The biggest and longest running psychedelic conference happens the first weekend in October each year in New York, and I went there to share some of the experience with you. The name: Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics.
For three days, psychonauts from around the globe gather in Manhattan to discuss psychedelics. The Horizons conference brings together a collection of premier researchers in the psychedelic field, covering both scientific inquiry and personal exploration. These two groups meet every year to discuss the knowledge and insight that can be gained from psychedelics.
As a psychedelic noviciate, the Horizons conference is the most exciting event all year, and for those in attendance who are uninitiated, it is a room with a high level of knowledge about psychedelics with people more than willing to share.
WHAT IS HORIZONS: FROM THEN TO NOW
The Horizons conference began as a one-day event in a small church in 2007 and has been growing ever since. Today, the conference takes place over three days, during which lectures are held at the historic Cooper Union in New York City’s East Village. This year’s event was sold out.
Psychonauts and researchers come together to share ideas in this unique space. Before Horizons, psychedelic conferences were limited to two separate groups. On one side, there was a scientific community sharing their research; on the opposite side were spaces for people to share their personal experiences. There was no crossover.
Horizons was the first to unite these two sides into a single community by creating a forum where scientific research could be shared with the general public. This unity between science and culture has been one positive element that the event has helped foster. Thus, the largest psychedelic gathering of its kind was created.
CURATING THE HORIZONS CONFERENCE
Founder and Director of the event, Kevin Balktick, has watched Horizons grow over the last twelve years from a small pebble into the rolling boulder that it is today. Kevin, much like a puppet master, can be seen in the back of the room orchestrating the event from his perch in the sound booth.
Kevin has had help recruiting speakers for the conference over the years, and the event has always included a contingent of scientists presenting research alongside cultural speakers addressing community issues and the globalization of psychedelics. Though lacking diversity in the beginning, today the Horizons conference touts speakers from across the globe with minorities and women having a voice in the space.
Highlights this year included a talk by MAPS researchers on their personal experiences of MDMA-psychotherapy, a presentation on the effects of microdosing by Sophia Korb, and the big crowd pleaser: Michael Pollan discussing his newly released book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. This publication by a big name journalist is bringing in a new crowd, making the growing awareness of psychedelics move into the mainstream.
The other topics represent a spectrum with scientific research on one end and community outreach on the other. These can be roughly split into the two camps. The research included talks on treating cocaine addiction with psilocybin, the therapeutic effects of ayahuasca, peyote habitat loss, globalization of ayahuasca, and brain activity on DMT. Leaning toward the more cultural side, talks focused on the mushroom underground, festival environments, psychedelic justice, race-based trauma, and integrating psychedelic elements into contemporary society.
WHY DO PEOPLE ATTEND HORIZONS?
There is a growing interest in the therapeutic use of psychedelics in the medical field, and it is palpable how hopeful this community is in the potential of psychedelics for self-improvement and healing.
First timers were in attendance seeking to shift their life path, or often, a way to further their hopes and dreams in the world. Some were working to heal themselves or their community and wanted to incorporate psychedelics into their work and lives. Others were curious about psychedelic use, nearing the late stages of their lives, and wanted to experience plant medicines as they approach an age of retrospection.
General interest in personal use of psychedelics was a common reason for attendance. I met a young traveler in his 20s who was cured of depression after microdosing, and he happened to be passing through New York on the weekend of the event. There was an older gentleman nearing retirement, wanting to experience psychedelics, and looking to have some questions answered before diving in.
A few of those in attendance were interested in psychedelics for use within their career. A tax consultant was changing his life path and training to become a social worker; he wanted to learn about the therapeutic use of psychedelics for healing cultural traumas. He was considering doing some writing on psychedelics but wanted a solid foundation of knowledge before covering the topic in an academic space. A book publisher in the esoteric realm was looking to explore the market and discover further potential publications. There was a physical therapist who was interested in using plant medicines in his practice or finding a way to contribute to one of the growing number of psychedelic retreat spaces.
A small but interested group was aimed at shifting culture, one main focus of the conference this year. A young duo who were interested in food sustainability had read Michael Pollan’s book and came to Horizons to understand the rapid social change that is occurring in the psychedelic space. They had hopes of borrowing from psychedelic culture in order to bring a more rapid shift in food sustainability. A student of meditation was in attendance after returning from a 10-day silent retreat, which he told me had provided him with a quiet mind for the first time. He seemed eager to give back to a culture of mindfulness and awareness, and he was exploring potentials within the psychedelic community. He is currently set to attend a psilocybin retreat with Synthesis in Amsterdam.
Other attendees included a biomedical engineer who was interested in delivery methods for psychedelics in lab conditions and a young female leatherworker who developed an interest in psychedelics after her first microdosing experiment which allowed her to switch tasks quickly and with ease, starting each task as if she had just woken up, fresh and sharp.
A few guests heard about the conference through The Third Wave: it was great to see an organization aimed at changing culture effectively growing this community.
WHO KEEPS COMING BACK?
Return attendees were around as well, with faces I recognized from last year. The community is growing, and there were some psychedelic celebrities in attendance who weren’t speaking, but attended as guests. These included Rick Doblin, the grandfather of MAPS; Dennis McKenna, the brother of renowned Terence McKenna; Hamilton Morris of the VICE show Hamilton’s Pharmacopia; Adam Strauss, creator of The Mushroom Cure (listen to our interview with Adam about psychedelics and OCD); and Justin Townsend of MycoMeditations.
The return attendees come to the Horizons conference to engage with the community that surrounds the space that they support or work within. There were also a few others who have a strong connection to plant medicines, including understudies who have been traveling around the world working with plant medicines, and active practitioners who host underground circles where people can go to find healing.
I was also a repeat attendee, and my return was in continuing to write on the topic and spread knowledge of the community and healing that is occurring within the psychedelic space.
MY OVERALL IMPRESSION:
This was a landmark event for the psychedelic community. Michael Pollan is bringing awareness of this movement to the forefront of media, with appearances on late night shows, NPR, and various podcasts – not to mention a large book tour through the nation.
For him to speak at Horizons felt like a collision of the biggest psychedelic conference and the most publicized book on psychedelics in decades, leading to a sold-out Saturday night. His name brought in many newcomers and opened up conversation into the public realm.
Aside from abounding excitement, it was incredible to see the community open up and accept all of these newcomers into the movement. I overheard conversations that crossed generational boundaries and between so many varied people. Young were teaching the old about positive cultural shifts of inclusion and social justice, as well as older, more experienced people in the space speaking to the young about safety, health, and correct use of plant medicines.
It was an unbelievably exciting space to share in the revelry of, with open communication, pure and true curiosity, and though physically and mentally tired by Sunday evening, a warm and inviting event to have been a part of.
All of this year’s presentations (and those from previous years) will be available on the Horizons Vimeo page.
About the author: Aaron Feller is an independent writer living in Brooklyn, New York.