How (And Why) Burning Man Changes People Forever
Listen to the audio: https://becomingasuperhuman.com/burning-man-changes-people-forever/
This week, I returned from my fifth “burn,” Midburn — a blissful, 5-day cacophony of 11,000 carefree souls prancing, dancing, and hugging their way around Israel’s Negev desert.
For the uninitiated, or just simply uninformed, the term “burn” refers to a very special type of gathering — (note that it is far from being a “festival”) — that, today, happens around the world, based on the principles of the infamous Burning Man.
As always, my return to the so-called “default world” has been marked by an endless stream of questions.
“How was it?”
“What did you do all day?”
“What’s it like?”
“What’s the deal with that thing, anyways?”
And so on.
My responses vary depending on who’s asking, but in general, I tend to agree with tech titan and billionaire Elon Musk, who has said: “If you haven’t been, you just don’t get it.”
But nonetheless, let me try to elaborate, and explain why exactly it is that tens of thousands of people all over the world pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to wade through dust storms in the blistering heat. And furthermore, why, in my opinion, Burning Man is both one of the greatest accomplishments of modern society, and, one of the most powerful tools for personal growth and transformation out there.
HOW DID “BURNING MAN” START?
Before we dive in, it’s important to understand just what the hell Burning Man, or a regional Burn such as that which I attended recently, is all about, and what it is patently not about.
Dating back to 1986, Burning Man was originally inspired by a few friends — Larry Harvey and Jerry James — building and burning a human effigy on a beach in San Francisco. Witnessing the crowd that formed, and experiencing the bonding, almost tribal experience of people sharing a then unclear ritual, Burning Man was born.
Over the next few years, Harvey and a growing group of folks expanded the scope of the ritual — and the size of “the man,” until in 1990, the event was moved to Black Rock Desert, in rural Nevada. There, participants and organizers alike would collaborate to form a sort of temporary, dadaist, autonomous zone; a temporary city, built for just one week, with it’s own economic, cultural, and political systems. Judgement, money, and inhibitions were left at the gate in an earth-shattering sociocultural experiment with no clear destination nor agenda. And, true to the original “burn,” art structures including the effigy would be burned to signal the end of the gathering.
Throughout the 1990 and early 2000’s, Burning Man slowly grew from a few hundred radical freethinkers into a proper cultural movement. By 1996, the event had 8,000 attendees. In 1997, an official Department of Public Works was established. Temporary roads, based on the face of a clock, were designed to create order and improve the increasing flow of human — and “mutant vehicle” traffic. An FAA-Approved Airport was created. Billionaires and business leaders from all over the world began attending. Popular magazines and TV shows began referencing the cultural phenomenon. By 2000, law enforcement took notice, too, and a steady stream of citations and arrests begins to increase every year. After all, outlandish art, loud music, nudity, and even a psychedelic drug counterculture had become instrumental parts of the “burn.” By 2004, Burning Man’s future was extremely uncertain: that same year, there were 218 citation from the Bureau of Land Management, 217 citations from police, 246 warnings, and numerous arrests. The city’s population that year? A mind-boggling 35,000 people.
To reign in the chaos of a rapidly expanding and ever-scrutinized population, Larry Harvey and the Burning Man Organization sat down and created the now-infamous “10 Principles.” A set of guidelines that would govern the behavior of “Burners” both in Black Rock City, and in future “Regional” burns around the world.
THE 10 PRINCIPLES:
The 10 principles today are something of a bible for burners everywhere. It’s not uncommon to be reminded of these values, or to hear them articulated.
Here, I will quote them directly from Burning Man’s Official doctrine:
- Radical Inclusion: Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
- Gifting: Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.
- Decommodification: In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.
- Radical Self-reliance: Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.
- Radical Self-expression: Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.
- Communal Effort: Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.
- Civic Responsibility: We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.
- Leaving No Trace: Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.
- Participation: Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.
- Immediacy: Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.
If these values sound like a handbook for indoctrinating new people into a cult, it’s not a coincidence.
Since 2004, Burning Man itself has grown to a staggering 65,000 attendees. But that’s not all. Through the support of the Burning Man Organization — which became a registered nonprofit in 2011, those attendance numbers are easily doubled or even tripled by the tens of thousands of people who attend regional burns everywhere from Israel, to South Africa, to Europe and Asia. In fact, in Israel alone, the Midburn regional event grew to an impressive 11,000 people this year, and it’s expected that AfrikaBurn will see 13,000 attendees this year.
Which leads me back to the 10 principles.
Whereas most events — the Coachella’s, Tomorrowlands, and even Woodstocks of the world, have a tendency to become diluted, commercialized, or otherwise polluted versions of themselves, Burning Man, as a whole, has remained pure — metaphorically and quite literally. But for a few rare exceptions, it’s not only possible, but rather likely, to spend an entire week in Black Rock City without seeing a single argument, advertisement, dollar bill, or piece of litter.
Sure, there are many old-school burners who will tell you about the glory days in the 90’s, before theme camps and rich technocrats ruled the playa (a general term for Black Rock City), but for the most part, the 10 principles have allowed Burning Man — both the event and the global organization — to grow tremendously without losing it’s magic.
WHAT EXACTLY IS SO MAGICAL ABOUT BURNING MAN? (AND HOW CAN IT CHANGE US FOR THE BETTER?)
Is it the larger-than-life, interactive art and music that melt your mind and show you levels of beauty and human expression you previously were incapable of imagining?
The freedom to express yourself — including previously undiscovered sides of yourself — more fully, and experience acceptance and affection more completely than any modern, socialized human could possibly experience in the “default world?”
Or perhaps the disconnection from the digital world of Likes and Shares, and the opportunity to experience the natural, connected, loving, present, and endlessly curious state of the
human spirit at play?
The ability — or even the likelihood — to fall in love with someone for a minute, an hour, or even a lifetime, based solely on the deep and unencumbered connection you create in this state of sheer mindfulness?
How about the uniquely amplified and intertwined magic of kismet, the law of attraction, karma, and coincidence that allows “the playa” to somehow provide you exactly what you need, in the exact moment you need it — as if you were living in a real-world fairytale?
Or is it maybe even the omnipresence of powerful, psychedelic drugs that change your grasp on the human experience, combined with the ideal, safe space to explore radically altered states of consciousness?
In reality, it’s all of that. But it’s much, much more.
I AM ABLE TO DRAW A CLEAR DELINEATION BETWEEN THE PERSON I WAS BEFORE MY FIRST BURN, AND THE PERSON I AM TODAY.
Often times, when people ask about my experiences with Burning Man — or are in the middle of digesting their own experiences, they want to know how it has influenced me.
Sure, it’s a heck of a lot of fun — for all of the reasons stated above — but what lasting changes can such an experience really have?
You would be surprised.
Over the last 3 years, I’ve had the great pleasure of witnessing dozens, if not hundreds, of people undergo the special type of metamorphosis that a burn provides. Though there are always exceptions, the vast majority of these individuals later describe their experiences as life-altering, deeply meaningful, or even earth-shattering. Though it may sound hyperbolic, I can attest to the fact that these descriptions neither promise nor threaten too much.
When asked about my own spiritual, emotional, and personal journey, I am able to draw a clear delineation between the person I was before my first burn, and the person I am today.
In fact, you may remember that in a recent post, I shared the 30 Secrets of Adulthood that Life Has Taught Me. What I didn’t share was that no less than 8 of them were learned on the playa, in deep conversations, psychedelic states, random interactions, or solitary walks through the desert.
So, you’re probably wondering:
WHAT CAN YOU LEARN BY ATTENDING BURNING MAN?
As with all life experiences, your mileage may vary.
Like I alluded before, “the playa provides,” is one of the most powerful and universally shared experiences of burner culture — but it has a funny way of providing exactly what you need — and not always what you want.
For me, the playa has provided a great many lessons over the years — ones that I perhaps could only have learned in that exact environment — but not always the ones I knew how desperately I needed to hear.
Allow me to illustrate.
Though you perhaps (and hopefully) feel pretty well accepted, loved, and embraced by the society around you, the truth is, you have never truly experienced what it means to be fully accepted.
This plays out in a myriad of ways, big and small. Your parents love and accept you, but would likely have more than a few judgemental or critical comments to make if you decided to sell all of your belongings and live in a monastery of Satan worshippers. Likewise, your colleagues, friends, and extended family probably accept you for who you are… but even they would raise their eyebrows if you decided to walk down the street wearing nothing but a smile on your face.
Compare this with the culture of Black Rock City — a place where, so long as you aren’t harming anyone else or violating 10 fairly liberal principles, you are free — even encouraged — to do whatever the hell you want to do. Eager to explore your sexuality, play with members of the same sex, or have others watch you in the act? There are entire camps within the city dedicated to just that — and judgement and shame are nowhere to be found. Want to scream at the top of your lungs or howl like a wolf at the moon? Chances are someone will join you.
And here’s the best part: You know that thing we all do, where we talk about our jobs, our hobbies, our experiences, or our possessions as a means of garnering respect, admiration, or common ground? None of that exists at a Burn. It’s quite common to spend hours, or even days, connecting deeply and intimately with another human being — without even knowing their real name, much less their job, their socioeconomic status, or their age. In fact, I once spent an entire week bonding deeply on everything from psychology, to philosophy, to love, with a woman I knew only as Autonomy, without even the slightest hint that she was a successful entrepreneur and CEO, renowned behavioral scientist, university lecturer, and business partner to one of my favorite authors. All of these biographical details — crutches that we benignly use to prop up our self esteem — are left behind, brought into the light only when necessary. What’s left is an opportunity to let your true self — the person lurking beneath all of the noise — come out and play with other people doing the exact same thing.
The end result is, inevitably, a feeling of joy, lightness, and freedom — which, for me, was immediately followed by a big and troubling question.
Why don’t I always feel like this?
WHEN YOU FEEL THAT LEVEL OF FREEDOM, JOY, EXCITEMENT, ACCEPTANCE, AND LOVE, IT’S LIKE LETTING HELIUM GAS OUT OF A BALLOON. IT EXPANDS TO FILL EVERY MILLIMETER OF SPACE ALLOWED, AND TRAPPING IT BACK INTO IT’S CAGE IS IMPOSSIBLE.
The answer was a difficult one to swallow:
Because I don’t always feel safe and secure enough to be myself. I don’t always feel accepted for who I really am. I don’t always do what’s true to my heart. I don’t always open myself to strange and exciting new experiences. And I don’t always open up and connect to others simply for who they are at the deepest level.
Standing there, in some ridiculous outfit, with no recollection of my last shower and no impressive achievements to lean upon, I felt more accepted, loved, and appreciated with a
group of complete strangers than I had ever felt before.
At that moment, something within me broke. Something irreparable. When you feel that level of freedom, joy, excitement, acceptance, and love, it’s like letting helium gas out of a balloon. It expands to fill every millimeter of space allowed, and trapping it back into it’s cage is impossible. So, too, did my soul expand during my first burn. My heart saured. My spirit shuffled off a great weight. I vowed never to let any aspect of my true self be caged in again. If I could be accepted so fully by such complete strangers, then I could — and would — be accepted by anyone and everyone I meet.
It was just a matter of bringing a little bit of the playa magic into the real world. Of learning to be the same loving, curious, confident, and open-hearted person out here that I am in there.
And I’ll tell you a little secret that I’ve discovered, my friends: once you learn how to conjure up that special kind of magic, the entire world becomes your playa.
But first, you simply have to experience it for yourself…
(P.S. If you want a list of my top 75 life hacks, you can download it here.)