Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness: An Introduction, Sep 2012

This essay is the introduction to the new Reality Sandwich anthology, Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness: Liminal Zones, Psychic Science, and the Hidden Dimensions of the Mindedited by Daniel Pinchbeck and Ken Jordan and published by Evolver Editions/North Atlantic Books. Collected from the virtual pages of Reality Sandwich, the book includes a diverse group of authors’ journeys into the fringes of human consciousness, tackling such topics as psychic and paranormal phenomena, lucid dreaming, shamanic journeys, synchronicities, and more. Contributors include: Russell Targ, Dean Radin, Alberto Villoldo, Erik Davis, Jennifer Palmer, Tony Vigorito, Anthony Peake, and Michael Taussig.


I first had the idea for this book a number of years ago after watching a long, abstract, three-panel film by the legendary artist Harry Smith. Smith was an unclassifiable genius who understood that novelty and creative breakthroughs tend to occur in those in-between or liminal zones that most people are incapable of noticing — in the blind spots of our ordinary perception. A connoisseur of sound who put together the Anthology of American Folk Music, a three record set of obscurities that had a major influence on the folk revival of the early 1960s, Smith would go to jazz concerts with his tape recorder and microphone and meander into odd corners or hunch under the piano, seeking to catch muffled echoes or reverberations of notes that interested him more than the concert itself. The films he made are invitations for the mind to unbind from linear narrative or common sense, to find meditative repose in an incessant swarm of visual imagery — to find electrical pulses of insight through being cut loose, unmoored, from ordinary constraints and the accretion of habit.

After the screening, my friend Spiros said he thought Smith’s work explored what happens when “the center and the periphery switch places.” Watching his films, what we normally consider to be of central importance — narrative, plot, character — recedes into non-existence, so that other thoughts, ideas usually suppressed, can emerge in the interstices. This idea that the center and the periphery switch places is also a way to consider the prophetic transition of consciousness and civilization that many indigenous cultures and mystical traditions believe is upon us — a transition I explored in my book 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl.

Over the last centuries, modern civilization put what is material and quantifiable at the center of its concerns, and suppressed and marginalized the validity of subjective perception, the unique experience of the individual, along with the subtler domains and hidden dimensions of consciousness that archaic and ancient cultures understood as most essential, despite their quicksilver evanescence.

The most interesting phenomena take place at the edges — at the furthest periphery of what is known and understood, where signal meets noise and chaos entangles order. Take, for instance, the quantum world, with its eccentric quarks and muons, where those misbehaving energy clusters we call particles jump around and in-between those other constructs of language and math we call dimensions of space and time. Similarly, when we consider the economic structure of capitalism, what is most interesting is not what the economists report about linear development or factory production, but what occurs at the boundaries and farthest edges of the system, where ancient cultures find ways to transmute themselves and persist, where artists, deviants, and outlaws adapt and improvise in order to maintain their individuality within a seemingly totalizing and spirit-crushing machine.

Just as every belief system and ideology is ultimately a cult, every state of consciousness, is in essence, a kind of trance. Capitalism, for instance, is a materialist cult, and its worshippers are believers in a technological progress that has no connection to a natural world or an ensouled cosmos. The normative consciousness of a worker within our capitalist society is awake to the daylight world of work and responsibility, political maneuver and financial calculation, but unaware of the deep reaches of the shaman’s night where jaguars and snakes, demons and spirits, battle for primacy, where awe, ecstasy, and terror mingle inextricably. Modern society forfeited vast arenas of vision, intuition, and supersensible perception in its fixation on what can be separated, defined, and controlled.

Right now, we find ourselves in a phase where the material base of global civilization is rapidly eroding, with natural resources depleted and climate change accelerating. As the illusion of unlimited material progress gives way, we find what remains is the vast realm of subjective experience — the infinite layers and subtle gradations of self-knowledge and self-awareness. More of us are discovering, as we confront the personal dimensions of the planetary crisis, that the only thing we truly possess is our own experience, our state of mind and inner being. The jewels and precious metals that industries mine from underground are irrelevant compared to our jewel-like nature, when we activate our potential for love and compassion, and learn to observe ourselves as one aspect of the infinite play of consciousness: that part we get to know intimately, from the inside.

Like myself, some of the writers in this collection of essays first made an internal flip in their paradigm through exploration of psychedelic drugs, or visionary plant sacraments such as ayahuasca and mushrooms. These chemical catalysts are only one of many tools used by indigenous people around the world to force consciousness outside of its usual frame — to discover what Aldous Huxley called “Mind at Large.” Fasting, meditation, intense pain, sleeplessness, lucid dream, ecstatic dance are other tried-and-true methods of breaking free from the prison house of the ordinary. Through any of these methods, we find that Huxley was correct: our minds act as a “reducing valve” to prevent an overwhelming delirium of sensations and perceptions to reach our awareness. In order to thrive in a hyper-competitive and materially focused society, we are entrained from early childhood to pay attention to a narrow bandwidth of stimuli, and forget the rest.

As essays in this collection explore, drastic thresholds such as near death experience or sleep paralysis or certain forms of blindness appear to have a similar effect to psychedelics: they open up the usually sealed container of consciousness to access other bandwidths or frequencies. Personally, some of my favorite memories are times when I pushed myself to the breaking point and brought about a temporary intensification of awareness, accessing visionary realms that seemed suddenly contiguous with this one. At such initiatory junctures, we find that our intention is like a magnet that creates a force field around us, pulling manifestations into being that are never what we envisioned, but are far more poetically accurate than we can expect.

A number of essays in Edge Realms explore ideas of synchronicity — or, as a recent movement has dubbed it, “synchromysticism.” As Jennifer Palmer, Tony Vigorito, and others report, a chance in belief system and understanding is often preceded by a wave of subjective experienced phenomena that seems highly orchestrated and resonant, like signposts that one is meant to take a particular path. Terence McKenna noted that these periods of concentrated conjunctions between one’s internal state and the consensus reality convey the impression of a “curious literary quality running over the surface of existence.” The world can seem like an art project, story, or experiment, giving us the sense that our field of experience and awareness is orchestrated by a “humorous something” possessing “omniscient control over the world of form and matter” — and we are just along for the ride. A plethora of synchronicities can lead to schizophrenic delusions — we can trick ourselves into believing we are alone in a world meant for us, where every object is an eye watching and winking at us, and every interaction ripe with significance and occult possibility. For indigenous cultures, such correspondences are nothing to fear, but part of the cosmic order, revealing the connection between our psychic life and the natural or physical world, the earth that emanates us.

I believe exploring depth dimensions of consciousness — as well as investigating psychic energies and paranormal capacities — will be an essential part of the science, and art, of the future. The philosopher Walter Benjamin noted that history was marked by a never-ending dialectic between sleep and awakening. This is not just an individual process but also a collective one. An entire culture can lose contact with visionary insight that draws upon the unconscious and intuition. Not just an individual, but a society can go insane, fall under the spell of irrationality, obey a dictator or follow arbitrary or even ludicrous beliefs leading to self-destruction. It is difficult to integrate the suppressed aspects of our being while maintaining our reason and our discernment — but the work must be done if humanity is to move forward.

Classically, a dialectical movement resolves in a synthesis, leading to another turn of the spiral. Enlightenment, which Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer define as the advance of thought, happens in a step-wise process, marked by regressions and reversals. Some of the essays in this book reveal how phenomena at the edge of normal consciousness, such as paranormal and psychic activity and near death experience, are now being explored with the techniques of science, through rational inquiry. This development reveals the possibility of integrating the depth-dimensions of our psychic life with the scientific method and worldview.

More and more people in the postmodern world are recovering their psychic life, finding their inner exploration of subtle and qualitative realms of consciousness is central to their being. This shift in attention is part of the paradigm shift, the inception of the Hopi “Fifth World,” and the fulfillment of prophecy. I hope this book contributes to the opening of the aperture of our collective awareness, and the rediscovery of who we have always been.