Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Review of Breaking Convention

Breaking Convention: a multidisciplinary conference on psychedelic consciousness.
Fri April 1st to Sun Apr 3rd, University of Kent, Canterbury. www.breakingconvention.co.uk

I only made up my mind to go to this three weeks before the event, and by then the only B&Bs left vacant in Canterbury were in the £50+ pppn bracket. I took a look at the conference forum (isn't the internet marvellous), got a place to crash and acquired four passengers for my London-Canterbury drive, a motorized pilgrims' route through the gravel-island floodplain of Southwark and out along the Old Kent Road.

The first night, there was a screening of 'DMT, the Spirit Molecule', the record of Rick Strassman's work with experimental volunteers. This film illustrates a major problem in every area of internal work which leads to staggeringly ecstatic states - that so many blissed-out people literally believe they are meeting angels, extraterrestrials and so on. They project the glory and radiance of their visions outwards, rather than owning them as attractors towards which we can all work.

In other words, dear visionaries, the good and the bad news is - that glory is YOU, that Angel is what you can become, that perfect extraterrestrial civilization is what we humans could have if we stopped messing about and learned new ways to live.
The same problem crops up with a lot of mysticism - the visionary has drawn away from, maybe even mortified, his flesh, in order to attain that bliss, and yet experience of bliss is experience in the flesh, it cannot be otherwise. Instead, though, the visionary often creates a little abstract playground of transcendence, projecting the glory that belongs to the flesh into that sterile realm.

Yes, angels and perfect civilizations are real - as real as rocks - but they are made from nonlinear patterns in our destabilized brains. Think of it this way: instead of running Windows or Linux, you're running unknown systems that don't have the kind of coherence you're used to - but very strange and sometimes superior kinds of coherence arise from that chaos.

Some of the talks, especially from some of the senior heroes of psychedelia, were stuff we'd heard before, even if we've never been to this kind of thing but simply read a few books. However, those famous names do provide part of the glue that holds it all together.

The conference was actually framed as 4 events, two running in parallel at any time, meaning that no-one could take in all the talks. My talk took place in the Exceptional Experiences slot. The afternoon had a terrific turnout - 50 seats plus almost as many again on the floor and side shelves.

Amongst the talks I particularly enjoyed were Tom Froese on the origins of symbolic thought. This included a critique of David Lewis-Williams' Marxist perspective, his assumption that all change is driven by social conflict, and pointed out Lewis-Williams's reluctance to speculate about what caused the altered states that gave rise to cave paintings. Was it psilocybin? If so, it is hard to imagine how Lewis-Wiliiams's putative elite restricted that sacrament to themselves.

A challenging perspective from Kilindi Iyi's 'High dose, towards an organic singularity' - this researcher was not kidding with the title - he claimed to have been modelling the shamans of pre-Sahara civilizations when he ingested 30-40g doses of dried psilocybin mushrooms, and became 'something more than human.' He also proposed the interesting speculation that, when the Sahara dried out, its civilizations moved to Nile, taking their gods with them, and forming the earliest layers of the Egyptian religion.

And Kalliope Tavoulari spoke on 'Psychedelics & scientific breakthroughs.' Everyone knows about Francis Crick (member of Soma, an org for legalizing cannabis) attributing his visualization of DNA structure to an LSD session, but the speaker had found a few other top scientists inspired by psychedelics, including Kary Banks Mullis, who invented the immensely useful DNA sequencing technique of Polymerase Chain Reaction.

My talk will probably be published soon; I shall be sure to announce it here. The purpose of it was to introduce the methodology of chaos magic to the psychedelic discourse - and I think it got a good reception.

Of the other events, I enjoyed the excerpt from Donal Ruane's forthcoming film on ayahuasca shamanism and his healing journey. One member of the audience had brought photos of a strange object he had thrown up during a recent ayahuasca session, which enabled his healing and made for a fascinating if grotesque discussion.

Robert Dickins gave a talk entitled 'The rise and fall of psychedelic literature', discussing how our views of LSD had shifted. Dickins made the important point that, with Leary's 'The Psychedelic Experience', a trip manual based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, an absolute meaning was ascribed to tripping, and this throttled psychedelic literature for a long time.

I would say that the same problem has come about, much more slowly, in internal exploration in general, where the success of mystics on attaining 'enlightenment' has overshadowed the whole field with absolutes derived from religion.

All in all, this conference was an outstanding success. The organizers did something really important: they made the 2nd ever psychedelic conference happen in the British Isles, the only previous one being in Bath in 2004.

Not only that, but they facilitated a bunch of more than 600 people to self-assemble from scratch a highly functional micro-culture. On the first morning, walking in to the conference a little late with two other delegates, a man stopped his car and gave us a lift. This was just one example of how civilized people were.

I did get the impression that, although exhausted, the organizers were sufficiently happy with the result to want to do it again in a few year' time. I hope so.


  1. We certainly hope to do it again in 2013!
    bEN sESSA

  2. I loved the intergenerational aspect, the way current research and seeking has expanded the fields of exploration to all areas of enquiry. psychedelic drugs are not going to go away, they have to come into the the range of acceptable indeed necessary human experience.

    These tools for observing and understanding how we play DNA are crucial for the health and sanity of us and in expressing a right relationship with nature and the planet, let alone off planet.

    Thanks for the happening everybody.

  3. Ben: Wonderful! I shall make it a priority to be there!

    Claudia: Yes, I loved that too - some of the torches that were lit in the 60s are still burning, and there's lots of excellent new work that wouldn't have been possible then. Those two sets of perspectives meshed at BC.

    And I couldn't agree more about the necessity of psychedelics to the cultural renaissance we must have.

  4. Was brilliant having you over to stay, unfortunately couldnt squeeze into your talk so looking forward to the video of it.
    Avi & Gabrielle

  5. Hi Avi and Gabrielle, it was great to stay, you were lovely hosts. I don't remember seeing anyone videoing, but that might be because I was so absorbed in what I was doing.
    Do you know when the video is out?
    My talk will be in a new mag called Egregore, which should be out in the next couple of months.