Daniel Pinchbeck's Breaking Open the Head

by Aric Mayer

A few years ago, Daniel Pinchbeck, a self-described Manhattan intellectual and atheist, found himself in spiritual crisis: psychically isolated, a fish in a bucket of water, constrained by a Freudian worldview and longing for the ocean of the collective unconscious. This book (his first), begun around that time as a hands-on investigation into the use of psychedelic substances in shamanic societies around the world, became instead the record of a mystical journey and, ultimately, unexpected personal transformation.

Pinchbeck soon discovered the peculiar nature of the shamanistic hallucinogenic experience. He describes powerful visions (his own and others’) that a chemical hardly seems capable of producing: one person finds himself walking through his childhood home, complete in every detail; another encounters and chats with intelligent non-human beings. Each substance seems to have its own personality, even its own power. More than one heroin junkie, it seems, has been freed of his addiction by a single iboga trip. Some plants conjure visions of the same figures in many subjects: iconic emissaries of or guides to the revelations. Where do such visions come from? Pinchbeck begins to suppose a kind of plant intelligence, a molecular key that unlocks a door in human neurochemistry to invisible realms.

Pinchbeck’s intellectual rigor and initial skepticism lead him to treat the psychedelic experiences empirically, holding on to the content of the visions while searching for their significance. Trusting his intuition and experience, he finds his own relationship to these unseen worlds, often sharing the reader’s surprise at how far his journey leads.

Ultimately this book is about neither drugs nor shamanism. It is about the search for and discovery of a personal spiritual vision in a profoundly skeptical and unbalanced world. The journey is not without danger. It is folly to challenge the rational and deterministic structures we are entrenched in. And what could be more incongruous than a white Manhattanite seeking shamanistic revelation in the jungle through the use of drugs marginalized by the Western mind? Accordingly, it is the fool who leads the way in mystical tradition. By trusting his instincts and following his own vision, the fool in the end becomes the wisest one.


—Breaking Open the Head was released in paperback by Broadway Books in August.

Hallucinogenic drugs
Fall 2003
The cover of BOMB 85