What is a psychomagical experience and how can it be a catalyst for transformational moments? We’re delighted to announce we’ve just published Caveat Magister’s newest book, Turn Your Life Into Art: Lessons in Psychomagic from the San Francisco Underground. In addition to being the Burning Man Journal‘s most prolific writer, Caveat (aka Benjaman Wachs) has lived in a Buddhist monastery, was a founding member of Burning Man Project’s Philosophical Center, and has been known to host psychomagical experiences in his home and elsewhere. Caveat’s new book lays out the very building blocks of peak experience design in such a way that anyone can concoct collective, magical, transformational moments literally anywhere. Order Turn Your Life Into Art here.
If you spend enough time in Burning Man spaces, you will have a life-changing experience. Most people don’t even need more than a week. The idea that people come to Burning Man to have “transformational experiences” has become a cultural cliché, and is something we talk about all the time.
But do we actually know what we’re talking about? What are transformational experiences? Why do they happen? Why do they seem so bizarrely, impossibly, magical? If Burning Man didn’t invent them (and, come on, it didn’t), why are they so common in our culture and places?
In 2019 and 2020, I wrote a book answering these questions. It’s a “how to” book about San Francisco’s art underground, out of which Burning Man emerged. Over a period of 30 years, this unique and extraordinary scene mastered the art of creating “psychomagical” experiences (a term first coined by Alejandro Jodorowsky) in a secular context, and took them to new heights. It turns out anyone can do it, but corporations and media outlets and influencers are never going to be as good at it as mad artists and creative monks.
We know that these experiences can change lives. We believe that they can change societies, too. But not the way you’d think.
Turn Your Life Into Art explains why, and how. It also delves into the fundamental building blocks of San Francisco art underground psychomagical experiencers. These building blocks are are listed below, and explained in the book to enable anyone to put them into practice.
Build Your Own Psychomagical Experience
Infinite Gardens vs. Finite Robots – You’re not making the thing happen, you’re creating the conditions under which something amazing can happen. You’re cultivating, but you’re not in control.
Create non-fictions – You want people to understand that this is really happening. If someone has to suspend disbelief about something important, then it’s not going to work. Ideally, they shouldn’t have to suspend disbelief about anything. The more real it is, the more effective it is.
Engineer disperfection – Create situations that break conventionality and that cannot be optimized for success. Where there is no “winning” in a conventional sense.
Encourage meaningful choices – Create moments of “applied existentialism” where people have to decide what’s really important to them, and act on it. Where what people choose to do, how they choose to react, has a significant impact on what happens next and the experience they have.
Gardens aren’t safe – Giving people meaningful choices in a non-fictional environment designed to create psychomagic isn’t safe. You can’t make it safe and get these kinds of impacts. What you can do is get better with danger, physical and psychological, so as to work through risks, rather than avoid them.
This could never happen twice – Repetition is the hallmark of zzzzzzz. The less repeatable a psychomagical experience is, the more impact it is likely to have. Even if you are doing an experience with a format, try to design conditions that are unrepeatable, that could never happen again even if you wanted them to.
You’re either in or your out — except when you’re not – Unless you’re creating a wholly spontaneous act of psychomagic for someone (and maybe even then), it’s crucial to either set firm boundaries around an experience (it happens in here, across this line, only) or to try the much harder task of wholly integrating the experience into their world for the long haul. Whichever choice you make, go all in. Going halfway in either direction destroys the impact.
The Holy Trinity — Art, Ritual, and Play – In some ways these are three different things, and in some ways these are all the same thing. The more of each you can incorporate into your experience, and the more you can blur the boundaries between them or shift back and forth, the more likely you are that someone is going to have a profound experience, even if (especially if) it’s utterly absurd.
Gary Warne’s Chaotic Principles – You must allow people the validity of their own reactions to what you do, otherwise you’re a bully and an asshole. Always have a clear agreement with the people in your experience about what you’ll do if things go sideways. Always stick together … lots of important advice here … but mostly: you’re not doing fan service for your self-image, and people have a right to respond however they want to the weirdness you create.
The lazy man’s guide to starting a cult – The reason people have been taking each other out into nature and creating challenges for one another as a bonding exercise is that it works. It’s psychologically potent. But it’s much more potent as one element among many, rather than being the experience itself.
Honesty is the best policy – When in doubt, be more honest. Always be more honest. Do it in a theatrical way, do it in an interesting way, do it in an artful way, absolutely — but be more honest, more vulnerable, and more open. That’s a royal road to psychomagic.
Cover image: “Connections” by Oxana Belka, 2019 (Photo by Ales Prikryl aka DustToAshes)