The Plumed Serpent Returns: An Interview with Daniel Pinchbeck

By Diane Wilde

Daniel Pinchbeck caught our attention a few years ago with Breaking Open the Head. His new book, 2012: The Return of Quetzaquatl is a dense but rewarding read.

plumedserpent“There are more things in Heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
—Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I

Daniel Pinchbeck’s most recent book, “2012, The Return of Quetzalcoatl,” is a vivid personal journey through inner space, replete with psychedelic visions and thoughtful insights. It includes forays into the alien abduction phenomenon, English crop circles, the Mayan Calendar, Quetzalcoatl, Burning Man, South American shamanism and a brief discourse on the failures of monogamy. Scattered throughout this diverse terrain are references to a long list of pundits and intellectual luminaries, including Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung, Rudolf Steiner, Jean Gebser, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Rupert Sheldrake, Herbert Marcuse, José Arguelles and many others.

Although his subjects cover a lot of territory, Pinchbeck uses personal narrative and philosophical commentary to bring it all together into a coherent whole. He approaches his material seriously, with keen interest and a skeptical but open attitude. Pinchbeck’s interests and psychedelic explorations echo those of Terrence McKenna, but he has a more literary writing style. He seems to have a talent for pulling together complex material.

2012 was published in May 2006 and is currently in its sixth printing with 28,000 copies now in print. Although they realized that the current notoriety of the year 2012 in some circles was a good marketing ploy, both Pinchbeck and the publisher are pleasantly surprised at how well the book has been selling.

Pinchbeck spent a busy three-day weekend in Salt Lake City just before Thanksgiving last year. He met with me to talk about his ideas and plans for the future.

His first book, “Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism,” (now out in paper) was published in 2002. Pinchbeck has written for The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Wired, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, ArtForum, and many other publications. He lives in New York City, where he grew up as the only child of an artist father and a writer mother.

Both of Pinchbeck’s books deal with subject matter that tends to be shunned, dismissed or snickered at by mainstream culture, but he says his choice of subjects is determined by what resonates with him. Queztalcoatl represents “the union of spirit and matter.” He proposes that the completion of the Great Cycle of the Mayan calendar and Queztalcoatl’s return, due to take place in 2012, are archetypes. “Their underlying meaning points toward a shift in the nature of the psyche” he says. “If this theory is correct, the transformation of our consciousness will lead to the rapid creation, development and dissemination of new institutions and social structures, corresponding to our new level of mind. From the limits of our current chaotic and uneasy circumstances, this process may well resemble an advance toward a harmonic, perhaps even utopian, situation of the Earth.”

Pinchbeck wears a silver pendant shaped like a fractal of the Mandelbrot set—the same spiral pattern that’s embossed onto the green cover jacket of “2012.” The Mandelbrot set, which was spawned by chaos mathematical theory, is an excellent symbol of our intimately connected and interrelated reality and looks very much like a feathered serpent.

In “2012,” he explains how he became alienated and dissatisfied with his life in twenty-first century Manhattan.

When I was young, I looked forward to a future as a writer and editor in an essentially stable culture that, despite change, would endure long past my life. Literature and art seemed, in themselves, of enduring value…. Like most people, I accepted the concrete solidity of modern civilization and believed its institutions would remain in place. I no longer have that perspective. Mulling over the facts, considering our situation over time, I concluded, sadly, that our current civilization is not a machine built to last.       

Pinchbeck goes on to say that he “never expected to be fascinated by visions and dreams and synchronicities." Since becoming interested and involved in all the facets of his studies, he often felt “compelled or fated—perhaps tragically misguided”—to draw together ideas from such apparently diverse realms as Jungian psychology and quantum paradox, and “such seemingly outré subjects as crop circles, alien abductions, Amazonian shamanism and the end of time.” One of the charms of Pinchbeck’s writing is his ready willingness to admit to some humility and uncertainty about the material he’s exploring.

In person, Pinchbeck is calm and unassuming. He exudes a clear confidence in his vision of the world, which he explains in the introduction to “2012.”

This book advances a radical theory: that human consciousness is rapidly transitioning to a new state, a new intensity of awareness that will manifest as a different understanding, a transformed realization, of time and space and self. By this thesis, the transition is already under way—though largely subliminally—and will become increasingly evident as we approach the year 2012.

He believes the ever-increasing development of technology and the ecological devastation we are continuing to create are material manifestations of a “psycho-spiritual process taking place on a planetary scale.” Human beings have unconsciously created the crisis we now have to deal with to “force our own accelerated transformation” into more spiritually advanced beings.

Pinchbeck’s is just one voice in a growing chorus trying to draw our attention to the dire straits in which we now find ourselves as fragile humans living on a planet far too large and dynamic to be completely within our control. The majority of people in the world and, perhaps particularly in the U.S., continue with their lives as though nothing unusual is happening. They expect to go on living in “an essentially stable culture that, despite change, will endure.” Conditions as vast and global as worldwide climate change and ecological destruction are too big and abstract for most people to relate to in any meaningful way.

Interestingly, several different thinkers coming at the topic from various angles arrive at the same conclusion regarding the time frame. For example, Ervin Laszlo’s recent book, “Chaos Point—World at the Crossroads,” written in 2005 and published in 2006, is subtitled “Seven Years to Avoid Global Collapse and Promote Worldwide Renewal.” Laszlo is a systems scientist and philosopher with impeccable academic credentials. I’m pretty sure he didn’t arrive at the date 2012 based on any predictions from the Mayan calendar.

Two approaches to higher consciousness

Pinchbeck sees two main currents active in contemporary Western metaphysical thinking today. One is the Buddhist/Eastern religious approach of people like Ken Wilber, Andrew Cohen and Pema Codron. Wilber, for example, prefers to emphasize traits versus states. He feels that psychedelics may put people into enlightening nonordinary states, but these voyages to different states don’t produce permanent traits. Pinchbeck differs on this point. “I think he underestimates how psychedelics used ceremonially can help move people from states to traits. This trait-focused approach tends to lack an orientation to the subtle or spirit realms. Even Tibetan Buddhism, which is the more shamanic form of Buddhism, tends to dismiss the use of psychedelic substances, although, the Bardo realms of Tibetan Buddhism would qualify as subtle levels.” The other main current is the shamanic approach, which sanctions the ceremonial use of psychoactive substances and is more in touch with subtle realms. Pinchbeck admits that he has a clear preference for the shamanic. “It has been my path. I don’t necessarily suggest that it’s best for everyone.”

Shamanism and psychedelics

“Many people are wary of shamanism because it is closely linked to sorcery. Psychedelics tend to accentuate whatever is. It’s possible to stumble into some very dark places.” For an excellent discussion of some of the more challenging aspects of psychedelic exploration, Pinchbeck recommends reading Christopher Bache's book, “Dark Night, Early Dawn.”

In “2012,” Pinchbeck says most people in our culture reject the use of psychedelics and consider non-ordinary states and other psychic phenomena to be either nonexistent or meaningless. He writes that the impulse to preserve the materialist worldview and its system of values tends to reinforce a willful ignorance towards anything that threatens the underpinnings of a culture obsessed with acquiring wealth, goods, and status. He ultimately determined that he could no longer operate on assumptions and go along with values the he increasingly suspected to be false even if such a decision meant that he would be isolated from mainstream culture.

How can people mitigate the psychological risk of using psychedelics?

“The risk can be reduced by using proper containers, such as the Santo Daime or the Native American Church, something with a lineage.” Pinchbeck tells about his experience with the Santo Daime in the book. The religion uses ayahuasca ceremonies as a key element of practice. But Pinchbeck feels that “the alternative community is becoming more aware and more sophisticated about the use and misuse of psychedelics. We can create our own containers.”


Intention is receiving a great deal of attention of late in many books and in recent films such as “What the Bleep Do We Know” and “The Secret.” In the book, Pinchbeck quotes physicist J.A. Wheeler. “Participant is the incontrovertible new concept given by quantum mechanics.” Pinchbeck goes on, “That consciousness is embedded in the processes it perceives, continually changing them while it is changed by them, was an insight conveyed to me, and many others, during psychedelic trips.”

I asked Pinchbeck to expand on this idea.

“Through the activity of our consciousness, we shape the reality we encounter. We find corroboration of our ideas in the world around us. It seems to me that intention is becoming more powerful recently. Lots of people seem to be experiencing this.”

Time-Freedom and Sex

Pinchbeck also deals with the Western world’s spatially based view of time. We tend to see time as being like space. We say we don’t have “enough” time, it takes a “long” time, and we need to “save” time. All spatial concepts! Much of the exposition of this spatial view of time comes from German philosopher Jean Gebser (1905-1973). His magnum opus, “The Ever-Present Origin,” was translated into English in 1985.

Gebser argues that our current structure of consciousness began with the Greeks, reached its full flowering with the Renaissance and the discovery of perspective, and has since entered its “deficient” or decadent phase. During this period, mental-rational humanity became not only obsessed with space, but possessed by space—by the possibilities that developed from our increasing ability to transform matter and shape physical reality. We learned to see ourselves, for the first time, embedded in—and simultaneously alienated from—the threedimensions surrounding us.

He prophesied a shift from mental and conceptual thought—the ingrained metaphysics of materialism—to a multidimensional realization, a translucent awareness, not denying this reality but taking into account the spaceless and timeless origin, Jungian pleroma or aboriginal dreamtime, in which the fractal finite reflected the unfolding infinite. “Time-freedom is the conscious form of archaic, original pre-temporality,” Gebser wrote. One of the primary results of psychedelic experience is an altered experience of time that comes close to what Gebser refers to as “time-freedom.”

“Are there any experiences other than psychedelic drugs that do that?” I asked Pinchbeck.

“In ordinary reality, orgasm represents a timeless moment. This is the only experience that makes time-freedom available for most people. It is the most ordinary way to non-ordinary states. That is why sex has become so obsessive and degraded in today’s world. It is spiritual desire made diabolical.”

In the book, Pinchbeck laments what he sees as the problematic nature of monogamy. I asked him if he thinks monogamy is wrong for everyone. “Not everyone,” he replied.

“One aspect of my next book will be on tantra. Tantra practitioners learn to elongate the orgasmic state, providing a window into another consciousness. Our culture’s emphasis on sex for procreation is the lower path. Self-creation is the higher path. Most of our population problem is due to the lower-level uses of sexuality. I’m interested in seeing our culture move toward less restriction and more discipline. There are a variety of sexual behaviors. Few people are the same. Insisting on monogamy means that many people are not living in integrity.”

On Burning Man

In the book, Pinchbeck indicated that he was becoming rather disappointed with Burning Man.

“You accused participants of having deteriorated into detached hedonists with ‘grotesque and unearned spiritual pretensions,’ and you referred to the energy as ‘adolescent and stagnant.’ And yet you went back again this year. Why was that?” I asked.

“It is kind of a fulcrum for consciousness and conscious evolution,” he said, adding that this turned out to be his best burn ever. “The fact that I liked it again after being disillusioned earlier is just typical of the cycle of developing relationships.”

Features of a new, more viable system

I asked Pinchbeck what he saw as the primary characteristics of a more advanced society. He mentioned four major features.

Integrity. “Integrity is a fundamental value in a new system. Psychedelic experiences can help you understand the importance of acting openly and honestly.”

Discrimination. “In the Kabbalah each sephirah is a level of attainment in knowledge. On earth, discrimination, or judgment, is what we need to gain. Today, we are overloaded with information and noise distraction. Each person needs to find the keys to his own transformation. It’s important not to be attached to one’s own identity or worldview and, therefore, be closed to new information.”

Present awareness. “Focus on the now, not on the past or the future.”

Empathy/compassion. “We all have the ability to make a difference. Most organizations and media are designed to maintain control. There is a distinction between control and mastery. Mastery is the surrender to the reality of the situation.”


Pinchbeck thinks it’s a good idea to use the power and organizational abilities of corporations to help move society in a more sustainable direction.

EVO ( is Pinchbeck’s new business venture. He and his partners have been working on it for nearly two years and will be launching this spring. EVO uses a rating system called the EVO Index to rate various companies on such factors as energy use and pay differential between workers and management.

Members of EVO receive exclusive benefits and discounts on goods and services from companies with good ratings on the EVO Index. One purpose is to connect you to companies with the most environmentally and ethically sound goods and services—as well as to other people who share your vision. Check the website for more details.

Pinchbeck says, “It is important to keep the EVO company culture in harmony with our goals—to have a healthy work culture and aim for balance. We want to gear work to individual preferences, and working 4-6 hours a day is more efficient than putting in a lot more hours with diminishing results.”


Pinchbeck believes that technology is a manifestation of whatever psycho-spiritual process humanity is undergoing. It expresses our current level of consciousness. “Technologies are thought forms given material existence.” He held up his Blackberry. “Ten years ago, who would have thought we’d have something like this?” I recalled something my former boss said over 20 years ago: “Every time you turn around, it seems like there’s less material and more magic.”

Pinchbeck agrees with José Arguelles that after 2012 we will become “post-technological.” We may move to a level of consciousness where we can communicate and act directly (mindfully), without the need for technological intermediaries. “Things are in process. You can’t use a tool until you see it, then you find many ways to use it. A talented group of people working together could turn around our disastrous situation in a month.”

“A month,” I said? “Do you really believe that?”

“Well, okay—maybe, six months. We are currently using resources so irrationally. Committed people working together could allocate resources much more rationally by using the kinds of ideas developed by Buckminster Fuller, for example.”

Infectiousness of new consciousness

“The dynamic of change kicks in when the dominant structure becomes detached from lived experience,” Pinchbeck says. “When this detachment reaches a certain point, it will no longer be viable. It’s an entropic process. It’s important that we don’t give in to a kind of collective death wish about our ultimate fate on the planet. Those who pay the most attention can act more effectively. Not many people will become very discriminating, but if enough people do, new ideas will spread. The initially ‘elite’ values will start to be mirrored in the masses.”

Pinchbeck is remarkably optimistic about our chances of surviving, and even thriving, assuming that we can move quickly to a new level of consciousness regarding who we are and where we might be headed. 

Diane Wilde is a freelance writer and lives in Salt Lake City.

This article was originally published on December 31, 2006.