Do festivals really teach us anything?

10 Oct|Tom Kenning

Are festivals just an escape or can they help improve everyday life?

Tom Kenning has been researching the festival spirit, from Glastonbury to Burning Man

WITH the festival season coming to a close, we wonder how long it will be until those gates to another reality will invite us in again. How long till these fiestas of dance, excess and booming sound systems can overload our senses once more?It was while walking through a city of tents at Glastonbury Festival several years ago, with no work to be done and no time constraints, that I wondered: “Why can’t it be like this all the time?” Thus, this summer as part of Wisdom Hackers, an alternative group of writers, philosophers and activists, I took on the following inquiry:

“How do we translate festival spirit into everyday life?”

So what is festival spirit? It’s the attitude that allows you to pass out in the grass and wake up assaulted by heavy rain, but with a stranger’s coat covering you; the confidence that lets you lose your friends and dance all night with complete strangers as if they were old comrades; the openness that lets you salute or embrace anyone you lay your eyes on and laugh at your own absurdity.

The trouble with such heights of euphoria at a festival is that the dreaded spectre of coming down is always waiting around the corner, a shadow growing on you as the sun sets. This universal plunge into a deep gloom after the pinnacles of ecstasy (commonly known as post-festival blues) is exhibited shortly after these carnivals in online forums, which buzz with ill-fated festival-goers recounting tales of trippy nightmares and sleep paralysis, induced by disrupted sleep patterns and narcotic exploits. How then can we make it so that the sun keeps shining from above holding the impish shades at bay?

When challenged about how to bring the soul of the carnival into the office, commuting and the business-minded street, however, most people told me that familiarity would breed contempt. Some even claimed that the level of joy at a festival holds a direct correlation with the level of misery in our working life. So can these phenomena really change our worldview or do we just decide to get intoxicated, go back to the office, and find nothing has changed?

Something must have clicked in British Member of Parliament Tom Watson, who resigned immediately after attending Glastonbury festival in 2013.

At Burning Man, a meteoric festival of mind-boggling art installations and music, a temporary city is created out of the Nevada desert where there was none before. ‘Burners’ told me that the stratospheric arts and gifting economy defy your sense of self, and the day-to-day is flipped so wildly upside down that people become subject to a frenzied kind of synchronicity. Without money, they live in a different paradigm.

My Wisdom Hackers quest to understand this model led me from the ancient tradition of summer solstice at Stonehenge, to ecstatic dances in the city, free warehouse community events and a tribal gathering in a forest glade in central England. What these all had in common was that they emulated the spirit of a festival while free of its commercial trappings.

In 1951, the philosopher Alan Watts, said “the age” was one of addiction to “dope”:

“A violent and complex stimulation of the senses, which makes them progressively less sensitive and thus in need of yet more violent stimulation. We crave distraction – a panorama of sights, sounds, thrills, and titillations into which as much as possible must be crowded in the shortest possible time.”

I had to question, therefore, whether the heady sensual overload of the modern festival really has anything to teach us or whether it is just a symptom of our old addiction to this “dope”.

Nevertheless, returning to ancient festival traditions, by commemorating the rising sun at Stone Henge, I saw that ceremony can help us reconnect with the cycles of nature. Perhaps we need to bring more conscious rituals back into our lives to help us value the small things. It’s no great task. It can be as simple as bringing mindfulness and awareness into the preparation of a cup of tea, eating vegetables in season or occasionally rising early to take in the radiance of dawn.

Later, at the tribal gathering, we came together in a closing circle to reflect on the experience, to ask why we are here, what we are, what we are trying to achieve, to thank each other. We were warned of “the need to close ourselves down”, to carry this open-heartedness out with us into the world and maintain it. This ceremonial acknowledgement was so different to grumpily packing away my tent in a spiralling hangover as I departed most festivals, the joy fast evaporating. Instead, by commemorating that open feeling we were cementing it further. This wasn’t going to just disappear in the stale light of the office on a Tuesday morning.

Tom Kenning recently escaped his 9-5 journalist job to cycle to India, and is wild camping most nights, reading lots and chatting to strangers. He is  currently in Barcelona having cycled 2000km. His “festival spirit” project is published on Monday 14 October on the Wisdom Hackers

Read more about the Wisdom Hackers