Daniel Pinchbeck’s extraterrestrial explorations through LSD, UFO encounters, and ‘parasitic’ spirits

The writer and activist Daniel Pinchbeck recounts his personal journey through space, and time for Document's Fall/Winter 2013 issue.

“I mean, I’ve never had an alien walk up to me, but I’ve definitely had UFO encounters.  I’ve had all sorts of psychic experiences, shamanic experiences, that really suggest there are interdimensional agents playing with the nature of space and time.”

It’s about an hour into my conversation with writer and activist Daniel Pinchbeck, and we’ve finally gotten around to talking about what he calls “the extraterrestrial stuff.”  We’re sitting in a noisy café somewhere in the Financial District, near a loft office where he’s been editing video for a new project.  He’s having a salmon plate. I’m having a latte. We’ve been discussing Occupy Wall Street and the plight of Edward Snowden. Intelligent extraterrestrial life seems pretty far away—at least from where I’m sitting.

But then I wouldn’t know, since Pinchbeck’s extraterrestrial experiences are intimately connected to his use of psychedelic substances, and the closest I ever got to tripping was once when I was 17 and ate some wild mushrooms that my friend’s boyfriend thought might be magic. It turned out they were just mushrooms. I was incredibly relieved.

Pinckbeck, on the other hand, has spent the last decade or so eagerly ingesting sacred and psychedelic roots, leaves and fungi in remote places from Africa to Latin America, guided by indigenous shamans. He began his quest as a freelance journalist, writing about LSD for the Village Voice and the Burning Man festival for Rolling Stone, and ultimately documenting his travels in the well-received book Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism (2003), which got him labeled as this generation’s Timothy Leary. Daniel isn’t totally comfortable with this label: he’s fine with turning on and tuning in, but he doesn’t believe in dropping out. He believes psychedelic experience should lead to social engagement.

Pinchbeck’s spiritual quest took a dramatic and unexpected turn when he received a personal prophecy or “intuitive download” from a Mayan god, an experience detailed in his 2006 bestseller 2012:  The Return of Quetzalcoatl. Among other things, the feathered serpent spirit Quetzalcoatl proclaimed Pinchbeck to be “the vehicle of my arrival,” kind of like a prophet or Messiah, and it announced that we are “on the edge of the abyss” of an imminent apocalypse. “Be forewarned,” Quetzalcoatl advised. “The End of Time approaches.”

In the book, Pinchbeck admits that this prophecy might be the result of distorted judgment from an overuse of hallucinogens. He also admits that some of his beliefs might seem to be “incredibly self-aggrandizing” or “New Age clichés.” But these concessions seem to be made primarily to conciliate the skeptics in the audience. For years now, Pinchbeck has been operating on the hypothesis that regardless of whether he is actually Quetzalcoatl’s avatar, the prophecy he received is true.

“When we step back and we think about how incredibly anomalous and amazing our existence on Earth is, it somehow seems quite likely or plausible that other species would evolve consciousness and sentience in other worlds.”

According to Pinchbeck/Quetzalcoatl, climate change and economic collapse are proof that the world as we know it is ending. (In a recent TEDx talk, Pinchbeck summarized this message on a Powerpoint slide titled “Bad News!”) But there is also some potentially good news. All our economic and environmental catastrophes might actually be a necessary stage in the evolution of the planet, forcing us to get back in touch with forgotten spiritual forces. And if a critical mass of people transition to a higher level of consciousness, our species might spontaneously evolve into a new collective cosmic life form. Once we make this evolutionary leap, we might even be able to “alter climactic conditions” through our “focused psychic energy.”

In the heady years leading up to 2012, Pinchbeck’s book landed him on The Colbert Report and got him profiled in Rolling Stone and reviewed in The New York Times. Colbert’s response was predictably silly (“Shamanic? Is that a Jewish word?  Like do you have to wear a shmatte when you’re being shamanic?”), but his was actually one of the more sympathetic mainstream takes on Pinchbeck’s message. Rolling Stone represented Pinchbeck as an awkward and lecherous self-deluded con man. The New York Times called him a “global morality bully” whose writing was “New Age narcissistic and fortune-cookie cute.”

Pinchbeck’s message found a much warmer welcome in the counter-culture community that grew up around his web magazine Reality Sandwich (“counteracting the doom-and-gloom of the daily news … our goal is to inspire psychic evolution and a kind of earth alchemy,” according to its website) and the related social networking site Evolver. He fondly describes this motley group in a follow-up book he edited called Toward 2012:  Perspectives on the Next Age (2008): “permaculture activists, Burning Man hedonists, shamanic candidates, cultural creatives, open-source programmers, yogis, anarchist puppeteers, DJs, design scientists, tantric practitioners and urban homesteaders, among others.”

Although some followers of Mayan myth may have felt a sense of anticlimax on December 21, 2012, Pinchbeck believes that the often apocalyptic events of last year actually confirmed his prophetic hypothesis (Hurricane Sandy, anyone?). He continues to spread the word about the End of Time, skillfully blending stories from his own experience with current events, studies from peer-reviewed journals and citations from a capacious counter-cultural canon that includes Terence McKenna, Patrick Harpur and Buckminster Fuller.

Shirt by Dior Homme.  Jewelry Pinchbeck’s own. Digital operator Jeronimo de Moraes at DTOUCH. Photo assistants James Garrett and George Valenzuela. Special thanks to DTOUCH.

When I meet with him, he’s just returned from a talk about psychedelic spirituality at a music festival that he describes as a kind of East Coast Burning Man. Lots of people want to hear about drugs, but not everyone wants to hear about aliens, which is why he’s interested in the chance to describe them for Document.

“I think when we step back and we think about how incredibly anomalous and amazing our existence on Earth is, it somehow seems quite likely or plausible that other species would evolve consciousness and sentience in other worlds,” Pinchbeck tells me, in his habitual brisk, fluid spiel, with a hint of up-speak that makes him sound more tentative than he probably is. “And when we think about how fast we’ve developed our technologies in just a few hundred years, and we imagine some of these other species living another 500, 5,000, 50,000, 5 million, 50 million, 500 million years longer than we have, they’re going to have powers and technical or psychic capacities beyond anything that we could now possibly begin to imagine.”

Pinchbeck believes that aliens are aware of us and are interested in communicating with us. He thinks phenomena like crop circles are probably extraterrestrial messages—“some kind of teaching on the nature of reality and the nature of consciousness,” he elaborates, “that is really like a kind of gift or invitation to humanity to reach another level of consciousness about our situation.”

I’ve been willingly suspending disbelief for the duration of our interview, and I definitely wanted to believe when Pinchbeck was describing the possibility of reversing global warming through psychic energy. I could never actually believe it, but I can easily see the appeal. When it comes to aliens, however, I have trouble mustering enthusiasm. The same sensibility that made me dread tripping on magic mushrooms as a teenager prevents me from getting too excited about the possibility of interacting with extraterrestrials.  Not everyone enjoys extraterrestrial experiences, I point out. I’m probably thinking of anal probing, though I tactfully refrain from bringing it up.

Pinchbeck admits that there might be “parasitic” spirits or alien intelligences that could be a drain on humanity, but he thinks that in general, aliens are probably good news. As he says, “I think it’s highly likely that there are many higher levels of galactic benevolence … If we think of a bunch of older, wiser species, I think they’ll either have become more benevolent or they’ll have ceased to exist, or there wouldn’t even be a universe, because they’d be able to, you know, annihilate star clusters.”

One of the challenges of talking with Pinchbeck is that it’s far easier to discuss aliens annihilating star clusters than it is to talk about most of the things I care about, like literature, pop culture, politics and life in New York City, where Pinchbeck has lived for most of his 40-odd years. “He hung out in the East Village in the ’80s? Ask him if he ever saw Madonna!” a friend exclaimed as I was getting ready to head off to the interview. But once you’re thinking in 500-million-year-long intergalactic time frames, even the young Madonna seems trivial, and I’m far too embarrassed to bring her up.

Pinchbeck’s attitude toward most modern literature and art is that it’s a pointless distraction, and he speaks from the jaded perspective of one who has both been there and done that. His mother is Joyce Johnson, an ex-girlfriend of Jack Kerouac’s who became an editor and award-winning memoirist, and his father, Peter Pinchbeck, was an abstract painter. After dropping out of Wesleyan, Pinchbeck was a founding editor of the indie literary magazine Open City, lauded as “ambitiously highbrow” by The New York Times when it launched in the early ’90s. Open City published prose by Irvine Welsh and David Foster Wallace, photography by Jeff Koons and Allen Ginsberg and ads for Balthazar and Resurrection Vintage.

Pinchbeck spent his first few decades steeped in the words, images, sounds, flavors and feelings of New York bohemia, but it just wasn’t enough. As he writes in “2012,” “Stalking the all-too-familiar pavement of New York City, I felt I was skating across the thinnest coating of ice, and beneath that slick crust the void was waiting to claim me… Even the most imaginative acts of perversion, artful cries of despair or exquisitely rendered relationship stories ceased to thrill me after a while … A simple question confronted me—‘Is this it?’—and kept intensifying its mocking force, whispering that my life was a lie.” Pinchbeck suffered from severe depression until he was saved by psychedelics.

“I mean, I’ve never had an alien walk up to me, but I’ve definitely had UFO encounters.  I’ve had all sorts of psychic experiences, shamanic experiences, that really suggest there are interdimensional agents playing with the nature of space and time.”

These days, Pinchbeck doesn’t read much fiction, and he doesn’t really see movies anymore. He definitely identifies as a New Yorker, but he’s immune to New York nostalgia. After all, how can you idealize a lost Beatnik or punk or New Wave New York past when in the future, a few enlightened and highly evolved New Yorkers might be holding the encroaching ocean at bay through the sheer force of their shimmering psychic vibrations? Present-day New York seems to be a bit of a nondescript blur as well. When I ask him where he likes to go in the city, he looks puzzled and says “Cafés?” Unsurprisingly, he has no interest in the mayoral race and hasn’t voted in a while: “I personally find it very hard to connect to the mainstream political culture.” He is interested in Occupy and the Snowden scandal, but only insofar as they are portents of planetary evolution, signs and symptoms of political unrest that are the labor pains of the Next Age.

Back in 1993, Pinchbeck and his co-editor Thomas Beller wrote in Open City about the randomness of  “life in New York City—the onrush of dispossessed images, bits of information, endless aural and visual noise always hovering on the verge of forming some kind of meaning. Those of us who stay here long enough learn to enjoy this sense of chaos and even find a harmony within it.”

At the time, Pinchbeck was suffering from a meaning deficit, but these days his life is finally awash in meaning and harmony. A believer in “synchronicity,” he sees patterns everywhere: in his birth month (6/66, the number of the Beast); in his daughter’s birthday (a crop circle appeared in England around the time she was born); in everything that others might label coincidence.

A couple of weeks after my meeting with Pinchbeck, I was visiting a friend in Baltimore and glanced at her bookshelf, as one does. Immediately the lettering on one green spine came into focus right before my eyes: 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl. Coincidence? I thought. I think not! Maybe it’s a synchronous sign from the spirits that I should take the prophecy of Quetzalcoatl more seriously? Or maybe it’s just a sign that I should get back to work on the profile? I went with the latter. But in that moment, I had a sense of what it would be like to live in a world where absolutely everything meant something. And remembering Pinchbeck’s disinterest in so many things, I worried that it might be surprisingly similar to living in a world where a lot of things didn’t mean anything, or a world where every meaning was the same.

But there are clearly compensations. For example, feeling like you contain the mysteries of the universe. Feeling like the future of the human race depends on the wisdom you possess.

For most of our conversation Pinchbeck was earnest, low-key, on-message and a bit guarded. He’d had a stressful weekend of traveling and seemed a little under the weather, plus he’d spaced out on our meeting time and we’d had to reschedule last-minute. When I pressed him for details on some of his experiences, he told me to consult his books—he was worried about being misrepresented. But there was one moment when he seemed to warm up a little. He’d just described one of his extraterrestrial experiences, and I asked, “Do you feel like you crave more experiences like that?”

“Do I crave more…” he began, and trailed off, remembering.  Was he thinking about fountains of light, columns of energy, the palpable presence of the Sacred, cosmic entities of pure thought? After a pause, he finally laughed and said, “I think I’m getting just the right amount.”