For the Grace of God in the Desert Here and the Desert Far Away

First, what, exactly, is Burning Man?

Burning Man is an ephemeral, World’s Fair-class arts festival and neo-tribal gathering held for roughly one week in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Some two-and-a-half hours north of Reno, Burning Man culminates on Labor Day weekend and takes place on the “playa,” an absolutely flat ancient lake bed whose fine, corrosive, alkaline dirt/dust/sand seeps into everyone and everything.

30,000+ people plus attended this year. Keep in mind that before Black Rock City is built each year, there is nothing on the playa – no water, no electricity, no nothing. And, after the festival is over, the creed of “leave no trace” takes over. Why “Leave No Trace”? Well, if any trace is left, then the folks at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) might not let Burning Man be held there in the future. So, Black Rock City comes from nothing, and then returns to nothing … and in between, the most remarkable outpouring of passion, creativity, and partying that I have ever experienced, or, really, even imagined, takes place.

You might wonder: Is the Playa really as hostile an environment as some say? The answer is: Yup. This year we had it easy – no over 90-degree temperatures. So while we did bake and dehydrate during the day, it wasn’t that bad. But the dust was pretty bad. In the middle of nowhere, a complete white out can make things even a few feet ahead impossible to see. You always have to carry water, and are wise to carry goggles and a mask. As columnist Mark Morford points out, part of the festival’s great power comes from its juxtaposition of the gritty realities of having to build and live in a desert city (including the presence of fuming, snorting generators, and indescribably rank porta-potties) and an ever-presently astounding outpouring of creativity and open-hearted care.

Burning Man has a history of course, starting on San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986, reportedly as Larry Harvey and some friends burned a wooden man in effigy after Larry had been jilted by his girlfriend. This year, the man was 60 feet tall, made of wood and illuminated with neon, and placed on a Mayan temple-like platform.

The festival culminates first in the Burn of the Man (which was the largest object I’ve personally ever seen or felt burning), and then, the next night, in the more somber burn of David Best’s art piece The Temple of Honor. (This was a European-level castle-temple honoring the dead and departed … again, you have to see a picture to get an idea of the scale and quality of this piece of art.)

What did I experience?

Amazing art, amazing people, a hell of a good party, and the great collective will and generosity that makes an ephemeral desert city possible.

Let’s start with the people. One of the folks I met was a fellow named Rob Breszny, well-known for his decades-long promulgation of esoteric secrets through what he calls “the despised medium of the astrology column.” Rob was preaching at the Church of Wow, and giving forth on his development of the idea of “Pronoia,” which is the opposite of “Paranoia.” (Just imagine that there is a vast, world-wide, conspiracy aimed at nothing but your personal liberation and complete enlightenment…)

I also met Jeff Magnus McBride. One of the world’s top stage magicians as well as a trained occultist, Jeff put on an absolutely great performance at the Mystic Beat Lounge party on the Wednesday night before the burn. After his performance we had a conversation that I will never forget, which culminated in his offering me an Alchemical Blessing that will live forever in my heart.

See, Jeff also is the Creative Director of an intense nature mysticism event called Fire Dance. I have not yet attended this event, but I certainly hope to.

And then there was Bruce Damer, and his wife Galen Brandt, whom I met in my last two days of the festival. Galen was someone I immediately wanted to “put on a show” with (to quote Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney), and Bruce is a brilliant and kind evocateur of future philosophy.

Just as important, there were the hundreds of other people I met and interacted with, from my campmates at the Mystic Beat Lounge (our party on Wednesday night ruled!) to the woman from Hawaii who waited in line with me for 4 fruitless hours in the RV servicing line (the RV servicing company never showed up that morning). The thing about Burning Man is that there is no money exchanged (other than for buying coffee, lemonade, and ice), and so there is an ethic of giving away everything to everyone on a constant basis. You have no idea what a difference it makes if you go to visit a friend and you sit down in their camp (The Moons of Mongo, where they played laser tag on scooters at sundown) and out of nowhere someone offers you a grilled cheese sandwich after you’ve been hungry for hours and you didn’t even know it.

Or the folks who provided the swimming pool. Or the large trailer that was always kept at 60 degrees with constant dance music. Or the many folks (often but not always in art cars) giving away drinks of every kind. Or the 500+ people who created and drove around their astounding art cars of every description. (My favorite was La Contessa, a three story Galleon with many levels of dancing going on simultaneously.) Or the thousands of people who create or contribute to substantial works of art, from hanging concrete slabs to labyrinths to amazing laser and light displays and so on.

An Integral Analysis

I wrote an email to Ken Wilber and asked him if he ever would go to Burning Man. His reply was “Ugh.” Seriously gritty, rough and ready nature mysticism just isn’t for everyone. Nonetheless, in honor of Ken, here is a brief quadrant-focused Integral Analysis of Burning Man.

The four quadrants of Wilber’s theory, you will recall, come from crossing two axes: singular vs. plural, and inside vs. outside. Thus, my individual interior experiences while at Burning Man are the upper left quadrant; my individual exterior experience, that is, me and my body at Burning Man, is the upper right quadrant; the group-interior experience, or the collective cultural experience, is the lower left quadrant; and the group exterior experience, or the city-and-society for a week that is created each year, is the lower right.

In reverse order, the very fact that a City rises and falls in a week, that it is capable of handling 30,000 people, that the physical and energy and food infrastructure must come together without a hitch – this all amazes me. Out of nothing comes a City and a Society and the means for people to live together, and play together, and, for the most part, remain safe. (There was, as you may know, a death this year — a young woman was run over by the trailer of her own camp’s art car, at 2:00 in the morning. Very, very sad. We hold you and miss you, Ms. Lampman.)

And all of this in the middle of a butt-kicking desert! And then, when it’s over, dozens of folks stay on for weeks to make sure that No Trace is left. What organization! What daring! What imagination!

Plus, it’s not just a makeshift city of tents and RVs. Yes, it is that, but it is far, far more when the art and the activities and the facilities that people provide for each other are considered. It’s not just people bringing solar showers: It’s someone bringing a swimming pool and filling it. It’s not just making a few pancakes, it’s the Pancake Camp making pancakes for thousands of people, days in a row! It’s not just a place for people to have makeshift battles with batakas as they swing by each other in mid-air in harnesses – no, it’s the Thunderdome that is built around them so that people can climb up and hang on and jeer and make you think that you really are in a Mad Max movie. It’s not just the ability to get around: it’s the tens of thousands of bicycles and how they manage to avoid each other and the art cars and the scooters and all the rest. It is chaos! Chaos, I tell you! But it works. It works amazingly well. The collective exterior manages much better than I would have ever expected, from meeting food and water and excretion and medical requirements (there is a full-time well-staffed medical station and the ability to medi-vac people out) to making it possible to party past dawn and explore unbelievable art installations until you drop from exhaustion.

The collective-interior, Wilber’s lower left, is just as amazing. As mentioned earlier, no money is used at Burning Man, except at Center Camp, which has an acre of shade and is, for one week each year, the world’s largest 24 hour coffee shop. This means there is a lot of what you might at first think would be bartering, except it’s not a barter economy, it’s a gift economy. You give it away, give it forward, give it the way you want to be given to. From supplements to backrubs, the congenial give-it-away ethic permeates all of Burning Man. (Which isn’t to say that I didn’t see an almost fist-fight the night of the Burn … but if you bring that many people together, you can expect some sorts of uncivilized behavior. And an occasional death: Miss Lampman, we hold you and we miss you.)

In part, it is because everyone who is at Burning Man recognizes, on some level, that (a) it is hard to get there and be there, and (b) it is a privilege to be there with so many other wonderful and creative people. So, very quickly, a trans-generational atmosphere of “Anything and Everything is Possible” builds and sustains itself, in ways that are always different and always changing, but are nonetheless characterized by politeness, open-mindedness, and inter-personal creativity and kindness. Again, this isn’t to say that you might not have a tiff with your RV-mates (yes, we had a little one), or that someone might not cut you off in line (which happened to me, but then I made friends with her, and by the end of the four-hour wait we had become close), but rather, that by and large the dominant inter-personal vibration is one of openness, wonder, and workability. Everyone is there to expand and be who they are, and gosh-darn-it, most people are basically nice, and Burning Man gives them a chance to be that.

Moving to the upper-left, the interior state of the individual, my personal experience was one of awe and wonder from the moment I got there. So many people doing so many creative things! So much spirituality, some of it disguised, but much of it flagrantly revealing itself! Thanks to the heavens and the Earth for the Grace of the God in the desert here and the desert far away (to quote Leonard Cohen). All in a context of altered schedules and unfamiliar landscapes and the need to take care of oneself physically (as described below).

I came to Burning Man looking for enlightenment, and I believe I found it. Not Maurice Bucke’s cosmic consciousness, but rather, the enlightenment of possibility, of art, of wonder, of joy, of openness, of daring, of allowing, of simply being. I only had a few days to plan before going – my opportunity came because a friend was ill and I took his place in the RV – so most of my scrambling around beforehand was about personal physical survival items. In short, on the interior dimension I was not really prepared for Burning Man, which was probably just perfect for me. I got to see all of my patterns against the starkness of the desert and the unfamiliar emotional territories that I found myself wandering in. And I found my way. I made it into and through and back from the desert. And it was all perfect. And at the very end, if nothing else, my personal sense of gratitude was greatly enhanced – gratitude both for the experience of Burning Man, and for coming home from it! There is nothing like contrast to make one aware of how good life really is. (I’ll never forget how lush my backyard garden and trees looked upon returning!)

Finally, there was the upper right: my physical body and what I had to do to protect it. The first thing is: Drink Water. The second think is: Drink More Liquids. And the third thing is: Drink Even More Water. Blessedly, I was able to follow these three rules, and as a result – except for that one stint on line for four hours – I never got dehydrated, and never had a problem with the heat or the desert climate or the way the playa sucks the moisture right out of you. In fact, as a result of drinking so much water, and eating relatively little, my “set point” seems to have changed, that is, I seem to weigh about 10 pounds less than I did when I went to Burning Man, even one month later. (SpiritRiser DVD, here we come!)

In addition to drinking enough, and eating enough, and avoiding sunburn, there were general issues of getting around, especially at night. At Burning Man, there is no substitute for the bicycle. Black Rock City is set up in a series of concentric arcs, each (I’m told) more than two miles long. (And the streets have great names: our camp was near the intersection of Evidence and Received, and one night I had dinner with my friend Larry at the intersection of Theory and Paradox!) Put simply, it’s pretty big, and so almost everyone bikes around. But you have to be careful when biking, especially at night, or you can easily run into something or someone. Which is why everyone carries lights of all kinds – shimmering, pulsing, reflecting, concentrating — so they can be seen and not run over. (Have I mentioned how absolutely gorgeous the entire playa is at night, with powerful lasers emanating from the man, and mobile fire belchers of all sort lighting up the sky, and zillions of LEDS and glow fabric lighting up everything you can imagine…)

Then there’s the partying. Definitely don’t want to party too little, and definitely don’t want to party too much. Everyone has to find their partying level, and I managed to get it just about right. It would be easy, far too easy, to completely “let go” and trash one’s body entirely, getting very little sleep and doing many outrageous things for night after night after night.

Obviously, I’ve left a lot out here. I haven’t even touched on what I believe generates the level of creative outpouring that leads to all the music and all the art and all the performances and all the art installations. Note, though, that this creativity can be seen as an outpouring of all 4 quadrants: the upper-left stimulation of the individual interior (including the various “lines” and “levels” of development); the upper-right challenge and response to the desert environment; the lower left establishment of an alternative social reality; and the lower right physical construction of a City and all the art and the playthings that make Burning Man so unique.

What good, ultimately, is this kind of Integral analysis? Well, think about how you might fare (or have fared) at Burning Man in terms of these four quadrants. How would you handle your body’s needs? What about your social needs? What about the group dynamics in your camp? What about interacting with the City? And so on…

The Long Road Back From Burning Man

The drive from Burning Man was about the same as the drive there: eight hours or so from the Bay Area. That’s not the long road I’m referring to. Instead, I’m referring to what happened when I came back: my personal computer died and had to be replaced; my monitor died (maybe killed by the computer’s power surges, but that’s a long story), and had to be replaced; Enlightenment.Com was seriously hacked and defaced, and had to be repaired; our refrigerator needed a sudden substantial repair; my minivan’s brakes needed sudden repair (not the car used to go to Burning Man); and the guy who bought the house next door politely informed us that not all of the land we think is ours is really ours (a situation which we have subsequently worked out). And even after I got my new computer, it took a long week to complete the migration from one system to another.

The point is: I unplugged pretty deeply in Burning Man. I unplugged so deeply that an ungodly number of technical and especially electronic devices, devices which I regularly rely on, stopped working. How I can possibly “blame” all this on Burning Man, I do not know. And yet I do see a connection. And I know that the three weeks that it took me to re-start my normal life after returning from Burning Man was just perfect. And makes perfect sense.

After all, to go to Burning Man – especially in this year, when Mars-over-the-playa burned closer and brighter in the sky than it had for 59,000 years — one has to take a long road. A mythic road filled with much that is unexpected, and much that can not be absorbed immediately. Like it or not, I needed three weeks after Burning Man to reintegrate into my normal life, and, somehow, the Universe made sure that I got those three weeks.

Not just my physiological set-point, but my emotional and karmic set-points were reset, for the better, at Burning Man. I know that seeing and experiencing the world of wonder known as Burning Man has forever changed me, for the better, and that for those who hear the call, there is no time better than the present to start planning for next Labor Day weekend.

Reintegrated and Raring to Go.

by Jordan Gruber

About the author: Tales From the Playa

Tales From the Playa

Tales From the Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by participants. Submit your story here.