Look Inside. 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.
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ISBN 10 9 8 7 6 One must explore deep and believe the incredible to find the new particles of truthfloating in an ocean of insignificance.
I wanted to know why certain substances are revered in tribal societies throughout the world but repressed as well as ridiculed in contemporary Western cultures.
Unlike heroin or cocaine, most psychedelics are neither physically harmful or habit-forming. Yet they are considered so frightening and dangerous that possession of them is punished by long prison sentences.
The term itself is a bit vague, as the entire set of these substances tends to escape precise classification. In the mids, most of the known psychedelics were outlawed, and the mainstream vogue for consciousness expansion ended soon after.
In the next decades, the media repeatedly associated psychedelics with blown minds, wasted potential, and social chaos. The notion per- sists that to dabble in psychedelics, to trip, is to risk madness. Preserved in pockets of the undeveloped world, shielded from the rapid ravages of modernization by dense jungles or mountains, it is still possible to encounter intact shamanic cultures.
Among these peo- ple, plants that induce visions are the center of spiritual life and tradi- tion. They believe that these plants are sentient beings, supernatural emissaries.
They ascribe their music and medicine, their cosmology and extensive botanical knowledge to the visions given to them in psy- chedelic trance. For tribes in Africa, Siberia, North and South America, and many other regions, rejection of the visionary knowledge offered by the botanical world would be a form of insanity.
In Gabon, a small country on the equator, I went through a Bwiti initiation, eating iboga, a psyche- delic rootbark that induces a trance lasting for thirty hours. Some of the Bwiti call this ceremony "breaking open the head. Breaking Open the Head follows two tracks. On the one hand, I ex- amine the cultural history of psychedelic compounds in the modern West, looking at the intersection of archaic drugs and modern thinkers leading to the s — a failed mass-cultural voyage of shamanic initia- tion — and up to the present day.
One inspiration is Walter Benjamin, the German Jewish thinker who experimented with hashish and mescaline in the s. Once upon a time, not so long ago, I was a typical Man- hattan atheist, suspicious, cynical, disbelieving in metaphysical possibil- ities.
Due to a tweak in my character, my cynicism increasingly tormented me. Without any higher vision, life seemed unbearable and pointless. Compelled by my despair and self-disgust, I decided to poke at the limits of my disbelief. If not the safest or most legal route, cer- tain chemical catalysts seemed the fastest and most direct means of self-testing whether this reality was all that could be known. Taking myself as a psychedelic case history, I describe my own leaps and crashes through the neurochemical looking glass.
Breaking Open the Head tells the story of how my own head was broken open, and how I have gingerly tried to put the pieces back together. It is the record of a subjective, incomplete, occasionally harrowing, often alien- ating, yet exhilarating and fun process of discovery and transformation. I believe that psychedelic drugs, used carefully, are profound tools for self-exploration. The forbidden substances can be a precision tech- nology for revealing the interstitial processes of thinking, the flickering candle sputters of emotion, the fine-tuned machinery of sense percep- tions.
The unfolding of the self through an increase in perception, cog- nition, and feeling is one level of the trip. On low doses, that is all you get, and often it is enough. The next level begins where consciousness, suddenly able to go be- yond its norma] boundaries, bursts open on the nonordinary world. It fascinates me that these two levels are so closely related.
It is as if the mind were a rocket, gathering force as it speeds along a runway until it finally lifts into space, beyond the tug of gravity, where all the rules are different. Not to mention, as yet, those geometric and hallucinatory vistas of un- leashed Otherness, revealed to the closed eyes. This might help account for the otherwise irrational hatred and repression of the use of hallucinogens, and the smirking dismissal of the psychedelic experience as a trivial one by so many of our intel- lectuals.
Something that is re- pressed can't reveal itself to us, can't appear as a break in our aware- ness — then we would see its workings, and the repression would be dispelled. In a world of information overload and perpetual distrac- tion, repression manifests as a dismissive giggle, a yawn of boredom, a sin of omission. And yet it cannot be said that our culture frowns on the use of consciousness-changing substances.
Marijuana is forbidden, but alco- hol and nicotine — far more destructive drugs — are consumed in mass quantities.
While psychedelics are outlawed, 27 million Americans cur- rently take antidepressants such as Zoloft or Prozac. These days, most people are far more suspicious of plant compounds safely ingested by human beings for tens of thousands of years than they are of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors SSRIs or other powerful, utterly syn- thetic, mood and mind-altering drugs created in the last decades by a pharmacological industry motivated by profit.
Antidepressants fit our society's underlying biases. Psychedelics, emphatically, do not. Is it possible that we have demonized hallucino- gens because we fear the contents of our own minds? I had forgotten the beauty and the magic and the knowing- ness of it and me. It had only revealed what was inside of him. We may choose not to find access to it, we may even deny its existence, but it is indeed there inside us, and there are chemicals that can catalyze its availability.
It is not only that our scientists can approach the mind from outside, through descriptions of its functions and logi- cal deductions. There is no means for science, as it is presently consti- tuted, to ask, let alone seek, an answer to the question, Why am I here now? And yet that question forms the basis of an individual's thoughts and perceptions.
Of course, I am not saying that psychedelics provide an instant answer to that question, but they offer a different set of lenses through which to look at the problem. The self-enclosed logic of secular materialism denies any inde- pendent existence to the soul, attributing all facets of the human per- sonality to the synaptical wiring of the brain.
Psychedelics indicate that this is not the whole story — especially the lightning strike of dimethyl- tryptamine DMT , a chemical produced by our own bodies and by many plants.
Smoking DMT is like being shot from a cannon into another dimension and returning to this world in less than ten min- utes. The DMT revelation strongly suggests that the psyche cannot be reduced to a manifestation of our physical hardware. Carl Jung wrote: "People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls. Perhaps we are due — even overdue — for a change.
The entire subject is fraught with prejudices magnified by decades of propaganda. My hope is that people will reserve judgment while reading this book. They are free to consider it as fiction, or as a slightly laborious thought experiment.
I do not advocate or suggest that anyone should violate any law, no matter how poorly conceived, antithetical to human nature and dignity, or excessively punitive that law might be. It may well be the case, as the late Ter- ence McKenna wrote, that "the suppression of the natural human fascination with altered states of consciousness and the present per- ilous situation of all life on earth are intimately and casually con- nected.
If we don't find some means of correcting this imbalance, we may face the most dire consequences. Some might consider this book a provocation.
It was not meant as one. What took me to Gabon and Ecuador and into the inner recesses of my own psyche was a yearning for meaning and spiritual truth in a world that seemed devoid of both.
The study of psychedelic shaman- ism encompasses a vast number of areas, from botany to chemistry, from cultural history to mysticism. I am an expert in none of them. All I can offer is a record of my own findings — it is, of necessity, incom- plete, personal, and highly subjective. It is, from this vantage point, difficult to conceive that psychedelics might ever receive official sanction, or that the diabolical "War on Drugs" will ever come to an end.
But who knows? Above all else, the psychedelic experience continues to reveal, as it did a generation ago, that reality is far more mutable, capacious, and capricious than we gen- erally allow ourselves to imagine. The risk of inner experience, the adventure of the spirit, is in any case alien to most human beings. The possibility that such experience might have psychic reality is anathema to them. One who knows the other world, because you have seen it with your own eyes. Lieberman barely hesitated.
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. Under optimum conditions, iboga can grow into a tree that rises forty feet high. 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 per- son 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.
Instead, at thirty, he turned out to be two years younger than me, and shakier. From the somber way he said this, I knew he believed it was true. 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 natu- ral 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 uninter- ested visage gazed down at us from posters around town, was known to be an initiate.
The Bwiti seem to tolerate foreign interest in their sa- cred medicine, but they do not encourage it in any way. The word Bwiti simply means the experience of the iboga plant, which is the essence of love.
Breaking Open the Head : A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism
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Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey Into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism