A few ground rules for talking about the 10 Principles

We can talk about this stuff all day.
We can talk about this stuff all day.

[This post is part of the 10 Principles blog series, an ongoing exploration of the history, philosophy and dynamics of Burning Man’s 10 Principles in Black Rock City and around the world. We welcome your voice in the conversation.]

Okay, anyone who read the headline to this post and asked “Who the fuck are you to set ground rules for talking about the 10 Principles?” gets a gold star.  The rest of you need to stay after class and clean the erasers.

Anyone in the second group who just asked “Who the fuck are you to make me stay after class and clean the erasers?” is beginning to get it.  Nice work.

The rest of you need to dig a hole and stick your heads in it.

I can go on like this all day.

What I’m doing is setting some context … background information … for when I talk about the 10 Principles.  It’s how I think about them.  Your mileage may vary, but I think these are good and useful axioms that help orient the 10 Principles in the larger universe of Philosophy and Epistemology.

Those of you who don’t give a damn about philosophy and epistemology may want to dig a hole and stick your heads in it.

I swear I’m not going to stop until someone sticks their head in a hole they dug themselves.

First, the 10 Principles are not unlimited goods.  That is to say, there is no circumstance in which it is imagined that the world simply can’t have too much self-reliance, or gifting, or self-expression.  On the contrary:  there is, absolutely, a time and a place to sit down and shut up.  In fact, the 10 Principles are set up in such a way that they often actively contradict each other (as in the old “inclusion vs. expression” debate), forcing some kind of give-and-take to occur.

That give-and-take is crucial to the process of understanding them.  The 10 Principles are “principles” – good ideas, excellent aspirations, stars that we follow, but they were never intended to be followed blindly.  Quite the contrary:  following them with open eyes keeps one from tripping over fairly obvious obstacles.

That isn’t intended to let anyone off the hook for half-assing it – I’d suggest that following the principles ought to push you out of your comfort zone, at least a little.  But as a general rule if you’re following them without thinking, you’re probably doing it wrong.  “Principles” are not dogmas, and none of the 10 Principles are meant to justify absolutely anything done in their name.  They’re not unlimited goods.


Similarly, the 10 Principles are not exclusive goods – they are meant to describe the principles of Burning Man, not to encompass all that is right and good in the universe.  Let us agree, right now, that Burning Man is not the only prism through which the world can or should be viewed, and that there are many good and important things that are not especially relevant to Burner culture.

I’ve always felt patience is a virtue:  that doesn’t mean it needs to be one of the 10 Principles.  Humility is crucial to one’s character:  that doesn’t mean we need to find a way to squeeze it into Burning Man’s core values.  A knowledge of history is important;  people should understand how the internet works;  it’s good to speak a second language.  Burning Man, however, has little to say about any of this – and that’s okay.

The 10 Principles don’t have to settle any of the issues between Theists and Atheists, they don’t have to be the springboard to an Israeli peace accord, and they cannot mandate that the farmers and the cowboys should be friends.

If Burning Man is your only worldview, you’re going to miss most of the world – and that would be a shame.  Burning Man is a good thing, and an important thing.  It might very well change the world.  But it will never be the world, and so the 10 Principles will never be enough, on their own, to cover any and every eventuality of life.  The 10 Principles are not exclusive goods.

Is anybody saying “Well, yeah?” at this point?  That’s a good sign.  It may seem unimportant to establish that when we’re talking about Burning Man, we’re only talking about Burning Man – and that we’re not subsuming everything in the world to it.  But … well … look … Burning Man can be an intense.  People have life changing experiences;  it wouldn’t be far off to call them “conversion experiences” of a sort.  (Though note that I’ve argued before, and still hold, that Burning Man cannot replace religion.)  And there’s no zeal like a convert’s zeal.

Among ourselves we often talk about Burning Man as though it is a comprehensive approach to life, and that’s understandable:  it colors everything we do.  Regionals have organized in countries around the globe, and everything Burning Man does leads to a viral video and a media storm.  Academics and big business alike are studying us as a model.

By all means, let’s dream big.

But in terms of understand what we actually stand for, feet on the ground are more helpful than a head in the clouds.  Burning Man is distinguished as a system of thought … no, that’s not the right phrase … an approach to life … by a groundedness that approaches humility.  It has 10 Principles, good principles, but it doesn’t claim there can’t be any other principles for individuals or groups in the world.  It has insights – good insights – but it doesn’t claim you’ll never need any others.

It may change you – it will change you – but it never asks you to leave your existing beliefs at the door.

As we explore everything that the 10 Principles are, it’s good to keep that sense of humility handy.  It will take us farther, and the road will be more interesting.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man is the author (under a clever pseudonym) of “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City,” which has nothing to do with Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) 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

18 Comments on “A few ground rules for talking about the 10 Principles

  • Tron says:

    1. RADICAL INCLUSION: Anyone can buy a ticket and attend the event. While the stranger may be ‘respected’, that doesn’t mean you’re invited to the private parties or any parties for that matter. If you don’t look right, don’t act right, and don’t know someone who knows someone, bugger off.

    2. GIFTING: Make about 50-100 trinkets to give out to people who don’t harsh your vibe. It’s best to make necklaces because most people don’t have pockets to put your little thing into. The more of these little gifts you have hanging on your body by the end of the week, the cooler you are perceived to be by the newbs (which might get your laid), but everyone else thinks you look like a dork. And handing off illegal drugs as a gift without telling the recipient what’s in your hand can get your new best friend arrested (you too).

    3. DECOMMODIFICATION: Only people with a @burningman.com email address are allowed to make money off the wide-eyed wonderment of the citizens, and participate in the many black market exchanges happening on the playa. Yes, Suzy, cash is readily exchanged on the playa, but unless you’ve recently had sex with someone pulling a salary from the Borg, don’t even think about it.

    4. RADICAL SELF-RELIANCE: Don’t become a burden on the infrastructure. Take care of your shit. Don’t go around asking people for a ride back to San Francisco on Sunday morning. Stop asking for meat and cheese from strangers. Stop alarming people that you must have been roofied because you can’t remember what happened last night after having 15 drinks and a bottle of wine.

    5. RADICAL SELF-EXPRESSION: Do whatever you want, just don’t touch people. Don’t ask people if you can hug them, they only say yes to be polite. If your body looks like a train wreck, clothing is the best option because people are eating.

    6. COMMUNAL EFFORT: Build something or help build something and call it, ‘art’. It doesn’t have to be good, it just needs to keep you busy and out of real trouble so no one has to deal with your problems.

    7. CIVIC RESPONSIBILITY: If you bring sparkle ponies out there – they’re YOUR problem. If you lead a camp, find out which members have severe personality disorders BEFORE you leave to the playa.

    8. LEAVING NO TRACE: Clean up your shit. But don’t concern yourself with the huge carbon footprint the event leaves behind on this once pristine ancient lakebed (the damage has already been done, plus no one cares).

    9. PARTICIPATION: This doesn’t mean, ‘don’t spectate’. This means the highest and best activity you can perform on the playa is in service to the infrastructure in the form of volunteerism. The harder you work and the more you sacrifice in service to the business, the more cool-points you will be awarded. These cool-points can be exchanged for tiers of enlightenment. Extra cool-points are handed out if you are injured on the job, but you still will not be paid. And don’t ask.

    10. IMMEDIACY: No one knows what this means. If someone cites this principle to you, run away. This is how they get newbs to do the shit work.

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    • buckrowley55 says:

      no dogs no dice ( I get it)but cant afford to pay for a room for him and not for me also I’m hoping a friend will get to advertise his pedal car there to get the biz going (also I cant spell acquaintance) had to look it up want the every day thing I wont get it thanks again

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    • Amanda Bickle says:

      Mabon: Autumn Equinox – September 21st-23rd
      Gwyl canol Hydref or Mabon: (Also known as Harvest Home, Harvest Tide, Fall Equinox, Autumn Equinox etc.), September 21-24.
      Actual Date and Time of Autumnal Equinox: 20.44 22nd Sept 2013
      Technically, an equinox is an astronomical point and, due to the fact that the earth wobbles on its axis slightly, the date may vary by a few days depending on the year. The autumnal equinox occurs when the sun crosses the equator on its apparent journey southward, and we experience a day and a night that are of equal duration. Up until Mabon, the hours of daylight have been greater than the hours from dusk to dawn. But from now on, the reverse holds true.
      Mabon marks the middle of harvest, it is a time of equal day and equal night, and for the moment nature is in balance. It is a time to reap what you have sown, of giving thanks for the harvest and the bounty the Earth provides. For finishing up old projects and plans and planting the seeds for new enterprises or a change in lifestyle. Mabon is a time of celebration and balance.
      This is the time to look back not just on the past year, but also your life, and to plan for the future. In the rhythm of the year, Mabon is a time of rest and celebration, after the hard work of gathering the crops. Warm autumn days are followed by chill nights, as the Old Sun God returns to the embrace of the Goddess.
      The passing of Mabon is inevitable and The Sun God should be mourned. We too, must remember that all things must come to an end. So the Sun God journeys into the lands of winter and into the Goddess’ loving arms, but endings are a good time to celebrate our successes, thank our selves and those who helped us, and take part in the balance of life!

      Table of Autumnal Equinoxes
      Year Date Time (GMT)
      2003 23 September 10:46
      2004 22 September 16:29
      2005 22 September 22:22
      2006 23 September 04:02
      2007 23 September 09:50
      2008 22 September 15:43
      2009 22 September 21:18
      2010 23 September 03:08
      2011 23 September 10:04
      2012 22 September 15:49
      2013 22 September 21:44
      2014 23 September 03:29
      2015 23 September 08:22
      2016 22 September 14:21
      2017 22 September 20:02
      2018 23 September 01:54
      2019 23 September 07:50
      2020 22 September 13:30

      Mabon – Autumn EquinoxMabon Ritual.
      Set-up altar and cast the Sacred Circle.
      Decorate the altar with acorns, oak sprigs, pine and cypress cones, ears of corn, wheat stalks and other fruits and nuts. Also place there a small rustic basket filled with dried leaves of various colours and kinds.
      Stand before the altar, holding aloft the basket of leaves, and slowly scatter them so that they cascade to the ground within the circle. Say such words as these:
      Leaves fall,
      The days grow cold.
      The Goddess pulls her mantle of Earth around Her
      As You, O Great Sun God, sail toward the West
      To the land of eternal enchantment,
      Wrapped in the coolness of night.
      Fruits ripen,
      Seeds drip,
      The hours of day and night are balanced.
      Chill winds blow in from the North wailing laments.
      In this seeming extinction of nature’s power, O Blessed
      Goddess, I know that life continues.
      For spring is impossible without the second harvest,
      As surely as life is impossible without death.
      Blessings upon you, O Fallen God, as you journey into
      The lands f winter and into the Goddess’ loving arms.
      Place the basket down and say:
      O Gracious Goddess of all fertility, I have sown and
      Reaped the fruits of my actions, good and bane.
      Grant me the courage to plant seeds of joy and love in
      The coming year, banishing misery and hate. Teach me the secrets
      Of wise existence upon the planet.
      O luminous one of the night!
      ~Close the circle the way you usually do.

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  • The Hun says:

    Love your work Caveat! I want to know more about the shape of the inclusion vs. expression debate. Can you point me toward some of the discussions you’ve experienced?

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  • weinstain says:

    What art is there when the acrylic has been stolen from the paint?

    The desert will kill you, particularly if you downshift into apologetic mediocrity.

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  • merlin olsen says:

    We need an 11th and 12th principle.

    #11. Don’t be a whiny bitch.

    #12. If you don’t like the way Burning Man does things then DON’T GO!

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  • Tron says:


    but why you mad?

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  • champagne says:

    was digging the hole because I forgot to ask “who the fuck…”, but forgot to do it…anyway, glad that you wrote about this because convert’s zeal is a real thing and people seem to really need a rule book for life. The 10 Principals look like they could neatly fit that need. When first exposed to the 10, our first thought was, “shit, it this becoming another religion?” We worry that if Larry isn’t careful, when he dies, it will become a religion.

    Tron, go fuck yourself. There is no such thing as a private party on the playa.

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  • Tron says:

    >There is no such thing as a private party on the playa.

    Are the signs that say, “Private Party” at dome entrances just joking? Are the signs that say, “No Single Men Allowed” just joking? Are the people on art cars who shout “Our camp only!!” and kick randoms off, just joking? Well, then that’s pretty funny.

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  • GrimNexus says:

    I dunno Caveat; I dug a hole–and I allowed you to be my head–I think you might have buried yourself.

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  • boozyboo says:

    haha i love it guys, this is good shit for reading. keep on stirring the shit pot haha

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  • Kim Ganassin says:

    Caveat, thanks for encouraging discussions about how to relate to the principles, good stuff. Tron, somewhere in your comments there might be something I can use, but the whining is distracting. Sounds like someone asked you to dig a hole and stick your head in it, and you victimized yourself by doing it. Hope you learned from it. But I can’t judge – I think I victimized myself by reading through your entire list of 10 ways you got screwed at Burning Man when I should have stopped at #2. Live and learn!

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  • Matoka Malinga says:

    What is da playa and why does no one care about da carbon-footprint/damage done to the once pristine etcetc? Just came across this site wit great fascination – asked all da right questions but I may jus dig da hole etc for da experience only I don tink people should go trash up beautiful natural spots jus for da experience. If there was a point – yeah – I mean if burning that man was gonna combat project loon n save da world from da bottomless pit – maybe it does by alterin people’s headspace – I too could use da experience if it could open my mind to a way outta dis hole. Lemme go home n dig dat hole.

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  • Hovo says:

    Bro . Pinnex Just got home from the trip and wanted to tell you thank you again for the oitprtunupy to be a part of the missions trip. My wife and I had our hearts touched for this difficult and unique mission field. We will defin itley be praying for you luke 18:1Love the Allens

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  • Djuels Brown says:

    A great opening for 10 principles discussion, indeed. Well written, and stirring. Tron’s sarcastic commentary does not seem out of line, out of place nor insincere even if extremely sarcastic and jaded. It is very funny in its own right and in my few years as a burgeoning Burner, I’ve seen 100% of the actions and intentions captured in Tron’s work, acted out and expressed. Kind of funny and sad. We can all move along… foster more constructive and positive discourse… share, lead and love by example… Thanks for the insight.

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  • Hindou from Bijou says:

    I must say Caveat thank you for the laugh! you are awesome!
    my first burn with two of my beautiful friends and after 2 days people in our camp were saying “you’re no virgins.. you fit right in!..” and that just made us feel even more at home.
    what an amazing fucking experience! I am still on high and not from drugs might I add, just from the pure beauty and tremendous energy created and built and fought and laughed and lived and cried and danced and all the senses combined the ones we didn’t even know we had or even existed…OMG eveeeerything
    I don’t think words even exist to describe any of it.
    Thank you for the principles, next year I will do it better, I will build and help build and build it again :) I’m in!
    miss you Home sweet home..

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  • kissmanga says:

    Great and nice content!!!

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