I Tried to Find Spiritual Enlightenment at a Music Festival
At Bhakti Fest, you'll find no alcohol, no meat, no cheese, no cigarettes, and no drugs—but you might find yourself.
In August 1969, Sridhar Silberfein stood onstage at Woodstock and received a divine transmission. His guru, Swami Satchidananda, had just offered a spiritual invocation to the 400,000 assembled hippies—"I am overwhelmed with joy to see the entire youth of America gathered here in the name of the fine art of music"—and then turned to gaze out upon the crowd with his young student.
Silberfein told Swami Satchidananda that someday they'd have the same number of people chanting the names of God. Satchidananda said he hoped so. In 2008, six years after Satchidananda's death, Silberfein kept the promise by helping launch the first Bhakti Fest, featuring enlightened masters instead of rock stars and love as the drug.
"People come to festivals now to do the same things they do every day: get stoned, drink a lot of alcohol, and fuck a lot of people," says the now 76-year-old Silberfein. "Everyone thinks you're going to go and get high and have the best time, but you really don't because you're coming back to the same problems. We wanted to establish a different paradigm."
And so it is that I pull into the dusty parking lot of the Institute of Mentalphysics. This retreat center in the hip, heady California town of Joshua Tree was designed by the son of Frank Lloyd Wright and opened in 1941 as a desert outpost for the Los Angeles spiritual jet set. On this weekend, the sprawling 420-acre site was hosting the ninth incarnation of Bhakti Fest, Silberfein's vision come to life in all of its chanting, meditating, sound bathing, breath working, yogic, gluten-free glory.
The festival is essentially Coachella for the higher consciousness community, offering a four-day schedule populated by yogis, devotional musicians, lecturers, astrologers, and artists with names like Windsong and Light Hawk. This year's installment hosted roughly 3,000 attendees sleeping in tents, vans, and converted school busses slapped with Burning Man bumper stickers. They came from Los Angeles, Ojai, or wherever last weekend's festival was for healing, enlightenment, and whatever might be culled from workshops like the "sacred initiation into the emotions of mystical romance." I suppose that's why I went, too.
On day one, I land in a yoga class led by a plucky instructor who called herself Hemalayaa. She tells us her class isn't like regular yoga, and in fact it doesn't actually involve much yoga at all. Hemalayaa notes that as adults we've gotten good at repressing our emotions, whereas we freely lost our shit each time we got upset when we were children. Her class encourages us to be four years old again, as Hemalayaa instructs us to lay on our backs, rhythmically pulling our groins off the ground while shouting "HEY," turning our heads back and forth, blinking our eyes rapidly, and shaking our hands.
It's a clumsy, discombobulating task (try it!) that peaks when we're told to slap the ground and scream out every bit of frustration we've been holding onto. I'm surprised by the volume and intensity of the sound emanating from my body, and it feels satisfying to scream until I open my eyes and see a man with a camera standing directly above me, filming my catharsis for some sort of promotional video. This is not attractive footage. My throat remains raw for the rest of the weekend.
A primary objective of this weekend and the practices learned therein is releasing.
Southern California has long been a nexus of esoterically inclined mysticism—ever since L. Ron Hubbard and rocket scientist Jack Parsons conjured the spirit of Babalon in a Pasadena garage and the Source Family opened LA's first vegetarian restaurant on the Sunset Strip, the money from which they used to fund their psychedelic cult. SoCal's current stew of spirituality, wellness, and consciousness comes in many varieties—from the Moon Juice–guzzling GOOP aristocracy to the ayahuasceros, ecstatic dancers, shamanic DJs, personal development junkies, hippies, hypnotists, hydrotherapists, herbalists, weed biz hustlers, and Instagram models who post bikini photos over inspirational quotes and call it work.
Many of these people are insufferable fakes, although many of them are genuinely delightful humans with a sincere interest in self-improvement—however eye-roll-inducing some of their methods might be. Bhakti itself means "devotional worship directed to one supreme deity," usually Vishnu or Shiva, although belief in a higher power isn't a prerequisite for attendance. Elements of Bhakti culture have seeped into the West Coast "transformational festival" circuit–Lightning in a Bottle, Symbiosis, Lucidity–where it's possible to hear a lecture on awakening into divine love before getting blasted on nitrous and going to see Lee Burridge.
Bhakti Fest is less hedonistic than all that. There's no alcohol, no meat, no DJs, and no drugs (although "sacred plants" like weed seem to be an exception). At the Indian food stand, a woman interrogates the vendor about whether or not there is cheese in the samosas like her life depends on it. Cheese is essentially contraband here, too. So are cigarettes, GMOs, and plastic water bottles. Acceptable items include probiotics, didgeridoos, vedic charts, gongs, sage, activated crystals, and water "harvested" at the base of Mount Shasta.
It may sound fussy (and it kind of is), but it's also a gathering of well-intentioned and generally friendly people of many ages, shapes, and races trying to be the change (or just not lose their minds) in a progressively more frightening world—record hurricanes, out-of-control wild fires, the looming specter of nuclear war. It can't hurt to chant a little. "One single spirit moves humans and nature, and in this way, certain occurrences act like messages from the Great Spirit in order to tell us something," says the placid, bearded man onstage in one of the gathering halls. His name is Prem Baba, and he is a Brazilian teacher trained in the Sachcha spiritual lineage of northern India.
The mood is deeply reverent, the temperature balmy with all the bodies packed to capacity. In the corner, supermodel Alessandra Ambrosio listens attentively. (This past Monday, she posted this photo of her and Baba.) He explains that natural disasters are the Great Spirit provoking us to review our choices about how we have decided to live in society. "The choices we have made are rooted in fear and ambition," he says. "Our main objectives are wealth and power." This is, of course, all really bad; he notes that natural disasters also occur on the personal level when we stray from our "primordial nature." We get sick. We suffer catastrophes of the mind, body and spirit. Things come apart like a roof ripped off by the wind.
"The global crisis," he says through his translator, "is a spiritual one." In this way, at least, he's not unlike actor Kirk Cameron.
In the room, people cry softly and sit with their eyes closed and hands raised. It feels like church, but vibier and more pragmatic. I cry, too, when Baba talks about the importance of harmonizing with the past, of freeing ourselves from its influence and having the courage to say that everything really is OK when considering our familial history, whatever flavor of fucked it might be. I arrived in Joshua Tree from a funeral in Wisconsin and think of my dead aunt and the grief of losing her. The woman next to me silently presses a Kleenex into my hand.
A primary objective of this weekend and the practices learned therein is releasing. You can release emotional pain, pain experienced in past lives, and stagnant energy stored in the body. When we fully release all that no longer serves us, it is explained in talk after talk, our lives get better, our energy lighter, our karma cleaner. The things we want come to us more easily, and we find we want less because we're satisfied with the simple comfort our own inner peace. Anger is OK, too, as long as we don't get angry at our anger. The ego is meant to be dissolved. It might be enough to make your head spin if you weren't already shaking it back and forth while screaming.
The next morning, nearly a hundred people have gathered for 7 AM kundalini yoga, which involves waving our hands around in the air to arouse the energy that exists at the bases of our spines. Said energy supposedly flows up through the chakras creating an expanded state of consciousness. I don't really experience anything like that, but I do feel alert despite not yet having had any coffee. The kundalini teacher, like so many people here, has the preternatural glow possessed by intensely healthy humans. Her chakras seem hella activated, and I leave the room wanting more of whatever she has.
"You are all sitting on the most powerful energy generators in the world," Zoë Kors says to the group of females gathered in the women's tent at my next stop across the grounds. Kors is a writer, coach, and speaker from LA, and the topic of her talk is yoni worship—"yoni" meaning "vagina" and "worship" meaning "you're goddamn right." The tent is packed with women. Yoni worship is a hot topic. Kors instructs us to pair off and tell our partner a way we're holding onto shame. (Shame is also something that should be let go of, FYI.) What ensues are a lot of stories about boys and men handling us in ways we didn't really like, among other tales of sadness and confusion.
"Every woman I know," says Kors, "has been touched by a man in a way she wasn't comfortable with because it was just easier to let it happen than to say no." There are tears, and hugs. A girl with a flash tattoo on her forehead mists my face with lavender water. We are told that if we masturbate without having an orgasm for the next ten days, our bodies will be able to hold a greater electrical charge—more Shakti, the divine cosmic feminine energy. Kors reads a poem that includes the line "he reads her labia like the sacred script that it is," and the crowd cheers. I have no idea what they're doing over in the men's tent.
Bhakti Fest, and the culture surrounding it, are soothing in the sense that they encourage one to believe everything is OK and all part of a bigger plan, despite daily headlines indicating the contrary. When it's not OK, ways to make it better include forgiveness, stretching, hand waving, ritualistic masturbation, and the ingestion of various herbal supplements. We only have control over ourselves, and fortifying ourselves is the only thing we can do as individuals if we want the world to become better. By the end of the weekend, I've laid in six hours worth of sound baths and gotten a massage from an Iraq war veteran who spent years "seduced by the war machine" before realizing the light was seductive, too. I will have blown herbal Peruvian snuff up my nose, eaten organic dates soaked in ghee, observed Sufi whirling, taken notes like "the new paradigm is joy," and spoken with a variety of lovely individuals whose intense sincerity is refreshing if not explicitly cool. I will feel spiritually fortified until I drive home, get frustrated in traffic, and yell at a man who cuts me off on the freeway.
"Did you have any big releases?" asks a bearded man lying on the floor next to me on the final night of the festival. We have just finished a breath work class during which people broke out into tears and hysterical laughter. (Both releases!) I tell him I did not, and he seems vaguely disappointed. "My hands started tingling a little," I offer, feeling like this answer isn't sexy enough, deep enough. I'm not sure I have anything left to release. Though this might actually be the point.
The bearded man shrugs and turns to the woman on the other side of him. She's sobbing. "Great," he says to her. "You're doing great."
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