A Year Immersed in Transformational Festivals
There are places hidden between stretches of normalcy that sprout and live full lives as cities with all their macro and micro cosmic moments of sonder before disintegrating. Then their infrastructures wander elsewhere and only nature remains. Thus we migrate from haven to haven, from city sprung from nature to settlement carved into land to hold the communities we create and then disperse, from dust to dust. We squeeze certain peculiar things secretly between our hugs to reclaim upon our next embrace in another now.
The one that started it all is a legend. The elders still tell tales, with wide smiles and reminiscent eyes. They remind us of the days when love was free and flowers had power and everyone just wanted to give peace a chance. Years and generations have watered the seeds planted at Woodstock, and have grown many varieties of festival from its impetus. I’ve spent nearly a year exploring these brave new territories of burgeoning culture, and I can tell you conclusively that there is no single conclusion to be drawn. These experiences are mirrors of the self that experiences them — just as dynamic and variable. Each is an invitation to shed outmoded patterns, partake of new perspectives and bring home another piece of your own puzzle with which to dazzle the “default world”. The default world is the Reality Camp of any timespace not within the multifested microcosms. And while it would seem that its mundaneness is our motivation for escape to festivals, its dormant potential is truly the point and purpose of our travels. Ordinary life is the canvas on which we brush the colors we collect at festivals.
In 2009, I made a pilgrimage across the country to my first festival in a veggie-fueled bus covered in a colorful mural and filled with equally colorful folks. I’d never heard of Burning Man before my friends asked if I wanted to join their road trip. I hadn’t spent much time out west, and certainly couldn’t have predicted the “transformation” that the Playa would inflict. Though open minded, I arrived closed hearted and was so forcefully pried open that I needed a month of agoraphobia back home in Brooklyn to recover. That’s the catch with revolution and rebirth; they require labor pains. Ask any shaman who’s died and been reborn to earn his wisdom, or tribes whose initiations into adulthood include physically or psychologically rigorous processes of stripping ego from self. We often enter an extreme environment at festivals and push ourselves to our limits just to discover our mettle. Being in the elements away from nested indoor couch cushion comfort zones reconnects us with a vital survival instinct and makes us feel more alive and in touch with our mortality.
For that first pilgrimage to Black Rock City Nevada, home of the largest and most infamous festival in the country, I was utterly unprepared. I had automatically broken one of the 10 main tenets of Burning Man: radical self reliance. The playa is a harsh climate wherein attendees die every year from ignoring this simple acknowledgment of our fragility in the reality of overbearing heat, dryness, and isolation. You must bring everything you need to survive: food, water, and shelter. Of these, I had only shelter, and no idea I’d need the rest. “Oh no,” my friends insisted, “there’s plenty of food there. It’s a gift economy, you’ll find everything you need.” Instead I was laid bare in vulnerability, empty-handed in wide-eyed naiveté in an alien terrain. Not only did I test the mettle of my mental and physical fortitude, I learned the iron strength of goodwill in a community who embraces with open arms all wide-eyed wanderers into its strange remote camp.
I saw a new facet of human potential, the height of creativity, self-expression and co-creation. I knew I could never snap back to my previous dimensions, but had grown irrevocably. My visions became grander, my hopes were higher, and I allowed my self to open into the realm of possibility. My way of being had shifted from reactionary to creationary, and my world had morphed into a canvas.
Joseph Campbell’s famous archetypal theme, the “Heroes Journey”, is mirrored in nearly every epic legend throughout history, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Star Wars. It speaks to something deep within the human experience. In this journey, the central character enters an unfamiliar world, is met with difficulties, and challenges apparently invincible odds. Using skills the hero has picked up along the way, he overcomes these difficulties, attains great self-knowledge, and brings this newfound awareness back to his previous “ordinary world”. This is the same storyline that unfolds in the life of true shamans, who are put through enormous tribulations on their quest for transformation, which often entail being entirely dismantled and reassembled in body mind and consciousness. This is also often the effect of an immersive festival experience. One arrives into a new world, is tested by the elements of nature as well as by the invitations to contribute and step beyond familiar comfort zones, and is spat back into the real world at the end, having gained new tools and insights for daily life.
“Transformational” festivals present an opportunity to re-create yourself in a safe container, with the understanding that if our collective pursuit is a peaceful world, we must make ourselves into beings who can envision, create, and sustain such peace. Studies in psychology have shifted their stance over the past decade of research on how individuals form their sense of identity. We used to believe first that you form a sense of who you are and then act according to that idea of yourself. But as it turns out, you form your sense of identity based on your actions. Behave in a new way, and the subconscious mind registers that you’re the type of person to do this new thing, making it more natural for you to do so again in the future. So never again is there a valid excuse to side-step right action or the pursuit of dreams with the cop-out “I would, but it’s just not me”. Our capacity for awesomeness expands through action, not planning to act. And festivals are unique opportunities for those self-defining actions.
Regardless of who you are for the rest of the year, you become what you choose while you are present in these “temporary autonomous zones”. Web designers become dancers, waitresses become yoginis, limiting beliefs are shed, habits are foregone, and futures are reenvisioned. Not through some outside force acting upon you, but through your own becoming. One can’t expect to be transformed automatically of course, but someone who arrives with an open mind and heart will undoubtedly be inspired and challenged to do the transformational work. Just like any valuable life experience, you get out what you put in. No two experiences are alike, so it’s important not to turn that profound and personal experience into a vendible festival specialty. Though they are in part hedonistic celebrations, they can often be arduous vision quests that demand a relinquishment of whatever identities or expectations we grip too tightly. Having let go, we are no longer dragged. We are freer to be who we are.
Music festival. Transformational festival. Cultural experiment. Hippie Haven. Celebration of Life. Just as festivals come in many forms, so the people who come to festivals cannot so easily be categorized. We all arrive with our own purposes, and it defeats the point of creating realms of pure potentiality to label the experience or the experiencers. The general attitude is: We have built it. We have come. We’ll see what happens next. Festivals are, for a moment, whatever you want. If you show up with the expectation of it being something in particular, you’ve robbed it of co-creative immediacy. You will not automatically be transformed. You will not necessarily even enjoy it. But if you participate, you are guaranteed to have a unique experience of your own Being. My first festival was hell for me, but it was the crucible that changed my life.
Now fast forward with me to 2014. I decided to jet set to as many festivals as I could fit into one year. I kicked off the New Year with Cosmic Convergence in Guatemala, a small festival of international wanderers and permaculturists on beautiful Lake Atitlan. It made a community of strangers faster than I’d ever experienced. Educational workshops, a common intention, great music and constant dancing created a collective consciousness whose every individual part contributed its gifts to the whole. A natural introvert, I foreswore my reticence and leaned against the meniscus of my comfort zone until it popped. There were few, of the hundreds in attendance, whom I’d not made at least a brief connection with over the weekend. These moments rippled into bonds of friendship that amplified a pervasive resonance filling the small lakeside park with ecstatic meetings, warm hugs, and deep conversations. I met several bright beings with whom I’m still close. Such was the warmth of this New Years threshold that the volcano across the lake must have been fueling it. It was an ideal way to get my feet wet with the culture, and it set my subsequent festivals aglow in its example.
Let’s differentiate “music festivals,” like Coachella, Bonaroo, etc. and “transformational festivals” such as Cosmic Convergence, Beloved, Enchanted Forest, and Sonic Bloom. They blend into each other though, and no lines are distinct. For example, Lightning In a Bottle straddles those definitions, at home in either genre. But a typical music festival is a more mainstream gathering that glorifies partying and practically canonizes scantily neon-clad women as mascots. You can expect crowds, security guards, and six dollar plastic water bottles for sale. They are loud, boisterous and they sweep you up into a chorus of “yolo” and trap-twerking. Don’t be surprised to see corporate logos and sponsorships everywhere at these gatherings. They’re fun, but they lack the quality of invitation that beckons us to “transformational festivals”.
By contrast, transformational festivals add a dimension of introspection, contemplation, and education that provide a context for participants to undertake a personal journey. They are temporary realities co-created in natural environments by and for the participants. People encourage one another to open up and share their art, music, costumes, gifts, visions, and talents at any moment. It’s an open arena for existence-art. Stages are elaborate altars where performance artists tell stories with their bodies to the soundtracks of great musicians, DJs and music producers. Artisan markets provide quality fair trade and handmade wares. Visionary Art galleries are the cradles for journeys of the imagination and anchors of shared community visions. It’s a profound experience to walk into a gallery and realize that you are not alone, the collective consciousness shares the richness of its elaborate truths with everyone in striking beauty. During the day there are workshops ranging the broadest spectrum of interests. They often include Permaculture and sustainability courses, yoga and martial arts classes, healing arts offerings (such as reiki, massage or sound therapy) meditation, arts and crafts, tantric relationships, flow arts, dance, and even playshops for kids and families.
When humans congregate in celebration, there is an anthropological opportunity to learn a great deal about who we are as a culture and as individuals. Celebration, dancing, music and play are central to our happiness, well-being and productivity, despite being widely considered “luxuries”. Although society relegates playfulness and camaraderie to second-rate superfluity, scientific research is revealing that those who take time to make their own happiness a priority are more productive, longer-lived and healthier throughout life. The ways in which we honor these prerogatives as a community reflect the relevance of joy fundamental to human nature and a high standard of living. Our environment and our peers are arguably the most influential factors in shaping ourselves as individuals. Consciously choosing people and places that help us thrive sets us up for health and success to a greater degree than those who stew in their lots without carving a space for sacredness, seeking a container for their jubilance, or a tribe for their support. A sociologist and philosopher in the 19th century named Émile Durkheim coined a concept he called “collective effervescence.” It’s the observation that communities and societies share group experiences to excite individuals and unify the group, so that personal victories become community victories and vice versa.
A couple of months later, my partner Amani and I were on to the next one, Kinnection Campout on the East Coast. As soon as we opened the car door, a vivacious freshness greeted us. It was pitch black, but I knew we were deep in a forest from the smell of Earth. Forests on the East Coast have a different quality, a humid cool quenching flavor that my accustomed desert forests lack. As we walked along paths, intermittent patches of honeysuckle smell enveloped us. It made me want to strip down to my skin, drape myself in flowered vines and roam the forest as a fairy queen, feeding myself nectar from the blossoms of my own garb. I enjoyed every moment of Kinnection, though I still felt a bit out of place. I’d fallen in love with festivals already by this time, but I wasn’t sure my affections were requited as I found my footing, met new people, and learned the ropes. Yet as a native of the East Coast, I am thrilled for the new chapters it’s inviting, and for the family of characters in the tribe who are creating them. I cherish these kindreds and their contributions to raising the frequency of their corner of the world with such courage and integrity.
700 people in a conscientiously cultivated space comprised of one main stage, a dance floor, fire circles, live art area, hammock haven, and a river winding path to a field of workshops, domes, healing spaces, tea nooks, and vendors. Every element had been crafted with a keen eye for sustainability, community, collaboration, and the cultivation of inter-connectedness. Its size held the energy well, keeping people in a cohesive frame of experience. We felt we were all inhabiting the same realm together, whereas in larger festivals, (I discovered later) one can feel like there is so much space, so many people and such disparate focuses, that there is no unifying thread of tribe. But Kinnection felt particularly interconnected. It offered one of the best musical line-ups all year, and backstage was constantly percolating with family reunion vibes as musicians and performers, friends happy to all be booked for the same event, milled and made merry. My partner, half of the world bass duo Desert Dwellers, introduced me to many of his musical colleagues. In between introductions and tour reminiscences I grew restless and ran out to the dance floor to stomp around in the pouring rain, reveling in the mud instead, more at home in the elements than among the glitterati. Though in its first year, the Tribal Council aced this festival.
One key element of transformational festivals that turns its eye to the long-term future not only of our small communities but of our planet, is their emphasis on sustainability. Each event has it’s encouraging mottos… “Pack it in, pack it out.” “Leave it better, leave it beautiful.” “Leave no trace.” Etc. Many strive to source their energy from solar power or biodiesel fuels, offer biodegradable plates and cutlery, serve organic and non-GMO foods, encourage bartering and sharing, offer free clean water for everyone, and sometimes even use eco-friendly and composting toilets.
And the best part is that all of these efforts and offerings are collaborative. Humans are naturally cooperative. We’ve been tribal for far longer than we have cloistered ourselves away in hermitous apartments and nuclear families. We are hard-wired to act in concert for the betterment of the species. It’s how we’ve survived this far, and the lack of this communion is putting our collective well-being in jeopardy. We do not get the same social endorphins we require for natural optimal functioning from social media apps. We get them from coming together in concert to build something greater than ourselves, from moving from a control mindset into a collaboration mindset. It’s estimated that, depending on the festival, between 30–100% of participants actively co-create the event: Artists, dancers, security, musicians, cooks, vendors, builders, volunteers, architects, people to comfort those in distress, emergency medical technicians, teachers, and more. One of the maxims of Burning Man could be held as true for all transformational festivals: there are no spectators. So many people have spent their lives longing for community without ever “fitting in”. But the philosophy of radical inclusion runs deep in the hearts of this global tribe and anyone, everyone, will be embraced with hugs, smiles, and a heartfelt welcome.
It takes a village to run a village, and everyone brings their unique piece to these temporary culture puzzles in ways that conformity-minded society can’t compare to. People carve their own niche. One brilliant soul, for example, has made it his mission to create huge elaborately beautiful natural altars at festivals out of nothing but the surrounding elements. A friend of mine has created interactive installations that resonate to healing frequencies, such as the Schuman resonance that pulses with the electromagnetic heartbeat of the Earth. Another being I know dances theatrically in a ritual prayerformance while creating stunning floral arrangements on stage. I have a few friends whose contribution is to be a constant font of libations and sensations. From their belts and satchels they might at any moment produce a cooling rose mist, a grounding sandalwood oil, a healing Reishi tincture, an insightful tarot card, a nourishing bite of raw cacao, a cleansing smudge of sage, or any surprising accoutrement to the ambiance of the present moment.
After Kinnection, we were on to the next one, Lightning in a Bottle in southern California. My only thought for the first five minutes of exploration was: BIG! It was a huge event. Until now, Burning Man was my only sizable festival, though LIB was far more cohesive than the burn. Divided into large sections, each was as elaborately decorated as the next. There were several stages, workshop areas and art installations. The dusty, hilly landscape was grown over with tents as far as the eye could see in some places. Trees dotted the hills — some large enough to be the wide-armed shade structure for workshop areas like the Mystery School, earning themselves the generous embraces of every tree-hugger there. Lightning in a Bottle strives to be the “greenest” festival in the country. Four years in a row, it won the Outstanding Award from “A Greener Festival”, which audits the sustainability of events worldwide.
We arrived late Friday night in time for the first few tracks of a disappointing Moby set, whose 90’s era vinyls sounded terrible through high fidelity speakers at the Lightning Stage, an immersive light/sound/space experience of elaborate multicolored lasers that would hypnotize if you stared too long. The night contrived to unfold in a stream of reunions with people from nearly every time and place in our pasts — from expected encounters to the least likely. The festival community is a small pond. Though each event’s unique flavor attracts its own demographic of tribe, inevitably one sees the same people across great distances over the course of a year. And while these massive ragers are not my flavor of choice, I love the constant surprise of spotting familiar faces amid the crowds.
Around a campfire I marveled at how a person with a guitar could unite a whole crowd of people and call forth their voices in a tune we all knew. We sang in a chorus that harkened back to ancestral memories when our far foremothers gathered round the first fires to sing the dawning of our species. As the sky lightened we drifted to the driftwood stage in a low valley anchoring the center of the widespread festival. Desert Dwellers were commissioned to invite the sun to rise with their melodies. Exhaustion and cold invited me, instead, to curl up on an inflated sofa nearby, make new friends and partake of my first drought of absinthe. I wandered between that comfy perch and “backstage”, a glorified fallen tree branch sparkled by new and old friends: dancers, singers, DJs, and various beauteous VIPs and performers of all types. Everyone had their gift to bring, and was respected for their oblations to the collaborative experience of festdom. I, a quiet writer, felt subtley out of place in the scene, so unseasoned and empty-handed. I wandered back to the sofa. “It’s cool,” I thought. “They know me here.” I listened to the sunrise, observing faces betraying the various contents of bloodstreams behind them. Each visage was slightly contorted… by the offset jaw and tooth-grinding grimace of an M roll, the squinting eye-slits of smoke filled lungs, the loose-limbed slack-shouldered slur of alcohol, or some combination of these and more. I waited, alert, sipping the licorice liquid, but the only green fairy I saw was a man in a chartreuse tutu jumping on a trampoline.
Ninety percent of cultures across the globe use altered states of consciousness for healing purposes, usually induced by rhythmic chanting, drumming, dancing, meditation, fasting, or plant medicine. Elements of these factors are all present at the melting pot of modern and indigenous wisdom that is festival subculture, where participants enter altered states of consciousness with much the same intentions that all people do: for transcendence. Some Native Americans believe that depression is caused by part of the soul leaving the body, and that trancing and dancing entice the spirit back into the body. I can attest that there are few times I feel as fully alive as when on a dance floor, moving madly, mindlessly, as though seducing divinity into me. In fact, transpersonal psychology has long respected the panacea of health benefits of the neuro-endocrine opiod agents released during peak experiences brought on by chanting, drumming, and whirling (as in the dervish tradition). Paths are many, but purpose is one. All these methods take us closer to the undistracted truth.
In electronic music, which is the most common genre at festivals, there is a classic technique known as the “build-up” and the “drop”. During the build-up, the music reaches a crescendo of anticipation… interestingly, the brain responds the same as to a real life suspenseful situation. When tension releases with the drop (dropping the bass), the brain releases a flood of dopamine which, as studies in mice have shown, high audio volume prolongs and circulates. Music-stimulated endorphin release is called Frisson. Repetitive percussive beats, such as in trance music, entrain the brainwaves of listeners to match the frequency of the beat. Paired with visually stimulating laser light shows, raves and dance floors are a feast of sensory information for the mind, a recipe for peak experiences. Since our neurochemistry determines all our perceptions and perspectives, I believe sharing these experiences is what links people on a dance floor such that it feels more like one organism than hundreds of separate entities. At that point our brainwaves are vibrating at the same frequency; we’re “in the vibe” and “on the same wavelength” in a literal sense. By freeing the body, we free the mind, and together we imitate the ancient rituals of our ancestors in a modern, 21st century way that entrains our consciousnesses in a peaceful harmony with one another, with the music, and with the moment. This is collective effervescence.
I think it’s important, though, to separate the means from the end. I have somehow twisted my life of nature worship with the world of techno-shamanism, electronic music, and high tech festival culture. Though I am emphatically anti-transhumanist, even I must admit there is a certain quality that only technology can add to music. But so often the means becomes the end and technology is deified as a savior despite all history to the contrary, and newly invented consciousness enhancers are favored over nature’s entheogenic gifts. It’s as though people are blind to retrospect. They’ve spent so long staring at screens, they can’t see the brightness of the sun, or of their own self, much less recognize the two as one. Joining Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is a quicker route to spiritual awareness than meditation, so the latter is foregone. Reliance on and deference to technology is a seductive, slippery slope that only twists downwards to the detriment of our species and our planet. It’s a small thing, but despite who my partner is, I would choose acoustic music over electronic any day. I’d choose a sunset over any tricked out LED projection mapped stage, and choose plant medicine over any of Shulgin’s or Hoffman’s amazing creations. The latters are all wonderful, but they are not better. And I’m always thrilled to hear when festivals honor the land they temporarily inhabit by inviting the original natives of that land to honor it and open with a ceremony. We are not only stepping forward into the future, we are also carrying forth our collective past.
There is an inverse correlation between technology and human experience. The more time we spend looking into screens, the more we crave to look into the eyes of another. The more meaningless dribble we binge-feed our brains through infinite scrolling, the more meaningful ceremony and ritual we need. Humans have always had the latter, and now that modern life has made it such a rarity, there’s a greater soul lust for what festivals offer than ever before. They provide a context and structure for the immediacy of tangible reality. They offer nearly no context (outside snapping photos) for whipping out your smartphone. This respite alone is worth the ticket. For some, the greatest vacation imaginable is from the constant media barrage of fear and slander. Most television programming serves to discourage people from exploring the infinite beauty in themselves and others. It encourages barriers between people and a world-wariness behind which to hide fears of what might be uncomfortable, unusual, or dangerous.What they might find if they came to a festival is that freedom lies in summarily dismantling those fearful walls. It does not lie in more barricades, national security, police forces, or locked doors. It’s proactively safer to befriend your neighbors than to distrust them. This underpinning philosophy of festival culture is one that could have far-reaching impacts on world peace, opening up a curiosity and acceptance for other cultures, nations and practices that is the foundation for diplomacy.
That’s the enchantment. Though far be it from me to bring it down to earth in a relatable way, despite this naive narrative attempt to do so. In many ways, the culture must remain an enigma. There are billions in the world for whom it holds no allure, nor even makes sense. My family are among those. They are supportive of my path, which has always wound through strange and unusual places, but the bewilderment I’ve gotten in response to festival plans this year has been entertaining. My dad, for example, upon hearing I would go to Burning Man this year said, “You don’t want to go to burning man, Jenny. There’s nothing there. Nobody goes there anymore.” “Actually there are more people every year. The Bureau of Land Management has to cap it at 70,000, but there are thousands more who’d come if they could” “Well they’re all first timers. Somebody goes there once, sees the moral decay of our society and never comes back. It’s Sodom and Gomorrah.” “You do know I’ve been 4 times, right?” My dad is the extreme example. But most of my family have found it oddly entertaining. My sister once said, “We only ever see your festival pictures. I guess we just figured you run around naked in the woods all year. You’re that weird wild aunt who moved away and went crazy. We love you, but we don’t really get it.” She went on to say that, although my lifestyle is odd, they do admire how happy and free I seem to be. Well, I can’t deny any of that. But in the name of full disclosure, my life is otherwise fairly ordinary. I have a house and a cat and a business, and enjoy a level of normalcy and societal integration as much as I can bear, as most festival goers do, though our tolerances vary. The important thing is that exposing ourselves to so many different traditions and experiences broadens our tolerances for such important human values as cultural diversity, accountability and co-operation. Ideally, they make us kinder and more patient people in our daily “reality camp” lives.
To outside observers, festivals must appear the most morally loose, easygoing places on the planet. But it’s quite the opposite. There’s an ethical ethos that unites us in our ideals. We may be easygoing, but hard working. We are open-hearted, but also smart. Some of the most intelligent people in the world congregate at festivals, especially Burning Man. There is no blanket generalization that can be made about festivals, especially from one who has never experienced them. Whatever it is, this empowering, seductive, strange psychedelic revolution, it’s taking hold because it speaks to the human heart. What it whispers, you will have to find out for yourself. Because festivals are deceptive. On the surface, they bring together wayward partisome youth for weekends of instant gratification. But peer behind the curtains of sex drugs and rock and roll, peel back the hedonism and cast a discerning eye into the fire that fuels festivals. It’s the same fire that has lit the heart of humanity since tribal times when clans of our ancestors roamed much as we do, from venue to venue, to gather in small groups and believe in a deeper truth, to make love, take sacrament and dance. We celebrate, learn, inspire and dissipate. We gather, dance, transform, evolve, and scatter. We coalesce, create, envision, connect, and carry cupped prayerhands full of our small garnered blessings off to our elsewheres, spilling drops along the way that might nourish and invite other default-world weary wanderers.
What exactly is the “transformation” of a transformational festival? An expression of the human spirit. Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs describes five essential necessities for human life, in order of importance: Food and shelter, safety, camaraderie, self-esteem, and self-actualization. But later in life, Maslow expanded upon his original hypothesis with two additional necessities: art and transcendence. These, according to one of the most respected psychologists of all time, are necessities which are the natural progression of human seeking, and I believe these, if not all, can be found in festivals. They are the subconscious reasons we gravitate towards them, they fill all human needs. And we can share this experience in moments of collective effervescence with strangers, random eccentric nut cases like ourselves, reverently indulging in irreverence and sustainable hedonism.
What creates the transformation is something we call a Peak Experience, another term borrowed from Maslow, which plays an important role on the path to self-actualization. He described it as “sudden feelings of intense happiness and well-being, and possibly the awareness of “ultimate truth” and the unity of all things”. These are events that stand out significantly from daily life, and whose insights can be reintegrated back into life afterwards. If one reaches peak experiences in a festal context, can he continue to have them if festivals become his daily lifestyle? Can one continue reaching higher peak experiences, or does one acclimate to the stimuli, and no longer transform? Is this even a sustainable model for society, or does it represent an experience that is, by nature, ephemeral? According to Maslow, becoming seasoned in peak experiences leads to a “plateau experience”, “a state of witnessing or cognitive blissfulness” that takes time to cultivate and maintain. In other words, we learn from extraordinary experiences of heightened awareness that awareness can be cultivated even in the most ordinary experiences, and that self-actualization is as necessarily practiced in the grocery store as at your altar. The sacred is in the profane, the profane in the sacred. We choose what to perceive through the consciousness that we cultivate, and the ways we choose to alter our awareness and experiences. Whether we hit a peak or plateau at events designed to instigate such experiences, the most important factor is the integration that comes after.
After Lightning in a Bottle, my sweetheart and I rolled on to the next one, Enchanted Forest, deep in the Redwoods on the banks of the Yuba River in California. I’d heard tales for years, and it surpassed every complimentary rumor. Throughout the weekend, I connected more deeply with kin I’d met at so many other events. We all danced together, cuddled together, ate together, swam in the river together. It was the first time in the summer when I recognized a deep soul kinship with these beings. As I immersed myself in the experience I began to feel empathic ties to many I’d already met and many strangers whom I now recognized from lifetimes before. I felt as though we were at a secret family reunion of starseeds, unbeknownst to us.
Enchanted Forest has an integrated, earthy presence, as though people and structures had grown right up out of the ground and were existing in such symbiosis with the environment that they looked completely natural there. The tea house was a sight to behold — a huge architecturally stunning geodesic tent filled with artful fairy lighting, musicians, performers, and communal offerings enjoyed by cuddles en masse. Throughout the forest were nooks and crannies where campers nestled their tents at the base of huge trees. Scattered throughout the festival were mandalas and crystal altars. I felt at home, as though festivals had finally fully embraced me. Or perhaps they had embraced me from the start and I had finally softened into their arms.
Being so immersed in nature is, to me, one of the most alluring traits of festivals. It’s easy to forget in our modern lives, but outdoors is our natural habitat and the word “indoors” doesn’t even exist in indigenous languages. But it’s not always easy. Nighttime at Enchanted Forest (and other events I’ve mentioned) were freezing cold. Festivals bring you right out into the elements, exposed to the wiles of nature that move weather in sometimes unpredictable and often uncomfortable ways. Setting up camp in the middle of a white-out dust storm, sleeping in the freezing cold, having your merch booth ripped apart by the wind, and trying not to faint from heat exhaustion on a dance floor are all common experiences. Why do we subject ourselves to such extremes? Because there is something invigorating about being faced with our own mortality. Because it shows us what we’re capable of and teaches us how to work together even in trying times. Civilization with it’s domestication and “central air” have controlled our climate for enough generations that humans’ range of comfortable temperatures has shrunk to a narrow band of degrees within those our ancestors could bear. It’s not easy, but we’re taking our legacy back. We’re re-estabishing a communion with nature and with the elements that would be utterly tragic to lose. Yes, we get tired and cold and dirty and grumpy. No, there are no working showers or flushing toilets most of the time. But we’re testing our mettle, and that’s a rite of passage I pray for every human alive.
Then we were on to the next one, Sonic Bloom, which took place this year in the high plains of Colorado. There I taught a workshop for the first time at a festival venue. It felt wonderful to contribute to the community, and I began to feel integrated with the fabric of co-creation at the event, if only in a very small way. The days were windy and dry, the nights cold and loud. People were festooned with body paint, sacred geometry mandala clothing, om symbol tattoos, clever hand-painted signs, hip-belts filled with crystals, medicinal remedies, and vivid fractal stickers, with dreadlocks hanging down their backs and smiles beaming from their faces.
It had been a theme all year, but here I was particularly surprised by how many people recognized me as Amani Friend’s girlfriend. People I’d never laid eyes on had some recognition of me and in some cases, an automatic and entirely un-earned respect. Suddenly I was a medium-sized fish dating a big fish in a small pond. Social media is a strange phenomenon, and through its influence in the life of my semi-famous beloved, I had become a friendly face to countless strangers. I was happy to already have so many people to meet, and to be so warmly received. But I would like to state here, once, so that I might never have to mention it again: I am no Madame Blavatsky, but I am at least perceptive enough to know when someone is cozying up to me extra because of my man’s fame. It’s not lost on me when you mention for the eighth time that you’re a singer, and subtly hint that you would love to lay down some tracking with Desert Dwellers. It’s not particularly flattering when you introduce me to your friends as “Amani Friend’s girlfriend”, sans my name, as though you’ve just found a crisp twenty lying on the ground. Also, I am not an agent nor a talent scout, and the multitudes of questions directed to me such as “Would Desert Dwellers play at my event?” or “Would Desert Dwellers do an interview with me?” or “Could you get me and my friends backstage passes and free tickets?”, would be better kept to yourself, or put to someone else. I will not be your inside connection, your hookup, or your go-between if you’re too starstruck to say hello to the boys yourself. That being said, I absolutely love connecting with genuine fans in a genuine way, and it makes me so happy to hear how much their music has changed your life. I would love to join you on the dance floor sometime, and get to know you in an authentic way.
Of course my own experience of these festival adventures were skewed by a bit of a red carpet in some sense by that factor. But by no means do I mean to have painted a picture of infallible happiness and compassion at festivals. There is always a human element which, for all its striving, sometimes fails to meet its ideals. But what is so compelling about this culture is that despite the human element, it strives for a level of divinity scarcely seen outside an ashram. And though there are surely digressions from ideals, they are surely less common than doctors digressions from their hippocratic oaths or congressmen from their oaths of office. What happens instead, when people make mistakes, is a willingness to see and even embrace natural faults. There’s an element of vulnerability which allows people to be raw, to admit their limitations, and to exist within a mutual sphere of flexibility that allows for a never ending potential to grow.
Oddly, one trait I noticed more among veterans and full-timers of the culture than among newcomers and vacationers, was jadedness. Among musicians, facilitators, vendors, and those who have “seen it all”, your heartfelt description of your fifth dimensional chakra awakening will likely be met with little more eye-rolls concealed with a placating smile. Why is this? At what point does the naiveté wear off and what replaces it? I can’t claim to know. But I assume it’s mostly a matter of faded novelty. Time taints everything. In the beginning, you are wowed by the sheer magic of what’s been created. After your 20th festival, you become more aware of what hard work, sweat, labor, time, effort, and money went into making peoples’ aura-evolving wet dreams a reality. You know the disgusting things people do in porta-potties, and you know how far technicians have to reach their arm inside a shit-tube to amend idiots’ blunders, all too often. There are rumors, as in any community, reputations, black sheep, violence and taboos, though they are all exceedingly rare. Per capita, the rate of these is so negligible is hardly bears remark, though this ethnography would not be complete without mentioning it.
Many artists, having passed the “peak experience” phase of festival experience and incorporated the events into the normalcy of their lives, are wondering if their contributions are even received in a way that justifies their efforts. I hope in this vignette I’ve painted a fair enough picture to reveal that, while they are irrefutably awesome, they are also imperfect. The truth is, most musicians wonder from time to time why they spend their lives playing for a bunch of drugged up teenagers. They continue because it’s so much more than that. But I would like to remind those few folks who trash their campsite, leave MOOP (matter out of place) on the land, act disrespectfully or get too high to handle, that these are collaborative group experiences and it takes every tribesman to create a cohesive environment that facilitates everyones’ peak experiences.
Such peak experiences are rapidly becoming more widely popular and available. Everyone wants to get in on the action, and new events of all sizes are popping up across the country, in every state. Considering how widespread this phenomenon has become, it’s surprising that it’s still considered a “fringe” peculiarity. Unfortunately, however, many people who endeavor to organize and host these events for the first time are largely unaware of how much work, money, and planning goes into them. It often takes several annual events before organizers recoup their initial investments. In fact so many festivals end up in the red, it’s a wonder people continue to fund them. The majority of festival profits come indirectly from the marijuana industry. The majority of regular attendees are able to afford high price tickets after short and intense bouts of trimming herb on the West Coast. This poses the question, how will festivals be impacted by the imminent legalization of weed in so many states, which may put illegal underground operations out of business en masse? In my short experience with festivals, I’ve seen honchos lose their shirts on several occasions. Once, I saw a man lose his house and his life savings in the fell swoop of an under-attended weekend event. The moral of the story is: even something as counter-establishment as a party in the woods should have a business plan, backers, and the foresight to remain consistent until it builds a foundation and reputation. A well executed young festival can build slowly, it doesn’t need to start with an expensive bang — all the biggest stages, best sound, lights and headlining acts. It’s better to create a unique quality that sets the festival apart and makes it memorable. Small start-ups copy-catting already large successful festivals is a recipe for bankruptcy. With a trend like this, many people are wondering how long festivals will be able to sustain this rapid growth. The future of festivals in America is in uncertain territory. With an eye to all possibilities, some artists are turning to bank their careers on the more stable and consistent international festival markets.
We paused for a breath, then were on to the next one called Lunarburn, a very small festival also held outside Nevada city. There I taught another workshop and made a fire dance and flow arts offering at sunrise euro-dub-step set overlooking the valley. The same land on which Enchanted Forest had been hosted was now adorned with LED toadstools on the trees and flame throwers by one of the stages. The small population of the event created an intimate atmosphere, and the lineup of musical offerings was diverse. It was a chill, cozy atmosphere. It’d been so long since I’d slept in my bed by now, I’d forgotten to miss it. The rhythm of festal life was moving my circadian rhythms to its bass throb. Most my life I have felt like a bit of an outsider, usually preferring to go my own way than join a clique. I’d always done Burning Man solo, always traveled and lived alone. But now I realized that I had become part of an extended family of people I loved. I knew folks everywhere I went, and I always had someone to talk to. I’d found my tribe, which disseminated and coagulated always with different people in different places. I was as likely to see someone there in California that I’d met at a festival in Hawaii, who’s brother I’d done ceremony with in New Mexico alongside a girl I’d met at Burning Man. And lo and behold, I would see her face at the next festival as well. Human nature has been tribal and nomadic for far longer, historically speaking, than we have been doing this fairly recent experiment in sedentary agrarianism. In fact, we have only been living this way for .2% of human history. In a way, this semi-nomadic tribal subculture is returning us to our anthropological roots.
“Tribalism” embraces paradox. In the same breath that it celebrates individual self-expression, it’s also self-transcendent. While it welcomes diversity and honors uniqueness, it also weaves these unique threads together in a tapestry that unifies through similarity. There are many tribes, and we all belong to several, linked by distinguishing commonalities — location, interest, musical taste, aesthetic style, language, sacramental preference or spiritual interests. Though in a sense, the kinship between them all is a dissolution of differences. We come together to transcend distinctions that separate us and be united in the same consciousness that unites all humans. So many types people are drawn to festivals because there’s a niche for everyone. And festival coordinators are aware of this, especially at larger events, and try to cater to all manner of special-interest tribes, so to speak. All “tribal” means in this context is groups coming together to celebrates and set aside differences, and create a communal brotherly love.
In contrast to the brightness of all the hope I have found in this new society, we all are acutely aware of the fact that we are living post nuclear fall-out. Humanity is restructuring in these times, and people are developing their own strategies for skirting the failure of the current paradigm. As of now, over two thousand nuclear explosions have encased our planet in a layer of radioactivity. There is nothing above ground which does not have radioactive particles on it. Mainstream society is in a self-involved self-destructive bubble wherein they poison their own food and water supply. I don’t harbor much hope or respect for the mess, to be brutally honest. But on the fringes, these tribal networks are forming. We convene and reconvene at sites throughout the planet to share in knowledge, camaraderie, music, and dance — transformational peak experiences in moments of collective effervescence that connect us to each other and to the ancestors whose memories still resonate within our DNA to the same primal expressions of sound and movement. We are human. We have always sung and danced and celebrated. This is not bound by space and time, nor regulated by imposed systems. This transcends them. We share our strategies for moving forward into the coming era post 2012. Permaculture, biodynamics… These are the technologies that will sustain us and our planet. As we watch those around us in the default world falling ill on a daily basis with food allergies, cancers, diabetes and psychoses, we share health strategies among us and to all who will listen. One friend uses zeolite to avoid radiation, another uses iodine. This one uses black seed to cure sickness, another uses Reiki. I vortex to restructure and mineralize to ionize my water when I don’t have access to a Spring. This kriya will cleanse your lymphatic system and decalcify your pineal gland. This orgone is for EMF protection. There are always tools, technologies and strategies to share among the tribe. Everyone carries their piece to the puzzle to thrive, while the rest of the world relies upon outmoded systems for it’s mere survival.
These tribes cradle my hope for humanity. The authenticity, sincerity and depth of heart connections so quickly forged transcend our modern 140 character relational attention spans. We sometimes only have a matter of days to glimpse into each others depth of being and collect the nectar that sustains us all: compassion empathy and love. And we pollinate the mycellial web of our culture with it. We are surfing the waves of a dying era and birthing a new one. We are the humble vessels of a greater cosmic movement.
Traveling with Amani became a way of life, as we’d been on the road almost constantly since the previous fall, between festival tours and club shows. (Though admittedly he covered many more miles than I joined him for.) I felt like Jack Kerouac on the road, but more cohesive. Rolling in planes, boats, busses, cars, and trains, always shifting from one here to another. It was late in the Summer, now. I’d often heard about a huge Canadian event called Shambhalla, and I was eager to experience my first Shambles. En route to the next one, my desert thirsty eyes drank in the rolling green landscape as we moved north through the evergreens. The air was a wet humid breath, resting heavy with fog into the distance. Unfortunately the beautiful, lush forest was filled with loud trap, bad techno, and cheesy EDM/dubstep soundscapes.The stages on which they played, however, were amazing. They were huge and ornate and breath-taking; the most elaborate environments I’d seen. The land has the advantage of being a permanent establishment, where stages are added to every year. It’s the only festival property in North America that uses this model. Throughout the year it’s a farm (though it’s difficult to imagine a herd of cattle roaming and grazing where sparkle ponies were dancing and raving). The result of sustained effort poured into the land over years is that the infrastructure is unparalleled. Every stage is a completely immersive environment. Each is its own small territory of a larger land called Shambhalla and each bears its own signature aesthetic and ear-sthetic.
I first felt underwhelmed, soberly exploring the psychedelic forest landscape, impressed by the stages but bored with the monotony of another massive EDM party with thousands of ravers. I missed my cats, my books, and my tea nook. Clearly I’d passed the point where these were peak experiences any longer, and I had to wonder: Where’s the substance behind the form? To my eye, there seemed only trance, no transformation. A particularly ill-timed psychonautic journey found me immersed in the stench of all the the fossil fuel that has carried me from one party to another across this hemisphere. I went to sleep early and awoke crying. In Canada, it costs $100 to fill a tank full of petrol. Of course it’s all liters and kilometers there but in the end it measures up to the same Stockholm syndrome for our dependence on the poison we claim to vainly strive independence from. We seek freedom in semi-sustainable festivals that unsustainable Federal Reserve Notes send to us, and why? To set ourselves apart? To take one small step, even if it’s fueled by gasoline, away from the establishment? We’re running towards sustainability in some form — a more sustainable cultural paradigm, or more sustainable individual and collective mentality. Sometimes ecologically sustainable, depending on the event. For me, it’s the cultural sustainability that draws me most… the decision to turn on our heels and stride towards a more humane way of being human. The statistics on depression, anxiety and the growing necessity of pharmaceutical mood alteration medication are incontrovertible evidence claiming the irrelevance of civility to health, and the insustainability of post industrial revolutionary lifestyles. A lack of dance, music, art, creativity, co-operation, collective visioning, conscious evolution, connection with nature, pro-active co-creation, and physical freedom send us flocking to temporary realms of innate possibility. The “why” is easy. The “how”, however, manifests differently for everyone. The movement is still in its adolescense, in a sense, still finding its way and making its mark and deciding who it will be. Nothing is perfect, but nothing is finished. And all is beautiful in its own way. This tipping point at Shambhalla was, for me, the catharsis of my festival season. I learned to embrace the dichotomy, and to err on the side of beginners mind. It’s easy to lose momentum when you’ve lost perspective. Reclaiming it is as simple as remembering why you started, and letting yourself fall in love with it all over again.
I learned to reserve judgement, but to have discernment. That’s my strategy to avoid getting burnt out on tour. This realm is designed to bring constant sensory overload. The idea is to shock you into yourself, to readjust your compass so it no longer points by default in it’s trained direction but points from the center of your heart towards truth instead. And they are effective in doing so. But once that’s done, I find no continued use in shocking the system. Staying up all night every night after road trips and plane rides is exhausting. It’s hard for the body in equal measure to being liberating for the spirit. And it takes conscientious cultivation of a healthy lifestyle on the road to maintain balance and equilibrium even more than it does at home. There are many ways to rage — some people wake up early, do yoga classes and take workshops all day. Others stay up all night dancing to their favorite music and use the daytime to sleep and recover. Most people conflate some combination of these. The middle path will probably allow you to see the most scenery along the way, but if you’re going to make it a lifestyle rather than a vacation it’s best to err on the side of self-care. Reserve extremism for special occasions so you can still create for yourself moments of peak experience. Get involved! The more you contribute, the more invested and fulfilled you will be. Break the monotony — yes, even these environments of unique beauty and unparalleled entertainment can eventually feel all the same. So switch it up, do something different, avoid habits and seek new experiences. There is always something new, a new level of perception, a new human interaction, a new musical style, or a new landscape to explore. The ability to come to these events puts us far in the upper percentile of wealth and freedom in the world at large and remembering that fact with gratitude helps us refocus our energy and make our presence there an answer to the question: How can we use this privilege to affect the most positive change possible?
After a short jaunt to another Canadian festival called Atmosphere, we were on to the final and most anticipated event of the year: Burning Man. I spent a week sewing my costumes and headdresses, harvesting mountain spring water and stocking up on protein bars. This year, I decided, I wanted to go all out. Looking back, I had no idea just how far that would be! That week of otherworldly timelessness in the barren desert of Black Rock City, Nevada was the pinnacle of the year, tying together every element of all I had seen, learned and experienced in the past 8 festivals. While there are great strides among many subcamps of Black Rock City towards “greening the burn”, it’s still the most excessive, overblown and wasteful event in America. While it’s spiritually cathartic to the core, it’s the most physically rigorous and challenging week of the year. It took every element of transformational festivals — music, workshops, technology and community, and stretched them each to the very extremes of possibility. Extreme creativity, extreme spirituality, extreme debauchery, you name it, everything is at it’s Nth degree of expression in this gigantic desert playground. It’s difficult to even convey an accurate sense of it, because the experience changes from year to year and from person to person, and even if you were to bike along its dusty roads all day and all night, all week long, you still could not see the entirety of Burning Man. What fascinates me most is how many Inventors, engineers, scientists, CEOs, geniuses and truly brilliant people of all types gather together to use it as their yearly think tank for sharing evolutionary information. And on the very same playa is the exact opposite polarity of completely cracked out unconscious burners ruled by cocaine, ketamine and libido alone. In most respects, Burning Man is a great microcosm for the world, and represents what humans might do if left to their own devices outside the box of social norm.
This year the theme was caravansary, a take on the gypsy lifestyle. It seemed particularly appropriate to me given its finale to all the gypsying I’d done this year. I realized as I roamed this strange home planet that my journey had come full circle from the first time, five years ago, that I entered Black Rock City for my virgin Burn. That year I seeded dreams of possibility that had come to fruition, and over time I had become a person at home in a place that once seemed only an impossible mirage. I had glimpsed the highs and lows of the potentials and pitfalls of festal life, and I opened my arms again to its renewed invitation. Amani and I decided at the last minute to elope, and we got engaged and were married on the playa. We celebrated our union with friends we had seen at every event along the way during our loopy journey.
There is a transmission of culture occurring that is unique to all human history. Never before have so many congregated to salvage what remains of their ancestors’ cosmologies, combine them with modern technology, and create a network of communities founded upon the wisdom they gleaned therein. These events link us to a co-created future, though they are the means and not the end. They show us in an ephemeral way what’s possible and inspire ways of making their promise more widespread and sustainable. As William Gibson wrote, “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed”.
In its essence, this emerging society is a counter-culture, a subculture not entirely antagonistic to, but certainly at odds with the prevailing social norms. Whether it’s indeed a new spirituality for our planetary family, or a revolutionary harbinger of a “new age”, as many claim, only time will tell. I believe there are many paths to global change, and we must have the objectivity and broad-mindedness to see, accept, and support many such changes. However much we may desire that these small changes we are making amongst ourselves become more widely practiced, we also want to prevent mainstream culture, corporations, fashion trends, and the media from co-opting and commodifying this profanely sacred and unique experience. It’s important not to project or deify festival culture, or place unrealistic expectations on it’s abilities as an agent of change. In truth, we are the agents of change that fuel the engine of revolution, and it’s likely to be a slower, quieter, and more local process than we expect. I’m trying to be realistic and objective about its potential, its benefits, and its pitfalls. I do think it’s closer to a natural way of living, but there are many such tools that humanity will need to implement, both in these tribes and the default world, and eventually there could be a mergence of the two — incorporating creativity, community, permaculture, collective effervescence, and other integral festival cornerstones. Festivals are one stepping stone along one path out of many that stretch in a positive direction for our people and our planet.
We all have our ways of reintegrating, our methods of planting these peace seeds into the populace. Some spend most of their lives in reality camp, only popping into a festival for occasional soul nourishment. Everyone balances differently, but we are all equally tribe. Whether you have been deeply shifted by one or a hundred festivals, you can carry some sliver, be it sustainability, artful expression, gift economy or simply newfound heart expansion into radical self acceptance, radical self reliance, or a peak into the underlying equilibrium of radicalism, forth into in a world where the prefab boxes ready made to be filled with the normalcy of our daily consumerist lives are radically unhealthy and unsustainable.
Far from being exhausted after months of intensity, I arrived home feeling completely recharged, renewed and reinspired. I began writing with a fervor I hadn’t seen in years, becoming more involved in charitable causes, dancing as much as I could find time for, pouring myself into research, learning Spanish, and meditating. I had a more intense repulsion than ever from chain stores and corporate consumerism. I had an infinitely deeper appreciation for my own bed, my cats, and all the small simplicities of home that go unnoticed until you’ve returned after leafing through so many pages of life. It made me more aware and present to the blessings of all the friends and stomping grounds I’d missed. Next year, I will visit fewer events, and will have a more balanced approach to attendance. But I’m already finding joy and purposefulness in envisioning more ways to get involved and contribute to the communities I’ve come to love so much. When we empty ourselves of the stagnation of normalcy and the cobwebs of habit to step into a new environment, we make ourselves vessels of those glimmering moments that we choose to fill ourselves up with and spill back out into our life when we return.
Anaïs Nin once said, “Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.” In the pursuit of life, may humanity continue to rediscover its roots in tribal society and reclaim its habitat in nature, as I have learned to do in the past year of finding my personal tribe and discovering “home”. I hope that through festivals, and through this glimpse into their world, you have found the bravery to embark upon your own hero’s journey, whatever that may look like for you. Will you take that step into the unknown, magnetize your people and your power to you, surrender to the peak experience of life and dance? And if or when you have, will you leave it all in the realm of memory like a weird dream you had after too much ethnic food, or will you alchemize it into something beneficial for your home and family? We are standing at a threshold, and transformation is calling: “Red rover, red rover, send everyone over!”