The end of the world as we know it
Pondering the alarmist, the mystical, the way-out-there ... and the surprisingly hopeful and ongoing sides of Dec. 21, 2012
Published: December 26, 2012
It was easy to dismiss all the hype surrounding the auspicious date of Dec. 21, 2012. There was the far-out talk of Mayan prophecy and the galactic alignment lighting up the pop-culture lens that envisions the apocalypse. There were even the extraterrestrials, about to return.
But even the true believers in Mayan folklore and its New Age interpretations said there was no end of the world in sight. Time doesn't end when the Mayan cycle concludes; it's actually a new beginning.
And even the most spiritually inclined on the 12/21 circuit agreed that it was highly unlikely that anything of great moment would happen during that particular 24-hour period in history. The sun rose and set; the winter solstice passed; we were all around to see tomorrow.
In fact, instead of doomsday, the most optimistic saw the occasion as a signpost or trigger in the transformation of human consciousness and intentions. Their message — and it isn't at all weird or spacey or mystical — is that the world badly needs to change. And if all the attention paid to this 12/21 phenomenon reminds people of what we have to do to save the planet and each other, well — that's worth getting excited about.
Check out the news, if you can bear it: Global warming, mass extinctions, fiscal cliffs, social unrest. Now stop and turn the channel, because we're also writing another story — technological innovation, community empowerment, spiritual yearning, social exploration, and global communication.
Both ancient and modern traditions treat the days surrounding the solstice as a time for reflection and setting our intentions for the lengthening, brightening days to come. And if we really take this moment to ponder the course we're on, maybe the end of the world as we know it might not be such a bad thing.
The long view
The ancient Mayans — who created a remarkably advanced civilization — had an expansive view of time, represented by their Long Count Calendar, which ended this week after 5,125 years. Like many of our pre-colonial ancestors whose reality was formed by watching the slow procession of stars and planets, the Mayans took the long view, thinking in terms of ages and aeons.
The Long Count calendar was broken down into 13 baktuns, each one 144,000 days, so the final baktun that just ended began in the year 1618. That's an unfathomable amount of time for most of us living in a country that isn't even one baktun old yet. We live in an instantaneous world with hourly weather forecasts, daily horoscopes, and quarterly business cycles. Even the rising ocean levels that we'll see in our lifetimes seem too far in the future to rouse most of us to serious action.
So it's even more mind-blowing to try to get our heads around the span of 26,000 years, which was the last time that Earth, the sun, and the dark center of the Milky Way came into alignment on the winter solstice — the so-called "galactic alignment” anticipated by astrologists who see this as a moment (a 25- to 35-year opening) of great energetic power and possibility. The Aztecs and Toltecs who inherited the Mayans' calendar and sky-watching tradition also saw a new era dawning around now, which they called the Fifth Sun, or the fifth major stage of human development. For the Hindus, there are the four "yugas,” long eras after which life is destroyed and re-created. Ancient Greece and early Egyptians also understood long cycles of time clocked by the movement of the cosmos.
Fueled by insights derived from mushroom-fueled shamanic vision quests in Latin America, writer and ethnobotanist Terence McKenna developed his "timewave” theories about expanding human consciousness, using the I Ching to divine the date of Dec. 21, 2012 as the beginning of expanded human consciousness and connection. And for good measure, the Chinese zodiac's transition from dragon to snake also supposedly portends big changes.
So what's going to happen next? Nobody really knows, not even the authors, scholars, and researchers who have devoted big chunks of their lives to the topic. Two of the most prominent are Daniel Pinchbeck, author of 2012: The Return of Quetzacoatl and star of the documentary film 2012: A Time for Change, and John Major Jenkins, who has written nearly a dozen books on 2012 and Mayan cosmology over the last 25 years.
"I never proposed anything specific was going to happen on that date. I think of it as a hinge-point on the shift,” Pinchbeck told me.
In countries with stronger beliefs in myth and mystical thinking, there was genuine anxiety about the Dec. 21 date. A Dec. 1 front page story in The New York Times reported that many Russians were so panicked about Armageddon that the government put out a statement claiming "methods of monitoring what is occurring on planet Earth” and stating the world won't end in December.
Here in the United States, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was also concerned enough about mass hysteria surrounding the galactic alignment and Mayan calendar that it set up a "Beyond 2012: Why the World Won't End” website and issued press statements to address people's eschatological concerns.
> Email Steven T. Jones