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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 other cataclysms.

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 Church?

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 loop.

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 farther.

William Blake described our current situation in his poem, “Europe: A Prophecy”:

"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 of flesh.”

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 sneer.

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 control group.

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 it.

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.

© 2002 21C Magazine