Extract from Part 3 of Somewhere Under the Rainbow]
If there’s an apparent fondness for the esoteric in the Rainbow it may be because most of us have grown up in a world without religion, myth or ritual. Science has become the dominant source of knowledge and its rational explanations for the origins of the universe have gradually supplanted the creation myths of the sacred texts. Despite the rise of fundamentalism in certain areas of the world, the general trend is towards a profound skepticism regarding the religious institutions whose priests, imams and rabbis seem a little too human to be emissaries for the Divine.
And yet as societies all over the world have always structured their lives around ritual, it’s reasonable to suppose it’s something essential to the human condition. In the West we still manage to get enough enthusiasm up to exchange gifts at Christmas, celebrate the New Year, maybe send a card on Valentine’s Day and pull practical jokes
on April 1st – but often it feels like we’re just going through the motions as passive consumers, pathetically grateful for whatever drops of meaning we can squeeze out of these heavily-marketed occasions.
The mythologist, Joseph Campbell, concluded that in ritual ‘we celebrate the Eternal in the transitory‘. As we rush around trying to get the most out of our lives, ritual offers us a chance to reflect on where we’re going and what it all means. We remember that we were born, we grow up, we belong to a community, we may invite another to share our lives, and eventually bring life into the world to be loved and nurtured, even as we mourn those who have departed.
In ritual we have always honoured the elements that shape our lives; the passing of the seasons, the miracle of fertility, the planet that sustains us, the celestial bodies that light up our world, the importance of the essential elements of fire, earth, air and water.
‘Now let us thank Grandfather Fire Energy!’ one English brother insisted before bringing in another hot rock into the sweat lodge. ‘Oh Grandfather Fire! Thank you for giving us heat and helping us sweat out our toxins.’ Then he broke into a rumbling Native American chant appropriate to the occasion.
It’s at this point that the skeptics say, ‘Whoa, time out!’ and wonder what the hell they’re doing at a Rainbow in the first place. Have we really gone through centuries of scientific enlightenment, casting off and debunking millennia of superstition, only to suddenly regress into credulous paganism once again, seeing gods in candle flames and gusts of wind?
One of the obstacles to experiencing wonder in the modern world is that we’re spoilt. Whereas the ability to make and preserve fire was once a skilled, sacred task, entrusted to a fire-bearer who kept the embers alive under pain of death, now you can buy a box of matches for pennies. Our houses are heated with the twist of a dial, our rooms lit at the flick of a switch. Whereas tribes once roamed hundreds of miles to follow the rains, or built cities beside great rivers considered sacred as the Source of Life, now we have all the water we need on tap.
Neither does the earth itself arouse any great awe in most people. The mysteries of how our nourishment arises from the soil is now the consideration of professional farmers, familiar with nitrogen capture and modern irrigation techniques. As long as the tasty produce continues to arrive in the stores we don’t trouble ourselves too much to ask how it got there. And in a world where almost everything is made of plastic and synthetic materials, anything fashioned from wood or stone seems almost quaint.
Once, we looked up at the sky for guidance, scanning the horizon for news of other tribes, movements of animals, the arrival of the rains, burning offerings to the spirits for insight, assistance and protection. Now we have claimed the airwaves for ourselves, communicating at great distances, sending packets of data through the air, controlling objects from a distance – performing any number of miracles that would have seemed great sorcery to our ancestors.
In the Rainbow there is something of a return to these basics. Whether the moon is out or not affects how you move around, where you gather and how long it takes you to get back to your tent. Without fire, the nights are lonely and sad. We gather around the burning wood and recognize something of the spirit within us in the dancing flames. We have to walk to get our drinking water and we find it in its own domain: gathered in a lake or tumbling down a mountain slope on its patient journey towards the sea. We sit on the earth and are cooled by its grass, pricked by its spiky plants, shaded by trees. We’re affected by the weather in ways that would never matter living inside a house – beyond a flimsy layer of plastic or canvas, the sky is the roof we gather under.
It’s a testament to our feckless times that we take the essential elements of life for granted. What was once sacred is now simply low-tech. In an age bordering on world-changing advances in robotics, stem cell technology and digital communication, we increasingly look to the scientists and engineers to astound us with miracles and revelation. And as we invest more and more of our lives in the internet, so that to be disconnected will soon be a thing of the past, it appears we’re leaving the real world behind to make our home in the digital.
And yet for all the scientific advances that make the news and cause us to scratch our heads in wonder, the novelty doesn’t last long. We absorb each innovation with nonchalance and then get annoyed when, for instance, our video call to someone else on the other side of the planet gets interrupted by a flaky internet connection. As scientists break down emotions into chemical formulas and explain our behaviour as genetic strategies, there’s a sense that it can all be explained and understood – even if our own eyes might glaze over by the second paragraph. If it can all be reduced to numbers, physics and chemicals there’s no longer any real sense of mystery. Before the ineffable, transcendent nature of life itself, few people any longer feel a sense of awe.
At the heart of it all, however, we still want to believe.
Now that the world has been mapped and measured, analysed and explained, we yearn all the more to look out of eyes full of wonder and joy. As fast as technology changes our lives, there will always be a backlash as people feel the urge to return to the simple pleasures. We intuitively understand that no amount of data and explanations will change a thing about how we live, that there’s more to life than what we can ‘know’.
Tuning again to Joseph Campbell:
‘People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about.’
The information age is characterised by a deluge of facts, theories and opinions where there’s far more noise than signal and it’s hard to know what to think about anything. Increasingly, we can’t remember the past, we can’t imagine the future and we sure as hell don’t understand the present. Unless you have a PHD in economics, biology, history, politics, physics, psychology and mathematics how could you get any grasp on a world as complex as this?
Hence part of the appeal of the Rainbow Gatherings. There, in the heart of nature, people can find refuge from the overwhelming tide of technology and the confusion of Babylon. It’s a return to simplicity and innocence. A place where there’s nothing to learn other than how to listen to your heart. Discrimination goes out the window as people praise the Great Spirit, Hindu gods, Candomblé deities, Pachamama – whatever name the Divine is given, it’s considered to all be One.
In a certain light it might seem like a weird regression to a discredited animistic past. Particularly when someone walks past dressed in feathers and face paint, confident in the belief that he’s a shaman humbly bearing an ancient tribal heritage. But do we need it?
‘This is my first Rainbow and I’m having a great time,’ a psychology student from Mexico told me at one Gathering, ‘But couldn’t we just have the music, the fires and the girls without all the spiritual stuff? I mean, come on, It’s all just make believe!’
Well, maybe it is.
But maybe all of life is. Who are we anyway? Are we the same person we were ten minutes ago? Ten years ago? Where did we come from and where will we go when we die? Perhaps our very notion of self, this ‘I’ that we use so frequently in conversation, is little more than a necessary illusion. A psychological projection. A ghost.
This kind of existential doubt doesn’t trouble most people in the Rainbow though. It’s generally held as self-evident that the Earth is our Mother and that we have the Divine inside. Holding hands, singing together, burning incense, making giant medicine wheels in the Healing Area; people do it because it feels right. Just listen to your intuition and all will be well. Too much thinking leaves you chasing your tail in circles.
Any yet the Rainbow is far from being a sect. While the Gatherings do attract their fair share of bigots, fundamentalists and zealots, if there’s one thing that characterises Rainbow spirituality, it’s tolerance. I’ve seen workshops announced on Orthodox Christianity or even Islam and people simply nodded politely before continuing with their meal. The Hare Krishnas sometimes turn up and though everyone’s happy enough to eat the sweet halvah they prepare, when it comes to singing hymns to Krishna – and Shiva, Ganesh and Rama – people prefer to go and do it in the bhajan tent. So while evangelists might see all the lost souls in the Gatherings as prime candidates for conversion, the Rainbow is ultimately too free-spirited for religion to have much impact.
The full spectrum of beliefs and cosmologies are covered in the Rainbow but there are some commonly-held principles that give a basis for community. We can safely say that most people believe in the power of love and speaking from the heart; that a life lived only for yourself is a life lived in vain; that we’ve lost our way in the modern world; and that no matter which colour of the Rainbow you represent, together we are beautiful.
In general, however, Rainbow spirituality is a magpie mix of rituals, mantras, teachings and beliefs harvested from a variety of sources as disparate as Aboriginal Australians and New Age Prophets. People wear amulets and charms, carry cosmic wish lists in lockets around their necks, daub themselves in oils to invoke their Higher Self, give a little chai to the fire before serving themselves, chant Indian mantras, practice Tantra, universal healing and auric cleansing – all without subscribing to any particular belief system. If someone around the main fire proposes, say, to conduct a ceremony they were taught by an indigenous tribe in Guatemala, the general reaction will be enthusiastic and willing. The Rainbow Way is not to block anything as long as it does no harm. The feeling is that the Great Spirit speaks in a thousand voices and can be found in a thousand ways.
There are some, of course, who have chosen a particular path: Candomblé dancers who invoke Orisha spirits when they dance, yoga practitioners who perform pranayama breathing exercises for hours each day or fast for a week at a time to purify body and soul, dreadlocked babas with all the trappings of Indian holy men, ash daubed on the forehead and as grumpy as sadhus when someone passes the chillum the wrong way or points their feet towards the fire.
There are those who dress up as shamans, complete with feathers and bones and incantations, self-realised spiritual teachers in search of converts, and any number of charismatic healers offering initiation into ancient, sacred traditions of medicine and wisdom, each certified by esoteric origins deep within the mists of time. But the dominant sentiment in the Rainbow is something of a DIY approach. Each person collects their own eclectic patchwork of practices, rituals and beliefs that can all be followed in small portions, filling their plate with a variety of helpings from the spiritual beliefs on offer. People are happy to sing songs in Arabic, Hebrew or Hindi, as long as it’s all praising the One.
The Rainbow rituals themselves are also open enough not to require any kind of belief. Some singing, holding hands, chanting Om together if you want to – it’s all a bit weird in the beginning and you might wonder what you’re getting into. But few can deny there’s something powerful about a thousand people holding hands in a circle, singing together and then falling silent before they eat.
It’s awfully lonely to always be a skeptic, after all.