Shambhala 2002

By Lawrence Bailey

It hit me one night about a week after the fact.

I was sitting in the courtyard of a northwest condo complex, picking the last tasty morsels of lobster out of the delicious creature’s claw with a plastic fork. There were a few dozen other people milling about around me, most dressed in nice collared shirts, sun dresses and other semi-formal attire. Not my usual crowd, but a comfortable setting to say the least. It was a cool summer evening and I was lost in my thoughts. 

"Are you Lawrence?" 

The question broke my distant gaze and I looked up from where I was seated. Standing above me was a woman wearing a simple, flowing black dress. She had a slight accent, Eastern European it seemed, and a look of pure curiosity on her face.

"Sorry?" I replied.

"Are you Lawrence?" she asked again. "I’m looking for someone named Lawrence who is apparently out here. Is that you?"

"Yeah, I’m Lawrence," I said, trying to shake the cobwebs and get a better grip on reality. "What can I do for you?"

"Perfect," she cooed, a warm smile spreading from ear to ear. "Were you at Shambhala?"

Ahhhh, now it all makes sense. As I nodded my head a look of absolute elation and relief that crept accross her face. It was a look I understood all too well. There were many occasions in the past year where I would try to find someone, anyone who understood the majesty, beauty and overwhelming power of something that cannot be understood by those who haven’t been there.

I could wax poetic about the nuances and the power of what is carelessly categorized as a mere music festival or rave, but I’ve done that once before, after my innaugural visit last year. No, the thing that struck me the most during my second Shambhala experience was the community that is formed and the strength of the bond that comes with it.

Ever since I left that sun-drenched valley in the midst of the Kootenay mountains to return to the deadlines and doldrums of Calgary, something had been bugging me. It was as if I had an epiphany but failed to realize what it was. I felt lighter, enlightened and curiously fulfilled, but I couldn’t figure out why.

It took that exchange over lobster, that unexpected and ultimately lengthy conversation, to unlock the realization. Shambhala is a rarity in this day and age because it makes you feel as though you are a part of, or have borne witness to, something far greater than yourself.

Who knows whether it’s the seclusion, the weather or the love poured into the event by it’s organizers and volunteers, but Shambhala has tapped into something special, something beyond description, something you have to experience to understand. In a society where there are those who lament the deterioration of the family and the community, Shambhala is the exception, it perfectly recaptures those elusive concepts.

In a matter of 24 hours, an empty valley explodes, carpeted with tents and crawling with people. Anywhere from four to twelve thousand people attended this year’s incarnation (depending on who you talk to), and 99 per cent of them were on the exact same wavelength.

However, any attempts to describe what goes on, to describe the essence or magnitude of the event are futile, so I won’t even bother. Instead there are snippets, stolen moments, lasting images that linger to these early days of September. Memories that form my disjointed and twisted definition of Shambhala.

It’s 10 a.m. on Saturday night/Sunday morning and I have yet to sleep. I’m sitting in the midst of a forest, however it has been transformed into what a girl ten feet away described as a "skyless club." Carved into what’s left of a massive tree stump is a dj booth. All around it are places to sit, dance and hang out. A laser paints the tree tops, mesmerizing passers by. There are a handful of old couches strewn about the area, nearly all of them occupied by weary dancers. The sun has been up for nearly two hours yet the music, and most impressively, the dance floor is still going.

I’m sitting with my back against a surprisingly comfortable tree trunk and I’m watching a hundred odd people dance the early morning hours away. At that moment the sun perfectly pierces through the forest’s canopy, shining like a natural spotlight on the DJ, doing his thing. The entire dance floor pauses for a second and their eyes all turn towards the front.

The natural phenomenon has not gone unnoticed.

The DJ stops the record, raises his arms in the air and gestures towards the sky. The crowd erupts in a collective roar while the sun moves on, leaving everyone fortunate enough to be there with five seconds of natural perfection…

It’s sometime in the middle of the night, God knows when, and I’m sitting with a friend, soaking it all in. We’re both spent from an hour or two of dancing the night away, and we’re watching the projections dance across the trees. As the music pounds away and I find myself lost in thought, a voice breaks the silence.

"When I go back to work on Tuesday," my friend starts to say, "how do I explain this?"

With that he spreads his arms wide, encompassing the entire valley, and shakes his head. He then stands, looks at me with a look of utter bewilderment, shrugs and walks away.

It is then that I realize Shambhala cannot be described or related, it cannot be quantified. It is one of those rare things that creates it’s own language, and I am expected to go home and capture it in 1,000–1,500 words. I know I will never be able to do it justice…

I am sitting in a camping chair, involved in an extremely passionate conversation with a total stranger. We’re both trying to impart the magnitude of the weekend on one another, trying to find the words to describe the effect it had on us. We both realize it’s impossible, there aren’t words that can yet describe it, but we trudge forward thinking we might haphazardly stumble across the perfect description. In time, we run out of energy, or is it that we’ve exhausted all the words we can think of?

Whatever the reason she stops speaking and walks away, her black dress blowing in the breeze. I turn back to the task at hand, trying to get at the last few morsels of lobster and I slip, once again, into thought…

"How do I explain this?"

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