I first attended Burning Man in 2015 because my daughter asked me to go with her. I figured it would be interesting and fun. I didn’t realize it would become home for me. I found at Burning Man what I had been looking for in the church for over 25 years: a genuine, authentic, caring, creative, non-judgy community. I am now heading into my fifth Burn, and the 2nd year running a theme camp, Religious AF. Here are the five things I think makes Burning man special.
Burning Man is not a festival. It is rather a global community organized around these 10 principles. Burning Man is trying to be the kind of community that many of us wished we belonged to.
Civic Responsibility and Leave no Trace: We are a responsible, responsive caring community working together to steward our community and to meticulously care for the Playa.
Radical Inclusion and Self Expression: Everybody is welcome, and as long as your freak isn’t hurting others, you can get it on, whatever it is. Imagine a place where you can truly be yourself, or try on a creative persona. With no judgement.
Participation and Immediacy: No spectators. No tourists. You don’t have to participate in everything, but you need to have skin in the game. Be present. Give yourself to the experience. And be present in the moment.
Self-Reliance and communal effort: Come prepared to take care of yourself, to be responsible for your own experience, and join with others to create something magical.
Decomodification and Gifting: The secret sauce of Burning Man. It is a gift-giving (not bartering) economy. Everybody comes prepared to give and receive. It is a banquet of generosity and openness. And nothing is a commodity: no quid-pro-quo. No business cards. No branding. No hidden agendas behind gifts.
Burning man has a mind blowing, dizzying array of activities and fun. Almost anything you can imagine is being offered. And yet “Burning Man” the organization provides none of it. This is one significant difference from a festival. None of the entertainment is provided as part of the event. All of the fun comes from camps, which are simply groups of friends who say, “Wouldn’t it be fun if we . . .” And then work all year long to plan a camp that provides whatever it is they dreamed up, be it trapeze camp, or the Thunderdome with its gladiatorial battles, or MASH Camp with episodes of MASH all night long, or Friend or PHO, serving soup in the middle of the night, or . . . . There are around 1400 camps. 1400 groups of people working all year to provide a fun experience for others for free.
Burning Man is horrible. It is held on a desert- dry, alkali lakebed. It can be super-hot in the day and wicked-cold at night. But the worst is the dust – fine talcum like dust that goes everywhere, gets in everything and never leaves. Never. Every day there are white-out dust storms. You must have goggles. And a breathing mask. Nobody would choose to vacation there. And yet, it is one of the essential elements of Burning Man.
The harsh environment makes burning man a crucible. You have to carefully plan your excursion. You have to work to be there – to survive. Just showing up pushes you to be committed and have skin in the game. And while you are there, you will likely be pushed to your edge. Not only by the physical environment, but also by the stimulation. You may stay out all night because there are so many exciting, fun things to do and see. So you will be tired. You will likely lose your shit at least once. Even on your 10th burn, prepare to lose your shit. This pushes members of a camp, or community, or couple to care for one another in a particular way.
Because of the crucible nature of the Burn, it is in some ways more like a spiritual retreat than a party.
Stunning, breathtaking art. Everywhere you look, in the center of the Playa or out in the expansive Deep Playa. And Art Cars. The only vehicles allowed, except for those needed to help people with mobility challenges, are “Mutant Vehicles.” You might see a ship, or a fire breathing dragon, or any sort of fantastical, beautiful creature, or a huge bouncy house, drive around – and you can hop on. And then there is the artistry of people’s clothing. Art, creativity and beauty everywhere. In every direction. All the time.
The Temple. The Temple. The Temple
The Temple. It is the most popular place at Burning Man. Often there are more people at the Temple than anyplace else. It is a large, stunning building where people go to quietly express and leave their prayers, hopes, laments, regrets, rage. They write on the walls, create little altars, leave notes, poems, pictures, ashes, dog collars, wedding dresses. “’Dad,’ I miss saying that.” “I miss you. I love you. Always. You would be proud of me.” “Forgive me” “Fuck you men who raped me.” “I only pray each year the pain
gets lighter” “Hug them now” There are usually small groups of people sobbing or praying. Other walking quietly about, solemnly reading the walls. Everyone goes to the Temple. Many people go more than once: experiencing it over time as it fills with the love and pain of the human heart.
At the end of the week, on Saturday night the Man is burned. It is a huge party. Everybody gathers around and hoots and hollers as the man burns under a dizzying display of fireworks.
Sunday night is different. Sunday night the Temple is burned. Everyone gathers around. Except this time in complete silence. The evening begins with hushed conversation, which stops when the first fire is kindled. Everybody puts out their personal lights. Art Cars shut down. And then silence. Complete silence. Tens of thousands of people, in a huge circle, in complete silence, for an hour. Except for the sobs. Then at some point there is a howl. It begins at one point and travels until the entire circle is howling at the flame – a mournful wolf how. When it is over, as people are leaving, there are often some people still sobbing. Strangers stop and offer hugs or a passing touch or may just sit down in silent companionship. Watching the temple burn, while connected to the broken hearts of thousands of others, is perhaps the holiest experience I have ever had.