The 5th annual Bhakti Fest, a celebration devotional music and yoga, took place at Joshua Tree Retreat Center this past weekend. Friends have been telling me how great Bhakti Fest is for years and I have even been invited to teach yoga at the event, but up until last Saturday I never took the two and a half hour drive out to Joshua Tree to personally experience the “Bhav.” I arrived around noon and my friend Uta gave me the grand tour of the place, showing me all of the yoga and music venues, the food and commercial vendors (the “Bhakti Mall”), as well as the Sanctuary, where talks of special interest, covering everything from Ayurveda to the Beatles, were taking place. Every thing was well organized and the general vibe was warm and friendly. We met Krishna Das for lunch at a Thai restaurant in Joshua Tree and spent a couple of hours catching up on the last two years and sharing pictures of our grandchildren. KD told a story about being with Ram Das and Neem Karoli Baba forty years ago. According to KD, Ram Das had always wondered if Neem Karoli Baba had really taken the LSD he gave him a few years before, since it seemed to have no noticeable effect on him. Sensing this, Neem Karoli Baba asked him, “Do you remember you gave me the yogi medicine? Did I take it? Do you have some more?” Ram Das gave him several tabs of LSD, which Neem Karoli Baba popped playfully into his mouth. Ram Das and Krishna Das watched him carefully to see if anything happened and Neem Karoli Baba continued to smile mischieviously at them. Eventually he explained, “Once you have entered the great stillness, nothing can touch you there. The yogi medicine can take you there, but you can’t stay.” That certainly was my experience when I experimented with different psychoactive substances in my younger days—I had many glorious and mystical experiences but I always came down. Once you have tasted those mystical states of union, most other human experience pales by comparison. A wise person eventually seeks out methods of elevating consciousness without having to come down—things like yoga and devotional singing. They say that in the Kali Yuga, the Lord is very merciful because we are surrounded by so much darkness, and that even the smallest effort towards Divine Union will be noticed and rewarded. The Bhaktas say that chanting the names of the Divine is the quickest way to Union. Patanjali says, “Samadhi siddhi Ishvara pranidhanat,” Through devotion to the Lord we perfect our Self-Realization.
While we were having lunch the heavens opened and it rained hard for an hour or so. As we stepped outside afterwards the clouds were breaking up and the sun was shining. Uta and I told KD we would meet him at his “Meet and Greet” with Sirius radio and drove back to the festival. I ran into my old friend Denise Kaufman. Denise mentioned she would be playing later with C. C. White, a former R and B singer turned kirtan artist. Denise is a phenomenal bass player as well as a great yoga teacher (she played at my wedding!), and she urged me not to miss C. C. After a walk to Om Hill for sunset I came back to the main stage to catch what was left of C.C.’s set. She had a smokin’ band and was rockin’ the joint with some very high energy and soulful kirtan. At one point she got very quiet and shared a story of being introduced to kirtan by the legendary Syam Das—a Bhakti Fest regular until his tragic death last January. While singing the names of the Divine with Syam Das she began to cry. At first she tried to wipe away the tears, but they became a veritable flood that she could only surrender to. This is the great gift of devotional singing—it helps us release the pain stored in our hearts and reconnects us with the Divine longing that is always there in our soul. Rumi writes of this longing beautifully in a poem called “The Song of the Reed”. The reed has been cut from the reed bed and fashioned into a flute. The flute says, “Ever since I was taken from the reed bed I have made this mournful sound--everything separated from its source longs to go back.” The Bhagavata Purana teaches, “The human body is so beautifully suited to adore you, Lord—always available, like the dearest friend or kinsman, to use in your service. And you, the Antaryamin, the soul of every soul, always loving, are only waiting to bless your bhaktas. Any bhakti, whatever form it takes, if it is passionate and absorbs the bhakta in the thought of you—you bless your devotee with your grace.”
Because of the rain delay earlier in the day all the performers were starting later. KD didn’t start his set until almost ten o’clock. He was a bit more subdued than usual—no stories, just songs. He had a great group of musicians playing with him, and it was all about the music and chanting the names of the Divine. My favorite was a hymn to the Divine Mother interspersed with the chorus from the old Journey song, “I Want to Know What Love is.” I hung in there until 11, but knew I had a two and a half hour drive ahead of me and two classes to teach Sunday morning. I left with a nice glow and an open heart that made the ride home much more pleasant. I’m very glad I went. My friends always told me it was my kind of vibe and they were right--I don’t know why it took me five years to get there. If Bhakti Fest ever invites me to teach again I will say yes.