How do I even begin to coherently describe and capture the essence of a life-changing week in the middle of the desert? Far from the misconception that Burning Man is a 24/7 rave for hardcore hippies based around “seedy attractions”, as a first-timer I discover there’s much more to this spiritual experience.
“Welcome home!” invited two cheery Greeters in post-apocalyptic attire at the entrance, accompanied with a warm ‘Burn hug’. Knowing we’re first-timers (“you’re too clean”), they prompted us to perform a ritual: immediately drop and create dust angels, then shout with great liberation “I’M NO LONGER A VIRGIN!” before smashing a gong. A sign on the gate prepared us as we proceeded: “You trade in your reality for a tale. You put on a mask to feel.”
We committed to Burning Man, an annual week-long gathering in Nevada, USA where 70,000 attendees collectively create a temporary city and participate in cultural activities based around 10 Principles such as Decommodification (no commercial transactions or branding), Gifting (giving without expecting anything in return) and Leave No Trace (respecting the environment by keeping clean). To bring to an end, monumental art installations are burned to flames as symbolic offerings and the desert is left without a trace.
Arriving with little expectations, I soon witnessed the surreal experience isn’t just for hardcore hippies and is far from the 24/7 rave or “seedy attractions” that some media centred it around. Thanks to Burning Man (or “thank yourself”, they say), I’ve come out a positively changed person. For what was an incredibly personal experience that differs for everyone, here’s seven ways in how I more importantly discovered – during an intense week that tests you mentally and physically – that humankind thrives on and life is all about connecting with ourselves and others.
1. Connecting via Self-Expression
What could you bring to the table? Because YOU are a gift to the world, as encouraged by one Principle. There were leathered up dominatrixes casually struttin’ their stuff, aerial dancers and fire twirlers showcasing their fluid moves to passersby, and groovy healers in everything-tye-die who’d jump at reading your chakras, but most of us were actually just ‘everyday folk’ who wanted to be unicorns or cyber-galactic warriors in killer boots, extending our costume personalisations to even our bikes (the must needed mode of transport becomes a part of you). ‘Cause really, “no judging”. The thick dust united us leaving hair smokey grey and eyelashes mascara-ed white.
2. Connecting via Mother Nature
I can attest: Burning Man is not for the faint hearted. We were forced to listen to Mother Nature for inner peace: the scoring sun rays that woke us each morning, the dust storms that had us running for cover and tweaking our camp sites – you’re doomed without goggles and a face mask -, the intensified heat in the afternoon. At few points, I wasn’t able to see anything more than three metres from me. On day 2, I almost surrendered but instead downed cold hard liquor to calm my nerves. The tension softened each sunset with cool climates and for a window of time we forgave the woman we usually ignore as she blesses us with dramatic landscapes of rocky mountains against peachy watercoloured skies. Ah, well that was until we needed to face the crisp cold at night. We just learned to love it all.
3. Connecting via Community Participation
The city we built was a wicked feast for the soul. People set up themed camps: an Aussie BBQ that gathered hundreds (everyone loves Down Under), stalls for Vietnamese iced coffee, a French Quarter with live jazz and lounges. There were wooden fortresses few storeys high we were able to climb and take in views or teepees the size of a basketball court fit with patchwork pillows and flowing drinks. It didn’t stop there, “mutant vehicles” (transformed cars and golf carts) – some like moving music stages – drove through camp sites and stopped for us to jump on board for a journey to who-knows-where-but-let’s-go! Open to all strangers where social classes felt non-existent, this carnivalesque wonderland was built by who? Not Burning Man officials but the attendees, the very people who created the experience.
4. Connecting via Shared Responsibilities
Further to Point 3, the community spirit deepened with individual actions done through love, instead of fear in a rule-governed society. Most of the city was run by willing volunteers and it still astonishes me at how people religiously followed ‘Leave No Trace’ when there’s no garbage collection service. One guy saw a plastic spoon on the ground some metres from him and shouted “MOOOOOP!” (Matter Out of Place). No one claimed it so he put it in his pocket for later disposal. The attitude is infectious – you don’t want to be that guy who throws a cigarette butt onto the ground, neither would you spit onto the ground when you rinse out your mouth after a brush at campsite.
5. Connecting via Art
Impactful and interactive art installations gloriously filled the blank desert canvas. A dinosaur skeleton that let off fire, a colossal ceramic brick human head, a steel tree that lit up when music was played from its stem in a piano. I crossed the desert past these big dollops of ideas spread out far and wide, each appearing and disappearing between the dust, the surrealism magnified with ambient beats trickling through the air. The night was just as spectacular with kaleidoscopes of light and fire. At the heart of all this, there were big themes at play that yearned for spectators to connect and find deeper meaning.
6. Connecting via Perspective
I never imagined I’d be so occupied with exploring quirky camps that I actually didn’t spend that much time partying. I met the most diverse group of smart, incredible people. I attended workshops that taught me how dreams are my subconscious inner wisdom, helped me connect with other humans by staring into a stranger’s eyes for three minutes without talking (which left me in tears – do try this at home), inspired me to find the courage within myself to do amazing things during a Ted Talk, and a million other mind-opening activities. Some I didn’t quite fully grasp, some shocking, and others cheeky-fun and insightful. Perceptions of social norms? Rescaled.
7. Connecting via Compassion
Contrary to belief, there’s no bartering. We gave without expecting anything in return, and immediately communication and new relationships felt more meaningful. Two seemingly lost Burners hailed me down and when I stopped pedalling, ready to whip out my map, they smiled and said, “I just wanted to say you’re awesome” before gifting me a hand-made necklace. On another occasion, a guy set up a grill in the middle of the dance floor to hand out fresh cheese toasties to hungry ravers – what a legend. People would stop whatever they’re doing and go above and beyond to help you. Have you ever believed that deep down, we’re all inherently a bunch of good eggs? Because now I do.
Emotions ran high because there was a lot to take in. Perhaps it was the vast open desert leaving most of my sight to the big blue sky that made me realise how small I am standing in the middle of it, questioning the purpose of my being. A crowning moment of enlightenment was visiting the 30m tall Temple of Promise, where people wrote messages and left small gifts to lost loved ones.
The arched entrance invited me in like a huge open ear, there to listen. There was silence intervened with sniffles and as the melancholic walls increasingly narrowed, I began to feel rather anxious. Notes like “I miss you Dad”… “FORWARD EVER, BACKWARD NEVER.”… “If only you can see the kids all grown up”… “If anyone needs my love, HERE it is! Take it!”… Then at the end of the tunnel, there was light – air I desperately gasped for, a sense of reality and nowness. Final messages on strips of white cloth hung from trees like leaves of weeping willows. An image I’ll never forget: the coolest kid in hip hop attire exiting composed but within seconds, looks into blank space with his mouth shaking and sobs. I walked over and hugged him. Suddenly I saw that even though we’re each important to certain people, we’re all just passing through the universe and are a part of something greater. Like the sun and moon that circled behind that very grand structure, time moves and life goes on. What matters most is that we connect and feel the love in between.
There’s something magical about creating Burning Man then bringing it down together. Like enthusiastic children playing make-believe, creating stories around the sandcastle they built with their own hands, then when play time’s over, they stomp over towers and arches (and oh no, even the hard-earned moat) with joy and fulfilment. The tide rises and there lies a new blank canvas.
I asked my new friend Tim, a techie from San Francisco, what brings him back to Burning Man for his third consecutive year. After a slight pause as if to find the right words to encapsulate his feelings: “It’s the closest thing to the kind of world I want to live in.” The spiritual experience is palpable: heart-opening, rewarding and – in my opinion – tasteful.
There really is no place like home.
What are your thoughts on Burning Man? Planning on participating? If you’ve already been, how did your experience differ to mine? Write me a comment below.
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Burning Man is always held the week prior to and including Labor Day weekend (late August – early September) in USA.
Visit www.burningman.org to learn more about the gathering and how you can keep the culture alive.
Burning Man also holds smaller official regional gatherings throughout the year in Australia across different states, such as Burning Seed during early October in NSW. To get involved, check out www.burningmanaustralia.com.