I wrote the first draft of this post whilst sitting on a wooden platform in the middle of the dance floor at one of the many hundreds of sound stages at Burning Man. I was wearing a neon pink tasseled bathing suit, some fierce gold reflective shades, a red scarf round my head and I was sipping on vodka and juice out of a yellow plastic cup with ‘lil crack whore 2014′ branded across it. Covered head to toe in dust, my hair matted into dreadlocks and having not showered or slept properly in days, the message was quite apt. I looked like trailer trash. And I loved it.
Surrounding me were dozens of fellow Burners dancing to their hearts’ content under the scorching midday rays, moving their bodies with delight as they jumped, spun around and gyrated to intoxicating house beats. All with huge smiles on their faces they hugged, kissed and high-fived each other, sharing their drinks, gifts and stories and their love for this place, this life, this world. I smiled back in awe at the beauty of my fellow homo sapiens as they played with innocent glee in our utopic playground – ‘the playa’ – aka Black Rock City, Nevada: the city of dreams, which comes to life once a year for seven days only, then packs up and leaves for the following 358 days of the year without a trace, as if it had never happened.
I was seated as I’d hurt my foot, having broken it a month before and then overexerted myself on the dance floor one too many times by day five of this week-long celebration of life. And also because I felt compelled suddenly to get down on paper how magical I was finding my experience there, wanting to share the feeling of love pulsing through my whole Being with the world. Pen in hand, I took out my journal and started to write.
While sitting there, lost in my reflections of all I was seeing and feeling, I didn’t pay too much attention to my surroundings although I could sense the positive, loving energy of those around me in my veins, at times so intense the hairs on my arms and legs stood on end. There were moments when I felt an overwhelming urge to cry tears of joy.
In the hour that followed four or five ‘strangers’ came up to me. One simply smiled, reached out his hand and said ‘I’m going to fill your drink up for you’. And he did, returning my crack whore cup a few minutes later with more much-needed nectar to quench my near-constant thirst in the hot, dry desert conditions. Another, older man, dressed in a fabulously outrageous spandex get-up came over shortly after just to tell me that I was beautiful. Then he kissed my hand and went back to the dance floor to cut some more impressive shapes. Then a girl came over, apologising for interrupting my writing flow, and presented me with an array of pretty earrings, telling me to pick out the ones I wanted. The pink ones would go best with my outfit, she suggested.
This sort of exchange happened day and night for the entire seven days I was at Burning Man. And yet I never quite got used to it. I was truly overwhelmed by the love I received from each and every person I encountered on my adventures on the playa. Everyone I met was warm, open and generous, in heart and spirit, and emanated the purest, most beautiful vibrations that left me feeling so profoundly touched at the beauty of humanity’s capacity to love and amazed at the endless acts of selfless kindness that I witnessed on an hourly, even minute-ly, basis.
This is how life should be, I thought, on many, many occasions throughout the week. This is all that matters: love and human relationships. That is it. THIS is life.
There were times that I felt so much happiness and gratitude I wondered if my heart would in fact burst and I would die on that playa – my body eventually disintegrating and becoming one with the dust which perpetually coated our bodies and possessions throughout the week and bellowed around us in the sky, turning strobe lights into explosions of glitter above our heads at night and serving as a protective shield from the sun during the day. I wouldn’t have cared. I was already in Heaven: Heaven on Earth.
It wasn’t until the last day of Burning Man that I encountered the ‘dark side’ of my magical kingdom in the dust. Somehow I’d gone six days blissfully in tune with all around me and feeling a sense of peace and joy that I thought was impenetrable. I felt like a superhero – a real life version of the characters dressed up around me. I was utterly convinced this was the best place on the planet and this existence and all it stands for is exactly as life should be.
But of course, we are human after all, and all 70,000 of us pleasure-seekers who descended on that playa brought with us baggage of the emotional variety as well as material. We are all riddled with traumas, a consequence of challenging lives played out in a far less free-spirited and loving environment: ‘the real world’. Inside us all reside fears, anxieties, societal prejudices and habits that cannot help but infiltrate our experience, even when played out in this fairytale fantasy-land of childhood dreams and erotic desire.
‘It’s not the way it used to be’ was the first complaint that made me grit my teeth, hitting a nerve as I have a long-standing bug bear about statements like this in general. There is always someone who’s been there from the beginning, whether it be following their favourite band before they were on the radio or donning a pair of trainers before they were mass produced for the high street. These individuals always get my back up as it seems to me (perhaps defensively) that they deliberately want to taint my experience by implying that my joy is not authentic, as the ‘real’ or ‘best’ version of the event (or song, or shoe) no longer exists. And I can’t go back in time, can I?
At first I shrugged off these remarks as the self-righteous, overly-nostalgic gripes of the in-crowd, and continued in my bubble of blissful contentedness, soaking up every minute of sensory stimulation around me and absorbing and giving back that sweet, loving energy at every waking moment.
But by the time we pulled out of the playa, tensions within our group risen as high as the thermometer on the RV dashboard, our bodies weary, minds frazzled and emotions on tenterhooks, I realised that yes, there are problems with Burning Man. It is not simply the fairytale fantasyland that filled my heart with love and restored my faith in humanity’s innate goodness. It is, as one friend very aptly put it, both the best, and the worst, place in the world. And so, I have rewritten this article to provide a more balanced account of my experience there and the lessons I take from it, in part by way of pre-empting the negative counterarguments that would inevitably come my way if I shared only my blissful reflections. (In case you are wondering about the conclusion however, I still maintain that Burning Man IS exactly the way life should be.)
Let’s start with the positives though, as I don’t pick up my pen often to rant about the problems in the world. If that’s your bag then turn on the news – there are plenty of more important issues there to fill your boots.
First, let me tell you about why I went to Burning Man in the first place, because I am not a festival-goer, nor a music person (meaning I like music but I have no idea who anyone is). In fact Burning Man was the first ‘festival’ I committed to going to in my 29 years of life.
It was all in his eyes… My ex-boyfriend’s eyes that is. He’d been four times before and when I asked him what it was like he didn’t reply, instead looking off into the distance as if transported back to a place, or a feeling, that words simply could not describe. Something in his eyes told me that this place was magical beyond my wildest dreams. I simply had to go. And so I did, exactly one year later.
Now I understand. Now I get it. Burning Man is so hard to describe because, like India for me before, it is a place where the magic of what you experience is not so much about what you see or hear (although the sights and sounds are incredible), but what you feel why you are there. Even as I write this now, days after it has finished, the hairs on my arms again are standing on end and I have a lump in my throat.
Because Burning Man is not a music festival, nor an art festival. Yes, it is a celebration of creative expression and the music and art on the playa is truly out of this world. It is an explosion of sensory stimulation and artistic talent that took my breath away, at times so overwhelming it literally hurt my eyes! I couldn’t take it all in, it was so vast, so magnificent, so decadent, so bright, so loud, so intricate and so beautiful.
But Burning Man is NOT a festival.
Burning Man is a way of life. It is a political statement, a gathering of awakening souls and a breaking down of the Ego to uncover the rawest version of ourSelves.
It is both the future and the past – a vision of life stripped back to its basic fundamentals – where community, family and love are placed above all other manifestations of human ‘value’ created by the industrial revolution, the capitalist socio-economic system and by the Ego (i.e. material possessions, financial wealth, job, career and status). It is a place that while there all that matters is that you are You and that you treat others and the environment with love and respect.
By following these simple ‘rules’ or better, ‘guiding principles’ of mankind, and forgetting all else you have been conditioned to believe by your parents, teachers, bosses, the media and all other avenues of authority, you slip seamlessly into a beautiful ecosystem of giving and exchange, becoming a tiny but integral particle that ebbs and flows with positive energetic vibrations in total harmony with all others around you. Away from pressures and duties of the ‘real world’ you are finally free to just be, and to give and to receive Unconditional Love, which is, I believe, the perfect state of the human condition.
In that sense, for me, Burning Man was a physical world realisation of my spiritual Self.
All the lessons I had been accumulating over the past six months via yoga, meditation and Buddhism were playing out in the physical world in front of my eyes. Lessons of letting go, of living in the present, of being at One with nature and others around me, of giving without expectation, of receiving love with an open heart, of speaking (and acting) my Truth, and of recognising both life’s impermanence in the physical world (best exemplified by the Man and Temple burning at the end of the week, all physical memories taken with it; from dust to dust) and simultaneously of our omnipresence, as our energy cannot be lost, only transformed from one form to another.
I was flying – as high as I had ever been in my life (even while sober).
From the moment I stepped onto the playa, greeted with the message ‘welcome home’, that is exactly how I felt: as if I had returned to a distant land stored in my subconscious – to the Garden of Eden – a place that although I had never physically been to before I felt a sense of nostalgic deja-vu about, as if it had always been in my heart, waiting patiently for my return. And now, having realised it, having lived it in this lifetime, I know that I will treasure it always as one place on this earth that I can act, feel and be my true, whole, authentic Self. And that no matter what is happening in the ‘real world’ I can take that feeling with me, knowing that others too have felt it – that it is in fact possible to live a life of love, light and happiness here on earth.
But, with light there is darkness. What goes up must come down. That is life, no matter how loving, open, ‘spiritual’ or ‘progressive’ you are.
And so, onto the ‘bad’ side of Burning Man, as of course it is not all glitter, fairies and unicorns.
First let me tell you that Burning Man is HARD. The conditions are extreme. It is hot, dirty, sweaty and dry during the day, while at night it can be so cold you have to layer up nearly every warm item of clothing you brought with you. At times it is so physically demanding it can be life threatening. My friend was in a tent that got struck by lightning during a huge storm that hit just as we arrived. He was lucky, but others, not so much. A few people died (as they do each year) due to injuries suffered most likely while under the influence of drugs and alcohol while simultaneously in one of nature’s most extreme habitats and without easy access to emergency services. As I said, Burning Man is hard. With freedom comes risk and a need for personal responsibility. Not everybody is equipped to deal with that.
It may appear like a week-long party, but Burning Man is not all fun and games: it is a very challenging experience on a physical, mental and emotional level. As such it brings out the best but also the worst in people. Tired, dehydrated, frazzled by the heat and whatever intoxicants you may be on, tensions run high and your deepest fears, anxieties, insecurities (and desires) will without a doubt come to the surface. There is nowhere to hide on the playa – no nice hotel room to go back to, no peace and quiet, no mom to call for help and no creature comforts to calm your mind and sooth your body.
It is raw; it is real; it is human, in all its manifestations – the good, the bad and the ugly. I saw tears, I saw desperation and I saw friends, new and old, questioning the very meaning of life and who they are. (Although in my opinion, that is a good thing!)
Sadly though and through gritted teeth, I suppose I have to admit that those self-important Burning Man thoroughbreds might be right – perhaps it did used to be ‘better’ or at least more authentic in the past. Back when there was less police presence and more freedom, back when the rich and famous didn’t turn up by private jet to stay in fully-catered-for VIP camps serving champagne and sushi, sheltering them from the dust, dirt, and harsh, physically challenging and unsanitary conditions which are all part of the ‘true’ Burning Man experience. That part didn’t sit well with me. But then again, one of the guiding principles of Burning Man is ‘radical inclusion’. If Burning Man is for everyone, then why should we keep the rich kids out? That’s almost as hypocritical as the fact that the playa is unfortunately not a true representation of humankind, but largely a gathering of people like me – fairly privileged middle class young white people. I would have loved to see more ethnic diversity at Burning Man, and more middle aged and elderly people, and more kids – as the ones I did see there seemed to be so authentically free, happy and at ease in their surroundings I thought to myself that if I have children one day I will bring them here (and to India, of course).
But sadly it costs money to leave the Matrix. Burning Man is a very expensive expedition, despite the fact no money changes hands while on the playa itself. And that is another of its problems. In its attempt to provide a space for us to live as freely and openly as possible it simultaneously excludes on the basis of financial wealth, one of the very things it tries to discredit as a value structure of modern society.
The conclusion that I have come to therefore, is that yes, there are problems with Burning Man, just as there are problems with all gatherings of people, whether temporary or permanent, in any part of the world, now or in the past. Because as I alluded to earlier, whenever human beings gather to live and to interact we bring with us our preconditioned beliefs and patterns of behaviour, our prejudices and fears, and our insecurities, all of which breed greed, jealousy, anger, resentment and other negative human emotions and actions that cause us to separate rather than to unite.
If we let these diseases of the Ego take over, then, as with any free and open gathering of Beings, the once beautiful society we frolicked in will become a battlefield where egos collide and factions spring up, marking us as different and unequal rather than celebrating each other as unique but equally magical particles of dust dancing together on a desert playa. As we fortify our tribes along with our egos, under the pretense that we must defend and ‘protect’ ourselves, soon we will forget that feeling of Unconditional Love that joins us all together as One. And if we continue in this way, we will inevitably destroy all we had set out to celebrate in the first place: our innate sameness. Our Garden of Eden will be no more. And in the end all that will be left is another version of the aggressive, violent, greedy and corrupt society outside of Black Rock City, aka the ‘real world’, which as we know is far from a utopia.
Burning Man cannot truly be a playground of childhood dreams and adult desire, a free and open society in which we can discover our unique talents and share them with the world, and a beautiful expression of Unconditional Love, if those who come to it each year are marred with the problems of the world outside of its borders.
The problems of Burning Man are the problems of mankind – and it is this which we should be addressing, rather than focusing on the issues of the ‘festival’ itself.
The world is in need of some serious healing and until we take responsibility for that, on an individual and collective level, we will never truly live in peace, love and harmony with one another, at Burning Man, or elsewhere.
But I can tell you something. My experience at Burning Man, however challenging and however flawed, was truly magical. It proved to me that it is possible to live in peace and harmony with one another regardless of race, creed, religion, age, gender, sexuality, wealth or any other superficial borders we place upon each other and ourselves, marking us as different. It showed me that the exact opposite is true: that we are One (although I already knew that) and that we can love and be loved for who we are, each and every one of us. That being who we are is in fact our only real ‘duty’ here on earth. Just as we are asked to come to Burning Man with a gift and to share that gift selflessly with others, that is all we are supposed to do here on earth, in the ‘real world’. We all have a unique talent to offer, and when we find it, Honour it and share it, free from fear and free from expectation, then we can operate on the exact same loving frequencies as we do on the playa.
That is the most special thing we can give ourselves and each other. And yet it is so simple! Just be ourselves, love and be loved.
There is no duality. There is no wrong or right, no good or bad and no ‘us and them’. We are One.
I and many of the other beautiful spirits I met on that playa understand that. And that I believe is why we were there, sharing our journeys and our Love – to fortify ourselves and each other with the faith we need to bring that love into our lives outside of Black Rock City. And that is why I am writing this now. We want that feeling to be realised in our lives always, because we know that this is it. THIS IS LIFE.
Burning Man is not a festival. It is the way life should be.