The Serpent Temple
By Daniel Pinchbeck
Walking in New York City, I sometimes seem to enter a state of mind
where I pull away from ordinary time. The concrete and asphalt,
the buildings and billboards, appear as flimsy as painted sets.
The people wandering through these backdrops drift like dream apparitions.
A young black man drives past in an enormous gleaming SUV, an ominous
rap song about ‘hos and bitches, niggahs and gangstas’
blasting from his speakers – he is a sociological type, a
reaction-formation to centuries of racial hate. Two balding businessmen
brag about their companies’ new marketing strategies, their
childrens’ private schools – they are dry husks of avidity.
A willowy actress on her cel phone makes an appointment to receive
her next Botox injection as she exhales swirls of Marlboro smoke.
Blank-faced teenagers amble past with shopping bags full of generic
clothing from Banana Republic and the Gap, stitched by impoverished
workers in the “free trade zones” of ruined nations.
It seems like all of this happened a million years ago. Or it has
gone on so long that the players have forgotten the meaning of their
actions, moving through the dead air like synchronized machines.
Time has played a trick on us in this modern world. Habituated to
endless acceleration, we seem petrified, caught in pitiful illusions
of progress that lead nowhere – to longer working hours, less
freedom, more distractions. We have fallen into a time trap, imprisoned
like bugs caught in amber.
One can envision a paleontology of the human present, the street
scene peeling away to reveal the human collective like a swarm of
earthworms gnawing at the planet, our bodies carriers for far more
efficient bacteria and parasites, our brains a vestigial map of
evolutionary processes from reptiles to primates to humans. As the
dinosaurs left behind their skeletons and the crushed carbon we
have extracted for our fossil fuels, humanity seems on its way to
a similar, though self-willed, cul-de-sac. Our planetary legacy
will be mountains of plastic and toxic refuse, silicon and malathion,
twisted steel and irradiated Nevada mountains – who knows
but that this won’t be the exact legacy that some future organism
needs to make its evolutionary ascent?
But what does that matter to us?
The vision becomes one of Buddhist “samsara,” eternities
of delusive craving, entities churning away in semi-darkness, groping
blindly at desires as they drive toward self-destruction. Perhaps
for a few more centuries, perhaps only a handful of years, the human
race will sate its yearnings and tweak its consumption habits as
our planet boils away in an increasingly toxic chemical broth, while
brain-locked pundits drone on CNN, selling us a war without end
and a world without hope, the overt insanity of their lies oddly
hypnotizing as they push the world toward meltdown. We seem to be
tumbling into the abyss, our words no longer meaningful, our actions
as illusory as shadow plays. Are we doomed to mindless self-destruction
in a purple haze of ozone and radiation, smart bombs and biological
weapons, phthalates and cloroflurocarbons?
Or is a totally different narrative equally plausible – and,
perhaps, far more true?
Most of us still accept the materialist model for thinking about
human history and the physical world that emerged over the last
centuries of modern thought. This is far more than a scientific
paradigm, as it contains an implicit metaphysic, which in practice
has led humanity on a manic and misguided attempt to create a world
focused entirely on human needs and human values.
In our self-enclosed paradigm of “humanism” and “individualism,”
we stand alone, sole conscious entities, surveying a world created
by a series of massive cosmic accidents, from the “Big Bang”
to the development of microorganisms able to exude just the right
mix of gasses to form a breathable atmosphere upon this planet.
Suspended in its 4.5-billion-year orbital groove around its lucky
star, our Earth developed higher forms of organic life because it
happened to be near enough to the local sun to feel its light, but
not too close to be scorched by its heat, with the helpful assistance
of the moon’s gravitational drag. Like a patch of green moss
growing in a thin crack of pavement, human civilization developed
in the accidental juncture between Ice Ages and meteor crashes and
Considering the vastness of the universe and the infinite number
of “coincidences” required to allow for human development,
the possibility of contact with higher intelligences or any form
of alien sentience seems absurdly remote, according to this thesis.
Because we believe we are alone in our accidental minds, we consider
ourselves as lords of all we survey, with the power to determine
life and death over all other species and cultures.
Scientists observe the exactitude of timing and patterning that
happens throughout nature – the moment-by-moment unfolding
of fetal development, to take just one example, or the exquisite
transcription machinery of our DNA. Yet we see ourselves –
conscious subjectivies – as coincidental byproducts, our large
forebrains, powers of speech and awareness the product of a long
series of lucky sevens falling on the dice table of the cosmic casino.
By the reductive paradigm of rational empiricism, consciousness
is entirely a product of the brain, and cannot exist outside of
it. The fact that we awoke in our particular bodies at a particular
juncture in time must be seen, from our individual perspective,
as the luckiest and most improbable accident of all. It is a bitter
joke, a pointless provocation from a barren universe.
Superficially, there is logic to this viewpoint. Clearly, we live
in a physical world operating through natural laws that function
at different scales. We can witness the laws of gravity, read about
the logic of natural selection, even study the theory of quantum
mechanics and the behavior of space-curving black holes, and feel
a kind of child-like pride in our species’ up-to-date knowledge
of the big picture. Our species’ collective mastery of matter
and technology manifests whenever we turn on a computer or television
or faucet. It certainly appears that we have ascended far above
our lowly origins as Neolithic tribesmen and Medieval peasants,
not to mention Cro Magnons and primates. We assume that we further
our capabilities as we learn to manipulate deeper levels of the
physical world through more powerful technologies, forgetting that
with each gain in technology we forfeit some innate and intuitive
aspect of our being.
During the last few centuries, the success of our technologies seemed
to show the modern viewpoint and consciousness as superior to the
mentality of the past. The spiritual perspective of tribal cultures
and ancient religions seemed invalidated by the desacralized vision
of the scientific mindset. The superiority of the modern West appeared
to be demonstrated by our success in dominating and colonizing the
Earth and extracting its resources for our benefit.
But what if this logic is entirely flawed? What if it is as deeply
and ludicrously mistaken as the geocentric astronomy of the Medieval
Mystics, esoteric traditions, and shamans offer an alternative vision:
Human consciousness is just one little link in a vast chain of forms
of sentience. The Earth is not a grab-bag of goodies, but a sacred
being, and humanity exists to perform a sacred function on the Earth.
Domination – of nature, the Earth or other people –
is not only not possible, it is not a worthy or meaningful goal.
As the Buddha said, “If one man conquers a thousand men, and
another man conquers himself, that man who conquers himself is the
far greater warrior.”
From this esoteric viewpoint, contemporary civilization represents
the terminal phase of a long epoch of destruction. This age is sometimes
called the Kali Yuga, “the age of impure residues.”
In this alternative narrative, the modern West is recognized as
the amnesiac agent of destruction, having externalized its adolescent
personality and incapacity for self-control, into a dominator mentality,
dragging a degraded world down into the abyss.
The “triumph” of materialism is a global dissolution
and loss of any connection to the sacred. The occult philosopher
Rene Guenon writes: “We have in fact entered upon the final
phase of this Kali Yuga, the darkest period of this dark age, the
state of dissolution from which there is to be no emerging except
through a cataclysm, since it is no longer a mere revival which
is required, but a complete renovation.” For the Italian alchemist
Julius Evola, “There is no future, in the positive sense of
the term, for modern society as a whole.”
Native Americans recognize this time as the fulfillment of prophecy.
They call it “the End of the Cycle.” For the Hopis,
we are approaching the transition from the “Fourth World”
to the “Fifth World.” Guenon notes, “The passage
from one cycle to another can be completed only in darkness, this
is another law of great importance possessing manifold applications.”
Christian Fundamentalists, including members of the GOP’s
inner circle, believe the literal Biblical Apocalypse will soon
be upon us – and because of this, there is no need to slow
down the accelerated ruin and toxification of the Biosphere. They
may be correct .But who do they think the Book of Revelations refers
to in the line: “Destroyed will be the destroyers of the Earth”?
And who are the “meek” who will inherit the Earth when
the destroyers are done with it?
In the last decades, the productive energies unleashed by Capitalism
have led to us running through the resources of the entire planet
like cheap hustlers operating a gigantic Ponzi scheme. Overfarmed
land is turning to desert at the rate of 220,000 kilometers per
year, according to World Watch. Overfished seas are becoming depopulated
voids. Tropical forests are chopped down and pillaged – at
the current rate of destruction, they will all be gone within thirty
years. Poisoned by pesticides, singbirds and butterflies expire
by the millions. The amphibians have croaked in even greater quantities,
their delicate reproductive cycles disrupted by UV and EMF exposure.
Overuse of antibiotics breeds vicious new “super bugs.”
We have spread our corruption over land and sea and air.
Throughout the Third World, millions have abandoned their depleted
lands to huddle hopelessly together in “mega-cities”
as mega-corporations plot the privatizing of their water supply.
All of the lauded advances of Twentieth Century industrialization,
from the Green Revolution to the aerosol spray can, now look like
“quick fixes” that are backfiring. Fresh water is running
low around the globe, and “water wars” will soon be
upon us. Accelerated climate change caused by pumping 6,000,000,000
tons of carbon dioxide, as well as other gasses, into the atmosphere
each year has led to unprecedented forest fires, heat waves, floods,
glacier melts, island-based civilizations sinking beneath the waves
– and this process is picking up ferocious momentum. The summer
of 2002 saw world-record forest fires, caused by Global Warming-related
drought. Those millions of scorched acres released huge amounts
of carbon dioxide into the air – and the quickening melting
of the polar ice caps also releases tons of trapped CO2. As many
scientists predicted, the entire process has become a sped-up feedback
Faced with the spectacle of global ruin and biospheric annihilation,
the corporate and political elite continue to toast themselves with
martinis from the balconies of Five Star hotels, sign corrupt trade
agreements, tell dirty jokes to each other on overwatered golf courses
saturated with insecticides. On television, they smirk like apes,
intoxicated with their power and cynicism. It is easy to blame them,
but pointless to do so. They are not leaders, but powerless and
barely conscious manifestations of humanity’s current state
of debasement and self-delusion. The entire onrushing cataclysm
has developed with bewildering speed, catching almost all of us
unprepared. Not only the vast majority, but even our “intellectuals”
and “artists” still refuse to think about it at all.
It is painful to realize that the kind of stable and sensible future
we once envisioned for ourselves and our children – especially
us, the Western winners and world-beaters – has become a distant
pipe dream. Hypnotized by habit, we expect that life will go on
as it has, with “progress” something constant and comprehensible.
The possibility that the way we live could suddenly disappear –
that daily life could suddenly become something entirely unfamiliar
and other, even down to the smallest detail, the most essential
act – is not one that we like to entertain.
And yet, it is going to happen to us.
We have crossed the threshold into an ominous new world where all
bets are off. The “winner-take-all” hunter-gatherer
mind-set that has brought us to this point will not take us any
William Blake described our current situation in his poem, “Europe:
"Thought chang’d the infinite to a serpent,
that which pitieth
To a devouring flame, and men fled from its face and hid
In forests of night; then all the eternal forests were divided
Into earths rolling in circles of space, that like an ocean rush’d
And overwhelmed all except this finite wall of flesh.
Then was the serpent temple form’d, image of infinite
Shut up in finite revolutions; and man became an Angel,
Heaven a mighty circle turning, God a tyrant crown’d."
This is an apt description of the hell of reductive materialism
stripmining the Earth, reducing the cosmos to a “finite wall
In these last minutes of historical time before the clock runs out
on us, how can we use our thought to turn the serpent back into
the infinite, how can we find the will to douse the devouring flame
which is quickly consuming our last eternal forests?
From the esoteric perspective, all of this – the destruction
and degradation, the negative projection of human capacity that
is our current society – was, also, meant to be. As the Quran
states: “Each one of you will see hell. That is an irredeemable
decision of our Lord.”
Within the apparent chaos, the inequitable misery, the global collapse
of human communities into noise and squalor, it is possible to recognize
a hidden pattern, a teleology that suggests a higher purpose. It
is possible to recognize the destruction of the Biosphere by modern
civilization as a willed cataclysm. This crisis has been designed
to force an accelerated evolution of human consciousness to a higher
level – what the occultist Gurdjieff called a “higher
octave.” The process is, like Shiva’s dance, one of
simultaneous creation and destruction. Despite superficial appearances,
it may be as exquisitely timed as the moment-by-moment stages of
unfolding fetal development, as perfectly structured as a Bach fugue.
Modern materialism is a belief system based on disbelief in any
higher order or esoteric purpose. The mainstream media, the academy,
the scientific establishment, and the middle-class culture rigidly
dismiss occult or esoteric ideas as intellectually bankrupt and
laughable. The fact that psychic phenomena exists, that dreams can
be predictive and telepathic, that consciousness often escapes the
body in near death experiences, and etcetera, are ignored with a
Not only endless anecdotal but also recent scientific evidence demonstrates
otherwise – at the very least, the nonlocalizable effect of
psychic phenomenona has been conclusively and repeatedly demonstrated.
In one experiment, groups of religious women in one country were
asked to direct their prayers to women in another country who were
having trouble conceiving a child. To focus their intent, the religious
women were given nothing but the names of the infertile women. As
reported in The New York Times, in the next months, those women
who received the prayers were fifty percent more likely to conceive
a child than the similarly infertile women in the experiment’s
The Global Consciousness Project at Princeton University studies
mass psychic influence on random number generating. The ability
of subjects to influence random number generation with their thoughts
has been repeatedly verified. For this study, Princeton placed 50
random number generators in cities around the world. The researchers
wanted to see if global events or crises would lead to perturbations
in the numbers, and statistical deviations from the mean. The greatest
anomaly was recorded on September 11, 2001. The generated numbers
deviated dramatically from the usual average, climaxing several
hours after the terrorist events. But the most extraordinary aspect
of the results was that the statistical deviation began more than
an hour before the first plane hit the World Trade Center. As Roger
Nelson, the project’s director, notes:
"When we ask why the disaster in New York and Washington and
Pennsylvania should appear to be responsible for a strong signal
in our world-wide network of instruments designed to generate random
noise, there is no obvious answer. When we look carefully and discover
that the [data] might reflect our shock and dismay even before our
minds and hearts express it, we confront a still deeper mystery."
It is common knowledge that the Soviet Military and the CIA ran
successful programs using “Remote Viewing” during the
Cold War. “Remote Viewing” uses the abilities of psychically
sensitive individuals to peer into enemy compounds and laboratories.
These remote viewers were not only able to retrieve accurate information
of the present situation, but sometimes they also saw events that
would happen in the future or had occurred in the past.
If the human mind has the capacity to influence random number generators,
scry into distant landscapes, and help infertile women conceive
children, then the mind has nonlocalizable effects on the physical
world. Clearly, this means that the mind is more than the passive,
brain-based matrix of synaptical structures defined by modern neuroscience.
Taoists, Tibetan Buddhists, and alchemists know that mind and matter
are inextricably linked. The scientific paradigm for understanding
this, and much more, is provided by quantum physics, the “holographic
universe” of David Bohm, and the demonstrated fact of “The
Field,” the foaming sea of appearing-and-disappearing quantum
particles, tumbling backwards and forwards through time, that fills
up the apparent emptiness of space.
Space turns out to be a seething mass of energy and potential, and
the human subconscious can have an effect at the quantum level.
What does this mean? It might mean that, given proper development
and training, the human mind could do practically anything. As Christ
puts it in The Gospels: “Seek and you will find, ask and you
shall receive, knock on any door and it will be given to you.”
The question is, what will happen to us when we start to knock on
doors that have been closed for a long, long time?
Shamans believe that the universe is actually made of language,
woven out of the stories we tell about it. The Bible, of course,
begins with the initiation of the Logos, the descent of the Word
into matter. According to Christ, the Logos is eternal: “Heaven
and Earth may pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
In a sense, the crisis of modern civilization could be characterized
by a failure of narrative, a collapse of syntax. The model that
allows for the perpetuation of a mass-mediated “totalitarian
democracy,” to borrow a phrase from the philosopher Herbert
Marcuse, leaves out too much of our lived experience to be functional
over the long term. It denies the higher aspects of our nature.
If that is the case, then we should seek to construct the most fabulous
story we are capable of, that still fits the “facts”
of our human existence. Constructing such a narrative is a sacred
task, an act of invocation and initiation. For me, the elaborate
cosmology of the Austrian clairvoyant Rudolf Steiner provides an
extraordinary model. He describes the place of humanity in a long
process of cosmic evolution.
Steiner was an incredible visionary who claimed to have access to
the “Akashic Record,” an imprint of humanity’s
spiritual evolution. In the first decades of the Twentieth Century,
he started his own spiritual movement, Anthroposophy, and gave thousands
of lectures. His books include How to Know Higher Worlds, An Outline
of Esoteric Science, and Cosmic Memory. By describing how humanity
has already passed through – and will enter further –
stages of development that are entirely different than what we now
experience, Steiner gives us a way to think beyond our current impasse.
For Steiner, humanity’s purpose is the transformation of the
Earth. We keep coming back to the Earth in successive incarnations,
until we have finished this task. According to Steiner, not only
human beings, but the earth itself reincarnates. We are currently
in the fourth phase of the earth’s evolution – a concept
that accords perfectly with the cosmology of the Hopis, who consider
this to be the “Fourth World.” In future incarnations
of the Earth, we will reach more advanced psychic states and take
radically different forms, and the Earth will also be something
entirely different than it is now. The “Earth” is not
just this planet, not just the ground we walk upon; it is the cosmic
and feminine principle that nourishes and supports us.
From an esoteric perspective that takes vast cycles of time into
account, Steiner recognized the physical destruction of the Earth
as necessary for the conscious and spiritual evolution of humanity:
“Forces have to be applied for the purpose of destruction,
in order that man may become free of the Earth and that the Earth's
body may fall away. … By understanding the process of evolution
we shall learn to assess our culture at its true value. We shall
also learn that it is necessary for the Earth to be destroyed, for
otherwise the spiritual could not become free.” According
to Steiner, it is only at the end of our prolonged evolution, having
achieved an inconceivably higher state of being, that humanity will
be able to give back to the Earth everything we have taken from
To get through the transformations that are facing us, we must relinquish
our arrogance, recognize our limitations, and develop an entirely
different attitude to the unknown. Devastating as it may seem in
the short term, the end of one cycle means the initiation of the
next. Through the power of our own rational thought, we can reconcile
materialism and mysticism – and we can anchor this understanding
in the “relative reality” of our own minds. As physicists
tell us, everything in the universe is energy undergoing processes
of transformation. Consciousness is a kind of energy – perhaps
the most important kind.
How we think about our world may determine the nature of our reality
– and our future possibilities – at a deeper level than
we yet allow ourselves to imagine.