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beyond psychedelics prague 2018

At the end of June I was at Beyond Psychedelics: a 4 day ‘global psychedelic forum’ in Prague. As well as catching talks and general mingling, I also gave a talk and filmed some short interviews for an online video series. Here I’ll give a brief and rambling account about this event, what I was doing there and some thoughts that it threw up.

Opening ceremony preparations

Beyond kicked off on the summer solstice and the extended daylight hours helped to keep energy levels up for the intensively packed days. This was the largest of the three psychedelic conventions/conferences I’ve been to (one . two) and felt somewhere between a conference and a festival; the days were filled with 4 tracks (stages) of lectures, talks, workshops and panel debates, and the evenings had music, film screenings, and camp fires. Psychonauts, professionals, and enthusiasts milled around discussing talks and topics, sharing experiences and projects, exchanging contacts, and setting things up – it really seemed like a breeding ground for collaboration and I’m sure a few projects were birthed at Beyond. There was also some clearly non-theoretical exploration of substances *ahem*.

Giving A Talk

sham shamans beyond psychedelics honesty prague 2018 john andrew

I gave a talk at Beyond (watch it here) and it was my first time doing public speaking. Honestly, I was nervous as shit. The whole process, from thinking about submitting an abstract (brief, talk submission) to finishing my talk and stepping off the stage, was spread over a few months and was a new and absolutely rewarding experience. The steps went something like this: see a call for abstracts on the Beyond website, think ‘maybe I should do that’, google how to write an abstract, write and submit one, get accepted (both excitement and nervousness here), prepare the slides, practice the talk, and booyah, I’m going to give my first talk at a conference (… more nervousness here). I gave the talk, titled Honesty & Psychedelics: Acknowledging The Sham Shamans, to a fairly full tent on the first day and I’d say it went OK for a first time. I’ll write more about the whole process and a written version of the talk in separate posts.

beyond psychedelics chapiteau prague 2018

Another talk in the chapiteau

Mixed Crowd

Beyond had speakers from an impressively wide range of disciplines; scientists to shamans and artists to academics – it seems nothing is beyond psychedelics- and this brought out a similarly wide mix of people. This diversity was intentional, with organisers aiming to encourage discussion and facilitate an exchange of ideas and information from different fields. The mix made for a nice melting pot of perspectives and great conversations in the panel debates and also generally with people around.

beyond psychedelics prague conference forum

There was a gently buzzing atmosphere about the event – I’m not the only one who gets excited about a topic as broad and mind-bending as psychedelics – the buzz stoked by the knowledge that we’re going through major and accelerating shifts in the world, and I believe that this group, subculture, community – whatever it is – are on one of the most significant frontiers of change.

Psychedelics Have A Role To Play

beyond psychedelics prague psychotherapy depression anxiety ptsd ocd addiction substance abuse forum conference

With serious research back underway, psychedelics are starting to re-enter the mainstream through psychology and neuroscience, but the ripples from this will have far reaching cultural and philosophical implications across individual, societal and global levels – from how we organise ourselves as a species on our technologically connected global brain that is the planet, to our fundamental understanding of the universe and place in it. Things are changing increasingly rapidly through all kinds of technologies, emerging: tech, AI, VR, blockchain/crypto; and the lost but re-emerging: psychedelics.

lucia no 3 meditation light beyond psychedelics prague conference forum

“In one of my early books I suggested that the potential significance of LSD and other psychedelics for psychiatry and psychology was comparable to the value the microscope has for biology or the telescope has for astronomy. My later experience with psychedelics only confirmed this initial impression.”
– Stanislav Grof

The Psychedelic Golden Age Is Now

psychedelic research renaissance

A slide from Ben Sessa’s talk

People look at the sixties as the golden age of psychedelic use and research but in an inspiring talk about MDMA therapy, Dr. Ben Sessa pointed out that today there is both more research going on and more people taking psychedelics than back in the sixties; today is a true psychedelic renaissance. Wrapping up, Sessa addressed the younger generation in the audience who are thinking of working in the field and might have been told by tutors or others that it is career suicide. He said that the naysayers who think this is woo-woo stuff need to open their minds:

This is not hippie stuff, this is not some fringe thing, this is mainstream medicine, this is cutting edge neuroscience, every major teaching and neuro academic institution around the world are looking at psychedelic programmes nowadays: Yale, Harvard, NYU, UCL, UCLA Johns Hopkins, Imperial College London […] and we’re getting monthly papers published in mainstream journals like The Lancet, BMJ, British Journal of Psychiatry, BAP […]

psychedelic academic institutions

The institutions and journals with psychedelic research – another slide from Sessa’s talk

The scientific credibility of such institutions and their research will surely help to overcome one of the biggest challenges for the movement: the social stigma. And though the science is obviously important, often the most moving and intriguing parts of researchers presentations are quotes from participants about their experiences. The stats and charts provide the logos, but its people’s stories which deliver the pathos. This humanizes the topic and speaks to people on an emotional level. Which brings me nicely to the videos I was filming there….

Breaking The Stigma: Fun Psychedelic Interviews

I was volunteering at Beyond filming a video series of short interviews. The aim of the series is to help humanise the topic and break the stigma by getting people in the movement to speak about psychedelics and their experiences in a relaxed and fun way, with hopes that this will encourage other people to too. My interviewees included MAPS man Rick Doblin, occultist Julian Vayne, the UK psychedelic society’s Stefana Bosse, and grassroots researcher Darren Le Barron. Some of the questions included:

  • Weirdest thing to ever happen during a trip?
  • If you could only ever trip with one person again, who would it be?
  • Which one person or group of people in the world having a psychedelic experience do you think would have the greatest benefit on humanity
  • Favourite things to do whilst tripping?
  • Psychedelic that has had the largest impact on your life?
  • If you could only ever take one psychedelic again, which one would it be?

    rick doblin beyond psychedelics prague

    This is actually some other people doing a video interview – a lot of press there

I’d had the idea for this sitting around for a while and seeing Beyond as a perfect opportunity to get a bunch of these, I emailed the organisers to see if I could do it there and release the videos through their channels. They liked the idea so I filmed a bunch, and they’ll start going up on the Beyond Psychedelics channels soon (I’ll link them here when they’re up). This was fun and something I’d like to continue so if you’d be open to speaking about your psychedelic experiences on film, let me know and I’ll interview you at some event or if we find ourselves in the same city.

I’ll summarise here briefly by stating that Beyond was a highlight of my year so far. To wrap up and give an idea of the variety of the talks, here’s a brief overview of my favourites – some by quote, some by picture, some I’ve written about. More info on talks can be found on the Beyond site.

Challenges To The Mainstreaming of Psychedelics In The 21st Century
– Rick Doblin .

We’re at the stage where we can envision the mainstreaming of psychedelics and we can see drug policy changing across the world, it’s also very possible for us to screw up and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

This is my favourite quote: ‘there’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip’. You think that you’re right about to succeed and that’s when people get over confident and make mistakes because they’re not paying attention. We need to talk with each other, critically and think about how we can move forward carefully. Where we are at this stage is this incredible renaissance of psychedelic research, even in therapeutic applications there is more research now than at any time in the last 50 years, that the doors are opening at regulatory agencies all over the world.

The key thing here is that we need to build bridges not burn them. One of the ways in which we build bridges is look at where support comes from […] We have to reach out to people on the other side of the political divide and built bi-partisan support and recognise that it’s a two way communication. […] So I think it’s so important if we are going to mainstream psychedelics that we build these bridges.”

Charging for Ceremony: Polemics Around Money In Shamanism
– Jerónimo Mazarrasa .

Should people be charging money for ceremony? Is work with entheogens too sacred to be dirtied with money? Good question, heavily disputed. Jeronimo gave a range of examples of different practices and perspectives on this. A couple of examples:

  • Medicine should not cost money; it should be accessible to all. By putting a price tag on it you are restricting access to certain people. You should keep your financial stability separate from your work with medicines. If you need money to survive, stop working with the medicines and find your income elsewhere.
  • You’ve spent years learning and training and it’s fair that you are reimbursed for your time and energy. Getting paid is important for you to work to the best of your ability as it allows you to remove other distractions such as working a day job.

Jeronimo didn’t offer any ‘right’ answer but did suggest something that might be useful – transparency. He gave the example of a magazine which in every issue, listed all of its expenses – from the costs of the cleaners for the office to the rental space to the writers – so the readers could see exactly where their money was going. I really like this idea, indeed I believe there should be more transparency in our world – especially around money and politics. My mum always talked about a politician she liked because he would always publicly publish his expenses list – there is no room for scandal and outrage when there is total transparency.

Jerónimo Mazarrasa shamanism polemics money for ceremony beyond psychedelics prague

Jerónimo with an example of transparency – a magazine that published all its expenses

Transparency doesn’t get to the issue of accessibility though, and if access to the medicine relies on finances, the people who arguably need it the most, won’t be able to get it.

This could be solved if these substances were available as part of a publicly funded service – a national health service. Or simple legalisation would allow people to cultivate and pick their own.

Until legalisation I think we should look to scholarship and sponsorship programs to enable people with low income access. Something like the vipassana model – which is totally donation based and all workers are volunteers – might also be something worth looking at.

View Jeronimo’s talk here

Sacred +
– Vincent Moon

I got excited when I saw Vincent Moon’s name on the lineup for Beyond. Moon is a French filmmaker whose work usually involves musical groups or musicians and was a source of great inspiration and distraction during my time as a media student when I used to devour music documentaries and music videos. As part of the pre-conference event week, I saw his latest film project: Sacred + : a live mixed cross cultural film centred around the sacred, using footage he’s collected of rituals around the world over the last few years. Watching at a cinema in the centre of Prague, I remembered exactly why I was obsessed with his work, and stepping out of the screening felt inspired again for film work. The next day I bumped into him in the queue for wristbands and we got chatting, I told him how his work both helped and hindered me to which he apologised with a smile. And he also gave me his business card – not gonna try to be cool here; Vincent Moon gave me his business card –  that was pretty awesome.

Child Abuse, Trauma, MDMA Therapy and The Future of Medicine
– Ben Sessa

In a brilliant and passionate talk, Sessa gave an outline of the use and efficacy of MDMA as a tool for trauma psychotherapy. 

ben sessa mdma psychotherapy trauma beyond psychedelics prague

In the end, he brought back home the importance of the work and reminded us that these substances can be used to help those desperately in need of it: those that the current system victimizes and treats as scourge who live on the street. They should not be victimised but helped, and psychedelics are some of the most powerful tools we have to do that.

ben sessa mdma therapy psychotherapy trauma beyond psychedelics prague

Psychedelic Philosophy

The talks were split into blocks based on themes and this 90 min block composed of 4 talks was probably my favourite of the whole thing, definitely could’ve been longer.

1. Philosopher of mind Peter Sjöstedt-H spoke on the British inventor and ‘chemical philosopher’ Humphry Davy’s use of nitrous oxide…

“I have often felt very great pleasure when breathing it alone, in darkness and silence, occupied only by ideal existence.”
– Humphry Davy

2. Reanne Crane on favourite psychedelic author Aldous Huxley, using his work to explore how psychedelic integration depends on the narratives with which we frame our experiences – there are events, and then there are the stories we tell ourselves about them. Crane ended by celebrating a relatively unsung Huxley – Laura Huxley – and her work You Are Not The Target: A Practical Manual of How to Cope with a World of Bewildering Change, a ‘classic integration text’, a welcome addition to my to-read list.

3Anna Freudenthaler looking at psychedelic states using Freudian concepts – full written version can be found on her blog here.

4. Johanna Hilla on Carl Jung and how in his Red Book he portrays altered states of consciousness as meaningful and transformative, with a look at the claims arguing that the true intention of Jung was to construct his own religious worldview.

The Art Of Creating Musical Playlists For Psychedelic Work
– Matthew Baldwin

matthew baldwin psychedelic music playlists therapy psilocybin beyond prague presentations

In the attic

Super interesting topic – music can play such a huge role in a psychedelic experience and knowing how to manipulate this variable is huge. OK I’m outta steam and done writing so let’s finish with some slides and pics:

   psychedelic music playlists therapy psilocybin beyond positive qualities prague presentations

psychedelic music playlists therapy psilocybin beyond prague presentations styles

psychedelic music playlists therapy psilocybin beyond prague presentations matthew baldwin

psychedelic music playlists therapy psilocybin beyond prague presentations matthew baldwin

Still here? Here are a few more pictures…

beyond psychedelics prague 2018

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 to a talk on results of clinical research then. I’m naturally pretty sceptical 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 a sweat and do unconscious writing also forced me past discomfort too. I plan to attend more workshops at the next one.

Volunteering

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 organisation 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 on 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 and 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’.

ego

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 learnt 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 behaviour (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 a medicine or a poison. The internet can be used to connect and educate, or to 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-contextualise 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 to 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?

shadow

It’s my belief that these people should be called out 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.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

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.

psykedelisk symposium psychedelic symposium copenhagen

psykedelisk symposium psychedelic symposium copenhagen

On a recent mild weekend in Denmark I went to a psychedelic conference in the country’s coastal capital. Held in a sleek and modern building on the city’s metropolitan university campus, it turned out to be a hugely impressive event. Something that struck me early on was how well organised everything was – I guess a part of me was expecting stoned hippies in tie-dye shirts to be running the thing. Though I’m sure that would’ve been fun in its own way, that was absolutely not the case. It was an excellently organised and professional event put on by the psychedelic society of Denmark: clearly a smart and competent group of individuals that understand the value of these stigmatized substances.

psychedelics conference denmark merchandise stand

The atmosphere around the building and in the main hall was of an almost tangible positivity and you could tell everyone was excited to be there. It was awesome to connect with others who share an interest in psychedelics and being around so many like-minded people made me feel that I’m part of something much bigger. A pretty good feeling.

lsd magic mushrooms mescaline dmt flyers

There were workshops on tripsitting and integration on the Friday and the main conference was held over the weekend with two full days of presentations on subjects ranging from neuroscience to psychotherapy to social ecology.

Serious Work Is Being Done

There was a moment I enjoyed on the second morning when an older lady asked me if I was a scientist. I smiled and said “well, I do conduct experiments.” It turns out I’m not the only one. There are like, actual scientists doing (slightly more rigorous) experiments and clinical trials with these substances and writing papers and PHDs on them. And there are a lot of them.

psychedelic plants presentation

Pharmacologist Jordi Riba

Nearly all of the presentations were done by scientists and researchers from  a diverse range of fields and while the research into how psychedelics can be used to treat mental illness is currently getting the most attention, there is plenty more going on. I enjoyed one talk about how the type of hallucinogen present in a culture might influence its prevailing religious beliefs – especially thought-provoking when we consider today’s most popular drugs. There was another interesting one in which pharmacologist Jordi Riba presented his findings that suggest the alkaloids of the plant source of ayahuasca stimulate adult neurogenesis. I should mention that he did also note that aerobic exercise also does this, so if you fancy growing your brain and aren’t quite up for a massive psychedelic trip in the jungle, you can just go for a run. Slightly less intimidating.

Science Is Leading The Movement

Today science is a door to credibility. Open any statement with ‘well, studies have shown that…’ and you’re guaranteed to have your point considered more seriously. As psychedelics gain more attention its clear that many leaders within the movement know this. They don’t want to see mistakes made in the 60’s made again and are very conscious of public perception. Hence the amount of scientists and academics giving presentations. In a panel debate at the end of the first day, neuroscientist Robin Carhart-Harris used the word ‘hippies’ more than once and its clear that he doesn’t want to be labelled one. He wants the respect that comes with science and he’s not alone in wanting that respect to be extended to psychedelics.

Robin Carhart-Harris psychedelic brain presentation

Robin Carhart-Harris

I do think there should be room for non-science based discussion too though. On looking through the program ahead of the first day I saw a presentation with an intriguing title – ‘Psychedelic Pleasures: An effective understanding of the joys of tripping’. I read it to my friend and he smiled. “That’s more like it. All this science can miss the point.” The talk turned out to be steeped in science and methodology and disappointingly, not very fun at all.

Whilst all the scientific research is important to the wider perception of psychedelics, I think it’s important to remember that technical understanding has its limits. Sure, science has granted us incredible advancements in medicine and technology, but alone it doesn’t have all the answers. Technology has isolated people, globalisation has fragmented communities, and if we look at where all this technical, rational understanding has landed us today we see a world with increasing rates of mental illness in the midst of an ecological crisis. I think we can go a little too heavy on the science at times and there should be room for other types of understanding too.

Small Event In A Big Year

2017 has been a big year for the psychedelic movement with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration designating MDMA as a breakthrough therapy for PTSD in August, and much larger conferences like Psychedelic Science, Breaking Convention, and The International Transpersonal Conference taking place in California, London and Prague. Whilst the gathering in Copenhagen was a modest affair compared to those events, it still gave me a sense of how big the movement is and how fast its growing.

psychedelic presentation meditation

I appreciated the relatively small size as it meant that I had the opportunity to talk with some of those presenting. It was interesting to hear neuroscientist Mendel Kaelen (who you may be familiar with from this VICE article) talk about how he considers ‘hope’ to be a crucial aspect of music in a session, and speaking to Jordi Riba, I found out why I can drink cup after cup of ayahuasca without any real effect (turns out I’m not a beast of resistance, it’s more likely that my body just metabolizes certain enzymes very quickly). Whilst it’s possible to find out almost anything online, nothing replaces those in person connections.

Overall the conference was equal parts enjoyable and eye-opening and the cornerstone of an inspiring week in Copenhagen. I think I might make this an annual trip. See you at the next one.

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If you enjoyed this you might also wanna check out:
7 Remarkable Things I Learned At Psychedelic Science 2017 – by Aaron at Freedom & Fulfilment