Friend of Pipeline CP is pursuing his PhD in mythology. It took me a long time to understand exactly what that meant and why mythology is relevant today, but it turns out it is. Whether you’r talking about ancient civilizations or modern ones, humans have a need to make sense of the world. Mythology, along with religion, science, and talk radio, are the main ways people have done that.
One example of a universal myth is the trickster. Most cultures through time have a trickster mythology, a figure that represents the ability to upset the natural order. This could be Loki in Norse mythology or the coyote in southwestern cultures, or it could be…Bugs Bunny or Stephen Colbert today.
Naturally, an interest in mythology will correlate to an interest in ancient cultures and the way they viewed the world, and for that reason CP ends up absorbing a lot of interesting material about diverse parts of history, art, and thought. He has recently been attending a lecture series offered by a group of people associated with the Global New Thought movement. Based on my own extremely limited experience, these are people who have their spirituality cranked up to somewhere between 8 and 11, but find that traditional religion isn’t for them. They tend to look for other sources of inspiration and knowledge, like astrology, gnosticism, and several other things I don’t understand or particularly believe in.
In January, CP asked me to go to one of these lectures to hear Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, recent challenger for the Democratic senate seat from Minnesota. I had heard Nelson-Pallmeyer speak on the radio and thought he was pretty good; his overall emphasis is on peace studies. I’m not a big peace studies person, but I do generally support peace, so why not? Unfortunately, at the last minute I couldn’t go so we figured we’d try another time.
Another time came on Valentine’s Day, bright and early. The subject for this lecture was the Mayan calendar, and the fact that it ends (sort of) in 2012, which is perceived by some people as being a prophesized End of the World. Technically, the Mayan calendar is not coming to an end in 2012 (or October of 2011, depending on who you ask), it is simply ending one 5,000-plus year phase and starting another. But apparently that’s close enough to end times for people who really like to think about things like that.
Normally when people start talking about end times I start looking for the door, but not before I can score some personal gratification points in a meaningless tit-for-tat about the inconsistencies of living a terrestrial life with concerns about hygiene or gainful employment when the end of the world is close at hand. But this time I decided I would take the academic approach and simply take it all in. If things got too esoteric or boring I could always quietly play with my iPhone in the back of the lecture hall.
As soon as we arrived I knew there was trouble. There was no lecture hall. Instead, there were about 30 chairs arranged in a circle in a church basement, a classic group therapy arrangement. Soon I’m wearing a “Hello, my name is…” nametag; CP filled mine out for me, so I couldn’t even use a bogus name like Brigham Young, which is my standard bogus name, or perhaps more appropriately for this crowd, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Jr.
CP could sense my apprehension, but I figured I’d play it cool and just follow his lead. Nothing to worry about, you’re just in a church basement with a bunch of End Timers. It’s no big deal. First thing, we went around the circle and all 32 people were asked to talk about what 2012 meant to them. And wouldn’t you know it, 2012 meant something to every person who went before me. Now if they’d asked about 2112, the classic Rush album, that would be something else. I know that record, and not just because The Trees is on Rock Band 2. And I probably could have talked about 2112, because it’s plausible that people into Global New Thought might have been into Rush before they were crushed by the weight of impending doom, first by Y2K, then by 9/11, then by the revelation that Pluto isn’t really a planet, which fucks astrology, and finally by the year 2012. Instead, I smiled and said 2012 didn’t have much of a meaning to me and that’s why I was there, because I’m a seeker of knowledge and free donut holes.
As we made our way around the circle there were the required references to Bob Dylan, consciousness, mescaline, Saturn, Jupiter, the light and the dark, and donut holes. Based on the respsonses it was clear there were people there like CP, who primarily had an academic interest in 2012. But on the whole, I would say most of the people were there to fill a spiritual need. Some gained from simply learning about the Mayans, and the scope of human time and perception. Other people were primarily concerned about 2012 because it was the next chance on the calendar for a higher power to assert itself, to validate the negative thoughts we have about ourselves and the human condition.
Some of them recognized this tendency and made light of it. One guy introduced himself by saying he was still concerned about Y2K. That drew big laughs, followed by concerned furtive glances around the room that maybe we really didn’t have Y2K licked yet.
Now, look, I was a spectator to this world for a couple of hours, that’s all. These all seemed like good people, and I appreciate their thirst for New Thought. And for that reason, I refuse to make light of some of the things I heard there. But, because I know Pipeline People have the same academic interest in the Mayan calendar and the year 2012 that I do, I will list some of the highlights of the discussion so that you can also be prepared for whatever may come in 2012. Or October, 2011. Whichever comes first.
Highlight #1: “I don’t believe in astrology AT ALL. But my mother was an astrologist and I was raised in that tradition, so I put together about 10 pages of notes and diagrams here to show you the significance of what just happened this morning at 5:38 AM EST, which some might say is the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius. And of course, this alignment matches up with the alignment of the late 1960’s, and we all remember what happened then. (Knowing nods and “ahas” from the crowd, of which only two, CP and myself, are under 50.) And, well, when you match up this planetary alignment with the fact that we are so close to 2012…” Her voice tailed off, for it was no longer necessary to speak. Everything was clear.
Highlight #2: After dividing into small groups, we were asked to share 5 visions of the world if 2012 turns out to be an “end” in a good way, for example if Obama is really a time-traveling Mayan shaman who will bestow consciousness and succulent pineapples upon the globe, and 5 visions of the world if 2012 turns out to be an “end” in a bad way, like extinction of the human race, or higher income taxes on the rich to pay for national health care. On the bad side, I wrote that the future might feature pandemics, resource shortages, and a widening rich-poor gap. I was feeling pretty good about those answers until we got to the group discussion, where the people in my group wrote things like “darkness”, “evil”, and “television”. But they all agreed that pandemics, resource shortages and a widening rich-poor gap would probably be bad, too.
Highlight #2, part B: My “good” vision of the future was that people would come to recognize that spiritual fulfillment was possible without signing on to spiritual determinism; i.e., that people would recognize that they control their own lives, not the stars, and not the non-Obama Mayans. The rest of my group’s vision of a good 2012 outcome was that people would attain consciousness. I agreed that consciousness was good, unless surgery was involved.
Highlight #3: To illustrate a point I was making about the importance of sustainable development, I referenced Star Trek, a world where people basically had jobs to contribute to society, but no real need for income. (Which, as an aside, shows the fierce intellect I bring to these matters. Next week I’ll wow them with a Gilligan’s Island reference.) The woman who was NOT into astrology went off at the mention of Star Trek. “What a charade that show was! When that first came out in the 1960’s everybody said, ‘Oh, look, this is the future!’ But it wasn’t real, it was a total sham, that wasn’t about the future at all. But all people cared about was space. And now look, that man from that show is practically a comedian now, playing a lawyer on some other show!” I made eye contact with another woman in the group, who sheepishly offered, “He’s just an actor, though.”
We ended the session by sharing each group’s thoughts about the dark and the light with the larger group. I was surprised to learn that my group wasn’t unique, that virtually everybody there responded to their visions of the future with symbolism like “dark” and “light”; there were almost no specifics beyond some general hope that Obama represents a change away from our worse selves.
When my turn came, I shared my views on spiritual determinism, that most of the problems that befall this world can be solved with political solutions-we can choose better policies to help close the rich-poor gap, or better allocate resources. And the way we get better policies is to be better informed and more engaged in the political process.
People nodded and smiled, the same way I was when they were discussing the dark and the light. Oil, meet water. But, perhaps there’s something in human nature that leads us to these outcomes, regardless of the policies. Maybe it really is just about the dark and the light, and we will end up wherever the Mayans or Nostradamus or the magic 8 ball portend. On the other hand, maybe better government regulation of food producers and appropriate levels of funding and awareness really can reduce the chances of a pandemic outbreak. That’s light beating dark in action.
Despite these differences that would normally have me rolling my eyes, I found the discussion both interesting and, for lack of a better term, humanizing. We definitely approached the world in different ways, but that’s OK. As our time was winding down I looked around the room and thought, “These people are all crazy, but in a good way.”
Then this happened: We ended the session by standing and holding hands with the people beside us, making the circle one. For reasons I can’t articulate, this kind of thing bugs me. I’ll hold hands with my wife and kids, and maybe my dog if we’re trying to impress somebody, but generally speaking I have a “hands off” policy. When combined with discussions of spritual issues in the basement of a church, what had been an academic curiousity became something else…something churchy.
So there it was: CP had taken me to an End Timer’s Indoctrination Ritual.
And it would have been fine, mostly. I mean, I’ve got no problem holding hands with CP, necessarily. I just hadn’t thought of doing it before. Ten seconds passed, then 20. I’m speaking literally, it was that long. Twenty seconds is a long time to hold anybody’s hand, much less two people. Thank God I didn’t have to hold hands with three people. I started to feel warm, possibly because I hadn’t removed my various layers of clothing at the beginning of the event, part of my effort to stay aloof and flexible in case I needed to leave immediately. At the 30 second mark I felt like I was going through reentry; sweat was beading on my forehead and under my arms. And although “science” hasn’t yet proven this, I know that being really hot during a moment of complete group silence makes you 30% hotter than you were originally.
At 40 seconds I realized you could actually time this silence with the Mayan calendar. I began thinking about how I would describe this experience to Jane, and an image came to my mind from a wedding we attended last May which featured a beautiful Ojibwe drumming ceremony performed by the bride’s brother. As sometimes happens, her brother was fully into the ritual, which took some time to build to a close. This happened on a warm Kansas day, and as the drummer’s rhythmic playing and chanting grew more intense I started to feel warm, possibly because I hadn’t removed my various layers of clothing at the beginning of the event, part of my effort to stay aloof and flexible in case I needed to leave immediately. As the sun was scalding my neck I felt as though I had entered my own trance, one characterized by a vision of me spontaneously combusting to the sounds of the beautiful Ojibwe song .
This, unfortunately, made me laugh. Out loud. Both times, the first time I thought of it at the wedding, and the second time while holding hands with CP and a woman who believed 2012 was the merely the end of one important era and the beginning of another, and all the typical upheaval that accompanies these times will happen, are happening, this time as well. Thankfully no one heard me laugh at the wedding, but here it was different. I coughed, sort of, to disguise what had just happened. My laugh/cough was the only sound in the room for a full 90 seconds. On the drive home CP asked if I was laughing or coughing. I told him it was both. Then I asked him to let go of my hand.
I’m glad I went. I did learn a lot, actually. And although I mostly deride astrology and religion and the like, I do see the value in discussing these things with people, even (or perhaps especially) with people you don’t know. It’s good to try on other perspectives, and this ended up being a worthwhile experience. Unfortunately, Jane had to mar it with her insensitive comment about me and my boyfriend CP going on a Valentine’s date to hold hands and talk about the future.