I spent some time at the last ‘transformative’ festival thing I went to talking with a few different people who came up to me while I was painting. They were mostly young and, at first, were afraid to be critical. Once you give a person the permission to share though, they tend to open up and feel more comfortable. Since it was supposed to be fun, one person wondered, why was there someone on the main stage droning on and on in a monotonous voice about spirit this or that? It felt, to them, like they were being hit over the head with it. Where was the spiritual thing they were there told about? It felt like some kind carrot on a stick. While offered, it seemed just slightly out of reach. There were workshops and ceremonies and such it all seemed be the very antithesis of fun. They were there because they had been promised a good time and instead felt like they were getting preached to.
The ‘Transformative Festivals’ moniker is a new thing. When I started going to festivals a number of years ago, they were really just called what they were – music festivals. They had exactly what they said they would have and did what they said they’d do. They were festive festivals full of festively funky festivities. And they were extremely fun.
Recently, this idea that they are ‘transformative’ or ‘transformational’ started to enter the picture and then it became the Thing that a festival should be called that. Then what happens, I think, is that the more you talk about the thing, the more you label and structure it, the further away you get from the thing that you tried to capture to begin with.
What has been growing out of it the music festival scene is a desire by many producers to create a pseudo-spiritual container where one should be having some kind of spiritual experience. This is, in essence, how religions are born. They are not born overnight. They take years of development, intentional or not, to turn into ‘religion’ as we know it today. However, they are all born from the spontaneous spiritual experience and the desire by others to create containers and be the doormen for that experience.
The birth we are witnessing right now is a movement that started in the 60s. Psychedelics kickstarted a spiritual movement based on personal grown that became known collectively as the New Age Movement. Within a couple decades, bookstores and healing modalities and a melange of Eastern and Western spirituality created a burgeoning new ‘scene’ with it’s own codified language, symbols, and belief systems – some very practical and helpful, some far out on the fringe and as much myth as Zeus or the Bible.
This isn’t to say it’s all a bad thing. The abundance of organic foods available to us today is due in large part to the Back to the Earth type of movements and it was because of the early Tibetan and Zen Buddhism and Hinduism teachers, who became favorites of the 60s counterculture, that we can find Buddhism and Eastern Philsophy and Spirituality in any bookstore and yoga being taught at a 24 Hr. Fitness in the suburbs. It is because of the people who wanted alternative modalities of healing – outside of modern Western Medicine – that we can have a plethora of therapies to choose from – from Chinese Medicine to massage to…
…resting crystals on your chakras… For better or for worse, it gets kind of out there.
Over time, the rules of this movement have begun to shift and solidify. ‘Channeling’ is so common that anyone with a hokey voice and a decent message can draw two or three hundred people to their stage at a festival. The yoga tent, the healing dome, the crystal download chakra experience is so common at festivals, at least on the west coast and bleeding into the east coast, that it’s “normal” and has come to be expected. While there’s nothing wrong with much of that, inherently – yoga and massage are great! – it’s the kind of reverence that they begin to elicit and the ‘truth’ they purport to teach – a reverence that becomes religiosity – that is where the ‘spontaneous spiritual experience’ begins to be turned into a commodity, a buzzword, a structure, and, at that, a thing which becomes slightly out of reach, if it was ever something to be reached for.
I think that the people who put on events forget sometimes what started them on their paths to begin with. They forget that they didn’t go to some crystal healing chakra chant workshop and have a ‘transformational experience’. They were either a) on or near a dance floor, b) in the woods or nature, c) probably on drugs (most likely LSD, mushrooms, and/or MDMA) and/or d) just off having a good time somewhere without anyone telling them how or what they should be feeling. One way or another, it always comes back to choice “D”.
I was raised a Roman Catholic. I went to church every Sunday, learned all the rules and sins and absolutions. Because of that, I am, to say the least, leery of anything or anyone that tries to put a structure around the spontaneous spiritual experience.
Buddhism, Christianity, and, in fact, every major religion have their roots in the spontaneous spiritual experience. Let’s say there was a person named Gautama Buddha. He was dissatisfied with the general religious structures which were his culture and, to him, they seemed to be missing something. So he went off looking. In his own way, he discovered some core truths about the human experience. It was like finding diamonds locked away in the mind. So he shared these jewels of wisdom. Over time, people began to revere him more than the words he shared. And, after he passed on, he became the object of worship in the typical projectionary guru-worship kind of way that humans seem to be so good at. We are, if anything, experts at mistaking the finger for the moon it is pointing to.
It wasn’t much different with Christ.
In any case, around their ideas about the nature of the human condition, people built religions and institutions and codified belief systems. Along with the religions, so too did the people who desire money and power see that there was a vast amount of money and power to be had there. And so…. and so the birth of a religion.
I see similarities in what is happening today. There is always the space for the spontaneous spiritual experience – the personal experience of the divine. Yet, people are intent on placing structures around it. They dress it up with the detritus of other cultures they borrow from. They prop it up with bits and pieces of dubious science while discounting anything that negates their belief systems.
If you ask some Christian Fundamentalist where they are from, they will tell you they come from a God who created the world six thousand years ago and, perhaps, that they can heal you through the power of their prayer…
If you ask some New Age Fundamentalist where they are from and they tell you the Pleiadies and that they are from some star being and their teacher channels some other star being and that they will heal you with some crystals…
Well, what is the difference between the two?
Each will tell you the other is dead wrong and each will tell you how right they themselves are because of this, that, and the other thing.
Who is right? Who is wrong? It doesn’t really matter. That’s not the point.
The point is that when you start foisting your belief system on others through the guise of bringing them closer to ‘spirit’ is when you start walking down that long long road of building a religion. The point is that when your belief system needs more explanation than the truth it contains, where the things which cannot be explained require more ‘faith’ than practicality is when we start to steer our ships once again away from the thing we claim to be headed towards.
I’ll be honest: I don’t want another religion and I don’t want a religion injecting itself into the festival experience. I’m not going to follow anyone who tells me they can get me closer to God. God is here, now, in my heart and in the heart of my heart. It is at the heart of all things and no amount is spirit channeling, chakra aligning, om droning, is going to change that.
Sometimes I think that the idea of the ‘Transformational’ festival is sucking the heart out the party. It was the party of the heart that got us all good and going and wide open to begin with. We just wanted to experience freedom, to have fun, to be open and awake. We didn’t need to call one thing tranformative and leave others in the dust. To name an event ‘transformational’ is to suggest that others are not. To dub it transformative is to speak to the little part of the ego that just wants to belong to the ‘thing’. Why tell me the story and what to believe? I just want to experience what I can experience without labels and conjecture and belief systems drowning out the good time.
Festivals, by their very nature, have always been transformative one way or another. Anytime you bring together that many different people for that long a period of time and give them that many drugs and play that much music, that much visual and aural stimulation, etc, something is bound to happen to them – internally and externally. It’s inevitable.
I spent so much time through my 20s going to festivals and parties and Phish shows and ALL of it was HIGHLY transformative without ever having to make a big deal about it. The people who put them on knew this: that if you really put your heart into it and just that – your heart, your love – and created a good solid space and played good music and really pushed the envelope on FUN and PARTY then the inevitable would occur: people could let go a little. They could lose themselves a bit. Maybe a little bit of ego would dissolve. And, in doing so, people might find something deeper and more nourishing in themselves and in their relation to others.
I think that some of the people who are putting on events these days have forgotten a bit of what got them started to begin with… they tell themselves too much story and forget that they are just there to hold a space – not to tell people how to feel or think or believe. The more you fill that space with echoes of your own spiritual experience, the more you move away from the defining archetype of all spiritualities: be love and do love. Everything else is auxiliary to that truth.
Enough with the New Age hoke-fest.
I just want to dance.
A brief footnote… There’s a number of things I’ve seen springing up at festivals lately that I think are really really awesome. There’s a services called Sudbusters that brings reusable plates to festival food vending areas, greatly reducing the amount of waste. Tea lounges – with chill lighting and pillows on the floor – offer a calm space to drink tea and have conversations. They’re usually serviced by really awesome and mindful individuals who keep the spaces open and drama free. And, of course, art galleries from people like Tribe13, SolPurpose, and others show amazing works of art, offering a visual space to compliment the sonic space of the music. These things are practical solutions to practical issues – how to reduce waste, create soft spaces, bring more art, etc.
I love that there’s more cool random art pieces that people just bring because they want to share them and that festivals have continued to expand their budgets to include more than just music. Late at night at an event recently, I ran across something that was this… how to describe… there was a screen projected at the end of the space… and some head phones… and this large wood grid with large rectangular holes that you wave your hand through and (most likely via a Kinect) your hands waving through the spaces would create sound baths, harps, chimes… all via this invisible controller. It’s the kind of thing you usually only see at Burning Man because, you know, that’s where it all happens. :) But people making cool stuff, sharing it, playing with it – that can happen anywhere and it inspires me and, I’m sure, inspires others.
We humans are fantastic machines with fantastic imaginations. Why build another wheel when we can imagine… ANYTHING?
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