March 15, 2012

Envision Festival in Costa Rica: Imagining, Building & Dancing Toward a More Sustainable Future. ~ Rachel Signer

Photo: Rachel Signer

Moving toward a bright future of harmony, abundance, and natural vibrancy.

A painting by acclaimed California-based psychedelic artist Mark Henson, depicting pioneers of the human race moving away from a world marred by chaos, violence, and poverty, and toward a bright future of harmony, abundance, and natural vibrancy, is an apt metaphor for the raison d’etre of the recent second-annual Envision Festival. Over the course of four days, roughly 1,500 people endured the sweltering heat of southern Pacific Costa Rica, to participate in Envision, a celebration of life that not only brought together people who believe in a healthier humanity and planet, but also created spaces for sharing the tools for creating that reality.

The Envision schedule was packed with workshops on holistic healing techniques and roadmaps toward sustainable living. It was difficult to choose between the offerings: at one moment, you could be torn between listening to a talk on the Iran-Contra scandal, a workshop on building “authentic relationships,” or a partner yoga class. Some people, wary of the heat emanating from the lush, dense jungle surrounding the festival grounds, opted to stay near the beach or at the town’s waterfalls all day, and save their energy for the evenings, when world-class DJs spinning heart-thumping dub-step to dazzling light shows had people grooving until the night sky grew light.

Photo credit: Rachel Signer

During four days at Envision, I received three incredibly healing massages; tried flying yoga for the first time; practiced yoga in about six other sessions; danced for an approximate total of ten hours; ate close to four plates of fish tacos and seven meals made lovingly with fresh, local, organic ingredients; devoured around seven coconuts that I watched broken open with a tireless machete-bearing arm; took many, many “deep group breaths”; met with one self-professed shaman who was shacking up with his much younger female disciple who liked to read tarot cards; applied sunscreen probably thirty times; waded through a (potentially crocodile-infested) swamp to reach the beach six times; had at least seven amazing conversations with people about existence, meaning, and destiny; received about ten business cards; learned to hula hoop decently; wept once; and slept, perhaps, no more than fifteen hours total.

Some of the most unforgettable moments for me included a workshop by Sofiah Thom, one of the co-founders and co-producers of Envision who runs a yoga studio nearby the festival grounds, called “Way of the Graceful Warrior”—dancing later that night, I could literally feel how the workshop had opened up my heart-space so that energy could flow in new ways. Additionally, Portland, Oregon-based Shivoso’s workshop on “the art of authentic relationships” inspired many people to think anew about how we can build romantic partnerships to better reflect values of autonomy and independence. “Festival culture,” Shivoso told us, “is an autonomous zone where we can be who we are.

Photo credit: Rachel Signer

If we hide who we are, we can’t share any of our gifts”—and similarly, in a relationship you have to be who you are to let your gifts come out. The hours-long performance by Los Angeles troupe Lucent Dossier on Saturday night left my mouth dry because my jaw was dropped for so long in complete amazement at their choreography; but no less beautiful and memorable was the group shower I took with around ten mostly-naked people with a hose when the bamboo showers had run out of water.

Speaking of running out of water—there were some hitches in the event production, which is perhaps to be expected, particularly since this was Costa Rica, land of “pura vida” rather than punctuality. Pulling off Envision was a truly impressive feat, and the organizers, as well as the build team, which included Bamboo DNA, Guildworks, and the Do-Lab among others, and the roughly 260 volunteers, who made Envision happen, deserve tremendous congratulations. At first, things seemed bumpy: ticketing opened late; many of the prime camp sites had been claimed by volunteers; the main water spigot was poorly designer and placed too near the camping area so it was flooding around people’s tents; there should have been more plastic dishware on sale so that less trash was generated; and—an annoyance to many—the beach was further away and much more difficult to access (the crocodile swamp I mentioned) that had been promised on the website.

There was some grumbling at first—after all, people had shelled out over $200 for the event, and perhaps a plane ticket, too—but it quickly died down as people became absorbed in the workshops, the music, and the beautiful flow of time, marked at sunset by a ritual with the mesmerizing Earth Harp, an enormous stringed contraption that released warming and generous vibrations to welcome in the evening.

Photo credit: Rachel Signer


On the plane to Costa Rica, I read “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” an essay by the famed writer Joan Didion from the mid-1960s, when she spent time living in San Francisco studying the culture of LSD-dropping “runaway kids” in the Haight-Ashbury. There, the hippies she meets are living random, nomadic, “groovy” lives, rarely experienced sober, and their political motivations are vague at best. They are focused on nothing but the next trip, or their macrobiotic diets. Didion sees the Haight kids as an outgrowth of the fracturing of middle-class, suburban, American culture. “These were children,” she writes, “who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society’s values…They are less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts, Vietnam, Saran-Wrap, diet pills, the Bomb.”

At Envision, I recalled Didion’s experience in San Francisco as I met people and heard their stories about what had brought them there. A majority were already living (or traveling around) in Central America, working on permaculture or organic farms, or volunteering with community organizations; many spoke of coming to the festival to re-orient themselves while they were “in-between things,” having just left a job or made some major life change; some were there to share their gifts with others, healing them through movement, touch, and knowledge of holistic practices. Many were “Burners,” of the famed annual Nevada festival, well-versed in generating ephemeral communities and aware of the power of doing that—how it can transform individuals and make them less egotistical, more connected to other people.

This was not, I think, the sprawling drug fest that Didion saw in the Haight; at Envision, people were not just hallucinating about a nicer world, they were putting its foundations in place, greasing its joints, drawing up blueprints and roadmaps, building coalitions, and generating the spiritual energy necessary to forge on with those tasks. A festival is a meeting place for people to form a tribe based on common values. It is also a marketplace—a gift-economy—for the exchange of goods and ideas that strengthen the community. It is an intentional celebration that sends people off armed with resources to become more of what they envision themselves to be.

Photo credit: Rachel Signer

A key focus of Envision was the local environment: the ecosystems and cultures of Costa Rica, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Many attendees were “Ticos,” natives of Costa Rica; they received a fifty-percent discount on tickets as a courtesy. The vendors represented largely the expatriate community in Costa Rica, though quite a few were local pioneers of organic and sustainable food, like Feria Verde, who runs farmers markets in San Jose and was selling delectable fruit and veggie smoothies, coffee, and hearty sweets; there was also the Krishna Kitchen, a local collective who served beautiful curries, and who also, tragically, lost one of their team members, Nitai Das, just before the festival. He was honored in a memorial ceremony with a traditional Indian dance at sunset.

In the week following the festival, there was a palpable energy disseminated throughout Costa Rica as festival-goers headed to other places, often running into each other unexpectedly and continuing to bond. Many were talking about coming again next year, myself included. Thinking again about Didion, I feel strongly that my encounter with what we might see as the current manifestation of the North American hippie movement is entirely different than what she saw. The culture of Envision has a clear idea of where it’s going and how to get there, and it’s through spirituality and valuation of natural resources, not drugs or mainstream politics. This was not about escaping from the illusion of hyper capitalism and consumption society—it was about creating an alternative to it, and spreading it, making it stronger. Like in Mark Henson’s “New Pioneers” painting, the people involved in Envision are forging a new way forward—out of the cycles of war, poverty, and violence that dominate mainstream news—into a brighter future, where people work together with a reverence for the power of nature to heal and provide.

Rachel Signer is a freelance nonfiction writer with a background in cultural anthropology, based in Brooklyn, NY.






Editor: Tanya L. Markul

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