Me Myself and I - De La Soul performing on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury. Photo: Thomas Phillips
The Glastonbury Festival, the world’s largest green-field contemporary arts festival, is held over five days on a site covering 1100 acres, and is widely considered to be an excellent place to both lose and find yourself. Given our stated aim at The Study Society of helping people to understand the nature of their capital-I Identity through self-inquiry, meditation, sacred dance and other practices, we wondered whether it might not also be a good place to remember one’s Self, and so we sent our Managing Director, Thomas Phillips, off to investigate first hand: could it be that a festival with a reputation for new-age hedonism and self-indulgent, conspicuous consumption, could offer access to a level of spirituality that isn’t easy to come by in the day-to-day trenches of modern life? Enquiring minds want to know...
Thomas Phillips with his daughter at Glastonbury.
Photo: Sarah Soetaert
Can't Get No Satisfaction. The Stones Performing at Glastonbury.
Photo: Thomas Phillips
The first time I visited the Glastonbury Festival two decades ago I arrived after the sun had set and my initial impression was that it was much less a festival and more a fantastic, magical city sprung up in the midst of the Somerset countryside. As we approached my first glimpse was of a sea of lights in a darkened valley. The sound of countless bass lines from the site’s sound-system’s subwoofers blended seamlessly as they drifted out onto the night-time air and infused the darkness with a palpable presence of energy and possibility.
Over 200,000 people, including staff and performers, descend on the Eavis’s modest dairy farm for the festival. Over five days they will consume more than enough food to feed Coxey’s army. There are 514 food stalls on site, and 900 shops, over 40,000 bins, 5,000 toilets; and an astonishing 3,000,000 gallons of water get used. At roughly 30 megawatts of electricity, Glastonbury consumes more or less the same amount of energy as the city of Bath. It’s not your average campsite.
Glastonbury Festival has always stood out from every other music or arts festival the world over and it’s interesting to consider why, despite countless emulations, nearly 50 years on this remains the case. An obvious place to start is by looking at the line-up on the main stages. Despite paying artist fees significantly lower than those offered by other venues and festivals Glastonbury consistently attracts the crème-de-la-crème of performers both contemporary and legendary. Many of the acts to have appeared over the years are notable for being truly original, avant-garde, innovative: the sort of artists who upon first appearing strike an audience as being so fresh, so idiosyncratic, that they represent growth, development, evolution, change; artists exhibiting such a strong individuality that they spawn countless imitations, few of whom tend to achieve similar levels of success, being recognised as imitators rather than originators by a discerning public. One can argue contrarily about the progress of music and how every new development can be traced back along a lineage to uncover roots in what has come before, but every so often an individual, or group, comes along and somehow shatters the mould of what has been.
Over the years headline acts have included David Bowie, Dolly Parton, Peter Gabriel, Suzanne Vega, Rod Stewart, The Rolling Stones, Joan Baez, T Rex, Beyoncé, Paul McCartney... the list goes on: a veritable roll call of the biggest, most influential, and individual, acts of all time. This year particularly authentic acts included Lorde, Radiohead, The Jacksons, Dua Lipa, Stormzy, all of whom can be said to have broken new ground in individuality.
In many ways the festival is a site of consumerist frenzy and it is easy to feel a disheartening sense of the amplification of social ills when meandering around and taking in the waste and litter, bad behaviour, excess and general self-indulgent foolishness of it all. It’s a question of perspective though. If you start to look you’ll notice other things: myriad little sacrifices and kindnesses, people, in large numbers, paying attention to each other and to what’s around them, and, significantly, to themselves. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of opportunity to observe people stuck in their unconscious default sleepwalking rat-race mode, plodding from one stage to another, meeting their immediate needs and just drifting by on autopilot, perhaps drinking too much and falling out with friends or wandering lost and lonely as a cloud, but there is also a consistent high amount of care, shared amongst strangers, which care begins to look like the sort of freedom that is hard to obtain in daily life.
Dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free.
A curious detail that you gradually notice about the festival is that the only advertising to be found on-site, aside from that for a handful of recognised charities, is on the attendees and performers themselves: There is no corporate advertising, no huge branded stages or areas or shops. The litany of logos littering most other open-air type events are conspicuous by their absence; a seemingly small detail, but compared with the systematic linking of the images splayed around us to the worlds we inhabit, in the self referentially neurotic way we have all become comfortably numb to, Kate Moss strutting around in her Hunters as a lone vector of corporate advertising is actually something of a relief to see. This absence of late capitalism’s intrusive imagery is another marker of Glastonbury.
The festival offers an incredible range of experiential diversity – there really is something for everyone: a vast variety of different music stages and tents, theatre and dance and gymnastics, comedy and poetry, art installations and opportunities to participate in any number of creative activities, cinemas and clubs and bars and restaurants, the kid’s fields, the healing fields and their numerous practices and offerings, the green fields and their crafts.
In terms of the sheer number of people gathered with unity of purpose, the festival – whilst not on the same scale as papal visits or religious pilgrimages – does share some of the devotional fanaticism that drives people together in vast numbers, and Glastonbury offers spiritual support from a number of quarters. There’s a church for Christian worship and reflection, Buddhist meditation groups, Hindu groups, Taoist groups and a number of pagan groups. The Iona Community offer conversation and counselling as well as a space for Christian worship. The Hari Krishnas are on-site offering food and welfare to one and all. Then there’s the yoga, kirtan, meditation, acupuncture, mindfulness, gong baths, tarot, laughter workshops, healings ... I could go on.
At a festival this size it’s no surprise that everywhere you go there are maps of the site with a red dot or large arrow and the caption: YOU ARE HERE. Though there are many here among us who will be feeling either orientationally challenged or in need of reassurance of a more fundamental, existential sort, I can’t help but feel that this motif neatly encapsulates what for a lot of people the festival is really about. Life in a post-industrialist late-capitalist society, especially if you live and work in a large city, often resembles a cage of sorts with bars built of work, commuting, paying bills, watching box sets, too much screen-time and inane social-media-babble. There are endlessly frustrating and exhausting petty demands interspersed with precious too little time or energy for friends and family and the things we all intuitively just know are actually the most fundamentally important bits of any life.
There’s no scarcity of research showing that as our living standards increase so do levels of depression and mental health problems. The amount of undistracted time we have for our Selves, to just Be, decreases. It may be a dull platitude but this classic inverse correlation is abundantly, manifestly present. Glastonbury, for many, offers an escape from the daily grind and it is in this space of escape that an opportunity to return to the Self, it seems to me, arises.
In 2016 I was at the festival, with my wife and six-year old daughter, working as a photographer for the charity I ran at that time – Small Steps Project. We would go to the festival each year and persuade performers to donate a pair of shoes they’d worn that we could then auction off to raise funds to provide humanitarian aid to children on inhabited rubbish dumps around the world. Over the course of the long weekend I covered the better part of 50 miles on foot criss-crossing the site from stage to stage to take photographs and collect shoes through verifiably the wettest and muddiest conditions on record. The experience was, surprisingly, a profoundly meditative one. I had to walk slowly – trudge would be an appropriate verb – head down, concentrating on the few feet of muddy earth ahead of me in order to keep my balance and avoid slipping, or worse still, becoming literally stuck-in-the-mud. It was an experience of intense and private concentration, but was also the kind of repetitive activity that allows your mind to quieten and obtain a sort of state of serene stillness not unlike that of the mindfulness of a long distance runner.
In devotional practices from prayer to meditation to turning to yoga the devotee is at one and the same time at a remove from reality and yet also closer. This is exactly the experience of many of the revellers at Glastonbury Festival who feel that they are escaping the “reality” of their lives and at the same time becoming much more connected with what “reality” is. The Self they experience at the festival is felt as truer than that which they experience in their daily lives.
Doctrines of advaita or non-duality are all well and good whilst functioning within an intellectual or spiritual framework, with aphoristic or allegorical glimpses of ultimate objective truth always simmering tantalisingly close to the surface. Practices such as meditation, retreats, or satsang and group work, offer a more practical route from without to within, but if you want to talk about actual literal embodiment of oneness – of feeling like some essential part of the self is connected with everything it apprehends; with all the beauty and horror of the world; with all those other energies and ‘other’ selves, then Glastonbury Festival is a pretty good place to encounter and interrogate those sorts of feelings.
If you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars – compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship...
- David Foster Wallace
Ultimately, the benefits of the teaching of non-duality are that the tenets are eminently deployable in any given environment. It is certainly possible, easy even, to experience a high level of spirituality at Glastonbury, a spirituality present in the music and the crowds, in the noise and the dirt, in the surge of energy and outpouring of raw emotion, in the care of strangers, in the atmosphere in the campsites and all around, in the people and in the earth itself; perhaps all those ley lines really do have an impact. It is helped by a knowledge of the teaching but it is present in the very fabric of the festival because the festival represents a location in space and time where we can return to our Self and arrive at a place of Being, or pure experience, in which love and unity can be felt to be overwhelmingly present.
Working 9 to 5. Dolly Parton Performing at Glastonbury.
Photo: Thomas Phillips
Photo: Thomas Phillips
Fix Up Look Sharp. Dizzee Rascal Performing at Glastonbury.
Photo: Thomas Phillips
Photo: Thomas Phillips
How To Be Lonely. Rita Ora Performing at Glastonbury.
Photo: Thomas Phillips
Craft Making at Glastonbury.
Photo: Thomas Phillips
Do I Wanna Know? Arctic Monkeys Performing at Glastonbury.
Photo: Thomas Phillips
Michael Eavis at the Recycling Crew Party.
Photo: Thomas Phillips
Thomas Phillips is the Managing Director of The Study Society
Maya Fiennes is an internationally renowned musician, composer, yoga teacher and acclaimed
author of Yoga for Real Life, a best seller translated into several languages.
A pioneer of the New – new thinking, new feeling and new ways of sharing, she loves helping people to create the life they want to live. Born in Macedonia, Maya lives between London and Los Angeles. She travels the globe facilitating retreats, live performances and teacher training events. Her style of yoga and meditation is unique – a blend of Kundalini Yoga, Tai Chi and Qi Gong.
Maya was interviewed by Margaret O’Keeffe, trustee of The Study Society and co-founder of Curious Leaders.
Maya is returning to The Study Society to teach her fabulous 10 day Kundalini Yoga
class in person at Colet House, the charity’s home in London in 2021
Please contact our office to register your interest in advance: email@example.com
In the meantime, you can explore her regular on-line classes here: https://instabook.io/s2/mayafiennes
Adyashanti is a spiritual teacher and author known for radical honesty. He invites us to stop, enquire and recognise what is true and liberating at the core of all existence. In this article he emphasises his belief that spirituality is limitless and natural to all human beings, including atheists such as Carl Sagan. Carl was an astronomer, philosopher, cosmologist, astrophysicist and astrobiologist, who inspired millions with his sense of wonderment and connection with the universe.
What we think of as spirituality is not limited to what we think spirituality is. Spirituality is innate to being. It’s to be involved in the enigma of being. It’s to crack that nut, to open up that mystery. I think so much of deeper spirituality begins when we finally have the maturity, whether it comes at five years old or ninety- five years old, when we have whatever it is that causes us to recognize how deeply and profoundly we are a mystery unto ourselves. You have to have a little gap in your constant judging and condemning of yourself to feel the mystery of yourself. You have to suspend judgment for a moment. It’s a very unique and pivotal point in someone’s life. This is the contemplative endeavour. It’s diving into the mystery of being.
Meditation, whether it’s done in a meditation hall or while you’re sitting in your garden, is actually entering experientially into that enigma of being – not just to think about it and philosophise about it, but to actually enter into it. It’s not very far to connect with the mystery of being. It’s right there under the surface. When I started to notice all of this in my twen- ties, it was a weird thing, because when you get involved with spirituality, you get all these ideas of what a spiritual person is, and I didn’t seem to fit the model. The model of a spiritual person didn’t seem to be a highly competitive athlete who would run over your grandmother to win the next race. That’s not in the sacred scriptures. Someone like that does not receive the deeper spiritual insights, you might think.
The nice thing is that when you’re young, sometimes you don’t even put spirituality in a category. It’s not spirituality, it’s just life. Sometimes life shows up in an odd way, and all of a sudden your experience of it is very different. Maybe you feel deeply connected, or you seem to disappear into nothingness, or you seem to have a moment of connection with God that’s unusually profound and touching and life changing. Or maybe you sink into some spontaneous samadhi where you lose all connection to your senses, and everything disappears, and you’re like a point of consciousness. There are many, many different ways that the deeper dimension of being shows up.
I think it’s useful to think of spirituality in the most natural possible terms. Spirituality is just natural to a human being. It’s even natural to atheists. If you could listen to scientist Carl Sagan in his mystical awe of the cosmos, it was like listening to a mystic half the time, in rapt awe of the beauty of existence. He was a scientific materialist, but that was his doorway into experience, connection, and awe. He was somebody who didn’t believe in God, but he had a deep experi- ence. Clearly his investigations brought him into something akin to a kind of religious or spiritual awe.
I mention naturalness because the sense of the naturalness of true nature or awakening to true nature is not just religious, and it’s not just spiritual. You can even have atheists who are deeply participating in a way of being that connects them to a greater dimen- sion of being. So clearly, this is something that’s innate in all of us. And if we would just go immedi- ately to whatever our felt sense of our own mystery of being is, just to dip for a moment underneath the evaluations, the ideas, and the judgments of being, it doesn’t take much attention – a moment, really – to connect with the sense of being this extraordinary, conscious mystery.
Of course, we don’t want to just leave it at that. There’s something deeper in us that wants more than simply to leave it all as a mystery. I’m suggesting that that’s the entry point. If you forget that entry point, you can do decades of meditation looking for some- thing that’s actually completely innate. And so in the old, universal teachings among the esoteric inner dimensions of most spiritualities, the suggestion is to just go into that place where everything is an unknown.
Open to the unknown. Experience the unknown. Just stop for a second. There’s so much about you that’s unknown to you, it’s mind-boggling. What is it that’s walking, living and breathing, wanting what you want and not wanting what you don’t want? What is it that wants God or awakening or enlightenment, or just a little more peace and happiness in a troubled life? Every time we say ‘I,’ what do we actually mean? We’re giving voice to something that’s immense, and the capabilities are astonishing.
This article originated from a talk given in Palo Alto, California, May 2019 and was shared for publication in The Study Society’s magazine Being Issue 6 (ePublications).
Adyashanti is the author of nine books and holds spiritual retreats in England and the USA. Website: adyashanti.org