Trying to define Burning Man in a concise statement is nearly impossible. Inevitably one will resort to the intellectually cheap, but accurate conclusion, that ‘Burning Man represents everything’, whatever ‘everything’ actually is. This event, based on the principles of “radical self-reliance” and “radical self-expression”, is becoming an ever-increasing draw for people across the world. I recently returned from my ‘virgin’ trek to this increasingly famous festival in the Black Rock Desert, Nevada, where I was part of the extra sixteen-or-so-thousand crowd that attended this year.
What Burning Man does represent, even through my ‘virgin’ lenses, is a focus on the self in almost everything that happens on the Playa, despite some communal efforts by many there. This self-reliance and expression is the basis for (hopefully) positive self-learning and personal growth that Burning Man presents. For those open-minded enough to take on living in what often feels like a post-apocalyptic society, Burning Man offers an extremely unique environment to try to get in touch with oneself spiritually, emotionally, physically, existentially, or perhaps not at all.
What one may take away from Burning Man likely varies individually. I cannot predict how the event will impact any one person; I can simply say that it is worth attending. Perhaps one will find themselves in the spirituality of the Playa, in its hedonism, in friendships made under the Nevada sun, or even in the leadership required in managing a large group.
However, Burning Man may affect a person, experiencing it is worth it and I have likely only begun to feel the impact of my participation. Truthfully, its lasting effect may very well come through return journeys to this unique event in the future.
What on Earth is Burning Man?
Burning Man was founded in 1986 by a group of twenty people and has since then mushroomed to 68,000. It is a society set up outside of the “Default World” based on ten important base principles including radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression and leaving no trace, explained in detail here. The true scale of the event, the entrance and exodus lines, spread over several square miles is truly shocking and few pictures can do it justice.
Burning Man provides an outlet to explore the opportunity of truly ‘being yourself’; it’s a chance to participate in a society operating on different economic principles where education, status and wealth do not matter (in theory). Sights and events are insanely wide-ranging and this year included anything from Ron Swanson theme parties, suspension camps, the Nevada ACLU, fetish theme camps, Mormon missionaries, kissing booths, lectures, Steampunk artcars and camps, spanking and even a photographer formerly imbedded with Hezbollah in south Lebanon. In interacting with these types of events, along with the people walking by your camp (yes, mostly everyone is ridiculously friendly), you are guaranteed to have your mind expanded, your latent social conservatism challenged and your view of the world critically shaken.
In assembling 68,000 people expressing such a wide range of interests, Burning Man is an aggregation of humanity. Inevitably, all this comes with the joys, disappointments, humour, and irony that exist within the human race. One of these ironies is the fact that “de-commodification” is stressed; yet, WalMarts inevitably see a surge in business as burners stock up on provisions. Although the extra packaging probably won’t be left on the Playa, it will likely end up in dumps across America. Another sad sight is the objectification of human beings, a ‘Default World’ behaviour too few care to check at the gate.
Burning Man is also a playground of the privileged, for the most part. Despite having a “low income” ticket program, the logistics to spend a week on the Playa are inevitably expensive and burning can be seen as a luxury. Furthermore, I speculate that even being in the mindset to question society’s foundation and experiment with deliberate alternative models such as Burning Man requires privilege – if not even in wealth, then in education or failing education, in the luxury of an inquiring mind and critical mindset.
As well, the sacred coexists with the profane at Burning Man – a hard fact to reconcile unless one comes back to the idea of the burn as a window into humanity. Spirituality is expressed in a very individual way; each expression tailored to the understanding of its host, and for some Burning Man is an a-spiritual experience. The temple is a powerful experience for some and for others it is simply an interesting sight of varied worship in a common space free of dogma. In all, I found the spirituality of Burning Man to reinforce the individual in its utmost form: the absence of a dominant theology, institution or dogma in the event or amongst its participants only helped to underscore this.
Take the Plunge
If you haven’t tried the Burning Man experience yet, do it. Knowledge of the event is becoming widely disseminated for good reason. Many do find a lasting impact by undergoing this slightly hedonistic style of ‘Desert Father’ asceticism. Give it a try; if it doesn’t change your life or your worldview, it is at least a week in a unique social and economic experiment. At the very least, you will have many funny and absurd stories to tell your friends (or your boss) about your week in Narnia.