What is BurningMan?
Well shit. That’s a loaded question.
You might’ve heard it’s like a music festival, only better and crazier and in the desert.
You might be right.
You might’ve heard it’s the best fucking party of the year.
You might be right.
You might’ve heard it’s a hedonistic conglomeration of naked hippies doing drugs in the desert and experimenting with being spiritual.
You might be right.
You might’ve heard it’s too late, the Burningman golden years are behind us, and the once underground, anything-but-mainstream art & people festival has reached its tipping point into the popular and will never be what it once was.
You might be right.
You might have never heard anything about it at all.
I have been going to Burningman every year since my first, in 2011. And trying to describe the whole experience in words is a bit like trying to describe what the whole experience of listening to music is like. Only harder. It is like trying to describe the experience of listening to music, while watching an experimental film that is about making a film about making a film about making art, while getting your painfully sunburned back rubbed with coconut oil.
First of all, Burningman is something different to everyone. Everyone gets turned on by a different part of it. So to say it is this or it is that might not reflect someone else’s experience at all. And that is one of the many beautiful things about it. It is like life, it is art, it means something different depending on the point of view.
Also like life and art, you get out of it what you are willing to put into it, and if you want, you can just drift by on the surface, never really letting it in. Or. You can allow your heart to really dive in, you can allow yourself to try new things, allow yourself to be something new, get out of your comfort zone, be moved by somethings, be generous of yourself, and maybe uncover some buried treasure out in the desert.
Let’s get some things clear.
It is not just a party. But it is an incredible place to party. It is a place to get in the spirit of celebration. Of communion. Of expression. And maybe a little debauchery. I personally don’t like hitting it too hard that I miss out on any of the juice the experience has to offer because I am stuck in a toilet, or bed, or hooked up to an IV in the medical tent (although a late-week IV-aided rehydration is not the worst thing to happen at the burn). Moderation can go a long way at Burningman. And hydration must be a priority. Indulgence has its place too.
It is not a music festival with headlining acts being the main attraction. Although music is a part of it. And bigger and bigger DJs come out every year and perform sets. If that is your thing, great. Get it. Do it. Run around seeing some of your favorite DJs spin at some of the coolest settings you will ever get to see them. A giant LED-pyramid with flame explosions blasting up around the perimeter at every beat drop. A giant unicorn-shaped-bus driving around next to an LED-rainbow-fish that is driving around next to a giant yacht on wheels. Sunrise at an art-car that looks like a robot with the greatest sound-system on the playa. This is a major possibility at the burn.
It is not based on a system of bartering. This is the most common misconception I hear from people who have never been. It is so much more magical than bartering. Burningman is run on a gift economy. Bartering at the burn would still feel like exchanging currency. Getting something and in exchange giving something of close to equal value. Instead, the burn is fueled by gifting. True gifting. Giving without any thing given in return.
Citizens of Black Rock City get to practice giving and receiving. Being a giver. And being a receiver. As a receiver you practice gratitude. And you don’t cheapen the experience of the giver by feeling the need to give something back to make it equal, you can instead connect with the person, and genuinely receive the gift. As the giver, you get to practice focusing out. You get to see someone’s face light up because of your generosity. The magic created in a city run on gifting is hard to describe. Where every bar serves free drinks. Where grilled cheeses are handed out like flyers. Where you could ask anyone for a drink of water, if you are in need. Where random cherished moments of gifting are happening all over the place at any given time. The freedom it allows the citizen. And also the responsibility created by it is something special.
Burningman in a big way is an experiment in what society could be. Is it ultimately sustainable? Like could you actually live there all year long and create a utopia for all the world to learn from? No.
The actual event is not sustainable. First off, it is held in an environment difficult to exist in, to say the least. And if anything serious, or urgent happens medically, you have to be flown out to Reno by helicopter. But also, the amount of resources required to create Burningman is massive. I mean it is a city of now 70,000 people after all. Let’s be honest, the burn is not green, although it makes an effort. And the necessary Leave No Trace principle is an important part of the burn. Without it, the barren, gorgeous, natural landscape that Black Rock City is built upon would be left a landfill after one year.
However, the Ten Principles of Burning Man (radical inclusion, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, gifting, decommodification, leaving no trace, communal effort, civic responsibility, participation, and immediacy), and the countless other lessons you have the possibility of living during your time at the burn, do stand a good chance of changing how you live your life outside of Black Rock City. For the better.
Experiencing a city built on creativity, built on self-expression, built on participation, does something to the participator. It allows a freedom not often nurtured elsewhere in the world. It says yes to how you choose to express, which can create something special within you. When you are not afraid of being judged, when you are not afraid of being seen, when you are not afraid to be who you are, you might discover just that, who you are.
You are a straight guy, but want to wear a blue-plaid-dorothy-from-the-wizard-of-oz dress and maybe kiss a bearded man on a dare?
You are a young woman who has often felt ashamed of your body and un-trustworthy around men, but you want to get naked and ride your bike around to practice accepting yourself and trusting others?
You are a young man feeling free and generous in the moment, so you want to wear no pants, and a zebra vest, and offer pickles from a jar to random passersby?
Cool. Cool. Cool.
How would you dance if you weren’t afraid of how it looked? Who would you be without the fear of being judged? Who would you allow yourself to be? What would you dress in if the normal dress code was somewhere between naked and Dr-Suessian-Alice-In-Wonderland-Mad-Max-Halloween-New-Years-Party-On-Mars?
These are some of the questions Burningman allows us to explore.
Every year is different from the next at the burn. Because every year is built by a different combination of people and ideas. The structure is more or less the same. But the expression varies. Burningman is not created solely by event organizers. There are no “event staff” running around in yellow shirts.
Black Rock City is built slightly different every year because it is built by its citizens. By those who show up. So whatever ideas the people going decided to make happen, are what create the experience that year. It is a beautiful thing to realize. If you weren’t there, all the people who you interact with would have had a different burn. The guy you thanked for his art piece. The girl you gave a cold popsicle to during a hot day. The stranger you randomly felt inspired to hug. You create a part of the experience, and the whole experience would be different if you weren’t in it.
There are some aspects of the burn you can always count on.
Bringing too much of something.
Not bringing enough of something.
Hilarious attempts at art.
Fire. You can count on fire.
And lots of lights.
And the temple.
Although different structurally because it is burned every year, there is always a temple. The designated sacred space. The one place off limits to anything goes radical self-expression if that expression disrespects, or disrupts, the visitors of the temple. The one place where partying is seriously frowned upon. Some people go the whole burn without ever stepping inside. Or go once and don’t really get it.
The temple is a place to go to connect. To loved ones. To lost ones. To yourself. To your fears. To your dreams. To strangers. To beauty. And to whatever it is that weaves all of those things together.
By the end of the week, written on every accessible inch, the temple is covered in the wishes of the visitors. The fears. The prayers. The messages for those who have died. Just reading one small section of the wall and you might see yourself in the writing of another. You might weep for someone else’s pain. You might learn something about yourself.
And at the end of the week, the only event during the burn held in silence (or mostly silence), the temple burns to the ground along with everything written on its walls. The symbolism is clear. Whatever you wrote on the walls. Whatever you experienced in the temple. Whatever you left in there. Is burned up. Turned to ash. And you can practice letting go.
Even if the structure itself was the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen, or you had one of the most beautiful experiences of your life within it, you won’t be able to hold onto the place where it happened, it will be burned. So you will have to look inside yourself for the experience. Not outside.
That is one of my favorite aspects of Burningman. It is temporary at it’s core. You will have to let go. You will have to say goodbye. The only thing you will be left with is yourself, and maybe a dusty gifted necklace. The burn allows us to accept the transitory nature of life. This too shall pass.
There’s the Man himself. The magnificent wooden edifice that is the center of the clock shaped city. A man, built by many. The Man, idolized the whole week, only to be burned down in a raucous, primal, savage celebration complete with a massive firework show, and a long awaited cheer when he finally falls. Off with his head.
There are many interpretations of who or what the Man represents. Burningman is full of symbolism if you care to see it. So what does the Man mean? Again, different depending on who you ask.
I sometimes have an experience of being very grounded and open and expansive. Infinite. I had one of these moments recently and I described to myself that,
“I feel like the man.”
Well, who is this man?
The highest version of myself at that time.
And then I realized that’s what Burningman is to me, celebrating and dancing in the highest version of myself at the time. And ceremoniously burning him down.
Because the ultimate celebration isn’t a celebration of me but a celebration of WE. And that the highest version of me changes moment to moment. So burn him down, and go have another year of building and burning!
Know that YOU are transitory. Moving from one phase to the next. You are never in the same place twice, even if it feels that way sometimes.
So what is Burningman?
A blank canvas. Society as art. A people festival. A once-in-a-lifetime experience. Go find out for yourself.
I’ll leave you with something I posted on the way to my third burn. And a time-lapse that inspired it.
So, we are all these points of light. Viewed through a different lens, that’s what we are. I mean, look at a time lapse of Burningman at night. All these lights zipping around, pulsing, and changing color. No one light better or more important than another. No light more beautiful than one other. Ultimately we are all the same, could you say one light in that time lapse is different than another? Could you say one light is better? We only express perceived differences of time, frequency, hue, brightness, and size. And now lights from all over the world are converging upon the desert once again to express their pattern more wholly and with more passion than the default. We come from all over to celebrate the understanding that we are all rainbows. We come together to experience the power of our separate progressions connecting into one living, breathing, blinking, shifting, 60,000 heart, symphony of lights. Shine on you crazy diamonds.