Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism


A dazzling work of personal travelogue and cultural criticism that ranges from the primitive to the postmodern in a quest for the promise and meaning of the psychedelic experience.

While psychedelics of all sorts are demonized in America today, the visionary compounds found in plants are the spiritual sacraments of tribal cultures around the world. From the iboga of the Bwiti in Gabon, to the Mazatecs of Mexico, these plants are sacred because ...

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Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism

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A dazzling work of personal travelogue and cultural criticism that ranges from the primitive to the postmodern in a quest for the promise and meaning of the psychedelic experience.

While psychedelics of all sorts are demonized in America today, the visionary compounds found in plants are the spiritual sacraments of tribal cultures around the world. From the iboga of the Bwiti in Gabon, to the Mazatecs of Mexico, these plants are sacred because they awaken the mind to other levels of awareness—to a holographic vision of the universe.

Breaking Open the Head is a passionate, multilayered, and sometimes rashly personal inquiry into this deep division. On one level, Daniel Pinchbeck tells the story of the encounters between the modern consciousness of the West and these sacramental substances, including such thinkers as Allen Ginsberg, Antonin Artaud, Walter Benjamin, and Terence McKenna, and a new underground of present-day ethnobotanists, chemists, psychonauts, and philosophers. It is also a scrupulous recording of the author's wide-ranging investigation with these outlaw compounds, including a thirty-hour tribal initiation in West Africa; an all-night encounter with the master shamans of the South American rain forest; and a report from a psychedelic utopia in the Black Rock Desert that is the Burning Man Festival.

Breaking Open the Head is brave participatory journalism at its best, a vivid account of psychic and intellectual experiences that opened doors in the wall of Western rationalism and completed Daniel Pinchbeck's personal transformation from a jaded Manhattan journalist to shamanic initiate and grateful citizen of the cosmos.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Grippingly dramatic, powerfully moving, this is a classic of the literature of ecstasy."
—Booklist (starred review)

"In his reporting, [Pinchbeck] manages to walk a difficult tonal tightrope, balancing his skepticism with a desire to be transformed. He thoughtfully serveys the literature about psychedelic drugs, but the most exhilirating and illuminating sections are the descriptions of drug taking...Pinchbeck's earnest, engaged and winning matter carry the book."
—Publishers Weekly

"I much admire Breaking Open the Head for being the account of an authentic quest for enlightenment in jungles, up rivers, in deserts, and hardest of all to access, the human mind and heart via one of the oldest thoroughfares on earth, mind-expanding drugs. This is a serious and illuminating journey."
—Paul Theroux

Publishers Weekly
Open City editor Pinchbeck's book debut is a polemic that picks up the threads that Huxley's The Doors of Perception, Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters and counterculture idealism left in the culture. Charting his gradual transformation from a cynical New York litterateur to psychedelic acolyte, Pinchbeck uses elements of travelogue, memoir, "entheobotany" ("the study of god-containing plants") and historical research to ask why these "doorways of the mind" have been unceremoniously sealed, sharing Walter Benjamin's melancholy about the exasperating nature of consumerism: "We live in a culture where everything tastes good but nothing satisfies." Pinchbeck travels the earth in search of spiritual awakening through tripping, from Gabon to the Nevada desert. At happenings like the Burning Man festival or a plant conference in the Ecuadorean jungle, Pinchbeck meets "modern shamans" and tells their stories as they intersect with his. In his reporting, he manages to walk a difficult tonal tightrope, balancing his skepticism with a desire to be transformed. He thoughtfully surveys the literature about psychedelic drugs, but the most exhilarating and illuminating sections are the descriptions of drug taking: he calls this visiting the "spirit world," which is "like a cosmic bureaucracy employing its own PR department, its own off-kilter sense of dream-logic and humor... constantly playing with human limitations, dangling possibilities before our puny grasps at knowledge." There's little new drug lore here, but Pinchbeck's earnest, engaged and winning manner carry the book. (On sale Sept. 17) Forecast: Pinchbeck is a founding editor, along with Thomas Beller, of Open City, a kind of Paris Review for the '90s, and the son of artist Peter Pinchbeck and Beat memoirist Joyce Johnson. Portions of the book previously appeared in the Village Voice and Rolling Stone, where Pinchbeck is a contributor. Look for a few strong national reviews and solid sales, particularly among younger readers, who will turn out for the four-city tour. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In this firsthand account of the world of psychedelic substances today, Village Voice and Rolling Stone writer Pinchbeck weaves elements of his personal life, including vivid descriptions of his reactions to the substances he takes, with larger topics, such as the history of psychedelic substances in the modern world and the foundations of shamanism. To aid his inquiry, he participates in visionary rituals around the world, e.g., taking iboga as part of a tribal initiation in Gabon. He also discusses key figures such as Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, and Terence McKenna. Pinchbeck repeatedly decries the rationalism and destructiveness of Western culture and the shortsightedness of completely outlawing psychedelic substances. The book is not an extended diatribe, however. The author offers various viewpoints on how certain drugs should be used and on whether a modern, Western shamanism is possible. Pinchbeck posits a universe that may be difficult to accept, but his book will be of interest for public and academic libraries.-Stephen Joseph, Butler Cty. Community Coll. Lib., PA
Kirkus Reviews
A quest after the possibilities of psychedelics and a case history of one man's forays into the hands of these supernatural emissaries, from journalist and Open City founder Pinchbeck. Plagued by existential questions ("Why this life? Why anything?"), the author tries after deep meanings, abiding hopes, or, better yet, transcendence, through the agency of chemical self-discovery via those visionary catalysts psilocybin, LSD, DMT (and its evil twin DPT), iboga, and ayahuasca. Pinchbeck is appalled by our culture's faith in materialism and rationalism at the expense of intuition and ritual. He wants to tap the vestigial awareness of magical realms, the archaic beliefs embodied in the works of Shakespeare, Artaud, Walter Benjamin-the psychedelic avatars. But he is not content with someone else's experience with transcendence; he wants his own relation to the universe. Thus, he turns to the shamanic cultures for revelation of the nonordinary world beyond the tug of Western gravity. The stories Pinchbeck relates of his experiences in Gabon, Mexico, and Ecuador, worked in and around the extensive literary research he has done into psychedelia, have both an awkward comedy and the focus of a pilgrim. You can't help but smile when he tells of the Gabonese shaman trying to squirrel more money out of him, and you can't help but be impressed by the compacted memory theater of an iboga-fueled Bwiti initiation. For the DMT experience, which Pinchbeck showcases as "instant proof, beyond any doubt, of the existence of esoteric realities of a nonmaterialist Mystery worth exploring," you surely had to be there: his imagery of the trip doesn't support the fervor of his conclusions. Still, who is prepared tofault or stanch the "yearning for meaning and spiritual truth in a world that seemed devoid of both" that prompted Pinchbeck's quest? Arguable, but compelling for its insistence that there are more games in town than the Western cultural moment.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780767907439
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/12/2003
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 297,663
  • Product dimensions: 5.14 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Daniel Pinchbeck

DANIEL PINCHBECK is a founding editor of Open City, and he has written for such publications as Rolling Stone, Men's Journal, and The Village Voice, where sections of his book have previously appeared.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


"The Bwiti believe that before the ceremony, the neophyte is nothing," Daniel Lieberman told me on my first morning in Gabon, as we took a cab from the Libreville airport. "It is only through the initiation that you become something."

"What do you become?" I asked.

"You become a baanzi. One who knows the other world, because you have seen it with your own eyes."

"What do the Bwiti think of iboga?" I asked.

Lieberman barely hesitated. "For them, iboga is a super-conscious spiritual entity that guides mankind," he said.


Lieberman, an ethnobotanist from South Africa, wanted to make a business out of taking Westerners through the extreme Bwiti initiation. I had found him on the Internet. On his Website he posted photos from Gabon that seemed unreal—tribal dancers in grass skirts, smiling shamans, and images of iboga itself, a modest, even unassuming-looking plant. The Bwiti's botanical sacrament, Tabernanthe iboga, is a bush that grows small, edible orange fruit that are tasteless and sticky. Under optimum conditions, iboga can grow into a tree that rises forty feet high. The hallucinatory compound is concentrated in the plant's rootbark, which is scraped off, dried, and shredded into gray powder. For an outsider coming from the United States, the Bwiti initiation costs over $7,000 with plane ticket, the cost of the ritual, and the botanist's fee. "I have spent time in the rain forests of Africa east and west, Madagascar, and the Amazon working with shamans, brujos, witch doctors, healers," Lieberman e-mailed me before the trip. "Iboga I feel to be the one plant that needs to be introduced to the world, and urgently."

In person, the botanist was thin and pallid, wearing Teva sandals and safari clothes. He seemed younger, less professional, more ill at ease than I had expected. He was an entomologist as well as a botanist—later he would show me hundreds of photographs he had taken of insects in the African rain forest. He seemed the type of person who would be happiest alone, trekking through a forest in search of rare beetles and butterflies. He told me his pale complexion and twitches appeared during a near-fatal bout of cerebral malaria. "I caught it during a Bwiti ceremony," he said. "It took me months to recover."

I expected my guide to be robust and adventurous. Instead, at thirty, he turned out to be two years younger than me, and shakier. He also told me that the last time he took iboga, he had been shown the date of his own death, and it wasn't too far away. From the somber way he said this, I knew he believed it was true. I didn't press him for details—later I wished that I had.

Libreville was hot, stagnant, without vitality. The city seemed pressed under glass. Blinding sunlight reflected off the black mirrors of corporate towers, the headquarters of oil companies. Because of its oil deposits, Gabon, a small West African country on the equator, is richer, more secure, than other countries in the region. Iboga is another natural resource, but it will never be exploited for export by the Gabonese. Half the population of Gabon belongs to one Bwiti sect or another. Even the president-for-life, Omar Bongo, whose neutral and uninterested visage gazed down at us from posters around town, was known to be an initiate. The Bwiti seem to tolerate foreign interest in their sacred medicine, but they do not encourage it in any way.

"Why would the Bwiti allow me to join their sect?" I now asked.

"Bwiti is like Buddhism," he said. "Anyone can join if they are willing to be initiated. The word Bwiti simply means the experience of the iboga plant, which is the essence of love."

While Lieberman equated Bwiti with Buddhism, to most observers it remains an enigmatic cult. Some sects of Bwiti, such as the Fang, incorporate elements of Christianity, even wearing ostentatious costumes that resemble Mardi Gras versions of the vestments of Catholic bishops and nuns. Other groups, such as the one we were visiting, hold on to tribal beliefs. James Fernandez, an anthropologist who studied the sect at length, ended his book Bwiti: An Ethnography of the Religious Imagination in Africa inconclusively: "In the end, any attempt to demonstrate the coherence of the Bwiti cosmos founders upon the paradoxes with which it plays." For Fernandez, the Bwiti religion worked by "indirection and suggestion and other kinds of puzzlements," leaving "many loose ends and inconsistencies." In the text, a typically distanced work of anthropology, there was no indication that Fernandez had tried iboga himself.

I knew there was one other customer for this journey. A woman. I had fantasized, in advance, about hooking up with some brave and beautiful Australian heiress or young Peace Corps volunteer. Instead, to my dismay, I was introduced at the hotel to Elaine, a short, talkative, middle-aged Jewish psychoanalyst with a heavy New York accent.

"I just came from Bhutan where I got a terrible bladder infection," the analyst immediately announced. "You're a New Yorker also? What a surprise! I'm a psychoanalyst in the West Village. Maybe you know my friend who works for the New York Times? Or my sister, the novelist?"

I nodded at the familiar names, trying to recover from the shock of unwanted familiarity. I had yearned for some severe and pristine pursuit of the sacred, the exotic "Other" encountered in novels of Joseph Conrad or Paul Bowles. Instead, I would be sharing my tribal adventure with a woman I might have tried to avoid at a Manhattan cocktail party. I admired Elaine's courage and her reasons for taking this trip—she said that some of her patients abused drugs, especially coke, and she wanted to know if she should recommend ibogaine to them. But her presence on my journey seemed like some carefully orchestrated karmic punishment.

We went to meet our shaman, Tsanga Jean Moutamba, who called himself "The King of the Bwiti." What we would later discover about The King's belligerence and greed and tyrannical theatricality was not evident during this first encounter. At his Libreville house, The King seemed gruff but basically friendly as we set the arrangements for the trip. His purple robe, ample stomach, bushy gray beard, and necklace of lion's teeth gave him the larger-than-life presence of a 1960s avant-garde jazz musician. With shy smiles, members of his huge family came to shake hands—we were told by Lieberman that he had eight wives and fourteen children, plus an untold number of Bwiti initiates who called him "Papa." The tribe packed our bags into a jeep, and The King himself drove us down Gabon's single highway, four hours into the dense jungle, while green foliage unfolded monotonously under a lead gray sky. He played a tape of the twangy, unsettling Bwiti music over and over again on his tape recorder as we drove. The music did not sound tribal; to me it had a sci-fi quality. When we stopped at one of the frequent military checkpoints, the guards would take one look at his lion's tooth necklace and wave us past.

During my time in Gabon, I kept trying to find out the meaning of Moutamba's status as "Le Roi du Gabon Bwiti," as the hand-painted sign outside his tribal village proudly proclaimed. I received different answers, sometimes from the same person. Alain Dukaga, an English-speaking Gabonese with a limp, who acted as our translator, first told me: "Moutamba is like Jesus to us. Most of the people now are like lacking roots. They got tied to the Christian ways and forgot their culture. Moutamba is helping to bring back our culture. We hope soon they will start teaching Bwiti again in the schools." A few days later, when relations soured between us and our shaman, Alain reversed himself. "Moutamba?" he scoffed. "He's not the king of anything. He just call himself that."

It was my first time in Africa, the one continent I had never wanted to visit. When I thought of Africa I thought of vast disasters, cruelty on a biblical scale: famines, tribal wars, inescapable poverty, despotic dictatorships, epidemics of AIDS and ebola. It was a continent where friends of mine went to prove themselves—writing journalism, photographing exotic atrocities, acting out Hemingway-esque safari fantasies, joining the Peace Corps, contracting bizarre diseases. The ebola virus first appeared in the forests of Gabon. Sometimes I mused on the unsettling near-homophony of ebola and iboga.

My trip seemed to be tempting fate. Every detail of it gave me as much resistance as I could handle. I had an assignment to write about the iboga initiation for Vibe Magazine, but I only received the money I needed a few days before the trip. After paying off Lieberman and everyone else, my bank account was reduced to a few hundred dollars. The visa I needed to enter the country—a full-page purple passport stamp of a mother and baby—was held up, for no obvious reason, at the Gabonese consulate in Washington. It finally arrived at my apartment via FedEx a few hours before my departure, interrupting my fit of hysterics. When I reached Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, I learned that Air France had canceled their once-a-week flight to Libreville, which was supposed to leave that night. Air France gave me 1,500 francs in consolation and stashed me in an airport hotel for two nights, before the next departure to Libreville, on Air Gabon. At the hotel, I ate with a few elegantly dressed Gabonese people who were also stranded. They mocked the wine and the service in rapid-fire French. I told one of the men I was planning to visit the Bwiti. He gave me a strange look. "Les Bwiti, ils sont dangereux," he said solemnly, quickly turning away. I had no way of getting in touch with Lieberman to explain the delay; I could only hope he would still be waiting for me when I arrived.

In retrospect, and even at the time, it almost seemed as if the difficulties were a kind of test, an ordeal prepared for me before I could even reach the ordeal of the initiation. Although I was anxious, it did not occur to me to turn back.

I was driven to try iboga by a yearning that went far deeper than the desire to get a good story. I saw the assignment as a mystical lottery ticket. I was committed to this once-in-a-lifetime long shot to visit the Bwiti, to access their spirit world. Or any spirit world.

Chapter 2


My initiation into the Bwiti came at a time when I was losing interest in myself. I felt like an actor who had lost the motivation for his part. Or I was like the character of "Daniel Pinchbeck," trapped in a half-finished novel that an incompetent author was in the sluggish, surly process of abandoning.

I fell into a spiritual crisis.

I fell, and I could not get up.

Wandering the streets of the East Village, I spent so much time contemplating the meaninglessness of existence that I sometimes felt like a ghost. Perhaps I am already dead, I thought to myself. The world seemed to be wrapped in a cocoon I could not tear open, and I was suffocating in it. I did not want what other people wanted, but I didn't know how to find what I needed. I wanted truth—my own truth, whatever bleak fragment of whatever hellish totality it might turn out to be.

There are reasons why I, particularly, got sucked into this spiritual void. When I look back over my life, I can see the open jaws of the abyss awaiting me. Through my mother, Joyce Johnson, a writer of novels and memoirs, I was linked to the often maligned and sometimes revered writers of the Beat Generation, frantic in their pursuit of mystical experience across the globe (when Jack Kerouac was on a TV talk show in the late 1950s, he was asked what he was looking for. Drunk and defiant, he replied, honestly, "I am waiting for God to show me His Face." At the time, my poor mother, all of twenty-two years old, was anxiously waiting for him backstage). My mother sent mixed signals about her Beat past. On the one hand the high school yearbook quote she dedicated to me was from On the Road: "mad to live, mad to love, mad to be saved. . . ." Yet the life she seemed to want me to lead was that of a sheltered middle-class intellectual. She had seen too many friends destroyed by bohemian excesses, ruined by alcohol or speed.

A second reason lies in my preposterous last name, which sometimes feels like wearing a clown's red nose. The word can be found in any good dictionary: "pinchbeck" is a type of false gold. This shiny alloy of tin, still used in costume jewelry, was invented by Christopher Pinchbeck, an eighteenth-century English alchemist who was also a maker of intricate mechanical clocks for British aristocrats. Later, the definition of "pinchbeck" expanded to mean anything false or spurious—for instance, according to the example in one old dictionary, "The 19th Century was a pinchbeck age of literature." James Joyce included the word in Ulysses. Recently, William Safire championed its revival.

This spurious moniker has kept me remote, to some extent, from the hard facts of existence. Behind the pinchbeck facade, life always seems slightly illusory, an alchemical and improbable process. Perhaps I also inherited my ancestor's urge to seek out wonder, as well as my father's yearning for transcendence, expressed in his enormous and brooding abstract paintings. In the quest described in this book, I suspect I am working through some business left over from my heritage, as if mystical yearnings run, like rogue genes, in family trees.

My reference points for a spiritual crisis were books and authors—Nausea, Notes from Undergound, The Stranger; Kafka, Beckett, Rilke—the eloquent despair of twentieth-century literature. As I wandered the streets in a desolate funk, I would ask myself the impossible, the embarrassing, the ultimate childish question of Why?—Why this city? Why this life? Why anything? Of course I knew that "why" was a question you were supposed to stop asking around the age of ten, but I couldn't free myself from it.

I mocked myself by recalling a sequence from Hannah and Her Sisters where the character portrayed by Woody Allen first learns he has a brain tumor, then finds out he doesn't have one after all, yet still realizes—no matter how improbable it seemed before, when he was, like most of us, in cheerful denial—he will die someday. Suddenly obsessed with finding a meaning to life, he joins several religions including Hare Krisna and Catholicism—for the skit's high point, he goes to the supermarket to buy a loaf of white Wonder Bread as a sign of his new Christian faith. In the end, he resolves his crisis at a Marx Brothers double feature, realizing that laughter is, if not an answer, at least the only solace he can imagine.

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 16 of 14 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 1, 2011

    Not all spirituality comes from the writings in a book

    In Daniel Pinchbeck's book Breaking Open the Head he expresses his newfound beliefs on finding a type of spirituality that has been lost to the modern world. When writing about contemporary shamanism, Pinchbeck is ashamed to find that the naturalistic ways of becoming connected with not only oneself but also with one's surrounding world through the use of psychedelics, has become demonized by society. The practice of using psychedelics, primarily substances that are found in plants has been used for hundreds of years by shamans, etc. but now is looked down upon by modern culture. Pinchbeck opts to explore this new world and in his novel he relates his personal experiences with everything from "magic mushrooms" to a ground up bark called "iboga." The personal touch that Pinchbeck adds to this book that comes from his experience with the psychedelics that he discusses, loads the book with more solidified evidence rather than just a spewing out of opinions. This makes the book an excellent read for someone who is sincerely curious about the ways that psychedelics can be used to create a form of spirituality that is not typical in the modern world's practices. I thought that this book was very enlightening and effectively portrayed the practices of shamans all over the world in a light that they are not usually seen in. Overall I liked the book for the reason that Pinchbeck spoke from his own personal experiences on the subject and went against the grain by helping to support a way of natural living that is looked down upon by modern society.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2005

    Well written, lucid, balanced.

    Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism By Daniel Pinchbeck ¿ 2003 Well written, lucid, balanced. Daniel Pinchbeck takes us on a journey of his spiritual awakening with plant and chemical shamanism with his eloquent writing style. Beginning as an atheist looking for new spiritual options, Pinchbeck returns to the psychedelic experimentation he went through in his earlier years, reinvestigating the entheogenic drugs he had previously dismissed. Starting with a trip to visit the Bwiti shamans of Gabon Africa, he tells of his tales of greedy medicine men wielding guns and extracting money for spiritual adventures. He provides an excellent breakdown of the modern history of Psychedelia, and gives lucid details of his worldly exploration and his multi-dimensionalized experiences with various shamanic substances as he travels the world from Africa to the deserts of Nevada and Burning Man, to the oil corporation torn jungles of Peru and South America, and back to his home in New York, and then to Nepal and India. The book details his experiences with Iboga, Ayahuasca, LSD, Psilocybe mushrooms, Salvia, DMT and DPT, and his furthering spiritual evolution with each experience. Pinchbeck provides balanced descriptions and warnings to would-be-shamans about the occult sorcery or the dark side of entheogens, and his struggles to bring himself back from the overly inviting realms of power from DPT, while concluding in the end that our society must create its own shamans to bring to an end to the destructive forces for corporate commercialism. ¿Unlikely as it seems, we have to become our own shamans, wizards, and seers. As spiritual warriors, we must take responsibility for the plight of our species. To break the spell of our culture¿s death-trap deceptions and hypnotic distractions, we need the courage to confront what lies behind the open doors of our own minds.¿ The book is powerful, well thought out and well written. A must read for anyone interested in contemporary shamanism.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 12, 2004


    Personal experiences of a seeker. Very informative on the natural and unnatural PSYs Anyone choosing the path should read this book. Not to be taken lightly, a serious decision.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2003

    Illuminating, Riveting, The Ancient-Future

    Daniel Pinchbeck's Breaking Open the Head is a portal into other worlds and perceptions--perceptions whose holographic teachings may very well hold the keys to our survival as a species. In a fresh, humble, yet adventurous multi-dimensional exploration, Pinchbeck offers us further insights into the topography of entheogenic spirituality, and tosses a hand grenade into America's complacency toward things earthy, indigenous, and wild. A must read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 12, 2002

    An Excellent Book

    This is the best work on psychedelics to come out since Pihkal, in my opinion. Through detailed accounts of his personal experience, along with quite readable summations of the history of psychedelics, shamanism, and anthropology, Pinchbeck presents quite a bit some food for thought.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2002

    an accessible introduction to psychedelic shamanism

    This book is perfect for readers who might be curious about the subject matter but might not have that much (or any) personal experience with it. Structured as a personal journey from western academic alienation to a universal cosmic connection, this book is a ladder from where you are today to somewhere very, very different. Regardless of where you get off, it's a fun and fascinating climb! Engagingly written and always thrilling too...

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