This is part 7 of a series on the theme of Metamorphoses, looking at what causes change and transformation through the lens of pioneering humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers. Why would Caveat do that? It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Read all entries in this series here.
One of the things that’s always bugged me about conversations around Burning Man is the notion that people come here and are automatically more “authentic.” Because … really?
An awful lot of people come to Burning Man and dress pretty much just like a lot of other people at Burning Man. They ride bikes decorated pretty much exactly just like other people’s bikes at Burning Man. They go (let’s be honest here) to largely interchangeable sound camps and dance their asses off and have a great time, but … come on … doesn’t this all look a lot more like conformity than authenticity?”
Oh, there are people doing extremely authentic things, absolutely, and discovering authentic parts of themselves. This happens. But the idea that it automatically happens, or even is a dominant experience at Burning Man … I’ve been skeptical. Something always seemed missing in that analysis.
I mean, so much of what happens at Burning Man is experimentation. People trying new things. How can you be authentic if you’re also trying something on and seeing whether it fits? Most of the time, you’re going to be doing things that turn out to be inauthentic, rather than expressions of the “real you.” And that’s fine — experimenting is great, we need to do it to figure this stuff out, but it’s not especially “authentic.”
But the more I’ve looked at the idea of “transformation” that we’ve developed it in this series — that transformation is not arriving at a particular destination (this becoming that) but an openness to experience that is ongoing and continuous (learning to change, having a process of ongoing becoming that doesn’t stop because new information is always coming in) — the more I think we’ve found that missing link.
Because perhaps it is in fact our self-image, our construct of who we are and what we do and why, that is itself inauthentic — no matter how true it may be. Because, like any concept, our self-image will always underrepresent reality. We are creatures of contradiction. We contain multitudes, and thus we contain paradoxes. We evolve, and often our conscious minds and self-images are the last to know about changes that have happened in our bodies, and our unconsciouses, and our emotional lives. Even if it were 100% perfectly accurate — which it likely can’t be because, again, to be human is to be paradoxical — our self-image would always be out of date.
To have an experience of authenticity, then, is to be open to what we are actually experiencing, in the moment, in all its contradictions. To be more aware of those contradictions, of those things that we are thinking and feeling and doing even if they don’t necessarily fit with our conception of who we are, and to accept them as part of ourselves.
Pursuing this process far enough is to create an act of what Carl Jung called “individuation.” The first part of self-discovery, Jung proposed, is to learn what the world is and what it demands from us: individuation occurs when we figure out that we don’t have to be what it demands, and instead discover what we value and will devote ourselves to. Only at that point do we discover what what Kierkegaard said is the purpose of life: “to be that self which one truly is.”
That struggle, “to be that self which one truly is,” is where Rogers finds authenticity in the experience of transformation. In which case a “transformative experience” is an experience of authenticity, not because what you discover is any more true than what you already knew, but because you are able to feel and experience what you were previously ignoring.
So perhaps the issue of whether one is being authentic at Burning Man (or anywhere in life) is not so much a question of being “unique” and “different” as being wholly present in the experiences one is having, and aware of how you are experiencing them — and then acting on those experiences.
My suspicion and past observation is that the more one does this, the more one will end up a unique and distinct individual. But also, I think, the less such a person will have any need to broadcast that “hey, I’m unique and distinct!” We all know that artsy subcultures can be every bit as obnoxiously conformist as the mainstream cultures they despise. There simply is no external test to determine whether someone is open to their experiences and embraces what they find. Whether they’re working in a cubical, dancing their ass off at a sound camp, or doing a performance art piece on a street corner, the only way to know is to get to know them.
If this is true, then “authenticity” is a moving target. Not a thing you can “discover” but a thing you can “do.” And you do it precisely by doing what made me suspicious about it in the first place: by experimenting. Not by trying new things for their own sake, exactly, but by asking oneself: “What I am really feeling in this moment? What do I feel called towards?” And being open to the answers, wherever they go, and seeing what happens next, noticing the contradictions as they pile up.
If you do that, you’re in the process of transforming, whether it makes a big change in your life or not. Whether it makes you more unique, or more like everyone else.
In the next post, probably the final one of this series (I dunno, I’m making this up as I go along), we’ll bring everything together and see what it says about Burning Man.
Top photo: “Tangential Dreams” by Arthur Mamou-Mani (photo by Zipporah Lomax)