“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.