I went to Burning Man Festival to launch my first book. Three days later, I burnt the book, along with a symbolic decade of hardship and psychological tumult. It’s that kind of festival. It calls forth the ‘meaningful’ within a chaotic circus of post-modern mayhem. Black Rock City is the week-long social experiment that pools together over 60,000 participants, with nary a whiff of leadership and a community of co-operation upheld by 10 principles.
People go to Burning Man for all kinds of reasons totally unrelated, however, after my steep, virginal immersion in this radical city, I found one common thread among all its pilgrims: the people who go to Burning Man have an appreciation of extraordinary, meaning-making experiences, or what I refer to as the Sacred.
And that meaning-making experience may very well entail parading in nipple tassels upon knife-edge of an explosive steam-punk ship, or competing in the Burning Man marathon in desert heat. I definitely witnessed meaning-making conviction in the eyes of the dodge ball umpire, who with unwavering attention hosted tournaments around the clock. Meaning found its way into the commitment of the Black Rock City rangers, voluntarily up-skilled and jovially on the ready to handle all things ‘issues’ in this wild, adult playground. And I suppose some citizens experienced so much meaning in their sojourn that they felt compelled to send a postcard home from the pop-up, Black Rock City Post Office, with a message of love and magic from this miraculous place. Other Burners reasons for participating are beautifully documented here.
Granted there was always a queue outside the spanking workshop, I assumed there were extraordinary experiences just waiting to be spanked out of a consenting butt, no doubt as awakening as the download I received in the presence of twin priestesses whispering tantric teachings. In a dome marked ‘Sacred Space’ where you were always welcomed by a woman in white, people were healing and clearing and stretching and feeling and breathing blissfully in their bodies with yogic arts. I was fortunate to receive a healing from a shaman who lived in New York, so I could dump my 6 years of exhaustion banked up through book writing, before I hit the dance floor with a dusty moon-walk.
The Sacred rated so highly at Burning Man that I even had the privilege to attend a friend’s wedding ceremony, and just after the groom tied the knot, a seasoned Burner convinced me that my presence was required at a party called Robot Heart. A full camel-back, free spirit and commitment to sunrise would see me safe and sound at base-camp the next day, where I rolled in on my bike, high as a kite, from dancing on the desert earth with a tribe of friendships.
In some ways, making a trip to the vacant plains of Nevada where only dust, ether, air and dry earth exist, ensures that there’s plenty of space for creating meaning from scratch in an arena of community participation. You either hide in an RV or stay connected. The city is an enormous blank canvas quickly electrified and animated by art cars, sculptures, costumes, performers, theme camps and candle-lit streets. Whether you are gifting sunscreen or a pyrotechnic octopus is not relevant. Whether you are exceptional at something is beside the point. What’s most important is that you’ve made it, you’ve made the pilgrimage and you are in the arms of every other devoted pilgrim who all have a significant story and something to share. Equality measures high at Burning Man, so much so that it can restore one’s faith in humanity if lost by power-driven cultures.
Because this gathering is the biggest ‘leave no trace’ festival in the world, self-sufficiency is vital. First-world comforts are replaced with first-class responsibility for all things like yourself, your rubbish, your emotional intelligence and your water. In a locale where no life is present and only dust prevails, your are prompted to consider your survival just as much as your costume, and this can be a tiring shift from the ease of home. Even for the non-drinker in me I was wrapped to find a bar at every street corner offering exquisite cocktails and whiskey. Burning Man is tough. The desert is harsh. A stiff drink has profound meaning.
You could argue that all festivals hold meaning-making potential, and they do, evermore enriched by the intentions of the participants and the themes of the gathering. However, The Burn honours the very basic yet ceremonial element of fire and the power of its deconstructive and cleansing gifts. Burning the Man is the mother event of all events at this epic event-filled festival, followed by a silent and sobering burn of the Temple of Whollyness the following day. It’s this Sacred Art that I wish to draw your attention to most, beyond the distraction of the nipple-tassels and roving dinosaurs, because what I witnessed as a virgin pilgrim to the base of each burning ceremony was as heartwarming as it was medicinal for the health of my soul.
60,000 kindred spirits focussing intently and lovingly on the dazzling flames of the Man and his Temple reduced to smoke, earthed a ridiculous amount of meaning-making, providing everyone with the opportunity for prayers and offerings, promises and sacrifices, to smoulder in the flames and release with hope. This communal effort of appreciating the Sacred showed me just how indestructible the Sacred is. It was ironic, that despite the hundreds of phenomenal artworks rigged with fireworks and pegged with parties, oozing with joy, camaraderie, originality and, no doubt, the odd spank; that regardless of the poetry scribed on installations, the books launched and the acrobatic feats performed by adult star-children; that even if I’d attempted suicide and my fellow Burner’s mental health was re-wired, and my camping neighbour displayed the dottiness of a loose-screw; that the purity of a shared, sacred fire in honour of one moment at a timeless time, drew a line through everything that once WAS and honoured everything about what IS. Winning hearts, universally, at Black Rock City.
Sitting around a fire as our ancestors did, was never such an honour as it was for me at The Burn. Who wouldn’t burn their book? Who wouldn’t stop and think how blessed they are to be alive? Who wouldn’t treasure the gift of a pair of nipple-tassels from a new-friend-Burner, after experiencing solidarity, unmatched, at a pop-up week on a spot on the globe? You see, whether you are in the company of 59,999 people or yourself, the principle remains the same: attributing an act with meaning will propel more meaning in one’s life. When we look to optimising our own well-being we would do well to shape our life with Sacred Arts. When we suffer deep depression and walk the space of no-meaning, we need only to invent a meaning-making effort or expression or intention and let that be our fire burning.
Burning Man Festival drums home the human instinct to congregate, to share and celebrate individual expressions of meaning-making. This film is a must watch from a sensational perspective. I went to Burning Man Festival to launch my first book. Three days later I burnt it, and already the new life spawned from dusty ashes is evidenced from my act of letting go. Like this new story of appreciation and empassioned promotion for that which is Sacred. May we pause to mark its magic and mark it in our cheers!
What do you define as Sacred?
Photography: Heath Myers