The entrance looked like any doorway on the blighted Penn Avenue corridor of Pittsburgh. But inside was another world: a stairwell draped with tattered white cloth, crystals, and feathers. A sign invited guests to take one of the fresh roses hung by the doorway. Upstairs the walls were covered with swirling and geometric artworks, people chatted in strange costumes, a DJ warmed up the dance floor with tribal electronic beats,
and there were more magic doorways. Behind one, fortunes were being told with tarot cards and rune stones; behind another, guests were offered massages and sound healing to the tones of singing bowls and gongs; a third hid a Surrealist literary game asking participants to share their experiences of living in alternate realities.
For many this was just another stop on September’s “Unblurred,” Pittsburgh’s monthly gallery crawl. But even those who stopped in for a moment’s glance could see that the event – called Interweave and hosted by the Evolver Social Movement – was clearly no ordinary art show. Was this a New Age themed gala, the way spiritual trappings have become commercialized in American culture since the 1960s? Was this a local version of the decadent aesthetic festivals like Burning Man, which attract thousands of artists and young adults every year to party outside of social conventions? Or, by making spiritual ideas available to a wider audience, was Evolver attempting to spark an evolution in human consciousness through locally organized art and social activism?
“Let me open this door and let in some fresh air,” said Carolyn Elliot, a local Evolver organizer, as she sat down to talk about the Movement in her apartment, a sparse flat decorated with prints from Buddhism and William Blake. The 27-year-old former academic – who is currently working on a book deal based off of her spiritual self-help blog, Awesome Your Life – has been working with Evolver since May, when she had a powerful and welcoming experience at one of the group’s parties.
According to Elliot, the Evolver Movement is an international social network for people interested in promoting spirituality and global change. Evolver has been developing over the last couple of years out of the Brooklyn based online magazine Reality Sandwich, which has since 2007 presented articles on a range of subjects such as spirituality, art, ecology, technology, and psychedelics. Following the success of their magazine, Daniel Pinchbeck (the author of Breaking Open the Head and 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl) and the other editors of Reality Sandwich decided to create a network where people could discuss the relationship of spirituality to social change.
“Evolver recognizes all the myriad ways that we’re really screwed right now and that something needs to happen,” said Elliot, “but it puts spiritual consciousness at the forefront.” She suggested that there is a growing sense around the world that the cultural attitudes of American consumerism are responsible for various global problems, from unemployment to environmental collapse. “We can have all the revolutions that we want,” she continued, citing the current Occupy Wall Street protests in New York, “but if there’s not widespread spiritual change, we’re just going to repeat the same sort of ugliness.”
Rather than taking to the streets, Evolver encourages a different approach to social activism, one of education and play within local communities. Like in other online networks, such as Facebook, members share information on the group website; but Elliot explained how Evolver is different from typical social media: “It encourages people to get together offline, in their individual cities.” Evolver has more than forty local chapters, called Spores, predominantly in America but with a number in Europe, Australia, and South Africa. The Pittsburgh Spore – set to celebrate its one-year anniversary – is one of the more established chapters. It has forty-two members across a broad range of beliefs and socio-economic backgrounds, and was founded by a handful of local artists and activists who met through the Reality Sandwich website. The local Spore disseminates information via film screenings and lectures at local universities, encourages community through potlucks and gift exchanges, works with charitable organizations like the First United Methodist Church, and, of course, throws parties.
Elliot remarked that while American party culture often centers on the consumption of alcohol as a means of forming temporary social bonds, Evolver events are predominately drug-free. “We provide an environment where the art, music, and services that are being offered are inviting you to let go of your inhibitions and enter what you might call a higher state.” For Elliot, this allows participants to connect with each other in more powerful and permanent ways than they are encouraged to connect with each other in their ordinary lives. Even more important, activities like sound healing and tarot readings aim at providing spiritual experiences that can transform partygoers at a deep personal level. “Placing the emphasis on direct experience also makes room for the diversity that the Network enjoys,” Elliot said. “We don’t care what you believe specifically… but we’re all on to something, and no matter how we’re getting there, the there matters more.”
The broad range of beliefs and practices encouraged by the network is a hallmark of the progressive way that Evolver is approaching spirituality within American culture. According to a recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey of the U.S. religious landscape, though America is still predominately Christian, an increasing number of people – particularly young adults – are becoming unaffiliated from mainstream religious institutions. This may be due to the strong link between traditional religious interpretations and conservative political views, neither of which sit well with the non-dogmatic majority or liberally educated youth. Despite this defection from traditional religions, another survey – performed by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute – found that the majority of college-age students still consider religion important in their lives and firmly believe that, “we are all spiritual beings.”
When asked for her perspective on the role that spirituality plays in the lives of Americans, Elliot pouted her youthful face in thought and ran her hands through her riotous tangles of hair before answering: “I think that’s one of the most basic human needs, to be seen as a spirit, as a soul, and to not be judged for how your soul is showing up in this incarnation.” She continued, “Every group I’ve ever been involved with where I actually felt loved or welcomed or wanted has been a spiritually oriented group.” A number of studies on youth development suggest that there are strong benefits to a spiritual upbringing, with links to moral and civic development, identity formation, coping, resilience, well-being, physical health, educational attainment, and success.
The concern for Elliot, however, is the way in which these ideals are being discussed in mainstream American culture: “A lot of the discourse about spirituality, it happens in ‘Oprah Magazine,’ it happens in these places that are seen as fluffy, or exclusive to women, or unnecessary to the nitty-gritty daily life… New Age automatically carries a connotation of bullshit.” On the other hand, actual transformative spiritual experience may conflict with basic American values like consumerism: “If you’re having intense mystical experiences,” Elliot said, “you’re not going to be buying that much, you don’t want to. Or working that hard.” This radical stance may go a long way to explain why alternative spiritual practices have held a significant place in the typically rebellious youth counterculture movements of America.
Despite casting itself as a new phenomenon, Evolver owes a lot to previous spiritual youth movements: ‘60s New Age, Grateful Dead concerts and raves, and contemporary festivals like the Rainbow Gathering and Burning Man, from which Evolver has inherited its celebratory attitude, focus on music and art, diverse set of beliefs, and primitive, yet futuristic, aesthetic. With its use of electronic music, Eliot agreed that Evolver is definitely a post-rave phenomenon: “But we don’t want to make the ‘90s rave scene happen again,” she said. “That scene degraded into drug abuse, and into states that were not really furthering anyone’s actual growth.” Nonetheless, after a successful Solstice party hosted this past summer by Evolver, participants expressed favorable comparisons to Burning Man, saying, “I can’t believe this is in Pittsburgh, I can’t believe this is happening!” Much of this identification may be due to the set of open-minded ideals shared by both Evolver and these other movements, summed up in the rave scene as “PLUR:” peace, love, unity, and respect.
At the same time, Evolver has also inherited a number of critiques leveled at youth countercultures by both mainstream culture and social anthropologists. There is concern over the cultural appropriation of native beliefs – white kids chanting Mayan songs or wearing feather headdresses. For Elliot, though, the willingness to take on the signifiers of past cultures, “comes from a very innocent and actually very beautiful desire to recognize fundamental unity, and to celebrate it and participate in it,” rather than be forced to identify with meaningless mainstream values. Similarly, much of the spiritual discussion on Evolver and Reality Sandwich relies on vague, effusive rhetoric that may be illegible to people not already inclined to think about spirituality in these terms. For Elliot, the Movement is interested in a heart-centered approach not encouraged by rational academia; though what she calls an “exuberant, chaotic flow” may actually close Evolver off to people who might otherwise be encouraged to participate.
Elliot grew quite exuberant when asked to discuss the issue of sex, drugs, and degeneracy that is often tied to youth countercultures, and began to wave her hands around like one of the many-armed Hindu deities depicted in prints on her apartment walls. Contrary to many earlier youth movements – and the fact that both the Evolver and Reality Sandwich websites have active threads discussing psychedelics – it turns out that most of the people involved in the Pittsburgh Evolver Spore don’t do drugs. “It’s all rather disappointingly wholesome!” Elliot laughed. “We’re interested in nurturing one another, not in exploiting one another. That’s the fundamental point… we joke about being a cult that sacrifices animals and has orgies, but instead we do guided meditations and we eat lentils.”
For Elliot, this heart-centered and wholesome approach to youth culture marks a necessary shift in consciousness toward a greater sense of responsibility: “We can’t just get high and have sex with everybody and make a big mess, because there’s way too much at stake right now. We feel a real sense of grief for the failure of our parents’ generation… we see the degeneracies, the giving up, or the selfishness that made those youth movements fail. We passionately wish that they had succeeded and bequeathed us with a world that was more heart-centered, that was less fucked up.”
While the necessity of this positive idealism is quite contagious, it may hide the fact that, as an emerging organization, Evolver is still learning how to implement such responsibility on the ground. The Pittsburgh Spore, for instance, has already lost members due to conflicts over how to manage unwelcome participants. A former organizer, who goes by the name of Rue, left the group after having to confront a known sexual predator at one of Evolver’s parties. A psychologist and social activist with a strong interest in accountability, Rue’s real frustration was that the other organizers seemed entirely uninterested in addressing the situation. Aaron Fraser, one of the local Spore’s founders, responded: though it was difficult to address Rue’s concerns at the event, he later brought them to the attention of Pinchbeck and the other higher-ups in the Evolver Movement, who are now working on implementing accountability procedures in the organization.
Even Elliot agreed that the Evolver movement is still trying to figure out the best way of running itself as an organization: “There was an email earlier this week from the larger Evolver headquarters asking us how we’re handling the organization of our groups, and we don’t freaking know and they don’t know.” The local organizers meet for planning sessions once a month, and while their general consensus and ideals of responsibility have kept the movement from running into any “gruesome troubles,” Elliot said that the group’s biggest hurdle is money. As a non-profit organization, the organizers often have to spend hundreds of dollars from their own pockets to host their parties. But for Elliot the cost is worth it: “We get ravingly happy feedback, and that’s what keeps us going.”
One of the more successful events hosted by the Pittsburgh Evolver Spore was its Solstice party, held in a South Side park this past summer, where hundreds of people attended in fairy costumes to perform a ritual of dancing around bonfires. Though September’s Interweave event was more sparsely attended, it still offered many moments of magic and community for its participants. Among the audience of artists, activists, and spiritual seekers were a number of kids from the poorer Garfield and Bloomfield neighborhoods. Though their sports jerseys and baggy pants stood out in a crowd decked in robes, feathers, and face paint, the kids seemed to be enjoying themselves and the atmosphere. They didn’t need to know what sound healing is in order to dance to the music and maybe have their expectations broadened.
“We’re not trying to hand out tracts,” Elliot said when asked how people of such diverse social backgrounds respond to Evolver’s parties. “We’re trying to create a space that speaks for itself. I almost think of us as trying to open little pockets of wonder. We just want a little doorway to open up, and you go in and you’re like, the world contains more than I knew!”