‘Current States of Minds,’ Altered Conference: Exploring Psychedelics and Altered States of Consciousness, Berlin 3-4 November 2017.

As a day long event with six speakers and around fifty guests at a bookshop in Neukölln last October, Altered bloomed into a fully fledged conference this year with 35 talks, workshops and rituals running over November 3-4. Around 400 attendees from around Europe and the world took over the Essentis Bio Hotel in the outer suburbs of Berlin, following on to a psychedelic cumbia afterparty in a Kreuzberg club.

Of late, there has been some discussion about a shift towards the mainstream acceptance of psychedelic substances and a renewed interest in psychedelic research. Organisations such as the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) since 1986 have been developing studies and contexts for the use of psychedelics and marijuana for the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and are campaigning for the revival of clinical trials. Elsewhere, festivals such as Boom (Portugal) and Burning Man (US) have been a catalyst for recreational experimentation with mind altering substances. More recently a Silicon Valley phenomena of microdosing psychedelics for general wellbeing has be taken up by tech and creative communities around the world.

In recent years a number of conferences have reflected this ‘Psychedelic Renaissance,’ such as Psychedelic Science (US), Breaking Convention (UK) and Entheo-Science (DE) yet according to Altered founder, Dax DeFranco, these gatherings tend to focus on institutional and clinical research. As a conference organised by those in the psychedelic community, Altered proposed to cater for a broader range of interests, with an emphasis on experience over academia. DeFranco has described the conference as a ‘psychedelic incubator’ drawing on what his conference co-organiser Amit Elan described as an eclectic mix of ‘witchy occultists, psychedelic academics, researchy laboratory chemists, or the queer shamanic scene, festival peeps, techies, clubbers’ (cited in Centauri 2017). The conference brought together scholars of the sciences and humanities alongside researchers in less orthodox fields of knowledge, such as astrology, traditional healing, witchcraft and ritual.

Opening ritual. Photo: Joana Dias

Presenters addressed the theme for this year’s conference, ‘Altered States, Crisis And Opportunity,’ as personal trauma and as wider political and ecological crises, with some discussion on how these are effectively entwined. Thus, if crises present opportunities for growth and change, psychedelics can play a role in healing and also altering our minds from the way they have been set according to overarching power structures and social conditioning.

The conference opened with a playful and disarming ritual, which set the mood for what followed. Elan’s opening address involved him confronting his fear of public speaking by delivering a spontaneous performance of ‘improvised gibberish,’ demonstrating how ‘our anxieties are also our teachers.’ The ceremony, conducted by conference presenters Julian Vayne, Nikki Wyrd and Moss Beynon Juckes seemed to poke fun at stereotypical characterisations of psychedelic users, such as the aging hippie wizard, neopagan witch and festival munter, to which we could also add the urban shaman and the microdosing freelancer. It’s not that that attendees would reject these identities, rather there was a self-effacing humour with which those whom had ‘come out of the pyschedelic closet’ acknowledged decades of stigmatisation and ridicule. Appropriately, this first ritual, involved coaxing bleary-eyed conference-goers to feel at ease, move around, meet each other and express themselves before tying a ribbon representing their intentions to the branches of a potted tree. We were then invited to partake in some sacred plant medicine — chocolate.

Opening ritual. Photo: Joana Dias

The session that immediately followed the opening featured Ciara Sherlock, founder of the Psychedelic Society, Ireland, and Stefana Bosse who is the ‘Head of Experience’ at the Psychedelic Society, UK, and who both co-facilitate Psychedelic Experience Weekends in the Netherlands. Set in a secluded and comfortable retreat, these weekends appeal to those who have little or no experience with such substances to experiment with locally sourced psilocybin mushrooms. ‘Tripping on truffles!,’ Bosse exclaimed. With backgrounds in therapy, Sherlock and Bosse’s presentation focused on harm reduction and introduced the concepts of ‘set, setting and substance,’ which many other presenters would also address. To summarise: ‘set’ refers to the mindset and intention of the person undertaking the psychedelic experience and ‘setting’ is the situation, the social and physical environmental, in which the ‘substance’ is taken. Drawing attention to the ‘elephant in the room,’ ie the bad trip, Sherlock and Bosse suggested that if all other conditions were favourable, a heavy dosage might have more beneficial psychological effects than a tentative and ultimately ineffective hit. As with several other speakers, Sherlock and Bosse emphasised the importance of integration or as Nikki Wyrd later put it, ‘settling,’ by which knowledge gained from tripping can be integrated back into daily life.

Ciara Sherlock and Stefana Bosse. Photo: Sangmin Lee

This notion was also picked up on in the following presentation by anthropologist and electronic musician, Giorgia Gaia, who encouraged her audience to ‘follow their own weird’ as she outlined her recent research about psy-paranormal experiences. Working with people who take the DMT based mixture Changa and Ketamine (‘Special K’), Gaia claimed that these substances can realtively easily produce paranormal effects, such as telepathy, encounters with other entities and interdimensional healing. Gaia’s interests led her to consider ‘break through experiences’ in which psychonauts claim to enter into another dimension where they often learn something about their psychological condition and, unconventional as it may seem to modern science, are able to heal their afflictions—a technique she described as ‘hacking the matrix.’

Giorgia Gaia Photo: Sangmin Lee

I connected this line of enquiry to the opening the session on day two by psychologist, Dharma teacher, therapist and activist Galia Tanay who questioned if clinical trials were actually an appropriate cultural context for using psychedelics for healing purposes. As a mindfulness practitioner working alongside Buddhist adepts, Tanay pointed out that knowledge systems that made use of altered states had been practiced and refined over thousands of years. She described conversations with researchers working in clinical trials who revealed that certain techniques such as chanting and singing, were indeed being used in such sessions, but ‘off the record’ because they did not conform with scientific methodologies. Her remarks raised pertinent questions about the ways in which Western science simultaneously adopts and marginalises other knowledge systems and thus perpetuates colonial practices.

Speakers such as Roslaind Stone and Réka Komáromi also spoke to issues of colonialism and race, specifically with regards to the ‘war on drugs.’ Presenting her research on Rastafarianism in Jamaica, ethnobotanist Komáromi, argued that the outlawing of plant medicines had the effect of criminalising traditional practitioners who were most often Black or People of Colour. Komáromi contextualised her talk by discussing the current use of cannabis in the West as a predominantly illegal but widely accepted drug undergoing commercialisation, which she juxtaposed with Rastafarians who approach the plant as a deity. This observation echoed with similar accounts relayed by veteran ethnobiologist, filmmaker and psychonaut, Robert ‘Rio’ Hahn recalling his long history working in the Amazon, Nepal and India. Unfortunately, Rio’s talk ran simultaneous to Darren Springer’s, an organiser and researcher among the African-Carribean community in UK, presenting on the indigenous usage of entheogenic plants on the African continent and diaspora. One criticism of the conference is that similar themed talks were often pitched against each other. Compounded by the awkwardness of moving between crowded rooms in a small boutique hotel, it was often easier to stay put.

Réka Komáromi. Photo: Sangmin Lee

Working closer to home, Patrick Everitt a scholar of philosophy and Western esotericism, emphasised European traditions for the cultivation and ceremonial use of psychedelic plants. Indeed, during a panel that directly addressed the conference theme, musician and self-described ‘renaissance man,’ Felipe Duarte foregrounded the special relationship humans have with plants, given that certain plants are able to manifest themselves in our minds. For me, this spoke to the emergence of multispecies studies in the fields of Humanities and Arts and how trends towards de-centring humans in recent social analysis might approach such relations and experiences as forms of knowledge.

The current significance of microdosing was notable given that one of the last conference sessions ran across all streams of the festival program. Dr James Fadiman and Dr Sophia Kord presented the latest findings from their ongoing research project monitoring 1500 microdosers of LSD, mushrooms and other psychedelics from 59 countries. Microdosing involves the ingestion of small amounts of psychoactive substances, so as not to produce psychedelic effects, but rather to target specific conditions and improve general health. Fadiman and Korb, Skyping in from different locations in the US, reported some curious findings that indicated that microdosing has accumulative effects; that is the longer one microdoses the less of a substance one needs to use to have the same effects, and that long-term microdosers reported relief from prolonged period pain and migraines. When they suggested that microdosing LSD seemed to be effective in managing depression but was not so good for anxiety, someone from the audience offered that from their own research, Ketamine was showing signs of success. Fadiman and Kord’s presentation prompted a long discussion about what effects were being measured, the metrics being used and possible placebo effects, demonstrating the kinds of interactions between clinical and informal research.

In such discussions, what stood out for me was the coming together of different generations of psychedelic researchers. Fadiman a psychologist, writer and co-founded Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, was involved in psychedelic studies at the International Foundation for Advanced Study in the 1960s which were brought to an abrupt halt. Having had his work effectively put on hold for the last forty years, he is now working alongside Korb a researcher from a younger generation, whose experience, interests and opinions belie a different set of concerns. It was a pattern that I traced across the conference, as younger researchers discovered and connected with an older generation, even if they were not necessarily using the same substances or were using them in different contexts or with different intentions.

Workshop. Photo: Sangmin Lee

I should emphasise that Altered was not simply a talk-fest. A series of workshops ran alongside the talks, which tended to emphasise the connection between mind and body, via techniques such as sensory deprivation, performance and spellcasting. An interesting inclusion was a workshop on ritual and worship by Berlin-based BDSM practitioner Caritia. Initially proposed to cater for around thirty participants, there were probably close to a hundred who showed up on the day and Caritia generously took all attendees through a series of exercises that emphasised intuition and ‘feeling.’ As expected, it drew on BDSM techniques of managing power and consent as a way of addressing trauma in a safe space. During the workshop we were instructed to make eye contact, pair up and perform gestures with strangers. The room was eventually split into two groups according to who was feeling dominant that afternoon and those who were more compliant. Soon after, I found myself thumping a fellow attendee around the chest and back for some minutes, before Caritia settled us down and demonstrated her ropework skills with an enthralled volunteer.

Also worth mentioning was the VR demonstration by computer scientist and game developer Bryan Duggan in the lobby and a Hypnogogic Light Room Experience in the cellar, to give a sense of the breadth and scope of the conference.

The Psychedelic Renaissance is obviously a multifaceted movement. With a growing number of people experimenting with psychedelics recreationally and therapeutically, alongside a revival of clinical trials, concerns about safety and harm reduction invariably arise. With this in mind, Rosalind Stone drew attention to websites such as drugsand.me designed to make accessible to young people ‘the kinds of information that should be on the packaging.’ Tensions were also evident between those engaging altered states to explore their consciousness and to feel more interconnected with the world around them, and for those, such as the stereotypical microdosing freelancer, using psychedelics as part of a toolkit for late liberalism’s modes of production. Responding to such criticisms on Psychedelic Frontier (2017), Fadiman stated:
As for the idea that people who microdose support capitalism, it is hard to fault people who wish to enjoy their work more, have healthier diets, be more likely to do exercise and meditation and be less likely to use standard pharmacological medications. To say they are only doing so in capitalist countries is nonsense. We have similar reports from all over the world independent of what form their government is taking. Improving the quality of your life may be a political act, but it is not an ideological one.

Chillout lounge. Photo: Sangmin Lee

One might presume that these different approaches converge when it comes to advocacy and activism. Yet, while the healing potential of psychedelics might be the emphasis of activists campaigning for the legalisation of such substances, there are those in the community that see it as a fundamental right to self-administer psychedelics in order to exercise one’s ‘cognitive liberty.’

If there is a stigma about the use of drugs in the pursuit of knowledge, it is important to emphasise figures such as Sigmund Freud, Walter Benjamin and more recently Paul Preciado who have all self-administered drugs experimentally towards their contributions to Western thought. Although concerns of addiction do arise, this is certainly not an affliction exclusive to unregulated substances and I’d venture that all Altered attendees would agree that prohibition is not the solution. Rather, among consciousness explorers and recreational enthusiasts, experimenting and testing one’s limits is all part of the journey to becoming self-aware, realising one’s agency and ultimately one’s responsibilities.

Centauri, Prox, 2017. ‘Altered States: Altered 2017 Organizers Amit Elan and Dax DeFranco Share Information On the Conference, Human Nature, and Psychedelics.’ Inside the Rift, 12 October.

Psychedelic Frontier, 2017. ‘James Fadiman Discusses the Many Benefits of Microdosing.’ 26 October.

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