This is probably going to piss off some of my friends. But best to get it out of the way now, rather then whatever future time my book is published.
I'm including a chapter in my book-in-progress about the dark underbelly of the spiritual quest. The idea, basically, is
There is an old aphorism, often attributed to Otto von Bismarck, that those who love sausages or the law should never watch either being made. I've always disagreed with this -- if people saw the truth behind the production of these things, we'd have many more vegetarian anarchists, which would seem to me a positive development.
And so it is too with religion and spirituality. The hazards of cults, superstitions, delusions, hypocrisy, and manipulation are very real. A peek behind the scenes of both ancient traditions and the modern cults of personality around self-help gurus and peddlers of enlightenment-lite, is an unpleasant but necessary requirement for spiritual health.
In this chapter I talk about scandals in Zen (Japanese and American), about Chögyam Trungpa's misbehavior, about sex scandals in the Pagan community, and about some new age-y sort of "Plastic Shamans and Goofy Gurus". And one of the folks I deal with under that heading is Daniel Pinchbeck.
I first mentioned Pinchbeck over three years ago, when Rolling Stone profiled him. I was not impressed, but I didn't give it much more thought than that.
A year or so after that, my good friend Robin Gunkel, whose opinion I regard highly, met him at Burning Man and she was impressed. So I suspended judgment -- maybe the Rolling Stone profile was an unfair hatchet job. That happens.
Robin has since become involved with Evolver, a social network arising out of Pinchbeck's blog, "Reality Sandwich". I've gone to several events put on by the Baltimore "spore" of Evolver, and heard some good discussions.
But with that said, when I sat down to look more deeply into Daniel Pinchbeck, what I found was not favorable. Here's a first draft of the section about him that will go into my book.
Daniel Pinchbeck is the guy probably most responsible for kicking off the idea that some great transformation is going to occur in 2012. In his book 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, he claims to have received "transmissions" from the Mayan deity Quetzalcoatl telling him about this momentous event. An excerpt from these transmissions:
The writer of this work [i.e., Pinchbeck] is the vehicle of my arrival -- my return -- to this realm. He certainly did not expect this to be the case. What began as a quest to understand prophecy has become the fulfillment of prophecy. The vehicle of my arrival has been brought to an awareness of his situation in sometimes painful increments and stages of resistance -- and this books follows the evolution of his learning process, as an aid to the reader's understanding.
The vehicle of my arrival had to learn to follow synchonicities, embrace paradoxes, and solve puzzles. He had to enter into a new way of thinking about time and space and consciousness.
Almost apologetically, the vehicle notes that his birthday fell in June 1966 -- 6/66 -- "count the number of the Beast: for it is the number of the man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six."
The Beast prophesied is the "feathered serpent," Quetzalcoatl. [Pinchbeck, 2012 p. 370]
Because these "revelations" came after many years of heavy experimentation with substances like psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, ayahuasca, iboga, and DPT, [Grigoriadis] Pinchbeck is sometimes described as a modern-day Timothy Leary or Terence McKenna. But from the evidence above, a modern-day Aleister Crowley seems a better comparison -- complete with voices "channeled" from "higher powers" which name him as their special agent on Earth, identification with "the Beast", and a wonderful degree of apophenia.[*]
The "transmissions and coincidences" phenomenon was also experienced by Robert Anton Wilson, who in 1973 entered what he calls a "belief system" in which he was "receiving telepathic messages from entities residing on a planet around the double star Sirius," while at the same time encountering "implausible coincidences" which led him to discover links between Sirius and the Illuminati. (The Illuminati were an Eighteenth century Masonic group, much beloved by conspiracy theorists). [Wilson, Cosmic p. 8] Wilson, though, later came to understand that the "telepathic messages" theory was only one possible explanation of his experience.
But Crowley and Wilson didn't have blogs to expose their follies quite so instantly. Pinchbeck has "Reality Sandwich", into which you can peer to get a look into his thought processes, such as they are.
For example, on December 9, 2009, a strange light was seen in the skies over Norway. Something quickly traced out a brilliant spiral in the sky, mystifying observers and sparking furious speculation on web forums as to its nature. The explanation turned out to be a Russian missile that misfired during testing. [Murphy]
According to Pinchbeck's blog, though, "this seems extremely unlikely -- in the category of explanations that includes the theory that the most complex and virtuosic crop circles were the products of board and rope, or that Building 7 of the World Trade Center fell as a result of the Twin Towers collapse." [Pinchbeck, Thoughts] Now, we know that crop circles are in fact created with boards and rope, in combination with good planning and simple surveying techniques (and you can learn how to do it yourself by searching the web), and well-informed people with intact critical thinking skills recognize that Building 7 did in fact fall as a result of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers. But why let mundane facts get the way? Pinchbeck continues,
The magnificent spiral spectacle...seems to be a kind of focusing event for human consciousness....It is possible that such an apparition is somehow co-created or imprinted by the collective field of the human psyche.
The Norway spiral has resonance with the Hopi prophecies of the Blue Star Kachina, which appears at the end of the Fourth World -- if not that signifying event itself, perhaps a foreshadowing or retro-causal echo of it. The spiral seems like a message, invitation, or indication that the earth and its inhabitants are on the threshold of a deep transformation.
I especially like the "retro-causal echo" of the Blue Star Kachina theory. It takes a very special mind to think that an echo of the end of the world traveling back in time is a more plausible explanation for a light in the sky than a misfired rocket.
In Pinchbeck's opinion, the "the rational, empirical worldview...has reached its expiration date". [Anastas] But the fact that he can make statements like the Blue Star Kachina retro-causal echo thing and still be taken seriously by so many, demonstrates that many (perhaps most) people haven't even opened the wrapper on rationality.
And perhaps this is the big difference between the "industrial strength shamanism" we've been discussing, and the ideas being peddled by Pinchbeck and his ilk: where plastic shamans see rationality as a threat, an industrial strength shaman sees it as a valuable reality tunnel for getting practical things done in the physical world.
Pinchbeck seems so ridiculous that I can almost imagine that he is playing a giant practical joke: that when nothing especially momentous happens in December 2012, he will pull off the mask and say, "Gotcha! Boy, I can't believe people took that stuff seriously!"
That might be pretty funny, if it wasn't for what happened to Dan Carpenter.
Carpenter was a member of Pinchbeck's psychedelic circle, from the early days before Pinchbeck went coocoo for Quetzalcoatl. He was a frequent poster on Pinchbeck's online discussion board, and went to New York to meet him in person. [Grigoriadis] Carpenter was close enough to Pinchbeck that Pinchbeck wrote an encouraging forward to Carpenter's book, A Psychonaut's Guide to the Invisible Landscape; [Pinchbeck, Foreward] the book describes thirteen trips Carpenter took on DXM powder, the anesthetic in cough syrup.
These trips took him into a powerful experience of apophenia, a headspace where every little coincidence and event was fraught with meaning and portent, and left him with the impression everything was "somehow a program....[t]here is no free will -- only the sense there is." [quoted in Grigoriadis]
And so, following the program, Daniel Carpenter hanged himself.
At least one other of Pinchbeck's followers has also committed suicide. [Grigoriadis] Sadly, this is the danger when psychedelic visions are prized to the exclusion of "the rational, empirical worldview".
To be clear: I am by no means opposed to the responsible use of psychedelic or entheogenic substances. Far from it. They are powerful tools of transformation, and used properly might -- just might -- help us develop new ways of thinking that can help us get the planet out of the mess it's in.
But when someone starts taking their own feedback-saturated perceptions as seriously as Pinchbeck does, it's time to point out that drug-induced hallucinations are a piss-poor guide to consensus reality.
There are a lot of very fine people who like Pinchbeck's work. I've even attended several great discussions put on by the Baltimore "spore" of "Evolver", a social network that developed out Pinchbeck's blog. But Pinchbeck himself is in need of a good solid grounding, and a class in remedial critical thinking.
Pinchbeck, Daniel. 2012: the Return of Quetzalcoatl. Los Angeles: Tarcher, 2007. http://books.google.com/books?id=T-KaqGHhFmEC
Wilson, Robert. Cosmic Trigger Volume I. Tempe: New Falcon Publications, 1991.
Murphy, Dan. "Norway spiral: A rocket scientist explains the mystery". Christian Science Monitor Global News Blog. December 10, 2009. http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Global-News/2009/1210/Norway-spiral-video-Mystery-solved.
Pinchbeck, Daniel. "Thoughts on the Norway Spiral". Reality Sandwich. 10 Dec 2009 http://www.realitysandwich.com/thoughts_norway_spiral
Anastas, Benjamin. "The Final Days". New York Times Magazine. July 1, 2007 http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/01/magazine/01world-t.html
Grigoriadis, Vanessa. "Daniel Pinchbeck and the New Psychedelic Elite". Rolling Stone no. 1008 "The 2006 Fall music review." p. 88-90,114,116. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/11217201/daniel_pinchbeck_and_the_new_psychedelic_elite
Pinchbeck, Daniel. Foreward. A Psychonaut's Guide to the Invisible Landscape: The Topography of the Psychedelic Experience. Carpenter, Dan. Rochester: Park Street Press, 2006. vii-xi. http://books.google.com/books?id=CcpjE-LIwvwC