Burning Man Sucks at Transitions. Can Rituals Help?

I love Burning Man. You love Burning Man. All kinds of really remarkable and amazing people love Burning Man. But there are times that everyone, no matter how much they love Burning Man, wants to know: “how do I get off of this ride?”

The very best Burners I know have all wanted to step back sometimes, take time off. Or even leave for good, since nothing lasts forever.

That’s perfectly normal, and understandable, and often even a very healthy thing for people to do: there’s nothing wrong with people saying “I want to take what I’ve learned in my Burning Man experiences and apply them to other things that I’m really passionate about.” That’s actually what success looks like.

The trouble is … and I’ve written about this before … we suck at it.

We, not just as an organization but as a culture composed of many communities and organizations, are really, really, bad at this. And it not only causes logistical problems – it creates unnecessary suffering.

Why Suffer?

In theory, of course, it’s very easy to step away from Burning Man: you just do something else. The vast majority of us are volunteers anyway, so not doing Burning Man things for a year, or two, or at all, is actually really convenient. It saves us time and money and the heartbreak of seeing what should have been the most beautiful art project in the world fail at the last minute because SOMEONE didn’t bring the quarter inch screws. GOOD WORK WITH THE SCREWS, TAD! YOU HAD ONE JOB!!!

Taking a step back can also prevent burnout. Tad really needs a sabbatical.

But somehow, we don’t do this, even – often – when it would be a very, very, good idea. We stick around, we keep going, even if it’s killing us. And often it’s for all the best reasons: we care deeply about the community we’re in, and don’t want to let it down; we love the work we’re doing, and a part of us doesn’t want to stop; we believe we’re having an impact, and don’t want to step away until we’re ABSOLUTELY 100% SURE that this impact will continue without us.

This is why, at Burning Man conferences, year after year after year, there are multiple sessions on succession planning, all of which say basically the same thing: do it, start now, train the next crop of leaders to take over after you. And they’re all well attended, because everyone knows they need to do this, and they all see each other at the same sessions the next year, because nobody’s actually good at doing it. Tad desperately wants to give up his volunteer position, at least for a year or two, but can’t step away because he cares too much.

We suck at doing this, even if it’s for all the right reasons.

But we also don’t step away for all the wrong reasons.

Volunteering with Burning Man can easily become all consuming, it can take everything you have to offer, and in so doing can become your everything. It’s an amazing experience, but people in that deep who want to step away, or worse are forced to by circumstances, become frightened that when they stop doing the work they are going to lose their community. That to stop immediately participating in a culture which has Immediacy and Participation as two of its 10 Principles is to drop out of that culture entirely. That this whole portion of their identity, with all its friendships, social capital, and sense of identity, will be lost.

If you’ve volunteered long enough, you’ve seen this: you’ve seen it in people who decide to leave, who are forced to leave, and who are hanging in by their fingernails because they’re terrified of what happens if they say the words “I need to step away.” And it’s just awful.

And it shouldn’t be. There’s no reason we can’t make this better.

This is the Personal Part

In a 2017 post on this subject, I suggested that one way to start would be for someone should develop rituals around leaving, not that were mandatory but that would at least attempt to address what people stepping away were really thinking and feeling and what they really needed at a level more effective than our standard “we’ll throw you a happy hour in your honor.” Which was a good idea, I think, as a place to start. But to my knowledge nothing ever happened.

This past year after a raft of people stepped away from BMHQ, voluntarily and otherwise, and were clearly suffering for it, I decided that, fuck it, I’ll try to design a ritual and offer it to people who are experiencing a transition in their relationship to this culture, and see what happens.

What Happened?

The ritual has now been conducted three times (that I’m aware of), all with BMHQ staff, each of whom was leaving under very different circumstances.   In the months since their rituals, I’ve spoken with all the ritual recipients, and the results were surprisingly uniform.

On the one hand, the ritual did not make leaving Burning Man or parts of the Burning Man community easy. There are aspects of these transitions that they are still struggling with, and an ongoing sense of loss.

But they also agreed that the ritual gave them an opportunity to make their departure as meaningful as their time within Burning Man had been – and thus make it better. As one ritual recipient described it: “leaving was this broken thing, full of sharp and jagged edges that it was easy to cut myself on when I thought about. After the ritual it wasn’t easier, but it was less painful. Those sharp edges had been smoothed down, and it wasn’t broken anymore, just difficult.”

That’s not the best we can do – I’m absolutely certain we can keep looking at this, keep developing new approaches, and get much better at helping people transition out of our community – but seems like a very good start.

The Transition Ritual

The ritual we’ve tried is a walk through of the 10 Principles, applying them to the relationship between the transitioning person and their Burning Man community.

The intention – if this works – is to create an experience in which we can be authentically honest with one another about our fears, our needs, and our hopes during this moment of transition. We are treating the transition as a chance to know each other better and strengthen ties, even through our fear and hurt, while also acknowledging that the transitioning person is not some sort of special case: we’re all going to step out of this some day.

There is usually a master of ceremonies, although ceremonial duties can also be shared. Once everyone has gathered, the ritual applies the Principles in the following order, and ways each of which is expressed:

Radical Inclusion – Anyone from our community who wishes to attend the ritual may.  This is to reaffirm that while there is a tear in our community, that we are still whole.  We still include each other in our lives.

Participation – There are no spectators at the ritual.  To attend is to do what is asked.

Leaving No Trace – The ritual opens with the acknowledgement that we will all leave someday.

Decommodificaiton – The transitioning person re-introduces themselves to the participants, explaining all the ways they are not their Burning Man job or role, in a call and response wherein these things are acknowledges. (Most commonly, the transitioning person will say something about themselves, such as “I love to sail” and the community will respond: “we see you.” But the response should be appropriate and meaningful to the community.)

Radical Self-Expression – the Transitioning person gets to tell their community, represented by the ritual attendees, what they need to hear.  However raw, however difficult. They cay say it, and they will be heard. During the ritual, no one will respond, argue, protest, interrupt, add addendums, or try to fix anything. All that is given here is the chance to speak and be heard.

Gifting – Everyone who attends will give the transitioning person a gift.  This gift should be grounded in their relationship or the transitioning persons needs, and can include everything from art and mementos to job leads or financial assistance.

Civic Responsibility – Those attending tell the transitioning person what the community still needs from them, even as they transition, and the transitioning person tells the community what he/she needs from it.

Communal Effort – Each person pledges to help the transitioning person with their needs, preferably in a concrete, actionable, way, after which the transitioning person says what they can do to meet the community’s needs.

Immediacy – Everyone participates in some physical activity together, whatever the transitioning person and their community feel inspired to do. This has included sing-alongs and everyone running around the transitioning person in a circle. After that, snacks are served.

Radical Self-Reliance – The ritual ends, and we embark upon our new journeys.

I offer this up to you in the hope that it (or some part of it) will help you develop a good approach to transitions within your own part of the Burning Man community.  I am certain, the more I look at this problem, that a culture like ours has to turn our transitions into art, as much as we do have to look at them as social and HR issues.


Cover Photo:  the 2017 Man (photo Robert Bruce Anderson)

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

19 Comments on “Burning Man Sucks at Transitions. Can Rituals Help?

  • Dr. Wilder says:

    I really like this article and this process, and I will keep it in mind as I move into and out of new responsibilities, both in burn life and real life. Thank you.

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  • Burner says:

    How,do we say goodbye to plug and plays and the org selling $1400 tickets?

    When will the residents of First Camp bring and build their own camp instead of using paid staff to do it for them? Ranger Danger does just fine in open camping-what about the rest of the org?

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  • Gary Lyon aka G-Bear says:

    A BEAUTIFUL commentary on the challenge of life transition. Sounds just like my experience of “retiring” from the default world, but without the benefit of a community of caring people…not an easy thing but I look forward to joining and contributing through my participation to the Burning Man family.

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  • Burnier than Thou says:

    The local communities can be very cruel when a person steps down. I know of one instance , a long time volunteer who was always there to help do the heavy lifting decided to step down after many years. There was a happy hour set up at a local pub as a thank you. Emails and posts on FB were sent out two weeks ahead of time. Just one person showed up out of over a thousand people in the community. That person took it really hard. We never saw them again.

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    • T says:

      Wow. That is so harsh, for that volunteer. I’m sorry to hear that people wouldn’t take the time to drop by and say goodbye. Thanks for sharing the story, though. A lot of this applies to many arts and community projects, not just Burning Man.

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  • Joshua C says:

    As a regional-ish event lead who’s been trying to figure out the transition / how to re-establish healthier boundaries with my role for a couple of years, I feel this super hard!! And appreciate your exploration into it and sharing this experiment (enjoyed going back and reading the 2017 post too).

    I have a slightly different take, I totally agree the connection to do-ocracy and social capital is a key part. I learned a TON about this when I got really engaged in a radical activist community and saw how deeply they practice valuing and including people beyond just the work they do any what they contribute, and it helped me to see more clearly how we (often) do really tend to value and include people (and ourselves) by their/our contributions in this community. The social capital you refer to. And how it doesn’t have to be that way. This is especially prevalent when we organize so much of our social interaction (aka the lived experience of community) around projects. When folks take a step back from the projects, suddenly they aren’t getting all the calls and calendar invites etc. No wonder they feel lonely.

    I’m reminded of an observation by Stephen Jenkinson, that in cultures that honor their dead and include frequent relating to ancestors, no one is afraid of dying. But in mainstream western culture where we distance from the dead, we are all afraid of dying, because we see how those who have died before were left behind and no longer part of the community or remembered, and we fear the same fate for ourselves. I think Burning Man is a lot like that when it comes to transitions – so I really liked your idea of creating the art piece for people who are leaving in the earlier post!

    I also believe the tendency to create an unsustainable pace of work for the core people is a key aspect of the culture that makes these transitions more difficult, and something we don’t speak enough about. Seems like that’s compounded by the uphill battle we are fighting with the mainstream culture that does indeed take a ton of energy;things like the transition to a 501c3, launching a new regional, etc that requires a ton of output with scarce resources; and the tendencies of white masculine dominant culture which we have inherited of always being “go go go” mode, the work above all else, etc. And the anxiety of being left behind if we stop working doesn’t help (I would be really curious about surveying how many burners are actually insecure attachers who have an extra level of anxiety around this, I know I am, that might be a big factor too).

    So in summary since I know I’m rambling, I believe we might need a deeper shift towards more human-centric, respecting-of-cycles culture and ways of organizing ourselves BEFORE the transition, to really do a better job with transitions or even avoid getting to the place of burnout in the first place. Would love to know how that lands for you! Thank you!

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    • Nar says:

      That was a great response with many lovely idea nuggets to compliment the original article. Thanks. This whole concept is very helpful to read about as I come to terms with taking a year (or maybe more) off.

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    • miss magdalen of mystical mayhem says:

      what a great response. i think many of us need to look at the unsustainable work pace we promulgate, and the weird ways it makes us value each other. it may not involve cash money, but it can have a similar effect.

      on the other hand, i’ve been the Organizer for an Esplanade camp in which about 30% of the people really didn’t do their jobs—and that SUUUUCKED. it was years & years ago, but i still kept my mental checklist of who you can count on and who’s flaky or just in it for the party.

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  • Watchitfall says:

    In other words, We need volunteers that will build burning man for the uber rich, weekend warriors, sparkle ponies, bucket listers. Since all the great burners left years ago we rely on distant memories and lance chance hopes of pretending BM is what is used to be. I predict this year will be the worst yet!

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  • Joan says:

    This article triggers me. Stop the hate.

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  • Jukka-Pekka says:

    The HR, not the corporate Human Resources but Heart Resources is too often neglected. Ritualizing and modifying it for the particular local scene can support and also set the framing i.e. on sharing the wisdom, acceptance and support the transition, that is otherwise easily left in the emptiness. Thanks for addressing a very important yet often forgotten topic.

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  • getaclusifer says:

    You lost me at 1/4″ screw. show me a 1/4″ screw and if you can wtf you’d use it for at BM.

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  • Don’t make a bureaucracy of this. The ritual should be organic. The community should figure out how to honor/abuse the departing volunteer. Key to doing this is to anticipate it for a year, train the successor OJT for a year, and then to hang around one more year as just-in-case mentor but not be operational. That last year gives the community time to figure out what’s appropriate. It also helps to have an manager above care enough to to contribute. That works IMHO. Oh, and then go do something else, perhaps in another department.

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  • Marty says:

    It will likely help to learn to measure social status by metrics of social responsibility and personal sustainability rather than popularity and overextension.

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  • Gerflash says:

    Good article, Caveat! But my “ritual” for backing away from being the “beneficent dictator” of our camp was to say to my right hand man and woman: “I need to back off – I’m getting too old to do all this.” And they both said “okay” and picked up the slack. I’m still enjoying Playa. So are they. That’s all the ritual we needed.

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