The First Time at Burning Man

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Some subjects are indescribable… which is precisely why so much ink has been spilt upon them. I’ve been putting off this post for months, not because I had nothing to say, but because I had no idea how to say it.

Still, I’ve been asked so many times with (apparent) genuine interest about my experience at Burning Man that I need to write down my thoughts… if only to organize them. I write knowing that my goal of speaking to both burners and non-burners alike is probably a fool’s errand. Still, here goes.

What Burning Man Is not

  • Forgettable.
  • Utopian.
  • A party.
  • Magical.

What Burning Man Is

  • 1 million different things to 80,000 people.

To the Non-Burners

Many people come back to the “default” world after Burning Man feeling they have changed in some meaningful way. This is not by accident.

Let’s talk about the work required to thrive in the desert for a whole week. The desert is hot and dusty in ways you cannot imagine until you build a campsite and live in it. I point this out just to set the scene. Your body is already being pushed to the edge by the virtue of willful circumstance. This year it approached 110 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and the first full two days in the desert were dedicated to building the campsite.

The icicle hitch is a difficult knot, but does a good job of keeping down the poles for a carport.

Don’t people come in RVs with AC and stuff? you may ask. Yes, they do. Which brings us to the next most important concept of burning man: the traditions & social norms. What so many “burners” (attendees) seem to find unique is that, amidst this chaos, there is a beautiful world that feels alien to our own… yet instantly familiar.

There is no money. There may be bartering, but most “food camps” give out sustenance for free at specified hours. Oh — camps are an important cornerstone in the social structure of Burning Man. Attendees, or burners, who wish to play a bigger part in the Burning Man event arrange themselves into camps. Camps which repeatedly (a) offer valuable contributions to the community year-after-year (b) leave their campsite as perfectly clean as they found it gain standing each year. This is the base of a societal structure in which those who contribute the most time are those with the most authority. The entire social structure is made manifest through assigned campsite-proximity to “the Man” (the wooden centerpiece of Burning Man).

There are ten “principles” of burning man. Most burners will be familiar with these:

  • Radical Inclusion. Anyone may be a part of Burning Man.
  • Gifting. Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving.
  • Decommodification.
  • Radical Self-reliance.
  • Radical Self-expression.
  • Communal Effort.
  • Civic Responsibility.
  • Leaving No Trace.

By now, it may be sounding pretty hippie to some. Or maybe just like a grown-up version of some Boy Scout oaths. Either way, though principles are hardly laws, these are generally well-adhered. Because the experience is so unique, the act of learning how to attend Burning Man generally creates a communal effort. You don’t just “show up.” You prepare. The sheer logistics of getting 80,000 people to build a city that lasts for only one week in the middle of the desert are simply staggering, and everybody has to do their part. There are blogs, newsletters, meetups, and every other kind of human social gathering you can imagine to help newbies prepare for their first Burning Man experience.

I joined a camp called “funnel vision” which contributed to Burning Man by making funnel cakes daily for any passerby.

So by the time you get to some of the more ephemeral principles, like Radical Inclusion and Radical Self-expression, it may be a bit easier to understand how a different mind-state might take root. The ultimate experience of Burning Man is one of intense purpose, simplicity, and… beauty. Because I would be remiss if I did not mention the unbelievable, breathtaking art which is scattered throughout Burning Man.

It took me a while to get my head around spending so much time, effort, and money to build structures which will often just be destroyed (many in the ritual burning that occurs at the end of each Burning Man). Finally, I think I get it.

Throughout history, humanity has sacrificed what we value most to our gods in order to curry good favor. Today, we value time the most. By spending a whole bunch of time to build magnificently beautiful structures, and then burning it all down at the end can create transformative experiences for many.

My Experience

If you made it through the above section and have attended Burning Man, I’m sure you have a few things to correct. I’ve only been the once.

One thing that has really stuck with me is how open and receptive the community felt. The burning man principles feel lived by all whilst in attendance. Like many, my experience began many months before the trip itself. Finding a camp, getting all the gear, choosing costumes, and learning so much from scratch was a project from which I also learned a lot.

It took me a few days to settle in. I was worried that the more party/rave aspects of Burning Man would mean that I had a harder time enjoying myself, as these are not generally things I enjoy in more than small doses. I had one or two light-partying nights, but quickly reverted to my norm of waking up early and thus stopped staying up late. I knew that this was a likely outcome, and was a bit nervous that I would find myself a loner.

Quite to the contrary, I quickly realized that there are plenty of sub-groups at burning man. The art and parties are one particularly unmissable aspect of it all, but there are many others which require only a little seeking out. There are early morning yoga classes, actual marathons, talks from neuroscientists, introvert reading sessions, and so much more. During my time, I learned about so many random topics from so many more new friends.

Black Onyx by Henk Rogers

Some say “the playa provides.” Stories of serendipity abound. I saw this firsthand in many little ways which make for nice anecdotes of unusual coincidence. One of the more notable examples was when I happened to stumble into a talk by Henk Rogers, a legendary video game designer whom I have studied for love of the ideas he incorporated before others (such as a morality/karma system). The point? The sheer breadth of interests at Burning Man mean that these sorts of hyper-specific connections happen to everybody just about every day.

The moment I really began to appreciate the whole experience was around Wednesday. At that point, the caffeine headache had mostly subsided (I had chosen the week of Burning Man to quit the stimulant cold-turkey). I was no longer ashamed about heading back to my tent before 11pm to read a book. I’d realized that my campmates, and Burning Man at large, requested no explanation of me. My habits were no weirder or less accepted than any other.

My Funnel Vision Campmates

Combined with a total lack of cell phone usage, I soon found myself far more relaxed than I had been in ages. I finally had the space and time to explore my “inner space,” as I have not in far too long. The hyper-connected nature of the modern world has been overwhelming me lately. I miss chasing the fleeting ideas that cross my mind through craft and research. I happened to be reading some particularly good books during my time at Burning Man, some which were conducive to some personal reflection.

Its very common for Burning Man to induce this kind of self-reflection. For some reason, it feels like this attribute of the experience often either ignored or scoffed at. But that’s where it all started: some friends on a beach in San Francisco in the 1980 trying to get in touch with themselves. It’s easy to brush off, but when an entire community and society has evolved over decades with these principles made paramount, it should be no surprise that it induces the effects it purports.

They say not to make any “major life choices” for three months after Burning Man, and I can see why. Intense self-reflection of this kind often comes with a sense of breakthrough. I could say so much more about the experience, what I got from it, and what I think it means, but there’s nothing quite so insufferable as listening to someone else naval-gaze.

Exporting Burning Man

If there’s one thing that I could change about the whole experience, it would be to help the ethos better escape into the “default” world.

I actually take issue with the sometimes-used euphemisms of burners: “default” or “mundane” feel pejorative. It sets up a value system which can, in its darker twists, become self-congratulatory without actually affecting any real change. This is why I said in the introduction that Burning Man is not “magical.”

Truth be told, Burning Man is a self-indulgent use of valuable resources. The amount of natural resources consumed in this single week is staggering. People drive and even fly in from all over the world. Each year, thousands of abandoned bikes are left in the desert to be cleaned up by volunteers. To say nothing of of the many hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars which is literally burned away. For all the talk of a green planet and world peace, it’s hard to square these Burning Man ideals with the stark reality of the event.

This was thrown into stark relief for me when I returned to San Francisco and began discussing the event with other groups of friends. Its worth reflecting that the Burning Man experience is not financially available to everybody. This is not the fault of the attendees, but it is a necessary variable when evaluating the quality of the experience. A class hegemony is not the societal vehicle which will escape us from our current political clusterfuck.

Which is why I see it as my duty, now, to bring the better parts of what I experienced into my daily life. Through my self-reflection, I have found a greater love and appreciation for others than I had expected of myself. For reasons beyond the scope of this article, I had always felt myself somewhat apart from others. Burning Man was one experience amongst many which have been slowly curing me of this condition.

The sense of acceptance and inclusion exuded by so many attendees has helped me so much that it is the one thing I seek above all else to emulate. Its not the solution to all of life’s problems, but I think this is the precise kind of cultural shift we must impact for humanity to thrive in the long-term. If Burning Man helps to instill these kinds of habits, then perhaps it is a net benefit to society. If not, well, it’s beautiful, chaotic, challenging, and fun.

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