That’s what everyone at Burning Man said to me when they found out I was a first-time “burner”. By the end of the week I truly understood what they meant. And I hope you are a little closer to understanding it (or as close as one can be without actually being there) by the end of this essay.
But first, let’s get a few things straight about what Burning Man is and is not. Burning Man is not a music festival. There is music, but it is by no means the focus, nor is it the prime factor motivating most attendees. Burning Man is also not some ‘hippie paradise,’ where everyone is happy and frolicking around with flowers in their hair. You could very well see some shit that outright disturbs you, like a man with a bit in his mouth, chained up in black leather being led around by his whip-bearing dominatrix wife. But Burning Man is, if nothing else, a community, founded on the premise of radical self expression and inclusion. That’s why, despite the fact that I think some of the bondage I saw is a little weird, I think it’s amazing that there’s a place where people feel comfortable doing this stuff.
One of the first aspects of Burning Man that comes to mind is the way in which it reminds me of French existential philosophy. In existentialism there exists an idea of “une acte libre,” or an act of freedom. Such an act has no intrinsic value and is committed for neither reason nor purpose, but occurs simply because it can. Traditionally une acte libre has held a bad connotation; an example would be punching someone in the face. The act of punching someone in the face totally unprovoked is a way of affirming my freedom, my right to exist; I did it because I could, and for no reason beyond that. Burning Man is like one giant collective “acte libre,” only everyone benefits and no one (intentionally) gets hurt.
One can’t talk about ridiculous things at Burning Man without first mentioning the art cars. There are ‘cars’ out on the Playa (Playa means beach in Spanish, and Burning Man has its roots on the beaches of San Francisco) that put any party bus you’ve ever seen to shame. I’m talking about 55-foot long stretch buses with a platform shaped like a pirate ship on the roof that hold more than 100 people and a DJ. The biggest party bus you’ve ever seen. Or there are smaller art cars like a Stegosaurus, which, despite its relative size, was the most visible car by far. Or an Octopus art car that shoots flames out of its tentacles. No big deal. Or the Death Star art car.
And then there’s the actual art. Personally my favorite installation was the E-G-O installation. Made entirely out of wood, E-G-O was among the few installations that people were expressly forbidden from climbing on. It was gold, probably 20 feet high, and covered in faces, babies, horses, money signs. But most profound, adorning the underside of each letter were trophies. I thought this was some beautiful symbolism. It embodied a poignant insight about the human ego: that once you reach a certain level of success (and are “looking up” to see what’s next) the only external validation of the ego is more trophies, more public accolades. At some point there is a limit to the amount of ego validation you can absorb and you just have to believe that what you’re doing is right.
As a way of giving back to the community, many camps will host some sort of event during Burning Man. There’s the Skinny Kitty Teahouse which serves tea everyday and has a large party on Thursday night. Or there’s Nectar Village where one can stand in line to receive a steam bath (a welcome respite from the dusty environment). But Camp Let It Go, where I stayed, was on the smaller side, so we hosted a lower key and more therapeutic event. For four hours Thursday afternoon we offered acupressure massages, traditional Swedish massages, and facials. At first I was dreading this event, the idea of giving multiple hours of massages not only seemed exhausting but I (selfishly) wanted to go and do my own thing. It was my first Burn after all, and there was ever so much to do.
If you’ve met me then you know that when I give massages I get really into it. This time was no exception. But this time I didn’t tire. I gave massages constantly for about three hours. I could see how much every single person I massaged appreciated my gift, and this served as inspiration. They sat up feeling refreshed, relaxed, and thankful. That’s why the ‘gift economy’ of Burning Man is so amazing. Since there isn’t money attached to the gifts, people make little attempt to translate what they’ve received into terms of a concrete value system (like money). And if your doing the giving it feels great knowing that you’re small act of selflessness really improved someone’s day. Dan Ariely, a prominent behavioral economist, has a great talk on how money distorts gift giving that he gave at Burning Man last year. You can watch it here.
Perhaps the most emotionally charged place at Burning Man is the Temple. The Temple is an intensely personal place; it absorbs the collective cathartic energy of Burning Man, every year.
Throughout the week people come by the Temple to drop off mementoes to their loved ones. One could find posters dedicated to burners who’d died in the past year, or see posters from parents commemorating their three year old who’d died last year, or letters from boyfriends to lost girlfriends about the anguish they felt. You have to be prepared to see some disturbingly real stuff when you go by the Temple.
Saturday morning I went by the Temple, and the emotional energy was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Left and right one heard sobs, sniffles. A woman lay on the ground, performing an Indian chant. People were seated inside, each taking a turn to stand and share their thoughts, much like a Quaker meeting for worship. I must admit I cried that day.
No, I’ve not lost anyone truly close in the past year, and I’m lucky for that. It all lay out in the open, the raw emotion, unadorned and without pretense, the sheer nudity of human feeling and compassion represented in the signs, letters, and pictures strewn about the Temple. It would’ve been inhuman to not react with tears.
I can see already the ways that Burning Man has affected my behavior. Burning Man is a leave no trace event. All the trash you bring in you must pack out. There are no trashcans, so you have to carry it all yourself. People are encouraged to pick up MOOP (matter out of place, the Burning Man neologism for litter) if they see it lying about.
Several days ago I was walking down the street smoking a cigarette. I’m not a litterer but, especially in cities, I will throw my cigarette butts on the ground. I went to throw a butt out a few days ago and paused: “If I could carry around cigarette butts in an Altoids can for a week in the middle of the desert in Nevada, what makes it OK for me to litter them here, in San Francisco.” I promptly folded the butt into an extra gum wrapper in my pocket and moved along.
Burning Man is a truly special experience. It’s the closest thing to a living ideal of human interaction, expression, and community that I’ve ever participated in. I’m definitely “returning home,” at the end of next August. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.