Burning Man’s First-Ever Philosophical Center Symposium

Last week I was honored to participate in “Sustainable Creative Communities, A Symposium at the Esalen Institute.”

From the site: “This co-learning event will bring together 100 original thinkers, community innovators, and creative leaders from the Burning Man world and beyond for three days of deep discussion around art, money, generosity, and the future of creative communities.”

I was beyond honored to be invited.

I read through the bios and every person was amazing. In addition to Burning Man founders and key staff, there were people trailblazing with 3d Printing, Refugee work, massive fundraising, Maker Spaces, Communal living, epic art, and making the world a better place.

We were sent a reading list to study before we got there. You can check it out here.

The overall theme was “Placemaking, Money, Community, & Art.” (Larry Harvey’s essay on the subject is here. ) Fly Ranch was often discussed, but not the specific focus of this gathering. We also talked about supporting artists, nonprofit issues, legitimacy vs. disruption, Regional Network, acculturation, scarcity of tickets, and much more.


We had panel discussions, breakout groups, and a day of unconference topics. It was super stressful to pick what to attend. I wanted to go to everything. I had to split the list into “topics I have things to share about” and “topics I want to learn about.”

But it was the conversations in-between things that were the best. One hundred brilliant people who think about Burning Man as much as I do, with life experiences much different than mine. And since Burning Man took over the entire place, you could sit down next to anyone and know the conversation would be dust-filled and amazing.

A lot of what was discussed was done so in confidence. It was a place to brainstorm and dream.


What I can share was my experience. In no particular order, I learned:

  1. It takes a lot of work to be invisible.
    Burning Man tries make it so that you don’t notice all that goes into keeping the city running. But it takes a lot. A lot of thought and a lot of labor.
  2. So much heart goes into running Black Rock City. A few of the staff were new Burners, but most had been going for years. And all had powerful emotional relationships with Burning Man. Nobody works for Burning Man to pay the bills. They do it because they believe in it.
  3. I saw a post last week where someone posted the public financials of Burning man staff and questioned if the lead execs were profit-driven. Pu-lease. 1) They could make much more money elsewhere doing comparable jobs. 2) They are leading a very important world-changing movement. I don’t want this lead by amateurs struggling to make rent. I want our leaders to have the same comforts and resources as a bank president. They don’t have anything close, unfortunately. But the knee-jerk desire to resent paying people who are working on their passions is crazy.
  4. Related to this is the awareness that we need to value artists more. We have a cultural belief that if you are living your passion artistically, you should suffer for your art financially. (The exception is musical rock stars.) But we need to find a way to allow inspiration art to be created while allowing artists to afford health care. (Amanda Palmer is a good model of an artist who fans love to pay. I think the answer to this — and most things — is Gifting Philosophy.)
  5. Gifting is the answer the everything. Or my answer, at least. Over and over at the conference, I brought the conversation back to Gifting. While there is so much magic happening in the Burning Man movement, I think the core of it is in Gifting.
    A) It teaches us to receive joy from giving joy. B) It helps us to start seeing ourselves as having talents and art of our own to share. Shifting people’s from self-identity from “consumer” to “creator” is world-changing.
  6. I spoke up on the first day and questioned a line of thought by reminding people that, while I want to get artists paid, I am more passionate about making sure the art remains a gift. I said I was transformed by that first awareness that all this amazing stuff on the playa was created — not for financial reasons — but purely to blow my mind. It created an energetic surplus in me that made me want to give back to this place and community for the rest of my life.There was a quick rebuttal to what I said and I instantly regretted speaking up. Maybe I am too naive for this conversation I thought. I shouldn’t be here.
    But the next day, someone approached me and thanked me for saying something. Then another. Then a breakout group told me that they had a long conversation about what they were calling “The Halcyon Principle” based on what I had said.
    A surreal highlight of the week (that was already a highlight of my life) was having Maid Marian, CEO of Burning Man, write “Halcyon Principle” on the whiteboard during the final Symposium wrap-up.
  7. I was able to have long talks with Harley Dubois, Maid Marian, $teven Ra$pa, Caveat Magister, Jon Mitchell, AnswerGirl, Tool and others. Larry Harvey even made a hug joke to me. It would be like a young lawyer getting invited to a gathering with all the living presidents. Or a fighter pilot being invited to hang with the Apollo crews and the heads of NASA.
  8. I can still get really insecure and antisocial.
  9. I don’t enjoy hot springs as much as most people. I got in the tubs twice. Most people were in there as much as possible. I spent much more time standing on the cliffs looking out at the jagged coast.
  10. I wish every Burner could have seen what I saw. I have such a deep appreciation for the complexities that the Burning Man organization has to deal with. It is easy to be in the stands and question the plays that a quarterback makes. It is an impossible task to take every factor into account and make everyone happy. I’ve always had faith that staff are smart people making the best decisions they can. I now *know* that to be true. I shared my mantra with many people: “Be Present. Have Integrity. Align with Love.” You can never know if you are making the “right” decision. So it is important to make decisions for the right reasons, and then have faith that the right outcome will happen.
  11. The history of Burning Man is fascinating and significant. If you can, attend Danger Ranger’s “5 Ages of Burning Man” presentation. The influence of the cacophony society is far deeper than I realized. And the reverberations from the early days — especially ’97, when it was held on private land — are fascinating. I.e. I always hear people say, “Burning Man should buy land and hold the event there!” Well, of course now Burning Man *has* bought land with Fly Ranch. But they are lots of complications that private land introduces. Private land is governed by local municipalities. And they have lots of power, laws, and ordinances. In ’97, officials demanded marked parking spaces for every car, street lights, and an exorbitant last-minute fire department fee that put the event deep in debt and nearly ended Burning Man. The right to gather on public land, however, is protected.
  12. I was fired up after the Burn this year. But now I’m liquid magma. There are things happening far beyond the perspectives of my life. The work that Burners without Borders is exploring with refugee camps is inspiring.
  13. I was talking to Steven Ra$pa about a lesson I learned regarding running a theme camp. That my job is to articulate the vision to my campmates and make them feel the connection to the importance to what we are doing. Not convince them to make my vision. When we all are in line with the significance of the project, I don’t have to feel guilty saying, “Hey, StiltLadder, you need to do this.”
    Ra$pa interjected, “‘GET’ to do this.”
    And that was the biggest affirmation and reminder for me. When we can stay in touch with that awareness, it changes the dynamics of everything: Of making art, of giving money, of building things, of making hard choices and having good times. When we stay connected to the significance of what we are doing, it isn’t a burden…we get to give our resources.

I feel supremely honored that I was included in this conversation. Thank you to the Esalen staff and everyone at Burning Man who put so much into making the event happen and the magic flow. And thank you, everyone, who contributes to make Black Rock City and the Burning Man community Home.

About the author: John "Halcyon" Styn


Halcyon is a 21-year Burning Man participant and co-founder of Pink Heart camp. He is author of "Love more. Fear less." and producer of the Burning Man short film, "The Pink Path." He's won Webby awards for his over-the-top personal site & his "Love On Demand" video podcast HugNation.com. Halcyon co-founded the San Diego based "1st Saturdays" homeless outreach program based on Burning Man Principles and coaches people how to be radically self expressed in the default world. You can find his full Playa Tips & Tricks series at www.PlayaPrinciples.com

20 Comments on “Burning Man’s First-Ever Philosophical Center Symposium

  • Drdeb says:

    I felt as if I were there! And so glad you were, I mean, you ARE kinda famous,.. at burning man . Keep the fires burning
    Love drd

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  • Jon Mitchell says:

    Thanks for this awesome report, Halcyon. It was so great to have you there. Thanks for coining a new Principle!

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  • silvia says:

    It was great to have you Halcyon! Your perspective is and has been invaluable to our community.

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  • Scott Kelley says:

    Why does everyone toss out Amanda Palmer as the shining example of the crowd funded grass roots artist?

    I know plenty of people that are much better examples and are *not* married to multi-millionaires. Those folks take actual risks with their lives for their art.

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  • Shaye 'President' Harty says:

    It was such an honor to be at the Symposium. My mind is still reeling at all the new pathways that were opened up in my brain that have to do with so many things about and beyond Burningman. Every single person in the diverse CRoss section of minds there was inspiring. I am looking forward to all the things that come out of it!

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  • Julia Brown says:

    Thank you for this. The “Halcyon Principle” is the truth of Burning Man, and it fires my heart as well.
    Thank you for speaking up, and for articulating so clearly what brings me back year after year.

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  • troubadour says:

    Reminds me of the elder meetings in the back locked room as a young brainwashed Jehovah witness listening to peoples stories of how they found god….

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  • JV says:

    Love what you do, Halcyon, but everything about this “symposium” sucks. What exactly was achieved during the week, aside from a really fun time for the attendees? Yeah, “look at this place.” Dance party by the ocean? Bed-sized swing? I’m sure it’s awesome, but so fucking what? Seriously, dude, everything about this is obscene. I don’t know if the expenses were taken from ticket money or the ever-increasing private donations from extremely wealth people, but how will this translate to the broader Burning Man community?

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    • JV says:

      These dispatches from cool outings are more and more seeming like ostentatious vacation pictures on Facebook. WE DON’T CARE how much fun you had! We really don’t. How will this affect the burner community, the people who have built up this experiment over the years to a point where they can afford to host a chosen few at places like Esalen?

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      • Halcyon says:

        JV, You seem a little over focussed on the second video where I *was* making a vacation video about Esalen. At that time (mid-event) I didn’t know how much I was empowered to share about the subject matter. And, as I said in the text and the 1st video, the event was filled with brainstorming sessions intended to allow people to entertain pie-in-the sky ideas in confidence. I’m sorry I didn’t convey it well enough, but there was TONS of information discussed about making BRC better, about supporting artists, about working with international and regional communities, about diversity, about intentional communities, about gentrification, about Fly Ranch future, about Burners without Borders programs and refugee camps, about working with and connecting with patrons, and tons more.

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  • Joyous says:

    Absolutely love that you were there and thank you for sharing a glimpse of your experience with all of us. You know I think you’re awesome and am honored to share a friendship with you. YOU are a Light. You belong. You are magic. Thank you for sharing and shining ♥
    Absolutely loved reading (and watching) your thoughts on this special “retreat” ~ thank you!

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  • Zak Ärlig says:

    Way more interesting than the video report as such, I thought the ‘Halcyon Principle’, really proximity principle from swarm theory applied to ‘Gifting’ (or other catalyzed environmental responses), shows the level of depth of thought taking place.

    “Proximity principle: The basic units of a swarm should be capable of simple computation related to its surrounding environment. Here computation is regarded as a direct behavioral response to environmental variance, such as those triggered by interactions among agents. Depending on the complexity of agents involved, responses may vary greatly. However, some fundamental behaviors are shared, such as living-resource searching and nest building.” Yichen Hu, 2012
    In this example a cascade of ‘gifting’ catalyzed by the impression of ‘mind blowing’ art as a gift to you personally. ie The concept of exponential gifting, as Halcyon has been a champion of for as long as I’ve known about him.

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  • Love Machine says:

    Yeah, like you said…

    Gifting is the gift that keeps on giving – Halcyon’s emphasis on this gem of the ten principles gets a hearty “Hear, Hear!” from me.

    The trick is not how much you make, but how little it takes. There’s usually a lot left over – spread it around!

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