To begin, I’m pretty new to the festival world. I’ve been orbiting the festival world for only a year now. (However, through self-election, I’ve been very involved over this past year.) And I love it. Almost every festival I’ve been to, I’ve had some of the most enjoyable experiences of my life. There’s an incredible amount of love and good intentions, uninhibited creativity, genuine open-heartedness, and a great wellspring of talent. The festival world is a remarkable outlet to experiment and explore who it is you are and want to be without any fear of judgement, and I would fill up several pages of text if I were to list everything that’s amazing about festivals.
But I’ve found a recurring experience in going to festivals. I have a blast. And then I come back home. And I get down because I had all of these intensely pleasurable experiences and it leaves me craving more experiences like those when I get back into the mundane drive and grind of life. So I count down the days until the next festival and I do it again. It’s the same cycle.
And I’ve found that I am by no means alone in that. In fact, it seems that a lot of the festival culture stops at being at the festival, and does rather little to implement practices that extend out to the rest of life. And so what you find is a big group of people who go to festivals and keep going to festivals and do festival-like things outside of the festivals in a continuous loop of experience. And as I make more friends in the festival community, I’ve actually found that a lot of people are fairly unhappy outside of festivals and parties, and only find joy when they’re getting their kicks. This isn’t the case for everyone, but it’s a common enough scenario.
The problem is, pleasure is a transient experience. No matter how high you get, you come down eventually. And the come down (whether that come-down is when you get back home or something else) hurts. So what you get is a kind of hungry ghost syndrome. You get a lot of people who keep instigating pleasurable experiences, and reaching for more pleasure when they come down. And it’s not sustainable.
There is a kind of essential human suffering. It’s the first noble truth in Buddhism, what the Buddha called Samsara. Everybody suffers. There is a saying that all beings have ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows. You get sad, you get anxious, you crave chocolate chip cookies, you get jealous, etc. Does anyone not have anything like that? And everyone has their own way of dealing with that sorrow. A lot of people mask it with television, or alcohol. And a lot of people use festivals, and the pleasurable experiences that festivals may bring, as a way to temporarily escape or ignore it. And although there is wise and constructive use of entheogens and other related substances at festivals, there is also a huge amount of drug consumption that is not founded on the intention of introspection and resolution but is more along the lines of “a gram is better than a damn.”
But the problem is that masking the sorrow doesn’t make it go away. In fact, nothing can make it go away. It’s an essential part of life. You will get down. It will happen. And as much as I would love to live in festival world (and plenty of people mold their life to be basically that) it’s not sustainable, and the more you grasp at those experiences, the harder the come down is going to hit you. There’s nothing wrong with pleasure at all, but the attachment to pleasure, and pleasure in avoidance of pain, will bring greater suffering and isn’t actually doing much to transform that suffering into a sustainable joyful experience because it will eventually change.
If you can’t avoid suffering, then, the key is to change your internal relationship to those difficult experiences. You have to initiate a process of internal exploration and cultivate an outlook of compassion towards yourself and those experiences. There’s also a necessary non-attachment to the arising of those emotions and experiences. By getting some distance from your experiences (by saying those experiences are not me, they are merely my experiences) you can more easily feel compassion towards them. There is a whole vast array of practices towards this that are centuries old, generally speaking the whole category of insight meditation. I highly recommend reading any books by Jack Kornfield, Ram Dass, and Thich Nhat Hanh to start. A Vipassana meditation retreat is also a fantastic way to delve into these practices, as well as meditation groups, or daylong workshops.
It’s not only on the meditation cushion that these practices matter, however. The important thing is what you carry from your meditation practice out into the rest of your life. You don’t even have to ever sit in meditation, even, if you can manage your internal relationship in any situation – even at festivals. There is no such thing as a good or bad condition to practice. It merely requires mindful attention.
I think that festivals are a potent pocket of light in the world, but I think that light is short lived, and could be kindled in a more sustainable way in the lives of those who choose the party-path if the right practices are followed. I know from experience, however, that masking sorrow with pleasure only brings greater suffering eventually, and I would invite everyone in the festival community to see if they are acting from a place of celebration or if it’s a mask. It can be hard, but opening to and forming a wise relationship with the shadow is the only way to deepen the reach of the light. You have to illuminate the darkness that is inherent in all lives.