THE APOCALYPSE OF CONSCIOUSNESS

John Shirley
9 min readMay 23, 2021

The act of revealing, or disclosure — that’s what the word apocalypse used to mean. It meant revelation. It meant a rent in the veil; an opening up that revealed divine purpose.

For most people now, apocalypse has come to mean widespread destruction, even an end of the world as we know it. People tend to associate apocalypse with widespread death; with God’s vengeance. We link it with the punishment of human misdeeds. We assume it would be a judgment on all of us.

For all I know, an apocalypse of that kind might be in the cards. Whoever deals the cards in this big casino we call the universe–or whoever set the casino up in the first place–isn’t confiding in me.

But I doubt a Judgment Day, per se, is coming. Consider the precedent. Spurious prophecies of world-ending apocalypse are as common as ragweed and thistles. They sprout in every culture; they put burrs under every saddle. Periodically, riders gallop about in terror, shouting a warning of coming apocalypse.

Such dire warnings go back thousands of years. If the prophets of doom had been right, the entire human world would have ended in fire and ice thousands of times by now. As you may have noticed, it didn’t happen. Large scale disasters — like the Black Plague–happened at times, yes; world-ending ones, no.

Not a year passes without a charismatic pied piper luring his followers off some cliff to avoid an imaginary damnation. But the kind of apocalypse imagined by fanatic mis-interpreters of allegory and myth never quite comes about. Qanon is another variant, now — that pied piper is leading a remarkable number of people right off the cliff.

Of course, something apocalyptic, in the widespread-destruction sense of the term, could arise from sheer chance. We have been reminded of that, this last year, by a quite-dangerous pandemic. Then again: a sufficiently large asteroid with an Oedipal yen for Mother Earth; or perhaps a derangement of the inner works of the sun, leading to nova.

But if “the Four Horsemen” do come galloping in, chances are human beings will be spurring them on. The destruction of Native American societies seemed apocalyptic to tribal peoples. World War One was unprecedentedly destructive; World War Two felt like apocalypse for six million Jews in Europe; it was world-ending for Japanese civilians caught up in the fireballs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There was the Vietnam war’s carpet bombing and napalming; there were the killing fields of Pol Pot, the purges ordered by Mao — all those events seemed apocalyptic to people enduring them. Americans have not forgotten the shattering Jihadist brutality of the 9/11 attack; to people in south Manhattan it felt like the end of the world, for a time.

Somewhere, you see, catastrophic apocalypse is always going on– in Syria, and the South Sudan; in Yemen. Apocalypse Now was the title of the Coppola film and now is always the operative word.

We could recite an endless litany of human barbarism, human destructiveness. But good human beings died to end slavery in the Civil War. For every slavery advocate there was, somewhere, an abolitionist. Women for centuries were crushed under patriarchies but they fought back, and marched to get voting rights — and good men gave them equal rights. Men and women gave their lives to stop Hitler. A public consensus–a kind of shared consciousness–that the Vietnam war was a big, brutal mistake finally forced its end. Something similar happened with the Iraq war.

Yes, the world sometimes seems to be run by the greedy, the short sighted and opportunistic, so that millions constantly run short of food and countless children die of dysentery. But there are also big, well funded organizations trying to feed those people, trying to provide clean water and medical help, and in many localities succeeding.

Our ongoing catastrophic “apocalypse” seems perpetually mitigated, hemmed in by the cooperative efforts of good people. These are people who, mysteriously enough, actually care what happens to strangers. Why? Is it merely some mindless sociobiological urge? Sometimes the most innately kind people can be desperately selfish — and yet altruism never goes away completely.

Given the selfishness we all tend to succumb to, why does organized sympathy ever catch on?

Maybe there’s a spiritual X Factor, as the late Colin Wilson used to say. Could it be that there’s a magic that can enter the atmosphere of the world, that can crackle like static electricity; that ripples invisibly by like radio waves? Maybe that “magic” is sparked by words, but, like a flame needing oxygen, it requires a certain minimal degree of consciousness.

We’ve seen that apocalypse originally meant revelation. A revelation is a revealing, a disclosure–an opening. It could be that the apocalypse that is about opening is the one that matters. Something comes along and shocks us–whether vision, or a disaster–and it awakens us, if only for a few moments; it makes us look around with fresh eyes. It has made us question what life is for. Does this existence have meaning–or is it all just a random alteration between suffering and satiety?

Revelation: an unveiling–an opening. Why does a revelation ever happen? Isn’t it for the sake of understanding? What’s the point of it, if not understanding? When we talk about understanding, said Jiddu Krishnamurti, surely it takes place only when the mind listens completely–the mind being your heart, your nerves, your ears. When you give your whole attention to it.

If apocalypse is revelation and revelation is an unveiling, an opening, where do we find it in ourselves? And if we do find that revelatory consciousness, how can we share it with the world?

Cameras used to have shutters — perhaps digital cameras have them too. Somehow any camera opens to light. When a shutter opens, a dark place within the camera is exposed to light and an image forms. A curtain of sorts is drawn back, a veil is opened — and the camera, without prejudice, can take its photo of whatever is there.

The methods of Vipassana Buddhism, of Zen teachers, of Krishnamurti, of G.I. Gurdjieff, of Black Elk, of Vedanta, of esoteric Christianity, of certain Sufi schools, all have something in common–the greatest spiritual teachers nudge us toward a deliberate movement of attention to the present moment; to the world around us, and to ourselves. They ask us to see and feel what is, without prejudice. They direct us to our inner camera, to find the shutter so we can open it and take that impression, that inner photo. In that moment, we can objectively take in the world around us. But this “inner camera” has two lenses; one pointing outward, one pointing inward. The two exposures somehow merge in one almost holographic realization.

The inner lens is turned inward, in self-observation. Photographers need to develop skills — the pictures at first can be out of focus, marred by glare. But as we work on it, we get clearer and clearer images.

And that inner camera has another distinction from the mechanical kind: properly used, it registers feelings, sensations, scents, touch, as well as visual impressions. And eventually, we’re told, it takes all this in at once, merging this input into a master picture.

Since our symbolic camera takes everything in, it can seem pitiless. It can as be shocking as an explosion. Increased consciousness brings people the bittersweet shock of seeing themselves as they are, for the first time. Even the finest people are likely to be shocked by aspects of their own personalities, by their own automatic reactions to things, that they see for the first time through rigorous use of the “inner camera” of self observation.

An increase of consciousness that includes real self-observation can be an apocalyptic shock. One’s inner house of cards collapses; one’s flimsy framework of rationales for selfishness falls apart. It is said to feel like the world is ending.

The person experiencing this inner apocalypse thinks, I had no idea I was so self absorbed, so childish, so automatic in my reactions, so without real volition.

What, they wonder, is real inside them anymore? Is there a real self — something besides vanity, defensiveness, desire?

But with the apocalyptic collapse of the false self, a new possibility arises. The light of consciousness doesn’t just reveal the false, the transitory — it also reveals the finer energies, the intelligence infused into the cosmos. Something higher is revealed and it helps in the building of new inner possibilities. A whole new range of choices open up; a new freedom from identification and blind suffering.

Apocalypse, even in the Judgment Day sense, offers a light at the end of the tunnel. In the various myths of deluge, like Gilgamesh and the tale of Noah, something is saved and the world begun again. The Book of Revelation offers a kind of rebooting of the world, some cast into the lake of fire but the righteous offered a new, finer world.

The inner apocalypse — the true apocalypse, to my way of thinking — offers its own path to “paradise”. It’s not the fanciful paradise of Heaven, but it is a release from the tyranny of suffering. It offers a gradual increase of freedom from the misery of identification, from blind anger and fear. Suffering is still part of life — but an authentic increase in consciousness changes our relationship to suffering. We’re no longer shivering, naked in the cold. We’ve built a new home; we have a fire; we have hope.

But what does that do for the outer world? What about the external world’s endless apocalypse — or the chances of a final one?

Catastrophe is always waiting in the wings. In 2010 there was an enormous explosion in the California town of San Bruno. A natural gas pipeline blew up, completely unexpectedly. Eight people were killed, 38 houses destroyed. It had been quiet and peaceful till that instant; no one had the faintest notion it was going to happen. Then, from one moment to the next, a localized apocalypse consumed a whole neighborhood.

Last year the Texas town of West was blasted by a fertilizer factory explosion. Out of the blue, 15 people were killed, 150 structures destroyed.

Those particular explosions could be traced to human error. But centuries ago the volcanic devastation from the eruption of Vesuvius seemed to ancient Romans to be the wrath of the god Vulcanus. Both kinds of localized apocalypse came about with shocking unexpectedness.

It would be foolish to walk the world in fear — but destruction on a colossal scale is always possible. Madmen can build bombs; earthquakes can shake cities to rubble. If I were walking in San Francisco and saw an enormous fireball consume a whole block, I would be startled, horrified, concerned — but I wouldn’t be terrible surprised. Gas pipelines underlie the city. Magma underlies the continent.

And my own physical apocalypse will inevitably come one day — this body, at least, will simply die. My father died when I was 11 — he got an undiagnosed meningitis. There was no warning that his headache and fever were lethal — but in a few days, he was gone.

Consider Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts: “About suffering they were never wrong, The old Masters: /how well they understood/Its human position: how it takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;/…In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster…”

Cultures rise and fall; plagues sweep through. Wars devastate. The world in some region is always shattering — and we turn away, quite leisurely from the disaster. Sometimes we do it because we must, perhaps for the sake of family; other times we turn away out of fear, indifference, selfishness.

Yet that mysterious X-factor, that intelligent potential, remains: a background hum of communal consciousness, the wellspring of actual conscience, seems to draw people together to try to end foolish wars, to feed the hungry, to send FEMA and the Red Cross to disaster areas. That variable signal, that lighthouse gleam in the fog, indicates that there’s something more in people — something that might be awakened to address the outer “apocalypse”, ironically because of the possibility of inner apocalypse. People who work toward consciousness seem to blossom with empathy, with concern for other people. The spiritual apocalypse, the inner revelation, works against the external apocalypse.

Could a growth of consciousness, starting from within and spreading outward, change the world?

Certainly there’s a chance, instead, that humanity could bring about its own mindless “judgment day” through environmental irresponsibility. Anthropogenic climate change will lead to mass displacement of some people; our ability to raise food may be compromised; the struggle for resources could spawn wars. The risk of nuclear war has receded somewhat — but it is still quite real.

G.I. Gurdjieff spoke of “the terror of the situation” — of a world of people asleep when they supposed themselves awake; people armed with terrible weapons and equipped with too little conscience. He felt that walking, talking sleep, that absence of mindful consciousness, was the base cause of war, and could well lead to the premature end of humanity.

But if we are more conscious of ourselves, undergoing that inner apocalypse, we’ll be freer, more able to help in the world around us. And we’ll be more empowered to house those displaced refugees; to work together to raise and distribute more food; to find common ground so we can avert future wars.

It’s a curious thing. We need an apocalypse of one kind — to avoid the other kind.

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John Shirley

Author of numerous novels, including Demons, City Come A-Walkin’, Stormland and the A Song Called Youth Cyberpunk trilogy. Winner of the Bram Stoker Award.