8 Reasons Why Festivals Can Transform Your LifeArticle by: Chip Conley|@ChipConley
Fri March 10, 2017 | 11:00 AM
1. The More Virtual We Get, the More Ritual We Need
As we become more reliant on our iPhones and more “connected” through Facebook, we can actually become more disconnected from each other. Real connection is what we crave. Festivals are as old as humanity, but in the digital era there’s a new peak in the magnetic attraction to extraordinary human gatherings. Whole festival genres such as transformational and EDM have doubled in size over the past decade. There’s an immediacy available when we put down our smart phones and dive into the present moment at a festival. Because what we are seeking are IRL (In Real Life) experiences while we drown in a sea of URLs.
Digital overload may be a first world problem, and not an immediate matter of life and death. But, on parts of Bali and at Burning Man, cell and wireless connections are rare or nonexistent. Life and death are immediate as they are ritualized in community and in fire – far from anything virtual. My festival transformation was forged in the fires of both.
The Balinese culture is grounded in festivals from birth to death and Bali rekindled my childhood love of festivals, which is why I’ve returned over a dozen times. The Balinese honor the passing of life during the light of day with public cremations that celebrate the dearly departed while they often lie in full view…
then send them to the heavens in grand funeral pyres…
The community must be present to complete the journey, yet you need not live there to feel right at home. There’s a freedom in facing the inevitability of death together, which provides a sense of meaningful connectedness in this shared theater of life.
Burning Man founder Larry Harvey burned an effigy in his own image on a San Francisco beach to transform his broken heart. 25+ years later, Burning Man’s climactic night of burning “The Man” in the desolate wilderness of Black Rock City’s playa is now the penultimate inferno at this annual event that will host a record 68,000 people in 2013. The final burn is actually that of the Temple, an enormous temporary structure that acts as a receptacle for words, pictures and totems, ritually deposited during the week with a combustible mixture of laughter and tears. The Temple burns in an emotional bonfire on Burning Man’s final night.
Anyone who’s experienced this will tell you that, while there’s a lot of fun to be had at this world-renowned festival, there is – perhaps more importantly – a real opportunity to sink deep into connection with others…and with yourself.
2. Cultural Curiosity = A More Robust Life + A More Peaceful Planet
In the next 40 years, the world’s population will explode from seven to 10 billion people. “I need some space” will take on new meaning as personal elbow room becomes increasingly scarce. The security landscape has changed in the past decade and the 24/7 barrage of negative media about “the other,” can induce fear at the thought of breaking out of what’s comfortable, or beyond what we know. This can lead to seeking more control, rather than letting our barriers down. Festivals are natural barrier disintegrators. At first glance, India’s sacred Kumbh Mela may seem to have little in common with the throngs who flock to Spain each year to run with the bulls. And, within just one country, Turkey’s Whirling Dervishes seem a world away from the modern day gladiators of its Oil Wrestling Championships . But cultural curiosity is a mindset that opens a window into “the other” and into our selves.
I joined the crowd at India’s Maha Kumbh Mela this year. A Kumbh Mela happens every three years, with four cities taking hosting turns. The Maha Kumbh Mela happens every 12 years and an estimated 100 million pilgrims came together in 2013. The international news focused on a train station stampede where 36 devotees lost their lives. Tragic, but not surprising given the numbers. What the reports missed is how this congregation of mass humanity can peacefully coexist for five weeks along the Ganges River. Proof that we humans don’t need as much personal space as perhaps we think.
Kumbh Mela Photo by: Porter Yates
On the streets of Pamplona, personal space is trumped by survival skills when thousands gather on two legs to escape a powerful few running on four. The latter has only a momentary advantage in this cultural free-for-all that tests conscience and courage (more on this in Reason 4).
Whirling Dervishes have been twirling annually for nearly 750 years since the death of their beloved poet Rumi, and Kirkpinar’s wrestlers have been proudly competing for over six centuries. What I felt in my bones, because I was there in the flesh (I did get a chance to whirl, but only spectated the field games), was a real sense of commonality between these two disparate rituals and my own worldview. Whirling is sacred. There’s an intensity – both physical and psychological – that gets whipped up in the midst of the dance.
The oil wrestlers similarly push themselves to physical and psychological limits in a display of honor and reverence for their community today, and for the ancestors who came before them. Those of us observing are immediately connected by the transcendent energy of the dervishes in the arena and the intensity of the men on the field. In both instances, I became part of something far away from my “safe” little corner of the world. Clearly, I was the curious “other.” Yet, all barriers disappeared and we were merely humans…being.
3. Festivals Redefine “Vacation”
Too many of us “vacate” ourselves during our precious time away from work, trading in the couch and a beer for a beach lounger and a colorful cocktail dressed with a tiny umbrella. We’ve been ritualized into taking vacations that lack discovery because we think the antidote to burnout is passing out by the pool. We need to retire the words “occupation” for our work and “vacation” for our play. Our breaks from daily routine should be transformational. When we’re in our 80s, the peak experiences we’ll remember will be the ones where we checked into new places with a fresh sprig of curiosity in our elixir of life.
The truth is, most people in the world see their happiness and victories in the context of the group or village experience – what sociologist Emile Durkheim called “collective effervescence” 100 years ago. Make a pact with yourself to witness and experience some communal joy and attend at least one festival a year. The good news is you don’t have to leap continents to do this. In many cities, there’s an art faire or a Carnival, or Day of the Dead celebration very near your own backyard.
These shots were all taken near my backyard in San Francisco. An authentic Mexican Día de los Muertos experience in Oaxaca might be more of a bucket list kind of trip. 'Til then, seek one out near you this November. Art faires like the Bay Area’s Maker Faire bring together a mash up of DIY enthusiasts who can make just about anything out of a little bit of string, some tape and a vivid imagination. And, Rio’s definitely got some colorful competition at the Mission’s Carnival, which boasts incredible costumes, dancing, food, music and merriment every May. And you won’t find a single pool lounger anywhere in sight.
4. Festivals Allow You to Push Your Limits
For generations, status was defined by how you kept up with the Joneses: the car in your driveway and the size of your swimming pool. With social media’s “status” updates, we’re seeing a big shift from being material-driven to being more experience-driven. Since we can now share our experiences in an instant, our triumphs are tied less to “tangibles” like a BMW, and more to the intangible IMF (in-the-moment feeling) that can be viewed vicariously by our friends. Some festivals are lively competitions that you can enthusiastically observe and enjoy from the stands (Naadam, Concurs de Castells, Il Palio ). But, the greatest transformation factor is found in immersive experiences where you shift from passive spectator to active participant.
Taking part in these two competitions involves pushing through your own personal fear factor. I had the pure pleasure of spectating the Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling Competition in Gloucester, UK, witnessing brave – or crazy depending on how you see it – men and women race down an impossible incline risking limb and levity. First-time American winner Kenny Rackers was on a mission to inspire one million people to pursue their dreams…
Observing was the right choice for me, as I’ve nursed a seriously broken ankle before. Still, connecting with the locals and cheering on the racers induced a joyful IMF.
But, in Pamplona, I threw caution to the wind at the Fiesta de San Fermin . Donning the traditional red scarf and an “I Love SF” tee that works for my hometown of San Francisco and for San Fermin, I did more running from the bulls than with them. It was an exhilarating IMF. Another limit was pushed when I learned more about the fate of the bulls. I honestly hadn’t considered the bullfight at the end of the day. Participating in the run and observing the PETA protests and The Running of the Nudes provided another P.O.V. that transformed my thinking about this festival.
Seeing both sides, without judgment, is not an easy task in life. Being on the ground and experiencing another culture’s rituals forces us to do what cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien reminds when discussing the Latin origin of the word “respect,” which is respetar: to look again.
5. Festivals Allow a Connection with Kindred Spirits or Collective Effervescence with Close Friends
Sure, you can go online 24/7 and find people to chat with about common interests. But that doesn’t compare with the intensity of being with them in person, whether the focus is on yoginis at Wanderlust (above), or bikers at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally …
Stepping outside your comfort zone means exactly that. Most of us are quite fond of our creature comforts and chosen tribe. Festivals can bring out the best and, sometimes, the worst in people. While we may yearn for new experiences and locales, our expectations can get in the way of enjoying what we may find there. Some festivals are inherently magical with serendipitous meetings of new friends and interesting locals at every turn. But, if you’re traveling alone, this may be asking too much of happenstance.
Traveling alone, I’ve made new friends of all ages, shapes and colors in languages shared and those helped along with interpreters, from the Kumbh Mela festival in India…
to the El Colacho baby-jumping festival in Spain.
If you prefer a traveling companion, kindred spirits can be just a click away. I often reach out to Facebook friends when headed to a festival. Last year, a friend doing business in Pakistan joined me spur of the moment in Turkey for the Mevlana Whirling Dervish festival . And a once virtual friend joined me IRL (In Real Life) last minute from the Philippines for a series of village festivals in Bali. Companion reality check: the wrong travel partner can be a real festival buzzkill. Be clear about why you’re going to a festival. If you’re looking for a life-altering transformative experience or just to find a casual hook-up, the best choice you might make is to travel with someone who has a comparable intent.
6. Festivals Bring You Face-to-Face with the Highest Expression of the Human Spirit
Later in his life, Abraham Maslow expanded on his iconic hierarchy of five human needs: 1. physical (food & shelter); 2. safety; 3. social (belonging); 4. esteem; 5. self-actualization. He added: 6. aesthetics and 7. transcendence. Art transcends cultural barriers. Feeling a part of something bigger than you is palpable at many festivals. Nowhere have I experienced this more deeply than in the midst of tens of thousands of people – from all over the world – writing their hopes and dreams on large paper lamps that become luminescent spiritual torches at Taiwan’s Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival.
The collective effervescence (there’s something about seeing it all together) of releasing these beacons into the sky is awe-inspiring, with a deep sense that our aspirations are all connected. Seeing art in the every day gives you a new pair of eyes to see the world.
In his TED talk on the arts festival revolution, David Binder shares Australia’s Minto Live Festival and others with utter exuberance…
These festivals show how the arts uniquely coalesce the local and the global. Art removes any sense of “the other” especially when the lines between performers and the audience are eliminated.
Two colorful festivals that express the enlightened, exuberant human spirit are at opposite ends of the temperature gauge. China’s Harbin Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival is an awe-inspiring display of artistic craft and superhuman endurance in -30 below freezing temps…
And India’s Holi (which has recently inspired similar festivals across the U.S.) transforms cultural barriers in the heat through a fantastic human rainbow of laughter and connection.
At both, the collective is necessary to inspire, and to be inspired.
7. Sometimes We Need Milestones or an Event to Facilitate Life Changes
Transformation is a subjective term. One person’s metamorphosis might have a hedonistic flavor on an Ibiza dance floor, while another’s might emerge at a mountain monastery pilgrimage. I’ve experienced the gamut…profound moments that shifted big boulders in my life, as well as mind-blowing, in-the-moment connections that were just pure fun and frivolous.
I have also seen momentous shifts in the lives of others. One friend was at the top of his career and financially set, with a beautiful woman at his side. From the outside looking in, he had it all. You probably know someone like this. Or, perhaps it’s you. Are you miserable? My friend was. By the time he arrived at Burning Man , he’d gotten so used to seeing people as walking dollar signs that he’d lost his connection with humanity. What transpired over several days was nothing short of miraculous. By the time he left the playa, he was – and remains to this day – a changed man. What he needed was time, space and a completely new habitat – one based upon the gift economy and not the dog-eat-dog world – where he could let go and take a look at who he was at that particular time in his life…and who he wanted to be.
This could happen for couples who’ve lost their connection – traveling to the Buenos Aires Tango Festival to get their romantic mojo back. Or, someone dealing with a physical illness taking a trip to the World Bodypainting Festival in Austria to reclaim their body in Technicolor. Or, maybe someone attends an LGBT Pride Festival after living a closeted life for too long.
Timing is everything. Find a festival that will allow you to welcome some transformation into your life. Marcus Aurelius wrote, “The universe is change, life is an opinion.” Maybe it’s time for a little change in your life?
8. The Journey to a Festival Can Provide Surprising Collateral Benefits
Many festivals are located in some of the world’s most fascinating towns or spectacular natural settings. When I traveled to Spain’s wacky baby-jumping festival this summer, I experienced a delightful bonus along the way. El Colacho is held in the small village of Castrillo de Murcia, where brightly hooded “devils” literally jump mattresses topped with infants to save their little souls.
This Catholic/pagan ritual has stood the test of time for four centuries, but as I trained my way from Madrid to northern Spain, I started having second thoughts about traveling so far for a small village festival that attracted lots of YouTube attention, yet scarcely more than a few dozen visitors. But, once I arrived in the charming, car-free, medieval town of Burgos – near the festival – I realized that El Colacho was the appetizer and Spain’s gastronomic capital, Burgos, was the main course…
The same happened while in Siena, Italy for Il Palio …
In Fes, Morocco for the Festival of World Sacred Music …
And at Kuala Lumpur’s Batu Caves for Thaipusam …
Now I’m imagining that I just might experience some collateral benefits in Tahiti for Heiva . Soon!
Beneath our varied exteriors lies a universal human landscape that connects us. My declaration to become the world’s leading expert on festivals and create Fest300 may have had a certain amount of hubris when I first imagined it in 2012. But, hubris has been superseded by humanity. Writer E.M. Forster’s humanistic epigraph to Howard’s End says it succinctly: “Only connect.”
First published on Tim Ferriss’s blog, FourHourWorkWeek.com