2016-06-30
Burning Man was conceived in 1986 when a San Francisco man named Larry Harvey invited a friend to burn a wooden effigy in honor of the Summer Solstice. It has grown into an annual week-long festival, a place of pilgrimage for some 25,000 people who form a temporary community in the Nevada desert the week before Labor Day. Burning Man culminates in the conflagration of a huge effigy, an event that has taken on sacred significance. A new documentary, "The Burning Sensation," focuses on the performance-art aspect of the festival, but many have found it to be spiritually transforming. Here, Marshall Elliott gives a first-hand account of this year's Burning Man.

It's Friday. A dust storm has just blown in, lifting a thick cloud of dust. Off in the distance, I hear the rolling thunder of drums, though I can't see anything.

c 1997 by George Post
Photo c 1997 by George Post

I wander over to see what is happening. I see friends dancing with bandanas over their mouths, and the excitement is like electricity charging the air. I pick up a drum, sit down, and join in. More people come, from all directions. Drumming faster now, shouting, people begin to leap into the air and spin until soon, there are a couple hundred of us. Everyone is covered head to toe in a thin layer of white dust as a large metal phoenix statue is lit on fire. Building and growing in intensity, we invite the magic in through the wind and the rain until-hours later-the clouds clear, the most beautiful sunset comes out, and a rainbow touches down upon the horizon. We all begin laughing and hugging one another in large circles. All of us feel it: you can see it in our eyes. We've just been there

: Another spiritual epiphany at Burning Man.

Each year, in the week before Labor Day, more than 25,000 people gather on the flat playa surface of the Black Rock desert in northern Nevada to enact the ritual-a week-long event culminating in the burning of a 70-foot tall man effigy. This structure, which glows in blue neon at night, provides the city with a center, and its most powerful talisman, to which participants ascribe whatever meaning they choose to the experience. Any description of this week is impossible. It is a party, a temporary community, a carnival, an arts festival, and a tabula rasa for radical self-expression. It is a powerful place. While any attempt to define what happens here is inadequate, it certainly is a stage for spiritual transformation. The first time I came here last year, I thought I was inside of God's brain.

When it comes to the issue of spirituality at Burning Man, almost every viewpoint is represented, including some bizarre mysticism and plenty of self-made religions. Many people are happy to discuss their views when asked, but truly the only answers here lie within. While navigating through the city, full of shamans and teachers of all kinds, the soul finds its resonance in the creative explosion. Individual boundaries, taboos, and preconceptions are tested; ages are lived in days.

Black Rock City, as the festival's encampment is called, is actually a large village full of people who aren't specialists. Everyone here is good at so many things-constantly we are reminded of the full depth of our eclectic talents. We are all ministers to our spirits; ready to help each other out, whether you need to marry someone else, or more importantly-if you need to marry yourself. For many, Burning Man is their first vision of the fully unleashed creative power of the divine, and our god-like roles as creators.

Every thought is put into collective action here. When listening to the heart, needs seem magically to be met. Your back hurts? Go lie down at center camp. Before long, you'll end up in a conversation with an incredible person who will offer you a Thai massage. Need a gallon of red paint? Ask the playa. It will happen. Often you don't even need to ask. Sometimes, you don't even know you need it yet. This is the byproduct of a care-based gift economy. Vending is prohibited here. You can't buy food, and you can't buy water. You can't even buy a commemorative t-shirt (but, yes, someone will help you make

one). Somewhere in the process of all this generosity in the face of survival, the community comes alive. Everyone waves, smiles, greets, and hugs. It's infectious and it lifts the city ever so subtly each day to higher places.

For myself, the greatest lesson of Burning Man is to be present to the immediate moment: to "be here now," as Ram Dass put it many years before the inception of this event. Within minutes of arriving in the city, everyone is overwhelmed. In a daze, we ask each other: "Is this really happening?" as a flame-throwing octopus cruises past, or a knife-juggler shouting bad jokes wanders by. Too much is always happening. We are always missing the most amazing things, whether they are across the city or across the street. The only witness we can bear is to the amazing things happening to us at the moment, in the amazing place that we happen to be.

As a great practical joke, the event organizers publish a guide to the city's various attractions. Want to get covered head to toe in glitter? Head to glittercamp. Need some bird yoga, or Balinese monkey chanting? Ready for Santa humiliation hour? It happens every day at noon (bring your heckling). Maybe you need a bullhorn exchange program or the soul mate trading outlet. It's all planned out for you to answer your every need. Unfortunately, nothing here ever seems to happen on schedule. We all operate on "playa time." Nobody wears watches. Attempts to "plan" or "follow schedules" ultimately unravel as we succumb to the flow. Want to see something interesting? Just go for a walk. A certain amount of confidence in the universe is necessary here: a confidence that everything is happening for a reason and that all

things are important.

Disasters happen at Burning Man just like anywhere else. Injuries, lies, theft, violence, heart-breaking emotional experiences are all reality. This is, after all, the real world. Even a utopia has conflict. My analysis of the week generally moves from amazement at how perfect everything is, to the sobering realization that everything's not perfect, to the calm acceptance that because some things are perfect and some aren't, this truly is

perfect. Everything becomes a little easier when we accept that misfortune and sadness have their place. As Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet

: "The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain." If all of life were as fun as it could be, how would we know it was fun at all?

I came to the realization at some point during the week that whatever I said about Burning Man I could immediately follow with the phrase "just like life." It is life, it is real, it is magical; and that's real too. Too often, we make the mistake of assuming that the transformative experience can only be repeated under extenuating circumstances. They can, however, be repeated. They do-if you let them.

My most important challenge from Burning Man this year was how to bring it home. It's in our relationships with other people, our first assumption that all others are gifts, vessels of wonder that we can interact with and treat with loving compassion. While I may not have an opportunity again to party inside of a giant duck, or watch the incredible bonfire of the temple of joy, I will always be able to treat others with the same open heart I first learned in the desert. As a first-time "burner" told me, "Usually my imagination is greater than reality. This is the first time reality was greater than my imagination." After a week of Burning Man, I can say: There is no difference between your imagination and reality. Trust each other accordingly.

The doctrine of radical self-expression-the permission to be whoever you wish to be-is mostly just the radical notion of learning how to be yourself; of being who you naturally are. Burning Man is a place to stretch your limits and redefine your relationship with God, because almost anything is permitted. The first day on the playa, I ate a dragonfly that had died on my car. While I wasn't completely sure why I did this, part of me hoped for a transmission of the secret knowledge of flight. The rest of the week was practically devoid of any wildlife at all in the harsh desert, yet on the last day I woke up and took a walk when something buzzed by my head. It was a pair of mating dragonflies. I laughed. Something, too, was being born in me.

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