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Daniel Pinchbeck is the author of BREAKING OPEN THE HEAD (available from Amazon US and UK). BREAKING OPEN THE HEAD is a personal journey of discovery in which Pinchbeck acts upon his disenchantment with modern urban life and sets out on a quest to reconnect with what he terms the ‘archaic tradition’. His travels take him from tribal initiations in Africa to meetings with shamans in the Amazon, as he undergoes a personal transformation. You can read more about Daniel Pinchbeck and BREAKING OPEN THE HEAD at the website devoted to the book.

GT: Greetings Daniel – thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Your book BREAKING OPEN THE HEAD is a journey of discovery into shamanism and the intriguing domain of altered states of consciousness, including those brought about by entheogens (hallucinogens). It has been a generation since the 1960s psychedelic era – most people today consider these substances, and indigenous shamanism, to have little relevance in our complex, technologically-based civilization. Why do you believe there is still validity and meaning to this type of inner exploration? What is the use?

DP: We have to look at the ways that we use language and classifications to create avoidance mechanisms and barriers around the reality of individual experience. To say that psychedelics are a dusty “1960s” thing is to ignore the fact that when you take them it is your consciousness that is transformed, radically, in the present moment. There are different levels of value in undergoing this type of ontological shock. First of all, one may get a radical deconditioning from one¹s social programming ­ a sudden awareness of how society is a fictive construct of language games, power trips, and manipulative strategies. Secondly, one can – not in one trip perhaps, but over time – discover that there is something profound and true about the shamanic vision of a multidimensional cosmos. Taken seriously, the psychedelic experience still does exactly what it did in the 1960s: It calls into question the entire structure and validity of our current “suicide system.” It gives the perspective of an “Other,” whether botanical mind or alien consciousness or “Higher Self”, on our current sad situation.

GT: BREAKING OPEN THE HEAD examines shamanism and the use of entheogens as a tool in expanding consciousness. The noted scholar Mircea Eliade felt that entheogen use was basically a more modern (of course in terms of shamanism, this means the last 2000 years) technique which resulted from the degradation of original shamanism – that is, as time passed, humans lost the ability to reach the altered states through their own skills. Do you agree with him on this point?

DP: I think that Eliade eventually recognized he was mistaken. Through his friendship with Gordon Wasson, he later realized he had let his own bias against “drugs” influence his opinion. I suspect that, as these shamanic plants have always been around, they have always been used. Psychoactive substances are probably the original method for achieving visionary states – some anthropological evidence supports this.

Recently I had the chance to take the African psychedelic root, iboga (known in the West as ibogaine), for a second time, at an addiction clinic in Mexico. During this trip, I experienced the “spirit of iboga” as a black man in a suit. I was able to ask “Mr. Iboga” questions, and the answers would come back like telegraphic shouts in my head. I asked “Mr. Iboga,” “What is iboga, anyway?” And the answer I received was: “PRIMORDIAL WISDOM TEACHER OF HUMANITY!” – not my syntax at all. Since iboga grows around the African Equator, my thought is that it may, in fact, be the long-forgotten model for the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” described in the Bible, and use of it may go way, way back to early phases of human evolution. Unlike other psychedelics, it is a direct instructor in personal morality and psychology ­ like a stern father. It is no accident that iboga is reentering the modern consciousness at this precise point in time.

GT: In mentioning Iboga, I was bemused by your Iboga initiation with the Bwiti – in terms of establishing the proper ‘set’ and ‘setting’ for a rather major entheogenic journey, it could have hardly been more catastrophic. While a lot of the environment, such as the tribal setting, would probably have been positive elements, do you feel that you suffered any ill effects as a result of the other circumstances surrounding your initiation?

DP: Ultimately, the ill effects receded from my memory and the positive aspects took root in my psyche. Also, the entire incident made for a great story. In retrospect, I even feel fondness for The King, and hope to meet him again some day. It was partially our fault. We were trespassing on his scene without much knowledge of the deeper levels of the situation.

GT: Early on in BREAKING OPEN THE HEAD, you describe the psychedelic experimentation of the 1960s as a “failed mass-cultural voyage of shamanic initiation”. Why do you think it failed, and do you believe that this ‘failed voyage’ has impacted negatively upon the modern neo-shaman’s ability to explore consciousness?

DP: One reason that the 60s’ mass shamanic journey failed is because people lacked guides or cognitive maps available to interpret and integrate the realms into which they were suddenly catapulted. To make things worse, because our society is so consumer-oriented, people would overdo their intake of psychedelics until they had a regressive or nihilistic effect. John Lennon, for example, said that he tripped over a thousand times on LSD until he destroyed himself. Done in the wrong way, without knowledge or attention to context, psychedelic substances can induce what the Mazatec Indians call “mind shadows,” amplifying destructive and negative aspects of the psyche.

When psychedelics became politicized and demonized, that also influenced the kinds of experiences people would have when they took them. If you go back to the early 1960s, LSD was considered an “astonishingly safe” drug – even a wonder drug – by psychiatrists. The propaganda against it exponentially amplified the dangers associated with it. The psychedelic experience is personal and delicate and it relies on “set and setting” and cultural context. A lot of other social and gender issues were being worked out during the 1960s, and this added to the general confusion. Those voices that shouted loudest in the 1960s, like Timothy Leary’s, tended to be very egoistic and self-aggrandizing. However, even Leary, at first, was trying to find a way to integrate psychedelic use into modern society – he wanted to create a new profession of shaman/psychologist/guide to administer these substances.

As for the “modern neo-shaman,” I think they are at a distinct advantage. There is much better information available, and many more guides around who have been through their own initiations. The people who will benefit most will be those who put time and thought and some research into what they are doing. While the professional class that Leary hoped to create does not exist officially, there are people who have stepped into that role.

GT: Following on your comments – I recently read through Michael Hollingshead’s “The Man Who Turned on the World”, and though the anecdotes of the Millbrook years (with Timothy Leary et al) make for entertaining reading, I was struck by the feeling that the participants seemed to give too much of themselves to the drugs, rather than using them simply as a tool of exploration. Would you agree that there needs to be more recognition that drugs are only one tool of many for exploring the potentials of consciousness, if they are to become more ‘legitimate’ to the general population?

DP: There are lots of great methods to explore alternative forms of consciousness without substances. My own attempts with Tibetan Dream Yoga have led to episodes as deeply psychedelic and profound as anything connected with substances.

The bad part of globalization is that it is destroying the biosphere, the good part of it is that all of the esoteric spiritual traditions of the world are now available for study. We can now integrate scientific knowledge with shamanic wisdom and create a new paradigm, or we can watch the world collapse, or both at once.

GT: Part of the problem for any explorers of ‘inner-space’ in the modern age, I believe, is that participation and success in society depends largely on living by a physicalist, reductionist philosophy – with some notable exceptions of course. That is, we now are asked to live our life with maximum efficiency, and judge the outcome of our works by their impact on purely physical factors. How do you see the individual re-integrating elements of shamanism, and indeed humanism, back into their life in the modern age?

DP: I think modern materialist society has entered an accelerated period of transformation and self-destruction, and it will not continue in its present form for much longer. The environmental consequences of globalized capitalism and mass consumerism make the perpetuation of this “suicide system” impossible. When we hit the wall in the next few years, people are going to have to systematically reevaluate the entire delusional ideology driving them and their culture. The only possible way forward for our species is to turn inward – what the alchemists meant by their injunction to “Visit the interior of the Earth.” I think it is a premonition of this that is leading so many Westerners deep into Buddhism and Yoga. A revival of shamanism and intelligent use of sacramental substances is another aspect of this inward turn.

Personally, I believe that, through shamanism, it is completely possible to work with “Elemental Beings,” other forms of sentience involved in the natural world. I collected many stories about this in my book. Learning to work with these other levels is going to be necessary in order to put the Earth back together. In other words, the rational scientific and the intuitive shamanic mindset are going to fuse, a kind of dialectical synthesis that is necessary for the continuation of the human species.

I see the current biospheric crisis as a self-willed cataclysm designed to force human evolution to a higher level of consciousness – what Gurdjieff called a “higher octave.”

GT: Your comments here about ‘elemental beings’, would obviously be seen by a large portion of society – those most centred in rational and physical thinking – as talk of delusions. Could you outline briefly how you have arrived at a ‘belief’ in the existence of sentient beings on other planes, and any possible ways that such a belief could be justified to the skeptical?

DP: Most people’s skepticism is based on untested faith in the materialist belief system in which they have been indoctrinated. They don’t realize this is a faith because they have been constantly assured by all of their professors and TV talking heads that our empirical materialism is “rational” and even “the end of history.” They can’t even imagine there is an outside perspective from which to critique this limited “irrational rationality,” just as Medieval people could not imagine that there was another way of conceiving the relationship between the Earth and the Sun. This is why the Gnostic Christ is right on the money when he said: “Open the door for yourself, so you will know what it is.” The pursuit of gnosis requires an individual effort, an overcoming of the societal inertia which keeps us passive and asleep.

I am not really interested in the language of “belief” versus “unbelief.” I arrived at the hypothesis that there are other forms of sentience through experiences of them – to my own surprise. I also listened to the stories of many people who have had similar experiences. In BREAKING OPEN THE HEAD, I tell the story of a friend who met the “Thunder Beings,” described in many Native American traditions, and afterwards he developed, for a little while, the ability to control local weather systems – like certain Native American shamans. I watched a group of laughing elves that appeared to me on a mushroom trip, and dealt with a Djinn that caused poltergeist phenomena in my apartment. I wouldn’t say these entities necessarily have consciousness in the same way we do – they probably have their own way of being and knowing. The elves were damn cute, however.

GT: For many people, the desire to revert to a simpler and more ‘natural’ way of living has made ‘shamanistic tourism’ somewhat the cause celebre du jour. As you have pointed out, this embracing of shamanism, and proselytising on its behalf, carries with it a large share of ignorance. There is a darker side to shamanism that is often overlooked, both in the personalities that are encountered and the experiences in altered states. What are your feelings about the ‘pop conception’ of shamanism, and the possible dangers that individuals might face in regards to this superficial rendering?

DP: I am not too worried about those dangers. The plants really are amazing teachers, and they seem to be conveying very strong messages right now about what needs to be done to improve our situation. I think that anyone who approaches this area with an open mind and an open heart can gain real benefits. As I discuss in my book, shamanic tourism, done correctly, can benefit tribal groups, who feel marginalized and in some cases have stopped valuing their own traditions. At this tragic point in time, Western visitors can spark renewed interest in disappearing tribal traditions.

GT: But what about the ‘dangers’ of the Astral Plane – as Dion Fortune says, just because a voice speaks from another plane of existence doesn’t mean that it is good-natured and omnipotent. How does the ‘novice’ approach neo-shamanism? Is it essential to have experienced guides?

DP: The only thing you can do is use your intelligence and intuition to separate good information from bad – not just in regard to Astral entities but in politics and life. All the occult writers strongly caution against giving up your will to any “Other,” no matter how glamorous or seemingly wise. I am not sure, however, that anyone could do worse than George Bush, and the directives of any Astral Entity are likely to be an improvement over CNN or Hollywood.

It can be good to have guides but they are not always available and life is short. Some psychonauts are proponents of the “heroic dose,” but I am not really one of them. I think there are advantages to starting with smaller amounts and getting used to the space before diving in to some massive experience of ego-explosion. I think that most people will know when or if they need guides. It has also become a problem in modern society that we always feel we need “professionals” before we can do anything for ourselves. I know people who run all over the world chasing shamans and lamas and that seems a bit ridiculous to me – a form of spiritual consumerism.

Shamanism is definitely a “D-I-Y” field.

GT: You talk about William Burrough’s experiences with yage (ayahuasca), describing his vision of ‘dark mergings and dissolutions and horror’, and qualify that with the summation that this vision was “probably not the vision he wanted. But it was the vision he needed”. Indeed, when you talk of ayahuasca in general, it comes across that you believe it is a cathartic tool of sorts, designed to purge the soul of the negative influences. Would this be a correct interpretation? If so, do you see a use for it in modern psychology?

DP: I think many of these substances could be extraordinary tools for psychology – and in fact, they will be studied and used for those purposes again, when the inevitable paradigm shift happens, as they were in the 1950s and early ’60s. But psychedelics are more than psychological tools – and this is where our division of disciplines is completely inadequate. What is the psychological benefit of the “ontological shock” caused by smoking DMT? At the very least, it proves that you certainly don’t need to bomb the hell out of anyone to experience “Shock and Awe.” A small inhalation of DMT smoke will do the trick just fine.

Ayahuasca, especially, makes people spiritually stronger – compared to the popular club drug Ketamine, which weakens people spiritually and sets them up to be used by glamorous ambiguous entities from the Astral Plane. With K, people often think they are doing the drug when the drug is actually doing them. I do think that contemporary culture desperately needs the psychic purging provided by ayahuasca and iboga. George Bush, Michael Jackson, Rush Limbaugh, CNN, MTV, Eminem – let’s vomit them out and move on.

GT: Well then, how do we tell which substances are helpful, and which have a negative influence? Do we revert to the natural substances used for many centuries, such as ayahuasca, iboga, peyote and mushrooms? Perhaps we are better off leaving the substances alone and concentrating on other techniques such as yoga and ritual magick?

DP: Who is this “we” you are talking about? Each person should do what is necessary and right for their own psychic evolution.

GT: Well, I guess ‘we’ would be all those that are curious about different techniques of achieving altered states of consciousness. Speaking of which, since you started this journey, you have become quite interested in the mystical/magickal tradition – Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Crowley etc. Have you encountered any difficulties in sorting the useful information from the ‘new age pap’, for want of a better turn of phrase?

DP: It is like with anything – you have to think about it and turn ideas over in your mind, again and again, to see how they resonate. The most amazing of these figures is, for me, Rudolf Steiner. He worked incredibly hard to create a “spiritual science” that could be validated by anyone capable of work on themselves. He was a pioneer whose ideas on farming, medicine, and education remain completely relevant – yet he also explicated the most fabulously complex esoteric cosmology. Unlike Crowley and Gurdjieff, Steiner was extremely balanced. But Crowley and Gurdjieff were also extraordinary thinkers with useful ideas.

GT: Can we really be sure that the ‘psychedelic experience’ is something of worth? While people certainly feel that they have had revelations and insights while using entheogens, could it be that it simply comes down to the brain being fooled? There’s an anecdote by a skeptic where he describes his revelatory experience beholding a sign in a toilet – do skeptics have a case here?

DP: Taking psychedelics is an individual decision. People have to overcome their own biases and the mainstream’s repression and ridicule. I don’t feel that I was ever interested in “drugs” – what interests me is consciousness, trying to understand it, to stretch it out or compact it, to experience different potentials of the mind’s relationship to time and space and other dimensions of existence. Ultimately, all you can get from any trip is an amplified or magnified mirror of what is inside your own mind. If one’s mind is full of garbage, your trip will reveal a garbage-world. As Walter Benjamin put it, “Nothing bores an ordinary man more than the cosmos.”

I also support the Buddhist notion that ultimately the world we live in is no different – no more “real” – than a solid-state dream. David Bohm’s thesis of a ‘holographic universe’ puts this on a scientific footing. Smoking DMT showed me that the physical world is like a simulation being run in a cosmic computer, sustained by the meditations of impersonal God-like entities who fascinated and terrified me. Our perceptual apparatus has evolved to take in a very limited range of sensory data – a tiny range of frequencies – and there are an infinite number of other frequencies that we could be tuned to, like different radio stations. These substances allow you to flip the dial.

GT: So you would then therefore subscribe to the theory of what Aldous Huxley called “The Reducing Valve of the Brain”? That is, that our everyday consciousness is simply a tool designed first and foremost to ensure survival, and that other modes of consciousness allow access to information that is not considered essential for that purpose – in short, that what we term reality is simply a small portion (the physical) of a much broader existence.

DP: That is one model of many. Ordinary consciousness allows us to “earth” our perceptions of the non-ordinary. Buddha’s first act after achieving enlightenment was to touch the earth. Our daily plodding is necessary for eventual soaring. The eight circuit model of Leary and Robert Anton Wilson is also interesting. What amazes me, right now, is how a vast majority of people seem to have abandoned interest in any higher levels of awareness or their own spiritual fate. They have retreated into what Jose Arguelles calls “machine normal” consciousness, striving to completely integrate with the corporate machinery of manufactured mind, distracting themselves and avoiding any vision of where this thing is going. Where people used to think, at least, a generation ahead, most people seem incapable of thinking even a few years into the future. They have lost the ability to connect actions with consequences, except in the most simpleminded way. This has to indicate that our current system has reached its end point.

The shamanic perspective gives you a much vaster perception of time and allows you to think about the evolution of human consciousness as a purposeful project and process. Sometimes it does seem to me that humanity is headed in two opposite directions. It may be that after “2012” or the “catastrophic bifurcation” or the “Apocalypse” or whatever is directly and imminently ahead of us now, we will be in the right position to engage those higher circuits of consciousness. This phase of intensified destruction may be pushing us to the place where we are ready to make that jump.

Perhaps the childhood of the species is ending with one last hideous acting-out, one last parading of all our greeds and horrors and miseries, before we assume the responsibilities of adulthood – which may include membership in a community of galactic intelligence.

GT: Do you think that ‘transpersonal experiences’ (such as when multiple people ‘share’ the same trip) give some sort of substance to arguments that there is such a thing as the ‘astral plane’?

DP: My current syntax for thinking about it is more about levels and types of vibrations, resonances, and intervals, rather than Astral or other Planes. I think we need a more advanced language for conceptualizing consciousness and the “supersensible realms,” and I hope that someone much smarter than I am will develop it. English is probably a poor language for this as we are trapped in dualism and hard subject-object distinctions.

The overwhelming anecdotal evidence of shared dreams and shared trips, etc., should have made a dent on the materialist model, but it hasn’t yet. The Global Consciousness Project at Princeton is also discovering evidence for a “noosphere,” a mental envelope around the earth, by documenting fluctuations in random number generators set up at 50 cities around the planet. On days of major world events, they get significant statistical deviations from normal patterns of randomness. On 9/11, these deviations peaked several hours after the planes hit the buildings, but the deviations began an hour or two before the first Tower was hit. The Project may be charting the birth of a global consciousness aware of major events before they actually happen. I suspect, in the new paradigm, we will recognize that human consciousness and the Earth, together, constitute a single sentient and evolving organism.

GT: I agree, much of the consciousness research in the past few decades will be of vital importance if the materialistic paradigm is to be changed. Hopefully we can chat about this more at a later date – for now, though, thank you very much Daniel for taking the time to speak with TDG.

BREAKING OPEN THE HEAD by Daniel Pinchbeck is available from Amazon US and UK