Does it seem to you that the best things in life come your way without you asking for it? It certainly rings true for me, not sure whether it is because I am lucky or because there is some metaphysical order to the randomness of the Universe. Anyway, this was the case when I was summoned by my dear friend Rob to make the journey from Guatemala to the desert of Nevada to participate in the annual event of Burning Man. About a year ago I quit my full time job as a special ed teacher and decided to embark on the path of self-employment. Given the current financial unpredictability of my business, I was very fortunate that Rob had some extra air miles up his sleeve that he did not hesitate to use towards my trip. Burning Man literally beckoned me and thus my expedition towards the boundary of creativity began to unfold.

Let’s place the whole thing in context. Burning Man is not a festival. It is better described as an event, or The Event, that marks the celebration of a social movement, a culture that reaches out into the world beyond the boundaries of time and location. Better to hear it from the horse’s mouth:

“Once a year, tens of thousands of people gather in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to create Black Rock City, a temporary metropolis dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance. In this crucible of creativity, all are welcome.”

This is just one part of it. The other pillar of the movement also includes the culture:

“A unique and distinctive culture emerges from the Burning Man experience. Rooted in the values expressed by the Ten Principles, this culture is manifested around the globe through art, communal effort, and innumerable individual acts of self-expression. To many, it is a way of life.”

Sounds pretty intense, right? A bunch of people from around the world decide to create a temporary city to challenge our socially constructed reality and to redefine the meaning of community. There are Burner events all around the world, embedded in the network of like-minded people:

“Since its earliest days, Burning Man has been a collaborative endeavour, bringing together people with different backgrounds, interests, outlooks and skills. Today, this growing community is served by a vibrant network connecting individuals, communities, events and organizations worldwide.”

The Ten Principles of Burning Man

So we have The Event, The Culture and The Network that blend together in a cocktail of experiences that are hard to describe. Everything is built on The Ten Principles that promote radically creative and community orientated attitudes. If you are as nerdy as I am, you may want to listen to Marian Goodell who serves as Burning Man Project’s first Chief Executive Officer.

My Burner experience startled me from the outset. I arrived to Reno with a strange sense of reverse culture shock: the lights, the concrete, the highways overflowing with cars, somewhat echoing clogged blood vessels. And consumption, extensive intake of calorie rich meals that I don’t need, humongous coffee cups and the overwhelming diversity of products that burst out of supermarket shelves. Is this meant to make me happy? Or did I miss the comfort of services and products at my immediate disposal? I have been to the US many times, however after spending eight months in my jungle hut, I found this culture and lifestyle to be at odds with my instinctual needs. I felt estranged from my organismic rhythm (nothing to do with orgasming! it’s a psychoanalytic term describing our capacity to be in tune with ourselves as whole organisms). I craved the soothing of Mother Nature, my home-cooked nutritious meals and the loud noises of wild animals that announce my bed time. What balance should we seek to find our own natural rhythm…? I do admit that we need hospitals and the industry to maintain our species.

Where is the sweet spot between dogmatic technocracy and extreme hippie driven worship of nature?

With this question in mind, I enter yet another version of reality, called Burning Man. It is not a festival, God forbid us! It is an experiment in creating a temporary community, right in the middle of Black Rock Desert in Nevada that was christened as the Playa. The whole complex of trailers, tents, art installations, pop up bars and the iconic Man, along with the Temple, add up like pieces of jigsaw to form the enchanting architecture of Black Rock City. This dream like reality challenges me and provokes me to evaluate my habitual position. It doesn’t happen intellectually. I just feel overwhelmed, secretly liking it. I know it will take me quite a while to find the answers to the questions I pose. Perhaps the purpose of The Burn is to leave me in a state of enquiry that will feed my creative process in the months to come…

Black Rock City by night
photographer credit: Andrew Close

The Temple at sunrise

A bird’s eye view
photographer credit: Jacob Riglin

On day three I am giving a talk and running a workshop entitled “Examining your life purpose”. This year’s Burning Man theme is metamorphoses. We ponder this through some questions, such as:

  • Are we all dreamers here?
  • How is this dream going to impact your reality?
  • What does it mean for you to live The Burn?

Metamorphosis is a process of change… If you really want it, then focus on it, follow it, moment by moment, bit by bit. Therapy and coaching are also about change. Clients experience their metamorphoses in countless ways that eventually enhance their lives. This happens by paying attention to the process and less so to the content. Therapists and coaches are mostly concerned with HOW and less so with the WHAT. In fact, this trick enables flexibility to redefine oneself. This redefinition unfolds within a context of a relationship. It is the process that counts and thus the relationship drives the metamorphosis. Every change requires energy and so do metamorphoses. Work is defined as transfer of energy… and work over time is power. That power can be partially found in your dreams. Therefore, connect, relate and dream with those around you if you want to change!

These were some of the ideas explored in the workshop. I was personally very interested in the transformative aspect of The Burn. It seems to me that one can easily slip into mindless hedonism, forgoing their creative endeavours. Perhaps I am sounding militant and yet there is something to be said about the alchemy of transformation here.

Throughout The Burn we absorb numerous experiences. I believe that the extent to which we take them outside of the Playa is a measure of our integrity. That’s what I personally define as living The Burn!

If you feel somewhat tired of the intense reflection, feel free to add some spice to your blogging journey and check out the video below.
video by Andrew Close

It’s Friday (day five!) at The Burn and people are starting to be quite irritable. The harsh environment of the Playa is beginning to take its toll. The combination of extreme temperatures, lack of sleep, constant noise and a haphazard diet is enough to decrease everyone’s frustration tolerance. Just a few hours ago we went to explore the Temple. I was taking a panoramic picture when suddenly a random guy rolled into my view on his bike, reprimanding me. Apparently, I should have asked for permission to take a picture, even though I was not interested to photograph him in the least. I was taken aback and mumbled something indiscriminate trying to justify myself. I was pissed off actually. I didn’t have the reflex or the wherewithal to tell the guy “Fuck your Burn”. That would have been the standard and socially accepted response in this context. For me, this was in fact the moment of meeting the shadow of the event.

the shadow contains repressed aspects of individuals and groups

We conjure up our positive Playa identities, emanate an aura of friendly kindness while trying to maintain an image of never ending happiness. Yes, there are moments of touching conversations! However, are we trying to pretend that the shadow aspect of life does not exist? Or are we transforming it, making peace with it, exploring it through the endless nights of debauchery? Is this escapism or a quest? Surely we can find some 80 thousand answers corresponding to the number of inhabitants of Black Rock City. I am just not sure how many of them would take account of the shadow.

I’m talking about it with my flatmate from London, Dimitri. He’s asking: “So what the hell do you mean by this shadow aspect of Burning Man?” and then lets out a sigh of subtle irritation as he knows I love to analyse everything to the nth degree. I say, well, it feels a bit like a one night stand that lasts a week. You sleep with someone just to see their pretty side… but the moment you realise they’re human, that they have faults and that their breath smells of death in the morning… then you’ve met their shadow. Same thing at The Burn: towards the end of the week some people become prickly and short tempered. They forget about their kindness or generosity and somewhat drift into the less flattering aspects of their personalities. Therefore, I would argue that there is value and growth in embracing the ugly side of ourselves. I doubt that every Burner sees it as an asset. Of course the positives outweigh the negatives but let’s not discount the personal development resulting from the unbeautiful. I mean the most delicious tomatoes grow on horse manure, right?

authentic growth needs both the shadow and the light
photographer credit: Andrew Close

I am sitting on the plane carrying me back to Guatemala. I feel calm and satisfied, looking forward to my simple lifestyle of my beloved pueblo. Safety and expectations are so subjective. While so many people want to get out of Guatemala, I am very much excited to get back into my groove defined by the rhythms, sounds and smells of nature. I am in a position to appreciate it, unlike others who struggle to make ends meet here. At the same time, there are many people in the U.S. who cannot and will not appreciate the beauty of their country as they battle with the cogs of an aggressive free market economy. I may sounds like a sanctimonious jerk, a well-meaning socialist who wants to make the world a better place. And yet I cannot stop myself pondering our social responsibility and the inequality present in our global society. Going to Burning Man is a great privilege and it has to be taken with considerable appreciation. Living The Burn means to me contributing to your local communities with humility and respect. If you don’t do it, you’re an asshole! A fleshy and pink one, just as exhibited by the kitty below.

Don’t be an asshole and share your Burn experience with your community
art credit: Meekah Danyael (Miss Kitty)


Photography: Andrew Close