My friend smiled when I came in. Her eyes were bright, her cheeks aglow. Her dark hair fell across her face as she gestured toward the papers spread out before her. She’d been up all night, she said. I looked uncomprehendingly at the odd scribblings — numbers, hexagrams, astrological glyphs, the wild scribblings of some mysterious inner journey. Then I glanced again at her face. “Have you been tripping?” I asked, foolishly. Back in those days, I might as well have asked if the sun was really shining, the birds singing their morning hymns. The look in her eyes was rapturous; she had crossed the threshold of reason and returned, bearing some precious gift. “I’ve figured it out,” she said exultantly, her hand sweeping the desk, the room, the world outside her window. “I’ve found my cosmic zip code.”

Although I couldn’t make sense of the arcane symbols, I knew what she meant: she had followed the signs along the winding trail that leads from who we think we are to who we really are, from self to Self, from lonely isolation to God. Fifteen years ago, there were signs everywhere: in books; in dreams; in the date of your birth and in the lines of your palm; in everyday moments understood as fantastic omens. Since the signs were different for everyone, it was important not to judge; one person’s foolishness was another’s wisdom. I mean, my friend’s scribblings seemed like nonsense, but modern science was mumbo-jumbo to me also; I didn’t have to understand electricity to know the lights came on when I turned the switch. Light was light; bliss was bliss.

At least, that’s the kind of tolerance to which I aspired, in those days when everyone’s dreams soared and our astonishing insights carried us higher and higher. But even then, I was a different kind of bird: too introspective, too harsh in the judgements I unrepentantly kept making. I believed in the light, but I believed, too, in the shadows — and in the twilight of my beliefs, I sat perched like some mournful owl, waiting.

I couldn’t say then exactly what I was waiting for, but I knew it wasn’t an easy answer. The “new age” was already starting to degenerate into a carny show of swamis and crystals. Soon, for every real teacher, there were ten hucksters, promising to deliver in a three-day weekend what it had traditionally taken seekers a lifetime to understand. The sacred mysteries were being marketed with typical American ingenuity — seen as a resource, like oil, to be exploited at whim. Although this was a time of profound awakening for many people, there was a price to be paid, and not just in workshop fees. Divorced from their ancient traditions, the great teachings were naively and impatiently translated into a form that would entice naive, impatient Americans, who don’t like to wait for anything, including enlightenment. We got the white bread: occult propaganda, the romance of past lives, cults, spiritual materialism and spiritual pride.

Of course, we weren’t the first to distort the old truths. Five hundred years ago, the Sufi poet Kabir, who abhorred received knowledge and spiritual passivity, wrote, “Mohammed’s son pores over words/ and points of this and that,/ but if his chest is not soaked dark with love/ what then?” The world’s oldest spiritual texts warn how artful we are at fooling ourselves, how capable the mind is of turning anything, even spiritual truth, to selfish, silly ends.

Was it any wonder, then, that my friend imagined that in the course of a single night she had figured it all out — that with her I Ching and her Tarot deck and her numerology books (and the merest smidgen, just a few millionths of a gram, of LSD), she had cracked the code, parted the veil, found her rightful place in the cosmos? Ecstasy has always been more inviting than the age-old teachings about daily study and meditation and worship, character-building and training and discipline — the homework which is required to turn a transcendent experience, which briefly takes us beyond ourselves, into a real transformation that irrevocably changes our lives. Light is light, but a sudden inspiration may not be the dawn of understanding. Nor does our ardor for peace, expressed in glowing phrases, get us through the night. To make a fire last, we bank it and tend it; the light of self is tended, too, through boredom and loss and despair.

 

What brings to mind those days of impassioned searching was last summer’s Harmonic Convergence. Celebrated by thousands at such “sacred sites” as Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids and the Grand Canyon, hailed as the beginning of an era of love and peace — “the spiritual Woodstock,” one observer called it — the Harmonic Convergence symbolized for me all the galling contradictions and exaggerated expectations of the “new age.” I don’t question the deep longing which drew people to the gatherings — the wish to reach out to others in the gathering darkness of a troubled time, the yearning for communion and for a resurrection of hope. But as an event — the kind of synthetic happening the historian Daniel Boorstin once termed a “pseudo-event” — it represented the worst kind of spiritual showmanship. Elitist, flamboyant, bewitchingly unreal, it parodied the new age better than any satirist.

The Convergence was the inspiration of Jose Arguelles, a forty-eight-year-old art historian and author, whose most recent work, The Mayan Factor: Path Beyond Technology (“the most important book of the century,” its publisher exults) reveals the secrets of the ancient Mayans, whose prophecies pointed to August 16 and 17, 1987, as a profound turning point in history.

Hailed by the new age press as a visionary, and derided by the mainstream media (Time called him “a dedicated publicist” for his new book), Arguelles strikes me as a brilliant trickster who delightedly mixes cosmic wisdom and whimsy, kneeling before the mysteries with a rascally twinkle in his eye. (“This is the first Mayan be-in for — well, for a long time,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Kind of sexy. We represent the hot, luminous tip of a galacto-magnetic vortex.”)

A friend of mine who knows and respects Arguelles calls him a “journalist of the unfamiliar,” dutifully reporting what he sees. Apparently, what Arguelles envisioned for August 16 and 17 was the beginning-of-the-end of life as we know it, the start of a twenty-five year period of “cleansing” and “purification” that will culminate in an end to the arms race, full-scale de-industrialization, the redistribution of global wealth, and so on.

Astrologically, Arguelles said last summer, the time is ripe: on the weekend of the Convergence, the nine planets were aligned in an unusual configuration called a grand trine. He also pointed to three separate but strikingly similar prophecies from ancient times: the Aztec calendar ended on August 16, which the Aztecs believed would mark the second coming of Quetzalcoatl, their god of peace; Hopi Indian legend predicted that 144,000 enlightened teachers would help awaken the rest of humanity on that same day; finally, and most compellingly, we’re close to the end of the Mayan calendar, and thus at a moment of historical magnitude “exceeding anything we’ve ever known.”

According to Arguelles, the Mayans (who, he says, were really extraterrestrials) measured time in terms of a huge wave, or “galactic beam,” 5,125 years in diameter, through which the Earth is passing. The wave’s harmonic properties have shaped the rise, and now the fall, of civilization — for in 2012, when the Mayans’ “great cycle” comes to an end, we will pass into a “galactic synchronization phase.”

“The higher intelligences,” he says, “are waiting for us to become exhausted with our technology, to realize that ultimately it can’t help us.” August 16 and 17, exactly twenty-five years before the critical shift, marked a “cosmic trigger point.” By gathering on those days to dance and meditate, to “resonate in harmony with the cosmos,” 144,000 believers would usher in a new age.

Underlying this notion, Arguelles explains, is the theory of The Hundredth Monkey, which suggests that when enough members of a species become aware of a new idea, it triggers a change in the consciousness of the entire species. Thus, if 144,000 people believe deeply enough in the likelihood of world peace, a critical mass is reached and somehow the idea becomes true for everyone. (Arguelles doesn’t stop to ponder some of the chilling implications of this theory in a pluralistic culture that values non-conformity and individual rights. I’m not sure I’m willing to give up the democratic ideal in favor of an ideology in which what is true for a critical mass becomes true for everyone. But I realize this may seem like carping to the architect of a new world order, “a global village of planetary synchronization and cooperation ruled by the arts of peace.”)

You don’t settle into Arguelles’s writing as if it were a well-padded armchair. In a typically restrained passage, he calls upon the “synchronized and unified bio-electromagnetic collective battery” — that’s us — to create a “resonance between your circuit and the terrestrial and solar circuits.” It’s a little hard to resonate with language like this, and I suspect that many of the people drawn to the Convergence neither understood nor cared much about Arguelles’s more esoteric ideas. As one woman put it, “Even if the whole thing was made up, just to have thousands or millions of people coming together and envisioning the same thing has power in itself. Whether it’s real or not is something else.”

Was it made up? Arguelles’s interpretations of the ancient prophecies are controversial: the Hopis publicly disavowed any connection with the Convergence; authorities on Aztec and Mayan cultures scoffed at Arguelles’ research. Scholars say that no one knows when the Aztec calendar started; therefore no one can accurately predict when it will end. And while the Mayan calendar does end in 2012, there’s no indication why things would start changing twenty-five years before then. As one expert said, “There seems to be a lot of reinterpretation here.” Of course, there are experts, and there are experts. Arguelles dryly points out, “When Galileo said the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around, he ran into problems with the experts of his time.”

More problematic for me than Arguelles’s research was his wildly grandiose notion of staging a “planet art event.” In fact, the Harmonic Convergence may have had less to do with the ancient prophecies than with Arguelles’s passion for spectacle, and his wish to demonstrate that “nothing is more likely to unify humanity than the power of art.”

It seems more likely to me that the Mayans came here in flying saucers than that art will save us from ourselves. The redemptive power of art was an intoxicating idea in Greenwich Village coffeehouses in the Fifties — and, for that matter, in Germany, just before the start of World War II. How misguided to imagine that in art lies some sort of salvation, to deify our “highest” creations instead of seeing God in the shadow dance of light and dark. Yet just as scientists imagine technology will save us, and priests put their faith in rituals, and Wall Street cherishes the power of the buck, Arguelles sees salvation in the human ability to make things, to fashion the true and the beautiful — everything from the prehistoric paintings on cave walls to the Live-Aid concert in 1985, “an unprecedented planet art event, which demonstrated the power of artists united by a common cause greater than their own self-interest.”

In an essay he wrote more than a year before the Convergence, Arguelles is candid about his ambition. Ironically, I came across the essay just a few days before the Convergence. It had been published in an obscure theosophical journal, which was buried in my pile of unread magazines (itself a kind of art event, a stack nearly as tall as I am, which despite dire predictions has never toppled). Interestingly, Arguelles doesn’t mention the Aztecs or Mayans or the Hopis, or the planets in their odd configuration, or the flying saucers, or the end of time. As an aside, he notes that the Convergence “correlates with dates long prophesied as a time of purification and regeneration,” but that’s it. Instead, Arguelles enjoins us to consider whether Live-Aid might not be surpassed by something bigger and better, a happening “put together with a little more consciousness and intention of effort.” Could the media, he asks, “be intelligently used as to create another planet art event” that would be “decisive” in signalling a shift in consciousness to “a new world order”? It was a lot to expect, even from a world-class art event, but without art, Arguelles insists, “there would be little by which to gauge our capacity for spiritual ennoblement.”

So you see, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the prophecies weren’t simply the icing for the most audacious piece of performance art anyone had dreamt up in quite a while, real theater-in-the-round, with a cast of thousands, all of them extras on the stage of Jose Arguelles’s imagination — gathered beneath the blazing stars that guided the Mayans, twinkling like stars themselves in the night sky of his vision: light-bearers, artists, dreamers of the new, rising from the ashes of a sad and dying world.

 

I have no quarrel with anyone celebrating the beauty of the planet, or the strange beauty and tender dreams in each of us. Admittedly, I’m more private in my devotions, but that’s because I’m shy, not because I think my way is better. Surely, it’s good to sing and dance on mountain tops, to sit in a circle and chant, to come together to honor who we are, to create a heightened awareness of our daily lives by stepping out of them.

But I’m distressed when — in the name of humanity — humanity itself is diminished. All this striving for who we might become in a new age that’s just around the corner — this breathless anticipation of an event that will transform history, whether it’s the Harmonic Convergence, or the revolution, or the dove descending from the sky — makes us forget who we are, here and now; blinds us to the rich textures of our existence, to the courage and heartaches and doubts and surprises that have always been the crucible for human life.

I’m distressed, too, by the uncritical acceptance of Arguelles’s ideas by people who can make no more sense of a Mayan hieroglyph than they can of a computer manual — but who scorn computer experts, whose language and passion they can’t understand, while praising Arguelles, whose cosmic techno-babble gets them high. I guess I’d be high, too, if I thought a few thousand people thinking the right thoughts could save me. Or maybe not: maybe I’d insist that my salvation be shaped by my bumbling efforts each day to express a little of the divine; by my painful acknowledgement of my all too obvious limitations; by the unending difficulty I have accepting the darkness in my heart along with the light.

And I’m confused about exactly what the Convergence was supposed to accomplish. Standing together and visualizing world peace is important. I know from my own experience that visualization works. Thoughts give birth to worlds; our creative power is limitless. But peace remains an empty abstraction — no matter how positive my thoughts — unless I also do something that extends my compassion, act in a way that nourishes and heals.

Of course, in some situations it’s hard to know just what to do, and the rehashed cliches about love and peace certainly don’t give us any clues. For example, in a world where conflict may be necessary to right social wrongs — in South Africa, say, or in the ghettos of this country — “peace” may be seen as a defense of the status quo. What do we say to people who, rightly or wrongly, are willing to kill for justice, or so their children can eat? Similarly, when Arguelles speaks glibly of redistributing wealth, what does he mean? What was the message of the Convergence to the mother of three on welfare in New York or the family in Iowa who have lost their farm or the out-of-work drifter whose home is the street?

Indeed, when it comes to rhetoric about the future, Arguelles seems not so different from the politicians who also promise change without hinting at the cost. “Cleansing” the earth sounds messy to me. “Full-scale de-industrialization” suggests tremendous suffering, unimaginable loss.

Prophecies such as this go against the real spirit of change; they impose the future on the present, burden the blessed ordinariness of our day-to-day existence with someone else’s dark view of life. I don’t know where the ancient Mayans came from, or how prescient they were, but they’re not here now; we are. We’re here to make our own choices, uneclipsed by hope or hopelessness, both of which take us away from what is immediate, personal, real.

Even if the prophecies are true, will our work on ourselves be any different? What really changes when everything changes? Won’t we still be struggling with our prejudices, our denials, our fears? Ram Dass tells a story that speaks poignantly to me of a different awareness: every hundred years, a bird with a silk scarf in its beak flies over a solid granite mountain six miles long, six miles wide, six miles high. Each time the bird flies past, it runs the scarf over the mountain. The length of time it takes the scarf to wear away the mountain is how long it takes us to wear away our illusions.

On this long, long journey that yet can seem so brief, why rehearse the end of the world — or pretend a new world will ask less of us than this one, with its endless joys and griefs?

— Sy