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Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism [Paperback]

Daniel Pinchbeck
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Aug. 12 2003
A dazzling work of personal travelogue and cultural criticism that ranges from the primitive to the postmodern in a quest for the promise and meaning of the psychedelic experience.

While psychedelics of all sorts are demonized in America today, the visionary compounds found in plants are the spiritual sacraments of tribal cultures around the world. From the iboga of the Bwiti in Gabon, to the Mazatecs of Mexico, these plants are sacred because they awaken the mind to other levels of awareness--to a holographic vision of the universe.

Breaking Open the Head is a passionate, multilayered, and sometimes rashly personal inquiry into this deep division. On one level, Daniel Pinchbeck tells the story of the encounters between the modern consciousness of the West and these sacramental substances, including such thinkers as Allen Ginsberg, Antonin Artaud, Walter Benjamin, and Terence McKenna, and a new underground of present-day ethnobotanists, chemists, psychonauts, and philosophers. It is also a scrupulous recording of the author's wide-ranging investigation with these outlaw compounds, including a thirty-hour tribal initiation in West Africa; an all-night encounter with the master shamans of the South American rain forest; and a report from a psychedelic utopia in the Black Rock Desert that is the Burning Man Festival.

Breaking Open the Head is brave participatory journalism at its best, a vivid account of psychic and intellectual experiences that opened doors in the wall of Western rationalism and completed Daniel Pinchbeck's personal transformation from a jaded Manhattan journalist to shamanic initiate and grateful citizen of the cosmos.


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Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

Open City editor Pinchbeck's book debut is a polemic that picks up the threads that Huxley's The Doors of Perception, Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters and counterculture idealism left in the culture. Charting his gradual transformation from a cynical New York litterateur to psychedelic acolyte, Pinchbeck uses elements of travelogue, memoir, "entheobotany" ("the study of god-containing plants") and historical research to ask why these "doorways of the mind" have been unceremoniously sealed, sharing Walter Benjamin's melancholy about the exasperating nature of consumerism: "We live in a culture where everything tastes good but nothing satisfies." Pinchbeck travels the earth in search of spiritual awakening through tripping, from Gabon to the Nevada desert. At happenings like the Burning Man festival or a plant conference in the Ecuadorean jungle, Pinchbeck meets "modern shamans" and tells their stories as they intersect with his. In his reporting, he manages to walk a difficult tonal tightrope, balancing his skepticism with a desire to be transformed. He thoughtfully surveys the literature about psychedelic drugs, but the most exhilarating and illuminating sections are the descriptions of drug taking: he calls this visiting the "spirit world," which is "like a cosmic bureaucracy employing its own PR department, its own off-kilter sense of dream-logic and humor... constantly playing with human limitations, dangling possibilities before our puny grasps at knowledge." There's little new drug lore here, but Pinchbeck's earnest, engaged and winning manner carry the book.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Library Journal

In this firsthand account of the world of psychedelic substances today, Village Voice and Rolling Stone writer Pinchbeck weaves elements of his personal life, including vivid descriptions of his reactions to the substances he takes, with larger topics, such as the history of psychedelic substances in the modern world and the foundations of shamanism. To aid his inquiry, he participates in visionary rituals around the world, e.g., taking iboga as part of a tribal initiation in Gabon. He also discusses key figures such as Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, and Terence McKenna. Pinchbeck repeatedly decries the rationalism and destructiveness of Western culture and the shortsightedness of completely outlawing psychedelic substances. The book is not an extended diatribe, however. The author offers various viewpoints on how certain drugs should be used and on whether a modern, Western shamanism is possible. Pinchbeck posits a universe that may be difficult to accept, but his book will be of interest for public and academic libraries.
Stephen Joseph, Butler Cty. Community Coll. Lib., PA
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
"The Bwiti believe that before the ceremony, the neophyte is nothing," Daniel Lieberman told me on my first morning in Gabon, as we took a cab from the Libreville airport. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining but deeply flawed Oct. 11 2010
By Kieran Fox TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
The book begins fairly well with often hilarious (and as another reviewer pointed out, sometimes unintentionally so) accounts of the author's various psychedelic dabbling with modern-day 'shamans' and other, more dubious purveyors of mind-altering drugs. But it fairly quickly slides downward into Pinchbeck's narcissism and drug-induced paranoia. The early portions of the book exude a kind of youthful optimism and well-meaning if naive interest in mind-altering drugs and what they, and cultures that have used them for thousands of years, might have to teach us. But Pinchbeck seems to find fault (quite justifiably, it seems) in all of his 'shamanic teachers' while at the same time advocating that a return to some kind of shamanic usage is the best path. He also blasts Timothy Leary for promoting open-access for these drugs for everyone, while it is almost certain that Pinchbeck himself would never have encountered these drugs had it not been for Leary's proselytizing. By the end of the book Pinchbeck is convinced that a psychedelic substance has released a 'poltergeist' in his New York apartment, and that a friend he met at the Palenque conference had developed telekinetic (or something) power over the weather... where did the questing spirit of critical inquiry go amiss??? Somewhere between ibogaine, heroin, ayahuasca, and blow, apparently.

Certainly entertaining, but ultimately kind of vacuous and disappointing.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Must Have April 27 2009
By Donovan
Format:Paperback
This book is an absolute must have for anyone interested in shamanism, psychedelia, or anything of the sort. Pinchbeck walks the reader through a winding trail of spiritual enlightenment that will lead you across the globe.
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2.0 out of 5 stars interesting but not well written July 19 2004
By gcon
Format:Paperback
definately an interesting subject, however, i didn't enjoy it much. the author, a self described neurotic, seems to be empty and searching for something, and the book seems to be more of a justification for him doing psychotropic drugs than a look at the role of the drugs in modern shamanism. the book is quite well researched but is sluggish and at times overbearing or pretentious. at one point he turns into a green peace rain forest advocate, which i don't see as having anything to do with shaman practice. if the subject is of interest to you, and this isn't the first book you have on the subject, there probably isn't anything new here for you. if you want to hear about his personal experiences, then buy the book.
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5.0 out of 5 stars To Put It Simple June 25 2004
Format:Hardcover
This book, like all good books, expanded my consciouness without the use of any psychedelics- psychonauts please think on these words.
Anyway, I found that the most important idea explored in this book to cover in my review is that human beings have many, perhaps infinite doors into different states of consciousness within the human mind. Whether or not we choose to deny these completely different worlds, we must understand that current "rational" theories about the world, and about consciousness in general could never be true or complete without exploring these worlds; if you see them you know that many are just as true as "rational" reality. Those doors are there for a reason, or they simply wouldn't be there. Interestingly enough, not only are the doors there after millions of years of evolution, but many keys to open these doors are naturally occuring in thousands of diverse life-forms all over the world (Some of which Mr. Pinchbeck describes wonderfully). Considering psychoactives, I find it particularly interesting that (for example) although the brain has a receptor for THC found in the soft drug marijuana which kills 0 people a year (themselves from use), alcohol- the legal alternative- poisons the brain to intoxication and kills countless brain cells, users and non-users a year. It is also important to note that in general natural psychelics cause no physical addiction or damage (quite the opposite), as the brain is wired specifically for their use. I don't necessarily support the habitual use of drugs, as I find that the mind can be explored to a great extent without them, but they are tools on this earth which we are obviously meant to use- if you don't agree, read this book, as I found it very convincing.
Don't forget to explore EROWID.ORG!!!
One Love
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4.0 out of 5 stars More Flapdoodle, Please! Nov. 3 2003
Format:Paperback
Okay, so he ain't Wittgenstien, but neither was Ludwig. Pinchbeck deserves a decicive clap on the back for his feverish, foolhardy romp into the unknown. To those who pooh pooh him, I ask--what have you done for me lately? This is Kapucinski meets Casteneda in a dread-laced Holographic Universe, and if you feel that intellectual rigor is lacking, or that the author relies too much on Benjamin's politics, I ask you when you last met the splinter-faced god of the forest? I feel that Pinchbeck is earnest and refuses to pose as a guide when he is in fact nothing but a balsy, intellectual Brooklinite who grew bored with chatter-mouthed literati and with himself--so he decided to cast the eternal dice and record his findings with talent and intelligece that may not be first rate, but are, nevertheless, uncharateristic of our time. In sum: a pip.
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5.0 out of 5 stars It's a Jungle In Here Feb. 28 2003
By J Doyle
Format:Hardcover
Pinchbeck's journey into the unkown is one of the best adventure stories I've ever read. Our culture's disregard for the reality of unseen beings and dimensions, it's reductionistic polarization into secular vrs. theistic worldviews, and the hegemony of the rational among the educated are highlighted. But Pinchbeck's book is no polemic attack on these failings; instead he comes across in the best journalistic sense, thoughtfully open and humble- he reports simply where his journey has taken him, and what he has learned, however easily ridiculed or dismissed. I loved his blend of head and heart as he explores the jungles of Mind.
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Most recent customer reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Oh, Come, My Dear, Is That Quite Accurate?
Daniel Pinchbeck's Breaking Open the Head makes an earnest attempt to persuade its audience that a variety of natural hallucinogens provide users with a genuine glimpse into the... Read more
Published on March 18 2003 by J. E. Barnes
4.0 out of 5 stars Stalking the sacred plants
(Four and a half stars) Dreams are fascinating, and psychedelic experiences are fascinating, to the one who has them. Read more
Published on Jan. 13 2003 by Royce E. Buehler
5.0 out of 5 stars Wisdom From the Undercurrent
Breaking Open the Head is at once a personal memoir of the visionary kind, as well as a much needed psycho-social, psycho-spiritual assessment of our society from the vantage point... Read more
Published on Dec 31 2002 by Frank MacEowen
5.0 out of 5 stars Psychedelics and Anti-Capitalism
We can now speak of an entheogenic renaissance and this book is part of the growing literature of that movement. Read more
Published on Dec 23 2002 by Thomas M. Seay
4.0 out of 5 stars a journey into the mind
Though I have doubts about any kind of spiritual trancendence, I do find the other worlds or states of mind induced by psychedlics to be an essential experience in learning more... Read more
Published on Dec 21 2002 by Michael A. Parodi
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, fun, and intelligent
I highly recommend this book to anyone who in interested in exploring the metaphysical realm and has existential angst. Read more
Published on Dec 5 2002 by "briechee"
5.0 out of 5 stars a challenge to suspend disbelief
This is a great book. I bought it last week and read it over the weekend. I couldn't put it down. Pinchbeck's experiences were fascinating. Read more
Published on Dec 4 2002
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