I’m in a sea plane flying over an ocean coast of mountain cliffs soaring a hundred metres high. We swerve into melding valleys, soaring above swaying grasslands and grand river canyons. The pilot abruptly dips toward the river, teases me with a near plunge – I feel it in my chest – then jolts us upright, guiding the plane into a swift, smooth alignment over gumshing streams. My thumping heart settles, and I’m able to take in a golden diffusion across glistening greens between mountain shadows. Soon, I’m comforted to land safely.
I had never been on a light plane, this was a strong subconscious message from my vivid dream last year. After a sharp change of course in my life induced by prior nightmares, I read this as truth of my inner peace, a sense of fulfilment in knowing back then I had made the right decision.
Every year at week-long arts and culture community gathering Burning Man, Black Rock City, USA, the day after the illustrious man burn holds the solemn yet uplifting temple burn. 2016 brought an ornate 30-metre-high wooden structure, a space to express, reflect and celebrate lost lives. While my temple visit last year provoked enlightening truths, this time I arrived with my own envelope that contained not only light and love for others, but also a message in representing freeing from my old self. Typically referred as “surrendering” on one’s spiritual journey, it’s when you shift your mind focus from the external material world to the internal spiritual world, challenging yourself to loosen conditioned thoughts to obtain a pure consciousness. It’s both the most difficult and the mightiest thing I’ve done and continue to do.
While I have many great reasons why I returned to Burning Man, I was very much looking forward to this spiritual offering, a culmination of positive self-transformation first indicated by that very dream I had. With all the room I left for the unexpected on the playa, I was surprised to find my intentions brought some serious gifts of life.
Living With Joy
Lost burner: “Hi, do you know where I am right now?”
Burner: “You’re right here.”
Where do I begin on my journey of metamorphosis? In feeing joy.
We bike rode through a psychedelic vortex of lights, decorated our nipples, attended an iced espresso martini party, watched Aussies sip out of goon bags hung on spinning clothes liners at the Straya Day Party, voiced giraffe sounds to win ice cream, watched an incredibly sexy performance by naked fire twirlers, meditated to classical music underneath an umbrella of technicolour, followed a one hundred metre line of balloons in the sky, carved iron sheets into feather shapes, tackled swings – high, fluffy, kinky, tandem –, and in a very serious situation, learned “cat meditation”. It’s a thing. MeeeooowwwOMMM.
“You’re never too old for a good party, you don’t have to feel so guilty about it!” said Jose, also forewarning as long as you’re a good person at heart and look after yourself.
How grateful am I to have Jose and Steve from Chicago and Colorado camped right next to us. This being Jose’s sixth burn meant he had the lowdown on the real To Bring list. Like a step into a mini circus ground:
- A fluffy teddy bear as big as me – great to snuggle with when Burning Man all gets too much.
- A hundred colourful cushions – you can never get too comfortable.
- A small artist easel – sure, someone would like to paint the landscape.
- Exotic scarves, silly hats, glittery attire and anything fun and outrageous to wear.
- A full-length mirror – you still want to look fabulous at Burning Man.
- A tonne of guacamole and chips – when isn’t a good time?
Which got me thinking about the little pleasures in life. The “why nots” and the “just becauses”, that sometimes the sillier, the better, that every fleeting moment is the opportunity for us to be the happiest we can be. The most liberating thing I’ve ever said out loud was on the playa: “I feel so… present.”
I had become so wound up in my desert adventures that I mixed up my timings and had to accept I missed the deadline for leaving my letter of surrender at the temple. To make myself feel better, I thought, I’ve still got more figuring out to do, maybe I’ll be more ready next year. Pouting, I moved on.
Living With Creativity
“So, you’re telling me, they transported half a jumbo Boeing 747 to the middle of the desert as an art installation?”
Life without creativity would be bland. You’ve heard about the large-scale art installations created by attendees: a stained glass replication of a mother whale letting off ocean sounds, a mechanical octopus that shoots fire, a moving Buddha head attached to an open hand woven out of bamboo strips carrying people inside it. Don’t forget the outfits: anything and everything, or nothing at all. Burning Man is a place that allows everyone to be the best expressive versions of themselves without any fear of judgement. You hone in your unique gifts whether they’re tangible or intangible.
How grateful am I to have Shelley and Lad from Brooklyn, NYC camped right next to us. This funky, fresh laidback couple exuded a humble, yet fierce creative energy. Every day, they woke looking fabulous and paraded the playa in matching outfits like desert warriors with their blood red and black mesh ensembles, spikes in their hair and tribal face painting. Very much like walking art, I thought about the message they conveyed and what messages I want to share to the world too.
I’m reminded of what Robin Williams once said: “You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” This “madness”, whether on or outside the playa, means thinking outside the box, having a little impulse, insight, enthusiasm and inspiration that’s essential to creativity. This art is what brings more purpose and meaning to living.
Living With Love
“It was like I was breathing with the earth, the mountains, and the dust. For the first time in my life, everything truly spoke to me.”
A first-timer to Burning Man would quickly have their hearts warmed when seeing everything present is a gift (there are no money transactions except for coffee and ice) from attendees for attendees, that they themselves with participation are Burning Man. Black Rock City is built by us, for us! There are 10 Principles you need to live by, and just like in a ‘normal’ city, of course you’d want to help each other in making it a better place and care about the welfare of others. Trip a little and someone will be rushing over to help you. There’s also no such thing as introductory handshakes (ick, how formal!), just ‘burn hugs’. This giving without expecting anything in return, I call love.
How grateful am I to have Ambrus, a Hungarian discerning music lover, camped right next to us. He now knows to bring a bike next time as this sweet boy’s first burn had him walking up to 12 hours each day in heat, usually by himself, in search of a good tune. He reminds me to rejoice in the beauty of connecting through universal languages, which is certainly more than music too. One day out of the blue, he broke down in the middle of the desert with his hands covered over his weeping face. “Everything around me just struck me at once, I still don’t fully know why.” From a distance, a young, pretty Canadian girl saw this boy’s pain and rides her bicycle over to provide a warm burn hug. She wiped his eyes before placing on him a pair of diffraction glasses that turn all light into heart shapes.
“Love is the answer?”, I proposed.
“You know it.”
It was the beginning of one of many playa love stories I’m sure, as weddings held at Burning Man are common. But I couldn’t help but wonder, that perhaps the reason Ambrus sobbed in the first place was his awakening in realising an unconditional compassion and appreciation towards all existence. Isn’t that real love?
Living With Grace
Observer: “Do you know what the secret to dancing is?”
Dancer: “Please tell me?”
“Smiling, like you do. Keep dancing for everyone’s sake.”
You can tell when someone has achieved love, it’s when they are love and go about life with such grace. This is Hawk. How everso grateful am I to have solo traveller Hawk living in Luna, his sky blue vintage van, camped right next to us.
Perhaps the one who impacted me the most, Hawk with his charming wit, softly-spoken nature, free-thinking and general good vibes drew everyone around him. He loved meeting people – every person a chance for new human experiences – and had an adventurous soul that always led him to exciting paths, one in which brought us along to an intimate, unforgettable experience at Merkabah Camp.
“Would you like to have a Jewish dinner tonight?” He asked. Agreeing, what we didn’t expect was a cultural dive in attending an all-white lavish 150 pax shabbat dinner in a safari tent decked with fairy lights and white-clothed tables boasting delicious vegetarian food, flickering candles, flowing wine and Mezcal, and in the air woody waftings of burning palo santo, a mystical tree from South America. On Merkabah’s live music stage, a woman with her hauntingly soothing voice sings ‘Hallelujah’ in acapella that sends a solacing energy through the entire room. A gift of an evening I’ll cherish forever.
“Damn, I’ve never seen so many pretty people in one room,” claimed a fellow burner. It was hard not to notice the model-esque female servers.
“Hey, I think we all looked pretty that night!” cried Hawk.
Living With Intention
“What you seek is seeking you.”
Why was I was so drawn to my neighbouring campers? A friend once told me that everyone you meet is your mirror – everything we see in people is a reflection of ourselves. It’s clear then, that I love these people dearly because they showed pieces of who I am right now and who I strive to be. The stars couldn’t align more perfectly, they were sent to me for my metamorphosis.
As the sun set on the night of the man burn, our camp stood in awe at a ghastly dust storm coming for us thick and fast. These brown tornadoes called forth the end of the world, shaking our cars and tents, having us scramble and huddled up in The Big Silver (a yurt we affectionately named) holding down the walls and breathing into our dust masks. I loved every second of this surrealism we were caught in. It was like the universe was absorbing the playa’s undercurrents over the last week, only to throw this new energy (a spell?) back onto us, signifying a release out of the final stage in spiritual growth at Burning Man. Once the storm passed, we pushed the door open. There, hovering just above the mountain for the first time that week, the most beautiful moon crescent I had ever witnessed: large, an elegant, thin crisp C that was bright enough to outline its full circle and craters. And just like Black Rock City would have, it quickly vanished.
On Sunday morning – our departure day –, we followed Hawk to line up at Black Rock City Airport for a last minute chance to fly over the playa in a light plane. (Oh, you know, just a casual morning flight.) It was a matter of patiently waiting in line, weighing the right kilograms to squeeze in and weather conditions to receive this incredible gift.
Arriving at 2pm, “What number am I?” I asked, not expecting much as people had lined up since the early am.
An hour later, Scott, a pilot dressed in just blue underwear and sunglasses, arrived at the waiting lounge calling out for the next lucky burners. “Caitlin?” No response. “Tom?” Silence. “Angela.” Nothing. After going through tens of waitlisted names who suffered impatience and left: “Jesus Christ, can we please make sure whoever cancels crosses their names off the list. Let’s make this quick… Okay, who next… Tiffany?!”
My arm shot up like lightning: “I’M HERE!”
“Get on up, you’re comin’ with me, baby.”
Two other burners and myself hopped into a four-seater with Scott.
The engine roared.
“ALRIGHT, YA’LL WITH ME?” He called through the headset.
Attempting to control my state of fervour, “READY!”
“OKAY, HAPPY BURN! 3, 2, 1…”
We hovered, then fully lifted, shooting ourselves up into the sky. Beneath was a long dusty trail of vehicles as small as specs proceeding to exit BRC – a sad reminder that Burning Man was almost over. Dipping and gliding, slipping and sliding, we flew over and around the rugged mountain ranges spread across the spiritual ancient lakebed, a view igniting a deep, resonating stir in my soul. My mouth started trembling, the tears inevitably fell. I couldn’t do anything but to hold my dropped jaw in wonderment for to a degree, last year’s dream had come to life. The burner beside me squeezed my hand. The next 15 minutes over the fantastical horse-shoe city grid was nothing short of breathtaking. Something was telling me: you are exactly where you should be.
I returned to Hawk waiting on the ground.
“So Tiffany, I rode over to the temple this morning and… I know how much that letter meant to you… I asked one of the caretakers whether it’s okay for you to drop off a last minute parcel.”
“They said ‘yes’!”
“You’re kidding…” My heart sank.
“I’m serious! But you need to ride over, like, right now.”
I gave Hawk the longest, tightest of burn hugs.
We rushed to have our campervan packed up to partake in The Exodus – the mass departure – before the temple burn to skip heavy traffic. With just enough time, I swooped my backpack, threw myself over the bicycle and pedalled hard through what was once the distinct streets of BRC’s ruckus of theme camps. It was all coming down, the desert was to be left without a trace.
With two hands, I presented my envelope to the temple caretaker, “You have no idea how much this means to me.”
“I will absolutely make sure this gets burned this afternoon,” he responded and smiled. “Hey, take it easy, have a strawberry ice block,” as he hands out many to melting burners. When at Burning Man.
I pop the ice-block (a total luxury in the desert !) into my mouth, jump back on the bike and pedal away shouting “THANK YOUUUUUU…”. Smaller and smaller he became, still with two arms waving at me. Up ahead, a wave of dust was coming in from the east. Slurping the last of my ice-block, I parked for a moment within a radius of close to nothingness to face the temple again. In those last few minutes of Burning Man, it only felt right to do one thing: close my eyes, root my feet to the playa, bring my palms together at my forehead, send regards to all in the temple and meditate, allowing the dust to pass right through me. Besides the whistling wind, there was a beautiful silence. Smiling with every inch of my soul, I couldn’t help but feel I am so ready.
I think about the manifestation of my own conscious mission, how we all have the capacity to transform our identities if we show an expressive energy of our inner yearnings. You suddenly feel like you’re moving with the energies of the universe instead of against them. The new friends, the plane ride, the temple burn – it was all perfect borderline miraculous. But then again, the threads of life have always been deliciously interwoven for us if only we were all to be our intentions and see them through. Post-Burning Man Tiffany? Well, she’ll endeavour to pursue joy, express creatively, be love, carry herself with grace, and invite more positive coincidences into her life.
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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.