I’ve been trying to write this post for months. Fear of the enormity of the task has prevented me. I am setting out to explain Burning Man to all my uninitiated friends and family. How can I accurately capture everything and convey how I truly felt? How can I describe in words the most amazing experience in my life? I hope I do a decent job.
My Introduction to Burning Man
I first heard about Burning Man in the August 2001 issue of National Geographic magazine. The cover is emblazoned with the photograph of a brightly clothed woman on her bike in the middle of the playa (what attendees of Burning Man call the dry lakebed that it is held on). That image was immediately burned into my memory. I was 12 years old at the time. Little did I know, I would be in same position almost exactly 12 years later.
The next 12 years, I’d read about Burning Man every once in while, but I wouldn’t think much of it and just file it under “things I should do sometime”. It wasn’t until I moved to California that I started seriously thinking about going. Naturally, I frequently heard about Burning Man in Northern California because of its proximity. Burning Man is very famous for attracting people in technology like Google’s founders Sergey and Larry and Tesla’s Elon Musk. After Amelia went in 2012 and recounted her experiences, I knew that I had to go.
When registration time came around, we were able to buy 4 tickets. A few months before the burn, I was still mulling over if I should go or not. Work is my biggest priority in this stage in my life, and I didn’t know if I could take that much time away from a startup job. When I asked everyone around me the answer was an unequivocal yes. So, I decided to do it. Dustin, Jeff, Eric and I planned quite a bit, joined our local burner group (one of if not the largest), and in August, we drove to Black Rock City (BRC). I’ll spare you details on planning for now. All of that could spawn another post.
Our rental van, bikes and tent in Silicon Village
There are a few things you need to know about Burning Man. It isn’t your typical festival. Burning Man is in the middle of the desert. There aren’t corporations making millions off of ticket and concession sales or famous artists that you have to pay hundreds of dollars to see. Burning Man is held in a city (Black Rock City) that for one week every year operates on a completely different set of rules (The Ten Principles):
- Radical Inclusion: Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
- Gifting: Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.
- Decommodification: In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.
- Radical Self-reliance: Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.
- Radical Self-expression: Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.
- Communal Effort: Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.
- Civic Responsibility: We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.
- Leaving No Trace: Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.
- Participation: Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.
- Immediacy: Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.
I could continue and recount everything we did and everything I remember, but I think that would be meaningless. There are a lot of amazing things to see and experience at Burning Man, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Burning Man is about what you feel, what you learn and what you discover about humanity and yourself. Writing one of my usual posts with photos and a story narrating what I did would incorrectly portray Burning Man. Instead, I am going to write about how I learned from it, how it inspires me and how it ultimately changed me.
So many of the experiences we had were due to complete chance. It was because we shed our usual habits and went wherever the wind took us. When walking around an art project, a professional photographer stopped me and took the photo above. While aimlessly biking along the Esplanade, I found a camp with drums and other percussive instruments. I stayed there for 20 minutes, drumming with complete strangers and communicating only through music. Jeff and I played a board game with some strangers while passing by their camp. Dustin and I were pulled into another Bay Area camp, Interaction Cafe, where we learned the Cinnamon Roll Hug!.
I randomly joined this group of drummers on the esplanade
When we visited the regional effigies (art projects that were dreamed up and constructed by groups of people all over the world), the artists and builders responsible were there to explain the meaning and rational behind their work. We were reminded of the impermanence of everything around us and the importance of experiencing life. These are artists that aren’t working for the chance of financial gain or popularity. They know that their art will only be appreciated by 50,000 people for less than a week before being burned. Even then, they spent their time and money to create amazing art, because they knew that they could entertain others and possibly even make an impact.
So much of my life has been tied to schedules and timelines. Burning Man showed me that I need to let go and live in the moment more often.
阴阳 (Yin and Yang)
One aspect of life that was acutely apparent on the playa is the duality of everything around us. I find that in normal life, I only see one side of everything. Of course, my feelings and perception change with the weather, the time of day, how I am feeling, the general mood of people around me, etc., but I still tend to see things as one sided. On the playa I started to realize that I need to be more perceptive. I need to look closer because everything has at least two sides.
The playa itself is a perfect example. During the day, the playa is bright, (mostly) serene and hot. You can bike or walk for hours without coming within 10 feet of another person if you choose. Everything around you is set against a background of white dust. Drop something, and it could soon be lost in the dust, effectively erased.
The playa in daylight
I usually sought peace by visiting the far reaches of BRC. I took naps with strangers. I meditated in the shade of art projects. I followed moving dust storms on my bike. I flew kites with friends. I made arts and crafts. I visited the temple to pay respect to the people in my life that have passed away. Daylight gave me a chance to rest my mind and soul. It was a complete foil to my life outside BRC where nighttime is my time to relax and recover.
However, nighttime on the playa is visually and aurally more stimulating than Times Square. The lights are brighter. The music is louder. You can sense the energy in the people around you.
The playa at night
On the first night, we biked around for hours from art piece to art piece, making our way to the man and then eventually to the temple. Later, we visited all the regional effigies. We went art car hopping. We drank miso soup at Miso Horny. We watched friends beat the living crap out of each other in the Thunderdome.
Husband and wife dueling in the Thunderdome
If daytime in the playa is a zen garden, nighttime is a futuristic dystopian carnival.
Another duality that burning man brought to my eyes is the duality of us humans. While biking through the playa, we had a startling revelation. Everything around us was made by people who were there in BRC with us. All of it was made by normal people like us who have normal day jobs and lives outside of Burning Man. If we can build and teardown a beautiful city unlike any other every year, what else can we make?
This year’s temple
At the same time, we are naked and vulnerable. We are out in the middle of the desert, dependent on food and water we brought and occasionally on the goodwill of others. We are at the mercy of the harsh environment around us, an environment that could kill us. This thought is very sobering. It puts the world and humanity into perspective.
The people in Burning Man are the kindest people I have ever met in my life. The confines of the ten principles promote a society that is motivated to be kind. People make each other happy and don’t expect anything in return. Whenever I had an interaction with someone, we hugged. Many people told me “welcome home”. It established us as friends and equals, not as strangers.
This just cements the idea that we should do whatever we can to make each other happy. Bridging gaps and making sure that everyone is on even footing can only make the world better.
Sunglasses a burner gave me when he noticed that I didn’t have any
At Burning Man, race, age, sex and all other things that are usually used to classify and fragment people were meaningless. We are all Burners and that is all that is important. We are all just humans. We came from the same place and we are going to the same place. Nothing we accumulate during life will come with us when we leave. Why paint anyone as enemies and obstacles when they can all be friends and family?
Perfection is Impossible
Most of the artists that I talked to told me that when they were in the process of making their art, they focused only on finishing it. They didn’t try to achieve perfection because it is impossible and usually only serves to prevent them from finishing. When we arrived in the playa, we started planning our days out using the guidebook. We quickly realized that it was impossible to see everything that we wanted to see. Some events were cancelled. Some went over time, preventing us from going to others. Many things that I wanted to see happened at the same time.
I realized that I shouldn’t feel bad if I wasn’t able to cram as much as possible into a vacation or if I haven’t been able to eat at all the top rated restaurants in my area. All that matters is that I am happy at the moment and that I am making choices that will lead to happiness in the future.
Being Part of Something Bigger Than Me
I think it is very rare that people feel like they are part of something bigger than them that they truly believe in. I loved being on the playa. I wasn’t there to make money so that I could do other things. I wasn’t a cog in some machine doing something that I had very little interest in. I wasn’t doing it because I felt some external obligation.
Watching the man burn
One of the times that I felt one with something bigger was while lamp lighting. The lamp lighters are a volunteer group that install kerosene lamps lighting up the city every day. Anyone can participate simply by coming to their camp at a predetermined time. Volunteers dressed us in white robes with flames. We prepared hundreds of lamps and then marched around the city, raising two lamps up to each post.
Passers by and spectators around us moved out of the way while shouting “make way for your lamplighters” or “we love you, lamplighters”. People gathered to take pictures and called their friends over to see. The robes ensured that our true identities were hidden. For those few hours, we were just lamp lighters. It felt like we were part of an ancient ceremony. It was probably the most spiritual secular experience that I have ever had.
The Lamp Lighters camp
The Return to Civilization
When I returned to Palo Alto, I could still feel the glow of euphoria and calmness that developed over the course of the week. I drove less aggressively and felt less stressed about traffic. I had an easy time filtering through the visual noise and distractions I encountered. I ate only what I could and never overate. Interacting with people in the normal world (some call it the “default world”) was startling. It was odd to not be received in loving arms by everyone I met. This glow lasted for a few days and ultimately dissappeared when I got back into my usual work-life rhythm.
The last time I felt a glow like this was after the 10 day Vipassana meditation program. I mistakenly let a lot of what I learned there slip away. This time, I am more actively working to retain and embody the lessons and changes I picked up on the Playa. Applying what I learned on the playa could be the most important part of Burning Man.
After reading this, if you feel even a slight bit of interest, then go. Go to Burning Man. You will not regret it. Don’t think about how much it could cost or what else you could be doing. Burning Man has changed me. It was one of the most profound experiences in my life. You won’t be 100% prepared or sure what to expect. That is normal. Let go of your fear and hesitation and go.
On another note, I took over 1500 photos while at Burning Man. I’ve posted a little over 10% of them on my Flickr page. I’ll share some of them and the stories behind them in some posts in the coming days.