All Ritual Is Radical

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.)

Lamplighters (Photo by Rick Egan)

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.

(Photo by Michal Pastier)

Top photo by Michael Holden

About the author: Jon Mitchell

Jon Mitchell

, a.k.a. Argus, was publisher of the Burning Man Journal, the Jackrabbit Speaks newsletter, and the Burning Man website from 2016 to 2019. He joined the Comm Team as a volunteer in 2010 and as year-round staff in 2014. He co-wrote a big story about spending 24 hours at the Temple of Juno in 2012. His first Burn was in 2008.

8 Comments on “All Ritual Is Radical

  • mi-ek says:

    “If you had to boil human spirituality down to one goal, appreciating little things is probably it.” I reckon I’ll agree, as I’ve grown too tired and lazy for the details of practice, and humans are pretty little on the universal scale. Thanks man.

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  • epiphanystarlight says:

    Thanks Jon. When I heard the theme this year I decided to ignore it. I’ve always struggled with ritual, radical or otherwise. Your perspective helped me to see it as “instinctual responses”, which have always worked for me.
    I’ll have to meditate on spirituality being a “death practice”.

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  • Dr. Baron von Realz, Esq. says:

    If you are lucky you will lose yourself at burning man, but if you are really lucky you will find yourself at burning man.
    “Eat the bacon, just don’t drink the ‘kool-aid’ ”
    – Dr. Baron von Realz, Esq.

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  • Diane says:

    In a desert like that you would stop the search and just be right quick.

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  • Stephanie says:

    Spirituality as death practice. YES.
    Plus the practice—or ritual—of combining fun with death practice. Beautifully stated.

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  • UChoose says:

    Breakdown or Breakthrough…

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  • Juno says:

    “It’s a spirituality of instinctual responses, not religious rules.” Indeed. Lovely post (I swear, I read every word). My annual trip to the desert is certainly a spiritual pilgrimage of sorts and I look forward to seeing how much fun I can have (and how much work I can do) without dying this year.

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