I fondly recall my first reading of Aldous Huxley’s THE DOORS OF PERCEPTION. It was quite literally a turning point in my life: though I hadn’t experienced psychedelic drugs myself, Huxley’s report of his mescaline trip seemingly described the impossible – the ineffable made manifest. It turned me on to a whole new conception of ‘reality’, and led me towards further research into mystical states…those altered states of consciousness in which a revelatory glimpse is offered into ‘other’ realms of being. I was therefore very interested to hear of a new book titled BREAKING OPEN THE HEAD (available from Amazon US and UK), written by Daniel Pinchbeck, which promised to take readers on “an astonishing journey around the world and through the mind”.
To be sure, there is a wide selection of books available on psychedelics, from New Age publications right through to botanical/chemical manuals. But what appealed to me about BREAKING OPEN THE HEAD was that it was a story. In the last five years there has been a tendency towards validating any ‘alternative’ publications by referencing journal papers and well-known scientists in order to justify any theorising on the book’s theme. Wandering narratives and subjective judgements have been dropped in favour of (supposed) cold objectivity – unfortunately the former is a far more enjoyable read. And it is in the realm of psychedelics, and on a larger scale the subject of consciousness, where the sharp blade of objective reporting becomes dulled. The psychedelic experience is one that can be insightful and meaningful – but it is always first and foremost a personal experience. BREAKING OPEN THE HEAD promised to be one man’s narrative of his personal voyage of discovery – and it was this aspect that set it apart from dozens of other books on the subject. As Pinchbeck outlines early on in the book:
The study of psychedelic shamanism encompasses a vast number of areas…I am an expert in none of them. All I can offer is a record of my own findings. It is, of necessity, incomplete, personal and highly subjective.
BREAKING OPEN THE HEAD follows two trails. The first is Pinchbeck’s narrative of his global journey experiencing many different techniques for ‘breaking open the head’. The second theme is an overview, a cultural history of psychedelic compounds in the Modern West – from Huxley to Burroughs, Leary to Shulgin. The two themes mix readily, and Pinchbeck slides between them effortlessly and with good effect. Completely in his favour is that he writes beautifully, his turn of phrase sometimes breathtaking – and in the tradition of Huxley, sometimes you feel that he might just be capable of transferring the numinous experience on to the page. Not that Pinchbeck would perhaps enjoy the comparison – the German Jewish thinker Walter Benjamin appears to have been a far more formative influence.
The book starts with his first major step in this journey – an African initiation via the Bwiti tribe and their psychedelic of choice, iboga. It is obvious immediately that Pinchbeck intends to “hang his laundry in public”, with extended commentaries on his personal ‘issues’ and opinions. While these passages sometimes border on the self-indulgent, if not narcissistic, it is an important precursor to what follows – as many readers will no doubt identify with his alienation and depression (in retrospect, perhaps better explained as repression?), and as such will be more open to the journey of discovery from disillusionment to revelation which many in the modern age are seeking. Certainly, after hearing the nightmarish details of this initiation, it is truly surprising that Pinchbeck continued on his quest.
Part 2 of BREAKING OPEN THE HEAD begins with a short history of the ‘mushroom experience’, and then continues on with a commentary on modern versus archaic thinking. The reader is left in no doubt as to which Pinchbeck favours, and this sets the tone for the rest of the book. The materialistic, mechanistic modern world is viciously pulled apart, and Pinchbeck offers as its substitute the intuitive and sacred archaic way of thinking. The deviancy of psychedelic use is explained as a result of the fact that it occupies “the point of direct contradiction and possible synthesis between brain-based materialism and spirit-oriented shamanism”. The section ends with a ‘primer’ on the scholarly view of shamanism.
The third part of BREAKING OPEN THE HEAD switches track to the modern day equivalent of a witches’ Sabbat – the Burning Man Festival held in Nevada. The neo-shamanic community is discussed, including the magnificent online source Erowid.org. But it is other events in Pinchbeck’s life which coincide with the Burning Man Festivals, that have far more impact on the commentary and the metamorphosis that he is undergoing. These metaphorical bombshells range from the cataclysmic day in which he learns of the death of both his father and the botanist who had taken him to the Bwiti (the significance of which can only be appreciated by reading the book), through to the birth of his son and the nearby impact of a jet into the World Trade Center which set in motion the events subsequent to 9-11.
It is in the middle section of the book that the casual reader might find the greatest difficulty. Sometimes Pinchbeck’s descriptions are elaborate to a fault – at times we might ask that a spade simply be called a spade. He is no doubt well-read, however the regular quoting of the great figures in literature, philosophy and criticism sometimes sounds plain pretentious. Additionally, at times the constant sniping at the modern way of thinking slips dangerously close to being a simple polemic against the world that Pinchbeck dislikes. That is not to say that Pinchbeck’s commentary is not valid or meaningful – only that at times it comes across slightly one-dimensional as a reading experience. In fairness it must be noted that blind idealism doesn’t flood the book – as Pinchbeck mentions at one point the ancient Americans used psychedelics, but still managed to be a fairly brutal lot…the archaic way of thinking doesn’t always lead to a fairer society.
The more enjoyable travelogue style soon returns though in Part 5 – ‘The Medicine’. In this section Pinchbeck voyages to South America, partaking in the DMT-containing brew ayahuasca with the indigenous Secoya. The description of this journey, the accompanying ‘trip’, and the subtleties of ‘shamanic tourism’, is a delight to read. As with alternative author Graham Hancock, it is in these commentaries that the journalistic skill to place the reader within the scene comes to the fore. While the subject matter lends itself to a written account, it is purely through Pinchbeck’s ability that the reader almost feels the sweat beading on their face in the Amazonian forest.
The final few sections move away from the archaic techniques of ecstasy, and onto the modern stage in which the names of Leary, Shulgin and McKenna take top-billing. Pinchbeck takes the short handle to Leary, branding him as “a central villain in the psychedelic saga…naïve, charismatic, sloppy, self-promotional and out of control”. It’s interesting that Pinchbeck here takes issue with Leary as being too outspoken (while other notables stayed ‘beneath the radar’), but later criticises Rick Strassman on his more ‘straight’ approach to his DMT research. Nevertheless, this part of the book is filled with bizarre experiences on chemicals such as Shulgin’s 2CB, and the ‘shock and awe’ hallucinogens DPT and DMT. There is also good comment on the possibility that these ‘other’ realms should be considered as alternative realities – from the fairy folk of Evans-Wentz to the transpersonal facets of the Salvia Divinorum experience. In fact, further investigation on these themes would have served the book’s purpose well and made a handy replacement to the digression in the middle-section.
Pinchbeck’s experience with DMT serves as the culmination of his journey – he finds it both brutal and revelatory, as his thought process immediately after the event portrays:
Well, that was amazing. Incredible. I am so grateful, so grateful. Thank God I never have to do it again.
The recent research of Dr Rick Strassman with DMT is discussed, as well as the writings of one of Strassman’s subjects, Jim DeKorne. The final chapters of the book extend on the possibility of other sentient beings inhabiting these realms (as readers of the DMT literature will be familiar with), and discuss superficially some of the philosophy of the occult tradition. Again, this part of the book might have benefited from more detailed exposition – although it has to be acknowledged that volumes could be written on the subject of occult thinking.
Overall, Daniel Pinchbeck succeeds in his attempt to detail “his visionary journey from cynicism to shamanism”. He makes plain early on his problems with the modern world, and then describes in wonderfully detailed narratives how his transformation takes place. Along the way, the reader is taken for a ride around the globe, encountering ancient traditions and modern technologies aimed at ‘breaking open the head’ – and through Pinchbeck’s talents the reader can vicariously partake in this experience…superficially at least. A thumping good read as a stand-alone narrative, but if you are interested in the topics of altered states or psychedelics then you’ll find plenty to like about Pinchbeck’s ‘trip’.