Be So Unlike You
Burning Man tickets just went on sale again. Last year was my first year, and boy, have I been reminiscing. It was such a banner experience for me. Why? Going to Burning Man was so “unlike me.” I like order, cleanliness and accomplishment. It’s not about any of that.
Do you know about Burning Man?
It’s a week-long gathering of somewhere around 50,000 people in the middle of a Nevada desert that come together to socially experiment with self-expression. Everything you bring in, you must bring out; there is nothing there before we come and nothing there when we leave.
What happens between those two moments?
Massive art installations are erected and taken (sometimes burned) down. Tens of thousands of offerings — educational, intellectual, experiential, athletic, spiritual, artistic, gustatory and practical — are made and received. There is no commerce except for the sale of coffee and ice. The weather in a day ranges from 40 to 100 degrees and everyone is always “dressed up.” T-shirt and shorts would be weird. You dress how you always wanted to: sexy cowgirl, Martian, Roman emperor, various stages of nude.
Because the offerings span many miles of desert and driving would be both strange and unhealthy (because of all the dust it would kick up), everyone rides on bikes (decorated, of course). It’s expensive to get there. You have to fly to Reno, rent something to drive 2.5 hours from there in, rent bikes, bring in food, water, tent or RV and, of course, there is the price of admission, which is around $300. Nobody is let in at the door. So, although this is the wildest party you have ever seen, everyone is there VERY MUCH on purpose and most people for a pretty high purpose (and I don’t just mean drugs, ha ha).
I cannot possibly describe what it’s like to be there, for one because it’s so totally sensory; every sense is activated pretty much the entire time. Forget a sleeping or eating schedule. You may even forget your friends and family, that is how absorptive the experience is.
It’s also indescribable because it’s so massive. If I told you what it was like from my perspective, it would be like me describing your knee to someone and thinking I could then tell them to find you in a lineup. No two people could possibly experience Burning Man in the same way, even for a moment, so there is no point in trying to describe it. Nobody could have possibly described it to me, but I found the vignettes they did share intriguing and fascinating. I will share a couple of my own with you, just to illustrate the lesson I want to teach: be unlike you.
For the past few weeks, I have been on the theme of debunking your “dumb-ass theories,” and one of mine was that I am “not that into fun.” Well, that went out the window with this adventure. I let myself just be and completely follow the flow of something so much bigger than me (that’s what fun is, right?) and it was terrific. I feel like a better person because of it and much more open.
You might be great at fun, so you have to extrapolate to find your lesson here. When you think about the areas of life, which ones are you ignoring? Your body, career, love life, romance, home, time, family, learning, spirituality, fun/adventure? Pick the area that’s the deadest and resolve to debunk some old, stale theories in that area. Instead of using your head to do it, use your body. DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT. Pretend you are the opposite “kind of guy/gal,” and do what he or she would do. That’s what I did. I promise you will come back with amazing stories and full of awe about human capacity.
So here is what impressed me most at Burning Man:
1) The temple – the largest freestanding temporary building structure in the world. It is designed and carved by a famous artist, specially and each year based on a theme. Throughout the week, everyone visits multiple times and does a form of worship: song, dance, chant, hum, pray, write, read, do ceremony, etc. The one that moved me the most was the writing on the walls. People write everything on the wooden walls: gratitude, farewells, confessions, apologies, remorse, wishes, dreams, jokes, quotes, love notes, purges, celebrations, poetry, letters and more. Whatever there is to express, if it hasn’t already been expressed in an outfit, a dance, a performance, a work of physical art, it is expressed in words written on the temple. Everyone is quiet at the temple. The energy is so palpable and you pretty much cry the entire time because you can feel all of the emotion, passion, anguish of the human race coalesced there, elegantly, boldly and brilliantly public, available for all to experience. And then they burn it all to the ground at the end of the week and start planning the next one. Ha. The event calls BS on all of your attachments and belief systems and excuses for being anything but your true, full, expressed self. Love that.
2) The gift giving. People are constantly giving stuff away at Burning Man, anything from a class to a massage to food to earrings. I couldn’t believe there was a camp on our block dedicated to making the porta-potty experience lovely (and, by golly, I found it to be so!). Somehow they knew what I needed beyond a clean seat (can you believe?). Made available to us were baby wipes, aromatherapy mist, antibacterial cleanser and cocoa butter, plus sunscreen if you needed to refresh that. I started skipping the flush toilet in the RV to get to the porta-potties near this camp!
3) The people and the magic. One night, I went back to camp early and missed the burning of this enormous Trojan horse I was curious about. The next day, at a rather deserted art installation in the middle of the desert, I was musing that it had been my only regret of the whole trip, not sticking it out to see the burn. Moments later, a man rode up to look at the exhibit and was chatting with me about it. Suddenly, he asked me if I had seen the horse burn, and I said I regretted missing it. He told me he had found the event extremely claustrophobic, but then he pulled out his phone and asked me if I’d like to see it on video (about two minutes’ worth). I can’t tell you how odd it was to watch a stranger’s video in the middle of the desert, or how honestly relieved I felt to have been able to have that experience without the crowd or the heat or the late night! You would just have to trust at Burning Man that you are always in the right place at the right time for what you most need, and you are always enough exactly as you are.
It’s utopian, all right. Not perfect, I’m no Pollyanna; but very utopian and unique. I hope you got a sense of that from my vignettes. It was super hard to keep it short. But the biggest takeaway here is: If you think you know who you are, forget it. It’s just not true. Dare to be “so unlike you.” C’mon, it’s fun!
For more by Laurie Gerber, visit www.handelgroup.com.
Photo credit: Sarah Bartell