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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 of 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

personality tripsitting workshop

During my recent visit to Copenhagen I attended a tripsitting workshop as part of a psychedelic conference. I’d never been to anything like this before so I was pretty curious to see what it would be like. And no, we didn’t look after or watch people tripping their nuts off, but it was pretty cool nonetheless. Here’s an overview.

tripsitting workshop copenhagen

The workshop was given in a seminar room at a building of Copenhagen’s Metropolitan University College – fittingly, a university of applied sciences. The workshop was full and there were 40 of us there, a mix of men and women from their 20s to their 60s. From appearances you’d never guess that this was a group of psychedelic enthusiasts.

I ended up sat next to the only other Brit in the room, who turned out to be Rosalind Watts – a clinical psychologist who’s part of the research team at Imperial College London and who worked on their groundbreaking psilocybin for depression study – she was also giving a presentation at the conference the next day. It’s good to know that those involved with research are topping up their knowledge and still seeking development – especially as it seems that the progress of the psychedelic movement will depend largely on the results of clinical trials in research settings.

wide tripsitting workshop

Being in an atmosphere of like-minded people was great – the room was full of people who have an understanding of the potential of psychedelics and want to learn more. As it’s still a fringe movement I don’t often get these real-life interactions where I can freely talk about this kinda stuff so having that sense of community was the perfect backdrop for the workshop.

The workshop was led by Marc Aixalà, a Spanish engineer and psychologist who works as an integrative psychotherapist. Amongst his experience with psychedelics Marc has worked as a coordinator for Kosmicare – a company that provides emergency attention to people going through difficult drug-related experiences at large festivals. Throughout the workshop Marc told us some stories from his work to illustrate points and it was pretty clear that he has considerable experience in this area. I could totally see why he was asked to lead it.

Marc Aixalà psychedelic science

Marc also presented at Psychedelic Science this year

The workshop was basically a presentation and while more interaction might’ve been good, a lot of ground was covered. To give you an idea, topics covered included: the effects of different psychedelic substances and the challenges of a sitter unique to each one; the differences between sitting roles- shaman, sitter, facilitator, guide and therapist; how to screen people for a psychedelic session and how to prepare for it; and how personality can affect reaction to the experience. And loads more, it was packed with useful information.

The small group size allowed for interaction amongst us and for Marc to stop for questions when people had them. Though there was definitely a level of professionalism from Marc and most attendees were clearly there to learn, the atmosphere was relaxed and there was room for some laughter.

personality tripsitting workshop

It was the first time Marc had given this particular workshop and he’d prepared too much material to fit in to the allotted 4 hours so we ran over by about 40 minutes. I was actually really happy about this as I was learning a lot and had nowhere else to be that afternoon.

Overall it was excellent. It surpassed any expectations I had and I found the whole thing to be very mentally stimulating. It even answered a few questions I didn’t know I had. To finish, I’d like to share a few things that came through from the workshop.

1. Healing Happens Through Intensification

crying emotion

Psychedelics can facilitate healing by intensifying the emotions around whatever difficult issue is being – consciously or subconsciously – avoided. This intensification allows difficult and repressed emotions to be fully experienced and expressed, and in doing so to reach their natural conclusion. This can be understood in the processes by which psychological healing occurs – projection, transference, abreaction, and catharsis. In the context of a therapeutic trip, this means that someone experiencing difficult emotions or sensations should be encouraged to surrender to them, rather than resisting them.

2. People Heal Themselves

Noone can have an experience for anyone else. This is true of healing or perspective shifting experiences too. Each person must go through the process ultimately on their own and reach their own understanding, acceptance and resolution of any troubling issue. As such, a sitting role will usually be passive and supportive. Marc used a nice analogy for this: if you have a cut on your arm, you don’t actively go about healing it. You clean the wound, patch it up, and then allow the healing to take place. Likewise, a sitter’s job is to set and maintain the conditions conducive to the healing process – a safe environment that allows someone to heal themself.

3. Clearly Defined Boundaries Are Helpful

restricted area rules

It is helpful to clearly define the ‘rules of the game’ ahead of a session: the level and type of interaction between the tripper and the sitter, who controls the choice and level of the music, what activities, if any, will be undertaken. Setting these boundaries in advance will encourage feelings of security and reassurance and help to create an emotionally safe space for the session.

4. The Approach Is More Important Than The Actions

A calm, centred, supportive approach is more important than what any guide or sitter can say or do. It’s not enough to remember certain actions or follow a set routine, care giving and support goes beyond this – effective sitting requires intuition, compassion and a level of self-awareness.

5. Qualities That Make A Good Sitter Aren’t Quantifiable

Trip-sitting isn’t a science – it’s a combination of an art and a science. Whilst a level of knowledge can be very helpful in some regards, the character and motivations of a sitter are more important. Marc made this point in a panel debate at the conference, explaining that he would much rather have a caring and honest carpenter looking after him than a fully-qualified psychologist who lacks these qualities.

good attributes tripsitter

This poses a predicament for the psychedelic movement. If we see these substances legalised for health care and therapy, there will be questions over who can, should, or is qualified to administer these substances and oversee sessions. Some professionals in the field have already stated their belief that psychedelics sessions should only be overseen by qualified medical professionals.

But if the most important qualities are unmeasurable, it would be very hard for any regulatory body to award suitable qualifications or grant licenses to administer psychedelics. In a society and culture that doesn’t like to believe in anything that it can’t touch, weigh, measure or quantify – this will be a tricky issue. This is something that should be considered moving forward.

Brain Scan Qualifications?

Final, crazy idea. Could licenses be awarded based on brain scans? There have been studies on monks using fMRI and EEG technology that show links between brain activity and these, as yet, unmeasurable qualities.

fMRI brain scan machine

A qualification could be awarded based on the level of activity in your brain’s left pre-frontal cortex compared to the right – a high level means you have a reduced propensity to negativity. Or perhaps a ‘test’ could be that you are wired up and asked to meditate on compassion. Your level of gamma waves – linked to consciousness and attention – would determine your ‘score’. I expect monks would mostly be coming out with the top qualifications, but who wouldn’t want a wise buddhist sage as their psychedelic guide? I certainly wouldn’t mind.

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If you enjoyed this you might also wanna check out:
6 Steps For Helping A Friend Through A Bad Psychedelic Trip – Zendo Project
What It Really Means To Hold Space – Uplift Connect
What it means to “hold space” for people, plus eight tips on how to do it well
The Sweetness Of Holding Space For Another