This past Bicycle Day weekend, the 6th iteration of Europe’s largest psychedelic research conference Breaking Convention took place at the University of Exeter in Devon, England. Or maybe it’s Devon, Great Britain? As an American, I’m still not sure where one ends and the other begins, but both places have great MDMA.
Wizards and Witches
The hilltop campus sits nestled amidst verdant rolling hills sporulated with the dormant mycelium of psilocybin-containing liberty cap mushrooms for miles in every direction. Foraging, cultivating, and possessing this ancestral birthright and sacred endowment is still technically a crime under British law, however, and so our attention was directed towards Australia as the “place to be” for psilocybin during one of the weekend keynotes. One imagines that reforming draconian and antiquated drug policy might be a more sensible first move before industrializing little pockets of bottlenecked medicinal access an ocean away, but maybe I’m just too high on my own supply.
Arriving on Bicycle Day, I couldn’t help but channel a distinct Hogwarts vibe. Not just because of the obvious British country estate aesthetic in place, but because actual wizards like Jonathan Ott and Moudou Baqui walked among us, as well as witches like Ash Ritter. According to the organizers, it was a total synchronicity that Breaking Convention coincided with Bicycle Day and 4/20, though I was too high and jet-lagged to recognize what the occasion was until it was pointed out to me on Friday 4/21. Having attended university on a similar hilltop campus saturated in cannabis and psychedelic activism at the University of San Francisco, I kept having Deja Vu all weekend; or perhaps more appropriately, flashbacks.
Immediately upon check in on Wednesday, April 19th, we were handed conference ID badges printed up on blotter paper with different iconic counterculture heroes and motifs on the back. I had Jimi Hendrix on mine – an auspicious sign for sure. Rumor has it that one of the blotter paper ID badges is dipped in actual LSD each year – I can neither confirm nor deny these rumors, but I finally understand the European obsession with PsyTrance music after accidentally absorbing some of my badge via suppository release and crossing paths with a bicycle mounted sound system blasting crunchy drum and bass music.
Once inside the main auditorium, we were treated to an opening ceremony featuring several of the Breaking Convention directors and board members welcoming us before a beautifully arranged backdrop of Cordyceps, Reishi and Lion’s Mane fruiting body mushrooms designed by Bristol Fungarium alongside an arboretum of real trees.
The Hubris of the Psychedelic Renaissance
My highlight from day one was seeing the enigmatic Jonathan Ott speak. This reclusive genius has been an inspiration to me for nearly 20 years, back to the beginning of my own entheogenic adventure. He was one of the first voices in the worldwide entheogenic community that really resonated with me in a profound and mysterious way. He effortlessly framed a lot of my own perceptions and responses to the “psychedelic renaissance” in an articulate and succinct lecture delivered at the speed of an auctioneer on a mescaline kick. Well, perhaps it was more rambling than succinct, but there’s a certain singularity to the nature of Ott’s work that manages to achieve both simultaneously.
Ott derided the hubris of the “psychedelic renaissance,” proclaiming that there could be no renaissance because the use of these substances never went away.
He posited that Indigenous communities and legions of demographics elsewhere don’t consider their work with “entheogens” to be psychedelic, but rather ancestral and commonplace. The connotation of the term “psychedelic” for indigenous communities infers cultural theft and the likes of Charles Manson – he described the use of peyote, psilocybin mushrooms, salvia and other psychoactive catalysts as a form of “ethnomedicine” rather than a “psychedelic” experience in the context of the indigenous worldview.
I had a chance to have a direct discourse with Ott, who shared with me his stringent protocol of alkaloids administered every hour on the hour. My caffeine buzz was no match for his rare and chemically-pure regiment, which was quite pragmatic thanks to the diligence Ott applies to his adventures in consciousness.
I encountered him later as he was hobbling through the venue and worked up the nerve to ask him for a photo, to which he responded by increasing speed and babbling an Ursprach fount of trans linguistic syllables.
A Different Kind of PhD
There was an entire track on Thursday covering rave culture and the psychedelic trance movement in the UK and Europe, complemented by a parallel track on entheogenic medicine in the Global South. These presentations included coverage of the ontological and sociological context of “força” in a Sainto Daime community in Brazil and the epistemology surrounding “drugs” in Islamic society.
On Friday afternoon, I was accidentally given a speaking slot because the organizers mixed up my application with that of Psychedelic Alpha founder and editor Josh Hardman. It was a clerical error on their part that resulted in a career highlight for me. I’ve actually given thought to starting a newsletter called “Psychedelic Alfalfa” run entirely by ChatGPT and focusing on the intoxicating qualities of unassuming vegetal substances such as poppy seeds and nutmeg – and presumably alfalfa as well, if you saturate it in LSD.
I felt truly honored to give a keynote on the Hofmann stage following such illustrious researchers and scholars as Graham Hancock, Jonathan Ott, David Luke, and Neşe Devenot. While I myself do not possess a PhD, I was definitely the mushroom connection for a number of notable academics as they were pursuing theirs, so I feel like I’ve earned two of those three letters: Dennis Walker, PD (‘Psilocybin Dealer’).
My talk was titled “Psychedelics in the Age of Social Media – A Satirical Goldmine,” and primarily focused on identifying the archetypes of faux spiritual authorities populating our social media timelines. I’ve included a few memes, er, academic references from the talk, for your viewing pleasure below.
Later that evening, I got a taste of proper British pub culture by joining other delegates of the psychedelic renaissance in a 500 year old pub where people have been getting intoxicated and presumably executed by guillotine since before the actual renaissance was taking place. I had a chance to chat with Dr. Pam Kryskow and the inimitable mycologist Paul Stamets about the Psychedelic Puppet Show project we’re all involved with. This fledgling project is near and dear to all of our hearts, and continues to evolve in exciting and unpredictable ways centered around the magic of storytelling and cutting edge AI animation techniques.
“Get in where you fit in”
The highlight of the third and final day of the conference for me was definitely the “Pan-African Perspectives on Healing” track organized by Breaking Convention board member and friend Darren Springer. This panel featured some of my favorite activists, educators, and consciousness explorers in the psychedelic space.
Moudou Baqui spoke about his recent visit to Kenya to directly connect with members of the Masai tribe in pursuit of traditional knowledge preservation. He shared the story of how he asked them if they ever consumed the mushrooms that spring up out of the cow dung in their pastures, only to be told that “our grandfathers did this, but now we are bathed in the blood of Jesus.”
Moudou stated this one of his primary goals with his work is “getting people off cheap dopamine and up to a higher form of consciousness – our job is to be the fun guys”
Darren Springer’s mantra is to “Get in where you fit in.” He continued: “There isn’t a one size fits all model that works. There’s the clinical medical model, but there’s also many other traditions and approaches that are going to work for different people.”
Entheogenic researcher and educator Acacea Lewis, a living DMT molecule, presented on various indigenous plant medicine traditions that she studies, uses, and educates people about in her own practice through her work with Divine Master Alchemy.
I also had a chance to interview the legendary Amanda Feilding of Beckley Foundation on Saturday. All I had to do was add the title “Foundation” after Mycopreneur on the email introduction, and the interview was swiftly accepted. Considering she started the Beckley Foundation in the same unassuming way, I’d say it’s fair game to assign yourself a title without being too concerned about technicalities and net worths.
Are Microdosing Studies Flawed?
An interesting illustration of the growing pains of our space took place at the weekend press conference when legendary mycologist Paul Stamets delivered an impassioned and unexpected rebuttal to Imperial College London Psychedelic Research Director Dr. David Erritzoe, who has published studies drawing a different conclusion than Stamets’ regarding the efficacy of microdosing. Stamets criticized the design of the study, insisting among other things that no one microdoses in a clinical setting and that using niacin as a control is a fundamentally flawed practice. Erritzoe responded by sharing that the participants in the study did not take niacin, and were in fact following Stamets’ own protocol from the comfort of their homes.
This kerfuffle is an example of the “post-truth reality” of the psychedelic renaissance; a reality in which even outcomes derived via rigorous scientific protocols are open for debate, as well as the increasingly intensely clashing ideologies of psychedelic capitalism versus… whatever the opposite of psychedelic capitalism is? Frolicking in the woods naked on mushrooms? I usually find a way to pitch my tent in a camp welcoming the best of all worlds. Picture me strumming a lute beside a serene waterfall populated by enchanted pixies who appreciate Brunello di Montepulciano wine and Beluga caviar.
My first exposure to Breaking Convention came in the form of watching Youtube videos of Kilindi Iyi speaking about navigating ultra high-dose realms engendered by the consumption of 20+ gram dried psilocybin mushrooms. This particular iteration of the conference featured a lot more of a focus on microdosing rather than talks about high dose exploration, which reflects the more cautious and sober clinical approach towards psilocybin mushroom use that we’re seeing in the mainstreaming of psychedelics. I hope the message that psychedelics can be used as a vehicle for exploring consciousness and celebrating cognitive liberty is not forgotten in the race to monetize and medicalize these molecules. It seems more and more every day that the mainstream messaging framing the psychedelic narrative focuses exclusively on the healing potential of these molecules, rather than their transformative and exploratory potential.
Ironies and Excesses
One of my favorite things at this conference was eating breakfast with an eclectic and inspiring group of other conference speakers and attendees each morning.
To frame the scene for you, imagine having a proper British breakfast of baked beans and biscuits with clotted cream and jam on top – the clotted cream applied first, obviously, while engaging in spirited banter with the dreadlocked and tattooed Shindig electronic music festival organizer named Fluffy on your left and celebrated academic Torsten Passe of Hannover Medical School on your right. The conversation touches everything from psycholytic therapy to Aphex Twin to running away with the circus, with recaps of the previous day’s impressions from each party member.
The ironies and excesses of the psychedelic renaissance were on full display in Devon this past weekend as well: while Ben Sessa decried the lack of access to MDMA therapy on one panel, Rick Doblin was oversharing about how he’s given MDMA to his dogs on another panel. In the same regard, if Sessa is truly concerned about people’s lack of access to psilocybin, he doesn’t get out enough. You can’t throw a philosopher’s stone without hitting a psilocybin mushroom cultivator or forager these days. Just ask me next time Ben. Psychedelic therapy is only one part of a much broader and comprehensive framework of use cases, and hyper focusing on the clinical and therapeutic aspect of psilocybin mushroom use is rather myopic and unimaginative until we can stop criminalizing people for forming a relationship with nature.
I would love to see a future where sensible drug policy reform commands the lion’s share of focus in the “psychedelic renaissance,” while medicalized access is in due course made available for all those who feel called to go that route.
Indie-label Psychedelic Conference
The multidisciplinary approach at Breaking Convention is its greatest achievement, along with a willingness to platform divergent perspectives in an environment where people can openly engage each other without the unbridgeable chasm of Twitter or PR teams in between. I’ve noticed a fair amount of siloing and ineffective communication between parties with divergent perspectives and motives in the emergent psychedelic industry. As a highly effective communicator and a multi-decade psychonaut with an extensive background in global citizen diplomacy (I hosted over 30 exchange students from 17 countries on five continents growing up and have traveled to around 80 countries and lived in four) I volunteer to moderate the tough conversations and mediate between any parties in search of conflict resolution and clear channels of communication with each other. I’d love to go to the UN and other assemblies of influence and power to do this for national and global drug policy as well (hint, hint, MAPS…)
Breaking Convention is the venerable indie label equivalent to the corporadelic mega conventions taking over the psychedelic space in the United States. Its multidisciplinary focus and equal emphasis on the humanities and the psychedelic science aspects of our psychedelic zeitgeist is a winning combination that is in short supply elsewhere on the conference circuit. I look forward to attending this convention as often as possible for the rest of my life.
Main image: Jonathan Ott on stage (Photo by Dennis Walker).