Originally published in Arthur No. 1 (October, 2002)
“The Garden of Magic; or, the Powers and Thrones Approach the Bridge” by Alan Moore (1994)
Fellowship of the Vine
An interview with shamanic psychonaut-author Daniel Pinchbeck
Daniel Pinchbeck is a New York-based writer and journalist who co-founded the literary magazine Open City in the early ‘90s. The son of the writer Joyce Johnson (a member of the Beat Generation and author of Minor Characters) and the painter Peter Pinchbeck, Pinchbeck has been on a passionate intellectual quest for the last years that has taken him across Nepal, India, Mexico, the Amazon and West Africa, writing pieces on art, psychedelics, and altered states of consciousness for Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Wired, Salon, and The New York Times Magazine, among others. His new book, Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey Into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism (Broadway), is an account of that quest, blending cultural history, personal narrative, and metaphysical speculation. The original interview was conducted by Joseph Durwin on the eve of Breaking Open the Head’s publication; there’s been some slight futzing of the text by Arthur’s editor.
Arthur: In your book, you talk about exploring many of the same hallucinogenic drugs—LSD, magic mushrooms, ayahuasca—that postwar Westerm bohemians like the Beats and the Hippies were interested in. How does your quest compare to those of people like William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary?
Daniel Pinchbeck: The Beats were working by instinct and intuition. They realized that modern society had become a horror show, and that their task was to begin to uncover, in Allen Ginsberg’s words, “a lost knowledge or a lost consciousness.” They took that process as far as they could in the context of their times and their individual personalities.
I believe that my approach—and my book—is more scientific and analytic, because that is the task of the “counterculture” in our time. Perhaps I am the only person who feels this way, but I see a clear goal ahead. This goal is a direct legacy of the counterculture —but it is actually hundreds, if not many thousands, of years older than that. In fact, it is the mission that we must somehow accomplish. Think of it as a secret raid to be carried out deep behind enemy lines, despite incredible odds, and with no possibility of failure.
The Beats and the Hippies saw through the abrasive insanity gnawing at the soul of America–this warmongering, money-mad, climate-destroying monstrosity, which is now casting a dreadful shadow across the planet. Where the Beats acted intuitively, from the heart, we now have the necessary knowledge to put together a new paradigm that is simultaneously political, ecological, spiritual, and far more scientifically accurate than the out-dated Newtonian-Darwinian model which is propping up the doom-spiraling status quo. The psychedelic experience supports the physicist David Bohm’s vision of a “holographic universe,” which is also identical to the alchemical perspective of “As above, so below.” We now have the tools to reinstate the archaic cosmological perspective on a firm scientific basis. Once that sinks in, it becomes obvious that the true goal of human existence is psychic and spiritual development, and the entire thrust of the capitalist system is a samsaric delusion that is keeping humanity from recovering its birthright.
Perhaps there is a reason that humanity has been frantically seeking to develop a “global brain” through the Internet, cell phones, and satellites: I suspect that a moment will come when complete social transformation becomes not only possible, but inevitable. That moment may be sooner than we think.
What were the circumstances that led to pursuing the experiences you relate in your book?
I first tried mushrooms and LSD in college–as many people do—and my experiences left me intrigued but puzzled. It seemed extraordinary that such vast alternative dimensions of consciousness could be revealed with such shocking immediacy. And it was equally extraordinary that the mainstream culture didn’t find this a worthy subject of discussion or thought. After college, I put psychedelics aside to enter the “real world.” When I hit my late twenties, I began to feel increasingly desolate and despairing. I was lucky enough to be connected to the New York media world, the art world, and the literary world, but all these scenes began to seem unbearably empty to me. I realized that I needed to know for myself if there was a spiritual dimension to existence–I really thought that I might literally go insane or prefer to die without access to some form of deeper knowledge. I didn’t think a bit of yoga was going to do the trick. At a bookstore, I heard about iboga, an African tribal psychedelic plant used in Gabon and the Congo that is said to show initiates the African spirit world. Most people just take it once in their lives–it lasts for thirty hours. I got an assignment to go to Africa and go through the initiation, and that was where my quest began.
Did you have a religious upbringing?
I grew up as an atheist. Before writing my book, I thought the Bible was superstitious fakery and I despised any manifestation of organized Christianity. It is embarrassing to admit this, but I now suspect that Christ was exactly who he said he was, and the miracles described in the Gospels happened precisely as they are written. From my own experiences and the stories of the many people I interviewed, I know that “miracles”–violations of the known psychical laws–do in fact take place all the time. Christ could be viewed as a master shaman, seeing visions and dispensing healings. It is obvious, even if you just read the Gospel of Mark, that Christ’s parables form an extraordinary esoteric teaching, which have love as their essence. For me, there is no more resonant statement today than Christ’s comment from the Gnostic Gospels: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” At this time, when the world seems to be literally falling to pieces on many levels, we have an extraordinary opportunity to reclaim Christ’s original message of love, brotherhood, and direct seeking of truth—no matter what the costs—from the perverted wreckage of official Christianity represented by Ashcroft, Bush, and Scalia.
Is it necessary to go back to older, aboriginal traditions in order to have truly breakthrough, shamanic (or spiritual) experiences with psychedelic mushrooms and other organic substances? What about the synthetic psychedelics like LSD, DMT and Ketamine, which have no history of traditional use?
My thesis is that psychedelics actually do reveal other dimensions where there are other forms of beings existing in their own realms. We need to become savvy–eventually, even scientifically precise–about these other realms and develop a kind of protocol for dealing with them. It is not generally the case that the beings we see on psychedelics have our best interests at heart. If we don’t know what we are doing, they will try to make use of us in ways we do not really understand.
With natural compounds, there is at least a textual legacy to draw upon—you can go and find out how the Mazatecs or the Navajo used something and adapt their rituals if you want. You could also go and ask the shamans yourself. With new synthetic psychedelics, we don’t even know what the rules should be, or what shamans of the past could tell us is going on when we take them. We are on our own, explorers in a new realm, and while that can be exciting it can also be terrifying. Also, many synthetic psychedelics are extremely dosage sensitive–a few milligrams can entirely change the quality of the experience. That makes them more difficult to use, and provokes more anxiety.
Ketamine is an interesting case. It has become very popular because it is physically relaxing and incredibly visionary. People who use ketamine can construct intricate universes for their own viewing pleasure. Yet ketamine tends to take an eerie hold over people. My sense is that ketamine is a drug that spiritually undermines the user and saps their will, while ayahuasca, especially taken in a traditional ceremony, makes you spiritually stronger. I believe that our society needs some spiritual warriors right now–not more numbed-out victims, ensnared by glamorous entities from the astral plane.
These substances are powerful tools. They are only used in tribal societies for very specific purposes–usually for healing–and generally there are strict rules about how they should be employed. Mushrooms, for instance, are only consumed at night. If any Westerner persists in haphazard exploration, eventually they will be given a powerful demonstration of why these rituals exist—I certainly was. Because our culture has denied the existence of spiritual or demonic realms, we have no traditional knowledge to help us when things go wrong. Since it is hard for us to imagine that these other realms might be real, it is even harder to take them seriously–until we suddenly find ourselves playing for very high stakes indeed.
In your book, you describe your own shamanic initiation…
I found that I was undergoing some kind of process that seemed to be intensifying correspondences between psychic experiences and external events. For instance, the last night of my first visit to Burning Man, I sat for hours in front of a metal sculpture of a flaming heart. That night, I discovered later, my father had died of heart failure. A year later, I had just started editing a book on corporate globalization, oil, and the environmental crisis on the morning of September 11, when I watched the World Trade Centers collapse from my window. The manuscript was already titled “World on Fire.” Second, I started to have constant dreams that suggested shamanic initiation–dreams of dismemberment and death, of myself being crucified by a cheering African tribe, or processed through some kind of cosmic sausage grinder. Third, after taking a powerful synthetic psychedelic, I found myself engaged in some kind of occult battle or contest with a disincarnate entity that lasted long after the trip–for several weeks in fact. This contest included poltergeist phenomena and other types of manifestation that I never would have believed were possible had I not experienced them myself. This particular substance also ushered me into the Western occult tradition, and since then I have been studying the Qabala and the Tarot, and becoming familiar with great visionary thinkers like Rudolf Steiner, Gurdjieff, and Dion Fortune.
Is it simply a question of abandoning mainstream Western traditions then?
As modern Westerners, the painful fact is that we have to reckon with our Judeo-Christian heritage. We are in an interesting moment, as the three great monotheistic religions have been revealed as shams–Catholicism with its sex scandals, Judaism and Islam with their sanctioning of mass murder for political ends. It seems obvious that these institutions are spiritually bankrupt and morally bereft. Perhaps humanity has reached a point where these top-down structures have no more utility for us whatsoever.
When I finished my book, I started to study the Qabala. I found that some of my shamanic experiences corresponded exactly to different paths on the Tree of Life. For me, this has become a valuable avenue for exploration. Aboriginal shamanism is the underpinning for all other esoteric systems. The basic model of the “World Tree”—with spirits and gods in the branches above, demons and ghosts tangled in the roots below—is universal. Built upon that foundation, we have the Eastern systems of Hinduism and Buddhism, and the Western occult tradition that runs from ancient Egypt and Israel through the medieval Qabalists and the Rosicrucians, up to Rudolf Steiner, Gurdjieff, Crowley, and so on.
What about Eastern traditions?
Right now, Buddhism and Yoga are incredibly popular in the US. However, as systems of self-development, I wonder if they are ideal for Westerners. If you take the esoteric perspective that reincarnation is, in some sense, a fact, then if somebody has incarnated into a Western body, there must be a reason for that. Dion Fortune wrote that the West has a different dharma than the East: It is our dharma to conquer dense matter. Rudolf Steiner thought that the transformation of the earth was part of the purpose of human evolution. What we need now is a Yoga or Tantra of social transformation, not more elaborate breathing exercises–not anything that will push us deeper into our obsession with our selves.
Tibetan Buddhism, with all of its beautiful pageants and ceremonies, was built around the revelation of emptiness. It must have struck like a thunderbolt, to be carefully initiated as a monk into that elaborate hierarchical religion, and then, at a certain point, to have all of the props pulled away and learn that the nature of mind is emptiness. However, I don’t think that system works in the same way for contemporary Westerners, because we are already living right above the abyss. We need to discover there is something before we can realize there is nothing, if that makes any sense.
What about something like the Burning Man festivals, which you mentioned earlier?
Burning Man is the post-modern continuation of those ancient festivals—it is a miraculous manifestation of the “Archaic Revival” described by Terence McKenna. On an occult level, I almost suspect that Burning Man is creating a model, on the astral plane, for how all human communities will have to exist in the future. How could the egalitarian, freedom-oriented, gift-centered, utopian form of Burning Man be implemented in a more permanent way, or on a larger scale? I have no clue.
How have the events detailed in your book changed your life?
One result is that I now have a vastly different relationship to my dreams than I did before. I now recognize that dreaming is a way of keeping in contact with spiritual forces, with people one knows, and also with the spirits of the dead. Dreams can also prophesy the future and impart all sorts of incredible information. The “rational” perspective that dreams are just some sort of psychic noise is complete nonsense. Shamanic cultures believe that dreams are more real than ordinary reality – they are emanations from a deeper strata of the psyche.
Another result is that I feel able to comprehend what is now happening to the planet on a completely different level. We are engaged in an occult process, not just a battle over material resources and wealth. Corporations are, in themselves, occult entities that behave like “Devas,” seeking to compel human belief and sacrifice; television and the media are a form of black magic, a potent technique for indirectly controlling thought and behavior. This may sound funny at first, but when you think about it for a while, you realize that it is literally true. Overcoming this enchantment is humanity’s current task.
One thing I had to consider: What does it mean to be a shaman without a tribe, without any knowledge of healing? I found the answer to this in a phrase from Black Elk Speaks: “Any place is the center of the world.” Shamanism, for me anyway, is now a nonlocalized phenomenon.
Hopefully, my book will act, in some small way, as a kind of shamanic transmission of energy to anyone who reads it. Unfortunately, I now find most contemporary fiction and poetry, whether conventional or “avant-garde,” unreadable—it is like watching somebody slowly clean the drapes while their house is burning down around them. I was happy that we [Open City Press] could publish World on Fire by Michael Brownstein, a long poetic narrative about corporate globalization and the environmental nightmare. I hope to publish similar engaged and ambitious texts in the future.
But of course it is not enough simply to “sound the alarm”—we have to find a way to conceive of an achievable human future. Poets, artists, and novelists could be key to this process, if they can overcome their abnormal fixations on their own ego-structures. You have to let go of your ego, which goes totally against our cultural biases, where we tend to cling to our ego at all costs. This is one reason the establishment hates and fears psychedelics so much: They threaten the ego structure that is the basic disease of our society. Eventually, through the shamanic process, you reintegrate your ego at a different level–I would say a higher level. In a sense you realize what the Buddhists say: That there was never anything to hold onto in the first place–the conventional ego is just a meaningless illusion.
Despite all appearances to the contrary, we live in a magical world. Millions of people line up to see Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter. What they don’t suspect is that they are, in fact, living that story in their own realm—or at least they could be, if they were to wake up and realize the need to fight the machinery of noise and lies that assaults us, as our planet is being reduced to a heap of smoldering slag. Now is the time to Use the Force, Join the Fellowship, pick up the broomstick, and generally get to work. If we don’t do it now, we may not have much of a future ahead of us.