It was the middle of the night, and I couldn’t see more than two feet in front of me as white cake-like dust swirled around my face, clogging my nose and stinging the back of my throat. When the dust storm cleared, a 50-foot long fire-breathing dragon cruised across the horizon, music pulsated from 100 different mutant art vehicles, and 70,000 people in fur, neon lights, goggles, and dust masks biked among dozens of multi-story, LED art structures. I’ve officially fallen down the rabbit hole, I thought.
Burning Man is a circus, vaudeville theater, hippie drum circle, techno rave, rowdy pub crawl, and art-gallery-on-steroids rolled into a giant summer camp for adults — and everyone is a part of the show. According to the 10 principles of Burning Man, there are no spectators, so you participate by default. You exist, therefore you become part of the act. Once you descend onto Planet Burning Man, everything is absurd and everything is pushing the envelope, defying expectation.
For me, the most overwhelming thing at first was not the huge array of activities happening on Planet Burning Man — everything from pirate-ninja fights, zip-lining, naked yoga, economic development discussions, Balinese monkey chanting, topless morning mimosa parties, and nightly performances by an 80-piece orchestra — but the fact that someone, lots of people actually, cared so much.
Tens of thousands of people weren’t bothering to ask why, but choosing to ask “why not?” instead. They were dreamers and doers, and did things like turn semi-trucks into pirate ships, giant peacocks, and massive reclining Buddhas, or spend months building a temple for prayer, healing, and commemoration that would be burned to the ground on the last night of the festival, or even drive around in a 1950’s-themed diner car and serve fresh chocolate chip pancakes and coffee at 7 o’clock in the morning. They all cared so much, and it forced me to question: What do I care about that much? What do I have to give?
At Burning Man, everyone gives and gives, and gives. I was forced into shock by this infamous gifting economy: people feeding me funnel cakes and cappuccinos, handing me beautiful hand-crafted jewelry, offering me a cold beer, or cooking up ramen at sunrise parties. (Keep in mind, no money is exchanged, everything has to be brought to the desert and all waste has to be carried out. And it’s a DESERT for crying out loud! Who brings a wood-fired oven and fresh tomatoes into the DESERT? The loving lunatics gifting you homemade pizza is who!)
And at Burning Man, you’re always invited. No special behavior or status qualifies or disqualifies you to dance next to the DJ at the biggest party on the playa or get a free homemade ice cream cone, you are honored and invited by just being present.
So inevitably, you break down — and break open. It’s so hard to receive this much love, this much selflessness, these many gifts in a world incentivized to compete and defend and judge. Out on the playa, there’s so much to do, so many people to meet, and so many people who have volunteered days and months and years of their lives to give YOU this experience. And you realize, for the first time, in a world where it’s so hard to be recognized, affirmed, supported, and loved, that you belong. Out in that crazy mess, you’re accepted without question or judgment.
And finally, it hits you — you finally “get it” — and you want to give everything you’ve got to anyone and everyone, too. You’ve woken up to what Burning Man is all about, and shortly, you’ll wake up an even bigger truth: that just by existing, you’re already part of the community, the art, the show…and the world. You were blessed with the gift of life, chosen and sustained by creation, so you’re already deserving, ready, and important. Now you hear creation saying: “Come play.”
But you’ll break down again one day when you think you’re doing it all wrong, not having the experience you wanted to have, the experience you spent half a year (and a handsome wad of cash) planning to have. You’ll think you’re missing out on so much, planning your days wrong, meeting the wrong people, wearing the wrong costumes, wasting your time, and everyone else’s. Your nose will bleed and your lips will crack, your eyes will burn, and you’ll become smelly, tired, and dehydrated.
So you cry and break open again, new understanding coming over you in waves. You learn to look to nature for the answers: The storms that come… and go. The heat that comes… and goes. Constant change. And you learn to do what you must do to live a full life, on the playa and in your life back home: you embrace whatever happens, as it happens. You accept your limited experience and limited contact with a vast world due to our universal, limited human nature. You start to just be with whoever is in front of you. You stop looking around and searching, searching, searching for the next best thing. You learn that if you love where you are and invest in it, it blossoms and becomes what you had been looking for all along.
Burning Man is, at its core, an experiment in culture. It creates a parallel universe for a week and its devotees descend into this new world — and when you have to navigate a whole new world, you learn all about yourself all over again. Because it’s a microcosm of the “default world”, everything that’s true about life is true in Black Rock City, only it’s intensified and amplified because of the size, energy, and community. Like life, you can make Burning Man about whatever you want to be: self-development and exploration, sex, drugs, and rock and roll, or complete surrender to giving and helping those in need.
One of these truths that virtually every Burner will attest to is synchronicity. When you’re engaged in your environment, mindful of apparent “coincidences,” and actively checking in with your gut feeling, you’re able to tap into the flow of sweet serendipity out there. A few examples from my burn: several times I headed out on a solo venture, immediately regretted it, and asked the playa for help. Minutes later, multiple members of my camp would appear (out of 70,000 people) and accompany me on an adventure. A friend of mine ran into a co-founder of his failed start-up who he hadn’t seen in a decade (again, out of 70,000 people) and who he had no idea was an avid Burner. And a silly example: I remember being gifted a delicious caramel lollipop out in deep playa, and hours later, on the opposite side of the desert, I turned to my companion and said, “What I wouldn’t give for another one of those lollipops.” No sooner had the words left my mouth did the two people sitting next to me, the same ones who I met hours earlier in deep playa, look up, laugh at the coincidence, and hand me another lollipop.
There’s a saying “the playa provides,” but it really only provides when you’re happy, participating, giving, and grateful. Once you radiate positive energy and tap into your intuition, the flow of happy coincidences follows. That happens on the playa, and it happens in your life back in the default world, but because so many people believe in this synchronicity at Burning Man, its effectiveness is amplified and extended.
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and the beauty of an experience like Burning Man lies partly in its brevity. After all, it’s not until you crawl back up the rabbit hole into the default world, scrub your entire body with vinegar, sleep for 18 hours straight, and have your first hot post-Burning Man meal that things really start to seep in. You didn’t realize how much this shook you up, how much this changed you until you had to restart the engine of life on this side of the desert.
I knew I was a little different when, two days after the burn, a homeless man in San Francisco came up to ask me directions to the nearest Whole Foods. I had no idea, but instead of nervously brushing him off like I would have in the past, I stopped, looked him in the eye, pulled out my phone, found the address of the nearest Whole Foods, showed him on the map, and waved him on his way with a smile. He said no one had showed even that tiny bit of consideration in months.
If Burning Man has taught me anything, it’s that we all crave connection and belonging. So get out there and look people in the eye. Smile. Say hello. Share something about yourself. Judge less and care more. Go the extra mile. Examine what you can give. Be more honest and expressive. Actually interact more with one another. We’re all in this together, and you have the power to influence someone else’s life experience every day. Show up. Participate. Be the artist. Bring the burn home.