I’m sitting opposite a man. I don’t know where he lives or what he does for a living. I don’t even know his name or age. But I do know what’s in his heart. He’s speaking, painfully honestly, about the collapse of his marriage, about his fears for his children, about his loneliness. Tears well up, firstly in his eyes and then in mine. We’ve jumped right past the usual social niceties and it’s smashing my heart wide open.
I’m at the first Togetherness Festival in London. The idea bubbled up in the days following the Brexit vote. ‘It felt like there was so much division in the world,’ says festival founder, Adam Wilder. ‘The polarisation of opinion and the demonization of others only creates more division. We are all driven by the same fears, insecurities and unmet shadows. I wanted to share what I’ve learned about bringing people together beyond their ideas of politics and gender and race.’
While the rest of us watched the news and bickered, he made plans. He took over the top floor of a skyscraper in London’s Docklands and scheduled a wild and wanton weekend of workshops (over 50 of them) designed to teach and tempt, to caress and to challenge. The aim was to promote connection. Intimacy. Togetherness.
There’s so much choice, it’s hard to know where to start. Compassionate connecting or a cuddle workshop? Brazilian bioenergetics or setting badass boundaries? Although Wilder is adamant it’s about more than sex, there’s a sultry aura in the air, and the majority of activities have a sensual charge. Even the cushions being sold on one of the stalls are sexual – anatomically correct vulvas sculpted in velvet.
Some sessions do manage to stay cerebral, such as Andrew Barnes’ impassioned talk on the subject of soul-mates (apparently they’re a very bad idea). However the vast majority are truly, deeply, madly experiential. I edge into a workshop by tantric teacher Alan Lowen (artofbeing.com) and sit cross-legged on the floor of the crowded room.
‘Look around,’ says Lowen. ‘Who catches your eye? Who are you drawn to? It isn’t about attraction; it’s about who interests you.’ I immediately hurtle into assumptions, completely forgetting the ‘not about attraction’ clause. It seems as if everyone is younger, edgier, more attractive than I am. I find myself wondering…who would want to pick or be picked by me? Five minutes in and I’m already being triggered big time. All around me people are linking up while I sit like a constipated stone, eyes downcast.
‘Hello?’ I look up and see a woman smiling tentatively. ‘I was drawn to your face,’ she says. ‘You look kind.’ She pauses. ‘Okay, so truthfully, I was a bit nervous and I thought you looked safe.’ I grin and we sit sharing our insecurities.
Again and again, we’re asked to choose and my assumptions start to drift away. That guy who seemed so cool and unapproachable with his piercings and tattoos? He gives me the warmest hug and the most heart-breaking smile. Sometimes we talk with one another; mostly we don’t. Just gazing into someone’s eyes for several minutes is a literal eye-opener. ‘Allow yourself to be seen,’ says Lowen. ‘Be open. Show yourself to the other person.’ It’s hard. My heart is hammering as I stare at the man in front of me. Behind me I hear someone stifle tears.
How often do we really gaze into someone’s eyes? How often do we allow ourselves to experience this level of intimacy? Very rarely, I suspect – maybe only with our partners; perhaps during the first stages of romance; possibly during sex. Even then, we often still avoid prolonged eye contact. Why? ‘Intimacy is the real taboo in our society; the thing we fear,’ says Adam Wilder. ‘Intimacy isn’t just about sex. It’s about taking off the masks that we hide behind.’
Taking off the mask is confronting but it’s also very humbling and deeply humanising. Flush with success from the Alan Lowen workshop I decide to stretch my intimacy muscles a little further. The “Cacao Orgastic Breath Dance Meditation” has piqued my curiosity. I’ve never taken part in a cacao ceremony and, while I’ve variously breathed, danced and meditated, I’ve never done all three together and certainly not to the point of orgasm. So I wait in a long long line for a small cup of cacao and then sit on my yoga mat, waiting for the rest of the jam-packed room to get served. Truth to tell, I’m feeling more irritable than reverent. Cold cacao? Not very orgastic.
Finally we are all settled and I sip my cacao, trying to get into the sacred zone. It tastes like…bitter chocolate. Tepid bitter chocolate. Then, in a flurry, we’re told to shunt our mats to the side and the music starts. It throbs and pulsates and, as the beat ramps up, the clothes start coming off. The hardcore crew in the middle are down to their underpants, bouncing with ecstatic abandon. I slink away from the epicentre, bobbing awkwardly with the less uninhibited, dodging around a few stray smoochers.
Finally the music stops and we scramble for our mats and scrummage to find space. Lying down, I’m painfully aware that my feet are rammed up against someone’s head and I have an armpit two inches from my nose. We start the breathing and, judging from the gasps and groans around me, it’s clearly working a treat for some people. I’m just feeling hot, cramped and uncomfortable. Come to think of it, maybe they are too.
The festival is supposedly pitched to everyone – whether tantric adept or sensual novice. However it’s not always quite clear which sessions are sufficiently tame for the deeply timid, and which will gratify the wilder adventurers of human intimacy. I say a prudish ‘No thank you’ to naked meditation and a horrified ‘Not in a month of Sundays’ to the option of a nude photography shoot. A few men are wandering around with little clay representations of vaginas – straight from the yoni massage class. A man sits down beside me and says, with sadness, that nobody wanted to touch him in the Love Lounge. ‘I think they thought I was too old.’
Togetherness is a mad mixup; a chaotic clash of clans, cliques and cultures. Sometimes it’s huge fun, deliciously playful and juicily decadent. Sometimes it threatens to tip into overload. Too many people, too much choice, too much stimulation, too much triggering. With so much on offer the urge is to plunge into everything. ‘I got totally overwhelmed after just two workshops,’ says a woman I chat with over a soya cappuccino. ‘You need to pace yourself. Have some time out in between sessions to integrate what’s come up for you.’
My feeling is that it all needs a little more pacing, a little more careful curation, a lot more space and a lot more fresh air. But, to be fair, this was pulled together out of nothing within a space of a couple of months. It’s a huge and brave achievement. Wilder says he’s keen to learn so the next festival (to be held in November) can be even better.
Togetherness is still a little rough around the edges but its heart and soul are in the right place. ‘Connection is the key to being freer, happier and more alive,’ says Wilder. ‘It could change not only our personal lives but the political decisions we take as a society.’
As I sit on the train, heading back into central London, I find myself feeling more open, less judgmental, more willing to catch people’s eyes, more ready to smile. It feels less like me against the world, than me as part of the world. And that, surely, is how we start to heal society.
The next Togetherness Festival runs from 18-19 November, this time in a three-storey warehouse in Greenwich. For more information see www.togethernesslondon.com