For those familiar with the emotional catharsis that can be discovered through the Burning Man experience—resonating both on and off the playa, and effecting real change in the worlds beyond Black Rock City—this story may strike a chord.
A couple months ago, Harley DuBois, longtime BRC LLC member and City Manager, was invited to serve as an “Instigator” and lead a workshop for museum professionals attending a “Creativity and Collaboration” retreat at Asilomar. (Other “Instigators” included representatives from the Exploratorium, LucasFilm, and an “Alternate Reality Game” designer, among others).
For Harley’s session, she worked with participants to build a Shrine dedicated to memorializing loss, with the plan to collectively burn it that evening. (Sound familiar?) Prior to the workshop, she sought the support of David Best—well-known to many Burners for initiating the annual tradition of building memorial Temples on the playa—in order to obtain materials and to learn tips on Temple construction from the master.
In facilitating the Shrine’s creation for retreat participants, Harley had them organize themselves into four groups—sorters, builders, decorators, and mavericks—in order to expedite various aspects of construction. But perhaps most importantly, she asked them to talk with one another about loss as they worked in their groups to create the Shrine, and to “get it real in their bodies.” For some—the great majority of whom had never been to Burning Man—this was more than they had bargained for.
Harley reports that some participants were soon sobbing out their grief, as they confronted various losses and deaths encountered in their lives. Later, the small groups were asked to report back to the rest. Harley recalled one woman in particular who spoke of “emptiness” and the difficulty of holding on to people and memories, as she held her hands gently cupped.
That evening, participants—many of whom spontaneously created paper costumes for themselves—processed down to the fire-pit in order to put their Shrine to the torch. They were joined by Crimson Rose, also a member of the BRC LCC and Managing Art Director, who gave a brief talk and performed a fire dance. As they danced—unbidden but encouraged by Harley—first clockwise and then counter-clockwise around the fire, other participants instinctively brought out drums and guitars in order to enhance the atmosphere.
Afterwards, one of the organizers would ask participants on the conference blog if there were “elements of the retreat that made you feel uncomfortable or like you couldn’t be yourself.” To which one participant responded, referring to Harley’s workshop, “the experience that made me feel most uncomfortable made me feel most like myself.”
Another participant would later write in her blog:
“It was this activity that gave me the single most compelling take away note from the retreat: creativity and collaboration entails loss (loss of habitual actions, loss of detail, loss of known paths, loss of roles…). and this loss may be the secret ingredient for a better rapport and a better product. The fire dancer taught this lesson. With grace and dignity, she danced about flicking fire into the air and then set fire to the losses people had recorded on [the Shrine]. They were our sacrifices.”
Harley stated that for her part the experience, “made me really appreciate the world I’m in. We’re so open to this kind of experience and everybody needs it in our society. It gives us an opportunity to grieve that is absent for so many unless you go to church, and even then it can be hard to do well in our society.”
From my perspective as a scholar of ritual and religion, this rings true. At the Temples created and destroyed at Burning Man, the focus on mourning and death often enables participants encounter a strong sense of the sacred and the act of inscribing memories on the Temple walls creates an accessible and powerful healing rite that is often difficult to find elsewhere. While the particular environment of the Black Rock desert contributes unmistakably to the challenges and catharsis so many of have experienced at the event, it also seems natural that the Temple ritual should translate into contexts outside of Black Rock City.
What about you? Have the rituals of Burning Man touched you in any way, both at the event and beyond?