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Exploring Consciousness

The Forum, Bath / 24 June 2004

It emerged on the last day of this eclectic 3-day conference that its genesis lay in Christian Rätsch’s observation at Psychoactivity several years ago that the UK seemed to lack the kind of coherence in its psychedelic scene that resulted in conferences. A brave attempt to address this curious deficiency, and simultaneously to broaden the agenda, to embrace other perspectives, avoid any psychedelic ghetto – to learn from diversity – Exploring Consciousness could have resulted in much more conflict and confusion than was evident. What resulted was surprisingly fruitful and wonderfully stimulating: a heady, convivial mixture of days spent mainlining information in half-hour bursts, and evenings spent allowing this new data to percolate and recombine amidst socialising, beer, boating and dancing. Speakers may have disagreed violently about whether gods and spirits reside in our brains or in some hyperdimensional otherworld; but wherever they were, they were fully behind this event.

The first morning wasn’t too auspicious, finding William Bloom and Susan Blackmore arguing the toss over various dualistic cat-fights about mind, body, reality and causality. Talking later to fellow occultural dilettante Mark Pilkington about Nicholas Mann (a speaker on the third day who pitched into the same muddled scrap), he pegged this arena of philosophy as the domain of teenage acid-heads. There’s truth in that, and perhaps less time and paper would be wasted in academic philosophy if the more professors had once been teenage acid-heads—you know, been through the stage where it seems crucial to really know whether the chicken or the egg came first, and emerged into the maturity of seeing the conundrum as a playful cycle, or a mystery to be respectfully left alone. That’s not to say I think we should all ape some earthy mystic stereotype and dismiss all such debate as so much verbiage; we may apply Hakim Bey’s position on the apparently anchorless nature of language to these specific topics, and allow a sense of overflowing play into proceedings, letting these essentially groundless but fascinating old philosophical chestnuts loose in the world without the kind of gravity that traps us in their infuriating orbits. Each of these speakers had something to say, but fundamentalisms such as Blackmore’s strident Darwinism (rivalled in the conference only by Christian Rätsch’s claim that LSD is “the Holy Grail of western civilisation”) often crush valuable ideas in the dualistic clashes they engender.

My own reaction was that these people haven’t read enough Alan Watts. When Susan Blackmore related a reductionist view of the mind to the Buddhist doctrine of no-self, she was incredily engaging as a speaker; but at the conceptual level she was, in a way, treading very old ground, revisiting (presumably unwittingly) Watts’ lecture ‘The Individual As Man/World‘ from 40 years ago – with far less elegant conclusions. Max Velmans fared a little better, with his “reflexive monism” critique of the “Cartesian theatre” model of consciousness, but there was the sense that perhaps his linguistic toolbox, from the professional disciplines of psychology and philosophy, wasn’t equipped to vividly express the subtleties of his approach—certainly not within his allotted half-hour.

On this first day I also caught Sheri Ritchlin, who fell foul of the half-hour limit in a different sense, and didn’t really get to talk much about her ideas regarding 2012. She was the first, but not the last person I heard mentioning the 2012 date—this confluence of McKenna-motivated trippers and broad-minded astrologers was bound to bring this “end-date” to the fore, especially given the very recent Venus Transit, and its partner in this rare temporal region, the Venus Transit in June 2012. Even more interesting was the fact that Ritchlin’s theories pointed towards 2012 with both Mesoamerican and Chinese evidence, apparently independent of Terence McKenna (whose mushroom-fuelled imagination fashioned a signpost to 2012 from the I Ching before he encountered the Mayan calendar). I’ll certainly be tracking down Ritchlin’s book on her I Ching studies, One-Ing, and her Venus Transits study, Fields of Light: The Heart of Quetzalcoatl Becomes One with the Heart of Heaven (she advised people to email her if interested in this study).

Next I intended to go to a talk about MDMA research, but ended up in the wrong seminar room listening to astrologer Bernadette Brady expounding Complexity Theory. Deciding to go with the flow, I was very pleasantly surprised. I’ve never had much time for astrology—more out of a lack of personal resonance with it than any reasoned dismissal. But Brady’s entertaining and stimulating talk, while obviously not able to fully unravel her theories, certainly went some way to framing it with concepts that make it more attractive to my mind. The gist of her position seemed to be that anti-entropic phenomena occur in the slim “phase transitions” between systemic stability and systemic chaos, and from these evolve patterns, cycles and rhythms, in both physical and psychic systems, that mediate between “structure” and “surprise” in the life of these systems. Hence emerges an information model of myths and archetypes, and possibly a more sophisticated framework for astrology’s pluralism. It seems that that other woolly pseudo-science with a bad rep—economics—is getting wiser through Complexity Theory, with a major difference: economics has money. If astrology piggy-backs on this research, with eloquent proponents like Brady, I might be spreading zodiacal memes before long.

Rick Doblin, founder and president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, gave a succinct overview of his work with MAPS and their vision for the future. It’s easy to forget that something similar to Doblin’s model of worldwide clinics distributing licenses to use psychedelics was originally propounded by the chemical trickster himself, Tim Leary. Of course, his excited, expanded consciousness got bored with this idea and he opted for mass proselytizing. Doblin—with sound reasons—advocates a return to a steady chipping-away at monolithic opposition to psychedelics, and “change from within the system”. He naturally got heckled by the more extremely libertarian psychonauts, but once he reassured them he was advocating his current model as a cultural stop-gap, not as some “ideal” situation of state-sanctioned altered states, the audience united in applauding his obviously groundbreaking efforts to integrate these substances into our society.

Serena Roney-Dougal spoke lucidly enough on her “yogic parapsychological perspective on consciousness”, but not with enough novelty of approach to leave much of an impression in my mind. The final speaker, author, lecturer and architect Charles Jencks, was another kettle of fish altogether. His blazing, effortless intellect was (when I wasn’t having trouble keeping up with it) a joy to behold, as he unravelled the ideas embedded in the project he details in his book, The Garden of Cosmic Speculation. From the slides he shared with us, this conceptual landscape (located in Dumfries, Scotland) looked stunning, a magnificent balance between earthy expression and abstracted refinements. Conceived as “a landscape that celebrates the new sciences of complexity and chaos theory”, its sculptured installations and moulded topography form a series of meditations on our conceptions of the origins and destiny of the cosmos. My notebook from that day bears no trace from his talk; I was totally occupied with following his ideas. I’m just left with a clear mental Post-It note: “Look further into this guy’s work”.

That evening some of us gathered for a leisurely boat trip on the River Avon, a great chance to break any remaining first-day social ice, and to eat, drink, and merrily dodge low bridges. I ended up chatting to one of the speakers whose talk I missed, Reverend Kevin Tingay, whose open-minded faith was as refreshing as the night air. Considering that the wonderful Art Deco venue for the conference, The Forum, is owned by the Bath Christian Trust, and that many speakers dealt unashamedly with the occult, the conference added greatly to my sense of health in west country Christianity, a sense initiated a while ago by the Bishop of Bath and Wells’ traditional, and usually well-received sermon at Glastonbury Festival.

The next morning, Ann Shulgin regaled us with a frank discussion of her highly bizarre, non-drug altered states—or, more precisely, state—that recurred throughout her early life, until the age of 25. The singular visionary experience of embracing infinite space, which she came to call “The Spiral”, obviously affected her profoundly, and bore witness to the strangeness of human consciousness as well as any of the trip stories that emerged through the conference. The subsequent presentation, Philippa Berry’s exploration of recent continental philosophy and its conception of “the event” (Heidegger’s Ereignis) couldn’t have formed a sharper contrast to Shulgin’s personal anecdotes. Looking at mass (rather than personal) consciousness, and approaching it academically (rather than informally), I have to admit that I was left at the end with not much more than “9/11 was a shocking event”. Another half-hour victim, Berry’s obvious intelligence couldn’t give any real background to those like me who have yet to wrestle with any philosophers (in the strict sense of the word) past Wittgenstein, and subtleties that other people explained to me later were lost.

Next up was Julian Vayne on “The Magickal Art of Drugs”. I’ve always harboured regret for encountering psychedelics in a profane context, one with some concessions to seeing past the “just for kicks” paradigm, but essentially providing no real framework for processing the psychic materials they fish out of the mind’s depths. Vayne was luckier, experiencing his first acid trip—one of scarily/hilariously misjudged dosage—after 4 years of occult practice and meditation, and was able to navigate the ensuing chaos using the Qabalistic Tree of Life. This synergy of energy and form could be sensed underpinning his talking style, which is both enthused and clear. He gave a good potted history of magickal models for the uninitiated—from Levi’s Will to the Golden Dawn’s Imagination, to the Belief and Trance that comprise the toolbox of Chaos. He made a compelling case for occult techniques and chemical aids being fruitful partners, pointing out, for instance, that the discerning mind fostered by occult training is of great use in dealing with the tricksterish “plant teachers” that one may meet in mushroom or ayahuasca visions.

Chas Clifton‘s subsequent rummage through the minefield of European witchcraft scholarship in search of the fabled “flying ointments” gave us a good critical baseline: you will find what you want in this arena. Obviously Clifton’s own conclusions—that these ointments had other more mundane medicinal uses, and that their use as psychoactives was probably more analagous to contemporary recreational codeine abuse than any form of organised religious sacrament—need to be subject to his own caveat, but he came across as an engaged, honest inquirer, one who had been through a period of “believing” in the reality of the Old Religion, but had emerged with a more reserved, critical appraisal.

As I learned through accidentally catching Bernadette Brady, it’s often wise to go for talks you might not be immediately interested in. It’s learning, remember? But I sorely regret missing both David Luke and Andy Letcher on various psychedelic topics in favour of Nicholas Mann. At the end of this day, down the pub, a Tasmanian guy piped up with an idea I’ve cherished for a while now: getting rid of the word “just”, when used in the sense of “Consciousness is just a product of the brain”. At this level, nothing is just anything. I chipped in with my observation that this kind of linguistic avoidance of complexity is usually only encountered in materialist reductionism. Spiritual reductionism is equally philosophically repugnant to me, but there seems to be a healthier attitude involved. People who reduce the world to matter very often belittle matter—and thus reveal their contempt for the world—with “just”. Those for whom the non-material is the fundamental ground of being usually, at least, have some sense of awe and respect towards the world they (mistakenly, I think) apprehend. Nicholas Mann falls clearly into the latter group; but as his focus was directly on his spiritual ontological foundations, his reverence for spirit came across to me as an annoying exaggeration of his fallacy. The dynamic of his argument would be familiar to anyone who’s taken the several milliseconds necessary to see through the “two-party” political system. He rightly and ably demolished the opposition’s stance, ridiculing it as “Frankensteinian”: put all the bits of matter together, jam loads of energy through it, and hey presto! Consciousness! Demonstrating the absurdity of this extreme segues swiftly (and deceptively) into advocating its rival, expressed with deliberate, awed tones that connote authority, appealing to people’s dualistic pleasure in finding the exact opposite of an established position to be true. “Don’t you see?! Not the chicken, the egg!” (For me, George Clinton settled the debate a while ago: “Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Depends on who’s gettin’ laid.”)

The bona fide psychedelic luminary Alexander Shulgin—just closing in on his eightieth year—injected some much-needed verve and colour into the afternoon, and although he struggled throughout with his dentures, he was entertaining enough for everyone to give him plenty of leeway as he intermittently cursed and fumed. A true explorer, he raised questions rather than offered answers. He related a fascinating incident where a schizophrenic identified his own brain’s PET scan from the patterns formed by the trace substance (he knew the shape from his hallucinations). And naturally tales of his famed self-experimentation emerged, detailing bizarre experiments in using psychedelic consciousness to manipulate matter and time. Then Amanda Fielding, famed for her self-trepanation, presented her overview of human evolution. She took a prudently diverse approach to the origins of consciousness, citing the “Aquatic Ape theory” (the idea that human ancestors once adopted a semi-aquatic lifestyle, accounting for attributes such as our lack of hair and upright posture), dietary factors involving fish oils that are especially nutritious to neural tissues, and psychedelic plants, as all contributing to our current capacities for awareness. Her grand arc across the development of consciousness led to her introducing The Beckley Foundation, a charity set up to promote research into the neurophysiology of consciousness. This, along with Rick Doblin’s mention of American pot-head billionaires putting good amounts of financial backing towards psychedelic research, and the small but significant “corporate training” contingent at the conference, gave the encouraging impression of vital issues around consciousness getting at least some of the attention they deserve from the sectors of society with tangible leveraging power. The anarchist in us will leap around wildly with impassioned words of caution at this prospect, but the picture painted here was cause for some optimism.

TechGnosis author Erik Davis rounded off the second day with a compelling update on his ongoing investigations into the convergence between consciousness and technology. Psychedelics are frequently envisioned as technology, as tools, but Davis advocated a slight but significant shift in viewpoint, to see them as media—information tools. He related chats with experienced 20 year-old psychonauts from the west coast rave scene, who, he was fascinated to discover, talked of their experiences with new designer compounds with unselfconscious audio-visual tech metaphors. They seemed fascinated by the “gimmicky” surface sheen of the visionary realm, and related it to their experiences of manipulating sound and light with technology. Many people would turn off at this point, dismayed at the banalisation of gnosis. But Davis held true to his generous vision of the ambiguity of both spirit and technology—their Trickster nature—and, looking back to Baroque theatre, with its lavish use of “special effects” to convey the supernatural, suggested that postmodern culture’s collision of styles and techniques, with the gnostic rush of Hollywood f/x, multimedia psychedelic events and vital borderlands between the sacred and profane, maybe be seen as a development of “neo-Baroque”. Further, he reminded us that the earliest forms of art, palaeolithic cave art, contain various geometric motifs (zig-zags, dots and grids) that many believe signify the pre-visionary motifs of shamanic trance. The implication is that as a culture we may well be a little too transfixed by the preliminaries of gnosis—the “special effects”—but this at least indicates our collective orientation, teetering on the tricksy brink of genuine visionary breakthrough.

It’s fitting that Davis conducted the last interview with Terence McKenna before his untimely death. There’s no real successor to McKenna, with his unique combination of swift humour, grandiose/absurd vision and linguistic alchemy. But Davis certainly shares with McKenna a rare facility that combines the complexity and playful paradox of psychedelic perception with the accessible vividness of metaphor that arises from a constantly active, imaginal intellect. Volleying perspectives back and forth over beer with Erik was one of the more memorable and pleasurable aspects of this conference for me.

A well-earned lie-in meant I missed the first couple of speakers on the Saturday morning, though I met Graham Harvey at lunch, and was pleased to hear he had been flying the Wattsian flag of open-ended dialectics, as opposed to the pantomimic back-and-forth of dualism so much in evidence. The first talk I caught was by former Director of Strategic Innovation at Saatchi and Saatchi, Stephen Fitzpatrick, on ‘Social Dreaming: A Practise in Search of a Theory’. Fitzpatrick peppered his rapid-fire talk with quotes from key surrealists, to provide some points of reference, but, as the title asserts, the foundation for this new phenomenon is the practice. A group of people gather and, supervised by a facilitator, share their dreams. There is no therapeutic intent, so people’s past and personal (waking) lives are not directly related to. Rather, through free association, the facilitator encourages participants to weave connections between each other’s dreams. A working hypothesis is that this process provides access to “the ‘substratum’ of feelings, thoughts and emotions that are integral to all social relations and social groupings which are not readily available for considered exploration and discussion in social groups, as they are unattended and not acknowledged.” In any case, Fitzpatrick testified that astonishing things seem to occur as this process deepens, with people discovering potent insights into their lives in other people’s dreams, thus exposing the (as yet unexplained) social nature of deep psychic processes. Repeated sessions tend to generate bizarre synchronicities, and leave some ill-prepared participants on the verge of breakdown (naturally this is one of the aspects that warrant a trained facilitator). I have to say that it was this talk that introduced the most fascinating new concepts to me. Just before the conference I started personal dreamwork, using techniques of analysis that treat the dream as a self-consistent whole, avoiding (initially, at least) any reference to my waking life, to interpretive theories, mythologies, or other symbol systems. This process in itself reveals the astonishing internal logic of dreams, forming a basis for associations with other dreams, and eventually “real” life that is much more faithful to the dream itself. Social Dreaming seems to be the natural and obvious (though initially perplexing) extension of this methodology into the social sphere, showing the way for potentially incredible new ways of integrating the non-rational into our collective being.

The idea of dreams as hermetic, revelatory creative expressions from the unconscious is powerful. “My God! It’s a work of art!” I thought to myself as I broke a dream of mine down as a literary critic might tease apart the deep structures of a poem. Psychologist Benny Shanon, author of The Antipodes of the Mind, a major recent study of ayahuasca experience, propounded a similar thesis regarding the ontological status of the visions induced by this jungle brew. He began with one of the burning questions that any inquiring person will bring up on surveying even a moderate number of records of ayahuasca visions: “Why are the motifs so idiosyncratic, and at the same time common to people from diverse backgrounds and cultures?” Jaguars, coloured snakes and fabulous jewelled cities are, he rightly argued, not the type of obviously universal experience that might take up residence in the Jungian “collective unconscious”. So what’s the deal? Well, I can only assume Shanon addresses this issue in his book, because he managed to leave that key question wholly unresolved in his talk. His argument about the visions being imaginal artworks was interesting, but it begs that very question about thematic consistency. It should be noted, though, that he was very careful not to fall prey to the reductionist attitude. He refused the indigenous position of postulating an independent “spirit world”, not out of any lack of respect for these cultures, but out of fidelity to his own, which I can respect. Further, he stressed that he had no intention to reduce the mystery—he was merely saying he thought this great mystery was in the human mind. But regarding the question he set himself at the beginning—no cigar.

Robin Matthews‘s talk on mysticism, game theory and consciousness was sparsely populated due to the (I imagine) fascinating presentation being given by Jon Atkinson on Salvia Divinorum and Piers Gibbon‘s (I imagine) fun seminar on the use of sound and song being given at the same time (we heard the raucous noises emanating from the latter!). Attention paid to Matthews was well rewarded, though, as he vocally meditated on mysticism as a “search for a meaning that exists beyond the language we use to find it”, and knowledge of death as the basis for authentic life. Claudia Müller-Ebeling was a dynamic speaker, but in her presentation on aphrodisiacs she didn’t manage to fit in much that went beyond her slides of wonderful obscenely-shaped plants that serve, in the morphocentric worlds of the indigenous cultures that use them, as multi-faceted sexual stimulants. But I did love her idea of ingesting psychoactive substances as some form of somatic yoga, in that one’s anticipation of their effects forces one into a very direct focus on the here-and-now of your body’s internal sensations. Claudia’s partner Christian Rätsch then took us on a spirited trip through his ethnopharmacological experiences (he said that Shulgin defined ethnopharmacology as “taking strange drugs in strange places”). We were treated to a re-enactment of his transformation into a panther on his first acid trip, and a passionate affirmation of the value of being “a stranger in a strange land”, as he evoked the transformative, often painful isolation induced by his fieldwork.

Nick Campion, a tutor from the Sophia Centre that co-organised the event, obviously felt a need to frame the appearance of the eminent astrologer Liz Greene in his introduction to this final speaker. He got some mild heckling for doing more than just saying, “Here’s Liz Greene” (perhaps from some Greene devotees eager for their guru), but his emphasis on the sky—specifically its axial Pole Star in the Northern Hemisphere—as the foundation of the western esoteric tradition, resonated strongly for me (the Pole Star is the one stellar phenomenon that I’ve ever been obsessed by), and seemed to contribute to an important current in this final day. We’d already heard Benny Shanon’s contested but admirable refusal to adopt Amazonian Indian ontology; and later, Christian Rätsch, for all his exoticism, eloquently espoused the importance of seeking our own spiritual roots, citing Odin’s drinking from the Well of Remembrance as evidence of a European tradition of divine intoxication. This was in response to a Brazilian woman’s concern over the growing popularity of ayahuasca in the West, and its possible impact on South America. It seemed important that while the conference gave due respect to the indigenous cultures whose traditions have opened up so many doors for us, we were reminded of Jung’s assertion that wholeness and healing for Western culture will only come about through recovering and integrating our own spiritual roots. Ayahuasca is the “vine of the dead”, the ancestors; if we are to learn anything from it, we must look deeply back into our history.

Liz Greene‘s oddly soporific delivery may not have gone down too well with those of us flagging after this hectic few days of information overload, but it couldn’t disguise the depth of her thinking. Narrating Neptune’s cycles through the past 50 years, she offered some shrewd observations as she associated its passage through the zodiac with various cultural icons that she saw as exemplary of our collective yearning for transcendence: Elvis for Scorpio, the Maharishi for Sagittarius, Thatcher for Capricorn, Princess Di & Blair for Aquarius. Again we saw a hint of 2012: Neptune’s next 14-year residence in a zodiacal sign will commence when it enters Pisces in 2011, apparently signifying the channelling of our thirst for transcendence through the imagination. This kind of generalisation will always stink of sloppy thinking to the literal-minded, but to me Greene exuded more than enough subtlety of thought to scent these insights with a sweeter, more complex aroma.

The final panel discussion was a satisfying conclusion. Much talk of animism led to the plants that had graced the stage throughout proceedings being personally introduced, Psychotria viridis, Ipomoea violacea and Lophophora williamsii being presented as if they were special guests on the panel. Piers Gibbon was encouraged to repeat part of his seminar with the whole audience—the part that involved a round of ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ being sung as a collective western icaro. And a Mexican woman in the audience offered her profound thanks to all involved for the healing experience, the encouragement to speak her mind that the conference had given her.

I was a little disappointed when the post-conference party initially seemed to be quite a mundane acid techno affair, but some great chats with new acquaintances, and the gradual emergence of funk and disco slowly woke my body up, and I was grateful to earth this information overload in drunken dancing. An obscure favourite track from my teenage years (Parliament’s ‘Come In Out Of The Rain’) got me, and everyone else left, dancing at the tail-end of the night, followed by some spontaneous balloon frolics that were a fitting foil for this mostly intellectual feast.

There was a call for the conference to become a regular event at the final panel discussion, which was met with hearty applause. I’ll second that. Roll on ‘Exploring Consciousness 2005’…

Header image, Psychotria viridis, CC-licensed by Paulo Pedro P. R. Costa