As we humans destroy the rain forests, damage the ozone shield, change the climate, annihilate thousands of our fellow species, increase our own population, and deplete the fuel, topsoil and water that we need for our own survival, many people fear that sooner or later we shall face a global catastrophe.

On one hand, the notion of Apocalypse is interpreted by some religious groups as a predetermined grand finale of life on earth, and – by those of various fundamentalist persuasions – as the imminent prophesy of a not-too-distant Day of Doom. On the other hand, consideration of the planet's rapidly tilting population/resource ratio has led other observers to forecast a twenty-first century of ecological disasters and terminal resource wars between the rich industrialised high-consumption societies of the Northern Hemisphere and the rapidly growing but impoverished populations of the South.

The grim scenario of hungry millions massing at the North/South border has apparently been taken seriously by certain government futurists, intelligence agencies, military planners, corporate strategists, economic forecasters, racial supremacists, and millions of ordinary taxpayers who seem quite happy to support very large defence budgets to prepare for the final showdown between the global haves and the have-nots.

Between these two paranoid extremes, however, common sense also suggests that some sort of systemic ecosocial disaster could indeed befall the Earth within our lifetime or that of our children. But the problem about this idea that the world will end in chaos, is that it can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If global catastrophe is inevitable, why bother trying to save the Earth? Or put another way, if the human species will simply not adapt to the realities of our planetary environment, can there be any salvation from the horror that might await us at the end of history?

The image of Apocalypse has roots which go back through science, religion and mythology to the archaic depths of the collective unconscious. Beneath the surface of the psyche, it haunts many of our underlying assumptions, expectations and beliefs about the nature of the world we live in. It casts a shadow which may seem trivial at the individual level, but which looms large on the time-horizon of the future when taken as a whole.

Because we now stand poised at the threshold of the global age, we are living through one of those germinal moments of history – such as the foundation of the city of Rome, or the "discovery" of North America by Christopher Columbus – when the political, economic, and ecological conditions for many centuries to come are being determined by whatever changes are made – or not made – in the behaviour of those of us who are alive today. Now that the Cold War and its threat of nuclear Armageddon appear to lie behind us, the archetypal image of Apocalypse has taken on renewed force as we continue our systematic destruction of the biosphere upon which the survival of our species depends. So what is the origin of this image, and what does it mean?

Apocalypse can be interpreted literally – as a historical prediction of the end of the world. It can also be understood as a mythological metaphor – a symbol of the death and rebirth of the ego in the process of personal transformation.

More than mere symbol, however, Apocalypse can also be an experience. This may be induced through a variety of cultural, religious and psychotherapeutic means. Among indigenous people, it has been traditionally evoked in sacred ritual contexts by the ingestion of psychoactive plant substances associated with the ancient healing practise of shamanism. More significantly, it may also happen spontaneously, taking over one's psyche when one least expects it.

Scientific research has recently shed new light in this regard on a psychological phenomenon whose meaning has disappeared – or was made to disappear – from common knowledge with the advent of cities in Western civilisation over the past two thousand years. Targeted by the Roman Empire, declared taboo by Christianity during the Inquisition, dismissed by science in the Renaissance, rooted out by colonialism in the New World, and demoted to outlaw status by Freudian psychoanalysis, the hallucinatory experience of Apocalypse may lie dormant beneath the surface of consciousness, but it is not forever gone. Like the swallow to Capistrano in springtime, it returns in due season according to a rhythm of its inner nature.

I am referring to the widespread spontaneous onset of a non-ordinary state of consciousness commonly called "mental breakdown," and known to psychiatrists as the "acute schizophrenic break syndrome." According to the World Health Organisation, this phenomenon strikes from 58 to 116 million people around the world today. (1) In the USA, as many as five and a quarter million people are deemed to be affected. Contrary to popular misunderstanding, the term "schizophrenia" does not refer to the multiple personality syndrome; the Greek etymology of the word actually means "broken soul" or "broken heart." (2) And despite mainstream psychoanalysis, authoritarian religions, repressive societies, and a pharmaceutical-medical industry which still misinterpret the condition as mental breakdown, a growing body of scientific evidence indicates that the natural function of this visionary episode is one of personal healing, artistic inspiration, and social renewal. (3) Carl Jung referred to it as a condition when the dream becomes real – hence the title of this book. Few people are aware that the "schizophrenic break" – when not artificially blocked by medical intervention – is a temporary phenomenon. The acute visionary phase naturally lasts for about forty days, after which the psyche gradually returns to a normal state of consciousness. The interesting thing is that the visionary content of the acute phase centres around the destruction and reintegration of the ego, symbolised not only by powerful hallucinations of personal death and rebirth, but also by an overwhelming subjective experience of Apocalypse and the end of time.

Jung's trailblazing approach to schizophrenia as healing process has since been brought to fruition by a growing number of mythologists, anthropologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, artists, and visionaries whose investigations into non-ordinary states of consciousness make it quite clear that there is a kind of inner Apocalypse which some human beings may sometimes have to undergo in order resolve the crises which naturally occur along the path of life.

Since the human species is now approaching a global crisis, the time has come to face this psychological counterpart to the end of the world, the Apocalypse within. This text attempts to show why, if it is our serious intention to develop a sustainable form of civilisation before it is too late, we shall need to restore the visionary experience to its proper – indeed sacred – place in our private and public life.

This text begins with a recollection of visionary states from the archaic shamanic strata of European mythology, and a brief historical account of their violent suppression at the hands of the Christian church. The second part consists of an interview with the Californian psychiatrist John Weir Perry, MD, who describes the success of his Jungian approach to contemporary "schizophrenic" individuals. (This interview is also available in Finnish.) The final part is a personal account of a visionary experience I once had in Ireland, which I have found of inspirational value in my own work as an artist.

Allowing ourselves to experience the inner Apocalypse may be the best medicine to prevent an external one. Remember, the Chinese ideogram for "crisis" is a combination of the signs for danger and opportunity. Leading thinkers in all the relevant fields now agree that humankind does have the opportunity to develop a global civilisation that can be economically healthy, ecologically sustainable, and fun to live in. But we are also threatened with the danger of global ecological and social catastrophe. We must surely face this crisis with all the means at our disposal, including the new scientific understanding of the psyche and of the process of human perception. This may empower us to deal with the underlying cause of the impending crisis, rather than to merely attack the symptoms as they come up in a piecemeal way. The principal intention of this text is to draw attention to the pattern that connects the global crisis with our own way of seeing it.

– Michael O'Callaghan, New York, November 1992