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Gongs, chanting and Celtic Shamanism: What I learnt from a day at the Glastonbury Healing Field

Haunted by scenes from ‘The Idol’, Twitter wars and dodgy pub wine, Mark Beaumont was in dire need of a physical and spiritual reset. Could Glastonbury’s Healing Field and its resident homeopaths, spiritual healers and gurus help him?

Sunday 25 June 2023 08:43 BST
Here for healing: Mark Beaumont at the Healing Field at Glastonbury 2023
Here for healing: Mark Beaumont at the Healing Field at Glastonbury 2023 (Mark Beaumont/The Independent)

A cowbell rings out, marking the joyous occasion of a successful hand binding. Chimes draw the faithful and curious to group meditation sessions; gongs, hovered over thigh and buttock, reverberate peace and fulfilment through prone bodies like a warm bath of gentle percussive nourishment. The Glastonbury Healing Field is but a short walk from the massive club with the Tube train crashed into it but, vibes-wise, a full dimension or two removed. And it is here, scorched and blackened by a night in the flaming maw of the Arcadian spider, that Glastonbury comes to put itself back in order: spiritually, mentally and in a literal having-your-bowels-rearranged-by-a-dreadlocked-masseuse sense.

“Yesterday there seemed to be more people in the Healing Field than I’ve ever seen,” says Buddhist meditation teacher Vimhl Raja (or Lord of Purity), relaxing beside a tent of cushions, rugs and candles. “And everyone was interested. A few years ago you’d get people coming in here with cans and drinking, just because it was a clear space. Now people generally want to discover something and engage. There were three lads walking through the other day saying ‘let’s go and do some healing’, and they were genuine.”

One such astral voyager was I, arriving at Worthy Farm on Friday with much emotional, physical and psychological baggage to shed. I have seen the sex scenes in The Idol. Tasted copious pub Merlot. Regularly perused Twitter’s For You feed. And I needed these things erased from my body and mind as quickly and unscientifically as possible. I came prepared to let homeopaths, spiritual healers and layers-on of hands have a go at sorting out personal issues that had previously been kept quite happily at bay by serious amounts of hard liquor and heavy duty anti-psychotic medication. Maybe, after all, there was a more natural, less A&E-bound way.

‘Let’s go and do some healing’
‘Let’s go and do some healing’ (Mark Beaumont / The Independent)

My healing journey begins with a sonic soul cleanse – watching The Lightning Seeds – before I strike out for the Permaculture area of the Green Futures Field, a maze of herbal gardens celebrating the wonders and possibilities of the plant world. I fortify myself for the healing ahead with a glass of elderflower champagne – a delightful lemon cordial sort of concoction that the barman assures me has “benefits” that, a few hours later, turn out to be powerfully laxative in nature. It’s also “mildly alcoholic”, which might explain why, within minutes I have given my details to a wandering Just Stop Oil contingent, partly to save the planet from fossil fuelled apocalypse and partly on the off-chance of a free ticket for the snooker.

Venturing into the Healing Field proper, I ease myself in slowly with an introductory Full Awareness meditation session in the Air Circle led by Raja, who’s Buddhafield group host retreats for all ages in Devon and who has been teaching his techniques at Glastonbury since 1992. Raja is a calming, assured teacher, his gentle voice like a brush of wind encouraging our small group to make contact with the sensations of breathing, acknowledge the colours on our eyelids and take in all outer distractions the better to cast them away. But as a rank meditation amateur myself, I go in all wrong, failing to take on a comfortable and stable position on my stack of cushions from the off. Hence, when Raja suggests we concentrate on our connection with the earth, I find myself desperately trying to fend off a dead leg, followed by agonising pins and needles that send me lurching off my pathway to the bliss state.

My subsequent “centring” – in which we concentrate on the input of our senses and our position in the world – is waylaid, then, by a series of intrusive thoughts. Am I connecting to the inexorable rotation of the planet with which I am one, or just slowly sliding off this cushion? Is football ever coming home? What jokes can I make about this experience in the article? It’ll have to be funnier than this, The Independent will never run this stuff. They’ll drop my word rate if I file this, I might never work again. In fact, how can I clear my mind if I’m supposed to be remembering everything I think to write about it later? Is that my phone vibrating? Is someone actually calling me right now? Am I getting the call-up from Just Stop Oil to glue myself to a Monet so soon? What if it’s The Independent telling me not to put all this stuff in the meditation paragraph? What’s the etiquette for answering phones during group meditation sessions? Is it OK to duck out for a work call?

When, after 20 minutes of numb-footed serenity, Raja stops guiding us through the process of focusing on our bodies and leaves us silent “space” to see what remains in our minds, it turns out there’s a very good reason I’ve so long been numbing my subconscious by any means necessary. It’s terrifying in there. So much The Idol. But somewhere at the centre of my psychic Gomorrah I do indeed find a certain calmness, a serenity, a transcendence over voicemail. Coming round (to find I’d just been pocket-dialled by the Glastonbury press office), I hobble off to find more of whichever higher dimension that came from.

‘There’s a good reason I’ve been numbing my subconscious for so long. It’s TERRIFYING in there’
‘There’s a good reason I’ve been numbing my subconscious for so long. It’s TERRIFYING in there’ (Mark Beaumont/The Independent)

Over the course of a couple of days the Healing Field proves an oasis of calm and wellbeing. Much of the field is dedicated to massage tents – many booked up all weekend – ranging from shiatsu and reiki therapies ideal for those who’d like their energy fields rearranged into a psychic armour to help them endure Guns N’ Roses, to hot stone, crystal, gong bath and even puppet therapy. Across the area, there is much joy on offer. At the morning Power Ballad Yoga sessions in the Greenpeace Field, a Tina-wigged instructor leads us in moves such as the Windmilling Powerchord and The Earth Is Your Groupie to the tune of Prince’s “Purple Rain” and cries of “namaste, muthaf***ers!” In the Air Circle Dome, a session of Laughter Yoga has participants leaping around like cackling gibbons and vaudevillian villains, proving the motto painted around the Green Futures Field that “laughter is the best medicine”.

Joining a chanting session at the Bhakti Temple, where barefoot spiritual guides weave drum, guitar and squeezebox into hypnotic mantras, I find that eastern healing philosophies have some banging tunes to them. Likewise the Big Sing session in the Air Circle dome tent, where groups of participants form impromptu multi-part choirs, prom-worthy inside an hour.

Over at the Homeopathic Clinic, I speak to Marcus Christo, a trustee of the Travelling Homeopathic Collective that treats 350 to 400 minor ailments such as hay fever and bruises each year with nature-based remedies. He takes one look at my fast-rising sunburn and suggests treating it with stinging nettles, which initially sounds as advisable as curing a hangover by hitting it with a hammer, but isn’t as severe as it sounds. “We use it in a cream form,” he explains. “What people need to do in their own gardens is go and get some stinging nettles, cut them with gloves, infuse it, make a tea out of it, let it cool down, a few drops into some water and put the flannel that’s been infused over the tea on the burn and as it warms up wet it. The sunburn goes away, and small burns as well.”

When you come over the railway line you almost feel the energy change, from chaos to calm

Phil the whittling instructor

Wandering into the Craft Field to lose myself in ancient handiworks, I while away a pleasantly earthy and confidence-building half hour whittling my daughter a magic wand using a “bodging” technique on shave horse and draw knife. “It’s never quiet,” my instructor Phil tells me – eight years in the Craft Field, 10 here with Oxfam previously, and one year as a steward when he was almost run over by Bruce Springsteen. “The Craft Field is massive, it covers everything, metalwork, pottery, materials, wood. This is my favourite area of the festival, here and the stone circle. When you come over the railway line you almost feel the energy change, from chaos to calm.”

Phil has noticed the crowds becoming more engaged too. “As opposed to something that used to feel like an afterthought, it feels like a substantial part of the festival now. Wednesday, because the main stages aren’t open, it was mad here.”

Back in the Healing Field, I join a sound therapy session in the Air Circle Dome, the floating, undulating gongs of which certainly evoke Tibetan mountaintops but the talk of opening my third eye to better see my route to higher consciousness are too giant leaps for someone still inching their way towards grade one gurudom. And having already learnt this weekend that there should be court orders banning me from being left alone with myself, I seek out a guide. Jane Egginton, a former travel journalist now trained in Celtic Shamanism at the Glastonbury Healing Centre and operating sessions from Healing Space in Hackney, is in her first year practising at Glastonbury.

“I have a slight resistance to the word ‘shamanic’,” she says, “because it can be a bit alarming and for me it’s not about ‘power over’, it’s a sense of co-creation.”

At one with the universe? Mark Beaumont embraces the Healing Fields at Glastonbury
At one with the universe? Mark Beaumont embraces the Healing Fields at Glastonbury (Mark Beaumont/The Independent)

My half hour beneath her fragrant sticks is a quite wonderful journey, through an emerald-green forest to the branches of a tree rooted in unconditional love, there to watch the day dissolve and my petty stresses with it. Besides a brief moment I’m distracted by the knowledge, flown to me on the wind, that I’m missing experimental soul-pop duo Jockstrap, I feel fully immersed in the dreamscape, connected to and supported by this ancient land. I leave with a mantra and a sense of emotional equilibrium I find genuinely uplifting and helpful.

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