8 Ways Transformational Festivals Can Change Your Life and Change the World

Lightning in a Bottle


In 2012, I was weathering a storm of intense personal change, from a difficult breakup, to the loss of friends, to tough health problems. I was fortunate to be invited to a transformational festival (Lightning in a Bottle) and somewhere amidst the fantastic music, the mind-blowing art, the eco-consciousness, and love from new friends, I found myself, my community and a new lease on life.

A transformational festival is more than a music festival, more than a group campout, and more than a social gathering, although it has many of the same components. What exactly distinguishes a transformational festival like Lucidity from a more mainstream festival like Coachella? It is the emphasis on transformation – both of the self, through rapid personal growth and self-realization, and of society, through a focus on sustainable living, community, education, and wellness. These are usually three to seven day events defined as “counterculture festivals that espouse a community-building ethic and a value system that celebrates life, personal growth, social responsibility, healthy living, and creative expression.”1

As a social psychologist, I am naturally drawn to understanding how these gatherings enable such rapid and profound transformation. In my review of the research, I have found no scientific peer-reviewed studies on the topic, and only a handful of articles and anecdotal accounts, such as Jeet Kei Leung’s fantastic 2010 TEDx talk and the documentary The Bloom Series as well as Elizabeth Perry’s excellent 2013 article for ReDefine. It seems natural for me to share what I have learned from these festivals and how they have changed my life.

Transformational festivals have the power to affect rapid change by healing us and our world in the following 8 ways:

1) Conscious Sustainable Living

Recognizing that the current model of life on this planet has become unsustainable, transformational festivals offer a new, albeit microcosmic, model of an environment that focuses on sustainability and eco-consciousness. With mottos like Pack it in, Pack it out and Leave it Better, Leave it Beautiful, the idea is that we can exist symbiotically with our environment and be responsible for our actions (even when we are also having a good time!). Across the many festivals, there are a number of trends that set positive examples for how we can approach the ever-growing environmental and energy problems facing our planet, including:

• Green Energy: Solar Power and Biodiesel Fuels
• Leave No Trace Philosophy
• Free and unlimited Clean Water for everyone
• 100% Recyclable and Biodegradable plates, cups and utensils
• Stages made from up-cycled/reused materials
• Camping with minimal environmental impact
• Non GMO, Organic, and/or Vegan whole foods for sale on site
• Bartering and Sharing to avoid excess waste
• Eco- Friendly Composting Porto-potties
• Workshops and Seminars on Sustainable Living

2) Participation in Tribal Community Ritual

Evolutionarily, we are a tribal society, and for thousands of years our ancestors connected to each other and to the land through sacred ritual dance. While these rituals are still practiced by some indigenous tribal societies today, here in mainstream America we have all but forgotten this tradition. When we dance together outdoors with a community of likeminded people, we model ancient healing rituals where we free the feet to free the head. Such dancing may potentially lead us to attain the altered states of enlightened consciousness documented in some Native American shamanic healing rituals. By enabling us to connect to our planetary tribal roots and to these ancient sound and dance healing traditions, transformational festivals can facilitate profound individual and societal change.

3) Radical Inclusion

Many of us have spent our lives longing for a community, only to feel like we never quite belonged. At my first transformational festival, I was greeted with smiles, hugs and love by complete strangers, which felt totally foreign and bizarre. It was the first time in my life I ever felt unconditionally accepted by a group of people. Burning Man uses the term radical inclusion to describe this unique feeling of acceptance. There is no dress code, no velvet rope, no bouncers, and no feeling of ‘us versus them.’ At these events, we are all equal members of our own giant spirit family, all brothers and sisters sharing human experiences. I heard Alex Grey call us the Rainbow Tribe at Gem & Jam this year, which accurately shows how we are diverse, but we are a big family. Just imagine this principle applied to our whole world!

4) Co-Creation

The emphasis on co-creation means that the majority of participants work together to create the event. According to Jeet Kei Leung, anywhere from 30% to 100% of attendees at transformational festivals are actual co-creators of the experience, meaning they are artists, dancers, vendors, builders, volunteers, architects or contributing to the festival in other ways. Nearly every single person has a stake in the success and direction of the event, taking it from a passive experience to an active shared one, and making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. In this respect, we are all co-creators because we hold sacred space for each other to experience transformation. Our world would benefit hugely from this kind of co-creation, where people join together and support each other to create their infrastructure and their way of life.

lightning in a bottle workshop
Photo by Aaron Gautschi

5) Educational Mind Expansion

Transformational festivals afford participants unique opportunities for accelerated mind expansion. Unlike mainstream festivals or raves where the emphasis is on partying, transformational festivals offer diverse and exciting line-ups of educational workshops, speakers and events. Not only can this expose us to new ways of thinking, but it can also expand our minds quickly as we share space and converse with other open-minded individuals. These educational opportunities vary across festivals, but the usual suspects often include:

• Diverse Yoga Offerings (Vinyasa, Hatha, Bhakti, Kundalini)
• Healing Arts (Massage, Body Work, Energy Healing, Reiki, Crystal Therapies, Sound Healing)
• Meditation & Breath work
• Sustainable Agriculture, Farming & Aquaponics
• Flow Arts Workshops (Hooping, Poi, Fire Flow, Juggling)
• Movement and Ecstatic Dance Instruction
• Tantric Sex, Sacred Unions and Relationship Workshops
• Visionary Art Workshops (Painting, Drawing, Sculpting, Digital Arts)
• Rhythm & Drum Circle Workshops
• Martial Arts (Shaolin Kung Fu, Capoeira, Tai-Chi)
• Music Workshops (Singing, Chanting, Gonging, Music Production)
• Empowerment and Self-Esteem Training
• Elixirs, Oils and Plant Medicines
• Kids Activities and Workshops
• Jewelry Making and Wire-Wrapping
• Responsible Resource Management Workshops

6) Experimentation

The plethora of cultural offerings at transformational festivals can enlighten us and provide us with a nurturing, pressure-free environment to try new things. The ability to experiment without fear is huge for our personal development and for the growth of our society! The festival environment offers us the space to find out who we are and how we can make an impact on our world. We are afforded wonderful opportunities to embrace unpredictability, creativity, weirdness and innovation – Just imagine how such experimentation could change our world for the better!

7) Potential for Psychological Healing

The psychologist in me is intuitively drawn to transformational festivals as a tool for healing emotional wounds and past traumas. The accepting, peaceful and loving environment offers as-yet undiscovered healing potential for individuals with a variety of social and psychological disorders, including anxiety, agoraphobia, panic disorder, PSTD and more. For individuals living with these conditions, these events might be the first time in their lives they are able to feel safe while wholly immersed in a crowd or public space filled with completed strangers.

One such individual, Tim (name changed for confidentiality) is very close to my heart. A fifteen-year military veteran, he suffered severe PTSD after enduring several years in Iraq. His fear of crowds and public places became somewhat intense after being discharged. After a little bit of arm-twisting, he agreed to attend Symbiosis 2013, and he had the time of his life. He was shy and reserved at first, but by the end he was ecstatic about feeling comfortable, loved, and safe among such a huge crowd of people. He is now a festival regular and has just started a new business where he can vend his homemade crafts at festivals!

The therapeutic and healing potential of transformational festivals could have a profound impact on our world. I plan to conduct more research on this topic and interview people who have found these experiences healing and/or therapeutic. Please send any stories or personal accounts to me at festivehealing@gmail.com.

8) Finding Yourself

Each of leaves one of these events fundamentally different from how we arrived, but you can never really predict how each unique experience is going to change your life or anyone else’s. Many people report discovering new unexpected passions, finding their hidden talents, and unveiling their true life-path or life purpose. These experiences can also enhance self-esteem, build confidence and reveal authentic self-expression. To help fix the many problems facing our world, we desperately need more people who have had such expansive experiences, who know themselves and why they are here, and who can create enlightened solutions. Most of all, we need people who love each other, who are connected to their communities, and who care deeply about the fate of the planet. You will find all of this and more at transformational festivals.

Appendix: Transformational Festivals In 2014

I look forward to attending a plethora of transformational festivals this year, including Serenity, Lucidity, Lightning in a Bottle, Firefly, Sonic Bloom, Wanderlust, Elevate, Burning Man and Symbiosis. Please contact me at festivehealing@gmail.com if you would like to get involved in my festival research!
If you are looking for events in your area, please check the comprehensive guide at FestivalFire.com (http://festivalfire.com/2014-fest-guide-flipbk/).

1 Wikipedia. (2014). Transformational Festivals. Retrieved March 18th, 2014 from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transformational_festivals.

2 Kei Leung, J. (2010). Transformational Festivals. Ted X Vancouver. Retrieved March 18th, 2014 from:http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/TEDxVancouver-Jeet-Kei-Leung-Tr

3. The Bloom: A Journey Through Transformational Festivals (2013). Retrieved March 18th, 2014 from: http://thebloomseries.com/.

4. Perry, E. (2013). Transformational Festivals: Where Ecstatic Spirit and Sonic Celebration Unite. Redefine Magazine. Retrieved March 18th, 2014 from: http://www.redefinemag.com/2013/transformational-festivals-spiritual-preview-guide.

5. Thomason, T. (2010). The Role of Altered States of Consciousness in Native American Dance. Journal of Rural Community Psychology, 13. Retrieved March 18th2014 from: http://www.marshall.edu/jrcp/VE13%20N1/jrcp%2013%201%20thomason.pdf.

About the Author

Dr. Kelly Neff is a social psychologist, author and educator who has helped thousands of people learn about healthy relationships, love and sexuality. A professor of psychology since 2007, she has become an innovator in the field of online teaching with her book, Teaching Psychology Online and her YouTube lectures. Dr. Neff also offers integrative healing services by combining psychological techniques, empowerment training, Reiki, and other alternative therapies. When she isn’t writing, teaching or doing healing work, Dr. Neff travels the globe in search of transformational festivals, rainbow tribe gatherings, and other adventures. You can find her daily doses of inspiration and positivity on her Facebook page and Twitter.

This article has been reprinted with permission