When you talk to Stephen Brooks — founder of Envision Festival and The Punta Mona Center for Regenerative Design, both in Costa Rica — you get a certain feeling about him. Over a crackly phone line, from a hammock in the jungle, he sounds… peaceful. It’s not a feeling many people readily give off in this day and age, when “BUSY!” is the rote response to the question, “How are you?” But Brooks is known as something of a life artist and the fact that he offers a spirit of peacefulness is part and parcel to his purpose in the world.
What is that purpose, exactly? While he’s long been on the forefront of permaculture and sustainable living conversations, Brooks is probably most known for his ability to create a vibe. His brainchild, Envision, launches into its 10th year this weekend and ramps up throughout the following week. While the festival has done a good job attracting well-known acts (Rüfüs du Sol is this year’s biggest name), its the overall spirit of this jungle utopia that brings people back year-after-year. I’ve heard it described as “a sort of Disneyland for people who’s chief thrill is feeling accepted.”
With guests already packing up and heading to the Costa Rican jungle from all corners of the earth, Brooks and I hopped on the phone to talk about how he cultivates the unique spirit of Envision, his push to add self-improvement into the typical festival mix, and the significance of psychedelics (mushroom guru Paul Stamets is speaking and offering workshops this year).
Let’s talk about Envision, and creating a dynamic at Envision — creating just… a feel. How do you go about that?
I think any time you’re trying to do that, you have to be clear on the intention of what it is your goal is. I think creating a vibration is only going to happen if you’re clear what it is that you’re trying to create. And I think as our group of founders has envisioned a very clear intention of creating a sense of community. Something that people experience. And by the end of a vision, they never want to live any other way. It’s like when you’re living in a place where you’re surrounded by like-minded people, and the vibration …
When you arrive to Envision, you’re basically in control of what it feels like when you get there. It’s a lot like Burning Man, you know? It’s like you’re in full control of how that feels when you arrive. One of our philosophies amongst the staff is, “how can we all wake up every morning and be the nicest we’ve ever been?” If you walk into a vibration like that, you’re going to feel that. And what happens at Envision is a lot of people at Envision have been there for two months working on the site. And we try to maintain such a high vibration for the build that by the time people start arriving, they’re arriving into a really good, collective feeling.
Envision is your thing. It’s a community thing, but unlike Burning Man, the buck stops with one person. How does someone even go about figuring out their personal utopic vision and then implementing it and, finally, executing it?
On the physical side, you need a certain physical design. And then you need a foundational way of being. You need to be surrounded by people who are happy. And it’s “what came first, the chicken or the egg?” How do you attract happy? How do you keep people happy? Well, in Envision’s case, we really try to really take care of our build crew so that people that are there building Envision are stoked to be there. And that is seen through in the incredible stages, and buildings that are built, and that it goes from being 50 people on-site in January to around February 1st there’s probably 150 people on site and then by February 10th there are probably 400 people on site. By the time of gates open, and there are 7,500 people on site. The foundation has been laid with deep happiness.
I love that you keep going back to that. It really resonates with me. How do you continue to push that, and capture that in a bottle, and create inclusivity within that as the fest begins?
With Envision — we do a lot of yoga, we teach permaculture courses. So the commonalities that you’ll find with most of the people that we attract is they eat organic food as much as they can. That’s going to make people happier. They do yoga. That’s going to make people happier. People are healthier, so they’re happier. So, it’s like these kinds of fun, foundational, fundamental things are going to give you an average of a healthier, happier person, which then you have that … You start bringing, in our case here, a hundred people together, and you feel it. Somebody from the outside walks in here, and they’re like, “Whoa, what is this place? What are these people taking?”
So what are they taking?
A lot of times people come, and they don’t even know what it is that they’re feeling. They don’t know why it feels different. It’s kind of hard to really put words on what it is that people feel when they’re here. It’s not a place, it’s a feeling and if you have to define that feeling, it’s because the average person that’s here is so happy compared to a person who sits behind their computer all day at an office, and gets in their car, and drives home, and makes dinner, and is alone, and maybe they go out to a bar. It’s like it’s just a different vibration. And when you take that and you times it by a hundred, or you times it by 7,500, something profound starts happening.
When you see society and you see — let’s say American society. You sound like you at least have some ties to the United States, regardless of where you were … Well, I guess first off: were you born in the US?
I was born in the US, but I’ve been in Costa Rica for 25 years. The book I’m writing is called Break Them Chains, about a regular guy’s escape from the system.
That’s where I’m going with this, for sure. Do you feel like Envision offers people an escape from the system, or a taste of what life could be like, or a combination of both?
For me, my first taste of utopia was on October 14th, 1988, in the parking lot of a Grateful Dead concert, my first one. That experience was so profound for me that I was like, “Wow, I want to help provide this type of experience for more people. I want people to feel what it feels like to live in a way where you’re embraced, and where people care about you, and it’s just …”
I think that’s what we’re all longing for.
I had a friend who went to Envision in 2019, and she said it was, and I thought this was an incredible testament to what you’re building, she said it was “the most accepted” she’s ever felt.
I love hearing that. It’s similar here on the farm. We just did this New Year’s at my farm, Punta Mona. We had people here from all over the world. I think we were probably 20 countries. And literally, the tears that were pouring out of people’s faces on the beach. They were like “Wow, I don’t know. I can’t even begin to describe what just happened.” But for me, it’s like I’ve been doing it for so long I know what happened. You felt like you were a part of something. Something way greater. Because here you are, you’re with 80 people, and every one of us is dreaming the same dream.
Every time I interview someone who’s involved in festival culture, or that transformative festival scene, the first thing they want to do is distance themselves as quickly as possible from talk of psychedelics. And I think that’s a little complicated because psychedelics can also be awesome and jumpstart growth. And so, I guess my question is how does that fit into the broader Envision ecosystem?
I know that psychedelics are definitely the impetus for most people to radically start questioning things. It’s like it’s what softens our brains to realize that there’s more out there and there’s another way, you know? I think for many people that was the gateway to get there. Not for all people. Some people it happens through a near-death experience, or losing a loved one. But I think for many people in this culture, it was their breaking free of how things are, and making them realize that there really is another way that things could be, as psychedelics just break down those walls and barriers so flawlessly.
Obviously, the drugs are there, but we’re also a yoga festival and a sustainability festival. It’s like we put so much energy into the workshops and to the education, so it’s like, “sure, there are people that are just going to take ecstasy and dance, but these days people are more coming for the community. They’re more coming for the workshops.” I think the caliber of person that we’re getting isn’t the 22-year-old raver. It’s more the 35-year-old who’s done that already, and is now seeking solutions.
I’ve noticed that you guys have ramped up the workshop element over time, right? Where it’s like, yeah, “come and party,” but also, “change your life.” Can you speak to that a little bit?
I think many people come for that, but then I think a lot of people are just pleasantly surprised that they stumbled into a workshop, and it blew their minds, you know? And had a huge effect. It wasn’t even part of their plan. They thought they were just coming to a party, and next thing they knew they were in a yoga class, or in a breathwork session, or in a workshop that had a profound effect on them.
You’re offering them a unique ecosystem where there are certain values at the forefront.
I would say this isn’t like a one-week thing for me. I live this fully and have for 25 years. I live that … It’s so embedded in my DNA that it’s not like I put on my Envision suit for the week. It’s like this is what I do literally all the time. So I live by example. It’s like Envision uses no single-use plastic, and is radically trying to minimize garbage. That’s what I do for a living — teach people those concepts. So, it’s like it’s just who we are.
Got it. Last question, what would you encourage someone who’s coming for the first time? How would you encourage them to experience it?
I would say is to really find that balance of the education, and don’t overdo it. It’s like some people only do nighttime. Make sure that you come with energy for the day to really embrace the day, and really go to yoga classes, and go to the workshops, and really organize yourself so that you don’t just end up coming only at night. Because it happens. I meet people who never even saw Envision in the day, and it’s like such a bummer.