More burning man articles: a great description of the event itself, which this post doesn’t cover,
If you don’t read this whole post, the message is: come with me next year to Burning Man! See photos in the previous post below.
It’s here in New York City on Yom Kippur that I chhose to reflect on my burning man experience. To many Jews it is the holiest and most somber day of the year. To me, it is a chance to find spirituality but also reflect on my personal struggle with Judaism, and how to reconcile its elements of humanism and love with the often mindless observance of custom. Burning Man offered me a spirituality not incompatible with Judaism, but more concentrated, accessible, and pure.
The day to day of our trip was fascinating as well, but I will share it another time as I’d rather discuss what I was thinking than what I was doing.
For those unfamiliar with the event, Burning Man is a temporary city of 50,000 people many miles across, built for a week in the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Burners arrive and build structures to live and entertain each other in, sharing things and thoughts. At the end they burn the giant man who sits in the center of the city. The next day they burn the temple, a wooden structure on which people have written losses, hopes, and dreams.
But it’s not about the man; in fact, it is least about the man. The journey to the desert, through the experience, and back, which I took with four friends, was what changes lives.
One tenet of Burning Man is radical self-expression, which is the most blatantly obvious aspect of the event. People are encouraged to dress and act however they want, wearing fun wacky and innovative clothing throughout the day and lighting up the city with neon at night. We are also encouraged to participate, not merely observe; the art of Burning Man is each of us and there are no real stages. The practice begins with a stunted artificiality as people reach across comfort boundaries to force assertive expression; by midweek, thinking fades into the subconscious and the expression is more natural. It’s absolutely beautiful to watch and marvel at the creativity and originality that people are capable of (search flickr for “art car” if you don’t believe me.) The change in mentality it engenders is profound. All of a sudden nothing is weird, and we begin to say and do things that come to our minds without as much of a self-conscious filter. If everything is acceptable, the parts of ourselves that have previously been covered with embarrassment, shame, or modesty no longer feel so unwelcome.
The experience was also a mental break for me from the rules of sense in society; giant bunnies blasting techno and 30-foot teeter totters gave the kind of mental freedom that daydreaming or dreams do.
(It can be noted that radical acceptance can be a burden, but a fantastic one to bear. We found the need to support and love without restraint to be so welcome and pervasive that there was never a desire to criticize, “Okay fine it’s beautiful,” we joked, but never really did I had an urge to throw negativity into such a positive pool. What we did not like, we respected and moved on from. An unfortunate byproduct of this is the pressure on people to conform to these norms. In an interview with founder Larry Harvey, he says “I see increasing pressure to conform to a ‘participant lifestyle.'” What began as a move to eliminate the restrictions of culture has become its own culture, with its own norms. It is possible to observe the spectrum of people’s dependence on subculture; some love the Burning Man phrases, rituals, etc. and others are in touch with the efforts to eradicate culture. I think this spectrum is a defining characteristic of personality, and I am very much in the latter camp.)
Going further in its goal to remove societal restrictions, Burning Man is a money-free zone. They promote radical self-reliance (anticipating one’s own food, water, shelter, and electrical needs and planning accordingly) and gifting (giving what is needed willingly, without any expectation of return.) Anything given was given for free, and people brought to give generously: food handouts, art installations, supplies, giant stages with celebrity DJs..
The gift economy was the most transformative element of the experience, and it took the most time to adjust to. We take economic transactions for granted in the default world, accepting without question the many brief mindless human relationships we have while buying and selling things. The introduction of money is the surest way to rob an interaction of its humanity and immediacy. I noticed myself taking food from open hands without thought, as if I had paid for it, and then stopping to consider the human handing me the food. The food was not a calculated response to a demand, but instead an incredible expression of generosity. I became much more aware of the individuals around me as they stopped existing for my benefit and all became equals. Similarly, the Burning Man website tells us that our communities in the default world are defined by needs and deficiencies (this community needs one coffee shop and daily trash pickup) and not their ability to contribute (this community has tremendous skill in gardening and painting.)
And giving felt good – I once walked around handing people pretzels and Nutella, getting into conversation after conversation. Gone was the default ethic that casts need as shameful or impolite (for example, in the customs of saying no many times before accepting a gift, asking for “no gifts please,” dressing as nicely as possible and hiding inability to pay for things…the examples are numerous.) Instead, our needs and ability to satisfy them in each others was a beautiful thing, binding us in a common humanity. Most people accepted gifts greedily, with an exclamation not of thanks but of joy – the purpose of the gift was the joy, not the thanks.
I noticed in myself a hyperattentiveness to my own needs and wants, and a desire to meet them as soon as possible. It was shocking how much of my brainspace this took up: I need coffee, I need hot food, I need more comfortable shoes, I need to rest, to sit down, to stand up. In the default world, and especially in New York, we are so accustomed to having our needs met that we forget how transient and silly they can be, and how self-sufficient we are if they are not. Having the money to pay for coffee means that one begins to see the coffee shop, the barista, and the coffee as an extension of oneself and an entitlement. We forget that we are responsible for our own bodies. I worked to focus on the world around me rather than jump from need to need. I spent a day fasting (with water), both to furher decommodify the experience and to better feel the spirituality of it. By the end of the week I was myself without focusing on consumption.
It was a beautiful world of love and peace, and living in it got me angry at the greater world outside. In this default world, why do we limit our connections to small bubbles of comfort? Why do we use the label “weird” to attack things that challenge us, then deny those aspects of ourselves? But to view the city as an oasis from the evil world outside is to eschew blame. *We* – in whatever grouping – are the reason for the world as it exists. The very people who come to Burning Man in green underwear and fire-breathing tubas are the ones who leave it to wear jeans and a t-shirt, bottle up thoughts and dreams that do not fit in, and walk past homeless people as if they were not worth talking to. What worth are these lessons when they remain confined to a time, place, and excuse? We rebel against ourselves in constant struggle and cower before the shadow of our greatness.
So what is the man, and why do we burn it? You might have gathered that I love thinking about that kind of thing. To me on the one hand, he is the usual metaphor, “the man” keeping us down and enforcing the rules, and in burning him we seek to rebel. On the other, he is ourselves; in order to destroy that which we hate so much we would have to destroy ourselves, and he takes the place of that. Similarly, he is Jesus, dying for our sins so we may live as sinners.
Or perhaps the man’s destruction is not negative, but an embrace of transience. After all, every object is destined to be destroyed; what a privilege it is for an artist to conceive of a work’s entire lifespan within the creation process. The man’s short lifespan mirrors our short lifespan, and its importance is in the realm of ideas and mental spaces, only tangentially related to its physicality or ultimate fate.
So too is Burning Man’s ultimate importance: unchained to whether it is a viable way to run the real world, to whether it lasts a week or a month or a year. The point is that it exists with pure majesty, not whether it will grow or shrink. Its massive political ambitions are not to elect someone or push for policies, but on an entirely different wavelength of encouraging the growth and spread of love and humanity. In simply being, Burning Man achieves its goal; in spreading values and attention, all the more so.
By the end of the week, my experience of time had changed. The to-do-list, day-by-day, plan-execute-evaluate attention to time shifted to a moment-by-moment feeling of gratitude and acceptance. The humanity that Burning Man brought out was a rediscovery of childhood wonderhood and hope. I’m not saying I fully achieved this kind of awareness, but I came closer. It’s hard not to be grateful in such a beautiful place.
We all wrote personal messages on the temple, which went up in flames on Sunday. Looking at the reality around me, it felt clear that we will always need to struggle for love, through small battles like the Burning Man bubble and the toleration of Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement; just as swiftly as tolerance takes hold it can lose ground (witness the increased accceptance of gays simultaneous with the growing hatred for Muslims – it’s *not* getting better all the time.) My message on the temple wall was a hope for the future of the human race, that our constitution might change so we can’t bear to endure the suffering or mistreatment of each another and love will flow freely, without stoppages or blocks. We’re allowed to dream, right? 🙂