Breaking Convention 2011: Notes from a Psychedelic Conference
The sprawling campus of the University of Kent, in Canterbury, became host to the UK’s first psychedelic consciousness conference on the second and third of April, 2011. The campus’ Wolfe building was a thronging hive, as all the psychedelic bees gathered to share their research, their experiences and their ideas in a sweet-honey-melting-pot. At the heart of this vibrant buzzing lay one of the more uniquely endearing qualities of Breaking Convention; it was a rich tapestry of different disciplines and backgrounds, brought together by common purpose. Here’s some notes from the thread of my journey through the event:
It began on Friday night, Ram Dass appeared over three large screens in the main lecture hall, beamed in from Hawaii. One of the legends of 1960s psychedelic research, Ram Dass worked his webcam like a master – as early, forlorn and wandering eyes, suddenly flicked straight through the cornea of the lens at the words “unconditional love,” and continued to grow and glow as he told of his psychedelic and mystical unravelling in India. The audience were rapturous and it was the ideal seed for the conference.
After treading carefully over sleeping people and taking a slow, sun-drenched walk to the campus, I arrived just as the Saturday opened in the main lecture hall at nine. Waving the flower I’d been handed on the way in, along with the rest of the audience, for an official photograph; glancing at my conference name badge, printed on Kray twins blotter; seeing a congruence of shirts, shiny shoes, dreads, and deadheads; boundaries are indeed dissolved. And, as if to emphasize this multiplicity, the excellent first trio of presentations crossed time and disciplines, in what felt like a snake-coil down to the present day.
Paul Devereux examined the evidence, and put a convincing argument forward, for the use of psychedelics at sacred sites around the world; ancient and global, covering humanity like a blanket. Mike Jay lucidly unravelled the history of psychedelics in science and the way in which early psychonauts, like Cornishman Humphry Davy, enlightened and framed their experiences at the turn of the nineteenth century. And, finally, Andy Letcher put forward the argument that psychedelics should now be examined in light of post-modernism, and help a “reinvigorated ‘Psy-Crit’ return to the academy.” I whole-heartedly support this project but, I must confess, a question mark remains, as it did for Andy himself, over the term ‘Psy-Crit’.
The brain illuminations kept peaking all through Saturday afternoon. William Rowlandson (who did a truly brilliant talk on Borges and Terence McKenna on Sunday) convened the Psychedelic Phenomenology and Philosophy of Mind track. This included Thomas Teun Meijer’s The Semantic Pharmacy and the Mind Altering Magic of Symbols. Thomas’ paper showed the eye of post-modern thought on psychedelics. He unpicked symbology through the pharmakon and made use of post-structuralist thinkers like Jacques Derrida, eventually arguing that words are “like a spell” that enchant the world.
Then, over in Dave Luke’s Psychedelics and Exceptional Human Experiences, there was a real treat in Stoned Peacocks and Blue-throated Gods by Mike Crowley, a journey encountering psilocybin mushrooms in ancient Eastern culture. Also, there was the charismatic Kilindi Lyi’s on 30g dry shroom doses and David Lee talking about psychedelics, belief and Chaos Magic. There seems no end to the manner in which psychedelics are already entwined with our history, our present and as potential for our future, and with this in mind I headed over to the Origin bar for the evening entertainment…
…after stumbling awkwardly over comatose bodies, and taking a painfully lethargic meander to the campus, I arrived a little late for the start of proceedings. I managed to catch the end of Petra Bokor’s One year follow up of the integration process of a series of ayahuasca experiences, which demonstrated a therapeutic effect in the brew. It was impossible to miss the growing confidence in medicinal psychedelics that came from so many research quarters. After giving a presentation on psychedelic literature, I wrote some words about consciousness on a brain and stuck it into an art installation; so many different brains, so many different ideas.
Dave King, an organiser of Breaking Convention, convened the Bold Visions track in the main hall. MAPS founder Rick Doblin put forward his ideas for the integration of psychedelics into society, which were very ordered and structural, working with and through existing mechanisms. On the other side there was Andy Roberts; he painted a justifiably bleak political picture, proposing instead the more organic method of integration by changing people’s attitudes at grass roots. It seems to me that these two approaches are the two legs we must attempt to walk forward with. Any one might lead to a restriction, but the two can help transform one another; an “evolving consciousness”.
My warmest thanks to everyone who helped organise Breaking Convention, to all the speakers and all the delegates. A great time was had.