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Who Ya Gonna Call? Headbusters

A psychedelic journey into modern shamanism

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In the 90s, and even now post-millennium, nutjob paranormal memoirs are a dime a dozen. Ravenne Starlicker has nightly out-of-body experiences, and you can too -- just buy her book. Maybe your sockets are sore from rolling your eyes at books like this on the shelves of your local bookstore, but say you find a different kind of memoir. . .Written by, say, someone initially doubtful, genuinely intelligent, genuinely well-educated, and presenting his experiences (utterly bizarre though they may be) in a readable, engrossing manner and with a healthy helping of skepticism.What makes the powerfully fascinating Breaking Open the Head different from lesser entries in the paranormal-memoir genre is its author, Daniel Pinchbeck. The breadth of his journey from genial New York atheist/ intellectual/ materialist, bon vivant, and world-weary budding alcoholic to "shamanic initiate and grateful citizen of the cosmos" is vast indeed -- as is his erudition and intellectual sincerity. If Pinchbeck is tripping, he's tripping with a sound education and a brain purified by years of unbelief.

What makes his memoir intriguing is not only the paradigm-rewriting revelations of Pinchbeck's inner travels, but the erudition, charm, and down-to-earthness of a guy with the sense to be embarrassed by a "ludicrous" hallucination of elves in peaked caps. If readers are asked to suspend disbelief (and are even thrown a few idiotic lines like "he [had] the Asiatic features and large ears of the spiritually advanced"), we are at least curious enough and won over enough to willingly do so.

A journalist and co-founder/co-editor (with novelist Thomas Beller) of the highbrow literary magazine Open City, Pinchbeck has written for Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Salon. He's also smoked, snorted and swigged any number of mind-blowing hallucinogens -- initially as a journalist on assignment, later solely as a spiritual seeker.

His resulting experiences, several of which are detailed in his book, are far more complex then just breathing walls and "hearing colors" -- Pinchbeck posits a multi-level reality, with hallucinogens serving as the doorways to other worlds that were abandoned by modern humanity when we turned our back on the transcendent psychic experience brought on by ingestion of various plants and mushrooms.

The book is more than a psychedelic drug diary, though -- Pinchbeck also takes readers on a tour of the pantheon of modern Western proselytizers of psychedelic drugs -- Timothy Leary, Terence McKenna and lesser-known figures like the anthropologist/author Michael Harner (who, like more than a few scientists, was turned on to a shamanic worldview by encountering and studying primitive native peoples). Readers are also treated to Pinchbeck's lengthy and lovingly spun philosophy-heavy riffs on the work of Walter Benjamin, a German philosopher and scholar of "threshold experiences" and "states of intoxication" who called capitalism a "religion of destruction" and who, like Pinchbeck, recognized the pursuit of visionary experience as a rational, intellectual quest -- and a way to snap out of the "monotonous trance" of modern life.

Despite Pinchbeck's skepticism, little critical thinking is on display here. What he is describing is nothing short of a new (or lost) religion, and the author has the sense to know that, like in any religion, it's all about belief -- all he can do is present his experiences as he remembers them and present his beliefs as he develops them. You won't find an attempt to prove anything in Pinchbeck's memoir, but rather a refreshingly scholarly and heartfelt exploration of the psychedelic experience -- and of what one man thinks humanity may have lost with its disconnect from the natural world and the "spiritual" realms visited by primitive cultures still skilled in the use of hallucinogens as part of their religious framework.

Pinchbeck posits an exhilaratingly freakish, dazzlingly complex and acutely disturbing view of reality that many will dismiss, but his trippy take on the world may make some readers wonder if they, too, would become believers with a sip from the bottle marked Drink Me. In its unassuming 297-page way, the book is explosively packed with some of the most dizzying questions imaginable -- and is quite possibly an instant classic of the psychedelic genre.

Pinchbeck is standing on a threshold, propping open with a casually inviting smile the doors that Aldous Huxley passed through more than 40 years earlier. To walk through yourself requires the ingestion of illegal substances; a quick peep at Pinchbeck's travelogue, though, is only $24.95 at your local bookstore.

Daniel Pinchbeck has a companion website to his book: www.breakingopenthehead.com

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