Last week I returned from my fifth Burning Man. It was an incredible experience, my favorite year yet, and I am still processing and decompressing from that wonderful week in the Nevada desert. Anyone who spends much time with me knows that I go to Burning Man, given how it changed my life so radically it is hard not to bring it up. What many people don’t understand is what Burning Man actually is… unfortunately, I have a hard time explaining it myself.
I think that asking the question “What is Burning Man?” is actually one that can’t be truly answered. It would be like asking “What is Pittsburgh?” or “What is England?”. That phrasing might work on Jeopardy but it doesn’t really work in real conversation. The problem is that Burning Man isn’t really an event, it is more of a community and a place. Sure, it is scheduled at a time and place for a limited time like a festival but it isn’t a festival. There are events that happen at Burning Man, but Burning Man itself is not really an event.
At the end of every summer ~70,000 gather together in the harsh Black Rock desert in Northern Nevada and build a community based on 10 principles. These principles guide the behavior of each member of the community. Now, nobody is perfectly following the principles. In fact, there are times when the principles are in conflict with each other. There are no community supported laws, bureaucrats, red-tape or elected officials (though various government agencies are present). The only infrastructure in place when burners arrive are the streets marked off and porta-potties. Every other structure and resource is brought in by the attendees and built by the attendees… and oh man, they can build wonderful things in such a short time.
Even without the threat of violence from men with badges the community is incredibly well-behaved. Women can bike around at night naked and not get harassed or assaulted, people use all kinds of chemicals that aren’t authorized, and people pick up garbage (or “Matter Out Of Place” – MOOP) as they travel. It is far from perfect and there are assholes but I would prefer to be around that intentional community than a random selection of 70,000 outside of Burning Man.
There are other questions, like “what do you do at Burning Man?” and “Why do you like going to Burning Man?” that are a little easier to handle. The former question depends a lot on the person. There are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of events that happen during the week and what I do will vary significantly from what others do.
For example, on Tuesday we set off on our bikes without much of a goal. As we rode around the streets we passed camps that people set up to provide gifts to other members of the community. We found ourselves at a camp giving away grilled cheese, another one with iced coffee, and a third with margaritas. At the margarita place we ran into an old friend and chatted for an hour, then there was a camel-toe and moose-knuckle competition. We also stumbled upon a camp that was doing circus acts that served Pho (including vegan!) and we learned that they were having a pole dancing performance on Friday so we tentatively decided to attend that.
In total, we biked around and found dozens of camps spontaneously with drinks and food and music… all gifts from other burners. Eventually, the sun got to us so we took a nap. After our nap we went out to look at art and listen to more music, again we had no real goal other than live in the moment. If you google “Burning Man Art 2019” you will see some of the amazing things that artists created as gifts for everyone. We were able to climb up into many of them and play.
This continued for seven days. There were sunrise yoga sets and classes about how to tie someone up in BDSM. Some professors were there to teach about the geology of the Black Rock Desert and fire dancers performed in the streets. We even went to a class called “Discussing Sexual Desires for Introverts”. There was a “hug deli” where you go up and order what type of hug you would like and everyone around gives you that hug. Each day has thousands of events scheduled and infinite unscheduled random encounters where you can meet new people, laugh, and love. Remember, it is a city where gifting is part of the culture so everyone tries to provide something for others.
Whether you wanted to meditate and honor your spirituality or get into a carnal sexual dance, there is a community for you. It really is about getting out of the “default world” and working towards being true to yourself. It is the most beautiful of experiences and it is my Home. It is tough though, the environment is rough, and there are many moments of discomfort and sadness and emotional overloads, but those “negatives” actually make it even more important to me. The people who rent RVs and hide from the heat or shower daily or stick to the places of comfort have different priorities and experiences than I do. I like to sweat and connect and get dirty and deal with the porta-potties to truly begin to see a glimpse of what it has to offer.
Each year is a new lesson and new experience, and this year was no different. Some lessons that hit home this year include:
- I have a lot of internalized shame and a feeling that I’m not worthy of happiness or health. A lot of my internal negative dialogue and self-sabotage comes back to this. But I AM worthy of love and happiness and success and health, even if it doesn’t feel that way.
- I definitely have a group sex kink. It isn’t necessarily a desire to have sex with other partners, it is more of extreme enjoyment from being in a room with others having sex. Kind of a voyeurism, exhibitionism, live porn kink.
- I’m a pretty good looking guy and my self-image is pretty tainted. I wouldn’t say it is full-blown body dysmorphia but I have a distorted view of my own appearance.
- I really like being naked. Not only in sexual situations or whatever, I just like not having clothes on and I like being around other people who don’t have clothes on.
- I should be a better advocate for myself. It is okay for me to speak up for what I want and say no to people or experiences that I don’t want.
- I am not at fault for the trauma I experienced during war. It is good that I survived. I have deep wounds to work on but I am not the same person I was back then (I was basically a kid) and I am not the same person as the guys I served with. The week before Burning Man I had a really bad PTSD anxiety attack, I was convinced that I would inevitably “snap” and kill those I loved. I felt leaving their life was the only way to protect them and nobody would truly love me if they knew my heart. I was in a bad place. Luckily, I have a kick-ass partner and she knows intuitively how to help me. The Burn really brought some of these issues into clearer focus and helped me realize that I am not my trauma and nothing is “inevitable”.
Those are some of the takeaways on my mind right now. I’m trying to process and decompress and plan out how to take this time of clarity to move forward. I know this momentum won’t last forever but things feel really good right now and some ideas include volunteering in the community more, writing and publishing erotica, start fire dancing again, join local clubs (swinger, nudist, environmentalists, activism), take art lessons (dancing, singing or instrument), get outdoors more, develop my spiritual practice, and take my physical health more seriously through an exercise routine and better eating. I also want to start doing more events and travelling alone, including an extended meditation retreat.
The them for this year (Metamorphosis) was really applicable to my experience. I, like everyone else, is a constant state of change. I’m learning and striving and stumbling daily, and Burning Man helps with all of that. It is a place where I gain insight into myself and am encouraged to take chances and make decisions that are true to myself. It is my Mecca, my pilgrimage, my rebirth, my new year, my rite of passage, my spiritual home. It is holier to me than Christmas is to Christians and more worthy of celebration than any birthday.