people, there are also spiritual dangers or consciousness dangers to be aware of. One way to ameliorate those dangers is to connect with shamanic lineages. Do some work with an ayahuasca shaman or within a tradition like the Native American church or Santo Daime, which has a totally different understanding of psychedelic substances and sees them in a sacred medicinal context. That’s something we’ve totally lost, and I think if you look at the ’60s, a lot of people lost their shit or went out of their minds, and it’s partially because there was no kind of shamanic context for their psychedelic experiences.

With marijuana, I think that part of our problem in this society is we’re consumer-oriented. We’re looking for quick fixes. So we don’t always use substances with the respect that we could. Marijuana is a powerful spiritual entity. We should be thinking about it in those terms rather than just something we do every day to get by.

What was your first psychedelic trip?

Mushrooms, in college. It was definitely a pivotal experience in my life. I had a lot of really wonderful experiences at college with psychedelics. I remember taking some during a tornado and being out in the storm and just feeling the power of that force. Suddenly, I saw how everything I’d taken for granted was a social construction—money, architecture, cars. These were not natural products; they were things we created but then had gotten out of our control, in a certain sense.

And as soon as I ate the mushrooms, I just dropped into this other place, this other understanding, and felt this incredible connection to the trees and natural forces, and a sense of the goofiness of our human reality. All these people that you passed, focused on sports or business, it’s like they were totally disconnected from the present moment. There was that absence of presence throughout the whole civilization.

So if it is indeed necessary for humans to reach this next dimensional step in order to save our troubled biosphere, what should people be prepared to sacrifice?

I think Lord Of The Rings, actually, was probably a good model. If you think about Frodo carrying the ring to the darkest, fiery pit of evil, the ring could symbolize the ego. So people are going to have to sacrifice a lot of their egotistical goals and assumptions in order to get us through this, and I don’t know really what form that takes. We definitely need to move into a different kind of relatedness to the natural world and the human world, where we’re not out for ourselves so much, where we realize the only way that any of us can advance or evolve is if everybody is doing it together.

If we came to our common sense tomorrow, there wouldn’t be a need for this whole breakdown, which is probably going to happen because we’re not ready to become more aware. Most people are still holding onto some conception of their privilege, their right…

Their entitlements, their conventional ideas of success…

Right. See, but that’s what’s going to decay. I see the environmental crisis and the technological evolution as being two aspects of a process that’s ultimately a psycho-spiritual reckoning in the evolution of consciousness. Every level, from relationships to economies to the way we think about religion and spirituality—there’s a whole other evolutionary step we’re going to have to make. What’s interesting about the Mayan calendar is that it suggests we’re going to make that step really, really fast, and that’s why we’ve put this whole global brain together, the Internet and mobile technology. When the moment comes, it’s going to allow for these new ideas to go right around the planet instantly.

When I read the book, that definitely resonated with me, that feeling of time accelerating faster and faster, this constant progress, and it seems like it’s building up to something.

Yeah. There are a lot of paradoxes, too. The Hopis say the ones that are going to get through the transition period the best are actually those people who slow down as everything starts speeding up.

If there’s going to be a new set of ideas and a new way of organized power, what will to be the reaction of the people who hold power now?

It’s hard to say, but we have interesting examples like the fall of the Berlin Wall, where everybody thought, “Oh, the Soviet empire is going to hold the ground for a thousand years. They’re never going to give way.” Suddenly, it was like swoosh, just gone. People haven’t brought it to consciousness, because it’s painful—you’ve invested on many levels into this whole system, and then you have to make this recognition that that investment was a false one, and that you have to go to a different place.

Do you think it’s more important to try to subvert the power of the current machine, or to try to build up the power of an alternative?

Forget about subverting this machine. When entropy reaches a certain level, there’s no stopping it, and the entropic process just keeps picking up steam until it finally smashes against the rock. For me, the emphasis is on creating those new structures that can supersede the present systems.

Do you think a leader of the alternative would be as recognizable as the president of the United States or the head of the UN?

No, in fact, I don’t think that can happen at all. That was what happened in the ’60s— then those revolutionaries were targeted and either imprisoned or eliminated. I think it has to be much more of a collective consciousness. In the ’60s, there was the rock star, totally manifesting this huge shamanic ego, but now we have the DJ, synthesizing all these memes and streams, being part of this flow of information. That’s the self-organized model of what we’re moving towards.

The Dalai Lama has been bringing together Buddhist meditators and neuroscientists, and he’s actually changed the neuroscientists’ perceptions, making them consider consciousness and suffering in different ways. In the book, I suggest that part of that synthesis is the idea that a new calendar tuned to astrological cycles would be a powerful tool, because generally our current calendar is not tuned to anything.

We have 12 months of unequal days not tied to the moon cycles. José Argüelles argues that the fact that we have a desynchronized calendar allows people to live in a kind of artificial time. If we created a resynchronized harmonic calendar, it would reharmonize everybody’s relationship to reality and actually allow us to integrate science, religious traditions and spirituality.

What do you think is the meaning behind crop circles?

Crop circles and a lot of other paranormal phenomena like UFOs and psychics remain beautifully outside of the grasp of rationality. I had to sift through a huge amount of baffling, contradictory and fascinating evidence, including going into the newly appearing crop circles and feeling a kind of intense energetic shift. What I began to conceive over time is that the crop circles were a teaching on the nature of reality that was geared specifically for the modern Western mind, and there are indications that it’s connected to this whole 2012 date. The deeper you go into them, the more paradoxes you find. When you think that the crop circles are real, you find something that makes you think it’s all a hoax. Then you find evidence that totally demonstrates there’s no way humans could have been responsible for them. It’s a beautiful, poetic teaching.

And part of the teaching, for me, is that our scientific, rational conception of reality has its limits. Higher intelligence might actually be very playful, tricksterish, poetic and artistic. There’s also the suggestion that the crop circles are about this integration of sacred symbols and fractals, suggesting once again that this integration of the intuitive and the rational mind is part of what we need to do to evolve.

What’s your vision for the future?

Well, having analyzed all this prophetic calendar material and all this other philosophical stuff that I compacted in 2012: The Return Of Quetzalcoatl, I think that there’s going to be probably more—I don’t like to say this—but probably more crises and cataclysms. We’re seeing an acceleration of disasters, which may culminate in the falling apart of this present socioeconomic system, which I would see as a good thing. A new planetary civilization is going to emerge out of necessity, creating new institutions and tools to deal with breakdown. I think the peer-to-peer developments on the Internet, the social-networking tools that are becoming more available to people, are a signpost of where we could go. We could really create new decision-making models, taking much deeper levels of information into account.

Clearly, we’re going to have to deal with resource depletion. We’re going to have to deal with species extinction. That’s going to be very difficult, and we actually have to do it very, very quickly. Within 30 years, 25 percent of all species on the planet are going to be extinct, and that might be the extinction of the whole biosphere, because everything is interdependent.

So we’re going to hit a skid, and then hopefully make an incredible U-turn through thinking about our entire reality differently and manifesting that into different social systems. I don’t think that these existing political systems will allow that kind of transformation. So I think they may have to go by the boards.

In other words, it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets any better?

I think things are simultaneously getting much better and much worse, and that’s what’s really fascinating about this whole period. It’s like when people switch on to these new levels of information, there’s an incredible opening that’s taking place, but there’s going to be a kind of bridge for that to be manifested in institutions and structures. I’ve started a media and membership company called Evolver, and we’re trying to create some of those bridging tools for people.

What do you hope people will take away from reading your book?

I hope that they will recognize that I’m not bullshitting, that I really mean it, and that it will be part of a process for them of re-evaluating their own priorities, their own thinking patterns, their own conditioning, and that they will accept this coming transformational process. Obviously, my book alone is not going to do that for people, but I think it may be helpful in that it comes from so many angles and really tries to be foundational, building block after block of how to use new perspectives to solve these puzzles and our great problems.

How do you plan to mark the day on Dec. 21, 2012?

I’m not really that concerned with that date. I think the whole problem with the 2012 movement—whether it’s Terence McKenna, who created this meme, and then José Argüelles, who elaborated on it—is that people get obsessed with this date. For me right now, it’s already Dec. 21, 2012. I already have the vision; it’s just a question of trying to bring it into manifestation.

The idea of 2012 is that we’re consciously going to collectivize in a positive sense. When people think about collectivizing, they get the shivers. They think of something like the bad communism of the ’20s, but the big inspiration for me was the Burning Man festival, where you see how people could come together and create these kind of self-organizing structures that would allow for simultaneous collectivization and individuation. McKenna thought that this Dec. 21 point would be a singularity point where the acceleration of technology goes off the scale or becomes kind of infinite. So maybe nanotechnology, biotechnology and virtual-reality technology all fuse, and you’re able to move in and out of all these other realities with or without the use of psychedelics. But that’s kind of intangible to me. Maybe something totally different—maybe a totally relaxed situation at that point, you know?

So I don’t really know what’s going to happen on that date. We may be living in a very different kind of world at that point, on a lot of levels. I’ll say this: I hope that by that date, I’m having tea with non-planetary individuals and getting to know them.

What kind of tea would you serve?

Whatever they like.

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