AMID wafts of incense and marijuana smoke, hordes of smiling folk in fairylike garb or, for a few, just body paint, dance in a patchwork of majestic forest glades near the town of Tidewater, Oregon. Others meditate in yoga postures. Some caress crystals or each other in gently writhing “snuggle puddles”. Colourfully painted signs read “Redesign the Paradigm”, “Make Love to the Mystery”, and, on paths to compost toilets, “Conscious Pooping This Way”. A speaker who replaces a DJ on the main stage proclaims that humans were “born to serve the Earth” and leads the flock, many with raised hands, in prayers to the four cardinal directions.
Thus began the Beloved Festival, at which some 2,500 people pitched tents or splurged for a luxury “glamping” yurt for four days of “sacred” activities that ended on August 13th. These included kundalini and “galactivated” yoga, Sufi soul singing, crystal-bowl sound healing, medicinal poetry, Thai massage, Latino storytelling, native-American shamanism, gong meditation inspired by NASA data from deep space, grief rituals from Burkina Faso’s Dagara tribe and rave-like takes on Oriental ecstatic dance. Astonishingly, your correspondent saw no one snap a selfie. The Beloved Festival is about community, not ego, says its founder, Elliot Rasenick, so anyone who comes should be comfortable making “deep eye contact with strangers”. Tickets started at $265.77.
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Beloved is just one of a booming constellation of “transformational” festivals spreading from its stronghold in the western United States. Numbering dozens and with names like SoulPlay, Sonic Bloom, Kinnection Campout, Stilldream, Wanderlust and Symbiosis, they blend environmentalism with a pagan communal spirituality that some visitors cultivate with psychedelic drugs. Many of these festivals, Beloved included, ban alcohol sales. Tenets of this subculture include the exaltation of sexuality, participatory art and “radical self-expression”, a term popularised by Burning Man, the granddaddy transformational festival, which opens its annual pow-wow to some 70,000 in the Nevada desert on August 26th. But because in the Trump era even leisure is political, many also endow the movement with additional purpose. The idea, says Mr Rasenick, is to “use celebration to create change” in a world racked by misdeeds.
Devotees of transformational festivals debate how best to bring about the desired political change. Many, however, say it begins with ushering in an alternative consciousness by “honouring” water, land, animals, organic food and clothing, oppressed peoples, and the like. Moss Kane, a Beloved visitor who works at Two-Spirit Shamanic Healing, a practice in Portland, Oregon, reckons that the boom in transformational festivals has already begun to chip away at the “crumbling power” of bad capitalism through the emergence of more people with older, wiser souls.
Others hope to effect political change with a more traditional lefty approach. Beloved hosts workshops on diversity, gender equality and using empathy to fight “divisive entitlement”. Marji Marlowe, who ran Beloved’s Care Circle Sanctuary this year, says a big part of her job is alerting visitors to the privilege whites enjoy but did not earn. Beloved also offers education on the misstep of “appropriating” cultures by, for example, donning feather headdresses, says its community manager, Dez Ramirez. Given the cultural mishmash of Beloved’s programme, this approach may perplex some, but other transformational festivals do the same. Lightning in a Bottle, an annual California jamboree that draws some 20,000, imposes a ban on “cultures as costumes”, though plenty of visitors dress up fancifully anyway.
Few at Beloved are keen to discuss President Donald Trump. Could this be a sign that many visitors, demoralised by his rise, are increasingly choosing to retreat into the comfort of the transformational community, rather than stick it out with activism in the broader political arena? Mr Rasenick worries that this is indeed happening and that it is part of the growing political polarisation in America. Julian Reyes of Keyframe Entertainment, a producer of films, books and music on transformational culture based in San Francisco, reckons that the number attending such festivals has nearly doubled in little more than three years, a period that almost dovetails with Mr Trump’s political ascent.
Other factors no doubt play a bigger role in swelling attendance at transformational festivals. For starters, they have benefited from a decline in urban raves, where police have cracked down on the taking of “club drugs” like ecstasy. By booking speakers, transformational festivals have attracted folks keen on TED, a popular conference series. Some transformational-festival enthusiasts have been turned off by the crass commercialism and fashion culture associated with big and beery music festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza. Jonah Haas, head of marketing for Lucidity, a transformational festival for roughly 5,000 campers near Santa Barbara, California, which sells out every year, points to perhaps the biggest explanation for this flourishing. As far as religion goes, a quarter of American adults say that they are atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” according to the Pew Research Centre, a proportion that has increased sharply. This seems to have left lots of people craving for the experience of religious worship without any of the irksome beliefs associated with worship.