LAST WEEK, I sat on a wide grassy plain with 30,000 people watching a total solar eclipse as part of the Oregon Eclipse – Symbiosis Gathering. The last total solar eclipse visible in the United States took place in 1979, so I was happy traveling 6,000 miles from my current base in Berlin, Germany to witness.
The elders of several Native American nations from both North and South America sang and danced, cries to protect the Earth’s water rang out from leaders of the Dakota Pipeline protests, and groups of older men and women who sat at Woodstock in 1969 held hands and howled as the moon passed over the sun and a dark, cool, eerie light shown down on this gathering of artists, free spirits, entrepreneurs, families, and activists.
I should probably admit that I’m a skeptic when it comes to the whole festival business, the kind of person who wants to know the value proposition of bringing 30,000 people together in the forest for a week. I spend most of my time these days working from remote areas of Africa and Asia, so for one week I arranged to step firmly out of my comfort zone, fly out to one of the biggest festivals in America, and ask myself and other attendees some tough love questions: How can the roughly 150,000 attendees of gatherings like Burning Man, Lightning in a Bottle, Shambala, and Symbiosis bring their ethos of inclusivity, community, and creativity back to the “real world?” Can these “transformational festivals” (to echo the term used by Rolling Stone) be more than a few weeks of escapism?
Over the course of the week, I attended workshops by world-renowned experts in astrology, neuroscience, and permaculture; saw theater groups from Los Angeles put on nightly productions of Hollywood proportions; went to a women’s circle hosted by the elders of the Lakota nation; and sat inside creative art installations that took months to design and build.
This clearly wasn’t a music festival, the kind that 32 million Americans are attending every year, but rather a temporary community springing up for a week in a rural patch of the Pacific Northwest. People smiled at me, spontaneously started conversations, and if I even vaguely looked like I needed something, four different people would find a way to give it to me.
When most people in urban America can’t even meet the gaze of a stranger, tens of thousands of people are suddenly living, even for just a week, under such a different set of norms.
If you’re one of the 150,000 people who drove across the country, pitched a tent, and slipped into a tie-dye leotard and sequin tights to attend a gathering like Oregon Eclipse, then you also know that this breed of festivals demonstrates the behavior we’re all capable of when we change the rules we play by. After a week of living and investigating this phenomenon, here are 8 practical ways I think we can bring the best of festival culture home with us.
1. Use your power to create experiences for others.
You don’t need to be a professional events organizer to have a group of friends over for dinner, start a book club, throw a theme party, feed the homeless once a month, or start an organization to promote awareness about an issue dear to your heart.
I’ve hosted creativity workshops in my living room, friends of mine run monthly women’s circles, and others like to host goofy costume parties. Utilize the very real power you have to bring people together, even on a small scale.
2. Look for ways to proactively engage with others.
In day-to-day life, we typically only have an exceptionally positive experience with another person if that individual initiates it or we are close to each other. For some reason, many of us expect others to go out of their way to be kind to us, and if they do, we’re happy to reciprocate. But it takes much more courage to be the one to smile first, to help without being asked, to open up first, to ask the ice-breaking questions, to show a little persistence in wanting to get to know someone.
Festival culture encourages us to proactively connect with one another because we know it’ll be reciprocated, but back home, there’s no guarantee our efforts will be successful. 9 times out of 10, however, the world is simply a mirror that reflects back what you’re putting out into it, and that happens regardless of the setting.
3. Find avenues to share knowledge.
Have a dinner once a month where someone speaks for half an hour about their area of expertise: the investment banker can do a personal finance workshop; the scientist can talk about the research she’s doing; the freelancer can offer up her experience on working for yourself, and the friend who just got back from Kenya can share what he learned about international development.
Each of us has something we can learn from — it’s our job to empower one another to teach what we can.
4. Express yourself more readily.
At festivals, attendees dress in zany costumes, which has the precise opposite effect of putting a schoolchild in a uniform. It sets the tone that we’re shedding a protective layer of ourselves and venturing out socially and creatively. Yet, this added dimension of self-expression doesn’t stop at fashion, but also extends to communication — asking for what you want, speaking with someone new, jumping in to volunteer for something — as well as experimenting with new artistic mediums.
At home, sign up for an improv class, try painting or drawing, study a new language, raise a suggestion in the workplace, and by all means, rock some purple leggings and feather earrings if it helps remind you that you have something unique to contribute to the world around you.
5. Keep the needs of others on your radar.
The individualistic behavior that’s exhibited in many modern human societies is not, I believe, a reflection of our true nature, but simply our response to the economic structures and incentives that govern our survival. Festivals virtually eliminate competition for goods and services and most operate on well-entrenched “gifting” economies: if you need something, someone will happily provide it for you at no cost, and you are expected to contribute the same way to the people around you.
Back home, keep an eye out for someone who may need a lift up the road, a friend who would be pleasantly surprised if you picked up the dinner tab, or what response you’d get if you took some sandwiches over to the homeless folks in your neighborhood. Trust in the abundance of the world — by freely giving, you will also freely receive.
6. Tune into your instincts and pay attention to synchronicity.
Festivals are known for producing an amplified version of something called synchronicity, which occurs when, for example, you’ve been thinking of starting a band but can’t find a bass player, and suddenly the exact musician you need comes into your life. When large groups of people believe in this concept, it’s like there are more people on the radar who can realize the needs of everyone else around them (Google has referred to this as “group flow”).
One of the ways festivals contribute to this phenomenon is by breaking people out of their routine. No one is on a schedule or doing the same thing — old habits that keep us from crossing paths with new people or discovering new ways of doing things in our day-to-day lives — so there’s more room for serendipity. You can tap into this magic back home by being aware of your desires, trusting that they’ll be fulfilled in due time, and by making a conscious effort to “randomize” your life a little bit more.
The biggest challenge that comes with bringing festival ethos back home into our daily lives is doing it with less like-minded people. Like our social media bubbles where we primarily interact with users who agree with us, festival interactions are also taking place between people who have been primed with a certain mindset.
The challenge, then, is to smile at the unsuspecting passerby, to give generously to the individualistic and self-centered among us, to interact as readily with people who are dealing with pain, oppression, and bitterness as those who are carefree, well-off, and predisposed to engage with us.
In a time in America where it’s easy to feel powerless and isolated, especially in the face of tremendous political and environmental crises, knowing that a small team of dedicated people can bring 30,000 people together in the forest just for the hell of it, could empower more of us to use this ability to organize ourselves more frequently for all kinds of reasons.
Because, if we can set up a temporary city with fresh water wells, environmentally-conscious waste disposal, organic food for sale, large-scale art installations, shelter that’s basic but sufficient, and an ethos that encourages inclusion, self-expression, and critical thinking, then we really can step outside of our individualistic, corporate-driven, and isolated mindset to create real spaces where a new set of rules apply.
This article originally appeared on Life Before 30 and is republished here with permission.
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