The following is an interview with Jungian scholar Nancy Furlotti, part of an ongoing series on the American psyche and collective culture.
One of the central tenets of Jungian psychology is the idea that psychological symptoms contain a meaningful purpose that has become derailed or distorted. Thinking along these lines led me to wonder whether there was a deeper truth concealed within the collective fear and panic generated by the looming end date of the Mayan Long Count Calendar this Dec. 21, 2012.
In search of answers, I turned to Jungian analyst Nancy Furlotti, past president of the Jung Institute of Los Angeles and the Philemon Foundation. A scholar on the Mayan calendar, Furlotti recently participated in an online webinar hosted by the Asheville Jung Center, "How the End of the World Grips Our Soul." The following is an edited version of our conversation.
In listening to your talk, I was struck by the way the Mayan calendar reflected the mythos of the Maya culture around time. How does this view of time differ from how we in the modern world experience time?
Furlotti: Our Western way of thinking about time is very linear and causal. It starts at one point and ends at another point. For example, our biblical Judeo-Christian creation myth begins with Genesis and concludes with the Apocalypse and Revelation, when there is a definite ending.
By contrast, the Maya had a circular view of time, in which the ending was also a beginning. In this view, time has no beginning or end; it's continuous, revolving and cyclical. There are two interlocking calendar systems: The solar agricultural and lunar divinatory calendars. A complete revolution of this calendar cycle, called the "Calendar Round," ends every 52 years. Another system of time-keeping is the "Long Count," which extends so far back in the past and so far into the future I can't put numbers to the years.
So to be an ancient Maya was to live in a different psychological reality than most of us live in today.
That's right. Historical linear time from a Western point of view is very temporal. We're much more realistic and focused on the present and practical matters.
By contrast, everyday life in the Maya civilization was imbued with cyclic time. Because there were constant ritual celebrations throughout the year, they had a much more sacred orientation to life. We have our holidays, but our Western culture has stepped away from the cyclic, sacred way of experiencing time.
Would you say that the Maya idea of time is that time and/or life always was, and always will be, unfolding along a continuous cycle of interconnected spirals?
Yes, I would. Their calendar system suggests that time is a continuous loop and that we don't know exactly where the beginning or ending is. When you're reading the sacred calendar, it doesn't matter where you start. You can jump in wherever you want, whether five or 10 or 16 octillion years ago. What's fascinating is that this Maya view of time seems to be converging with some of the concepts coming out of physics, such as the idea of multiverses.
So doesn't this long view of time held by the Maya shift our understanding of the upcoming "end of the Mayan calendar" on Dec. 21?
It should. But people are so locked into historical, linear time that they can't jump out of that paradigm and into a more circular way of experiencing time. They latch onto the idea of the end of the Mayan calendar, and it becomes just another way to feed their anxiety. So many people just assume that the end is the end, when in fact for the Maya the end is actually the beginning.
So is that how you would interpret this date?
Absolutely. According to the Maya view, each cycle of time contains a different archetypal energy embodied by a specific god. So on Dec. 21, the god who's been carrying the burden of time for over 5,000 years has come to the end of a very long cycle and needs to take a break; the baton of time is then handed over to a new god who is fresh, and who can carry time forward for another 5,000 years or so.
What is the archetypal energy of the cycle that's ending, and how would you describe the upcoming cycle?
Based on my own interpretation, the energy is shifting from the Fourth World of the sky to the Fifth World of the underworld, where the growth of the new is possible. In Maya mythology, the underworld is where transformation takes place; it's where the new maize seed sprouts, and where shamans and heroes return for renewal. So it's possible that this emerging world will be a descent down from a sky position of being above the earth, to the source of all life through a connection to nature. These may be my own projections, but this seems like a better place to be, as I think we've really become disconnected from our roots.
So it's as if the Fourth World sky cycle brought new visions and innovations, but that now we're seeing the darker side of progress, and what's needed is a shift in orientation. Maybe humanity is even picking up on this prediction as symbolizing something necessary for our times, if we would only read it right.
That's exactly what I think is happening. We've shifted too far in one direction, and we need to be brought back into balance. The point I'm trying to make is about time itself as key to that shift: The Maya saw things as needing to be done at the right time, and at a certain pace. They placed time in the hands of the gods, not their own hands, and that means living according to a cycle that's not on our time frame, but on nature's time frame.
We don't really take time and nature into consideration that way in American society. We're very ego driven, and we do things when we want to do them. We seem to only want nature to produce, and to produce more, and more quickly. But we never stop to ask the other question: What does nature want from us?
Do you believe that one reason we've fastened on this date is because on an unconscious level we know we've messed things up, and want the world to end so that we can start all over?
I think so. People are so discouraged that out of a sense of guilt they may expect the gods to destroy the world. But the interesting thing about all these fears and predictions is that God always comes into play -- and what does that mean? I think that means there's a terrific longing behind all of this anxiety around the end of times for a re-connection to something more profound and larger than one's ego.
So how would you counsel the individual who fears the end of the world, whether through environmental catastrophe or by the hand of God or some other divine event?
I would want them to go inside themselves to find out what's beneath their individual fears and fantasies: Are they afraid that the world is going to end, or are they excited? Do they feel helpless? What does the image of the world coming to an end mean for them? Stockpiling food can also be understood psychologically: Does that person feel they're not being nourished properly? Because food is also a connection to security, stockpiling food could stem from a person's basic sense of insecurity that they need to come to terms with, in terms of how they can find a sense of security within themselves in this world.
There's also a kernel of truth in going back to nature to a simpler way of life. To be close to the earth, and to the trees, rocks and rivers, brings a tremendous sense of safety and comfort. We've gotten away from living in balance with nature, and if we don't make this shift rather quickly, we may have doomed ourselves.
So in a certain way there is something true about this prophecy, and we all need to find a way to bring in this new, Fifth World.
Yes, and wouldn't that be a wonderful world? I think that the movement from the old aeon to the new aeon in the Mayan calendar that the doomsdayers are picking up on speaks to the idea that we all need a new archetypal energy to enter our lives. So I hope that there can be a shift of consciousness on a very large level, and that we all realize that each one of us carries the burden of responsibility to live in a way that will help save the planet and the human race.