Burning Man isn’t the Happiest Therapist’s Office on Earth

Greatest ... theme camp ... ever ...

This may be out of left field, but that’s where I live: If Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-easy laugh) had gone to Burning Man every year, would he still have been self-destructive enough to send damaging photos of himself to women he only knew online?


The answer is: probably, yes. But I ask because I frequently hear people talk about Burning Man as though it were exactly this kind of sanity check. You’ve heard it too:

“Burning Man is the one place where I can really feel like myself!”

“I go to Burning Man to let my freak flag fly, and that gets me through the rest of the year!”

“Where did this tattoo come from? How far down does it … what’s Camp Thunder Ink, and am I really its mayor?”

The notion that Burning Man is a kind of therapeutic spa for creative spirits – the place we go to be gifted chicken soup for the soul – is even implied in our official language. It’s different from the “default world”; coming and going from Burner events is “decompressing” and “recompressing.” There’s a deep notion that coming to Burning Man is the equivalent of getting psychological work done, and this makes you better able to cope with the cruelties of a world where people don’t wear fuzzy boots before Labor Day.

If this is true … and I know at least three DJs who swear it is … then it ought to show up not just in the things we *do* in the default world (the activism, the saving the environment, the being the change we want to see – like Gandhi with glow sticks), but in the things we *don’t do* in the default world. “Decompressing” ought to save us from the kind of pressure that pushes us to do immensely stupid self-destructive things.

Like sending lewd pictures of yourself to women you’ve met online when you’re a married congressman, an act that is self-evidently self-destructive if you know anything about either Twitter or FOX News.

The default world is increasingly a place that pushes self-destructive mind-sets, and nobody gets a stronger dose of that Kool-Aid than politicians. They live in a glass bubble 24/7. They have to be the living embodiment of American morality, no matter how hypocritical. They can never just blow off steam because they’re never off camera (they can never be sure) and the footage never goes away. That’s why their inevitable coping mechanisms – everybody has coping mechanisms – are inevitably so self-destructive. They have so much more bullshit to destroy.

Between YouTube, Facebook, FourSquare, and the legions of cell-phone cameras recording anything that moves, this is becoming the fishbowl of bullshit we all live in. Le Congressman, c’est moi.

(Everything sounds better in French. If you’d heard Marie Antoinette say “Let them eat cake!” in the original French, you would have been convinced. You’d also be dead now. Stop haunting me! I swear it wasn’t my family that purchased the haunted shoe factory during the Reign of Terror!)

If the popular idea that Burning Man is the psychic equivalent of an enema is right, then it ought to save us from such self-destructive coping mechanisms. Our ability to be naked in the desert for a week should reduce the urge to take a gun to work down to safe levels.

If true, this could be an important therapeutic breakthrough for the modern world: we would do well to create more opportunities for people to escape the default world, not for fun but for mental health. The idea should be investigated.

I don’t believe it though. It gets something about the Burning Man experience fundamentally wrong. I think if Congressman Weiner (D-insert joke) were a 10 year Burner, he still would have done exactly what he did … except that he would have been cross-dressing too.

In the first place, I know enough Burners to not be convinced that we are less self-destructive than anybody else. You do too, if you’re honest with yourself. Sure, many of us are amazing people – but I think the ratio of fuck-ups to savants is pretty squarely in the middle of the Bell Curve.

The notion that Burning Man is some kind of modern Dionysian mystery ritual isn’t wrong, but it misses the point that actual Dionysian mystery rituals were pretty bloody affairs. People got hurt, sometimes killed. Confronting the divine is as likely to be a brutal process as it is joyous one: we dare not look at the burning bush, or forget that Kali wears a necklace of skulls. Wander out into the playa at night and you won’t just find beautiful bodies dancing in a ring of fire: you’ll find lonely souls, lost and confused, wandering through the desert as they crawl through an existential crisis. In those long dark nights, they’re much less happy than they would have been staying home to catch Simpsons re-runs.

That’s because the psychological effect of Burning Man isn’t to solve our issues automatically, as though the Man were Jesus touching lepers, it is to *bring them up.* Carl Jung said that those who don’t confront their demons within will confront them without: Burning Man is a process whereby both happen at once. That’s an opportunity, but it’s also a crisis. What we do with our issues when they’re staring us in the face is never “automatically” healing.

I wish someone had told me about this before my first Burn. I try to tell virgin Burners this whenever I can. I wish we were a little less upbeat about the party and a little more honest about the fact that we love Burning Man because it isn’t benign.

Disneyland is the happiest place on earth. The therapist’s office is where you go to resolve issues. Burning Man is something else entirely. After 25 years, we still rely on easy clichés when we talk about it. That’s a testimony to its extraordinary nature, but it doesn’t help anybody out in the desert. Or back at home.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact Caveat@BurningMan.com.

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

14 Comments on “Burning Man isn’t the Happiest Therapist’s Office on Earth

  • This is precsely the reason I stopped taking Advil or any sort of pain reliever, it’s why when I injure myself (like when I poked an oddly deep, blood-spurting hole in my arm with an agave plant) I try to focus on the pain (although I’m fascinated, how often do we get to see our own finger bones? Hey, what’s a little chain grease?) and naturally calm myself.

    I’m dealing with it as it happens and it works much better than a hand full of Excederin Migraine.

    This is also one of the many reasons why I never started drinking or doing any drugs — I’ve never been intoxicated in any way, ever, and I don’t feel repressed or like i’m missing something.

    I have my own self-destructive means of avoiding problems, it’s sort of something I don’t realize at first, or I let get away from me from time to time. I know damn well it distracts me from doing what is better for me to be doing.

    My family thinks I’m crazy because of my outlook on life, for the most part they’re more of the selfish Tea Party types. They may have more money than me and houses and things, but I live more happily experiencing the full brunt of pain and joy that life brings. It can be seriously impossible sometimes, but that’s just a little bit of work to earn the immense joy of the good stuff.

    There are so many good things in life, from hearing an old master hammer out a trumpet solo (or a good dj spinning some crazy, thumping awesomeness) with a walking bass line and the sound of children playing in a park to the first bit of green stuff to poke through the frozen gournd in spring or waking up knowing the only thing on the calendar that day is making some breakfast and riding a bike.

    Or maybe being surrounded by so much nudity and craziness — for good or ill — that it fades into the background. Where else can one sit on a welded-steel minarette in the middle of a dry lake bed watching the sun rise at the end of the day? Not even in NYC!

    Life is fucked up, cruel and difficult, but it’s also a big, fun adventure. Why worry, no one makes it out alive anyway.

    I have no qualms about camping in the high desert having challenges, but I can’t imagine anyone going to Black Rock City and thining Tom Bodette is going to leave a light on for them at Red Roof Inn (or Motel 6). I’m sure BRC has it’s share of annying hipsters, fratboys, drunks and other leeches, but I imagine they’re in the minority and only a problem if one lets them.

    This will be my first time rolling through the gate at BRC and my first time volunteering at Media Mecca. I have no intention of going with any sort pre-concieved notion of what to expect, other than the mechanical things like weather. Even that will be unusual, so I’m only worrying about being as prepared as I can.

    As I sit here in a public affairs office in Lackland Air Force Base wearing the silly uniform (I’m a reservist), I’m reminded of how far astray people’s priorities are, the strange things around which they base their lives and how they’ll never be happy.

    When I return from BRC, a day later is a big reserve weekend. I imagine I’ll be a little tired still after the 1800-mile trip after a week in the high desert. I’ll probably be a little dusty still and have a layer of dust in the car.

    If someone asks, I can say “Dude, I just returned from the desert.”
    if they reply with “Iraq?” I can say, “No, Burning Man,” and try to exaplain something neither of us will ever properly understand, but for different reasons.

    Did I mention I’m stoked to go? I am. see you on the playa my friends.

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  • i would love to read about your experience Brian! stoked for you too. :)

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  • Jon Mitchell says:

    Fantastic post. The last thing Burning Man should be is an excuse to slack off the rest of the year.

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  • Greg says:

    I think that at the intersection of burning man meets the real world, we have freedom. The more you bring what you have experienced at Burning Man into your real world life, the more real your life becomes. I had the opportunity of seeing Bryan Franklin speak at burning man, I wish I could get a copy of that talk. It was life changing. He recently spoke at the TedxSinCity, it is worth a listen. But I caution you it is confronting. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tClHDEoje6Y&feature=BFa&list=SP84440F5714518021&index=4

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  • Butterrcup says:

    Bravo! well written, well spoken. thank you.

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  • Larry says:

    Brian, Hope you have a good time at your inaugural burn. Never been, hope to someday, but I do attend other events that are similar in many ways from what I’ve been told so i think I’ll fit in well. You sound very enlightened about life and I like much of what you have to say but as judgmental as you seem to be from your post I suspect you have a ways to go. Let us know how it goes.

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  • Gemini says:

    heh…hey brian, i know you said you don’t imbibe, but as the wife of a veteran and recently retired reservist, who also doesn’t, it didn’t stop him from being being “randomly tested” (not so random?) each year as we returned from the playa =)

    when people ask me to describe burning man, i tell them to go, because i can’t tell them. it’s different for each person because we all bring our own stuff, experiences, and wisdom (or lack thereof) to the playa.

    i, too, hope you enjoy your inaugural burn!

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  • BearHug says:

    What you said!

    BurningMan will bring up your issues if you are stuck, in denial, confused, etc… And even if you’re
    not! But it’s up to you to have some kind of life processing setup that you use to DEAL with stuff
    that comes up, and think of it as a gift, an opportunity to get in touch with yourself, an adventure.
    If you don’t already have that scaffolding, the playa isn’t gonna give it to ya.

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  • Bugs says:

    Brian: This will be my 5th burn, my first changed my life and outlook. My family and friends think I’m crazy because of my outlook on life; for the most part they’re more of the laid back, liberal type. They don’t have the money that I do, but I think that I live more happily? Sorry for the copying of your comments but the magic of the playa is that it the one place in the world that we all love each other. Yes it’s the best therapy in the world. I live in SA and your welcome to come by Sharkey’s Bar on the playa.

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  • Tomcat says:

    I always tell people that you are allowed one good freakout at Burning Man, but most people save them up and let it all out at once. It’s not therapy, and if you are looking for that at the Burn itself, you are more likely to have someone wave crystals over you and declare you better.

    But what I’ve learned in 11 years of attending is that it makes you confront your own self when you see everyone else having a good time and you are having a terrible one. And that self examination process is transformative. I like to describe it like so: You are walking out on the playa. You’re hot, little dehydrated and tired and your mind has been blown enough that you aren’t having a good time. Just then, the most fabulous car drives by, a mobile party and they are all smiling and toasting each other, all dressed so fabulously. Clearly, they are having a good time… so why am I not? This is the core of the this transformation — you start dealing with your own negativity. You say, why am I shlubbing it here on foot, haven’t gotten laid, am enjoying myself but at the same time not having as good a time as these other folks. (Clearly I’m not, I mean, how can they pretend to enjoy that music?)

    And you self-reflect about self-relying your own good time You wonder, am I a wallflower in a place with no walls, just a trash fence? What *do* I need to have a good time here? Do I need some sex, maybe I’ll bring a partner next year. Is it drugs, well I’ll have to hook that up next year. Should I be in better shape next year? Should I amass a wardrobe? Should I bring better gifts? What is wrong with me that I’m not having a peak experience right now? Any why didn’t they give me a ride?

    Then you say, fuck it, Burning Man was always so much better next year.

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  • Alice says:

    I guess it depends on what you mean by “therapy” – you can’t deal with your shit unless you can SEE your shit, and Burning Man will sure as shit show you. This will be my 5th burn as well this year, and I credit coming out to the playa with helping me come to terms with all sorts of crazy shit! You have to be willing to have a bad time sometimes, but I’d rather face my demons than to keep being driven along by them behind me and out of view.

    In the long, dark night of the soul (and I’ve had several on the playa) I have been through an infinite number of hells, but I can honestly say I’ve never once thought I’d prefer to be home watching The Simpsons. I’m a better person for facing those fears, and that *does* translate to how I act in the default world.

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  • Laura H says:

    Hi Caveat,
    Having just returned from my first Burning Man, your blog spoke to me…right smack in my motherf’n face.  I haven’t felt so lonely and alienated in a long time…all at my own hand. It was exactly what I needed to break down (and breakdown) my walls and barriers, and to lift the weight of the pressures I put on myself.

    I arrived at the Playa with a prohibitive attitude, and struggled for days to make myself stop observing (and comparing and punishing myself) and to let myself go…to let me be me…and have the fun I used to be able to have.  I have been living the same way in the real world in so many respects. It grooved out such a rut, I couldn’t see it clearly. I had truly lost My Way.

    While I mourn the days on The Playa that I could have been engaged and carefree and expanding, I know what I experienced is already shaping my existence. It’s given me the courage to face a layer I’ve been terrified of…and the strength to free myself from it’s bondage.  

    You are a wise soul. Thank you for sharing…

    (far from having a Playa name :0)

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  • I had gone through the blog. It was really very interesting and providing the details about some of the unknown things for having more elaborated glance on the task while searching for an office for a therapist/I would like to thank the members for the details produced here.

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