The 11th CongRegation #cong23 kicked off this November with what sounded like the start of a bad joke – A philosopher, a shaman, an astronomer, and a virtual world expert walked into a bar, but that’s exactly what happened at the start of the 3 day, 7 events ‘Reality’ themed mind mesh in Cong, Co Mayo.

On Friday, 24th November over 40 people in the private cinema in Ashford Castle were treated to a speed tour of Space by Astronomer David Moore, Astronomy Ireland, insights into alternate realities by Shaman Aldo Jordan of the Irish School of Shamanic Studies, a deciphering of Plato and reasoning of reality by Philosopher Stephen Costello, founder Victor Frankl Institute of Ireland and a deep dive into the worlds of metahumans and avatars by Aileen Carville, founder Colonii.

Using a series of photos, David Moore brought the audience through our solar system, to deep space, fascinating galaxies, and celestial wonders in his presentation simply titled ‘The Universe’. One of the key moments that changed humanity’s view of reality was through a telescope that fundamentally changed how we view ourselves and our role. In a talk entitled “Multiple realities”, Aldo Jordan explained that the main remit of the Shaman is to enter and exit multiple states of reality at will for divination purposes, something that is steeped in our very own Irish Spiritual practices. Without using any visual aids, philosopher Dr Stephen Costello’s presentation explored philosophical perspectives on what reality is in a jointed titled talk ‘Plato against the Postmodernists, or why Santa Claus is real’ and ‘The world as relatively real’. Finally, serial fashion tech entrepreneur Aileen Carville explained how her company COLONII is cultivating a digital society with a cast of indigenous avatars operating and transacting across social and virtual worlds.

While this event was going on, another group was treated to a coding workshop and creating new realities with simple tools in Danaghers Hotel in Cong Village before both groups met to mingle and chew the mental cud while letting the concepts percolate deeper.

The unconference is the heart of CongRegation, with over 90 people gathering in Ryan’s Hotel at 10am on Saturday before setting off to find one of the eight huddles to present and discuss their opinions, thoughts, and reactions to the Reality theme. To gain their ticket, attendees submitted their ideas that were published on the website. Most chose the 600-word text option, but others opted for poems and videos they created. The longest was 6500 words, and the shortest was a carefully selected and curated series of 40 words. The range of perspectives varies widely from Philosophical interpretation of what reality is, Scientific research from quantum theory to behavioural science, Biological approaches of perception through the senses, and the Use of Language through to Everyday Realities of the contradictions of humanity.

These submissions were discussed in small huddles over tea, coffee, and lunch in venues ranging from bars, restaurants, coffee shops, a book store, an art gallery, and an old courthouse. In each of these huddles, the chair guided 10-minute presentations followed by 10-minute to 15-minute discussions. The discussions were engaging, thought-provoking and clashing. Three presentations were delivered at each 1-hour huddle before the group set off for a new huddle with 10 different people in a new venue, guided by the algorithm schedule on their lanyards. The 4 huddle sessions are designed to reflect everyday conversations with attendees or ‘congas’ deciding when, where, and how they present.

In each of these huddles, the groups explored diverse thinking, from the impact of language on reality, how perception differs between people of the same situation, how our senses help us make sense of the world through to the scientific evidence of multiple realities and how limited our evolution and cognitive abilities are to fully interpret what is real.

After a day of intense cognitive processing, Moshe, a clowning artist who flew in from San Francisco, brought the group down with an exercise using silent clowning. During the mini-workshop, the group practised impromptu movement to transfer difficult or troubling thoughts to a sheet of paper before the finale of ripping it up, tossing it in the air and releasing the negative energy. At the same time, another group was creating new realities in an AI-driven green screen workshop delivered by Chris Reina and Hassan Dabbagh of MakerMeet with floating heads to projecting themselves in new landscapes.

As all these activities in Cong Village took place, families of the ‘congas’ were guided through an all Forest School Bushcraft workshop in Cong Woods, from making shelters to finding plants and survival techniques before finishing up with a campfire and BBQ chops. The children’s workshops are an essential part of CongRegation as evidence that work events don’t need to be at the expense of family life.

The unconference finished with an evening meal in the different restaurants in Cong Village before assembling for a bus to nearby Clonbur Village for an exceptional performance of ‘The Magic Play’. This one-man play by Guna Nua Productions recently finished its run in Bewleys Café in Dublin and was an odyssey of Alastair Caspar, the magician, as he tried to win back the love of his life. This humorous hour-long play was interspaced with elaborate magic tricks and illusions and greeted with a standing ovation. The venue added deeply to the experience in an old church built in 1843.

Following a quick bus ride back to Cong, the still energized group split into those who wanted to unwind, chat and mingle over drinks while the Open Mic took place in a packed room. Initially a poetry Open Mic, this session continued for over 2.5 hours, featuring poems, stories, reeditions and songs. MCed by Anne Tannam, Poetry Ireland’s current Poet in Residence. The open mic provided another avenue for connection and community building at Cong. It allowed people to express themselves creatively in a relaxing and inclusive atmosphere. There was a lot of laughter and some tears as people shared their stories and experiences through poems, stories, songs and anecdotes.

The weekend finally finished with a GeoWalk by Benjamin Thebaudeau from the Joyce Country and Western Lakes GeoPark Project, with the French fluent Irish speaking geologist explaining the 65 million journey of Ireland’s rock formation from when Ireland was split in half and roughly located where the Caribbean is today and how marble was formed by immense pressure and heat on sandstone by tectonic pressures as the island rejoined. School-hood confusion over sedimentary, metaphonic, sandstone, and limestone was finally explained in simple show and tell before he explained the hydrology, springs and movement of water in the Cong area. His 2-hour guided tour finished with an overlaying of the tales, legends, and folklore on the rich, visible archaeology of the Cong area.

CongRegation was initially conceived as an experiment to see if the current models of sharing information and connecting with people could be turned on their head by creating a true peer-to-peer structure. By getting people from very diverse backgrounds and age profiles to pre-think and prepare before they arrive leaves them clear to discuss the topic and really get to know each other. Plenty of time is dedicated during the day to network and discuss business, but in the huddles, it’s all about the theme. The structure is also designed to give a platform to quieter voices and those not comfortable with large auditorium-style conferences. It was also an experiment to see if a small rural location without a big auditorium could stage an event that would normally be in a city by utilizing the existing infrastructure during off-tourism season. To date, the event has generated over 200,000 euros of impact on the local economy.

The event attracts people from all over Ireland, with attendees flying from the US and Portugal. The age profile ranges from teens to over 80, with multiple nationalities and extremely varied backgrounds represented.

As the organizer, I live vicariously through the lived experiences of others, which is captured much more eloquently than me by Dermot Casey in his preamble to his LinkedIn posting of his submission “A meeting of minds and ‘A rest for the head’. It’s absolutely not work, and I’ve spent some of the most important time for work and life over the last 10 years. Call it an intellectual version of Stone Soup.”

The final submissions will be uploaded over December, but as the dust settles, the theme for 2024 and the date have already been decided. Mark your diaries for November 22nd -24th, 2024, under the equally challenging theme of ‘Legacy’.

CongRegation is a free event and could not survive without the generous support of sponsors. Blacknight has been a valued consistent sponsor along with, the IRDG, the ICBE Productivity Skillnet, MKC Communications, Grow Remote, Blockverse Ventures and Informed Decisions.

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