Yesterday I returned to Manchester after four days at Wilderness Festival in Oxfordshire. Wilderness, for those of you who don't know, is something of a 'wellness festival' in that you can go for a Neal's Yard massage in the morning, a swim in the lake in the afternoon (nude, if you wish) and to a yoga 'rave' at night. Almost like Woodstock, except with much more money sloshing around, more Home Counties accents and much less acid. Imagine the Green Fields at Glastonbury with a few 'new and exciting London brands' thrown in and you've got Wilderness.
Now, I am not a festival person. I am a girl who likes routines. Specifically, I like to wake up having had at least eight hours sleep in my own bed and to then have a shower with my own products, a fluffy towel warming up for me on the radiator. I loathe tents, particularly tiny ones with air beds which mysteriously deflate overnight. But it's easy to forget yourself this when you're curled up under a duvet on your memory foam mattress, stuffing your face with hot croissants, EastEnders playing domestically in the background. As I scrolled through the Wilderness booking website, I had visions of myself waking up in the morning, my hair slightly wavy and unkempt but basically fine, and gliding softly through a field to a group meditation session, then moving on to listen to a debate on the 'quantum wilderness' (no idea what this means), picking up a matcha latte from the Mae Deli on my way. I put together a (very detailed, hour-by-hour) agenda which attests to this delusional vision. Yep, I wrote an agenda for a festival. That's the kind of person I really am. Yoga! Deliciously Ella! Literary tent sessions on the Brontes and on Italy, complete with free Prosecco and biscotti! Amazing.
Despite my greasy hair and the uncomfortable sleeps and the insufferable faux-MIC accents everywhere, for the most part I did actually enjoy myself. The weather was gorgeous, and some of the talks I went to were very interesting, and dancing to disco/funk/soul in a valley with a frozen strawberry daiquiri in hand is always going to be fun. I also enjoyed all the lovely overpriced food (probably because my boyfriend paid for most of it): acai bowls, lobster rolls, 'dirty vegan' burgers. Not the usual festival rubbish, or at least not what I would imagine it to be, though I haven't been to a festival since Glastonbury in 2009 where I was naïve enough to think that £30ish would suffice and ended up living off baked potatoes for the whole weekend, so I wouldn't really know.
Anyway. To get to the point. One of the workshops I had previously deluded myself into believing was very 'me' was called 'The Art of Intimacy.' Note that there is no mention of 'tantric' in this title, but perhaps I really should have intuited this. I had imagined this to be a general talk where I could sort of just pop in and sit there for a bit, but by god I was mistaken. Robin (my boyfriend) and I went into a giant yurt, the floor and walls of which were draped with Indian rugs/blankets/cushions, with incense burning and some sort of Eastern music playing. So far, so zen.
'Why is there such an emphasis on India in here? Oh, this is so neo-Orientalist! Why does it always have to be Indian themed?' I hissed, but Robin only rolled his eyes and told me I was overthinking it and to be quiet.
We were late walking in and everybody was already sitting in a circle around the edges of the tent. Hippies who looked still frazzled from their Woodstock days, Joni Mitchell types swaying to the music with (surely affected) looks of blissful contentment, dressed head to toe in sequins. I felt like Mark Corrigan from Peep Show when he goes to Rainbow Rhythms, an ecstatic dance class. One guy in particular really embodied the general vibe of everyone else. He had long plaited grey hair and very bushy eyebrows that he seemed to have gelled upwards, and was making a 'I'm so at peace with the universe' face. As I'm writing this part of me feels very mean and dispirited - who am I to say that he wasn't truly moved by all this, that they all weren't? Maybe the distaste that I was feeling at the time may have been my way of dealing with feeling like a fraud amongst these people, I don't know.
The man who was leading the workshop was a small Indian man with grey hair who crouched on the floor with a look of dignified importance. Unapproachable, you might say, if you were being honest.
'I usually do this workshop with my beloved, but my beloved could not be here today, so I will do it by myself. How are we all today? Do we feel good? Do we feel at peace? First of all I want to say that this is a safe space,' (god, here we go) 'and it is tantric, yes, but it's no big deal. This will not be a sexual workshop, it is not about arousal. We are going to start by walking around this space, this patch on Earth that we are on, and we are just going to sniff it out. Banish self-consciousness! We all have that animalistic, reptilian instinct to prowl the area we have arrived in, to get to grips with where we are. So go, walk around, and if you want to sniff those around you - go right ahead! This is a safe space!'
So everyone went sniffing obediently around the yurt with varying degrees of embarrassment. It was utterly bizarre, and reminded me of the scene in The Witches when the witches are trying to identify where the boy is sitting by smelling him out. At this point I still found the whole thing funny rather than uncomfortable, and so avoided making eye contact with anyone for fear of bursting into uncontrollable laughter. Meanwhile our 'leader' (let's call him L) shouted things like, 'this is planet EARTH! In THIS moment, THIS moment, we are all alive and present!' whilst many people looked like they were coming up on some very pure MDMA.
'The next activity involves separating from your partners!' L then announced. At this point I begun seriously to consider just walking out of the yurt, disregarding the money I had already spent, and heading defiantly over to the pop up Mae Deli for a recovery coffee. Embarrassing and awkward, yes, but surely less so than staying in this tent. I think the only reason I stayed was so I could write this blog post about it later on. Everything is copy, and all that. 'All the women please sit on the floor somewhere and close your eyes. Men, please move around the space and pick a woman that you are drawn to. Who do you want to be intimate with today? This is not about sexual attraction, this is about HUMAN INSTINCTS TO BE CLOSE WITH ONE ANOTHER! GO, GO, GO! IT'S NO BIG DEAL! I then want you to look at one another, for five minutes. Do not speak, please. Just eye contact.'
I gave Robin a threatening look across the room ('pick me, boy, or else.') He was at the other side of the room though, and before he could get to me somebody else did: the guy with the funny eyebrows, naturally. He plonked himself beside me and blinked contentedly into my eyes. I still wanted to laugh but more, I think, because by this point I felt anxious and jittery than because it was actually funny.
I wish I could say that these five minutes constituted some sort of personal epiphany in which I realised how the fact I couldn't make eye contact with a stranger for five minutes meant that I was hopelessly out of touch with my true nature, that society had left me unable to be authentic with others et cetera, but all I could think was: what is he trying to convey with this look? Sincerity? ...Intimacy? It sounds very dispirited when I write it down, but all I could think was 'I didn't choose you! I want my boyfriend back! Also, if this is such a free spirited socially deconstructed safe space then why have we been divided into men versus women. Talk about predictable.'
Thankfully for the next activity we had to find a new partner, and I was reunited with Robin. I would have walked out of this second, more intense activity - the intimacy crescendo, if you will - had I not been. L had the women lie down on the floor with their eyes closed and shouted, 'MEN! Please place a hand on your partner's stomach and channel your energy into them, caress them! This is not about arousal, this is about intimacy! Meanwhile please whisper the following into their ear: 'sweet princess, at THIS moment, all your thoughts, feelings and emotions are as one.' Keep whispering it. Move your hand onto their chests and feel their heartbeats. Beautiful, beautiful. Sweet princesses!'
Oh, not sexual my arse. What a narrow understanding of the word sexual! I would feel so threatened if a man not of my choosing was caressing my stomach whispering 'sweet princess' into my ear. I felt frankly threatened as it was with Robin doing it to me. We then had to change roles and I was supposed to whisper 'sweet prince' into Robin's ear repeatedly, which needless to say I didn't do. Repeating sentimental little mantras that were being dictated to me into somebody's ear just seemed like an utterly bizarre understanding of what it means to be intimate. What felt more intimate, or certainly more authentic, was the brief (and unforced) look that I shared with the woman next to me, the wry acknowledgement of mutual embarrassment.
'If you can't even say these words, then at least caress with tenderness!' L ordered from the middle of the circle.
'Sanctimonious arsehole,' I muttered instead.
The session finished with one minute of 'free dancing' and then circle time in which a microphone was passed around the group for each of us to say one word summarising how we felt. There seemed to be a collective sense of awe, and people said stuff like 'EMOTIONAL!' 'CONNECTED!' 'INTENSE!' 'WONDERFUL!' I so wanted to say 'contrived, ridiculous, narrow understanding of the word intimacy, get a grip all of you' but said only 'sleepy.'
Robin enjoyed all this, somehow. He thought I was/am just too bourgeois and English to 'get' it. But I did get it! I truly feel like I did. I get the idea behind it, I understand that stuff like this is meant to break down our barriers and help us connect with one another. I just felt it was all very... forced. The fact that I had voluntarily gone to this workshop of course means that I can't really argue this - if I didn't want to be there, I didn't have to be. Maybe Robin is right and my contempt is meant to mask the overwhelming emotion I felt upon realising that I can't make extended eye contact with strange men whilst sober. Or maybe I'm just not susceptible to the bullshit, the belief that all social reserve is somehow 'unnatural.'
Go to a session like this if you have the inclination, or if you want something to write about - otherwise save your money.