September 10, 2009

Burning Man and the truest sense of home

Jarl Forsman

The Burning Man 2009 (Photo by Jarl Forsman)

I’m back from a week at Burning Man. What an amazing and fulfilling week it was! This year’s theme was Evolution. Because my interest lies in consciousness, I sought out community, events, and conversations that addressed the evolution of consciousness. It was also the first time in six years that I elected to join another camp rather than helping to create my own. I participated in a theme camp called Entheon Village. Entheon means, “a place to discover the spirit within."

For those of you who have not had the opportunity to experience Burning Man, let me attempt to describe what really needs to be experienced to be understood. I’m sure it is many different things to different people, but I think everyone would agree that Burning Man is characterized by radical self-expression and self-reliance. For the experience of radical self-expression, artists flock to display art installations and art cars, also known as mutant vehicles, on which they have worked months and sometimes all year long to prepare for this one week of appreciation. With radical self-expression as the raison d'etre, everyone is free to create from the authentic muse rather than from what will sell or fit in. The result is otherworldly, delightful, and sometimes utterly amazing. It is truly awesome to see what we are capable of when the rules are relaxed and the box is expanded just a bit. Several of the larger pieces such as “The Man” and “The Temple” are burned. The psychological benefits derived from the experience of working on ephemeral art, mirror what the Tibetan monks experience when they destroy the sand mandalas after weeks of effort making those beautiful, symbolic works of art. In this Buddhist tradition, mandalas are painstakingly made from colored sand and upon completion are ritualistically destroyed. This process symbolizes Buddhists belief in the transitory nature of material life. It demonstrates an intention to experience the sheer joy of creation along with a detachment of the end result.

Everyone is encouraged to dress completely in alignment with how they feel rather than according to protocol or appropriateness. Actually, the concept of appropriateness doesn't really exist at Burning Man. Anything goes. When anything goes, judgment of others often flies out the window. When judgment of others disappears, self-judgment fades too, and one is left with the feelings of authenticity, acceptance, freedom, and love. It’s a wonderful experience when it happens. When I say, “anything goes,” and “judgment flies out the window,” I’m not talking about discernment or laws. I’m referring to style and personal self-expression. Beauty and goodness is still beauty and goodness.

Burning Man is also about radical self-reliance. The week takes place in an ancient lakebed where nothing lives. There are no bugs, no birds, no creepy-crawlers, no animals, no plants, no nothing. That is, nothing but dust and more dust! Citizens of Black Rock City must bring everything they need, including shelter, food, water, and gear which can protect them from the harsh environment of heat and wind blowing dust so intensely that “white-outs” occur several times a day. The juxtaposition of the periodic harshness of the environment and the gentle attitudes of the citizens toward one another make for an exhilarating experience. Life seems magical and synchronicity abounds.

The only commerce at Burning Man is conducted by the organizers and it is limited to selling high-octane espresso drinks and electrolytes in addition to ice for campers’ coolers. All other forms of commerce are frowned upon and strictly prohibited. What is encouraged in its place is a gift economy. Nothing is to be bought, bartered or sold, but only gifted. To improvise on the words of John F. Kennedy, at Burning Man the theme is: “ask not what Burning Man can give to you, ask what you can give to your fellow burner.” Everyone arrives with something to offer such as art, performance, food, humor, theme camps, drinks, dance parties, some kind of service or just, plain appreciation. Regardless of what you do or do not bring, just by virtue of trekking out to this remote and harsh environment, everybody is a participant.

Most of what is found in a normal US city can be found in Black Rock City. The only difference is that Black Rock City arises out of nothing, lasts for one week, and then disappears back into absolutely nothing, leaving no trace but a memory. Cafés, nightclubs, a skating rink, a post office, films, bars, concerts, bicycle repair shops, yoga, tai chi, and hula-hoop classes, lectures, meditations, a zendo, twelve-step meetings, performances of all kinds, amazing art, a hotel, clothing designers wanting to dress you, people offering to bathe you, massage you, and heal you. You name it. It is available and all in the price of admission: $250 per person and your own participation.

When one is focused on giving, magic truly happens. When a desire or need arises, its fulfillment is almost immediate. With a focus on giving, “wanting” loses its grip, tension relaxes, and fulfillment easily finds its way to you. This is true for tangible, material desires as well as for emotional ones. After experiencing this magic so many times, I began to ask people if they experienced similar phenomenon at Burning Man. The answer was always a resounding yes. I suspect this is the truth about life in general: the Universe provides! But we are usually so focused on the “how” that we miss the fact that what we want is often right in front of us.

The idea of safety doesn’t even come up, at least not for me. This environment is like being on another planet where fulfillment abounds. People treat one another lovingly and with acceptance. No one is a stranger. It’s one big “functional” family. I’m sure there are exceptions, but they are few and far between.

Upon arriving from what Burners call the “default world,” the greeters at the gate greet each person with “Welcome Home!” The feeling I experience at Burning Man is that of being at home in the truest sense of the word: at home with myself, expressing my true nature without the concern of being judged. Home is wherever the heart is, comfortably expressing authentically in an atmosphere of radical self-acceptance.