Breaking Open the Head by Daniel Pinchbeck

Guardian Review by Gary Lachman & About Daniel Pinchbeck

Holy smoke

Gary Lachman on Daniel Pinchbeck’s drug-assisted journey of self-discovery, Breaking Open the Head.

Saturday February 8, 2003

The Guardian (UK)

What does an obscure West African psychedelic herb named iboga have in common with Walter Benjamin? Or the Black Rock desert with New York’s East Village? Or the occult with postmodernism? If you’re an average citizen of the 21st century, the answer is probably nothing. But if you’re a thirtysomething Manhattanite sick of consumer values, shallow cynicism and hi-tech hoopla, these ingredients can add up to a powerfully strange brew.

In Daniel Pinchbeck’s case, they opened a door on a weird new reality. Or, actually, a weird old one, known for millennia to tribal shamans. These astral backpackers traditionally ingested shattering doses of mind-altering drugs and made the perilous journey to the netherworlds to retrieve the transformative visions of the spirit realms.

To profit from Pinchbeck’s detailed accounts of his experiences with mind-illuminating substances, you have to be prepared, as PD Ouspensky (an early experimenter with nitrous oxide) phrased it, to: “think in other categories”. Pinchbeck’s engaging and enjoyable report on his psychedelic journeys – both inner and outer – calls for readers willing to temporarily “suspend their disbelief”, or the whole exercise might collapse into a titillating recap of someone else’s trips.

Pinchbeck was a New York journalist, son of a Beat memoirist and an abstract painter, who hit the hipster party path, drowning his insecurities in booze and other stimulants. Then the dark night of the soul descended on him. For Pinchbeck it was time to “break open his head”, the phrase his West African Bwiti initiators use to describe the properties of the efficacious iboga. To “break open the head” means to “temporarily release the soul from the body, allowing the initiate entry into the spiritual cosmos, where he is shown the outline of his fate”.

By the end of this highly readable report, Pinchbeck’s head has been broken into so often – by ayahuasca, magic mushrooms, DMT and other drugs – that you might expect him to install hinges.

Yet there is a seriousness behind his self-experiments and while the drug tales are gripping, and funny, he is at pains to put them in the context of his search for meaning. Readers conversant with the literature of drugs can sometimes find themselves on well-trodden ground: the mini-histories of Leary, Huxley, Artaud and others, while giving us Pinchbeck’s take on past masters, are particularly familiar. But Pinchbeck is a man who has discovered his path and it’s understandable that he would want to put his experiences in context. He believes Leary’s old maxim of “set and setting” is crucial to the true shamanic trip and so he travels to Africa, Mexico, Ecuador and the Nevada desert (for the delirious Burning Man festival).

My own interest was piqued by Pinchbeck’s musings on Walter Benjamin’s thoughts about his drug experiences and their capacity to produce a “profane illumination”, a sudden dislocation of the self amid the increasingly commodified landscape. Benjamin’s peculiar vision clearly demonstrates the similarities between ancient Gnostic beliefs in a “false world” and their counterpart in his and others’ brand of neo-Marxism.

The punchline is Pinchbeck’s experiences with a substance that sounds like a killer inebriant. Through it, he says, he became aware of the existence of “other” worlds and, more disturbing, their inhabitants. To go on would spoil the pleasure of reading his account, but the critters weren’t entirely wholesome, and Daniel found it necessary to call in an extraterrestrial exterminator. What does it all add up to? Still anybody’s guess, I think. But if Breaking Open the Head leaves room for a lot of answers, it certainly asks the right questions.

About Daniel Pinchbeck

Daniel Pinchbeck has written features for The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Wired, Harper’s Bazaar, The Village Voice, Salon, and many other publications. He is one of the founders of Open City, an art and literary journal, and an independent book publisher. He was a 1999 – 2000 Fellow of the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University. He has also been a columnist for The Art Newspaper of London, and an editor at Connoisseur Magazine. Born in 1966, he grew up in New York City, where his father, Peter Pinchbeck, was an abstract painter. His mother, Joyce Johnson, was part of the Beat Generation in the 1950s. She is the author of
several books, including Minor Characters, a memoir. He went to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, then worked as a magazine editor and journalist.

In the late 1990s, after years of working in the media, Pinchbeck fell into the classic existential or spiritual crisis. Life seemed to have no point or transcendent meaning. He began to feel as if he was already dead, a ghost walking around the streets of Manhattan. At some point he recalled his fascination with psychedelic mushrooms and LSD in college. He experimented again, and his experiences inspired him to travel to Nepal and India, where he visited Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and the sacred Hindu festival Kumbh Mehla.

Back in New York, he began to study shamanism and the magical plants used in rituals. On assignment, he went to Gabon, in West Africa, and took iboga, a long-lasting psychedelic rootbark, in an initiation ceremony. He visited a shaman in Oaxaca, the son of the famous shamaness Maria Sabina. He attended a conference on “Visionary Entheobotany” in Palenque, Mexico and visited Burning Man. He went down to the Ecuadorean Amazon to visit the Secoya tribe and take ayahuasca, a visionary medicine.

Breaking Open the Head describes his own process of discovery, and a profound paradigm shift. He admits to still being surprised – even extremely astonished – at what he has found. Through direct experience, Pinchbeck learned that shamanism was a real phenomenon, that direct access to the spiritual world is available to anybody who is willing to explore for themselves and escape the prevailing orthodoxies, the “irrational rationality” of the current system. He supports the perspective of Christ in the Gnostic “Gospel of Thomas,” who said: “Open the door for yourself, so you will know what is.”