Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism, The Booklist, 2002

Stop the eye-rolling-now! The words psychedelic and contemporary can be used in the same subtitle, as can contemporary and shamanism without referring to American consumer shamanism (I took a weekend workshop”) but to the real thing, practiced by the Bwiti of Africa and by Amazon brujos. Pinchbeck’s startling and absorbing book flashes from German philosopher Walter Benjamin and British mind-explorer Aldous Huxley to the literature of anthropology to the politics of drug use, all while touring Gabon’s outback, the lush South American jungle (six miles and several worldviews away from industrialization), and the wild, evanescent culture of Burning Man in the Nevada desert. What keeps the book from being just another apologia pro wasted vita sua is the depth of Pinchbeck’s personal searching. An agnostic with yearnings toward mysticism at the book’s beginning, he underwent, and he documents, a genuine experience of the divine that resulted from “breaking open” the rational mind. He achieved a sophisticated vision, but one not without unease, for he encountered demons as well as gods in the otherworlds. But nothing is more demonic, he concludes, than a society whose relentless commodification blasts a short route to add iction. Grippingly dramatic, powerfully moving, this is a classic of the literature of ecstasy.