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Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey Into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism
"Wins my vote for good book of the year  for unflinchingly looking at a topic that frequently gets brushed aside as childish, dangerous, or unnecessary psychedelic drugs as religious sacraments."
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"In his reporting, [Pinchbeck] manages to walk a difficult tonal tightrope, balancing his skepticism with a desire to be transformed. He thoughtfully serveys the literature about psychedelic drugs, but the most exhilirating and illuminating sections are the descriptions of drug taking...Pinchbeck's earnest, engaged and winning matter carry the book." Publishers Weekly
"I much admire Breaking Open the Head for being the account of an authentic quest for enlightenment in jungles, up rivers, in deserts, and hardest of all to access, the human mind and heart via one of the oldest thoroughfares on earth, mind-expanding drugs. This is a serious and illuminating journey." Paul Theroux
"Grippingly dramatic, powerfully moving, this is a classic of the literature of ecstasy." Booklist (starred review)
"[Pinchbeck] tries after deep meanings, abiding hopes, or, better yet, transcendence, through the agency of chemical self-discovery via those visionary catalysts psilocybin, LSD, DMT (and its evil twin DPT), iboga, and ayahuasca....Arguable, but compelling for its insistence that there are more games in town than the Western cultural moment." Kirkus Reviews
"As mind-expanding as the chemicals it chronicles, Breaking Open the Head is the most artful and provocative investigation of psychedelia since Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception." Stephen Johnson, author of Interface Culture and Emergence
"Constantly prohibited, constantly used, drugs fuel the fears and fantasies our society lives by. With verve and insight Daniel Pinchbeck's book rides this roller coaster, asking us to imagine a world where, along with so many other prohibitions, the War Against Drugs has disappeared. Above all, he 'opens the head' with his clear prose and penetrating questions, as lively and absorbing as any drug I know." Michael Taussig, professor of anthropology, Columbia University; author of Shamaism, Colonialsim, and the Wild Man
"As Daniel Pinchbeck so vividly discovered through his own extraordinary experiences, sacred plants are pivotal to the culture and spirituality of humans the world over. Like an anthropological explorer to another world, he invites us along with him on a journey deep into the soul of his and our humanity. The lessons he learns hold the keys to the survival and heart of ancient cultures, and possibly to the renewal of our own." Thom Hartmann, author of The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight
"This is a brave book. Brave because it accepts, as matters of fact, realities that cannot coexist peacefully with the standard American Myth. That the discussion of these issues avoids both New Age glitter-speak and standard psychedelic hoo-ha makes it all the more provocative. It is also brave for the unflinching willingness to bare the less expanded parts of the author's psyche. And it is brave, as it is always brave, to attempt to speak clearly of that which can't be spoken." John Perry Barlow
About the Author
Daniel Pinchbeck is a founding editor of Open City, and he has written for such publications as Rolling Stone, Men's Journal, and The Village Voice, where sections of his book have previously appeared. He lives in New York.
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