Babylon

rainbow gatherings

Courtesy of Benoit Paillé

This is just a small extract from part 3 of Somewhere Under the Rainbow – if you like it, feel free to support the author and buy the book!

In some ways the Rainbow is a tribe that forms its identity based on its diversity of backgrounds and temperaments, anarchic nature and traditions rooted in indigenous cultures. At other times it seems that we’re simply a reaction against all that we reject in corrupt, mainstream society – Babylon.

You can recognize people from Babylon at the Gatherings quite easily. They tend to arrive in groups and stay close together for security. They may carry bottles of alcohol with them and have a startled expression on their faces as they watch everyone sharing food and hugs. They probably check their cell phone every few minutes and may even isolate themselves from the world with a pair of headphones and an Ipod.

They might wear watches, cosmetics or designer clothes, maybe even hairstyles that require the support of a well-equipped bathroom. By the awkward way they sit on the ground it can be deduced it’s the first time they’ve done so since school and they’re too shy to lift their voices in song. They have pockets full of pills for different ailments, worry about distant events and politics they’ve heard about on TV and they eat processed food, fortified with vitamins and minerals.

And while they’re very welcome at the Rainbow (everyone is, after all), visitors can be an uncomfortable reminder of just how fragile the Gatherings are. However beautiful and powerful it can be, we know that the Rainbow is essentially something of a bubble: beautiful, hypnotic and terribly vulnerable. A single loud drunk can disrupt the harmony of the main circle. It also takes constant and patient education of newcomers to preserve the Rainbow Ways; if we let tradition slide too much then before long the Gatherings are just a bunch of people standing around a fire in a field wondering who’s going to cook dinner.

The Rainbows are located deep in nature for this very reason. The forests, hills and fields between us and the city are a kind of buffer protecting us from Babylon. Behaviour common in an urban setting suddenly seems out of place in the Rainbow where we establish our own norms and it becomes uncool to drink beer, talk on the cell phone or eat meat.

While it might be acknowledged that a town or city may have its good points – a place someone can make a home, study or work – in general the Rainbow is anything but in favour of the urban. High rises, flushing toilets, neon signs, congestion and polluted air are the unmistakable hallmarks of Babylon, a place of ignorance and vice, an anathema to the human spirit.

Babylon is where people work their lives away doing jobs they hate to buy things they don’t need; products made by corporations whose factories pollute the planet. Babylon is where you’re only beautiful if you look like the people on TV, layered with cosmetics and wobbling around on high heels. Babylon is where people prefer to drive than walk, buy everything new and throw away the old. Babylon is where people conform to whatever fashion, beliefs and lifestyle is expected of them rather than live life on their own terms.

Babylon is where you can neither grow your own food, build your own house or educate your children. Babylon is where you must carry proof of your identity, where the police can stop and search you for sacred herbs and where you must give away a portion of your income to buy bullets and bombs for the army.

Babylon is where your first question to a new acquaintance is what do you do for a living? It’s where couples meet under the influence of alcohol to deafening nightclub music, and where people prefer to speak to you via a screen than in person.

Babylon is where you’re bombarded by thousands of images every day on the television, internet and billboards, desensitising you to scenes of death, torture and violence, programming your sexuality, disseminating desires for consumer products and programming you with beliefs, attitudes and opinions, even as you think you find them all by yourself.

Babylon is where there are chemicals in your clothes to retain their colour, chemicals in your beds to safeguard them against fire, chemicals in your food to make it last weeks on the shelf without rotting. There are chemicals in the water you drink to make it safe and let’s not even get started on the chemicals in the air.

Babylon is run by immoral religious institutions and corrupt governments in thrall to ruthless corporations which own most of the land, exploit the ocean and buy up everything from the airwaves to human genes.

Babylon is populated by normal people who have forgotten the taste of fruit picked from the tree, the smell of air fresh off the mountain, the embrace of friends. Instead they are suckered into the illusion of consumer culture, doing their best to survive in a spiritual desert where, if love, friendship and happiness don’t yet have a price, you can be sure that someone is working on it.

And yet most of us grew up and live in towns and cities and we generally go back to them when the Gatherings are over. While we might aspire to buy or squat a piece of land someplace where we can live outside the system, the realities of work, study and family commitments tend to draw us back to urban environments. Once the Gatherings are over, whether  by thumb, a battered old van or Easyjet, most of us are going back to Babylon.

In its worst light the Rainbow appears to be in a state of denial. A reaction against the excesses of Babylon rather than a viable alternative. Those in the Rainbow who are most vocal in their condemnations of the modern world tend to be those who have most trouble functioning within it; furious with their parents, they come to the Gatherings where no one can tell them what to do; struggling to find their professional path in life or too broke to put their dreams into practice, they sit around the fires complaining about a capitalist system where an honest living can’t be found; failing to fit in anywhere else, they come to the Rainbows where every colour, no matter how blurred around the edges, can find a place in the circle.

At its best, however, the Rainbow is a beautiful example of how people can live together in peace. A portrait of harmony and celebration almost unimaginable to anyone who’s never been to a Gathering. While there are no rules as such, there are fundamental freedoms that we respect and it’s these that make the Rainbow a special place to be; with no alcohol, we’re free to celebrate consciously and playfully without losing awareness of our surroundings; without electronics we’re free to unplug from a world of constant stimuli and just follow our own breath; without communications we’re free to unplug and just be where we are with the people we’re with; with no buying or selling in the Rainbow, we’re free from economic hierarchy and the daily treadmill of making a living.

The special environment created in the Gatherings allows us to find ourselves in a new context, liberated from the roles we’re used to playing. The Rainbow is like a laboratory where we can experiment with unfamiliar aspects of ourselves. Maybe someone has always been painfully shy but now finds themselves speaking up in a talking circle. Or maybe someone has always been a loner but now they spend all day chopping vegetables in a laughing, singing crew of helpers in the kitchen.

In the Rainbow our borders expand and become more porous, our opinions and judgements about others melt away and we begin to recover a relationship with intimacy, community and touch. Meeting everyone else, we find ourselves once again.

But then we return to Babylon. We might find that we have opened up so much that we’ve become too fragile altogether; the first angry glance from a passing skinhead, or an impatient comment from the ticket inspector on the train can shatter the magic aura of the Rainbow in moments.

Was it was all just some beautiful dream? Rubbing up against the sometimes harsh, unforgiving face of the city, we realise that it takes more than a few weeks of singing and dancing in the woods to keep the magic inside alive – how can we bring the Rainbow to Babylon? is a common question that comes up in talking circles.

It can seem impossible. Returning to a cramped apartment, many sigh and just endure a conventional life through the winter, making the best of it until the first Gatherings of the spring when their heart can come out of hibernation and they can dance in the flowers once again. Others simply avoid the question by jumping on a plane to India or the Canary Islands to hang out on a beach with other hippies. Or maybe they find an eco-community in Spain or Greece where they can pass the winter months on the edge of civilisation.

But while there are a few rare and resourceful souls who achieve a degree of self-sufficiency, growing their own food in permaculture lots, living in tipis and yurts, almost everyone depends on the System to some extent. Babylon may be wasteful and decadent but that’s what allows a disaffected population to live in the cracks of the consumer society. Whether we busk in front of restaurant terraces to make some money, harvest food from the dumpsters at the back of supermarkets, or hitchhike across continents in the cars that other people have bought and maintain, we, too, enjoy a lifestyle afforded by the modern world.

Hippies living in vans manage to escape the rent trap and so cut their living costs in half but they still need spare parts for their vehicles and a capitalist economy to produce and deliver cheap fuel. Even the enterprising souls who rig their vans to drive on leftover fat begged from the kitchens of McDonalds depend on the restaurant economy to keep them on the road.

We condemn the heartlessness of Western medicine but are happy enough for the emergency wards to be open when our cars crash. We might see the police the armed guard of the Powers That Be but it’s certainly useful to be able to call them on the rare occasion that someone really dangerous turns up at a Gathering. We despair at the cruelty and exploitation of globalisation but almost everyone has a cellphone in their backpack with components sourced from murderous warlords in the Congo. Even our tents are mostly made in sweatshops in China.

The ironic fact of the matter is that capitalism serves hippies very well. A strong bohemian class is only usually found in wealthy countries where there are enough crumbs falling from the table for an alternative class to live on. In countries where people are still worried about having enough to eat, hippies tend to be thin on the ground. It’s when economies improve that people have more time on their hands to question the way they live and the freedom to change it.

We live very cheaply in the Rainbow but the thousands of euros that go into the Magic Hat to buy food were all earned somewhere. Or given by governments as benefits to those unemployed or who have children. Despite the unjust laws, the vested interests and the occasional persecution from the authorities, life is pretty good in the West. With hippies flying in from all corners of the world with rucksacks full of instruments and pockets full of cash, ultimately it’s Babylon that makes the Rainbows possible.

There are some in the Rainbow who believe that our way of life is better; morally superior, more spiritual, more in touch with nature. Wrapped up in their subjective experience of living in Rainbow Gatherings, eco-villages and squats, they make the simple-minded assumption that the same model could be extended to 7 billion souls across the planet.

Admittedly, it is funny to return to Babylon and see everyone spending so much energy, time and money to make friends, have fun or get laid when we have it for free in the Rainbow. But it’s either a naïve dreamer or arrogant idealist who insists that everyone should walk the earth barefoot, cooking pots of dal on wood fires, living in tipis.

It’s at that point in the conversation I find myself wishing for an internet connection to Wikipedia so I can explain about the improved use of fertiliser and pesticides in the 20th century that prevented billions of people from starving to death. Or that if the entire world was to burn wood to stay warm there would soon be no forests left.

Sometimes it amazes me in the Rainbow how quickly the past has been forgotten. One need only pick up a novel from the 18th century to read about the incidence of infectious disease, childhood mortality and smog-filled skies. Should we go back to pulling out teeth with pliers? Amputating infected limbs? The good old days weren’t as good as the Rainbow Romantic tends to think and with a world population that quadrupled in the last century, there’s simply no way back.

Another world is possible. A fairer, more just place where each takes according to their needs and gives according to their ability. But unless the power of visualisation is as effective as is claimed, it seems unlikely that the hippies will be the ones creating it – at least not the ones who spend all their time in the Rainbow. Real change in the social, ecological and financial crises we face requires hard work, innovation and struggle and it must be done in Babylon if anywhere.

So rather than bringing the Rainbow to Babylon, the real question is perhaps how can we keep the spirit of the Gatherings alive inside ourselves once we return to the city? Whether we like it or not, most of us eventually realise that the world isn’t going to change any time soon just to suit us. Since the first days of human society there has been social hierarchy, injustice, slavery and war. But there has also always been community, art, education, spirituality and great human kindness. Anyone who would want to change the world must surely accept it first.

Ultimately, however magical or transformative our experiences in the Rainbow might be, it’s how we apply it when we get back that counts. It’s easy enough to get high on life at the Gatherings where the food arrives twice a day, people bring wood for the fire and musicians provide atmosphere at night – but when we come home it’s up to us to hack out our own paths by ourselves. The return to society can feel harsh and unwelcoming after a month of love in the Rainbow but in many ways it’s a test. How much of that spirit can we bring back with us?

A few years ago, after a summer of Rainbows I found myself living in Tel Aviv, in Israel. One day I met some friends in the street carrying spare mattresses to the local community center where some Sudanese refugees were temporarily housed. I went along and met these tall, humble men who quietly replied that everything was fine, thank you, when we asked how we could help. Most of them had just walked from Sudan to Israel and had been imprisoned, harassed and beaten and now they were adrift in a foreign country without carrying a single coin or speaking a word of the language.

I went with one of them for a stroll around town and showed him where he could pick up vegetables from the floor of the market at closing time and even get free bread. He nodded politely but only showed emotion when we arrived at the beach. His face filled with a kind of breathless wonder, his eyes drinking in the scene with awe. It was the first time in his life he’d ever seen the sea.

That evening I called up a couple of musician friends from the Rainbow and we went to visit the Sudanese to make a small concert. They were a little shy at first, but finally we got them singing along to some Bob Marley songs and then they grabbed a drum and started playing some of their own rhythms. By midnight they were dancing, singing and laughing for perhaps the first time in months. We didn’t know how to help with their economic, legal or logistical situation but a little Rainbow Spirit in the right place went a long way.

This, of course, was nothing next to the efforts of those who ran the daycare centers for the children of the thousands of illegal immigrants and refugees living in cramped, congested conditions in the worst neighbourhoods of the city. They also took on the task of educating the public about the plight of those from Sierra Leone and Eritrea who were beginning to arrive in Israel in large numbers, fleeing political persecution and war at home.

We’re not going to save the world by sitting in a field and praying for world peace. We’re not going to heal the planet by planting handwritten wishes for a golden future of harmony and love. And yet we do have a part to play in making the world a better place; thousands of people come to Rainbow Gatherings every year and have deep, moving experiences that force them to consider what kind of lives they lead. The Gatherings are catalysts for change in individuals who then go back out there and make all kinds of magic.

Peace on earth might be a cliché by now but most of us in the Rainbow recognize that it can only begin with peace within. Then, whether working for change, pursuing an art or a craft, serving others or bringing your own magic to the world in your own particular way, the Rainbow Spirit echoes that of Gandhi.

‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’

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book about rainbow gatherings

Photo by Joth Shakerley

This is just a small extract from part 3 of Somewhere Under the Rainbow – if you like it, feel free to support the author and buy the book!