Old Struggles on a New Earth
This article first appeared in Conscious Choice.
Although my book on prophecy and the Mayan Calendar is behind me, I am still approached all the time by people in search of the meaning of the encroaching end date of December 21, 2012. "Is it the end of the world?" reporters ask me on television. In emails, I am begged for advice on matters ranging from shamanic ritual to retirement funds, from dealing with extraterrestrials to seeking a safe place to hide out from polar shifts, earthquakes and super storms. Meanwhile, academics and self-taught experts send me their pet theories on tribal prophecies, astrological conjunctions, UFOs, Egyptian gods, quantum consciousness, Illuminati conspiracies, free energy technologies and much more.
My view is that "2012" is useful as a meme if it helps us to catalyze a shift in global culture and consciousness. Rather than fretting about what may or may not happen on that date, we should concentrate on the work that needs to be done now, on an inner as well as outer level. My recent focus has been the outer level, studying social theory and political philosophy. If we were to have an opportunity to transform society, what could that transformation look like in a practical sense? How could it be carried out? I have been reviewing the ideas of thinkers like Macchiavelli, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson, Karl Marx and Hannah Arendt, seeking insight into the nature of politics and power.
How do we bring awareness gained through shamanic practice or yogic discipline back into the gritty realities of political struggle and the fight against global inequity of wealth and resources? It seems there is still a lot of denial among Western mystics and "New Agers," as well as elitism and spiritual materialism. Whether someone does a flawless series of asanas, drinks ayahuasca with 20 different shamans or visits hidden monasteries in Bhutan has no value as a sign of spiritual attainment. How they live day by day, what they do with the psychic energy and time available to them and how their work helps to liberate others is what matters.
I see this tendency to ignore the social and political struggle in the works of wildly popular writers such as Eckhart Tolle, who has repackaged Vedanta for the masses. In Tolle's recent book, A New Earth, he writes: "We are coming to the end not only of mythologies but also of ideologies and belief systems." According to Tolle, the creation of the "new earth" needs no change in social practices as long as you make "the present moment... the focal point of your life." Tolle exhorts his audience to "enjoy what you are doing already, instead of waiting for some change so that you can start enjoying what you do." Whether you are an artist, teacher, Fox News executive or currency speculator doesn't matter: "The new earth arises as more and more people discover that their main purpose in life is to bring the light of consciousness into this world and so use whatever they do as a vehicle for consciousness." For Tolle, the effort to change our society's inequitable and unsustainable practices has no particular value compared to the paradise of presence.
The popularity of this message is unsurprising. Some political thinkers argue that the adoption of Eastern thought in the West has given people a way to accept capitalism, and "Empire," by finding detachment from it. For the critic Slavoj Zizek, Western Buddhism and Hinduism "enables you to fully participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game, while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it, that you are well aware how worthless this spectacle really is – what really matters to you is the peace of the inner self to which you know you can always withdraw..." Zizek goes so far as to propose, "the onslaught of New Age ‘Asiatic' thought... is establishing itself as the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism."
The shift of "2012" could mean that Eastern mysticism, the earth-based shamanism of tribal people and the West's pursuit of philosophical and scientific knowledge about the world come together to create a new form of consciousness. I suspect the West still has to realize its spiritual destiny – its dharma – in the transformation of matter and the creation of a truly equitable and sustainable world. As the design scientist Buckminster Fuller wrote, "No human chromosomes say make the world work for everybody – only mind can tell you that." We may not need "ideology" any more, as Tolle says, but we still need good ideas about how we reinvent our society and its institutions to become ethically transparent and sustainable. Rather than escaping from society's problems by embracing pure presence, we can use the awareness gained from spiritual practice to become more effective agents of social change.
Image by spike55151, used courtesy of a Creative Commons License.