Metamorphoses, Part 8 — Why Burning Man Facilitates Transformation

This is the final installment 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.

For all that this series has been (in my head), a kind of conversation with Larry, the first seven installments have talked very little about Burning Man.

This is actually quite consistent with my relationship with Larry: of course, we talked about Burning Man together, but we spent a lot more time talking about other things. The world is big and interesting. The idea that everything worth knowing can be fit into the context of Burning Man is not only untrue: it is boring. We talked about psychology, Larry and I, not because it was relevant to Burning Man, but because we were interested. The fact that it was sometimes relevant to Burning Man was a happy, but accidental, by-product of those discussions.

But if something is really relevant to the human condition, it should show up in some way at Burning Man. Somebody should be radically self-expressing it. If that doesn’t happen, it’s worth asking: what are we doing wrong? Why aren’t people able to bring this relevant part of their experience with them to this thing we create together?

 “Psychogeography” is an Awesome Word

It is that openness to the entire human condition that creates a bridge between Carl Rogers’ theories of psychological change and Burning Man. Burning Man, it seems to me, creates an environment in which the conditions that make relationships “transformative” are active at a larger scale, even a communal level.

Two of the key elements of a “transformative relationship” after all, are transparent honesty (which Rogers calls “congruence”) and “unconditional positive regard,” operating fully at the same time. After thinking about this, I believe — I think — that this describes the psychological environment (the “psychogeography” if we want to be just a little too precocious, which I kind of do) of Black Rock City, and other Burning Man spaces.

Creating the Conditions for Honesty

Start with congruence: for a relationship to be “transformative” in the way we’re talking about, it has to be honest. You have to be able to express what you really think, and to know what the other person really thinks. Lying — or even the suspicion of ulterior motives — breeds distrust, which naturally makes people cautious and defensive and unwilling to be honest themselves, let alone vulnerable.

It is hard to find people, let alone places and communities, where you feel confident that people are being so honest, let alone are comfortable being so honest yourself.

Yet Burning Man (while hardly perfect) creates these conditions to an extraordinary degree. It begins with Radical Inclusion: come as you are. Whatever your politics, religion, personal beliefs, sense of style, physical appearance, interests, hobbies, weird passions … you are welcome here. Even the parts of yourself you do not know well. All you have to do to be a citizen in good standing is participate, and to the extent possible we will all accommodate you.

Burning Man goes even farther with the principle of Decommodification.  In conventional spaces, the first reaction you have to a stranger doing something weird or reaching out to you unexpectedly is the suspicion that they’re trying to sell you something, or raise awareness for a cause or brand.  You suspect — rightly —that they are not interacting with you to in good faith, but are trying to manipulate you for commercial purposes. And if you decide to trust them, and turn out to be wrong, then you’re a sucker.

In Burning Man cultural spaces, that is the last thing you think: you can largely assume that people are interacting with you in good faith; that they are doing exactly what they say they are doing, or because they want to play … and if you decide to trust them and turn out to be wrong, then they’re assholes. Complete bastards.

By almost entirely eliminating commerce and marketing within Burning Man spaces, we take all of these bullshit motives for talking to someone off the table. So once again, people are more likely to be honest — to be engaging with one another in good faith. You not only don’t have to buy and sell and market and brand, you can’t. So you might as well be honest.

Decommodification creates an environment in which trusting is the correct default mode of engagement. That’s huge.

Then there’s “Radical Self-Expression.” The connection between that and honest self-expression are so obvious that I’m not even going to go into it: it clearly makes a difference.

There’s also Immediacy, the nature of theme camps, a culture of iconoclasm and mockery of convention, a spirit of experimentation … for so many reasons, Burning Man environments are places in which it is easier to be honest about who you are and what you want and why you’re doing what you’re doing. And to expect that honesty from others.

Why Are We So Damn Nice?

At the same time, Burning Man environments create a surprisingly powerful spirit of unconditional positive regard. Which seems impossible, given that people are being so honest.  I mean, we’re all ridiculous: so why aren’t all these honest people going mock you?

Well, some of them will, absolutely. And rightfully so: we should get to laugh at what makes us laugh. You will not get along with everyone at a Burning Man event, nor should you be expected to, and nobody has to like you, personally, either.

But the fact that so many people are experimenting with their own honesty, are trying — in the absence of commerce and marketing and the need to hustle one another — to do what they actually want to do, creates an environment that for all its brutal honesty is surprisingly accepting, even loving. When we are all openly figuring our shit out, there is no stigma attached to being open about the shit you’re trying to figure out. In such an environment, it is easy to feel comfortable taking risks, and much easier to recover from them.

As I say literally every chance I get: Burning Man isn’t a safe space, but we take your risks and lubricate them.

It’s not so much that your personal passion, whatever it is, will find acceptance … but that the act of trying to figure your personal passion out, and bring it to life, is widely celebrated. The amount of acceptance, and unconditional positive regard, people have for that process is enormous. Almost limitless.

But actually, while we’re on the subject, it’s very possible that your personal passion, your unique and authentic weirdness, will find acceptance for its own sake. Not because people pretend to like it, but because we are in fact not all that different from one another, even in our peculiarities. The odds are, in a city of 70,000 people and a global culture of millions, that somebody else is already doing something that will speak to your own authentic struggles, and that your own authentic struggles will speak to other people.

Under normal circumstances you would never know this, precisely because we don’t put ourselves out there. We aren’t transparent.  But when we do, when we are — especially in a space where the expression of idiosyncratic passion is celebrated and we are not marketing at one another — it can be shockingly easy to find a level of honest acceptance and appreciation and love that you had never before imagined.

Not all Burners, to be sure (should that be a sarcastic hashtag?) but enough.  Often more than enough.

A Place of Dynamic Change

Thus you have the main conditions needed for a “transformative relationship” happening all around you, all the time. And this applies to a host of other, secondary, conditions for such a relationship as well: the lack of an external locus of evaluation, the presence of dynamic change that everyone is going through, the open-ended quality of the experiences, which are had for their own sake … and many of the other factors we’ve discussed.

You may or may not discover this relationship with another specific person, or people, but it seems like you can have it with the environment as a whole, with the community, in a way Carl Rogers never imagined. And when you do, you are able to experience your own dynamicism, your own ability to experience more of yourself, in exactly the way he described.

The result is … Metamorphoses.  Not “metamorphosis,” the singular — something that happens once. But “metamorphoses,” the plural. Happening again, and again, and again. Each experience of change somehow making us more like ourselves.

And that is pretty much what I think Larry and I would have agreed to about that. We would have nodded at each other in a moment of very satisfied silence. He would have lit another cigarette, and the subject would suddenly have changed.

Top photo: Question Mark in the Dust (Photo by Mark Nixon)

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

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