BREAKING OPEN HIS HEAD An Interview with Writer DANIEL PINCHBECK
interviewed by Sarah Ferguson
"I wanted to solve a mystery, to know why certain substances are revered in tribal societies throughout the world, but repressed as well as ridiculed in contemporary Western cultures."
-- Daniel Pinchbeck
You could say Daniel Pinchbeck was born to be a psychedelic cosmonaut. His father, Peter Pinchbeck, was an abstract expressionist painter, and his mother, Joyce Johnson, was an editor at Dial Press who helped publish Abbie Hoffman's first book, Revolution for the Hell of It, and whose memoir, Minor Characters, details her affair with Jack Kerouac.
Still, Pinchbeck didn't give psychedelics much thought when he left college to pursue the life of an intellectual dilettante, freelancing for magazines and helping to found the literary journal Open City.
A self-professed "crisis in nihilism" propelled him to set off on a quest for higher consciousness, guided by the most powerful hallucinogens he could find. Breaking Open the Head (Broadway Books) documents his journey --from an iboga initiation with the Bwiti of Gabon to ayahuasca ceremonies in Ecuador, a DMT trip at Palenque, and a scary encounter with an evil analog called DPT that left him seeing bugs in his silverware for weeks.
Far from bugging out, Pinchbeck uses these experiences as a launching pad to plumb the nature of consciousness, while reporting on the terrible threat faced by the tribal cultures that first honed the use of these remarkable plant substances. Part travelogue, part cultural history, part advocacy, Breaking Open the Head breaks new ground in discussing the relevancy of psychedelics and their potential to help reawaken the "spiritual warrior" within.
Q: How did you get started on this quest?
A: First I took ayahuasca in a ceremony in New York. Then I got [a magazine] assignment to go to Africa and take iboga. It was originally for Vibe, and they never ran it, probably because they got freaked out that they'd sent a white guy to Africa to go do this totally tribal thing. But that experience ultimately had very far-reaching effects. It began to open me up to what they call the spirit world. I felt like there were possibilities of relationships with people who had died. All sorts of things that I never had imagined were possible began to manifest themselves to me, slowly over time, after that experience, which I describe in the book.
Q: What was the most profound experience? Do you have a favorite substance?
A: There were several that were very, very profound. The iboga experience was incredibly profound. I went through my whole index of childhood memories. And I really had this sense of how there are these social forces that act upon you to make you into something, and yet once you can see beyond that, you realize that you also have this incredible freedom to change yourself. And the ayahuasca experience gave me an incredible sense of connection to the planet and to the natural world. I did that a few times, and I was really lucky to do it in the Amazon. That was also very devastating because I saw what's happening to the Amazon. Since then I've felt that there's this incredible race against time. We have a very short window of time to understand these other kind of knowledge systems, to integrate them into our own way of being, and to make some sort of transformation of consciousness that hopefully will have ramifications throughout our whole society. We obviously tried to do that in the '60s, and it didn't work. The way it's happening now, I think, is much more organic. We've had time to sort of think about and reintegrate the experiences of the '60s, why that didn't work. We have more people who have been studying shamanism, Jungian analysis, alchemy, the occult-all these different modalities of reaching different parts of the psychic.
Q: What was the most frightening experiment? Did you ever get really freaked out?
A: The most frightening was the experiment with DPT, dipropyl tryptomine. But, you know, I've found that sometimes the bad trips you have, a year or two later can turn out to be the best trips, because those are the things where you learn the most or have the most profound experiences. So the DPT experience turned out to be one of the most useful ones in the long term. I think it actually was some kind of shamanic initiation. It had far-reaching consequences.... I felt like I was being visited for a while because I had dreams of this certain kind of entity.
Q: Do you still feel visited?
A: I feel that, you know, that they stay in touch. People say that the iboga spirit, once you've had the initiation, is permanently with you. And I've definitely felt in dreams that there's like a remanifestation. The iboga is always a stern, protective, almost patriarchal presence for me. .
Q: And the DPT spirit?
A: That was almost like a consciousness upgrade...
Q: Consciousness upgrade? I don't get that from the book. It seems more of a malevolent force to watch out for.
A: I don't think it was malevolent. I think actually if I were rewriting the book, I would probably think about it a little differently.... But I wouldn't recommend that people take DPT. What basically happens is you go through a kind of process of transformation in which synchronicities happen and other stuff.... I think in retrospect that I was being prepared for this experience. I kind of allude to that in the book, that it had a kind of nocturnal return feeling to it. It felt like something that I'd been through before, I would say in another life. I would never have believed in other lives four years ago. But now it seems to me very likely that there's a kind of system of incarnations, and I may have been involved with this spirit or a similar entity at some previous state.
Q: Are you still questing? Because the piece in the New York Observer made it seem like you're not.
A: My hope is to take [drugs] in the shamanic context. I would definitely like to go back to South America and do some journeying. But I'm kind of eager right now to do some other kinds of exploration. Doing the book, I got really interested in dream yoga, trying to master the art of dreaming. That's something that seems really basic to alchemy. I think past certain points, [these] substances may actually be obstructions to moving forward, to evolving. It's sort of like a consumerist approach to higher consciousness. This is what they discovered in the '60s also. You're getting a kind of instant access, but you're not doing the work that maybe is required to get there. Ayahuasca may be different, because that may turn out to have incredible medicinal benefits. I'm still thinking that through.
Q: If you were going to pick a favorite substance, what would it be?
A: I think it would be ayahuasca. It has a lot of base to it. It really feels like it roots you to the earth, And that's an experience that people really need to have right now. You really have a sense of yourself as a simultaneously spiritual and biological organism. So you're like brought up, and you're brought down. That's really an amazing double-whammy.
Q: Brought down, as in bummer?
A: Yeah, because it makes you really nauseous. You vomit, you puke your guts out, and you see these incredible visions, and they're connected. So you're realizing that it's through the biology that the glamour of the spiritual realm is able to manifest itself. And that's just really interesting.
Q: And that's a bit different from the sudden flash of DMT?
A: DMT is almost like a technological experience. But there again, a lot of people have explored that more than I did. I really only had one major DMT shooting-through-the-tunnels trip, and that's just because I'm a chicken. [Laughs.]
Q: In the book you talk a lot about the potential healing power of psychedelics and other ethneogens. Can you talk a little more about that?
A: What they discovered in the '50s and '60s is that they're incredibly good deconditioning agents. That's important. And some of them clearly have healing powers when they're used carefully and ritualistically. That's what shamanism really is all about. [Psychedelics] offer a vast opportunity for us to have almost a definite awareness that there are a lot of other things going on in the spiritual realms, other ways of looking at reality.
Q: You also talk a lot about Prozac and other pharmaceuticals ... Do you think these plant substances could be used as alternatives to Western forms of drug therapy?
A: First of all, if you go to a tribal society, living in a traditional way, most people are not depressed. If you read about early colonialists coming to the native populations, they didn't find a bunch of depressed people sitting around. They found very happy, engaged, people who were not working all the time. Their culture was not about work. They were telling stories, they were having visionary experiences, they were decorating themselves. They were running around -- and I think it was in many ways a better life than what we have now created. Depression, the kind of systemic depression that we have throughout our society, is a product of this society -- a society that's based on completely false and dehumanizing principles. And what these antidepressants are doing is they're allowing people to kind of subsist. They're keeping their seretonin levels boosted. And you can kind of feel the rigidity of people that are in this kind of SSRI thing. And I find it really unfortunate because if you look at psychoanalysis, or Freud or Jung, the real way to heal is to go back to the trauma and to go back through the trauma. That's what Stan Graf was trying to do with LSD. The antidepressants, it's more like you keep people in this permanent artificial state. I'm not even a huge fan of Freudian psychoanalysis. I just feel the approach we've picked is a typical fast-food approach to these problems. If you just sort of keep people stimulated at the proper levels they can vibrate along with the system.
Q: So you're saying psychedelics have the potential to heal by opening people up to consciousness and opening them up to a way of dealing with past trauma?
A: Yeah, um, we really have to look as hard as we can at the way the traditional shamans used them. They're really interwoven with a lot of ritual practices and a whole belief system. Basically what I said in the book is that as Westerners, as moderns, we're sort of renegotiating our relationship to these kind of substances. And it's not a finished project at this point. Somehow it didn't work psychoanalytically, somehow we can't quite become shamans in the same way. Or maybe we can, I don't know...
Q: You're also kind of cautionary about advocating the use of psychedelic substances. You call Timothy Leary a "central villain" in the downfall of psychedelia.
A: Leary was a brilliant guy. I love his writing, I have quotes from him in the book that I still think about all the time. But he was also very opportunistic. Even though he was ejected from Harvard, he somehow transferred the kind of game manipulation system of the Ivy Leagues to become some sort of psychedelic avatar. And he was just very quick to tell 16-year-olds to drop out and blow their minds on a lot of LSD and leave the system. And I think that was very bad advice.
Q: Because they hadn't established their lives in a way in which they could move to the next step?
A: Yeah. Basically what we learned from the '60s is that people had no shamanic context, no real background, no way of understanding these alternate realms of consciousness. So they would go out and they would disintegrate. And then you'd be left with like late Pink Floyd or something.
Q: Is there a price for visionary states?
A: Well, according to Gurdieff, the higher level you reach, the greater burden you have to bear. I mean, you're like pushing energy further and further up hill, and it can come stronger and stronger back at you. So the price is that you have to be willing to go the distance. I would say that's really key to my whole concept. When you look at our whole situation right now, if we're going to evolve and not just kind of collapse, on an individual level, I think we have to somehow come around to taking responsibility for the entire situation that we're in as a species. Which is in many ways a very dire one at the moment.
Q: So what does that mean, taking responsibility?
A: I don't know exactly (laughs). It's up to each person, but they have to feel that they're part of the stream of human evolution on this planet, and they have to care about and feel compassionate for the whole situation, and work as best they can to manifest something positive out of that.
Q: I think that's a central point of your book: that by taking these plant substances, they bring a sense of empathy for the plant world and our participation in it, but also an empathy for the plants themselves.
A: According to Steiner, plants like to be cut, but they hate to be torn out. Because they're being used for a benefit.
Q: You talk about Leary, but people could say that you're being a sort of nouveau-intellectual version of Leary in terms of proselytizing these things or their potential.
A: They could say that (laughs). I really just tried to do the job that I felt had to be done here. The book is just the outcome of my own personal investigation. And I say up-front that it's subjective and incomplete. I don't claim to be any kind of expert. People can do with it what they will.
Q: But you're also critical of the sort of New Age psycho-questing... There's a tendency to just paint these drugs as good angels, or something like that.
A: Yeah, on many levels we have to have a more authentic assessment of what our situation is and what our potentials are. To just have this sort of Pollyannaish view of the spiritual world is not going to be a good thing. There are all these channels... There may well be beings in the astral plane that have their own agenda which is not positive for human beings... On a lot of levels, we have to learn to be very discriminating about what's going to be good for us, and what's going to lead us to a positive evolution.
Q: Where was it that you were working?
A: I worked in a post office for 30 years. I'm retired.
Q: In the book you take issue with Jonathan Ott's view that so-called Yagé tourism is bad for indigenous peoples in the Amazon. Can you explain?
A: I think he's wrong. From what I saw, these tribes are very, very threatened. Some of them are really on the verge of extinction. And the shamans and the shamanic culture have been discredited in lot of cases -- by the missionaries, by the oil companies, etc. So they're losing their ground. That's what I saw in this tribe, the Secoya, in Equador. So to have what to them look like magnificently wealthy white people come down and be really fascinated by their ancient traditions -- that suddenly turns the thing around and allows them to see their culture in a different light. Especially the young people of the tribe. A lot of them are about to lose contact with their old traditions. They're all wearing the Western clothing, they're getting hired by the oil companies as they come through. So I think that first world folks, or rich Westerners with good intentions, can actually be a positive influence at this point. That may not have been true in the '70s, because maybe then you felt it was more unclear which way things were going to go. But to me it seems pretty obvious that these tribal cultures are not going to be able to maintain some pure tribal situation at this point. And also, in the last 10 years, a lot of the shamans have been getting a message whenever they take their medicine that now is the time to share their knowledge with the outside world. They know the knowledge is very important. I remember when we were driving on this bus out of that region, and I saw the oil pipeline along the road, coming out of Lago Agria in Equador. The oil pipeline was like a snake, and everyone talks about ayahuasca being the snake. And I was thinking that just like the oil's getting out of the jungle, ayahuasca is trying to get out. I mean, ayahuasca is trying to get to us now.
Q: You really believe that?
A: Yes, for sure. I have no doubt about it.
Q: It's not just simply the idea that the shamans or the elders are saying take this, we need you to help us?
A: My hypothesis is that it's true what a lot of people have been saying--that ayahuasca is a sentient spirit of the natural world. A kind of sentient intelligence of the green nation. And it is definitely ready to get talking with us right now. It is eager to give us information and to work with us.
Q: What is your mission now then?
A: I think it's to alert people to the fact that there are many other levels of consciousness involved in our situation. That there are consciousnesses that are super-sensible, that are like elves and elemental beings, and I kind of think that all of that stuff is for real now.
Q: And you didn't before? (I'm shocked!)
A: And also that there are consciousnesses in nature. And that human beings are not these sole entities at the top of the whole hierarchical structure. In the chronology of Gurdieff, we're like transformers of energies and transmitters of energy. And we have a sort of purpose. We've sort of lost the sense of why we are here, the sense of...
Q: Which is to be part of that creative process...?
A: Yeah, according to Gurdieff, it's to transform higher and higher energies through deeper and deeper acts of will and consciousness and self-exploration and evolution. And he was very concerned writing in the early part of the century that humanity was not evolving at that point. And I think what we've mainly seen... It's complicated. I kind of feel like, you know, everything that's happening now was in some weird way totally meant to happen.
Q: To you?
A: I'm talking about the whole situation. I mean, it is very possibly a fulfillment of a lot of prophecies; the Hopi prophecy, the Mayan prophecy, the Book of Revelations. This is an occult situation we're in. We're no longer in a rational situation. The kind of rationality that we believed in for the last 30 years is no longer functioning. So we need to use our empirical egos, our common sense, our discriminative faculties. And we need to realize that there are these forces at work very powerfully right now.
Q: Where did you get the strongest sense that these forces were at work?
A: It was an evolution‚ definitely after the DPT experience. I really felt like -- I write about this in the book -- looking at signs or corporate logos I just understood that they were kind of seals for forces that were working on us. Crowley has this idea that in some ways, ideas are beings, thoughts are beings that actually move through reality. So yeah, right now we have our work cut out for us. And I really think it's beyond the point where people can continue to either respond ironically, or respond passively, or respond by stoning themselves out. I don't think those are good responses any more. I think that people need to adapt a gesture of fearlessness here. The whole machine we've created in the media level is all about creating fear. From an occult perspective, we would think that fear may be a kind of energy that certain beings eat. Those beings now are really, really hungry, so they're just absorbing these incredible amounts of fear energy into them. And we shouldn't be feeding them fear.
Q: The refusal of fear is a radical stance right now.
A: We're coming to a hard end with the whole dominator culture and worldview. It's going to come to a hard and fast conclusion. And those people who are going to be left more or less in touch will be the people who are in traditional and tribal societies, in mountains and forests where they haven't found oil. I think it's quite possible that that's a literal prophecy.
Q: You think that there will be some actual natural environment left? That's a hopeful sign.