Breaking News: Breaking Convention 2015

BC15 banner brown

Breaking Convention (BC) is a biennial international multidisciplinary conference on psychedelic consciousness. (Not to be confused with “Breakin’ Convention”, which is an international festival of hip hop dance theatre at Sadler’s Wells…)

Dealing with “psychedelic consciousness”, this conference has much of interest for any psychonauts of a chaos magickal persuasion; i.e., those who use altered states as one way of exploring trance/magickal awareness, or as a tool for improving the efficacy of reaching gnosis. This includes, but is not limited to, the use of certain plants and other substances to affect awareness.

Nigh on four years ago, I attended the first BC, held at the University of Kent in Canterbury, as I thought I might meet some interesting people and hear some cool talks. I knew only three of the hundreds of people who would be there, and arranged to go with a friend of mine so I wouldn’t feel too alone (and, to share the B&B costs…). Cut to three days later; I had not stopped talking with a vast range of people for the entire time I was there, and I had met some now very dear friends. To take a rest between all the socialising I occasionally escaped into the lecture theatres, and had my mind entertained/ affronted/ expanded by such a range of topics that only an hour spent pouring over the conference program with a magnifying glass could possibly give you a hint of the incredible diversity of subjects and approaches.

I had been unsure of what the atmosphere of a scholarly conference on psychedelic research would be like, but any concerns were set to rest immediately upon entering the main lecture theatre for the inaugural address, to find every person greeted with a smile and a large colourful flower; the hundreds of smiling faces and the fun of deciding what to do with these monsters instantly put us all at our ease (I put mine in my hair). During the conference we heard from activists, artists, practitioners, scientific researchers, archaeologists, magicians, freaks, writers, shamanic types, festival goers, historians, musicians, philosophers… of course many of these categories were far from mutually exclusive.

Flower power changing minds

Flower power, changing minds since the year dot

BC had me in its grip, and I wanted more; at the second one, at Greenwich University in London in 2013, I had the cheek to present a talk myself (“Psychedelics as a Tool for Directing Cognition to Enhance Embodied Awareness of the Kinship of All Life”). The atmosphere was once again buzzing with intellect, amazing tales, meetings with long lost friends I had not realised I knew, sunshine, beautiful words, some, er, Art, and several forays out into the high streets of next-door Greenwich for quality food and coffee. The excitement peaked on the Sunday evening with a last-minute, several hour long performance in the entertainment space by Hawkwind members (Nik Turner’s All Stars, that is), which blew me away. And I’m not even a Hawkwind fan…

The third BC takes place at Greenwich again, in the glorious surroundings of the Old Royal Naval College, in July 2015.

The conference proceedings which are published after each BC, are a veritable cornucopia of important writings about psychedelics, and the potential uses they have in many arenas of human existence. From curative medicines (as we in the westernish cultures would stereotypically imagine a medicine) to tools for appreciating links when analysing vast datasets (as more than one scientist/academic/professional could tell you), via a wide ranging landscape of clinical tests, stories from the jungle, personal accounts of moving events, chemical intricacies of our marvellous organisms, cultural and social uses we have and are discovering anew, all feature.

And whilst all present may not have agreed on many things, they all held high regard and mutual respect for this multi-faceted tangled web of an Indra’s net within which we found ourselves, marvelling at the thousands of universes we share.

I have learned at BC11 and BC13 of psilocybin research, both the subjective and objective accounts of what happens when you put volunteers in an fMRI machine.  I listened enthralled to tales of how psychedelic insights had advanced the contributions of intrepid psychonauts in both their theoretical and practical fields of study, over many decades. I was told of how gut fauna influence our moods, by chemically influencing our neurochemistry. I tried hard to understand some talks which veered off into a vague meandering through what I could not quite count as science, and I got some value out of the effort that took me. I loved one Sunday morning, hours spent hearing of Ayahuasca from so many angles, from an art therapist,  a shaman, enthusiasts, patients. I conversed with dozens of fellow attendees, sprawled outside on the lawns, queued on the stairs to get in, squashed together in the sauna like auditoriums (there was a heatwave, the buildings are all listed so have no AC; plans to ensure more open windows are afoot this time round, if we are blessed with similar weather!).

I perused the stalls of artworks, and books, and helpful leaflets. All in all the scholarly presentations are the core of this event, but without the fleshing out of them with the surrounding culture of a, well actually very much NOT a festival, definitely not; maybe, what one would wish for in an idealised version of a festival, where all are thoughtful, active, kind, and a sense of community grows each time, as we recognise faces and memes from years past.

It has to be said that to my mind the most valuable parts of these presentations often concerned the sensible attention paid to the set and setting of therapeutic usage of psychedelics, whether in a laboratory or shamanic context; unsurprisingly the bare medicine has very different effects compared to the medicine with added inputs, and all the speakers seemed clear about the importance for successful healing to occur of creating narrative around the central experience, as well as the innate physiological efficacy of some substances. Taking mushrooms alone, will not necessarily stop your PTSD overnight… Attending a conference like this does of course showcase the success stories (a much needed balance to the incessant negativity of last century’s media coverage), but it should be considered that like any other drugs, psychedelic substances are neither good not bad in and of themselves; rather it is how we use them, and other factors, which contribute to the outcome of any trip. Even the ubiquitous alcohol can damage lives if misused by susceptible individuals. So, the more we can research, and share our research across disciplinary boundaries, the better for all.

Several panels/ symposia on different topics are scheduled, watch the BC website for more details of these as the date approaches. BC has always sold out in advance, so if you think you need to go, buy your tickets as soon as you can. Tickets are not yet available… keep your eyes open for more breaking news!

I love BC, as you can tell, so I feel it only fair now to say that others may have found its somewhat ad hoc approach towards self-organising structures as the best model a tad unprofessional. It was at times hard to find rooms, the programme was difficult to make sense of, and the talks were not all scintillating (including mine!). To focus on these minor imperfections however would be to miss the point of the event, in all its lively joy at meeting with others who do the same work all over the world.

For chaos magicians, who are by and large people who have a great interest in the theories and practices of how and what consciousness/awareness does in creating our worlds, research into psychedelic consciousness surely forms a pool of knowledge we would be dumb to ignore. Investigating the perturbations of neurochemistry provides one window into the mechanisms of thought, identity, mood regulation, and so much more. Going to BC provides a rich mine of information at the very least, and for many, a greatly enjoyable journey.

BC15 confirmed speakers include:

David Nutt
David Nichols
Robin Carhart-Harris
Rick Doblin
Amanda Feilding
Roland Griffiths
Daniel Pinchbeck
James Fadiman (Skype)
Stan Grof (Skype)

[Source: personal communication with BC committee.]

There will be in excess of 130 speakers over the three days of the conference. While some speakers are invited, a second tier of presenters are invited to submit their abstract asap, deadline 28th March.

“Abstracts must be pertinent to the overall theme of the conference: the mechanisms, uses and implications of altered states of consciousness, particularly those occasioned by psychedelic compounds and practices.”

Breaking Convention has achieved registered charity status, as of earlier this year. Congratulations to all those behind the scenes, who continue to work so hard between the biennial eruptions of the visible fruiting body!

As a charity, to keep costs low and increase the strong sense of camaraderie, the conference requires a few dozen highly motivated volunteers to help organise and inform the delegates. If you are interested in being part of this dynamic crew please apply online now.

To apply for either of these opportunities, see the relevant section on this webpage:

You will also find there forms for those wishing to submit: visual art, music, film, workshops, performance or installation art. The cultural aspects of psychedelic consciousness both inform and complement the more purely research aspects.

In a time when near daily media reports emerge of favourable ways to apply psychedelic consciousness, and the issue of drug legislation commands considerable attention, BC15 looks set to include some lively discussions, and ground breaking presentations by the world’s top researchers, practitioners, and thinkers. Be there, or…


(NB Talks should all/mostly be filmed, and will be put online subsequent to the event.)

Magical Words – a review of Visions of Enchantment and The Occult Conference

The Esoteric (which is a polite way of saying ‘the occult’ or ‘magick’) is now a subject which Academia is prepared to address. Sure it’s many years since ethnographic works such as Persuasions of the Witches Craft, but it’s taken a long time for the cultural influence of magick to be acknowledged by polite society. The excellent academic conference in Cambridge recently, Visions of Enchantment marks the latest step-change in the ability of scholars to successfuly engage with occultism. At this conference papers ranged widely around the relationship between mysticism, magick and the visual arts. There were presentations exploring the role of Theosophical artists in anti-colonial politics, occult symbolism in the work of Lady Gaga, through to a close analysis of gender symbolism in medieval alchemical illustrations. A heady brew indeed, and while a very few ingredients were a little tricky to chew on (especially to deligates who were magical practitioners) the overall blend was nourishing and delightful.

Know thyself

Know thyself

This was explicitly not a conference for practitioners of magic and so the insights gained through academic study sometimes seemed to go little further than the stuff that we all (ie the tiny number of occultists in the western world) know. However there was plenty of occulture here, and much penetrating analysis, which I’d never encountered before. My overall impression was a very valuable and entertaining event. Topped off with some excellent touches, such as the lecture by Prof. Antoine Faivre  (one of the founding fathers of modern esoteric studies), through to the fabulous dinner after the first day in the Great Hall of Hogwarts.

Visions of Enchantment was also the launch pad for the Black Mirror Research Network which looks set to do some great things in years to come, bringing a world-class academic discourse to bear on esoteric arts. I’m also hopeful, especially since Black Mirror research will be published through Fulgar Press, that space will remain for the practitioner voice in this new-found relationship with the Academy.

By the weekend Nikki and I were at The Occult Conference in Glastonbury. An excellent chance to meet magical siblings of all stripes; Druids, Hermeticists, Oriental Templars, Wiccans and the rest. Well managed and prepared, the venue was full,  for a day which included lectures, workshops, the formal launch of The Epoch, an evening ball and, of course, a raffle.

Organ bank

Organ bank

As part of the total experience we were fortunate enough to stay at The Covenstead which is, in so many ways, the most wonderful place from which to soak up the magic of an event like this. I seriously cannot recommend it highly enough. Imagine somewhere that is both homely and utterly impressive, a kind of total esoteric environment turned up to 11, hosted by a charming and formidably intelligent landlady. Perfect!

What did I learn? Well once again I learnt that it’s the people not the style of magick that matters. Some are fabulous, many are fine, a few are right twats. But by and large, successful magicians tend to be relaxed, intelligent, compassionate, take-no-shit sort of people and that’s all right with me.

A very fine week of watching the connections between things grow, as spring spreads into the land. May all these new shoots grow strong and true.