Photo: BLM Nevada
What was the first ceremony?
Something simple, to be sure. A few rocks arranged into a circle and a whispered prayer against the dark. A hunting prayer for protection. A burial rite. We have no way of knowing.
We do know through archaeology and anthropology that our hominid cousins the Neanderthals exhibited signs of ceremony and culture 100,000+ years ago and that ritual behavior lies at the foundation of what it means to be… what we are.
To me Burning Man exists as the pinnacle of post-modern mega ceremony perfected for a globally connected technological society. On the surface it may merely look like a gaudy neon explosion of ridiculous excess but at its core beats a heart of ecstatic group ceremony that reaches back millennia. Yes, it’s also just a giant crazy party, an enormous gaping wormhole of lasers and dance parties and awesome. It’s that too.
Ceremony is the ritualized physical expression of an idea or metaphor. An attempt to extrude the grasping of the mind into material reality as object or action, creating a type of transcendent art. The goal of a ceremony is to draw the participant into a particular state of mind and in that way ceremonies and rituals work like drugs. We get high and do things we ordinarily wouldn’t otherwise. But it’s not our fault, we are wired for ceremony: The beating of a drum, the ululations of a chanting supplicant, a candlelit space, a fire under a sky full of stars — this is in our DNA.
It seems that ceremonies are central to the experience of being a sentient hominid (I would say human, but the Neanderthals were certainly not). Over time and the march of civilization our ceremonies and the cultures they support have become infinitely more complex.
Which bring us back to Burning Man.
The biggest party and the hottest ticket on earth is also the most powerful ceremony I’ve ever witnessed. Burning Man has been a type of ultra ceremony for me. Art and the opportunity for Living Metaphor are cranked to 11 in the middle of the desert and the rites and rituals and revelry don’t end for a week.
When the giant wooden being is finally torched in a orgiastic explosion of pyrotechnics, every person in attendance is invited to contemplate themselves as the one burning.
The very symbol of the thing — the Man to be burned with arms joyously held high — is a powerful metaphor and a direct reference to the group ritual at the center of Burning Man, the burning of the Man. All week long we watch the towering effigy of the The Man at the center of the experience knowing that it/he/she will burn. And when the giant wooden being is finally torched in a orgiastic explosion of pyrotechnics, every person in attendance is invited to contemplate themselves as the one burning. Burning and being reborn. Phoenix made flesh.
Like all rituals and ceremonies, Burning Man begins in the preparation. Imagining your garb for the alternate reality of the playa, planning logistics with your crew, creating themes and sharing ideas on meals, music and more. When you’re planning for your Burn it always feels so far away… Until it’s time to time leave. The rig is packed — stuffed with tents and food and bikes and gazillion other bits and bobs — and now you’re finally setting out. Destination: Black Rock Desert, the playa, Burning Man, The Middle of Nowhere, Nevada. This is the pilgrimage, the trek to the sacred site, to the city unreal, to the place beyond dreams. It doesn’t matter that it’s your shitty car or rented RV, it’s a pilgrimage all the same. The Burn is what happens for the 7 days you’re living in a world where the physics of art hold sway. The whole experience is one big ceremony culminating with the Burning of the Man and the the somber and deeply spiritual Burning of the Temple. 50,000 prayers as a wall of fire.
But the whole time you are conscious of the artificial nature of the experience — that it’s temporary and really kinda silly — but it doesn’t matter because you’re grateful to have the opportunity whatever it is that happened. You needed to purge through art and dance and incorporate some new ideas. And so the final stage is incorporating the experience into life.
After all this time is it surprise that we are still gathering in the desert and dancing under the stars? That we are still seeking understanding, entertainment and spiritual attainment by the light of a fire? That we still experience spiritual metaphor through art?
Some things never change, thank the gods.
Burning Man is one of the most recent expressions of a calling to ceremony that is central to our experience as human, or Neanderthal or hominid or whatever. But Burning Man isn’t some woo woo magic silver bullet — you gotta bring the imagination and openness for understanding to access the hidden ceremony beneath the neon party and dubstep and booty shorts.
That’s on you.