Visionary author and modern shaman Daniel Pinchbeck shares how tripping can be a new tool for the ‘alt-left’ to fight fascism and discusses his new book ‘How Soon Is Now?’
Author, philosopher and modern shaman Daniel Pinchbeck was one of the first people to reintroduce psychedelics back into the mainstream more than a decade ago when they still weren’t taken seriously by most people.
Born into a family of New York bohemians – his mum had a fling with Jack Kerouac – Daniel has always been steeped in counter-culture. Later on, his experiments with taking mushrooms at college and his gradual disillusionment with the cynical New York media world led him to explore further the world of ancient mysticism and spirituality, which led to a trip to West Africa to try the iboga root in a tribal initiation ceremony – a powerful psychedelic which was then unknown to most outsiders.
This revelation sparked his quest to reclaim spirituality and shamanism from the New Age hippie clichés we would normally associate with them. With the sudden resurgence of interest in psychedelics today, which are being used to treat mental illness, would it be possible for us to use these mind-bending experiences for the greater good of humankind as a whole?
Daniel Pinchbeck tries to answer this vital question and more in his latest book, How Soon is Now? Following on from his earlier books which explored the effects of psychedelics and the 2012 Mayan legend, he attempts to craft a new visionary blueprint for the modern age: a guide to combat the poisonous alt-right ideologies spewed by Trump and the like; solutions to the global environmental crisis and even how we can redesign our political, social and economic systems to bring about a sustainable, utopian future.
I caught up with Daniel on the impending psychedelic revolution, the creation of a new “alt-left” and our need for a sense of spirituality in these turbulent times more than ever.
What was your main inspiration for How Soon is Now? Why is it needed in our society now more than ever?
Daniel Pinchbeck: My first book was on psychedelic shamanism, and I was trying to understand why the modern world denied the importance of psychedelic experiences that tribal societies considered to be so sacred and valuable. I found that these experiences were so incredible that they provided access to different ways of knowing and whole dimensions of consciousness. I then realised that we’d made a mistake in rejecting how indigenous cultures understand the world. That was really the beginning of a ten-year effort to try to offer an alternative to our current situation, like a model or blueprint. I wanted to give teeth to what some people would call a new age or hippie-ish perspective. The Beatles said “All you need is love”, but what would that look like in terms of a political or economic system? For those who are the spiritual counterculture “alt-left”, we need to become a coherent movement so we can understand what is the alternative that we want. We don’t want fascistic borders and horrible economic inequality, so then we want something else – much less social and economic inequality, a lot more social justice, and we don’t want these borders being a hassle. And we want to use our technical gifts to elevate the lives of everybody on the planet, not just the few at the top.
How important is it to you personally to find a sense of spirituality in modern life?
Daniel Pinchbeck: For me, I would say that without some type of deeper vision, we’re gonna annihilate ourselves because we’re operating on a basis of nihilism, which makes it impossible for people to see beyond their limited self-interests. And that’s why all these indigenous cultures around the world had rites of passage or initiations, where young people would go through fasting, or walkabouts, or taking ayahuasca or peyote or something, which would force them out into a cosmic state of consciousness. So it wasn’t really something airy-fairy – it was almost like a necessity so that people would have a larger sense of themselves, and they would be able to put the tribe ahead of their own individual needs and desires.
Can you describe the influence of psychedelics on your work?
Daniel Pinchbeck: They’ve had a huge influence. For a lot of people, as soon as they hear that somebody takes psychedelics, they think it’s stupid, that person’s put in a certain category. From my perspective, a lot of the insights that led to this book were psychedelic insights. One of the things that psychedelics can do, is that they kind of strip away. It’s like you’re almost seeing the world through a plant’s perspective, so you see that everything that humans have created are these social constructions. For me, they’re like the building blocks for almost like a social theory or political
“Without some type of deeper vision, we’re gonna annihilate ourselves” - Daniel Pinchbeck
What was your first experience of psychedelics?
Daniel Pinchbeck: I became aware that nature made sense. As a younger person I had a lot of fear of psychedelics, I even said, “I don’t wanna mess with my brain chemistry”. And then when I was in college, I felt really depressed and bad about myself, and I had some trauma from childhood. I had a bunch of friends who really loved mushrooms and so finally I was like, “Oh fuck it, I’ll just try it, maybe it’ll do something”. And one of the really profound things was the sense of a harmony and coherence in nature that was lacking from the things that humans were making. I think even trying to buy something on mushrooms is inherently absurd like you can’t believe that we’ve placed all this value on these little bits of paper.
Many years later, I dropped out of college and started working as a journalist and an editor of magazines. In my late 20s, I had a deeper existential crisis and then I remembered psychedelic experiences from college as being really interesting. As a journalist, I was able to get assignments, so I actually got to go to West Africa and go through a tribal initiation in a jungle in Gabon, taking iboga. Iboga is the longest-lasting psychedelic, it’s like 20-25 hours. I did it in an initiation, and it was really fascinating because the shaman definitely understood all these different stages of the experience. There was a phase where they had you sit in front of the mirror with your eyes open and you saw these kinds of visionary worlds opening on the mirror. And then they had you lie down and they were playing very loud music, drumming, and playing this strange harp. At that point, I began to see all these early childhood memories, but also the sense of there being a guide or guardian that was connected to the iboga. That was showing me how I’d been kind of socially and psychologically constructed. For people who start exploring psychedelics, you kind of discover that these substances have very individual personalities. They’re almost like different beings. A lot of people talk about peyote, for instance, as ‘grandfather’, and it has almost the personality of a wizened old man – it’s all about your willpower and being straight and firm. Ayahuasca’s often called ‘grandmother’, and it does feel like it has a somewhat more feminine quality to it. I’ve had visions of ayahuasca personified as a beautiful woman dancing or talking to me. The iboga seemed much more structural in my experience like ‘this is what you need to know, this is what you need to understand about yourself, this is where you’re fucking up or being a bullshitter’. Kind of like relentlessly pushing into your faults, in a way.
An issue you touched on in the book is the idea of non-monogamous love as an alternative to traditional relationship models. Can you expand on this?
Daniel Pinchbeck: I’m not saying that monogamy doesn’t work for some people, however if we look around our world we find that a lot of destruction is caused by sexual appetites that people fulfil in unsavoury or negative ways, and a lot of people don’t find that one happy love and end up dating, or just feeling unhappy about themselves, or hook-ups, or whatever. The question is, could we do better than this? And what would be a better model? Maybe it doesn’t make sense to have such puritanical moral codes: maybe these things are social programmes that aren’t really serving us anymore. This book Sex at Dawn looks at the origins of humans from primates and basically argues that we were never a monogamous species until very recently, and the reasons that we’re monogamous now are more to do with the whole way that power has been constructed in a patriarchal society. The nuclear family becomes like the unit of production in a capitalist system. Maybe we should go back to a more community-based tribal model, which I think is our natural way of being.
What’s your response to sceptics who think that with the rise of Trump and the alt-right, the world is heading down the drain and humanity won’t progress more than this?
Daniel Pinchbeck: First of all, we’re now seeing this very rapid appearance of this alt-right ideology, and the fact is there hasn’t been an opposite, countering ideology. So I feel like that’s what I’m trying to offer with this book. The Trumpians and Brexiters have the model they want – xenophobia, strong borders, more economic inequality. Those of us who are more on the progressive left, we need to have as much of a strong vision of the world that we want to see. Change happens, and some of it can be progressive or regressive. There does seem to be ways in which, even with all this madness, the world is becoming a kinder and gentler place. All this shit that’s going on is like a blip – it’s the alt-right’s reaction to a deep sense of destabilisation. When you can see the world is changing and you don’t like that because you were on top in the old system, then you’ll want to control and dominate and put that old system back in its place. I think we can already see these efforts backfiring: these huge movements are rapidly developing all around the world focusing on what brings us together, rather than what separates us.
What are your thoughts on the potential effects of psychedelics on mental health?
Daniel Pinchbeck: I think psychedelics can be really profound ways of treatment. The evidence has been pretty good. I know they were studying the effects of psilocybin on obsessive compulsive disorder, ketamine for depression; ayahuasca has definitely lifted a lot of people I know out of depression, iboga has been used for addiction, MDMA has assisted psychotherapy and has been used to treat PTSD. A huge amount of incredible research is happening right now. As I actually write in the book, if I’m really honest, I’ve had great benefits from psychedelics but I’ve also had negatives. Over time, I think that some substances had a negative impact on my psychology – they made me more impulsive, more prone to get angry. So I’ve personally stepped back from a lot of it, but I also think that’s the nature of something that’s a new field. We can only learn by making mistakes.
“How Soon is Now?” is available now in hardback, published by Watkins. You can order it from Amazon here. Daniel will also be giving a talk on his new book at Regent’s University London on 10th Feb: tickets are available here. He will be speaking on BBC Radio 4 next Saturday at 6:15pm. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and on his personal website.