I recently travelled to Colombia to meet with shamans from the Kogi tribe, indigenous people who live in remote mountains of the Sierra Nevada. With uninterrupted traditions going back thousands of years, these tribal people may hold the keys for modern society if we want to develop a balanced relationship with nature. Through studying their social design and spiritual philosophy, we might learn to live without creating waste or fomenting chaos and violence on the world around us.
Spending time with the spiritual leaders of the Kogi was, on many levels, a revelation. The Kogi became known to the outside world over a decade ago when they began to issue warnings about the potentially catastrophic consequences of our continued mistreatment of the earth. They call the modern culture of the west “younger brother”. While our society is unsustainable, the Kogi – the elder brother – belong to a culture that has demonstrated long-term continuity, one that has seen many previous empires rise and fall. They believe this time is different, however, because the current global empire, based on domination of nature through technology, has spun out of control, reaching a point where it threatens all of life.
As small children, the shamans of the Kogi – called “mammos” to reinforce their identification with “the mother”, the feminine principle of creativity – spend as long as nine years living in dark retreats, never directly exposed to the light of day. They do this because they believe that the cause of everything that happens on earth begins in the spiritual realm: in darkness. Before they can become effective guardians of the earth, they must first explore this spiritual darkness, and learn its ways.
The Kogi wear white and project great dignity. They speak with poetry and precision, rarely wasting a word. For them, all of life is a sacred continuum, and seemingly simple actions have great significance. The men chew bitter coca leaves almost constantly – the coca plant is healthy for them and sacred to their culture. They say that it makes their thoughts and words more truthful. When I sampled it, I found that it induced a state of clarity, and seemed to connect mind and heart – almost the opposite effects of cocaine. I wondered if coke addicts in the west actually have a subconscious need to commune with the sacred coca plant.
One of the main ideas the Kogi want to convey to us now is that there is a direct relationship between humanity’s level of spirituality or self-realisation and the physical condition of the planet. From their perspective, earthquakes, tsunamis, nuclear meltdowns, asteroids, and other natural and manmade cataclysms are the result of humans neglecting their spiritual responsibilities. Not only do we need to maintain the physical environment through actions that accord with proper intentions, we also need to make what they call “payments” to the earth through prayers, rituals and visualisations.
To the modern mind, this seems outlandish at first. However, it becomes more comprehensible if we survey a range of areas, such as the research on psychic phenomena conducted by scientists like Dean Radin and Russell Targ, not to mention the military and other groups (as in the film The Men Who Stare at Goats). Our brains are electromagnetic environments and our thoughts directly affect our world. The book Cosmos And Psyche, by historian Richard Tarnas, makes a comprehensive astrological argument that the orbits of the outer planets – Neptune, Uranus, Pluto, and Saturn – exert a major influence on vast cycles of human history. The exact correspondences he uncovers could only be due to a connection between the physical universe and our psychic reality. The greater universe we find outside of ourselves might be a projection of what radical psychoanalyst Carl C Jung called “the psyche” – the collective field of consciousness, or what the Kogi would define as the spiritual realm. In western alchemy, this idea was reduced to a catchphrase: “As above, so below”.
Kogi beliefs resemble the system of thought developed by the mystical philosopher G I Gurdjieff in the early 20th century. Apparently trained by a mysterious Sufi order in Afghanistan, Gurdjieff argued that the cosmos operates on the principle of “reciprocal maintenance”, with humans performing a necessary function in the cosmic order. We transmute matter – food, water, even air – into subtler levels of thought and perception, which are a kind of “food” for other classes of spiritual beings. According to Gurdjieff, humans are required to “pay the price” of our existence through acts of “intentional suffering” and “conscious labour”. If we do this, we evolve to more refined states, and learn to live off higher energies. If we ignore our responsibility, the recycling mechanism of the universe discards us as junk.
During our visit, I finally accepted that it is impossible to reverse the momentum of our civilisation, which is rapidly deteriorating. While it is crucially important to prepare an alternative model of what a new planetary culture can be, it is also necessary to develop “lifeboat” communities, preferably on high ground away from the coasts, where we can rediscover practices of sustainable living. There is still time for people to awaken from the dream world of our post-industrial suicide system, but that time is rapidly running out.
Daniel Pinchbeck is the author of Breaking Open the Head, 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, and the just-published Notes from the Edge Times. He edits realitysandwich.com and is featured in the documentary, 2012: Time for Change.