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Reflections on Shambhala

[Due to the somewhat personal and offbeat nature of this post, we’ve decided not to attach the author’s name to this article. For a lot of you out there it’s going to be apparent who this is, but we know they’d appreciate it if you kept it to yourself (online at least, if you want to talk in person, or shoot them a private message, that’s all gravy baby :) ] – the Night Vision Team

 

 Photo courtesy of Eye of the Mind Photography

Photo courtesy of Eye of the Mind Photography

          I’m struggling to find a way to kick this off. I’m sitting here, staring at my screen, searching for that perfect opening line that simultaneously grabs the reader and sets the tone for the rest of the article, but it’s just not coming. And you know what? That’s okay. Because this isn’t English class and there are no grades to be had.  While the rules for Good Writing have obvious benefits, they are not laws to be adhered to blindly—they can be bent, broken, and altogether disregarded. And while disregarding the rules will oftentimes lead to some real garbage, so too will it produce works of brilliance by allowing creativity to flourish. So, you might be wondering, “What the shit is this guy talking about? I thought this was going to be about Shambhala.” Don’t worry, I’m gettin’ to it.

First off, I am normally a very private person. I don’t typically offer too much about myself with people whom I don’t know or feel comfortable, so this article is going to be uncharted territory. For reasons that will soon become clear, I came back from this year’s Shambhala feeling particularly driven. While returning from the farm feeling warm, fuzzy, and inspired is by no means a new sensation, the passion to share my thoughts and experiences was. Before typing a single sentence I began by asking myself, “What am I trying to convey? What is my goal here?” And here it is: through relating my personal experience from not only this year, but all my years at Shambhala, I hope to help facilitate understanding of the event, the culture it has created, and of course, its patrons.  Who is this aimed at? Ideally, it‘s for everyone: the die-hards, the casuals, the curious, the disinterested, the used-to-go-but-have-become-disenchanteds and even da haterz. Alright, enough with the preamble, let’s get into it.

My first time attending Shambhala came back in 2009 at the not-too-young but not-too-old age of 20. My best friend (who I’ll refer to as “P” from here on out) and I had both heard whisperings of this music festival in BC full of “naked hippies” where you could find “anything you wanted”.  That was literally all the info we had before embarking on the 10-hour ride to Salmo. We knew that the music was going to be mostly electronic, but it was by no means what drew us to the festival. I had a passing familiarity with exactly two artists on the lineup going into it and I knew absolutely nothing of the stages, the river, the grounds or anything. Straight up, we went for the adventure.

"Just about every dumb thing you could do, we did."

We arrived Thursday night, spending about 2 hours slowly traversing the dirt road in, car tuned to the now-absent Shambhala radio station, still unaware of what was about to hit us. Maybe it was the costumes we slowly started to see, maybe it was the (to our virgin minds) absurd number of glowing articles bobbing along the pathways, or maybe it was our parking attendant declaring, apropos of nothing, “I smell ketamiiiiiiiine”, that we started to realize just how weird this place was. Upon parking our car, we grabbed our tent and bags and searched for a camping spot. The more we saw (and to be honest, it wasn’t much—we hadn’t even ventured downtown yet), the more eager we became to set up our tent and get to exploring. So, after about 10 minutes of looking around haphazardly in the dark, we decided to plant ourselves in what was objectively the dustiest, hardest packed, and, we would soon find out, hottest spot imaginable. That was the start of our Shambhala.

Now, I could continue on, providing a chronological play-by-play of my year 1 experience, but to do so would be disingenuous. The fact is, the years have a tendency to blend together, and given that it’s been 6 years since first having my mind blown at the farm, it’s tough to recall the exact emotions, experiences and epiphanies I might have had. There is no doubt that Shambhala changed me as a person, but how, when, and to what degree over the course of 6 years is impossible to determine. Instead, I think it will be more fruitful to tell the tale in more general terms, while still sprinkling in some of the specific nuggets I do remember.

One such nugget that I recall vividly from my first year was just how awful we were at everything. Just about every dumb thing you could do, we did. Setting up with no lights, in the dark, in not only a terrible camping spot, but smack-dab in the middle of someone else’s shit? Check.  Missing poles and wrong instructions for our tent? You bet! Incidentally, it was through our incompetence that we got our first taste of the helping & community-focused culture at Shambhala, or, Shambhalove. The people whose campsite we disrupted were not only unmiffed by our intrusion, but they helped us MacGyver our tent into something workable for the weekend. Although this kind of altruism is not exclusive to Shambhala, it nevertheless set the tone for the festival, and helped educate some newbies as to what the place was all about.

 Photo by Michael Benz.

Photo by Michael Benz.

As we explored the festival, the presence of Shambhalove  became increasingly apparent from not only the festival’s patrons, but its organizers as well. There was a relaxation zone known as ‘The Sanctuary’ for people to go if they were feeling distraught or overwhelmed, a refreshingly friendly and courteous security staff, and a tent in the middle of downtown offering free, non-judgmental drug testing and information. They had little cards and pamphlets dedicated to various recreational drugs (all of which I grabbed and perused later in my tent) that explained what each substance did, how it worked, and the dangers of taking them together. This approach to drug use known as “harm reduction” aims to help patrons through education, rather than incarceration. Although I do not know when the harm reduction tent was first employed at Shambhala, there is no doubt in my mind that the concept would have been extremely controversial when it was first rolled out, and I’m very inspired and thankful that they have stuck with their avant-garde approach to drug safety. Due in large part to its success at Shambhala, the harm reduction strategy is finally gaining some traction as a legitimately-viewed policy across the country.

So, remember how I talked about how awful we were at everything? That didn’t stop with our tent. For that first year, we were those kids. We didn’t have any costumes or flair, so we bought glow sticks; didn’t have the discipline to keep our cooler stocked with ice, so we bought all our meals; and, most painfully of all, we learned the hard that way that what goes up must come down. Each night was filled with blissful euphoria, and each morning with punishing torment. And even though we’d wake up every day sweating like mad, feeling unmotivated and undernourished in our blistering hot tent, the feelings and memories from the night before powered us through each rude awakening. “Now, you’re not just going to gloss over that “blissful euphoria part are ya?” Of course not, but first, let’s go back a bit.

"the greatest change that Shambhala instilled upon me was how to simply not give a fuck"

Coming into the festival I had a very limited amount of exposure to dance music and festival culture in general. While I had slowly become more and more interested in electronic music prior to Shambhala, I was still an extremely shy, self-conscious, socially anxious kid that never felt comfortable meeting new people, let alone dancing with them. I could loosen up after a few drinks sure, but I never truly felt confident in my own skin. I remained very much in my own head, always wondering how I was coming across to other people. Without a doubt, the greatest change that Shambhala instilled upon me was how to simply not give a fuck.  Part of the idea of Shambhalove is encouraging and accepting free expression. Everyone is out there acting freaky in their own kind of way, and no one stares, judges or condemns (and if they are, they’re keeping it to themselves). The feeling of confidence that stems from acting how you want to act, without fear of judgment, is therapeutic to a degree that words could never adequately describe. The realization that the social rules and barriers that once governed you are, in fact, illusory, grants a feeling of freedom like no other. And most precious of all, it’s a feeling that does not dissipate when the festival is over—it stays with you. From that first night on, I was a changed person.

When we returned from Shambhala, we told everyone who would listen about our experience. We talked endlessly about the mind-boggling production, the world-class DJs, the beautiful mountain scenery, and of course, the naked hippies. Shambhala was a place that we knew we had to share. And you know what happened? Not one of our friends joined us for year 2! Although we were disappointed, we were not surprised. Words and pictures can only say so much—there’s no substitute for real, visceral, human experience.

So there we went, back to the farm one year later, just the two of us, a little older and slightly less stupid. What did we take away from year 2? Well, we learned alllllllll about the grueling 16-hour wait in line that, in arriving so late the year before, we had serendipitously avoided. That was a tough one, I’ll tell ya, but it did serve to make year 2 that much sweeter once we finally made it inside.

 Photo by Michael Benz

Photo by Michael Benz

"Have no doubts about it, the people that run the place are always striving to make it better."

Year 3 was a special year. Finally, all of our ranting and raving back home had paid off, and we convinced a number of our friends to make the trek down and see the magic first hand. Watching a new group go through the same feelings of wonder and excitement that we had experienced ourselves was immeasurably rewarding. But that’s not why the year was special to me. The year was special because I came to see just how powerful an influence the Shambhala experience could be on a friendship. While P and I had been close from the beginning, I was not nearly as comfortable with most of our year 3 companions going in. We knew each other decently well from attending shows together back home, but we weren’t that tight. It was through our shared shedding of insecurities, our shared barrier-breaking, and our shared “just getting fucking weird together” that we forged bonds that to this day remain strong as ever. While year 1 was a watershed moment in my internal development as a person, year 3 was when I saw how deep and meaningful a friendship could become. It is this aspect of Shambhala that I have come to look forward to most. It’s not the stages, it’s not the party, it’s not even the music—it’s the happiness I feel from seeing people I love letting everything go and being their true selves.

From that first journey down to the farm in 2009, I have watched Shambhala evolve, and myself along with it. Each year I get a little smarter, a little better at managing the craziness. From scoping new places to camp (and figuring out how to snag those spots!), to discovering the best foods and snacks to take down, to finding the best places to score costumes, Shambhala is a learning experience that never stops. It has become a place so intertwined with my personality and my progression as a human that it’s impossible to say who I would be without it.

Now, Shambhala is by no means perfect, but you know what? They do listen! I’ve written letters and filled out surveys, and each time my concerns were addressed by the next year. Have no doubts about it, the people that run the place are always striving to make it better. By this point they could coast by on their reputation and bank some extra money, but they don’t. Each year they upgrade and improve the festival in new and unpredictable ways (I mean, how badass was the Grove?? Hard to believe how far it’s come in just 2 years).

"I was one of those over-energized young weirdos, only there for the party, running around the Fractal Forest, bothering strangers, dancing like a nut, climbing on speakers, and generally acting like a fool"

Alright so, we get it, you love Shambhala, congrats dude! Are you just about done? No, not quite, so buckle in a little longer. It may surprise you to hear that there are some things that I don’t like about the festival *gasp*.  There’s a rather large elephant in the room that has been hitherto under-discussed, and that’s the issue of drugs. When I talk about Shambhala back in the Real World, I’m usually met with a statement to the effect of “Oh, that’s the one where a bunch of hippies/ravers/degenerates go to get fucked up in the mountains right?” Admittedly, it’s a statement that is not altogether untrue, but one that paints the festival with a narrow, hedonistic brush. It hurts me that this is the prevailing view of Shambhala among those who have never been. As someone who will soon be entering a professional program, it terrifies me what kind of conclusions people might draw about me if they were to hear where I go every August (writing this piece scares me a bit too, but whatevs I’m doing it anyway). It scares me enough that I generally avoid the subject altogether with people whom I don’t know well. Hold up bozo, didn’t you say earlier that you learned to not give fucks about what people think? Isn’t this a contradiction? You’re right, it is. But such is the world we live in. Do I like it? Of course not, but I’m not naïve. Am I over-reacting? Do I have it wrong? It’s possible. But this hedonistic view of Shambhala is not only limited to those who’ve never been—there are plenty of people who have gone and not returned who view it the same way.

Listen, I’m no saint. I’ve dabbled. But the drugs are not the defining feature of the festival—every music festival has drugs. They’re not the reason people go home and rage to their friends about the life-changing experience they had. Yes, you will see some downright reckless behavior. You will see people being ridiculous and obnoxious and a lot of times you won’t like it. But this, I posit, is the cost of free expression. While you will see a great deal of beauty and creativity, sometimes—oftentimes—you’ll get stuff that you just don’t gel with. Over the past 3 years, I’ve spent maybe 2 nighttime hours in the Village. For the most part, that stage and its vibe scares me. It just makes me feel icky. But, I am not the grand arbiter of taste that gets to decide what is Good and what is Bad. I know there are thousands of people for whom the raw energy of the Village provides a great deal of happiness (not to mention the stage itself is absolutely incredible.). Is it for me? Not at all. Would I do away with it? Of course not. How selfish would that be? While the Village might not tickle my particular brand of freakiness, there are many for whom it does, and to deprive them of that simply because I do not personally enjoy it is just wrong.

michaelbenz3

It would be easy to dismiss Shambhala as merely a hedonistic destination for dumbass kids to run wild in the mountains, but consider this: I was one of those kids. I was one of those over-energized young weirdos, only there for the party, running around the Fractal Forest, bothering strangers, dancing like a nut, climbing on speakers, and generally acting a fool. Is that who am I now? Hell no. Do I regret it? Absolutely not! Because that led me to becoming the person I am today. The best thing one can do to improve the festival is to be the change you want to see. Help people out when they need it. Bring extra waters to the dance floor. Pick up trash off the beach. Coach the newbies and help them become better participants. Show’em some Shambhalove.

So how does one change the public perception? I can’t say for sure—hell, I can’t say whether it even needs changing (believe me, I’d love to be wrong)—but for me, this article is my contribution. With certain changes coming soon to my life, I felt that it was something I not only wanted, but, felt obligated, to do.  Shambhala is more than the party, it’s more than the music and it’s even more than the people—it’s an experiment that transforms everything we believe the world to be. I don’t mean to go all “baby’s first acid trip” on you but it’s the truth! People come, and they leave changed for the better. Every year I go back I’m recharged, re-inspired, and ready to bring that energy back home with me. And it’s not just me, it’s everyone here at Night Vision. Those tenets of acceptance and community are something we strive to build and emulate here in Edmonton. We’re trying to bring the change we want to see to our home. Are we perfect? Of course not, but we know what we’re striving for.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you—and I mean that sincerely. Featured below is this year’s edition of DMT’s annual Shambhalove mix. Although it was mixed by our boys DMT, it was a collaborative effort between the whole Night Vision crew to try and capture our time at Shambhala. The mix contains tracks that illustrate some of our favourite moments at the farm, and it follows the progression of a night at a festival: starting at sunset, going into the party hour, through the deepest, darkest part of the night, and breaking through with euphoria as the sun comes up.

 

Finally, shout out to Kill Frenzy, Dusky, Kry Wolf, Jesse Rose, Amtrac, Bonobo and Kidnap Kid for laying down my favorite performances of the year; shout out to the Amphitheatre for blowing me away with their new stage design and lighting; shout out to the Grove for creating the best sounding, most beautiful stage of the festival; shout out to the girl who brought a stack of pizzas to the Pagoda dance floor—you’re a legend; shout out to the guy I met in the cafeteria for explaining why you call it the “Kay-Dome”—you had us laughing and repeating that line all weekend; shout out to my Night Vision family for being the best friends a guy could ever ask for; and shout out to my girlfriend who I love dearly and helped make this year the most special yet. Thanks for reading and I’ll see ya next year.