(This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post).
With the rapid rise of the new spiritual counterculture, a generation of young avant-garde writers are making conscious magazine headlines and electrifying the festival-speakers’ circuit. Featuring a brutally honest look at the shadow aspects of the Self, and society at large, these books — while often focused on healing — are not fluffy New Age “Celestine Prophecy” reads nor “The 7 Laws of Spiritual Materialism.” They are harder to define, hosting a multidimensional mix of spiritual awakening, new media activism, visionary art, punk attitude, permaculture principles, Burning Man aesthetic and Occupy ideologies.
As if exploring some quantum physics conundrum, they fuse the world of observer and observed, where the researcher flies third-eye-first into the mystical fields they are investigating. In a similar manner that LSD influenced the Keseys and Ginsbergs of the 60s, newly introduced “entheogens” (God-inducing substances), like the Amazonian shaman’s brew ayahuasca and the synthesized “spirit molecule” DMT, are influencing the style and transformational arcs of these stories. Also, like the 60s, there is a regrettable dearth of female voices, something I hope changes over the coming years.
This is my “informal, unofficial, thoroughly unscientific” list of the top 10 books of the New Edge. I’m hardly an expert on this subject, but I have bared witness to some of this burgeoning literary movement over the last few years as a co-founder of Reality Sandwich and the Evolver Social Movement. For those of you following this literary scene, I welcome you to expand and improve upon the list, adding your choices in the comments section below.
10. The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and The Origins of Knowledge
Author: Jeremy Narby
Amazed by the complex “botanic mastery” of the Ashaninca’s polycultural gardens in the Amazon, anthropologist Jeremy Narby broke ranks with the detached scientific model when drinking the hallucinatory tea ayahuasca, which the Ashaninca claimed had taught them their agricultural knowledge. Composed of two plants – one containing the psychoactive chemical DMT (dimethyltryptamine), the other a double-helix-shaped vine with MAO inhibitors, the brew exposed Narby to a potent spiritual reality where talking telepathic serpents launched him on a study on how shamans might access the consciousness of DNA for healing. It was a serious career risk for a scientist, connecting empirical study with spirituality.
9. Dharma Punx
Author: Noah Levine
Who would have imagined that the son of bestselling Buddhist author/teacher Stephen Levine would spend his teenage years “fueled by the music of revolution, anger, fear, and despair… Eating acid like it was candy and chasing speed with cheap vodka, smoking truckloads of weed, all in a vain attempt to get numb and stay numb”? Eventually Levine’s rebellious spirit would lead him to the liberation of Buddhist meditation, but without abandoning his love of punk music as an agent of change.
8. Fishers of Men: The Gospel of an Ayahuasca Vision Quest
Author: Adam Elenbaas
Unfortunately under-promoted in bookstores, “Fishers” is the most hauntingly beautiful book about ayahuasca that I’ve come across. Elenbaas fully exposes his sentimental, wounded soul when detailing his trek from troubled Minnesota minister’s son to sex-and-substance abuser in Chicago and New York, finally finding refuge with ayahuasca visions of Jesus in Peru. With a sweetly maudlin tone, ghostly lyrical imagery, and poetic switches in time sequences, the book is as if Garrison Keller and William Faulkner spent a few years binging with Charles Bukowski and getting high with Terence McKenna. When I asked Elenbaas how he crafted his unusual style, he said, “Ayahausca taught me.”
7. This Is Burning Man: The Rise of a New American Underground
Author: Brian Doherty
While the writing style may slip on occasion, Doherty gives Burning Man aficionados exactly what they are looking for – the myth behind America’s most creatively extravagant festival. Tracing the event from its humble origins with a few dozen onlookers at San Francisco’s Baker Beach to its five-square-mile explosion of radical self-expression in the Nevada desert. One early scene (before the festival instigated a number of guidelines) has co-founder John Law racing his rental car across the desert flats, “flying on mushrooms,” drinking wine and having sex with his girlfriend while shooting guns out the window at teddy-bear targets. Hedonistic, yes, but also the stuff of legends.
6. Black Smoke: A Woman’s Journey of Healing, Wild Love, and Transformation in the Amazon
Author: Margaret De Wys
The curing of her breast cancer through the use of ayahuasca only covers one piece of De Wys’ epic tale of ditching her comfortable life as a Bard College music professor to apprentice with a charismatic Shuar healer, Carlos, deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Steeped in the magical lineage of the Shuar tradition, De Wys and her companion encounter near-death initiations, giant anacondas, and the iron fist of the industrialized North when bringing their Schedule 1 controlled healing substance to Native American tribes. She can handle it all, except for rule number 1 of ayahuasca apprenticeship: don’t sleep with your shaman.
Spiritual memoirs don’t get grittier, or more provocative, than this. After being arrested for possession of 14 MDMA capsules (which the author uses as a controversial method for overcoming PTSD), Shaw’s story opens in the nightmare of Chicago’s Cook County Jail, being sentenced to 1 year in the penitentiary. What follows is a despairing first-hand examination of our utterly failing prison systems and the collateral damage that the war on drugs inflicts on American lives. But Shaw embodies the warrior spirit, fighting for a personal rebirth through “unorthodox spiritual and healing practices” with the “evolutionary counterculture.”
4. The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape
Author: Erik Davis, Photographs by Michael Ruaner
It might seem strange for a coffee table book to make this list, until you realize that’s exactly how it made the list. Traveling on my “Electric Jesus” tour throughout the West Coast, I was hard pressed to find a living room, or home hangout lounge, that didn’t boast this title as some type of flag, or stamp, of membership in the rising transformational tribe. Claiming to be “the first book to address the full story of ‘California consciousness” and featuring the po-mo mystical writings of Davis, the book tracks the landscapes and lives of UFO cults, Zen Buddhists, neopagans, and of course, Burning Man.
3. Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition
Author: Charles Eisenstein
Part-time Goddard College faculty member Eisenstein gained a large number of admirers through his pioneering essays on Reality Sandwich, but it’s his Evolver Editions/North Atlantic Books release “Sacred Economics” that has propelled him to the forefront of the Occupy movement with viral videos like “The Revolution is Love” and countless speaking engagements. In 496 pages, Eisenstein unpacks the entire history of money from a visionary prospective, providing the “radical yet gentle” transitions we can make to reboot and redesign the global (and local) economy. In the end, you believe the impossible: money can become sacred.
2. DMT: The Spirit Molecule
Author: Rick Strassman
At the University of New Mexico, Dr. Rick Strassman conducted DEA-approved research, injecting 60 volunteers with the powerful tryptamine DMT. Many readers skip the academic jargon on finagling FDA approval to indulge in the wild trip accounts of subjects rocketing out of their bodies and across the universe, breaking out of the limits of time and space, exploring realms of “pure living energy,” and perhaps most disturbingly, contacting bizarre extraterrestrial beings. While Strassman’s writing is all dry-scientist, the DMT accounts have influenced the imagination of countless writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians in the consciousness movement.
1. Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into Contemporary Shamanism
Author: Daniel Pinchbeck
Although “2012: The Return to Quetzalcoatl” made my Evolver and Reality Sandwich colleague the go-to guy on the Mayan calendar, it was “Breaking Open the Head” that first exposed ayahuasca journeys, initiations with the hallucinatory West African rootbark iboga, and DMT “galactivations” to the hipster world. Blending a healthy dose of Marxist philosophy, Burning Man chic, and Manhattan skepticism, this book pulled off a counterculture coup – it made embarking on a mystical awakening wild and transgressive. Part memoir, part exegesis on Western philosophy, Pinchbeck’s trailblazing work would set the structure, tone, and trajectory for a whole new generation of writers.
“God vs. Gay” by Jay Michaelson
“Tryptamine Palace” by James Oroc
“The Four Global Truths” by Darrin Drda
“The Red Book” by Sera Beak
“Aya: A Shamanic Odyssey” by Rak Razam
“Star Sister” by Stella Osorojos
Elders Circle (Books by older authors who have influenced this genre)
“Supernatural” by Graham Hancock
“The Fifth Sacred Thing” by Starhawk
“The Mission of Art” by Alex Grey
“The Archaic Revival” by Terence McKenna
“Nothing in this Book Is True But It’s Exactly How Things Are” by Bob Frissell
“Antipodes of the Mind” by Benny Shanon
“PIHKAL” and “TIHKAL” by Alexander and Ann Shulgin
“The Mayan Factor” by Jose Arguelles
“Be Here Now” by Ram Dass
“Ayahuasca In My Blood” by Peter Gorman
“Singing to the Plants” by Stephan V. Beyer
“The Secret Teaching of Plants” by Stephen Harrod Buhner
Image by moriza, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.
Jonathan Talat Phillips is author of The Electric Jesus: The Healing Journey of a Contemporary Gnostic.