Not a book review, wind-up: beyond Barbara Hand Clow’s The Mayan Code (or WTF is ‘enlightenment’?)

The radical vision of mass enlightenment at the heart of The Mayan Code (2007) is, for Barbara Hand Clow, a mere variation on a theme. Two decades ago she published an astrology text, Liquid Light of Sex (1991), which posits that a planetary cycle common to us all at midlife triggers the spiritual crisis she and others call ‘kundalini rising’.

So WTF is kundalini? The Sanskrit term used to offend some writers’ group members with whom I workshopped a novel about an initiatory journey. No matter how artfully I’d orchestrate a scene to show the word’s meaning, it never escaped the charge of jargon. (Surely a piss-take of any subculture that doesn’t exploit its lingo = a missed opportunity?) I began to suspect that the concept and its implied potential, not the mere word, unsettled them, as if they’d forgotten that what they were reading was ‘fiction’ (one reason why the novel remains useful for voicing subversive ‘truths’).

In her preface to Liquid Light of Sex, Hand Clow sums up a discussion with a guy she describes as an extremely brilliant thinker of our times:

‘For William Irwin Thompson, the disturbing issue raised by [this book] is that, if I am correct in my central thesis—that kundalini rises and causes a spiritual crisis in all people around age 40 and that this rise can be timed according to the cycles of the planet Uranus—then the implication could be that all people could attain enlightenment, since many people in the West equate kundalini rising with enlightenment. Bill concurs that kundalini rising is the spiritual fire that enables some humans to attain mystical attunement, but he also believes that kundalini rising does not necessarily accomplish enlightenment. To him, such a state of being cannot exist without compassion, without the opening of the heart, and I agree (p. xiv).’

In fact, kundalini rising has been known to trigger psychosis, as Thompson hints at in The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality and the Origins of Culture (1981), referring to the initiate’s ‘dangerous period of instability (p. 226)’. And antipsychotic meds are notoriously unconducive to mystical attunement. Yet, to return to Hand Clow’s preface: ‘it is time to consider the possibility that the agenda of our times may be enlightenment for the masses or at least for enough people to become enlightened to make a critical mass so we can leap out of destructive behavioral modes (p. xv).’ Here, Hand Clow refers to Eastern-style (spiritual), not Western-style (intellectual), enlightenment; and in The Mayan Code she goes still further: enlightenment is potentially available to all, if not via some metaphysical system then due to timing, but in a collective surge (during 2011–12) rather than as a function of an individual’s life cycle.

The assumption that this is desirable (supposing it were possible) reminds me of a line from a fun 2009 film, Surrogates. Based on a graphic novel, Jonathan Mostow’s chilling thriller foresees a future where few humans ever make direct contact. In a logical extension of today’s online avatars, all real-world encounters occur via suavely presentable robots. Says an ad for these surrogates: ‘You can live your life without limitations and become anyone you want to be from the comfort and safety of your own home.’ Superficially, this sales pitch, with its hi-tech context, sounds like the opposite of Hand Clow’s quantum-leap, new-age logic. Yet because her result-oriented vision skims the complexities of any true initiation and omits (or at least plays down) the inevitability of renunciation, Mostow’s future seems more realistic. But (pop culture aside) let’s compare Hand Clow’s oversimplifications with the more complex thinking of William Irwin Thompson, writing on Palaeolithic cave art:

‘The first thing one notices about the painting [from the Shaft of the Dead Man] is the striking difference in style… the animals are rendered in the naturalistic style of the other figures at Lascaux, but the man is a mere stick figure and is so stylized as to seem some sort of mediation between the naturalistic style of the animals on the one hand and the abstract signs on the other. The interpretation of Dr Laming, the specialist on Lascaux, is straightforward and literal: it is a picture of a hunter who has struck his spear into the bison (whose entrails are spilling out) and has been gored to death in return. But … since the man has a bird head and is shown with an erection, we should suspect that something else must be going on. Violent death can cause an erection, but so can dreams, visions, trance states, and the awakening of kundalini (The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light, pp. 110–11).’

Thompson seems to me to be inviting us to contemplate; and The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light was written just after he emerged from intensive Tantric yogic practice. ‘Perhaps the indirect and metaphoric descriptions of poetry and fiction are the best means of expressing the complexity and ambiguity of the beauty and terror that are part of this initiatic landscape’, he writes in the preface. Yet his scholarship builds a bridge between clashing traditions. His musings on ice age religion conclude with: ‘The Marxists ignore the internal world; the Jungians ignore the external world. … There is a collective unconsciousness which unites minds separated by time and space, and ideas do travel through external time and space through a process of cultural diffusion. … Historical reality is much larger than either our orthodoxies or our heresies (p. 117).’

A heretic from way back, Hand Clow seems to me to be peddling easy answers in The Mayan Code, such as her take on the stick figure in the Shaft of the Dead Man: ‘[anthropologist Dr Felicitas] Goodman discovered that some ancient figurines and rock paintings are “ritual instructions” for entering “the alternate reality,” the term she uses for the other worlds. When a person assumes a specific posture combined with rhythmic stimulation such as rattling or drumming, and goes into a trance, Goodman wrote, “the body temporarily undergoes dramatic neurophysiological changes, and visionary experiences arise that are specific to the particular posture in question.” (p. 90)’ The caption below a sketch of the cave painting reads: ‘The ithyphallic man demonstrates a ritual body posture from fifteen thousand years ago!’ How then does the bird-headed figure differ from a fitness instructor on a DVD? (And have Hand Clow’s students ever got hard-ons while holding the Shaft man’s ecstatic posture?)

I first read The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light in 1985 while in the throes of a premature kundalini awakening. Though Thompson’s inspired prose and rich insights fired my erupting imagination, his erudition was wasted on me – I was still too young (and deluded) to understand how history can hold clues to the future. And I first read Liquid Light of Sex a few years too late; Hand Clow’s groundbreaking analysis of Chiron’s cycle would have thrown light on my youthful sexual-spiritual crisis. (At 40, I sailed through Uranus’s transit… if not due to enlightenment, whatever that is.)

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