Breaking Convention 2017

I saw the best minds of three or four generations, pepped up on neuroscience, pleasured by rigorous academic research - smiling, heretical, well-dressed - strolling the greens of Greenwich at noon, with a fair idea of what next to do.

Rocked up bright and early on Friday morn, saw Doctor Ben Sessa standing by the door and decided to shake his hand, wanted to thank him for his part in what I knew would be an excellent event - he was friendly but not without frown, I observed the punctuation of this facial question mark during a moment of farewell quiet wherein the tall grey-haired fellow beside us spoke softly, as if for his own benefit, “something for everyone”.

I had just encountered the schism, do you know it? I have since been informed there is a very (very) civil war going on, over on this here side of The War On (Some) Drugs (And Some Of The People Who Use Them). I hadn’t realised but basically Doctor Sessa is a psychedelic roundhead, and by virtue of my long hair and weird t-shirts I seem to have been cast as something of a psychedelic cavalier. My appearance marks me out as a regressive force in relation to the project to bring psychedelic medicine to the modern world-masses, this is due to the statistical probability that beneath my curly locks lurks a plethora of socially unacceptable wooly (mammoth) thoughts. (I do hereby admit that in my own personal ice age there exists a sacred dancing sprite who likes to call herself the eye sage, but I have previously considered this to be somewhat besides the point.)

Ben is (among those) working hard to change the world to deliver the best medicine he knows to those who need it most, yet every time he goes to a festival to talk about this he is hassled by furry freak brothers who want him to know he will be the death of everything that really matters: here is the man who will put the rainbow reigns of the supracognitive horse in the hands of The Man, thus ushering in the final win for our Fearful New World - henceforth the complete psychedelic experience (TM) will only be available to sick and twisted rich people, being dispensed by indoctrinated doctors of dullness in MICRODOSES ONLY to poor old population-at-large, merely to act as lubricant for the wheels of the world machine. I would love to be able to discount such paranoia outright, but then I hear stuff like: “What psychedelics need is a really good PR campaign” (cue Bill Hicks sucking the devil’s cock in my ear) = I am now a wrinkled old wrong’un, on the vidphone to the advertising standards agency for the fifth time this week: “No YOU don’t get it! I used to pick them in the fields, fresh-licked nipples of Gaia, they were MY FRIENDS! They mean the absolute opposite of this latest bus-side travesty! These all-in-white smiling machine people with massive pupils and slimy hair - and that slogan: PSILON - DISSOLVE THE PROBLEM OF YOU - BECOME THE CITY !? It just won’t do I tell you!”

I watched Ben chatting with fellow psychiatrist Julie Holland on Sunday afternoon - it was highly entertaining stuff! For me the most pertinent discussion was around whether or not the medicalisation movement need appeal to Big Pharma - Julie was quite firm in sticking to her principle that what might be particularly radical about these treatments, perhaps even compounding and helping to ground their positive effects, was that in many cases people could be empowered to grow their own drugs at home. Herein lies something of the crux as I see it: if we seek to medicalise psychedelics by fitting them snug into the system as it currently stands, we run the risk of reinforcing wider contexts of civilised pathology. However: growing your own is all well and good in terms of plants and fungi, but knocking up your own supply of MDMA is quite another matter. Which seems to leave us with the hope that organisations like MAPS will manage to set up their own pharmaceutical companies. Or else we just pray that psychedelic medicine as a socio-cultural force is something of a Trojan Horse, and that ultimately it doesn’t matter how or by whom it is “taken inside” (if only).

Watching Erik Davis talk about the importance of weird stuff I got to thinking about psychedelic taboo - that even if our culture suddenly or gradually decided it was an acceptable thing to take these drugs (or medicines or sacraments or friends or things) there are certain properties of the experience itself, certain limits (taboos!) that seem to emerge directly from the phenomenology of the applied pharmacology itself. Certain doors are ultimately ones we open in ourselves in order to experience normally suppressed perspectives - they require certain “rites” (or wrongs) to be performed that might prevent us from taking control to the extent that we can consider these things total tools. We might only wield psychedelics instrumentally in a way that correspondingly restricts that of which they will always remain capable (confounding expectations / meta-structural dissolution/transcendence / endless tricks (for instance)). Thus the process of really incorporating psychedelics into social structures might be the process of learning to hold open spaces for stuff to do what it needs to (practical anarchy?) and this seems to be reinforced every time we try to tell them what they are, or are otherwise too controlling (whether we know it or not, we show and are shown this). In other words psychedelics seem to have their own innate forms of resistance to too much “humanness” - their own taboos - this deep well of weirdness / infinite wellness of wyrd.

What I’m trying to get at is that, while psychedelics might NOT be intrinsically transformative in any particular direction, and however they might end up medicalised or literalised or monetised or scientifically accommodated or socially incorporated or otherwise culturally accepted, it will always mean SOMETHING ELSE to explore their bio-anarchic twisted-enchanted eco-delic hive-mind-hearts. They will continue to open onto this weird, magical, between-beyond core of more-than-human experience so long as there are those who are strange enough to need to go there, and so whatever their “world-status” nothing essential changes in terms of what it can mean to have one-on-one or countless-on-countless relations with these unutterable uncontainabubbles which manifest as plants and mushrooms and other alchemystries: the age old wonder wander still strolls along, oblivious yet eternally engaged.

One of the questions at the end of Dennis McKenna’s talk on the “experiment” at La Chorrera concerned reports that his brother Terence had stopped taking high doses of mushrooms after they “turned on him” in the late 80s, leaving him quite severely shaken by a stark nihilism, and this being a “bad trip” he never went fully public with. It was suggested that perhaps Terence didn’t know how best to broach the subject because he was split between just being himself and having to consider his public persona - his role as an actor in the world drug war drama. Fundamentally I think it’s great that Dennis made this story part of psychedelic history because it leads to a more balanced (and complicated) picture: not taking (or taking a break from taking) psychedelics is sometimes as important as taking them. So Dennis is still questioning exactly what happened in the jungle all those years ago (“Don’t go there!”) and also the degree to which the experience may have entailed (what we currently consider) “madness” - importantly however, he does so without ever calling into question the immense value of the experience itself, which thus complicates our definitions of madness, and pushes us to acknowledge the value of irreducible, inconclusive, ultimately transgressive experiences. For some reason just now I’m recalling a brief chat I had with Mike Jay (who gave a great talk on the history of mescaline) where he posed an interesting question: how often is what we’re saying about drugs really just about drugs? Are drugs even about drugs? How often could we consider them a metaphor for some other thing or process?

^Julian Vayne bringing The Psychedelic Museum to (even more) life^

Now I’m flitting back to Thursday eve, before the whole thing began, wandering around Greenwich, finding myself drawn to the Park, gravitating towards the centre of time - but no - I don’t want to follow the obvious path - so I let myself be pulled to one side, I drift to a peak beside the main, follow a dirt track up steep beneath a hornbeam tree, see Saint John’s Wort and Ragwort all around, no other people. I look out over the city, and in the tree before me a parrot sings - maybe it’s not accurate to call it song but certainly it’s saying something - something that seems to involve the nearby blackbird. I think about the urban myth that these London parrots spread from a breeding pair released by Jimi Hendrix. So here is the great great grandchild of a bird who once sat on the shoulder of a legendary psychedelic pirate, sat at the top of this tree going, “Are you experienced? Are you experienced? Are you experienced?”

High Speech - not just the stuff you say when you’re high but words that make the soul soar - Eric Maddern brought us this via the tale of Taliesin, the prophecy of Merlin and more. There is something profoundly moving in how long these stories, in one form or another, have been told - in how vividly Eric brings them to life and how deeply he embodies the language - I would go so far as to say that if you’re not “animystically” inclined Eric is probably the closest you will come to watching a tree or a stone talk! I’ve rarely laughed so hard as the night I saw him, full of little elves, telling the tale of Culhwch and Olwen around a fire in the Roundhouse at Cae Mabon - this ancient story was just so fucking funny on so many levels, from the absurd yet eminently sensible plot to the eye-glinting embellishments upon embellishments, to the fact that we were all so-called “modern people” rolling around on the floor of a reanimated roundhouse, enjoying some of the same kind of fun that most likely entertained our ancestors, and all this in a self-evident yet somehow unbelievable new context. Eric also ran a workshop on High Speech, wherein he reframed a South American creation myth to take us on a journey that became our own act of creation.

High on the hearing hill
among the little yellow suns
a parrot is saying something green
to the blackbird in me.

And then there was John Crow - a piece of pure living theatre such that there is no longer any role to be played, a many-faced meat-worm writhing in eternity, a human locus where the place itself comes to chat for a while, telling stories in rhyme and wrapping rhythms in meaning. It was so great to hear the drum start up and the word-magic happen - John’s language being both fresh and archaic, with the ring of carrying on the tradition of some half-wild English-theatre-thing, unpretentious yet deeply profound, immediately transportive - it is great, great poetry completely unbound by fashion or time and all the more fresh for it, living in ways words want to.

^John Constable/Crow outside Crossbones Graveyard^

I spoke for myself as well, on the subject of psychedelic metaphor. Metaphor theory is a very active and interdisciplinary area, and so I worked very hard on presenting my poetic insights in a well-researched way - but on the Friday night I found myself struggling to articulate in snappy soundbites exactly what I was hoping to say, and was assailed by doubt - but I returned to the core of myself, who had known, when alone, that these words were worthwhile, and I trusted this and resisted the urge to revise myself into oblivion. And I was glad I did! Perhaps the greatest compliment I received (apart from seeing a whole bunch of grins whenever I chanced a fool glance) was from someone who had written me off and was not expecting to learn much: I don’t have any particular achievements to my name by which I can reassure anyone I might be worth listening to, my qualifications pretty much consist of writing poetry in response to my own psychedelic experiences for the past 18 years - so quite rightly this person was a little suspicious of me - but they came at the end of the day to say that even though they’d been working with this stuff for 10 years I had managed to give them new things to think about. This was exactly what I had hoped: that if I was diligent enough in engaging with academic and scientific perspectives, but remained rooted in what I knew (poetics and the phenomenology of my own experiences) I could communicate insight beyond the bounds of my own peculiar perspectives. There are bad academics just like there are bad poets, but at the end of the day it’s not the mere fact of having either a poetic or academic (or any other) approach that confers value (or not) upon our contributions - Breaking Convention displays this on all fronts in fine style.

Robert Dickins of Psypress followed with a fascinating talk on Harry Fainlight - Harry is not such a well-known poet and it’s quite hard to find his stuff online, but the little of his work I have managed to sample so far is astonishingly pure and distinctive. Fainlight is perhaps best known for having something of a meltdown on stage at the International Poetry Incarnation (at the Albert Hall in 1965, where 7000 people turned up to watch a bunch of poets read) I like to imagine that if the same event happened now-a-days Fainlight would be supported to pass through his gnarly-jawed rambling speed-jitters and manage to perform in its entirety his epic bad trip poem The Spider, without anyone getting so uncomfortable they end up shouting “LOVE LOVE LOVE” all over his face. As well as covering the wider context of Fainlight’s life and work, Rob delved right into this centrally traumatic event, and in the process painted a wonderful picture of a sensitive poet and an amazingly shambolic evening. After Fainlight gave up trying to read The Spider he asked to try one more poem and eventually succeeded in doing so - whereupon we get treated to an incredibly beautiful piece of modern romanticism wherein a lark sings while an aeroplane takes off - a rich and many-voiced image. Fainlight is an amazing poet and it was heartening to see him lifted from the dustbin of history by a caring and enthusiastic modern poet-scholar.

There was also plenty of stuff on William Blake and Romantic poetry more generally, which I was pleased to see as it seems to me the psychedelic movement is essentially a Romantic one, even as it moves into something of its “rational enlightenment phase” (to accept the diagnosis of Psychedelic Romanticism we might need to understand what Romanticism means in more than merely a reactive sense - Goethe is good for this as he managed to be something of an effective scientist as well). It’s also illustrative to look into the history more generally, for instance Enlightenment Rationalism as countered by Romanticism, in turn countered by Realism, until along comes Symbolism to tip the scales back towards the imagination before unfortunately dissolving into Decadence, while psychoanalysis emerges into the irrational eruptions of Dadaism and Surrealism, and all this kind of paving the way, along with Western Occultism, for the beats and the East and ultimately the psychedelic explosion itself. Although in final analysis it’s way more complicated than this quite reductive narrative there does seem to be something of a cultural dialectic in which “totalitarian rationality” is played off against the “anarchic imagination”. I tend to think that now we’ve swung back and forth enough times we’re at a point of continual synthesis, a slightly bewildering place where the pendulum-like process has sped up so much that we have a vibrating field of potential perspectives that might enable us to be more balanced in our approaches, which seems to me the true promise of our much maligned “post-modernism”.

Breaking Convention is so fool spectrum we can basically take in the entire crazy interdisciplinary body of potential psychedelic meanings in one energetically contained yet theoretically sprawling happening that ain’t so hip you can’t hug it (I’m thinking of the mad Doctor David Luke and how he’s so psychedeliciously solid yet squishy) and yet in talking about inclusivity I need to say that of course we’re far from there yet, but that it’s reassuring to notice at least a gradual trend towards an increasing diversification of psychedelic voices, and to see that Breaking Convention is being proactive in this area - of course more can be done, and even with the risk of apparent tokenism change has to start from somewhere. It was also nice to notice numerous instances of questions being actively sought from non-obviously-male non-obviously-white people, and of course among other things there was an entire track devoted to diversity in psychedelia (which I missed due to it being on at the same time as the literature track, but I’m catching up on youtube).

I also very much enjoyed skrying the future with Nikki Wyrd - looking into the here and now, where we are and what’s around us, who we are and who we’re with, wondering all the possible futures this might mean, and then working on making the more desirable ones that bit more likely. You can see this in eminently practical terms regarding policy reform and the like, but you can also get more far out about it. Nikki talked about psychedelics as being an immersive technology, and by extension she explored some of the possibilities of other immersive technologies - such as Virtual or Augmented Reality (I was sorry to miss Carl H Smith, Batuhan BintaƟ & friends doing their stuff on this subject - I’ve long been hesitant to fully engage with such projects due to a concern that they might take us away from more pressing issues, but I’m starting to realise this need not be the case). I personally related to the possibilities of immersive technologies by remembering a day spent training to be a healthcare assistant in a dementia care home, where I spent a few hours being pushed around in a wheelchair with ear muffs on and vaseline smeared all over my glasses - admittedly this was a pretty lo-tech approach but it served to teach me something I wouldn’t have incorporated nearly so fully from theory alone. The ability to “try different perspectives on for size” could be a very effective tool for social change, while beyond this are such a wide variety of applications that perhaps imagination is the only limit. Saying this I remain a little cynical or suspicious of such tech where it might be seen to bypass or neglect more embedded facilities. As an example Nikki later mentioned having an awareness, when looking out into the crowd she was talking to, of the human organism, of the many ways this trans-individualistic body-mind interconnects and brings itself together, and takes itself apart, and reconfigures in new arrangements to spread effective ideas throughout the wider human presence. The point I want to make is that this could be the kind of vision we might desire to simulate or reinforce technologically (hello social media) or stimulate creatively (films like Baraka for instance) but that I feel the plants (for instance) remind us that the ecologically embodied context of certain “technologies” contributes something that goes beyond their more immediate physio-psychic effects. Although in stating that “I don’t believe we have understood the full potentiality of what ecology might mean” I also don’t wish to write off the ways in which advances in human technology might help us explore this and collaborate with it in super-fruitful ways, this process being perhaps one of the most important parts of what being a modern human might mean.

To close I want to ponder the neuroscientist Robin Carhart-Harris’ pronouncement that “psychedelics are not magic” which is interesting to me in terms of highlighting a tension between poetic insight and scientific fact. To say that “psychedelics are not magic” is basically to say (as I interpret it) that everything they might possibly accomplish could be rendered in mundane or at least materialistic terms. On one level we might consider this “something that remains to be seen” - and seeing how science might constantly revise just what it means by matter and its potential properties we might think that there’s no problem here: materialistic definitions will simply increasingly accommodate previously “magical” phenomena. On another level it’s tempting to ponder the extent to which such a statement might actively exclude the possibility of making certain discoveries, as well as confronting the underlying feeling that such a belief contributes to “disenchanting the world,” which might then be seen as having a range of unfortunate consequences (maybe there’s an interesting argument about disenchantment versus superstition to be had here). Most concretely I feel that we’re pretty much seeing the aforementioned “schism” at work again - there is a perceived need for psychedelic science to distance itself as much as possible from what is seen as a culture of woo, perhaps in part because such science is currently in the very early stages of trying again, and it wants to remain impeccably respectable according to dominant socio-cultural standards - perhaps this is fair enough, but I feel justified in trying to challenge such an attitude where it might become dismissive of a broader appreciation of the phenomena themselves (or anything really) as well as wanting to acknowledge that pure woo is pure poo.

So if we accept that everything we experience is being mediated by our bodies, thus perhaps ultimately passing through our brains, does this necessarily lead to the idea that we might then be able to construct a neurobiological model of consciousness? Well… yes! If we’re talking about models, why not? But then why are we so down on the “magic”? Why can’t we handle some mystery? How does having a model for something eliminate the possibility of the-(no)thing-itself being greater (ultimately OTHER) than that which we have constructed to represent it? Models are ways to get to grips with, work with, certain facets or aspects of wider-broader-deeper stuff, no? (Magic says yes!) So it’s pretty illustrative that, in seeking to model consciousness, neuroscience begins to struggle with a tendency towards philosophy (see Robin’s tentative proposal that in the neurobiology of the psychedelic experience unitive states might play a role of primary significance (which might or might not (depending on the degree to which it is assumed) obscure some potentially interesting explorations of other (asymmetrical) relationships/interactions within the unholy trinity of space, time and sense of self)) in other words neuroscience needs to reach outside itself to begin to really uncover what it might mean, and where it might go - and this precisely recapitulates the way in which mind is irreducible to brain.

Odd is alive / Magic is afoot.

Anyway I love this notion of neural criticality, the potentially poetic idea that the brain maintains ordinary conscious awareness as something of a poise between (informational) entropy and order, and that the psychedelic experience might constitute something of a “progressive regression” in tipping the scales back towards entropy thus permitting a more dynamic/open brain-state - and then there’s the related idea that we might somehow be able to “quantify consciousness” by measuring this. Such a notion gets even more interesting when we begin to consider how performing such a balancing act might be part of all life as well as a feature of things we don’t normally think of as alive (for sure it is more than a brain-state) - all existence could be seen to walk this tightrope! So that if we did develop such a “measure of consciousness” it could be pretty magical. Sure we might consider ourselves more conscious than a classically brainless organism like a tree if we’re focused on the brain and what a dynamic and sensitive organ it is - but equally we could use different perspectives on the same methodologies to play with these definitions: what of the processes we are embedded within? We might end up shaking up the value systems of modern humanimal beings and redefining the role of the brain in what it means to be conscious: rethinking what the brain is, or might represent, and how the notion of consciousness itself might belong in a much wider (wilder!) field.

It’s almost indescribably great to be among such high quality folk. I’m not generally a massive fan of socialisation - fundamentally I really love people but I can get sick to death of what we currently call civilisation - thus Breaking Convention is literally medicinal for me, and I reckon this must be true for most of you. It’s rare to find social events where I can calm down so easily, just by looking around and not really feeling any pressure to be something I’m not or act other than how I feel at the time - and to have this not coming from any kind of cultural homogeneity - by which I mean to say it’s not from any “tribal sense of belonging” that I derive comfort from being among you lot, but because of the attitude, our openness. As science has shown: openness is a trait that is positively correlated with psychedelic experience (more so than specific haircuts even) and so I want to state that this increase in the overall level of psychological openness is palpable at such events, and that feeling this in a social context (and at that: without everyone having to necessarily be on drugs at the time) - this has got to be one of the greatest endorsements for putting ourselves through the cosmic wringer there is!

Well despite rambling on so long I’ve still barely scratched the surface of even one man’s experience of this massively important and extremely satisfying event - there are literally loads of people I haven’t managed to big up, and numerous people I didn’t get to see talk or even say hello to - so I’ll sum up just by basking in some vast and nameless love - it feels so good to be making friends and making history, in being part of what gives us hope for the future, even on a planetary scale.

Thanks so much!

(p.s - I was well chuffed to arrive home & find myself mentioned among the highlights in a review on the excellent blog DREAMFLESH, which I have long been a fan of. Read it here: )))


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