Cultural Review Into nature

Breaking Convention 2023 and Natural Magic Worlds

A verdant reflection on participating in Breaking Convention 2023 at Exeter University and exploring magical worlds within nature.

Summary – A verdant reflection on participating in the Breaking Convention 2023 conference at Exeter University and exploring magical worlds within nature.


I enjoyed Breaking Convention 2019, so much that I resolved to attend the next one, Breaking Convention 2023 (BC 2023).  The venue shifted from the historic naval buildings of Greenwich to the more rural setting of Exeter.  BC 2023 brought together researchers, therapeutic practitioners, philosophers, historians and many others interested in psychedelics and psychedelic consciousness. My interests are around shamanism/nature religion, meditation and gently disrupting my too-often sleeping consciousness. 

I attended two headline talks (Graham Hancock and Paul Stamets) and three sessions. In total fifteen thought-provoking talks. I know it isn’t about quantity.  My point is that there wasn’t one that I regretted attending, which is not normally the case when attending academic conferences.  Every speaker spoke with enthusiasm, rather than instrumentality. I was repeatedly gently provoked to step outside my everyday consciousness and think differently.

Communitas: Psychedelic Dance Culture and Emergent Spiritualities Session.  On Thursday, five papers took us from the apocalyptic poet Terence Mckenna through to a radically different vision of how to undertake a funeral. In between we learnt about raving in Welsh forests, spirituality within festivals and that Tekno definitely is not Techno. My epiphany was Giorgia Gaia referencing Genesis P.Orridge, his spirit was with us in this countercultural session.

Mind and Metaphysics Session. On Friday I was primed and ready to go deeper. Susan Blackmore asked us repeatedly and poignantly – are you conscious?  I have slept-walked through too much of my life and her question had real personal meaning. The William James invocation to apply the requisite stimulus to access other worlds was highlighted during the session. All five presentations unified around the ethereal/illusionary nature of psychedelic experiences and the challenges of meaningfully studying this field.  I enjoyed bathing in this fascinating ontological world these presentations conjured up, even if a few times I was out of my depth.

Psychedelic Semantics Session. On Saturday, we began preparations to return to everyday reality with three very able guides. Patricia Pisters reminded us to think about what we don’t see as much as what we see through the medium of film. Rosalind Stone encouraged us to think about how through language and metaphor consciousness is repeatedly framed and mediated in different ways and with different agendas.

Andy Letcher offered the summation of the whole convention rhetorically asking – are psychedelic experiences actually ineffable? I had enjoyed his talk at the 2019 conference warming to his blend of humility and authority, quite rare in the academic world. His differentiation of extrovertive mystical experiences from introvertive mystical experiences offered a gateway. In terms of psychedelic consciousness, it is the extrovertive, oneness with nature consciousness which particularly fascinates me.  Ineffable captures it, but I will attempt to share some of the other worlds I experienced in parallel to BC 2023.

Forgotten World – A Woodland Path Less Travelled

My magical place is a path by the River Teign at Steps Bridge near Exeter.  I discovered this path over thirty years ago and revisit it whenever I am in the area. On a sunny day when the river is low, the light shines through the trees and bounces on the rocks, the river changes colour with dappled reflections of trees. Birds sing and water sounds contained within the woodland canopy are amplified by way of accompaniment to this natural psychedelic show. On the Thursday morning I visited, the Teign was quite high, dampening what was still a magical walk.

Steps Bridge (nr Exeter) on a Misty Morning
Steps Bridge (nr Exeter) on a misty morning

The next bit was unscripted, the two hourly bus which would return me to Exeter was involved in an accident. It was time to go over to the other side of the B3212 until hopefully, another bus arrived. I ventured into Bridford Wood on the other side of Steps Bridge uncertain of where I was going and outside the certainty of my usual Steps Bridge walk. 

As I ventured deeper into the wood, I found myself on paths far less travelled than my usual walk.  I had no real route or plan, just a desire to explore.  I found myself on magical paths used mainly by animals and only a few people.  The photograph does not do justice to the experience but remember we are in the realms of the ineffable/illusionary. An accident had taken me into a forgotten world of less travelled footpaths.

Bridford Wood - Footpath less travelled
Bridford Wood – Footpath less travelled

Overlooked World – Garden on a Wall

The university was at the top of a hill and I was staying at a budget hotel at the bottom of the hill. Gurdjieff and Ouspensky encouraged strenuous exercise to access mystical states, but the demanding climb up the hill didn’t enable me to access these worlds.  However, as I climbed the hill, I discovered an overlooked world. Slowly walking up the Howell Road I noticed a garden growing on the top of an old brick world.  There was this whole ecosystem with a diversity of plants growing along the top of the wall.  This wasn’t the work of a gardener, some other universal gardener was at work. 

Plants growing on a old brick wall

I am sure there is Magic in everything, only we have not sense enough to get hold of it and make it do things for us. (Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden)

More plants growing on a old brick wall

Each day I would stop to photograph the garden, yet everyone else seemed to be oblivious to this garden.  What they made of the bloke preoccupied with the top of an old wall I do not know, yet I was reminded of liminal worlds out there, yet often unseen.

Even more plants growing on a old brick wall

Another World – University Gardens

In my academic life, I visited many university campuses.  Over the last decade, they invariably appeared to be building sites. It went like this, knockdown functional buildings and build even larger and even shinier buildings. In parallel big banners proclaimed environmental credentials without any reflexivity around their destruction/construction fetish. Celebrations of elite status and league-table successes attempted to exorcise all humility from their campuses. Higher education became transactional – would you like our student accommodation package with your qualification?

University of Exeter Gardens
University of Exeter Gardens

I am certain there is some envy of elite institutions and elite academics on my part, but beyond this, I cherish my recovery from academia and the adventure of exploring other worlds.  I enjoyed the presentations on Saturday morning, but felt in need of some respite from the large powerful phallic buildings, before the final headline speaker.  I ventured into the university gardens and it was like stepping through a portal into another world within a world.

The gardens go back to the 19th Century.  I wondered what the long established trees made of buildings being repeatedly destructed and constructed in the name of progress.  These gardens are accessible to all regardless of wealth, very different to higher education today.  These gardens are nurtured and cultivated by gardeners, a different world to Bridford Wood.

Walking around the gardens I was reminded of The Well Gardened Mind book.  That book and these gardens offer a metaphor for another world a very different higher education. My message to University Vice Chancellors would be that it isn’t about the size of their big and shiny new buildings.  It is about the students and staff in those buildings, how they grow together and how knowledge is exchanged and cultivated.

Final Reflections on the Breaking Convention 2023 Conference

I found myself empathising with those presenting as the numbers in a presentation room inevitably ebbed and flowed. I empathised with their sometimes anxious non-verbal communications just before they shared with us their enthusiasm. Equally, I empathised with the organizers and how effectively they made the magic happen.  The metaphor of a swan comes to mind on such occasions, certainly from a participant’s perspective I largely perceived the serenity above the surface.

Hoffman Hall (staging celebrating the natural world)
Hoffman Hall (staging celebrating the natural world)

In the university gardens, I met a fellow traveller and we happily talked for about half an hour about big stuff and little stuff and our conference experiences. What you might call a two person Final Plenary orchestrated by our shared passion for nature. 

For me, it was a therapeutic break from the everyday challenges of modern life. An opportunity to glimpse other worlds and imagine possible futures.  I talked with some lovely people who I will never meet again, yet their warmth reminded me of the promise that awaits when you wake-up and explore other worlds.  Thank you to the organizers, presenters and participants for making it such a successful conference.


Breaking Convention Site

Exeter University Gardens

The Well Gardened Mind Book