I bought my ticket. I coordinated my travel. I planned my costumes and bleached my hair. My gear was packed and I was ready to embark on the journey called Burning Man 2009. I read everything I could find on others’ experiences and recommendations for making the most of the Burning Man experience. And nothing could adequately prepare me for what awaited me in the desert… and more importantly, within myself.
What is Burning Man?
For those who are unfamiliar with what Burning Man is, begin HERE and explore the articles and galleries for a taste. Started in the mid-80s in the Bay Area, the event has evolved to roughly 40-50k people descending upon an ancient lakebed (called “The Playa”) in the Nevada desert for eight days of full self-expression without judgment.
Everyone’s experience is completely different. Some camp in tents, others in RVs – in smaller camps of 10 people to larger camps of 100+. There are mohawked children; hundreds of bicycles ( one of the few sanctioned modes of transportation); frequent nudity and various forms of sexual exploration; theme camps where you can find grilled cheese sandwiches at 4am (Black Rock City Diner), a call to paint on canvas walls (Picasso Camp) or a chance to make your own set of decorative horns for your head/hat (Horny Camp); gay and lesbian AA meetings; hundreds of “art cars” in the shapes of dragons, giant ships or anything that can be placed on wheels (many shooting out giant flames to everyone’s great excitement); a Temple where people inscribe and place dedications to deceased loved ones that is burned to the ground on the last night; and everything else you can possibly think of. And of course, there's the burning of the Man itself. It all happens here -- some of the art/performances/activities/themes painstakingly planned, some haphazardly devised last minute (but with passion and enthusiasm). Think quantum creativity… squared. Many come for the art, exhibits, music and experience of community, while others come for the hedonism… or all these things and more.
The one thing everyone has in common is what is termed “radical self-reliance” – on multiple levels. Surviving the heat and dust (wind storms!!) of the Playa is no easy feat. You must bring in all your own camping gear, food, water, and supplies. You must be conscious of not only your fluid and food intake (and sunscreen protection!), but also of what waste you create and how you will dispose of it. What you bring in, you must depart with. Anything considered MOOP (Matter Out Of Place) must not be left on the Playa – as it is everyone’s mission to leave the environment exactly as s/he found it. Crews of volunteers spend a couple of weeks following everyone’s departure tearing down the temporary Black Rock City and combing the desert for every last nail and cigarette butt, every stray boa feather and clump of glitter, so that we “leave no trace” of our borrowing of the Playa.
This self-reliance extends beyond the physical. There are the mental and spiritual experiences of being out in the desert, out of comfort zones, and of traveling the inner journey that everyone inevitably experiences – whether they are aware of it at the time or not. And there is the social piece – of not only participating and finding the right groove and niches that fit for where the traveler is at that point in their lives, but of coordinating, pooling resources, and contributing to the overall experience of the other participants. Upon meeting new people (from the minute I arrived), I was greeted with a hug and “Welcome Home.” “Community” is a huge focus. No money is exchanged on the Playa (beyond purchase of ice for coolers, and the occasional chai tea at Center Camp). Barter and gifting is the culture, and offering to pay for anything can be considered an insult and contrary to the “spirit of Burning Man.” If you need it, someone has it and is more than willing to provide it to you (just in time!) with a generous heart, open hands, and a loving smile. Whether it is a D battery, a bloody Mary, a bandage and Neosporin, or a hug.
This year's theme was "Evolution" -- fitting for how I view my experience of life -- an evolution of self and world. Personally, I saw this 10-day “vacation” as an experiment. I am attracted to new experiences, and getting out of my own comfort zones. However, this was to be on a totally different plane. I was going to be traveling with three friends from Chicago, and would be camping with roughly 40 new friends – among 40,000 others. Those close to me were surprised I was going to be doing this, and some even had their doubts that I would be able to handle the heat, dust, and craziness of the experience. While I was curious about how I would handle it myself, I knew I would just dive in and go with it.
As a coach, I could not help but set some intentions for the journey I was to embark upon. I wanted to be present, open to the adventure and was eager to find new ways of expressing myself. I also wanted to be willing to “receive.” I’m a “giver,” so the idea of others simply offering anything to me without expectation was something I wanted to be a part of. And more specifically, I saw this as a vision quest and an opportunity to shed many layers of who I know myself to be and “be with” what is possible for myself and for others… to know myself and my brothers on an entirely new level.
At this point in my life, I am closing some chapters and beginning some new ones. I am wrapping up the last of my formal education -- after roughly 30+ years in various levels of graduate and professional training. I am examining where I want to take my career next. I am exploring how I would like to continue my work in the HIV/AIDS arena. And I’m getting a feel for where I want to call “home” at this juncture in my life. Add all this transition and change to how I view myself personally and socially, and who I want to be in the world in terms of making the kind of impact I was born to make… well, it’s a lot to consider. So, Burning Man was my opportunity to hit “pause” while hitting “fast-forward” at the same time.
While out in the desert, I learned the value of surrender and appreciation. I learned how to be with whatever was put in front of me and to embrace the beauty of it. Whether it was being with my filthy, dust-filled tent (and sleeping bag); celebrating the various forms of public nudity and hedonism around me; deeply connecting with other kind souls; riding a three-story Astroturf-covered slide on a piece of cardboard and taking a chunk of skin off my elbow at 3am; dancing all night and seeing yet another sunrise; doing multiple costume changes throughout the day; eating random bacon slices from a neighboring camp; or thoroughly enjoying a quick shower out in the open (as a break from baby wipes and hand sanitizer) without shame or embarrassment – this was my Burning Man experience. And this does not even capture 10% of what it is all about – for me or anyone else I know.
Now that I’m back, I’ve been gradually reflecting on my journey. I am only just unpacking the experience, and more insight will occur as I continue to participate in life back in the Matrix. Not only was surrender a huge part of it, but so was recognition of my own power -- to survive, be self-sufficient and self-reliant, to receive openly, to give generously (even a stick of gum is an act of generosity when it comes from the heart and is well-intentioned), and to be a part of a community of like-minded, like-spirited people. Burning Man is not for everyone, but I will say proudly that I can now call myself a “Burner” who will eagerly return to the Playa for a completely new adventure.
I saw the face of God while I was out one night in the desert. His face appeared as a sparkling, winking eye (probably Venus or the North Star) surrounded by clouds shaped into a warm, loving grin. He spoke to me: “This is all for you, skeptical one. This experience was created for you and by you so that you will know the Truth. Know that anything is possible, because everything is within you and without you. You have My power and strength because you are Me and I am you. You are never alone because we are One.” In that moment, I felt my heart soften and open even further. And I was at peace as I set out on foot toward the thumping bass in the distance.