Initiation, Kali, and Dubstep in the Desert


“You deserve an ordeal. Yes, you, and yes… you do. Not a drama mind you, but a real old fashioned ordeal. I’m not talking about more of the same, more of the ups and downs of the bill paying, baby changing, boss kissing, people fencing, worry feeding, road raging, depression jumping, trouble grunting, exhaustion. I’m talking about climbing out of the cages and boxes that we build every day, and stepping mindfully back into the wide-open circle of blessed existence. I’m talking about the ordeal of stripping away the armor and weapons of social combat, and all the emblems of identity that have us pinned, day after day, like butterflies behind dusty glass. I’m talking about walking out into the mythic landscape of our highest potential, where we can reconnect with our selves, our environment, and each other. I’m talking about waking up to the miracle of now. You deserve an ordeal because that’s what it takes to transform death into life, guilt into choice, and old patterns into new possibilities. To grow and transform, to really feel life pulsing with the passion of waves upon the shore and the infinite depth of a starry night, we must choose to do something differently.”  – Joshua Levin

“Holy Mother of God. It is 1 am and it feels like a hundred degrees in my tent. What the hell and am I doing here. I’m much too old for this. Shit! Are those hippie frat boys next to me gonna play that obnoxious BroStep ALL Night LONG?… I…I…think I gonna puke again…OH Fuck….”

All night long I sat, mumbled, and whimpered in my small tent. I had a combination of food poisoning, heat exhaustion, and emotional upset. It was a long trip here from LA. It’s been a long time since I saw my wife. I felt all alone in the midst of the psychedelic circus of tens of thousands of Ragers outside my tent. I was too exhausted to join the parade and too sick to lie down and relax. Besides, the sound systems were making the earth vibrate, and would do so till 5:30 in the morning. When it finally subsided, I slept for about 90 minutes before the sun baked me out of my tent.

All in all, my first night at this year “Lighting In a Bottle” festival in Southern California was a nightmare for me. It was also a pretty normal first night at a new festival experience for me. I always have an intense first day going to a festival. All the complaining was the way for my ego to try to keep things as is, but at a place like Lighting in a Bottle, that would not be possible.

For about 25 years I have been a traveler on the road of gatherings. I have been to Rainbow, Burning Man, Bread and Puppet, Magic Festivals, Pagan Gatherings. Lighting In a Bottle (LIB) was my first California Gathering. LIB was inspired by Burning Man and created by the LA event company, The Do Lab. It is an event that is part of the Transformational Festival circuit.

The term “Transformational Festival kind of gave me the creeps. Being a Brooklyn Boy at heart, things that flaunt any (post) New Age terms like “Transformational” just fills me with a tinge of granola overload. Yes indeed!

But honestly as I write these words, I’ve realize that actually all the festivals I ever been to could be put under the category of having transformational experience at their core. I have never been to Lollapalooza or Coachella or EDC. But give me a festival where you burn a structure, or an effigy, or have yoga or magic or massive art projects, and I will make a pilgrimage and join tens of thousands in the harshest environment to have an ordeal and breakthrough. You might say “Pilgrimage? Ordeal? Breakthrough? It’s only a festival dude.” Perhaps… But I see festivals as a place where initiation into the deeper mystery of one’s soul is possible.

Lighting in the Bottle 2011. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda)

As humanity progressed technologically and we became civilized in the west, we gained power over the complete whims of nature. But in an almost Faustian bargain, we traded mystery for comfort. We long for the wildness. We long for situations where we test ourselves physically and emotionally in our relationship to nature. We long for the communal fire, where dancing all night to tribal beats warms our bodies and souls. We long to pitch ourselves outside the mundane and the dreary, by going on a journey, a pilgrimage to the unknown. Our souls long to get outside our comfort zones.

I tried to remind myself of all that as I crawled out of my tent the next day. But I felt sick as a dog as I stumbled in the dusty road on a soon to be blistering day. Somehow I made my way to the first aid camp. The two volunteer medics, a man and a woman, looked at me with compassion and a little concern. “You don’t look too good buddy. Did you roll hard last night.” Somehow I felt a bit better. It was an official diagnosis that I look and felt like shit.  “Doc, I have not even drunk a beer or gotten high in many a year. I think it is food poisoning or something. I don’t think I could stay a day here…think I should go back to LA.” Thoughts of cold showers and cooler air and yummy fans danced in my head. “ Buddy that is not going to be so easy if your did not come with your own car…but if you really get sick, don’t worry we can get a medic Helicopter for you to go to a hospital. But you can rest here and get hydrated, take a nap, before the stage starts up again in a couple of hours.”

The female medic came over and did some energy work or something. “You have to trust that you are here for a reason.” I was invited to lie in the tent and take a nap on their cot…with a cool fan blowing! I fell asleep for a couple of hours, and when I woke, took a yoga class with music by the legendary deep house DJ, Marques Wyatt.

lightning in a bottle 2

I stumbled out feeling a hint better and ran into my dear friend Jillian who was doing a shift. She asked, “Dude what are you doing here at the first aid?” I hugged her and actually cried a bit. I was still thinking of going home. But she was having none of that.  She introduced me to another woman who had also just started her shift. She was a therapist/healer who dealt with people who freak out. I told her that sometimes being in an extremely hot and humid environment becomes overbearing to me. “Many people get overwhelmed by the heat, the intensity, of everything, but you know what? If you do go home you will regret leaving, that is how the mind works. You might as well stay and deal with whatever comes up. I promise you this will be a great festival and a perfect place to deal with what ever comes up, just relax and spend as much time as you can at the Temple of Consciousness.”

Somehow what she said freaked me out, as well as calmed me down at the same time. My ego said: “Shit, four days of never ending heat and assaults upon my senses…” But my soul said,” Relax this is just what you need, a breakthrough, an ending, an opening, an initiation. This is really why you are here.” Well my ego was too tired to fight my soul and I just sat on the cool grass next to the medic tent and sighed.

I believe that any journey to a large-scale event has the potential to shake up the ego and reveal a deeper truth or two. Even the Super Bowl, or Spring Break has that potential. But if one is to go to a place where thousands or millions are gathered to intentionally have a transcendent experience, like to Kumbh Mela or Burning Man or Lighting In a Bottle, well then all Heaven and Hell breaks loose. The very act of traveling to a destination that has a spiritual/mythic focus will have one go deeper into one’s soul. We need Pilgrimages.  We need to have initiations. I needed one. I have been in LA for a while now and feeling a bit stuck here with my projects. And no matter what some of the seasoned pros I am working with said about patience, as of late I had none. Although my astrologer said I needed to be here to meet people and network, I was not feeling it…especially that day. But I chose to stay. And I did something that I don’t ever do. I just let things happen.

For a born and bred man from NYC, to do so, was almost a shock to me. But that is the deal with initiations; they are about disrupting the usual and reconfiguring oneself. I know the hard way, but could I live the soft way? I know the way of fire, but could I live the way of water? And could I do so in a full-blown high intensity environment with enough bass bins at the main stage to rattle one’s head when the WOMP from the likes of Rusko kicked in? I had no choice except to do so.

And when I did let go, I had a beautiful day of transformational experiences (there I said that word!). I had an acupuncture session, ate amazing raw foods and drank exotic healing teas from China, did yoga and meditated in a yurt. I went from feeling absolutely like death warmed over to finding myself dancing at 2AM to one of the most amazing bands I have heard in many a time. As I was walking away to head back to my tent, a friend I knew from LA stopped me and grabbed my ass and started to make out with me, a perfect way to end the day. I did find myself singing, “I wish they all could be California Girls”, as I fell asleep.

That night I had I dream of a dark Goddess, laughing, dancing.

I woke up in a surprisingly quiet camp. I played back the dream and felt like the day before was out of a chapter of Ulysses by James Joyce. It was epic and yet it was just a day at a festival.  I got dressed and walked over to partake in a Men’s consciousness class. I spent much of the last two days surrounded by luscious women feeding my soul, that spending time with only men would be great.

The Men’s workshop was all about accessing focus and directness, masculine presence. There is something so heartwarming in being surrounded by men; open-hearted and yet powerful men. It feeds me in ways that I do not get from women. Men in a circle reflect back to me the masculine within my soul.  I left fully at peace, for the first time in a number of days.

The day was dryer then the day before, so though the sun was hot, it was that proverbial desert heat that was much more tolerable. I spent rest of the day in inspired conversation, workshops (like Sacred Dance Live) and dancing toamazing DJ’s (like DJ Alsultany), and live music.

One of the previous day’s highlights, perhaps the creative high point, was seeing the Lucent Dossier Experience. Lucent Dossier is a performance company directed by the Dream Rockwell. Dream is the co-founder of LIB and a highly gifted creator.  I have seen some clips online but have never experienced them live. Since I moved to LA, I have been wanting to meet Dream as we have similar ideas of bringing the mythic to the underground. The show was on the main stage and was an hour of wonderment and highly-developed stagecraft.  The show was about the charkas, but there was nothing new-agey about it. Just pure magical spectacle and extremely well-executed performances. It was a treat to see the partiers become almost child-like while watching. The music was theatrical Dubstep. Lucent Dossier has built its reputation upon having a neo-Burning Man-dark cabaret look. But the costumes here were other-worldly and a highly-stylized in a beautiful, well, dreamlike way.

I saw that Dream Rockwell was giving a lecture about her life and creativity at the main stage at the Temple of Consciousness. It was a packed house (a packed everybody sitting under a huge canopy to get out of the sun event). She was extraordinary, funny, wise, focused and engaging. I was moved by her. I was inspired. I was fascinated that in many ways we had similar views on myth and performance.  I had to meet her to say hello and say something about being spiritual/creative siblings from different mothers, and share what I did with Body Temple and why I am here in LA.

But when I was waiting backstage to introduce myself, to be honest, I regressed in my mind to a dorky High School boy who is about the meet the coolest girl at school. My mouth went dry. My palms got sweaty. All I could think was “Damn this flashback to my awkward teens. Shit!”  Just at I was about to say “Hi” (probably in a cracked voice), a friend of hers showed up with a 3D postcard with the image of Kali Ma, the Goddess of ego destruction, and gave it to Dream. She placed it on her forehead and laughed.  I stopped my geekiness and thought “Holy shit….Kali Ma. This was the Dark Goddess in my dream, last night.”  Before I could say anything, Dream just walked passed me without saying a word. I was a bit stunned at the coincidence and the dream enacted in front of my eyes.

Kali is the deity that dances over the sleeping corpse of Shiva. She wears skulls and carries the severed head of Shiva while she dances.  She symbolizes the destruction of one’s ego. If you fear or fight her, she will rip off your head and dance on your corpse. If you love her destructive ways, she bestows you with love and bliss. So to be ignored by Kali was a great blessing and teaching.

I walked away. I saw that over the last few weeks I have been wrapped up in my head. Trying to figure things out about my projects: how I can make them, how I can get them funded, how I can connect with the show business scene in LA.   MY projects. MY projects. That is all I kept saying for about a minute, like a skipping, scratchy vinyl record.  “MY…MY…MY.”  Like somehow I wrote Electric Visions or I created the other works. In actuality, I was a vessel to have them pass through me. I forgot that the best of my work was created in a state of wonder and not- knowing and imagination, and sometimes in a trance that was inspired by ecstatic dancing at a hot, sweaty nightclub. The point of all my creativity is to bring the tribal heritage into the 21st century.  I had forgotten that these last few weeks.  But in the midst of the chaos, I remembered.

I wandered the massive campgrounds at night again surrounded by 15,000 freaks. But unlike the night before when I was in a state of pure excitement and joy, I did so from a quiet place. I spoke with no one, I just took in everything bright, shiny and loud. It was a glorious night. At about 2 am, I walked back to my tent.

When I arrived, the camp across me was having a party in their huge dome tent. Sleep was not going to be in the foreseeable future. I walked into a super-fun and chill party, great DJ, and lights. In the corner, I saw a few African hand drums looking very lonely. So I picked up a couple and started to play with the DJ. It was the first time in months I had played. As soon as I started to play, the people started to dance much harder. The DJ looked pleased. In a couple of minutes, an extraordinarily beautiful woman appeared out of nowhere and started to dance in front of me. She had total command of her movements and we locked in unison in the language of rhythm. For an hour we communicated in rhythm and silence.

At the end of the party we chatted, but in nothing as profound as the language of movement. In the pre-dawn we parted and I passed out.

I woke up with a different understanding of initiation. As is usually stated, initiation is the process of transition from one part of one’s life into another: a rite of passage from childhood into young adulthood, or from being single to being married. But what I now see as a deeper truth is that initiation is a journey from the rational and mundane life into the realms of the underworld, the unconscious; a discovery of what was hidden and a bringing forth into the world the mystery within.   For most men, it is the process of the masculine going deep and discovering the feminine within. Initiations for me had in one way or another been about the relationship to the women in my life and reuniting with the goddess. Every woman I encountered during my time at LIB taught me something about myself, healed me, challenged me, reflected something about me that I was missing or ignoring. The dancer reminded me that when I share my authentic self, my deepest gifts, then the goddess shines back and dances and inspires me.

I have been locked behind my laptop for months, writing and working on Howard Bloom documentary. But I am a mover, a drummer and an instigator of ecstatic experiences. I see now that the work of writing and never-ending emails and conversations has to be balanced with the actual creations – with living and breathing and performers and audience. I thank that dancer for showing me that. Even if we never meet again, I will be grateful for the moment.

The last night at LIB was a full-on Carnival/Bacchanalia!  Old School House beat masters like François K seduced the crowd while PANTyRAiD was banging the main stage surrounded by a bevy of wild dancers, while the Black Water Jukebox played music that reminded me of The Band meets Tom Waits with songs by Hunter S. Thompson. It was one of those nights.

At Midnight, I did one more walk of the massive festival grounds before I had to get some sleep, break down my camp, as my ride was hitting the road at 8 am to get her flight back to NYC.

I wandered into a Tea place at the far reaches of the festival inside of a Yurt. It was a beautiful oasis. Dozens of people were being served by ceremonial tea masters, a lovely and sweet way to bring to close the weekend. As I was sipping my tea, a man was setting up an electronic rig. I thought it was going to be a DJ playing ambient and down-tempo music. Instead, we were treated to a riveting solo performance by a sonic shaman named Morgan Sorne. His performance was transcendent and moving beyond what anyone in the yurt could believe.  This was a perfect ending to the performances of Lighting In Bottle.

I stared to walk back to my tent, to get two hours of sleep before the dawn came. I ran into Dream Rockwell at the Temple of Consciousness. There was a Qawwali singing performance at the same time Sorne was singing.  As she was walking towards me, ”Kali Ma” is what I said. She stopped and smiled. “Kali you are Kali. You are a teacher for me at this moment, and one day I hope to share fully why.” She smiled graciously and we hugged for a moment. It was a perfect way to end my Lighting In a Bottle experience.

Dawn came much too quickly. Yet strangely, I broke camp in a very short time and met my ride. My new friend Stephanie and I downloaded our experiences as we made our way to LAX so she could fly back to NYC.

As difficult as any initiation is, the trick is to take the experience into the real world. The call to stay in the underworld, the other side, the festival, the shamanic trips are strong. Who wants to deal with traffic, bills, mundane life when one could dance with the spirits, angels and devils. Joseph Campbell said that this is the most difficult part of the Hero’s journey, the choice to return. But we must return with the boon we found on our quest. It is the responsibility and service to the cosmos to bring the wisdom bestowed upon us to our family, friends, local and global community. If we don’t, then the experience we had just becomes a lovely memory and at worst, a nightmare of being trapped inside the box again.   I see for myself that my greatest gift is to evoke ecstatic experiences, and to do so with a team of glorious artists, production and business heads. To do so, so we can touch and inspire the world to live, breathe and dance in a transformational way.

So my real journey is just beginning…

“The world moves on a woman’s hips
The world moves and it swivels and bops
The world moves on a woman’s hips
The world moves and it bounces and hops
A world of light…she’s gonna open our eyes up
A world of light…she’s gonna open our eyes up
She’s gonna hold/it move/it hold it/move it hold/it move it hold/ It move it
A world of light…she’s gonna open out eyes up.”
– Talking Heads


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About Author

Mark Sklawer

Mark Sklawer is a multi-disciplinary artist and director. His work has been praised by Newsweek, The Village Voice, Time Out, and the Daily News. The Village Voice says Sklawer is the maker of "Ecstatic Extravaganza." Time Out says his work "will catapult you into a cosmic odyssey." And the New York Daily News says his creations are "the wave of the future." Mark Sklawer has been exploring the connection between popular culture, and mythology all of his creative life. He is a musician, producer, director, visual artist, and visionary. Growing up with rock and electronic music, mythic and popular culture led Mark to pursue studying and working as a professional photographer, musician, as well as in the performing arts. He has also trained in disciplines such as meditation, shamanism, body/mind practices, martial arts, and ecstatic drum and dance rituals. This has led Mark to create for over ten years, ritual theatrical dance events,culminating in the vision of Body Temple. Check out more of Mark's work on his website

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