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Breaking Open His Head

 photo by Ellen Pearlman
photo by Ellen Pearlman

Daniel Pinchbeck, Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism (Broadway Books, 2002).

I am writing this review of Daniel Pinchbeck’s new book, Breaking Open the Head, while in Graz, Austria, a lederhosen kind of town that just hosted 10,000 mostly, but not totally, Anglo Tibetan Buddhists from all over the globe for the Kalachakra Initiation for World Peace performed by His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama. The initiation included representatives from all five lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, including Bon, the original or shamanic tradition of Tibet.

As Pinchbeck astutely notes, "The creation of the modern western consciousness required a violent repression of our archaic heritage… to explore sacred and magical realism through spontaneously occurring trance states… rituals of initiation… or using compounds… in plants." He and I, then, are both operating with an alternative mindset, although Pinchbeck’s revelations are overwhelmingly drug-induced and mine are not.

"Normal" reality is viewed by most of our modern professional institutions as a paradigm of brain chemistry, genetics, social conditioning, environment, language— you know the drill. As a result, it is unfortunately fashionable among the intelligentsia, and I do not use that word lightly, to poo poo mystical and shamanistic reality. In fact, every mainstream review of Breaking Open the Head has taken that tack in one way or another. And in the past, Pinchbeck led this kind of nasty brat attack himself, as the very vocal naysayer and publisher of the lit-crit meteoric publication, Open City. But inside, he was slowly rotting, and, to his credit, he realized it.

Pinchbeck is a New York cultural hybrid. His mother, Joyce Johnston, was the former girlfriend of Jack Kerouac and wrote a book about that relationship called Minor Characters. His father, Peter Pinchbeck, was a hardcore, under-appreciated New York Abstract Expressionist. Pinchbeck was pre-programmed on the fast track to either self-destruct, which apparently some of his old friends did; or, if you will excuse the quote, to "Break On Through To The Other Side." And so, propelled by his Beat inheritance he embarked on a cultural and spiritual journey around the globe to save his own basically over-urbanized ass. He was "wandering the streets of the East Village, [spending] so much time contemplating the meaningless of existence. I sometimes felt like a ghost." But at the same time he was "working to wake up my spirit. My intellectual drive for understanding was cover for my spiritual development."

The book alternates between his exploration and highly limited participation of shamanism mixed with hallucinogens in indigenous cultures as well as urban triphouses, and side visits to Burning Man, the ultimate Gen-X be-in, "the greatest party in the world [that is] also a wake for this world." Along the way he furnishes the reader with an astonishingly astute history of psychedelic experience, and uncovers a highly active group of fringe pioneers who are still pursuing the possibilities and potentials of the human brain through the use of hallucinogenic and mind-altering compounds.

"I wanted to solve a mystery," he says at the outset, "to know why certain substances are revered in tribal societies throughout the world but repressed as well as ridiculed in contemporary western cultures." This by itself is a loaded and controversial premise, especially given the repressive slant currently gripping this country. It could set him up as a punching bag for any number of government agencies, but Pinchbeck is not a man to be trifled with by covert operative types. They most certainly will give him the once over, but because of his fabulous connections to the New York literati he might just escape their wrath. Simply put, mind-bending drugs are not on the approved agenda of the Bush regime, and it is a brave man who decides to publish a book full of in-your-face drug experiences in this dampened-down climate.

So we journey with Pinchbeck as he ingests a brew made from the Iboya plant with the Bwiti of Gabon, clothed in the initiate’s outfit of animal skins and shells with a red feather sticking out of his hair; as he participates in all night raves at Burning Man; ingests mushrooms under the guidance of the grandson of Maria Sabina, the legendary Mexican Shaman; and forces down the wicked tasting Amazonian Yage. He first scored the Yage while wearing Adult Depends, blindfolded in an apartment overlooking the East River. There he "watched a model of thinking; of neurochemical process of the subconscious creating thoughts." This process, which he experienced over the course of a few hours, can occur naturally within the confines of a Buddhist intensive shamtha/vipassana retreat. It just takes longer, that’s all, and duration and patience don’t necessarily create good copy or a sizzling story line.

The initial Yage revelations in New York propelled him on a journey to visit the Secoya Indians, a tiny tribe of just 750 Ecuadorian Amazon Indians. There he ingests even more Yage, in the place of its origin, with his guide the shaman Don Caesario. Pinchbeck lets us know that shamans "take in powerful energies, step them down and turn them into a weaker alternating current that can be used in all the homes of ordinary folk." And it is here the relevance of a statement by Terrance McKenna, the maverick of the altered chemical experience, becomes hauntingly true: "The suppression of the natural human fascination with altered states of consciousness and the present perilous situation of all life on earth are intimately and causally connected." Pinchbeck attains his sought-after revelations, but with a price; he also witnesses the beginning of the end for the Secoya, due to the inroads made by transglobal oil companies chewing and spitting out the tropical rainforests in their relentless pursuit of black gold oil profits.

Pinchbeck soon ratchets up the chemical weirdness by smoking pure DMT, a component in Ayahuasca, which the Yanomano Indians use in the Amazon. There they blow it in powdered form through long tubes up one another’s nose, which then drips down their face in gobs of green snot as they enter trances. With DMT he enters a state of "continual transformation… multidimensional jewel-faceted hard and immaterial places while geometrical and tentacular constructions were being taken apart and reconstructed at such lightening speed." He is also given an underlying glimpse of the ultimate nature of reality. The universal energy, after showing him its face, kicked him out, telling him "Now you know. This is it. Now go back. Now get out."

In Tibetan Buddhism this realm Pinchbeck glimpsed is known as the Dharmakaya, the original state of being which transcends basic mindlessness, one of the three bodies, or Kaya, of the Buddha. It is a state of absolute, ultimate freedom, completely open and without reference points, and connected to teachings classified as Maha Ati. In other words, there are other spiritual traditions out there that are quite cognizant of many of the revelations that Pinchbeck experiences, but which don’t require you to rip your cellular structure apart, mitochondria by mitochondria, in the process.

But smoking DMT does put Pinchbeck over the top and irrevocably blasts him open. And once you are at the top there is nowhere else to go but down. When he falls from glimpsing this enlightened place, it is going from Eden into hell. Admitting that he is often "caught between a desire for new and intense altered states and anxiety," Pinchbeck dives straight for DTP, a chemically altered version of DMT that reveals the monstrosities hidden inside DMT’s heavenly pancake in the sky.

He goes in a little too deep, though, and after taking DTP, meets the psychic equivalent of the Blue Meanies. His apartment becomes "possessed," a term that brings us into the deep and murky waters of the occult. It is then that he calls upon a fellow DTP tripper, a local Brooklyn starlet courtesy of Burning Man, Charity The Fire Dancer (, who helps him perform a purification-cum-exorcism of his apartment in which he experiences a poltergeist of hellacious dreams, crashing mirrors and the invasion of funny smells and bugs. He attributes this haunting to the newness of the drug and his oversight in not creating "a circle of protection… the four directions invoked and the spirits asked for the blessing through an offering."

Pinchbeck perceives the DTP realm as that of "diabolical hierarchies, secret cabals, and vast libraries of wickedness." He is so freaked out that he intones the words in the Secoya language— "Ching! Ching! Gada Ching!"— while clutching a Tibetan dorje (thunderbolt scepter) in his hand. This passages reminds me of the scene from Walt Disney’s Fantasia, where Mickey Mouse’s sorcerer’s apprentice creates too many broomstick servants carrying buckets of water and almost drowns in the ensuring and inevitable deluge because he doesn’t know how to turn them off.

Pinchbeck’s book is ultimately the weary plea of an agnostic for gnosis by any means possible, through any technology and/or chemical derivation, in order to stave off pessimism, depression and suicide. It’s the search for something much more than our Prozac nation provides. It’s the search for true spiritual meaning. And that is what connects this book to something much more profound than its original intent.

Still, I must sound a cautionary note here because no one should take Pinchbeck’s journey as a model, though he may disagree. First of all, how many of us have the time, financial resources or connections to do this, or would know what to do with it once it happens? I hope this book does not span a coterie of little Pinchbeck wannabes, risking life and limb to blow DMT through their brains or form a mass exodus to Gabon to try compounds that introduce them to the world of the big barf. There are easier and saner methods available and they’ve been around for a lot longer; and in my particular practice of Buddhism, for thousands of years longer. In fact, Allen Ginsberg succinctly summed it up in a 1976 interview with New Age magazine:

I went to see Dudjom Rinpoche, the head of the Nyingma sect and got one very beautiful suggestion from him about the bum LSD trips I was having at the time, which I’ll quote again: "If you see something horrible, don’t cling to it; and if you see something beautiful, don’t cling to it."

Of course I will admit psychedelics did inform my teenage years, but that was before I had access to other traditions, a fact that is not the case today, when introductions to other traditions can arrive in a FedEx pak on your doorstep as Books on Tape or a DVD, or be found in the privacy of your own home via on-line experience. Or the introductions can become immersions at a meditation center or retreat.

There are a number of ways to look at the sum of Pinchbeck’s endeavors. One view would be that of a privileged white boy who plays culture vulture and rips off the indigenos to report on his own solipsistic musings with an intellectual twist in order to validate his quasi-imperialist wanderings. I am certain that such a critique will be privately leveled at Pinchbeck, with the author out of earshot.

There is, however, a much, much deeper message here, one the mainstream press totally missed. Pinchbeck concludes, "Reality is spiritual not physical." It sounds loony. People just don’t want to hear it. Pinchbeck is well aware of this, admitting "I have had the classical spiritual awakening, catalyzed by use of psychedelics…[to] become a ‘crazy fool’ one of ‘them’… whose visions are greeted with mockery, dismissal or fear. And I am much happier for it."

But the flaw here is one suffered by many among our homegrown, hothouse-bred elites— Pinchbeck insists on doing it all by himself, going around the globe and just dipping into other cultural traditions on his ethno-botanic pleasure/horror cruise. He doesn’t apprentice himself to anyone or anything, and by keeping his independence he saves his peculiar and much-prized Western hymen of uniqueness. He runs with his peak experiences like a quarterback, reporting on his mystical obsessions with a double-sided POV. One is of awe and respect for those who know what he obviously doesn’t; while the other is his compulsive need to run off on a jet to the next culture and get its take on what it’s all about while consuming the next, great drug. In some ways, the story smacks of the ’70s term "Spiritual Materialism," but it sure makes for one hell of a great read. Pinchbeck’s work in the end is saved by the author’s intellectual rigor and by his admission that there are forces out there that exist that he doesn’t really know about. A little refreshing humility goes a long way.

Quibbles aside, Breaking Open the Head remains a must-read for anyone under 30, for those too young to have gone through the initial phase of psychedelic popularity, as well as for anyone else who missed it first time around. The question that begs asking is: Now what? What’s a wandering half-Jew with all this newfound knowledge and insight to do? Where can any reader go from here?

The simplest answer in a short Rail review is— it’s your karma. Seek and ye shall find.


Ellen Pearlman


The Brooklyn Rail


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