I stare into the eyes of a stranger. Blue, deep, and vibrant. Quivering with life. Glassy like the pools of glacier water from the mountains of my hometown. Wide like the expanse of stars that glisten overhead, in the absence of city lights.
We have yet to trade a word, this stranger and I. His cheeks are weathered, partially concealed by a beard the color of sand. His hair is tucked behind his ears, his lips pursed in a faint smile.
His eyes. My ego rises in my throat, threatening to burst my concentration, until suddenly…a release. Deep inner calm. And a strange familiarity that comes from recognition, as if seeing an old friend buried beneath the costume of this strange body.
“Everything is loved not for its own sake, but because Self lives in it,” says the ancient Hindu text, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
My hand rests on this stranger’s heart. His fingers cup my own. We breathe together, softly, evenly, as one entity. We share lungs, as much as we already share the oxygen.
“Find a way to thank your partner,” our instructor calls from across the tent, weaving through a crowd of participants also locked in visual embrace.
I release my gaze from this stranger and come back to form. I clasp my palms together and bow my head as he does the same. A softly uttered “Namaste” and then the moment is over. We’re on to the next exercise, the next partner, the next stranger that is strange no longer.
This is Burning Man: Metropolis.
It’s my second visit to Black Rock City, a manifested city in the deserts of Nevada. I’m joined by 50,000 refugees from what veteran Burners call “the default world.” The default world is the realm of employment, taxes, traffic, shopping malls, TV news, celebrity gossip, and advertising. But it’s also subject to the more insidious ills of power, control, repression and judgement.
In contrast, Black Rock City is a space of radical self-expression, creativity, and unconditional acceptance. You are free to wear a bunny suit in the blazing sun. You are free to speak like a monkey to your peers. You are free to ride a bike naked, wearing nothing but a large purple hat. And you are free to participate, to build community, and to celebrate beauty in all its forms.
Burning Man cherishes true freedom as the highest ideal. Small irony, considering we believe the “default world” to be the world of the real.
Last year, I arrived at Burning Man with various ideas of what to expect. Yet, as is typical for “virgins,” my ideas were quickly overwhelmed by the outrageous – even my ability to process the experience did not recover until weeks after I’d left the playa dust behind.
This time, I vow to move deeper into the ethos of the event. I want to decipher the elements that make up the soul of Burning Man – and thereby distill the elixir than can be brought home for a world in desperate need of healing.
And I may have found a clue in the prophecy of Shambhala, the mythical Tibetan kingdom.
Once thought to be a physical city of enlightened beings, Shambhala is no longer regarded as a real location. Instead, it has come to embody a new spiritual evolution, as recounted by Buddhist author Joanna Macy. She learned of this new interpretation while visiting Tibetan friends in northern India.
There comes a time when all life on Earth is in danger. Great barbarian powers have arisen. Although these powers spend their wealth in preparations to annihilate one another, they have much in common: weapons of unfathomable destructive power, and technologies that lay waste our world.
In this era, when the future of sentient life hangs by the frailest of threads, the kingdom of Shambhala emerges. You cannot go there, for it is not a place; it is not a geopolitical entity. It exists in the hearts and minds of the Shambhala warriors.
I bike past Center Camp, the beating heart of Burning Man. Figures come and go in the fading light of day, faces covered by gas masks, and ski goggles – the prophecy reverberates in my head. Could these figures be the warriors called to task?
Religious war, economic uncertainty, rampant consumerism, and climate catastrophe. These are the real challenges we must overcome to survive into the future. Yet these realities can also become so overwhelming, they induce a paralysis of despair.
I feel as if I’m peering into an uncertain future.
This year, I want to find the answers in Black Rock City – now more important then ever, when you realize the default world is burning.
“Visa or Mastercard?”
“Visa,” I respond, unperturbed by the absurdity of the question.
“Mountains or beaches?”
Before me, both men nod their heads. One wears a white speedo, oversized glasses, and a cowboy hat. His friend is more suited to a Mad Max film, sporting a shaved head, black jeans, and a leather vest. Numerous tattoos adorn his skin; the word “TRUTH” is inked over the knuckles of his right hand.
“The Beatles or the Stones?” “Beatles.”
“Favourite colour?” “Blue”
“Was Inception a brilliant movie, or a hackneyed piece of garbage.” “Weeelll…” I hesitate. “Garbage, good.” Tattoo guy jots his notes on his paper.
The pair continue their interrogation, chatting occasionally to compare notes, but always with the utmost focus. After all, according to the handwritten sign outside their tent, they have a duty to perform: craft me a playa nickname.
“What do you do?”
“I shoot films. Documentaries mostly.”
The answer comes naturally. It’s something I’d considered many times in the past. “I want to show people things they’ve never seen before, or show things how I see them. I want to show them beauty.”
They exhale slowly in unison. “Good answer.”
Another 5 minutes pass before they reach a verdict.
“Okay sir, please stand.” They motion for me to step forward. Speedo man produces a Tibetan bowl from his backpack. He slides a tong around the edges, producing a metallic ringing that glides through the tent like wind.
“Please close your eyes.” I do. “By the power invested in me by no one in particular, for the purposes of giving you, Ian, your new playa name and baptizing you in the fire of Burning Man… you shall now be dubbed…”
Tattoo guy pauses for dramatic effect.
I open my eyes. He has a square of cloth in his fingers, with my nickname and an eyeball scrawled below. The iris is webbed, like a spider’s. “This should affix to your shirt,” Tattoo guy says. “But since you’re not wearing one, give me your hat.” I pass him my large purple hat, and he pins the cloth to the center above the brim.
“Look at that,” he remarks, holding it up. “Now you have your third eye.”
In esoteric circles, the Third Eye has many meanings.
It is generally seen as a meta organ, another channel by which to sense and interpret the world around us. It is designed to connect patterns, and to intuit reality on top of our senses. Essentially, it helps you see clearly.
My thoughts return to the prophecy:
Now the time comes when great courage—moral and physical courage—is required of the Shambhala warriors, for they must go into the very heart of the barbarian power, into the pits and pockets and citadels where the weapons are kept, to dismantle them.
So in this time, the Shambhala warriors go into training. They train in the use of two weapons: compassion and insight. Both are necessary. One is the recognition and experience of our pain for the world. The other is the recognition and experience of our radical, empowering interconnectedness with all life.
Tattoo guy hands me my hat, and I hold it in my dust-coated fingers.
The single eye stares at me, unblinking, in silent confirmation.
It’s quiet the morning of the Temple Burn, still an hour before the sun peeks over the distant horizon.
The previous night, the Man had burned in a characteristic inferno, amid the fierce winds of another dust storm. A single arm was the first to drop, leaving the other raised in a victorious salute. The crowd responded with raised fists of their own; respect for Man that laughed in the face of annihilation.
Then, the tower crumbled, and the effigy was no more.
Now, the Temple, a much more somber structure, is quiet, except for a handful of souls huddled around the fire. The shadows flicker across the walls, off the photographs and faces of those remembered, and those destined to be let go. The Temple is a monument to shared loss; a practice almost entirely missing from our modern society. Death, in the default world, is to be kept hidden.
I wander the hallways, my gaze lingering on each note to a deceased, each memory that no longer serves.
“Dad, I love you.”
“You were my best friend. I’m not angry anymore.”
“Nothing lasts – but nothing is lost.”
Last year, I scrawled a message of thanks to an Aunt that taught me a lesson in facing death with compassion. This year, I wanted to return the favour, and decided to become a Temple Guardian. My duties: hold the space, protect the Temple, and honour the grief that everyone must transcend.
The stars watch impassively as I circle the perimeter. I wear a set of angel wings, cut from the very plastic bottles that are clogging the oceans and lungs of sea creatures around the planet. But under the creative blades of a friend, they become something else – something more.
In my hands, a plastic sword.
I rest a moment near the campfire, long enough to catch a man rise to his feet, visibly anxious. He bursts out in spontaneous poetry, spouting words of anger and redemption, fear and hope. When he finishes, the few still awake bow their heads in gratitude, and the man fades away with the moment.
Suddenly a voice breaks out in song. I realize it’s been a long time since I’ve heard the sound of singing, lonely tonight, but starkly beautiful. Tonight these halls will burn. But for now, they offer themselves in crucifixion to the loneliness that only consciousness can inflict.
In the shadows, I notice a figure leaning against the Temple walls, struggling to find a clear space to write their message. I watch from a distance, quietly, peacefully.
The figure completes their note, and steps back. A moment passes while they judge their handiwork, before they turn and sit on a spare ledge. In the darkness, I still can’t discern the edges of their face, but I can tell they’re weeping.
For a Shambhala warrior, their weapons are compassion and insight.
Both are necessary. You have to have compassion because it gives you the juice, the power, the passion to move. It means not to be afraid of the pain of the world. Then you can open to it, step forward, act.
I consider walking up to the figure, and placing a hand on their shoulder. But intuitively, I hold back.
Instead, I guard the space. I attempt to honour their sadness. Breathe in suffering, breathe out compassion.
After a time, their shoulders raise. Their presence calms. Their grief momentarily abates.
The figure rises and disappears into the playa.
It isn’t long before the horizon eases pink, hinting at the sunrise to come. Crowds of Burners arrive at the Temple, weary from a night of dancing and debauchery, but eager to watch the spectacle.
My shift as Temple Guardian is almost expired. On my last walk around through the hallways, a voice calls my name.
I turn and face Leigh, a friend whom I’d known online for years, but only met in person at the start of the Burn. She’s wrapped in a thick overcoat and red-rimmed shades. We speak briefly before deciding to watch the sunrise outside on the playa.
As dawn grows nearer, my eyes burn. I realize I haven’t slept in almost 48 hours.
“Cigarette?” Leigh asks, holding out her pack.
“Sure,” I say, even though I don’t smoke.
“I don’t smoke either,” she says smiling, and lights the tip.
We’re silent for a time. A crowd of Asian girls in thick white parkas stroll past. Nearby, a fire dancer practices for a group of onlookers.
“So how was your Burn?” she says, aware that any answer is always inadequate.
“Good,” I say. “I feel like this time I’m finally able to understand all this…” I sweep my arms around me, attempting to grasp everything with a single gesture.
“What did you find?” I sense Leigh mentally cataloguing the variety of criticisms routinely levelled at the event. Not that she believes them, but they’re too numerous to ignore: Burning man is too elitist. It’s too environmentally destructive. It’s inherently unsustainable. While all these criticisms are partially true, they miss the point.
“They say the default world isn’t real, and that Burning Man is a place where you can be truly free. But Burning Man isn’t real either. They both depend on each other.”
Leigh considers my statement before taking her cigarette butt and tucking it into a metal tin she produces from her robes. She waits for me to finish mine.
“So what is it then?”
Not Shambhala, I think.
“It creates the space between the worlds.”
The sun crests the horizon in a brilliant arc, sending rays exploding into the atmosphere.
I bike home in a dream. The playa is lit with the rising sun – music drifts in from the DJ’s still spinning to the crowds. Others are waking from their tents or emerging from the RV’s.
My duties as Temple Guardian are complete. Tonight, the Temple will burn.
My pedals squeak. My tires churn through the desert sand.
I look up to find a reflection penetrating my eyes. An art installation, like many dotting the grounds of Burning Man. This one is composed of interlocking triangles, welded together, and embedded with a variety of mirrors.
I dismount my bike and stand before the largest mirror. Startled, I reveal a self I feel I haven’t seen in eternity:
My beard is thick, caked with playa dust. My wings stretch up over my head; my torso sheathed in plastic armour. My hand still clutches the plastic sword, smooth, but strong to the touch.
You cannot recognize a Shambhala warrior when you see her or him, for they wear no uniforms or insignia, and they carry no banners.
The Shambhala warriors know that the dangers threatening life on Earth are not visited upon us by any extraterrestrial power, satanic deities, or preordained evil fate. They arise from our own decisions, our own lifestyles, and our own relationships.
With that wisdom you know that it is not a battle between “good guys” and “bad guys,” because the line between good and evil runs through the landscape of every human heart.
My eyes are deep, gazing back at me from the vast expanse on the other side of the reflection.
I clasp my hands together over my heart, and offer a quiet bow.
After a moment, I release my hands, mount my bike, and pedal back to camp.