It is important to note that our mas characters, rituals, dances etc were not simply arbitrary processes and forms that our ancestors and elders conjured up on a whim. There were context, reason, and strategy, to accomplish a particular outcome or goal. I’m saying that to say, that the roots and traditions of our Carnival, our mas, were already created mindfully.
The use of the term “a mindful approach” in this article is necessary because the present-day, heavily commercialised and diluted version of our Carnival celebrations, is devoid of the kind of mindfulness originally intended by our ancestors; the kind of mindfulness that makes the experience of this community joy practice even more transformative and healing.
Mindful masqueraders for example are deeply aware of the sense of freedom, uninhibited sexual and sensual joy, and the fact of fully inhabiting and accepting the body that one has, while also noticing the thoughts, sounds, sensations they are experiencing in the present moment. They can store this as a resource in their soma (body-mind connection) memory, to which they can return for knowledge, wisdom and dosages of pleasure (as medicine).
So how does one play mindful mas? What can we do to connect with ourselves and others in a deeper more meaningful way through Carnival expressions? Here are my thoughts and suggestions:
Carnival is a space created by our ancestors for resistance, resilience and rebellion. It is a space for contestation and playful deviance. It is a space for communal joy practice and celebration. It is a space for catharsis. It is a space for erotic energy. Any one of these can be your personal theme for this yearly mas ritual.
First, set an intention for what you want in a Carnival experience that may fall into any one of those or other categories:
a) Healthy resistance/rebellion – is there something in your society (unjust laws, racism, patriarchy, intimate partner violence) that you are fighting against?
b) Resilience – are you trying to find ways to be resilient because you are internally struggling with things that threaten to break you down or prevent you from being authentic?
c) Surrender and joyful acceptance – you’ve come to a place of accepting all parts of yourself and want to use mas as a “rite of passage” into your new life.
d) Somatic release – you want to deeply connect with yourself or attune with and engage with others and your environment through sensations and movement (through expressive arts – music, dance, song, costumes/artwork) so that your body holistically discharges: stress, blocked emotions, tension, trauma and stagnated energy stored in your tissues.
Secondly, find a Carnival space or tradition that speaks to what your intention is. In my TEDx Port-of-Spain Talk I shared a real story of someone planning to disclose their sexuality orientation, and for this person, the issue might have been one of resilience – finding strength while being in a conflict situation. This person chose Kalinda or stick fighting as the Carnival art form that best worked for them to work through that. Maybe you want to rebel against or speak out against particular social issues and so you decide you’re going to play ole mas or traditional mas, which could be a fun part of advocacy and social justice work. Maybe you are working through body image issues and decide you are going out there in the skimpiest costume you’re comfortable in.
Third, commit to going through the process of preparing for Carnival: eat, exercise, save your money, learn the movements or chants of a traditional mas character, or study the story, personality or history of the character in your pretty mas band and embody it when you play.
Fourthly, be a part of a community. Find your crew. Find your tribe (no pun intended). Group energy directed for the same or like-minded intentions are powerful catalysts for change and for discipline to achieve something. The fact is that people are more resilient, more whole and heal faster in a community or group context. A collective practice, like our mas, creates a container that supports our full growth, embodiment and expression of our human-ness, including our erotic and sexual selves.
The yard community where one learns to crack whips, stick fight or walk on stilts, are spaces to become unshackled from any kind of fear or uncertainty that you may have to face, safe in the container of like-minded individuals who have walked the path before. One learns to take risks, in a playful way, that can now be transferred to real life.
Carnival is our street theatre and it's where we get to perform and use role play as ways of representing or re-presenting ourselves, our lives, our stories and our imaginations. It is where we use expressive arts for social and behaviour change.
MY INVITATION TO YOU
If we have inherited generational trauma (and we definitely have), then surely we have also inherited generational wisdom. And so I invite you to take a closer, deeper look into our authentic and traditional Carnival arts and see the gifts our elders and ancestors have left for us. What can you take that’s safely healing for you?
Colonial history has divorced us from seeing spirituality in sex, particularly carnivalesque sexuality. However, our ancestors understood the erotic as simply another aspect of life; they saw in sexual activity, a way of communing with divine energies. Our Carnival offers everyone a space to release an unhealthy, unhelpful or inaccurate view of sexuality and gender.
Carnival is an opportunity to unmask, through masking; to learn how to live authentically, through learning how to play; to learn to live without fear, by taking the risk to be vulnerable. The best sex and healthiest sexuality one could ever have, is when one is open and honest – unmasked and authentic – and when one feels safe to play and be vulnerable.
(This is based on the 2019 TEDxPortofSpain Talk by sexologist Onika Henry, titled Reclaiming Sexual Identity Through Carnival.)
Onika Henry is a Tobago-based, trained sex educator (MEd Human Sexuality) and a certified sex coach. She designs and implements workshops, training, and psycho-educational counselling, to address sexual health concerns.
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/ohenryconsultancy/