This is Not the Utopia You’re Looking For

Transformational experiences” are bullshit, and Burning Man doesn’t change a damn thing.

I’ve spent the other posts in this series about lessons learned after 10 trips to Black Rock City saying otherwise. I’ve written about the way Burning Man has changed me as a person over the years. But there’s another aspect to Burning Man that should be acknowledged, particularly in this period when “transformational festivals” are so hot they have raised the average temperature of hipsters .

The people who I’ve seen have the hardest times reconciling themselves to what Burning Man really is are the utopians – the people who at some level believe that Burning Man really is a place that changes everything. That we have discovered a magic formula that makes people better, that makes society fair, that makes everyone loved and loving. That the system works so well that all they have to do is get here and life will suddenly be meaningful, and whatever’s troubling them will be fixed.

Of course it isn’t like that. How could it be?

But the promise behind a “transformational festival” is precisely that: just show up and be here, maybe follow the program or attend a seminar or catch the right DJ, and the magic will happen. Just by being there, because our enlightenment spell is so strong.

That is not Burning Man, no matter how much people hype it. There is no enlightenment spell, and the absolutely saddest thing I have ever seen on the playa are people who are desperately lonely who come to Burning Man thinking “once I get there, I’ll have lots of friends.” It’s that terrible realization that you’ve gotten into the greatest party on earth … and you still don’t know why it seems like no one wants to play with you. They are truly lost souls, lured in by the siren call of a “transformative experience” to change their lives for them.  And nothing changes for them while they have the belief that it should work that way.

Then there are the people who think that any idea they have at Burning Man must be extra good, or – and this is even worse – that the people who attend Burning Man must have some kind of exceptional qualities, represent some kind of an elite. Not just that we are “better” innovators, or “more” creative, but that we are necessarily innovators or creative at all.   (Or, in a variant of this, that we used to all be this way, and the old guard still are, but all those new people don’t get it, and if we would only go back to doing what we used to do and stop trying new things, we’d finally be creative again.)  Burning Man is not a sorting hat or a Myers-Briggs test.

Ironically the effects that Burning Man’s imitators and conference circuit “thought leaders” are most hyping, are the ones that Burning Man never actually achieved, let alone promised.

That’s because, despite how often the word is thrown around in media accounts or well-meaning presentations, Burning Man is not a utopian endeavor. The notion that we have developed a system that gives everyone the same kind of beneficial experience if they just show up and let it happen is a fundamental misunderstanding. It doesn’t work that way.

There is an effect, there is magic here, but nothing happens automatically. Burning Man creates conditions in which one can be amazingly creative, and can make deep friendships, and be open to love in new ways – but it only creates those conditions. You have to do the work. And there isn’t a formula;  other than hydrating, the work you have to do will bear little-to-no resemblance to the work anyone else is doing. And if you don’t do it, you will probably suffer. Burning Man is not benign. It is the clearest example I’ve ever seen of Jung’s dictum that those who do not confront their demons on the inside are forced to confront them on the outside.

This isn’t what the utopians want: they want a system where following the inputs on the label gets you the happy output. Burning Man is not that system. It’s not attempting to create that system. And everyone I’ve seen try to turn it in to a system has either failed spectacularly or started marketing bullshit, which is an even more spectacular form of failure.

Nothing that happens at Burning Man will settle anything for you. But it will create material conditions that allow you to explore your own psycho-spiritual conditions – and what you find will be equal parts opportunity and threat, joy and challenge.

That’s why, in my experience, people who are just looking for an automatic good time, or an easy path to enlightenment, or a quick fix of any kind, don’t last very long. The people who do last are the ones who (to borrow a metaphor) see within the miraculous things that happen here a calling to pick up their own cross.

Burning Man is the greatest party on earth, where people are free to follow their own inspirations in ways that the world around us rarely encourages. But over the years I have come to think that its association with infinite freedom is a shallow one. That at a far deeper level, Burning Man represents a challenge that we willingly take up as our own, an iron chain of art and culture and self-actualization that we knowingly attach ourselves to in order to drag it forward because we want the world to be more like this. It is not a utopia, it is a struggle. Often joyous, but always a struggle.

Burning Man doesn’t change us at all, but it provides us the conditions under which we can change ourselves.

This is not the utopia you’re looking for. What I have learned, after 10 years of Burning Man, is that I don’t want a utopia. This is better.


Cover image “Happy Arcadia” by Konstantin Makovsky

This is the final post in Caveat’s series of reflections on 10 years of this Burning Man shit.  Read the whole series here.



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

38 Comments on “This is Not the Utopia You’re Looking For

  • Paul Kalich says:

    You NAILED IT!

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    • Silicon Buddha says:

      Good article. Our problems are within ourselves and going somewhere, only means we get to work with those problems in another location. Sometimes that’s helpful and sometimes we just tote our shit around with us.

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    • Jerry says:

      Thanks for making g it clear what Burningman is.. A man a know said Burning man is a Big Gay Parade….He is a Hater!

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  • Playa Nai`a says:

    Yes! …or, as we say in Hawaii, “mo’ bettah!”

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  • Dylan says:

    Goddamn that resonates.

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  • Corvus says:

    This should be required reading for every burgin out there.

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    • Christina says:

      I agree. This year was my first, and I didn’t know what to expect, but had some vague ideas of this magical land where everyone is accepted and as long as you do the prep work to get ready before hand, you’ll have an awesome, fun experience. Wow, I was wrong. It is a struggle. It’s hard. And it’s not like after going once you suddenly understand how to make it what you want it to be. My perception is that it is a challenge… To do a little better next time, to be a better citizen, to be a better friend, to see and do more, to experience it with the right people, to take away things you can grow and learn to just be better in general at life.

      It was a hard realization for me, I didn’t “have fun”. And it’s clear to me that the Utopian idea that is perpetuated about the burn is such a strong misunderstanding… So many people who have never been asked me when I returned to “normal” life “did you have so much fun???” Haha no… I wouldn’t say that to be honest. But since I have been back, I’ve been taking a solid look over my choices, and have been able to focus a little more on the things most important to me. And I find that incredibly valuable. I look forward to accepting the challenge of returning to the playa to do a little better next time.

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  • Geo aka Momma Monster says:

    I love the picture you chose for this piece.

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  • Puleng says:

    The parallel between your article and a conversation I recently had at a regional burn is uncanny. Thank you for putting this out there.

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  • Julia Brown says:

    Golden Truth right here. Thank you so much.

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  • Mountie says:

    Fuck yes. I never found Burning Man transformative at all. I did, over the past 9 years, find the labour in the community, and the people involved in the same endeavours, transformative.

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  • Dustin Fasman says:

    Do the work!

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  • Bob says:

    I think an Amish belief hits on the idea of shared labor, tasks and a reason to be:

    “Our purpose on earth is to love God; work is the dividend.”

    Our modern lives are so isolated, consumer driven, passive, yada yada that a face to face festival now seems like a gift from above. So, enjoy it while we are here.

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  • Dragon says:

    For me, it’s always been about the people…the relationships, immediate and long-lasting, enjoined through an art project, theme camp, volunteering, next camp neighbors…the people.

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  • Julie Cherry says:

    This year I had my 73rd birthday in Black Rock City. In 2014 the Man burned on my 70th. I come from a family of staunch Republican artists with some very weird friends. Burning Man has not transformed my life but it has enlarged it. I first arrived on the playa during a wind, rain, thunder and lightning white out dust storm at dusk. I felt like I was coming home. The Theme camps I have been with have joyously given of themselves and to me, that is the heart of the Burn.

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  • Alpha says:

    Reminds me of the HST passage at the closing of Fear & Loathing. There is not magic transformational formula, whether you are seeking it in acid, Burning Man, or anywhere else.

    “We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled that 60’s. That was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling “consciousness expansion” without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him seriously… All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit. But their loss and failure is ours too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped create… a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody… or at least some force – is tending the light at the end of the tunnel.”

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  • Janet Goldsmith says:

    Burning Man is a magical mirror which will reveal yourself to yourself, if you have the courage to look.

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    • Erik Nacho Crockett says:

      This right here is everything. The opportunity to see myself as nothing more and nothing less than what’s actually there – stripped completely my own defenses, bullshit, and “normal” off-the-shelf strategies – was the thing Burning Man provided that I call “magic.” Sure it can be achieved day-to-day, but not easily (I find).

      There were times in that one simple week when I was happy, times when I was sad, times when I felt embraced and times when I felt isolated, times where I felt nervous and times where I felt powerful. And I look back on that and I call the whole grand experience perfect – that utopian word – because everything that needed to happen did happen in the due course it needed to so I could get where I am now. The sad parts, the lonely parts, they were honest and they led towards growth. Lifting weights isn’t fun either, but the strain literally produces the gain. The goal (in that desert and everywhere else) isn’t to be happy 24/7. It’s to be real.

      At the same time, I realize this is only the beginning. I’ve just barely glimpsed how rich life can be, and how much more I have to give to that city, and how much more I have to give to this world. And getting present to that – which the playa certainly assists in doing – is a high that doesn’t ever go away.

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  • Nik says:

    It is true in some sort of roundabout way, simply because the world that you see depends on the thoughts that you think.

    Your habits create thoughts, your thoughts create experiences, your experiences create your world (easy to see – ask yourself what would remain if there were no experiences – nothing!)

    The value of Burning man to my personal journey has abolutely nothing to do with the principles, the utopia, the philosophy, the parties, drugs (never big on these).

    The value of burning man, at least to me, was always in a personal shift, a shift in perspective, and a shift in perspective literally changes the world. It’s that profound.

    *think* all you want – this has nothing to do with thinking. It has nothing to do with concepts. It is that within which thinking and concepts arise.

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  • Gabriel Stern says:

    Thank you for putting that into words.
    The truth is, that it took me in till this month to actually bring the essence of burningman to my everyday life and now I can honestly say, ” I’m living the dream”. It took a psychotic break to get me to drop my walls and release myself of the stress of the social norms. Without the experience acquired on the playa, I would of had no baseline in which to judge what was normal. The best experiences in life are learned from friends, either old or new. At least people are open and ready to let go. If you can’t drop your walls and live the moment, you never will.
    After 15 years I will return with a new perspective and help people realize their freedom.
    Thanks Benjamin.

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  • Katie says:

    I led a band of baby burners(virgins, first timers) through the burn this year. One of them came up to me on day 3. “The burn isn’t as much fun as I thought it would be” he said. My advice: “nothing that you do under the best of condions will be fun all the time for 7+ days. You need to switch your focus from fun to appreciation. Even the bad times. Appreciate that you pushed yourself. That you’re surviving, that you’re stuck sheltering in place in a dust storm with a really interesting human. Adjust you perspective. “.

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  • Crowsnestster says:

    And struggle we did/do.

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  • Lucy Hosking says:

    Fucking brilliant.

    This describes my experience precisely. It also provides an eloquent and truthful description of what goes wrong when it goes wrong for some people.

    And it is why I keep coming back, and it’s why I am willing to peddle the machine pretty hard in the default world to fund it,

    I’ve said that Burningman has been the source of the last 20 years of my prosperity and emotional satisfaction, the best friends and some of the best sex I’ve ever had, and all that yadda yadda.

    This is true, but be clear that it is only in the sense that Burningman provides a workshop in which to play. The only thing that was given was the opportunity to play. And to play with no guarantee of winning.

    Except that simply surviving it is winning.

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  • AnnaMaja says:

    If you are Looking for pleasure, then absolute freedom should not be a goal, because the moment you reach it will also be the moment you desintegrate, and thus you will not experience the pleasure.
    The goal is to be on the way there. The Road is where pleasure is to be found. Not reaching the destination.
    And anyway, pleasure and suffering walks hand in hand. The clue is to find the pleasure deriving from the suffering.
    Nice article. Thanks

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  • yayj says:

    Eighteen years.

    Of hardship.

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  • Ting says:

    Just stay away from my pile of sacred rocks.

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  • Mark Stern says:

    You know you’ve nailed it when the comments are as thoughtful and insightful as the original post! Love this.

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  • Michael says:

    THANK YOU !!!
    Our community needs to engage those who are learning of this thing so they learn what it is truly about and not what it is not.
    This year I saw many people expecting to get something from the thing, referring to it as “festival”, even as another one on their festival circuit. I heard people say they consider volunteering inconvenient and not why they came. It made me sad for them because I knew they would leave less fulfilled so I tried to explain it to them. Your words are ones I will repeat.
    I came into the community through people who expect to bring, create and provide for that which should be and have the same expectation for myself. I am so profoundly grateful to them for their guidance. It reinforced the part of who I am which allows me to find what I am looking for by providing it myself.
    There is a stark contrast between those who expect to be beneficiaries of the magic and those who know the only magic they will benefit from is that which they themselves labor to provide. The saddest part is how those who expect to receive will go hungry forever until they realize they are the only ones who can create what they are seeking. Putting it in writing can help them become aware.

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  • Cameron says:

    This is epic. Beautiful articulation.

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  • Burning man (13 year burner) was and still is wonderful as an idea. It gave me an opportunity to experience what I believed to be the objective of the “60’s”. When I attended I asked someone about the culture and they respectfully and accurately replied that it was “shades of gray”. I was wondering if I (an African American should attend in 1999. Their honest comment actually encouraged me to buy my tickets… As I purchased them on line…. I gave my husband one chance to say now…. “Now or Never, Now or Never, Now or Never!” He couldn’t make up his mind and then click… off we went for the next 11 years consecutively….then came the “Burningman” “in-culture”… well, I have always been a square… I never fit in with “cool” people, but as a result of being willing to check out the gray community…. well…. so many people said how cool we were…. not our expectation but our willingness to be open.

    I know the “60’s” weren’t perfect, but what people tried to experience/express was. Burning man and the attendees seem to try to express the same “ideals” of that which I think led to the “be-ins” “Love-ins” free “Concert-ins” and flower children.

    What I appreciate most is that people are at least trying to be good “peeps” Trying to make “radical expression” (whatever that is) work!

    Some friends who are part of theme camps now attend… and I guess my popularity has failed…. I can’t seem to get a ticket these days… not as a regular consumer or as anyone’s theme camp helper… It is all good though…. somethings come to an end for us and other doors open… these days I seem to be headed for cruises! That isn’t bad for a 59 year old! Funny huh?!

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  • Mat DeGutes says:

    “That at a far deeper level, Burning Man represents a challenge that we willingly take up as our own, an iron chain of art and culture and self-actualization that we knowingly attach ourselves to in order to drag it forward because we want the world to be more like this. It is not a utopia, it is a struggle. Often joyous, but always a struggle.”

    I have never heard the burn more perfectly described. The greatness of Burning Man is in the struggle to create it against the elements and the struggle of finding your own way to create. This has always been my sisyphean task. I still choose that chain and to push that boulder.

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  • Aysha Shen says:

    YES, exactly!!!!! Totally agree. I didn’t go this year, after going 2 years in a row, because I knew that I wasn’t ready for it this year. I am trying to change things about myself and my life and if I went, I would be there in a needy way and quite possibly (likely) sabotage the work I am doing for myself. Next year, is my year insallllllllah. Let it buuuuuurn. <3

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  • Bella says:

    Fine. One thing, though: what does “…a calling to pick up their own cross” mean? Maybe be more clear on your terminology next time.

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    • Bella says:

      P.S. I assume this has something to do with Christianity, but as one among millions of people who wasn’t raised Christian, or who studied Christianity, it would help to have an explanation. Or is it just assumed that everyone is, by default, literate in Christian theology?

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      • Desert Silence says:

        “Pick up your cross” means struggle your struggles, fight your fight as well as you can, don’t try to run away (because running away never works). Face the bad things and make them your own, use them to grow with.

        We’d all like a life without struggles, without difficulties, without hurts and sicknesses and reverses. You don’t get that, and that’s good, because if you’re never challenged how can you grow?

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  • John Walter says:

    For me, what happens at Burning Man can reach moments of absolute perfection, when it is crystal clear that all of the trials and tribulations add up to moments that couldnt possibly happen any other way, and that I am blessed to be able to be experience them, in the moment, with full awareness of how beautiful the Universe, and my place in it, truly is. Technically, that is true in the default world too, but its pretty muddy down here – up on Playa, the perfection is in your face, beautifully and intricately woven from strife and struggle, creativity and connection, growth and bliss.

    And then you still have days left to keep growing and experiencing – the fact that we get to hang together for so long, with barriers and borders down, is Utopian enough for me. The canvas is there us to manifest as much of our artistic and interpersonal expressions as possible.

    Ahhhh….bring it on!

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  • RamRod says:

    As a veteran burner, I heard so many times from virgins saying “everybody sucks”, or “people aren’t in the mood to play”.
    What I always say is : “people aren’t in the mood to play.. WITH YOU”.
    Your accusation from the outside only shows how much you are not looking inside for those answers of why you are not fitting in.

    I think this article NAILS the broader sense of what I’m trying to say.
    Thank you!

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