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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.

From the Hardcover edition.

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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
5.0 out of 5 stars To Put It Simple June 24 2004
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 Stalking the sacred plants Jan. 13 2003
(Four and a half stars) Dreams are fascinating, and psychedelic experiences are fascinating, to the one who has them. And the rule of thumb is, that people's descriptions of their fascinating dreams and trips rate right up there on the boredom
meter with hole-by-hole narratives of your boss's last golf game.
It's not coincidence, I think, that the two great, readable narratives to come out of the psychedelia's da-glo glory days in the sixties (Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) and its nightmarish decline and fall in the seventies (Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) came from two fellows whose primary love and loyalty was to journalism. Then the substances that Daniel Pinchbeck calls "entheogens" fell into cultural eclipse, the interminable pathology known as the War on Drugs took center stage, and little original or noteworthy has been published on the topic for quite a while. Terence McKenna, brilliant but sometimes barely in touch with the real world, has had the field pretty much to himself.
Now we've got another entrant, not quite up to Wolfe or Thompson, but as wide ranging as McKenna, while staying more level-headed and instructive. The strengths of "Breaking Open the Head" are once again journalistic. Pinchbeck undertakes an odyssey in search of genuine shamans, who can properly initiate him into the authentic use of psychoactive plants. He takes us with us on his journey, sets us into scenes from West Africa, to the invisible perennial contemporary Woodstock in Nevada known as the Burning Man Festival, to the Amazon, to the peyote fields of Mexico, to labs in New York City where chemicals the plant kingdom never quite got around to inventing are concocted and consumed.
We get Pinchbeck's trip reports, yes.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Wisdom From the Undercurrent Dec 31 2002
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 of alternative ways of knowing and potential problem solving. In the spirit of Terrence McKenna, in the same stream of transpersonal voyaging and open entheogenic exploration as Huston Smith and Ralph Metzner, Pinchbeck not only unfurls the topography of his own soul journey through psychedelic shamanism, but details multiple encounters with different plant spirit teachers in a truly gleaming example of multidisciplinary scholarship and informal ethnographic accounts. What is probably the most convincing aspect of Pinchbeck's writing and journey is precisely the fact that he openly admits to being--once upon a time--a cynical, Manhattan atheist who saw no validity to anything spiritual or metaphysical. As an experiment he takes the plunge into a domain that, rather than leading him farther and farther into the cancerously consumeristic and addictive society we find ourselves in, he is initiated--genuinely--into the world of holographic, shamanic perception. An adventurous, stunning, and thrilling ride, as well as a timely wake-up call regarding modernity's ill-fated relationship with psychedelics (as demonized and illegal substances rather than sentient intelligences with the capacity to heal and offer profound guidance and knowledge when worked with in a safe manner as has been done by humans for tens of thousands of years previous to industrialized society), Breaking Open the Head is sure to stand as a classic visionary account and a classic social commentary of our world. . . a world that is, from my perspective, gearing up for its own shamanic initiation.--Frank MacEowen, author of The Mist-Filled Path: Celtic Wisdom for Exiles, Wanderers, & Seekers (New World Library)
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Most recent customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining but deeply flawed
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... Read more
Published on Oct. 11 2010 by Kieran Fox
5.0 out of 5 stars Must Have
This book is an absolute must have for anyone interested in shamanism, psychedelia, or anything of the sort. Read more
Published on April 27 2009 by Donovan
2.0 out of 5 stars interesting but not well written
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... Read more
Published on July 19 2004 by gcon
4.0 out of 5 stars More Flapdoodle, Please!
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. Read more
Published on Nov. 3 2003 by Christopher B. Murray
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 The Wingchair Critic
5.0 out of 5 stars It's a Jungle In Here
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... Read more
Published on Feb. 28 2003 by J Doyle
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 20 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 Psychedelics, capricious gods, and fate
Maybe I'm overly persuaded by a comment on the back cover of the book, but overall I too think it is a very brave book- a brave adventure, a brave recounting, and a brave... Read more
Published on Dec 4 2002
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