Wanderlust: Life, liberty and the pursuit of political mindfulness


STRATTON — As one of several thousand participants at this past weekend's Wanderlust yoga and meditation festival, Kerri Kelly could shop for organic kale chips, fair trade coconut oil and eco-friendly sandals fashioned from exercise mats.

"We hear a lot about 'vote with your fork, vote with your dollar,'" she said. "How about vote with your actual vote?"

That's why Kelly aimed to interject a seemingly contradictory subject into an event billed as an "all-out celebration of mindful living" – Politics.

As founder of the nonpartisan nonprofit ctznwell.org campaign, Kelly estimates 50 million Americans are engaged in health, sustainability and spiritual practices that fuel a $300 billion market for wellness products and services.

Understanding that, the organizers of Austin City Limits, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza launched the Wanderlust Festival at Stratton Mountain Resort in 2011 and lured a capacity crowd to the sixth annual event Thursday through Sunday.

But amid all the desire to participate, Kelly noted one deficiency: Only 45 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 and 66 percent of those 30 or older cast ballots in the last presidential election.

"We have horrific electoral turnout rates," she said. "There's a crisis of connection in this country. We all experience a feeling of disillusionment because we exist in a system that is broken."

Enter the ctznwell.org campaign, which aims — with the help of such advisors as bestselling authors Sharon Salzberg and Marianne Williamson — to get the wellness crowd to exercise its right to vote.

"This election is going to come down to who comes out," Kelly said. "Our focus is building the ground force and lifting up the collective voice."

A former fast-tracker in the marketing world, Kelly started the campaign after her stepfather, a New York City firefighter, responded to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks at the World Trade Center.

"He saw the second plane enter the second building and ran up 78 flights of stairs. The last thing he was heard saying was 'I'll be right to you.'"

The tower collapsed moments later, leaving only his words on a dispatcher's audiotape. Kelly fled to San Francisco in hopes of finding peace teaching yoga. Instead, she encountered homeless men outside her studio.

"At first I was head down, plow through, don't look. Then I would pause. Not long after, I realized something wasn't right."

Kelly has since joined sit-ins in New York and Washington, D.C., for the "Fight for $15" minimum wage campaign and "Democracy Spring" movement against big money in politics. She also travels the country talking about a "wellbeing gap" between those who can and can't afford healthy food, housing and transportation.

The discrepancy, she says, "impacts our economy, causes stress and sickness and makes our communities less safe."

At a Wanderlust "Mindful America Town Hall" on Saturday, Kelly encouraged participants to contemplate what they care about and how they can consciously support that. Knowing many already are promoting such causes as local food and fair wages, she wants people to expand their reach into politics.

Kelly's description of "the system through which we take care of one another" and priorities around social and criminal justice and economic and environmental reform echo the stump speech of Vermont presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. But the ctznwell.org leader stresses her effort isn't endorsing anyone.

"We don't think it's our place to tell people who or what to vote for," she said. "Our goal is to get people to the polls."

("We're nonpartisan but not neutral," she added. "Where we believe there is injustice, we will make our voices heard.")

The Wanderlust Festival drew a progressive crowd attracted by nearly 100 presenters ranging from "The Sound of Sunshine" singer Michael Franti to Oprah Winfrey's "next generation thought leader" Gabrielle Bernstein. But while they were united by individual goals for personal improvement, some questioned the call to band together for a collectively agreed-upon common good.

"ISIS would say they're doing something that's righteous," one man said of Islamic State fighters now taking credit for terrorism worldwide. "I believe if everyone instead focused on themselves to get better, the world would be a better place."

In response, Kelly believes the answer is both personal and public.

"We're asking people to extend themselves from the inside out, to do the inner work and expand that into relationship, into community. It's not about parties or candidates. It's about the bigger us, the well-being of all people. Yoga means to yoke, to unite. Our practice calls us to lean in and take bold action in the spirit of love and justice. And that is fiercely political."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer contributor and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.


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