6 Things I Learned at Burning Man
Every year, tens of thousands of people pilgrimage to the middle of the Nevada desert to celebrate what it means to be human. The phrase “trying to describe Burning Man to someone who hasn’t been there is like trying to describe color to a blind person” is thrown around a lot. This sounds like a challenge to me. So I’ll give it a shot. Rather than describing what you’ll find, I’ll just tell you what I learned.
1. Humans desire deep, loving connections with everyone.
When cultural, religious, and social expectations are removed, humans have a deep and longing desire to connect with each other in intimate ways. I had discussions with young ladies, old men, and middle aged people of all races, sexes, orientations, and income levels. It is through vulnerability that we find love. When looking deep into the eyes of another human being, you can't help but fall in love with them. One of the greatest experiences of my Burning Man journey was when I met a young woman in deep playa looking at a beautiful and ornate work of art. Within five minutes of saying hello, we were sharing our deepest fears and hopes for our lives and, particularly, our marriages. Though in completely different places, different genders, and leaving the conversations with different solutions for our problems, we both understood and supported each other in our journey. It was so incredible and I am so thankful for this nameless young woman. She told me “you may not know this, but there are people who are excited that you are on this journey because they are watching you and look forward to seeing what you discover.” This touched me. After only 10 minutes, she found my deepest passion and desire, and supported it. I gave her a hug and we went our separate ways. Never knowing each other’s identifies, we returned to being two drops in an ocean of 70,000 people - all of whom were having similar discussions.
2. It is actually possible to feel definite emotions for someone without judging them.
It is no secret that people at Burining Man take strongly to the principle of “radical self expression.” There are men in tutu’s, women on stilts, and people of all body types unafraid to be seen for all they are. Seeing people this bold is inspiring and beautiful. As each day passed, people became more and more self expressive as the social walls of non-burner society came down and they realized that, truly, no one judges the way you choose to present yourself. Now, I'm not going to make an outlandish claim that people expressing themselves by exposing themselves is somehow just art, and there is no attraction - of course there is. It's biological. However, in a safe and egalitarian environment, there is nothing wrong with that. It's no different from visiting a beach, or a yoga studio. People are simply bold and brave enough to express themselves and feel safe doing so. Burning Man removes prejudice in a way that no other event, culture, or philosophy can - by providing social proof of an entire international city doing the same. Once you have 10 conversations with people you may have once prejudged, you realize that you can totally have feelings for someone without making any moral judgements about them, their lifestyle, or their life choices.
3. Control is unnecessary.
Making people responsible for themselves creates a grand experiment. Very rarely in our dog-eat-dog world do we feel supported by anyone and everyone around us. Burning Man has no money. No brands. No companies. No trade. There is only gifting. And give, people do. No one seems to feel like they are being taken advantage of. These gifts are given with appreciation, knowing the other person is completely responsible for themselves and are taking care of themselves. The gift is a gift, no expectations but with gratitude often given and accepted. There are art pieces you can climb on. Some that you can’t, but do any way. Recreational drug use, romantic encounters, receiving and offering help for any of your needs, multi-directional bike traffic, playing with fire, and surviving extreme temperature swings and dust storms are just part of what makes the festival what it is. You can't help but gaze in wonder, especially when you see all of the lights, fire, and art at night, upon the amalgamation of 70,000 people’s experiences to see an order emerge that is not designed or controlled. It is beautifully self-regulating, self-perpetuating, and self-organizing. If there is an ideal that should be integrated into the world that exists the other 51 weeks of the year, it is this: organized chaos trumps chaotic organization.
4. We have true selves who stay hidden.
They are more amazing, thoughtful, passionate, and powerful than we imagine. When no one knows you, no one judges you, and no one cares what you choose to do unless it involves them, you are finally free, for the first time in many people’s lives, to allow your true self to emerge. There was an amazing art piece in the middle of the playa made of ropes and boards - an adult jungle gym of sorts. Twisting and turning, it was the makings of Indiana Jones obstacle course. I connected to my monkey self and my childhood and climbed all over every thing. I even climbed, pirate style, to the top of a twenty-five foot rope and ran around high-fiving everyone and engaging in playful conversations with a couple dozen adults that I subsequently never saw again. When leaving, one of the guys from my camp said, “it was amazing to see you just being your full you. It’s a beautiful thing, man.” Of course, the guy telling me this, I’d only known for about a day, and he knows nothing of how I conduct myself on a daily basis. But we know authenticity when we see it. When there are no expectations, judgment, or rules for our “safety” we become our authentic selves.
5. Burning Man is not the ideal way to organize human society.
As a social experiment, I have never seen such and entrancing illustration of what we are able to accomplish through love and acceptance. People appreciating each other, creating beautiful and expensive art without seeking accolades, giving each other food, drinks, and gifts is a breathtaking experience. Seeing people freely express themselves artistically is at once intimidating and inspiring - more the latter as you acclimate to it.
It has been said that Burring Man is a model for society as a whole. While, on a social level, I can find little to argue with here - the only social institutions that couldn’t survive are those of limitation, judgement, and oppression which are damaging to the human spirit and are ripe for dissolution anyway. Burning Man is the closest thing I’ve seen to a social ideal in my experiences. However there is a major flaw to the concept of a perpetual Burning Man ideal: the economy would break down fast and extreme social injustice would emerge.
There is a certain romance to the exploring of our primal nature to get closer to each other socially. However, there is one thing critical to Burning Man that humanity has created that would be completely out of place at the festival: capital markets. It takes money, lots of it, for Burning Man to happen. Tens of thousands of people save up all year or go into debt to create an unforgettable experience for themselves and for others. Our forbearers didn’t have this ability. Freedom from commerce, sure. Freedom of expression, perhaps. Even the freedom to move about and engage in varying levels of intimacy with others was a tenant of some of our ancestral societies. However, the freedom to buy and bring a week’s worth of frozen or non-perishable food and gallons of water into the middle of the desert, play dance music, make ice, build temporary buildings with cranes, and drive around mutant vehicles run by fossil fuels, is a benefit of the market for ideas and competition for customers that exist outside of the Playa.
All of the art at Burning Man, all of the beautiful people, their creations, their interactions, everything that makes Burning Man what it is still pales in comparison to a work of art that humanity has been collectively building for millennia - the market. Without it, Burning Man could not survive. Additionally, in a society, that is not comprised of a self-selection of open minded, tolerant, and accepting people, social injustice would arise where trade is not in place to support tolerance and penalize intolerance. Burning Man is a festival to celebrate and explore our social ideal, but should not be confused for the complete ideal. For without markets we would simply regress to hedonic feudalism.
6. Your true value comes not from your wealth but your ability to help others in the moment.
With most people making impermanent connections at Burning Man, things like fancy clothes, cars, houses, and jewelry have no place in giving you a perceived value. When you meet someone, since you likely play no future role in the person’s life, only what you can give them in that moment matters. With everyone arriving completely sufficient, there is not much you can give someone except the most important thing - your attention and time.
I got on my bike and road wherever the wind took me at Burning Man. Sometimes that meant to an art piece, sometimes a random camp, and sometimes workshops, hula hoop training, and even an intimacy training where we connected to our roots, discussed the truth of humanity’s love experience, and did a group tantric soul gazing exercise. All this might sound like hippy nonsense to the uninitiated, but that’s the cold, socially repressive thinking keeps us from being able to truly live harmoniously. If there is a word that could sum up 70,000 people peacefully playing in the middle of the desert for a week, it is harmony. And that harmony came as each and every person was forced by Burning Man’s very impermanence to live in the moment and give each other immediate value. What if we all lived this way all the time? What if, in every relationship and interaction, we gave our all as if it were not only our first, but also our last encounter with the person. How much deeper would each moment be? How much more fulfilling would life become? Life is long if you know how to use it and Burning Man is a perfect exercise in discovering that truth. Each day there seems a lifetime.
Indeed, trying to explain the Burning Man experience is nearly impossible to do. I hope, however, these six points give you an idea as to whether or not you should invest the time and money to go there. If you have a wandering spirit, curiosity about the human condition, desire to express yourself freely in an environment where you will be celebrated for trying, and to be enthralled by the magnitude and beauty every moment of every day for a whole week, then come join me in Black Rock City. If, however, you are easily offended, socially authoritarian, or dogmatically judgmental, you may think Burning Man isn’t for you. I say it still is. Just go. Don’t bring anyone who will judge you for exploring, take on a Playa name and experience what beauty there is in freedom. Maybe express yourself in your own way and come back with a new perspective on how you fit into this human race.