Tag Archive for: altered

altered conference uk psychedelic society weekends

I stop in front of a stranger to look them in the eye and say ‘HOO. AAH. YOO!’ as he simultaneously does this back at me. We smirk at each other, and then walk on to do the same to another of the 300 or so people in the room. A few minutes earlier, to the collective sound of all of us humming and singing glossolalia, we held silk ribbons up in the air as we focused intentions on them before tying them to a large tree branch in the middle of the room.

altered conference berlin psychedelics

This was my Friday morning a few weeks ago at the opening ceremony of Altered 2017: a two day international psychedelic gathering/conference. Berlin, synonymous with breaking boundaries and divided people coming together amidst political change, was symbolically the perfect city to host an event like this. With psychedelics becoming an increasingly hot political topic and the growing global movement steadily working towards seeing the counter-productive and repressive laws which prohibit their use, dissolved too.

Uniquely Altered

altered conference uk psychedelic society weekends

Altered was quite different to the psychedelic conference I went to in Copenhagen – what was a straight laced, well organised and heavily academic event held in a university. Altered, by contrast, was far more manic – with rooms and workshops overfilling, timetables changing, and held in a hotel with a confusing and labyrinthine layout. If the Copenhagen one showed the high conscientiousness and clear analytical thinking that psychedelics can provide, Altered showed the other side; the creative, chaotic, and magical.

Spellcasting For Beginners

Speaking of magic, I went to an hourlong workshop on the second day called ‘Spellcasting For Beginners’ led by a guy called Felipe Duarte. It was pretty different to anything I’ve done before so I’ll describe it briefly for the curious.

With about 40 of us there, he started with some music and we all danced to a sweat (breaking a sweat was essential to the magic working) before sitting down to briefly meditate and then do unconscious writing while we were asked questions about our desires in life. We then had to write down our greatest desire and refine this to one sentence. We then removed every vowel and repeating consonant from the sentence and using these letters created our own magical symbol and word.

Back into a circle we all sat around with everyone chanting their magical word over and over until the collective cacophony of the room reached a swooning, flowing fever pitch and we all ripped our pieces of paper into tiny little pieces.

Spell cast.

Slightly different from a talk on the results of clinical research then. I’m naturally pretty skeptical on this ‘magic’ stuff but I’ve reached no conclusions and regardless it was a fun and interesting hour and something new. Having to dance to sweat and do unconscious writing also forced me past discomfort too. I plan to attend more workshops at the next one.


I was a volunteer at the conference and it definitely added to my experience of the weekend. It was a great way to meet other people and at the same time get a peak behind the scenes to the organization of the whole thing. I helped with setup at the hotel the two days prior and met a lot of people involved, so by the time of the actual conference, the hotel was full of familiar faces and new friends and it felt strangely like home. As well as the set up I also volunteered on the 2nd day and spent a few hours at the welcome and info desk. This forced me to skip talks and workshops and meant that, between groups arriving from the tram, I had time to sit down and get to know some pretty cool people and hear their stories. If I hadn’t done this I would’ve just gone from talk to workshop to talk, trying not to miss out on anything and ironically missing out on connecting with others in the rapidly growing psychedelic community.

changa ketamine giorgia gaia experimental alchemy altered conference berlin

The Movement Is Growing Fast

A lot of things in the world are changing very quickly and perception of and interest in psychedelics is one of them. Altered is another example of this. Last year Altered was 6 speakers and 50 guests over 1 day. This year it was 35 talks, workshops and rituals across 2 days and 3 rooms, with around 400 guests, and an after-party. The pull was big. As well as an international group of resident Berliners, people had made the journey from surrounding cities and countries – I met people who had made the journey from Vienna, Budapest, Copenhagen, Holland, France and the UK.

Hyper Connectivity

The reach of the event and coming together of people shows the hyperconnected nature of the movement which played its part in my being there too. After Copenhagen, I’d planned on skipping this one but then my Danish buddy Vik was going with his Berlin based brother – a duo who I’m overdue starting an art project with – and then through research for a piece on drug policy, the lovely Ros Stone put me in touch with the founder and organiser Dax – who offered me a place to crash. It seemed that I was supposed to be there, so after securing a free ticket by signing up to volunteer and finding some cheap flights, I was on my way. It was the people I was in touch with who got me there.

The brain on placebo, left, the brain on psilocybin, right – mirrors connectivity in psychedelic world.

Even at the level of this conference, I got a sense of the disintegration of hierarchy and separation – another psychedelic action making its way out to the macro level. At Altered there was no clear distinction between speakers and attendees, or heads and guests. To me it felt like there were just a lot of psychedelic enthusiasts with everyone participating, some presenting and others not.

Psychedelic Use Doesn’t Equal Virtue

“Psychedelics do not guarantee wisdom or a clear recognition of the selfless nature of consciousness.”
– Sam Harris

With all the nice words said, it has to be acknowledged that not everything is compassion and oneness in the psychedelic world. There are definitely some big egos in the movement. Through becoming more involved with the community it’s become clear to me that growth, maturity, and wisdom certainly aren’t inherent in psychedelic use. I’ve seen conversations turn into bragging contests about who’s had the most trips, taken the biggest doses, or tried the widest variety of substances. I’ve also met people who are just dicks. When I hear someone bragging about how much they’ve learnt, how much pain they’ve overcome, or saying something like ‘I can now access any state of consciousness at any time’ (that’s a direct quote from a ‘healer’ at another event), I can’t help but smile and think ‘well how much did it teach you about humility and honesty?’.

There are, of course, countless people who’ve never touched a psychedelic and who show more of these virtues than some of the most well-seasoned psychonauts. As one of the speakers at the Copenhagen symposium put it; ‘there are people who’ve had hundreds of psychedelic experiences that are still assholes’.


I think this is worth remembering, as apparently psychedelic people can easily feel superior or on some kind of higher level than non-initiates or those with less experience. Personally, I don’t care too much about how many trips you’ve had, I’m interested in what you’ve learned and how deeply you’ve learnt it – how it informs your character and how you live your life.

While psychedelics have the ability to facilitate a mental reset capable of freeing one from conditioned patterns of thought and behavior (which may play a role in the species wide reconditioning needed to prevent our own ecological self-destruction), they are clearly not a panacea. They are just tools. Like any other tool or technology, they can be used for good or bad. A hammer can be used to build a table or hit someone over the head. Chemistry can be used to create medicine or a poison. The internet can be used to connect and educate, or spread lies, distract and shorten attention span. Psychedelics can potentiate minds and offer opportunities for greater awareness, but even if that opportunity is taken, what’s done with that increased awareness is another question.

Browsing psychedelic forums online you’ll come across countless claims of ‘ego-death’, but while the ego can lose power or even totally dissolve during peak experiences, it can strike back with a vengeance, re-emerging even more powerful than before. The ego is supple and can re-contextualize even the most powerful transcendent experiences, leading people further into competition and another ego-ic game. A type of spiritual chicanery or spiritual materialism.

“As Daniel Pinchbeck pointed out […], the fact that both the Mayans and the Aztecs used psychedelics, while being enthusiastic practitioners of human sacrifice, makes any idealistic connection between plant-based shamanism and an enlightened society seem terribly naïve.”
– Sam Harris, Drugs & The Meaning Of Life

More sinister than the mere boasters are those who are using promises of enlightenment and healing as a way to take advantage of others. A look at the stories of dodgy shamans who’ve touched up trippers or self-described healers charging exorbitant prices whilst living a life of luxury should ring alarm bells for us all.

Engaging The Shadow Side Of The Movement

This is, in Jung’s terms, the shadow side of the psychedelic movement. As in any field, it’s important to acknowledge and be aware of the charlatans, bullshitters, and manipulators out there seeking to gain power and money for their own selfish desires. How to deal with them?


It’s my belief that these people should be called in and have what they are espousing tested. This doesn’t need to be an aggressive attack but rather the opening of a discussion. With open and honest communication the truth will come out. If you come across someone with specious or spurious claims or saying something that contradicts what’s been previously said, I encourage you to question with curiosity to dig out the truth. I also think it’s best to try to judge people based on their character – how they speak, act and treat others – rather than any claims to experience and knowledge.

With that said, I’d like to hear others’ thoughts on this shadow side and how to engage it. Please post your thoughts in the comments below, and don’t hesitate to send me a message. Until then I’ll give my own rather broad version of advice:

Keep seeking, keep questioning!

Next weekend I’m headed to Berlin for Altered Conference – ‘an international gathering of consciousness explorers from all backgrounds to take part in talks, workshops and rituals on the subject of psychedelics, conscious practices, and social issues’. Yep, sounds absolutely like somewhere I should be.

altered conference berlin psychedelics

Another psychedelic conference? Yep, but Altered aims to be different. In my recent post about the psychedelic symposium in Copenhagen, I mentioned that there was a heavy emphasis on science and that I think there should be room for other types of discussion too. Well apparently the organisers of Altered heard my call: scientists will represent a slim part of a diverse range of speakers. One of those organisers, Dax DeFranco, kindly answered a few questions for me so I could get a peek behind the curtain…

To begin, I have to ask… how did you come to psychedelics?

It’s so cliche that it’s embarrassing. I was in university, maybe 20 years old. On Halloween, some of my friends got some mushrooms and we watched Yellow Submarine in someone’s apartment. I remember throwing up, the patterns in the floor moving around, being very cold… it was sufficiently weird, but the real trip started when I thought it was over. I went back to my room, got in bed and over the next few hours was led to mercilessly scrutinise my behaviour, thoughts, impulses, desires… it was extremely frightening to see myself with that kind of clarity and – without being too melodramatic – it definitely changed me for the better.

dax defranco altered conference berlin

Honestly, I like that The Beatles were a part of your psychedelic initiation. And how did Altered come into being? Was there a specific moment where you thought ‘this is something we need to do’, or was it an idea which germinated over time?

Altered has been a very organic process. I gave a talk at a local bookshop in February 2016 about Terence McKenna, Language and Alchemy and it was packed out. I was amazed at the response, so I asked the owners if I could make something bigger – that’s how Altered was born. Last year it was just 6 speakers, myself included, and about 50 guests over one day. This year it’s 35 talks, workshops and rituals over two days with nearly 400 guests and a huge afterparty. It’s grown into itself and it’s been a great ride so far.

Why do you think an event like this is important?

There was an article or podcast I found about a year ago about ‘coming out of the psychedelic closet’. I grew up in a tiny town on the East Coast of the United States and it was an incredibly closed-minded and homogenous place that was a perfect breeding ground for a fear-based worldview. I was racist. I was homophobic. I was ardently anti-drugs. I was generally a very unpleasant person. I moved away for university, and then continued moving and between traveling and psychedelics I was exposed to all sorts of new people and experiences. When you don’t know any queer people or people of color, it’s easy to stick to an ignorant stereotype because it’s never challenged. You need to be open to accepting that some of the narratives you’ve taken on might be wrong, and psychedelics help with that. That to say, there are people across our society who have used and benefited from psychedelics but until recently they did so in secret. When you’re the only person who’s experimented with x, it’s hard to talk about it or make it a part of your identity, but the more people that do, the less pressure and fear others feel to identify that way. Altered is a gathering of a community, and it’s friendly and loving and fun, but there is no getting around the fact that it’s very much a political thing.

altered conference psychedelics berlin

How will Altered be unique to other psychedelic conferences?

Altered has a different focus, a different aim. For me, if Altered really works, it’s going to be a psychedelic incubator (if you’re from the startup world), a bubbling retort of the Psychedelic Renaissance (if you prefer Alchemy). A place where people and ideas mix, combine, dissolve and reform into something entirely new. Someone recently was a bit critical of what we have planned, saying there wasn’t enough academic rigour and too much emphasis on experience – but the more I think about this, the more I think it’s exactly right – and not at all a bad thing. The talks are going to be amazing, but the conference itself, as a whole, is what’s really going to be special.

I hope so. And what’s going on at the after party?

Our goal was not to make the greatest party on earth, just to make a party that is good by Berlin standards. I think that means that for many people it’s going to be the best party they’ve ever seen :p

Sounds great. To finish, I’d like to ask something I ask every psychedelic enthusiast: What are the most important things one can do to open up the debate on psychedelics, both in their effects and their legal status?

I think the most important thing is to use and talk about them in an honest way. There’s a lot of talk about ‘coming out of the psychedelic closet’ – like I mentioned before, when you’re the only person who’s experimented with x, it’s hard to talk about it or make it a part of your identity, but the more people that do, the less pressure and fear others feel to identify that way. I think the simple act of being a psychedelic person who’s honest about being a psychedelic person is extremely powerful.

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You can find out more about Altered at their website and get tickets here.

If you’re going, come say hi. I’ll be around on the Friday and volunteering on the Saturday. Send me a message or tweet me before hand. See you there.