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. Continue reading