Glimpses of Eden
My friend sent me a message about how sad she was Las Tortugas music festival didn’t happen this year. In my nostalgic state I revisited a story I wrote about the festival and its connection to happiness and values in society. I wanted to finally share that story here.
Glimpses of Eden and the Value of Being
By: Amy Harris
Anytime you leave for a music festival, your car overflowing with camping gear, costumes, booze and food you’re putting faith in the event. Faith in a magical experience and some salvation from the everyday rush of life. Some live shows suggest a better world exists and we watch them in a starry eyed state of content intoxication promising to see them whenever we have the chance. We chase these bands hoping to enliven our spirits and alter our worldview.
The fifth annual Las Tortugas Dance of the Dead music festival gave its attendants the chance to leave home for a long weekend, turn off their cell phones, skip work or school, say goodbye to amenities like beds and indoor kitchens, and set up camp on the edge of the forest. Hundreds of people gathered unable to deny the shared sense of camaraderie the small festival provided. This glimpse of Eden encouraged us to emerge from the shell of anxiety and responsibility accompanying us in everyday life. We made friends with strangers, complimented musicians in person, invited epiphanies, and welcomed the majestic sensation of feeling the music inside, through, and around us.
Complex intertwining music would start out melancholy and eerie and shift into upbeat, quick tempo jams making your skin crawl. The rhythms were absent during midmorning and made the campground feel eerily silent. But the ghost of music, dancing, and sweet sweat lingered in the air willing us to bring it back to life each day and night. As Tortugan’s fed off each other’s blissful energy, leaving the dreamlike world didn’t feel like an option. The beauty of Yosemite, the music, and the exuberant people filled us with happiness and appreciation. Why wasn’t this real life? This question remains, pounding sinisterly and more powerfully the longer I’m removed from Yosemite.
The Value of Being
Most people are searching for paradise and when we experience a glimmer of it we wonder why everyday life is fraught with events contributing more to anxiety than happiness. The amity among the unique group of people made the festival feel like it belonged to a small world of a few hundred privileged souls. “It was obvious that anyone who was willing to drive that far out into the woods to camp in the cold for four days was there for a reason,” Jake Baker said. “And that reason was to enjoy amazing music, meet amazing people, and have the most fun possible. I want to go back next year because I feel like I’m part of a family now. The Las Tortugas family.”
Maybe we are missing this sense of closeness in our lives. I was shocked when I returned and instead of a gracious smile and friendly hello from each passerby I was confronted with students talking on their cell phones, or worse nearly walking into me as they texted. Experiencing a challenging reentry into reality after events like music festivals, Burning Man, and retreats is a common feeling. Burning Man offers its burners decompression events, which provide the same sense of community as the event with art, stories, and photos from the playa. Without decompression, returnees from other events relentlessly read reviews, look nostalgically at photographs, and relive the highlights through storytelling with their friends.
Talking to psychologists seemed to be the natural next step to understand why real life often feels less fulfilling than perspective altering events. Holly Hazlett-Stevens, Ph.D., built off the first question I asked when I returned home: why can’t real life be like the festival? Looking around at the market driven and capitalistic culture we are constantly told if we had this extra thing life might be better, Stevens said. There is a fundamental dissatisfaction with how things are and this dissatisfaction is part of the human condition. “The problem is our difficulty in accepting this moment for what it is,” Stevens said. “Acceptance allows us to acknowledge things as they are right now.”
Acceptance, of course, was exactly the problem I was having. My only acknowledgement was realizing this place was not as wonderful as the festival. But Stevens reminded me the experience opened the door for me to be fully aware and present in my surroundings. The sense of camaraderie I felt at Las Tortugas exists in everyday life and our individuality does not negate our connectedness. “On one hand each of us is an individual,” Stevens said. “We are individual beings, but the notion of separateness is an allusion. We’re all somewhat dependent on each other.”
Our age is marked by an increased reliance on technology and decreased interaction in the same physical space, where the joke about someone who can text constantly but not have a face-to-face conversation is commonplace. “Technology is distancing us from our natural experience and contributing to this new age source of separation and lack of connection,” Stevens said. “The essential core of being alive and happy rests in our value of being.” This “value of being” is based more on our senses and body than our minds. But fully experiencing each moment and feeling each sense comes much more naturally to people at events like festivals and Burning Man. In everyday life, Stevens asked, “How often do you eat a meal, and just eat the meal?” Las Tortugas felt like experiencing a meal fully. Each mouthful of music and conversation savored, each person and scenery regarded for its unique flavor, and each moment marveling my senses.
Because of the emotional conditioning of our culture, being fully present and experiencing each sensation in the present moment with a sense of acceptance goes against our habitual state. We have real environmental demands necessitating planning. Our ability to think ahead and strive toward achievements has facilitated our survival, Stevens said. “The trick is to engage in whatever you’re doing. How can you do whatever you do in your life whether you’re eating, doing the dishes, or taking a shower in a mindful and present way?” Buddhist and other spiritual teachings provide practices to help people achieve this kind of connection and acceptance. But, coming back to technology, we are continually bombarded with distractions. The computer, for example, entices our minds to be all over the place instead of fully invested in what we’re doing, Stevens said.
Who’s to Blame?
Full investment in each activity and sensation allows us to enjoy and accept the present moment, or at least feel alive, in life. But I kept wondering if our society promotes anxiety and stress more than fulfillment and well being. Anthony Papa, Ph.D., put this question of individuality versus society into perspective for me. “Happiness is an individual thing you have to manage yourself,” Papa said. “I’m not sure how society could get you to appreciate how beautiful the Sierra’s are. We don’t always pay attention and step back to notice our surroundings.”
Situations influencing our sense of connection are not always the paradise-like music festivals or week long excursions into the desert. Papa was living in New York City during 9/11 and said he felt a sense of connection and community for the first time after the attacks. Though the attack was devastating, there was shared sense of loss, thankfulness for survivors, and powerful citywide unity. “Some situations force you to pay attention,” Papa said. “They are life altering and you wonder, why can’t it be like this all the time?”
Traumatic events, like 9/11, or Utopic festivals, like Las Tortugas, force us to pay attention to values like connectedness, kindness, and contentment. Feeling less separation with the natural world and other people has larger social implications. “If you feel like you’re part of a greater whole, some behaviors, like bullying, are buffered,” Stevens said. “Hurting someone else is like your left hand hurting your right hand, it just doesn’t make sense.” What does make sense is paying attention. This does not imply a constant festival state without adversity, for we are constantly facing challenges. But paying attention implies pleasures, like eating and showering, can be experienced with deeper satisfaction. Our sense of place in the world is rooted in a feeling of belonging and the events providing this deeper sense of connection verge on the spiritual. Each day, no matter what you are experiencing can provide this kind of sensation in belonging, Stevens said, “everything you do can be a meditation if meditation is a general word for paying attention.”