Part of the blog series for the 2017 theme, Radical Ritual.
There’s something about the desert. This is not a new revelation; human civilizations have been telling the same stories of supremely weird experiences in the desert for thousands of years. People are still going out there, too. For some people, it’s not enough to hear tell of revelations; they have to go out to the desert themselves.
The Black Rock Desert is unquestionably a spiritually charged place. It used to be a sea, for one thing, and the whole sea drained to the last drop, and now it’s a bone-dry, empty expanse, the flattest place on Earth. A place can’t go through a transformation like that without developing some serious vibe.
Now, 10,000 years or so later, the people who go out to the playa every year bring all kinds of vibes — some serious vibes, some utterly, depravedly unserious vibes, and many more vibes besides. And the people’s vibes fluctuate constantly in time with the extremes of their environment, from high to low in seconds flat, then back again. Even people who go to Burning Man precisely in order to attain enlightenment have a major bummer at some point. (Maybe especially those people.)
But that doesn’t teach you much about spirituality at Burning Man, specifically. Any cursory reading of the religious desert myths could have told you that striving to Get There is not how you Get There, and furthermore that the way is hard and the desert is hot. Spirituality is not fun. It’s death practice. That’s what the spiritual masters of old knew, it’s what they transmitted down to us, and it’s something we still struggle with today.
Fun is real, and it’s vital. It can even be spiritual, as long as you don’t get attached to it and forget that it will — eventually — end. In a world desperately attached to fun, Burners have found a way to make their fun a little more fulfilling: by throwing in some death practice. They do it by bringing their fun out to an inhospitably extreme environment, and then they try to see how much fun they can still have without dying.
It’s precisely that experience of extremes which leads to what might somewhat ironically be called the real spirituality of Burning Man. It’s a spirituality of instinctual responses, not religious rules. Survival in an extreme environment reduces mundane behavior — waking up, washing, dressing, going to the bathroom, cooking, eating, drinking water — to its essence: as ritual. Burners treat their water and lip balm as sacred substances. They give them to each other as gifts and receive them in gratitude. Temporary life in the Black Rock Desert makes you appreciate little things.
If you had to boil human spirituality down to one goal, appreciating little things is probably it.
Top photo by Michael Holden