A lot of people are starting to feel portents of doom centering around the mysterious goings-on in the Mayan calendar on December 21, 2012. What follows is a psychological assessment of what's going on.
"End of the World" or millenarian ideas usually have two components: a real underlying issue (that may or may not be consciously recognized) and a focusing symbol of some kind. The millenarian meme reaches full power when there is a threat that is real but only dimly perceived by most, and a symbol that has both logical and supernatural aspects. The logical aspect makes the symbol acceptable to our rational minds, and a religious or spiritual context always amplifies the power of symbols.
There have been two recent examples of "doomsday fever" that can help illuminate what's going on with 2012.
The nuclear holocaust fears around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis were founded on the real fear of a first strike triggering a global thermonuclear war. The focusing symbol was Communism, a quasi-religious system that was poorly understood in the west and was imbued with a Manichean aspect of pure evil.
The Y2K panic was founded on a real fear of widespread computer malfunctions in critical systems. The symbol was of course the year "00", which had both a logical component (we were all told how you couldn't get 4 numbers into a computer memory designed to hold only two), amplified by a deeply non-rational belief in the power of numbers, i.e. numerology.
The thing that prevented either of these psychic outbreaks from reaching full potential was the lack of an overt religious or spiritual connection to their driving symbols. Their power in the unconscious mind was mainly secular.
With that in mind, here's how I see the 2012 fever:
The real underlying threat driving this outbreak is the accelerating pace of ecological breakdown and climate change, the increasing instability of the world's economic system, rising cultural/religious tensions and the predictions of imminent Peak Oil and its potential impact on modern civilization. Most of the dire predictions of a near term peak in the global oil supply seem to cluster around 2012, the global economic collapse seems set to happen over the same time frame, predictions of global disruptions due to climate change are getting worse and the timing of their effects is drawing closer with every new report. Whether or not any of these effects actually manifest in the next two or three years, they all appear to have that potential and to be converging on that point in time. In the game of social frenzy, appearances are everything.
So those are the "real" factors contributing to our sense of unease. In the face of that, it's easy to see why the year 2012 has acquired such symbolic power. The timing is exactly right, there is a logical component to the symbol (the Mayan calendar is real) and it has a deep spiritual aspect as well. The end of the time cycle that is apparently tracked by the real calendar resonates deeply with ideas of "transformation through crisis" that are at the core of all mystical traditions.
These ideas are now entering the collective consciousness through various media, so even if people try to deny the accelerating physical changes in the world they are being subliminally shifted towards this awareness. The "2012 meme" fits into this situation perfectly, since it's in the right time frame and speaks to a great turning into a new, utterly unpredictable state. It has enormous psychic power as a result. Even if one discounted the spiritual dimension of the 2012 idea, it was inevitable that it would become an archetypal vision in this time of upheaval.
One other thing that's happening is that more and more people who recognize the possibility of an imminent collapse of modern civilization are responding with a turn to the spiritual. If hope cannot be found in physical or psychological materialism, it is always available in the spiritual dimension. We simply re-frame the problem so that a solution can be found. With its inherent spiritual component, the vision of a "2012 shift" is a natural component of this response.
It's going to be fascinating to watch this psychic fever build. I suspect it's going to be a lot more powerful than anything in recent history.
Comment by: auntiegrav (auntiegrav) (Nov-20-2009)
The dawning of the Age of Aquarius is a very specific time period, and though it was hyped 40 years ago, it really didn't dawn then. Rand Flem Ath does a good job of covering the zodiac ages in his books. We tend to think of the astrological signs as simply time periods and the names of star patterns, but the patterns may have been sought according to the climate of a particular time or other major factors. The last Age of Aquarius perhaps saw the melting of glaciers and flooding of coastal plains. This one may also. I don't believe in time travel personally, but if there was such a thing available, and some alien race gave the Mayans a glimpse of what was to come, then the countdown toward 2012 may have been useful. The largest civilization of the time, paid a visit by a helpful visitor, could have done wonderful things with that knowledge. Unfortunately, Euroconsumption killed them off and we'll never know the true story, even if we survive.
Comment by: Wavehunter (William Coffin) (Nov-12-2009) Web site
Thanks for these insights. In 'reality' the world is no more likely to end in 2012 than in 2011 or 2013, but you're right that the spiritual magnetism attached to 2012 may draw the coming crises together. 2012 may turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophesy, such is the power of psychology. Think of the stock market: nothing fundamental changes from one day to the next, but prices may rise or fall by massive amounts. Fear and panic may likewise affect our perceptions of reality and our actions.
I might add to your crises the food and water crises, which are related to climate change and peak oil, and another that may be 'real' but is probably 'fake': the idea that the solar system may be about to pass through an area of galactic turbulence.
I like your idea that the earth or civilisation is entering a new era. This seems more in line with Mayan thinking as I understand it and is certainly more optimistic than the 2012 portrayed in the Hollywood film. But didn't we have a similar idea 40 years ago with 'the dawning of the Age of Aquarius'?
Finally, I think your illustration shows the Aztec calendar rather than the Mayan one!
I am a Canadian ecologist with a passionate interest in outside the box responses to the converging crisis of industrial civilization.
The crisis of civilization is not simply a convergence of technical, environmental and organizational problems. These are symptoms that are themselves being driven by a philosophical and perceptual disconnection so deep that it is best understood as a spiritual breakdown. The disconnection goes by the name of Separation.
Our sense of separation is what allows us to see ourselves as different from and superior to the rest of the apparently non-rational universe we live in. In this worldview the complex mutual interdependence of all the elements of the universe is replaced by a simple dualistic categorization: there are human beings, and everything else in the universe—without exception—is a resource for us to use.
The only way to keep this planet, our one and only home in the universe, from being ultimately ravaged and devastated is to change our worldview and heal our sense of separateness. Unless we can manage that breathtaking feat all the careful application of technology, all the well-intentioned regulations, all the unbridled cleverness of which we are so proud will do little to delay the final outcome, and nothing whatever to prevent it.
My desire is to find ways to heal that sense of separation, with the goal of helping us prepare for ecological adulthood.