“We’re never gonna survive unless we get a little crazy”
A few weeks ago I went to Shakti Fest in Joshua Tree – the smaller, sister festival to the big bhakti yoga celebration in September. I showed up thinking I would practice a little yoga, make some new friends. Like most of us embarking on a new adventure, I secretly longed for some kind of transformation. And I knew better than to expect it.
The first thing I did upon arriving in the dry, windy desert, was to sit at the main stage and listen to the music. It takes guts to show up to a festival all alone: all the old demons from middle school come out to play: do I belong? Am I likeable? Attractive? Will I find people here that I really connect with? I know these demons well enough to keep them at bay most of the time, and also well enough to know that they were going to have a field day at this festival.
A group of strangers next to me were chatting idely. The musicians on the stage looked vaguely familiar. Then I heard them sing:
All that I am
I offer on the Altar of Love
And suddenly I, and the strangers around me, were singing in unison with the musicians
In sweet surrender
This is Kirtan – call and response devotional music – so it’s no surprise that we were singing from the audience. The surprise was that we weren’t repeating the song back, we were singing along spontaneously. We knew this song, and it had caught us like a wayward spirit, rousing us into a synchronous harmony, a momentary “higher order” if you will, that hadn’t existed moments before.
I remembered why I had come.
In time, the strangers around me return to their chatting, and I move closer to the musicians. I’m shocked at how quickly I’m shifting paradigms. Now I’m not only singing, I’m meditating, swaying – I’m crying. How could I have forgotten this? A vision is taking hold – not just a vision in the mind, but a vision in the body, an ecstatic state of embodiment, feels like shifting vibrations on a cellular level. My heart opens. And my heart opening is like light and love pouring out of me and into me simultaneously. Somehow the best within me and the best within the universe are the same thing. I am crying because I am experiencing a solution to human suffering.
And then at some point my rational mind comes back online and says, oh shit, how am I supposed to integrate THIS?
Bhakti yoga is the yoga of devotion – perhaps to a higher power or principle, to a God, within or without – or perhaps just devotion to love. For me, and I think for many who attend Bhakti/Shakti fest, that latter concept, love, is somehow able to contain the ones that came before it. It’s not about getting anybody to believe anything – it’s not about dogma or creed. In fact, one of the great strengths of these festivals is that they draw in many, many diverse teachers, none of whom necessarily agree with each others regarding spiritual doctrine. Love isn’t a doctrine or a belief – it’s an experience. In fact, it is the one experience I know of that can dissolve the strife of warring beliefs and philosophies.
If it sounds a little over the top or crazy – well it is. It’s crazy in the best possible way. It’s permission to be just a little crazy, in service to a higher good: happiness, fulfillment, community, connection, and service. Because love, when it’s really love, isn’t just something you have – it’s something you give.
Easier said than done right? You might imagine that I spent the rest of the festival as a blessed-out hippy, escaping into a spiritual trance to forget the evils of the world. On the contrary, do you remember those demons I mentioned earlier? Well, they absolutely threw a fit – I mean, they declared war. You will never be able to integrate this into actual human relationships, they told me. You are going to spend this festival alone and miserable. These demons are assholes, but I believe we’re all stuck with them for life – the questions is, how do we deal with them when they show up?
Truth be told, it was hard. Just because you have a vision of a better world doesn’t mean you know how to bring it into material reality. For the next day and a half, I really struggled. I wanted to connect to the human beings around me, but I didn’t always know how. Many times I would smile at a stranger and they would turn away. And I understand why, because sometimes strangers would smile at me, and in spite of myself, I would turn away. It’s a natural response, to protect ourselves from the unknown, even when (perhaps especially when) it smiles sweetly. In most places, and in most communities, there’s good reason to think twice about trusting a smiling stranger. And yet, as Brene Brown has so beautifully demonstrated – there is no connection without vulnerability.
In the meantime, I did yoga. All kinds of yoga. Slow, meditative hatha yoga. Fast, hard, sweaty, acrobatic vinyasa yoga. Chanting-and-dancing-like-a-madman bhakti yoga. Centering or ecstatic, consciousness-altering pranayama (breath) yoga. They are all practices for healing, growth, and transformation, and it was the breathwork in particular that rattled me to the core, and laid bare what I had buried there. In one ecstatic breathing practice, my whole body trembled and I felt as though I were enveloped in light. I felt – for the first time in my life – I actually felt the chronic contraction in my diaphragm; as the lifelong tension in that muscle began to soften, it felt like a miracle. Neuroscience has confirmed again and again that the body is integral to our emotional experience, and here the tentative partial release in this rigid core musculature pointed to a new way of being in the world. It is something I still don’t have adequate words for. I went to three breath workshops that weekend, by three different teachers, and each time I heard the pained and grateful sobs of my fellow human beings around me, as they let something heavy go.
The battle with the demons finally began to turn on Saturday night. One of the festival volunteers, a sweet guy named Oliver, approached and asked me how I was doing. I lamented that because this festival was so much smaller than Bhakti Fest (1000 vs 5000 people), it felt as though the energetic shift toward heart-centered consciousness that I remembered was severely diminished. I theorized that with more people at the festival, practicing more yoga, making more connections, a kind of increased connectivity takes place, an acceleration of transmission that leads to a tipping point. It seemed to me that at Shakti Fest, that process was dampened. “Well then you have to do it,” he said. I squirmed. That felt like too much responsibility – not to mentioned setting myself up for failure and humiliation, when my love consciousness was rejected.
And then he hugged me, and I understood.
One connection begets another. Laura Lalita from my PhD cohort arrived, eager to dance. I connected with Billy, whom I had trained with in Thai massage a few years back. Sky from the UC Berkeley days was selling art in a stall. Even my mom showed up. Each connection made the next one a little easier. Every teacher or musician who talked about opening the heart brought us a little further. Dancing madly in the desert by starlight doesn’t hurt either.
By Sunday, the connectivity seemed to be in full swing. I smiled at strangers and they smiled back. I struck up conversations with random people wandering the festival grounds. There were ample hugs to go around. 48 hours after arriving, this was actually happening. I was elated, grateful.
And sad, that it was suddenly over, having only just begun.
To say that I was transformed by this experience is no small thing. I don’t use that word lightly, and I wouldn’t use it if I had a more honest word. Nor do I mean to imply some sort of total transformation – only that something deep with me shifted, and is now making its way forward in time. There is no easy way to carry such an experience out into the world. Out here, trust isn’t always safe, love is guarded against, or else sought after and grasped hungrily as though it were a scarce commodity, a mere object to possesses. I would like to believe that heart-centered consciousness is the direction the whole planet is evolving toward, but we won’t get there until we get there. That connectivity is building slowly, over time, disrupted by war and famine, by bigotry and fundamentalism (both religious and scientistic) – and yet somehow, from the ashes, the connections resume. Like the human brain, it’s in our nature, and our best interest, to connect, and then to connect more.
It’s not a matter of idealism or wishful thinking. The pain and suffering and rage on this planet is immense. The fact remains, we can do something about it.
It’s up to us.