Gearing Up with Dr Ben Sessa for Breaking Convention – 3rd International Conference on Psychedelic Consciousness
As we gear up for another fantastic Breaking Convention: 3rd International Conference on Psychedelic Consciousness, we caught up with co-organiser, psychedelic researcher and author Dr Ben Sessa, about what’s going on at this year’s event, and why it’s such a brilliant occasion. You can check out the full line-up of speakers, workshops, art shows, and evening events, along with picking up a ticket, from their website here.
Breaking Convention, International Conference on Psychedelic Consciousness, is about to have its third incarnation this July. How did it all begin?
It was a coming together of various people who all shared the same dream at the same time. In 2010 I had been making plans to put together a small gathering, to take place at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, to debate the divisive subject of MDMA.I had met David Luke in 2008 at the World Psychedelic Forum conference in Basel and I knew he was also interested in seeing if a similar conference could happen in the UK. Then in 2010 I met Dave King, then at Kent University, at the MAPS conference in San Jose, California. It appeared that he too had been thinking the same thing – a UK-based conference. Dave King was friends with two of the lecturers at Kent University, anthropologists Anna Waldstein and Cameron Adams, both of whom had an interest in the social, legal and anthropological aspects of psychedelic culture, and had already been discussing putting on some kind of event at Kent University.
So we all got together and realised that between the five of us we covered a broad
range of subjects touched by psychedelics: medicine, psychology and anthropology. So the first conference happened – by the skin of our pants – at Kent University in 2011. We repeated the event on a larger scale at Greenwich University in 2013 and we are now, in 2015, joined on the executive committee by Aimee Tollan, after Anna left to pursue other interests.
How does Breaking Convention differ from other conferences?
It is very ‘home made’, which is great. Between the five of us on the committee we know a lot of people in the international psychedelic community. So we beg, borrow and steal favours and support from our friends all over the world. We are continually told by our participants and delegates that what they love most about BC – besides its professionalism and meticulous attention to detail – is its communal, shared atmosphere. In total around one third of the people at the conference are working with us, alongside us and participating in one way or another. It is a massive community of shared interests. People feel like they are part of a bigger movement. And we are always keen to get as many people as possible involved.
BC totally lacks some of the glitzier, more corporate aspects of some of academic conferences – basically because we don’t have any money! This year we have managed to get a few hundred quid sponsorship here and there, which is great, but basically the entire cost of the conference comes from ticket sales – so it is always an anxious moment around this time of year when we are watching our Eventbrite page daily hoping to break even and be in a position to pay all the bills at the end of the gig!
But just because it is homemade does not mean it is low in quality. On the contrary, we bring the best speakers from the cutting edge of research on psychedelics from all over the world. Top university departments are represented, top-selling authors with wide followings and people with a big media presence. It might be homemade, but it’s top drawer stuff.
There’s an incredible amount of speakers this year, who seem to cover a vast array of areas, from medicine, psychology, neuroscience and psychopharmacology, through to philosophy, literature, history, and anthropology. Why is it that psychedelics are so multidisciplinary? And how does the conference cater for so many fields?
It’s the nature of the chemicals themselves. Alterations in consciousness are fundamental, pervasive phenomena; they naturally touch all areas of life, from the psychology and physiology of human experience to the politics, art and spirituality and philosophy of humanity. LSD, when it came along in the 50s and hit widespread culture in the 60s, touched all disciplines from art, architecture and fashion to music, medicine and law. That is why a conference such as this is such a vibrant and diverse place. Man, I go to some seriously stuffy and dull medical conferences, whose subject matters are necessarily narrowly restricted to pure science, but BC ain’t like that! We also have an amazing arts and entertainments programme – with exhibitions, performances, bands and DJs throughout the weekend.
The reason we can cover so many areas at BC is because of the excellent staff team involved. Each discipline is responsible for running it’s part of the show. Come to me if you want to discuss medicine and therapy, don’t ask me if you want to know about the botany of Salvia’s female plant spirits, but I can direct you to whom you should go for that. It’s all here. And truth is, there are huge cross-overs between these various disciplines; I hear, for instance, that Salvia’s plant spirits have enormous therapeutic potential, so there you go – medicine meets botany. Very BC!
What can people expect to experience from Breaking Convention? And what do you hope to achieve?
Expect lots and lots of information, lots of fun and lots of people; many will be like oneself, many will be surprisingly different. We are all joined with a common theme. Get involved and be part of it.
In a hypothetical world, which three people would you most like to go tripping with?
It would be a bit corny to say Huxley, Leary and Kesey, or Hubbard, Hofmann and Ram Dass, wouldn’t it? So may I invite my friends on the BC15 exec committee instead?
What are looking forward to specifically at this year’s event?
Staying awake, getting some sleep, getting to all my commitments (I have something going on at every available minute of the conference!), seeing the show run smoothly, seeing people enjoying themselves, listening to some far out tunes, immersing myself in performance and art, learning some news facts about groundbreaking neuroscientific research, getting some good media coverage and hanging out with all my international friends. Oh, and selling loads of copies of my new novel, To Fathom Hell and Soar Angelic, which is being launched at the conference.
Would you tell us a little about your book please?
Yes indeed! As far as I can tell the subject of psychedelic research and therapy has never been covered in a work of fiction – until now. My novel follows the story of traditional, conservative (slightly disturbed) NHS psychiatrist as he discovers the world of psychedelic therapy. His new realisation opens his eyes to the problems and insufficiencies of the modern medical model and, together with a maverick Californian psychiatrist, he sets up a UK-based centre for psychedelic research. There are many twists and turns on the journey. I hope people find it an interesting, informative and very fun read.
Why should people buy a ticket?
In terms of sheer numbers of speakers, performers and participants BC15 is quite simply the largest conference ever, bar none, on the subject of psychedelic drugs. Now, you may or may not have any knowledge understanding or specific interest in this subject, but what I would say to you, the potential ticket buyer is this: if you have any interest in medicine, therapy, psychology, botany, sociology, chemistry, art, music, dance, architecture, philosophy, anthropology, politics, law or media then then you will certainly find something to interest you at BC15. How does that sound
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