Today I’m faced with the impossible task of describing perhaps the most interesting week of my life, spent in the desert of Nevada, below the bright Milky Way and between the tall, dry mountains. Burning Man is an art festival. It’s a music festival. It’s a camping trip. It’s a surreal cultural experience unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. And this year would be my first ever Burning Man. I’ll share my experience here, with a disclaimer that words, images, and videos cannot describe the brilliance of this event. You need to participate for yourself to truly understand. Oh, and one more disclaimer, I was completely sober the entire time. You don’t need to be on drugs or drunk to experience what I’ve described below.
Quick Recap of the Trip
After roughly eight hours on the road we arrived at the gate of Black Rock City, located 110 miles northeast of Reno, Nevada. The line for the gate took another three hours or so, getting us to camp just after 3am Monday morning. From there we setup camp, which was composed mostly of tents, yurts, and a 24-foot communal dome. After several hours camp was finally setup at 9am Monday morning. Needless to say the long drive, wait at the gate, and camp setup was exhausting. Yet it would lead to a truly unique and amazing experience for the days to come.
After a few hours of napping I decided to jump on my bike and explore Black Rock City. Black Rock City is organized as a big circle, with the center and the top 2/3rds of the city left open for art installations. Riding into the open playa was like nothing I’ve ever done before. Describing the open playa as a collection of art does exactly zero justice for the truly awing experience one has when blessed with such a beautiful environment. I rode my bike to and from interactive art installations, noticing the hilarious and exciting costumes and art cars around me as I biked under the desert sun. The open playa at night is even more magical. Art cars drive around blaring music and spouting fire, warming and entertaining the well-lit pedestrians and bikers wandering around the beautiful and vibrant city. Everything is lit with EL-wire, LEDs, or flame throwers.
The remainder of the week’s evenings would be spent dancing all night, either at 20,000 watt art cars such as Robot Heart or DanceTronauts, or at sound camps such as Opulent Temple or Nexus, turning their volume to 11 when the sun finally rises over a city that never sleeps, blasting their electronic music into the deep playa for the world to hear. The days were occupied by endless creative interactions–both events and art–provided by the participants of Burning Man.
Burning Man was as interesting, exciting, and fun as any week could possibly be. But its culture resonates with me far more than its entertainment does. I’ll run through the three major cultural aspects of Burning Man that are most meaningful to me.
Black Rock City has a gift economy, with generosities and compassion in the form of anything from hair washing to communal bathing to food and drink, activities, what have you. However, one can’t survive solely on the gifts of others. Each participant is expected to bring their own food, water, shelter, and any other means of survival for the week.
Living in the desert isn’t easy. The alcaline playa dust eats at your skin and clothing. The nights are cold, getting as low as the 30s and 40s. And the days are hot, reaching temperatures in the high 90s. Hydration is key to survival. And despite having all sorts of friendly, compassionate neighbors and health volunteers, you really are on your own to survive.
The sense of self reliance gave me the confidence that I could live anywhere I needed to. I feel great being able to survive in a desert that seemingly tries to kill all forms of life.
Burning Man is perhaps the biggest testament to the reality of impermanence that I’ve ever experienced. After all, the city only exists for a week. Participants and city volunteers spend months on end building the man himself, the Temple, and other art installations, all to be burned at the end of the week. All senses and experiences, both good and bad, come to an end whether we want them to or not. Wanting too much of a good thing is dangerous; closing ourselves onto a bad thing causes suffering.
Burning Man reminds me that all things are temporary. All things come and go. Impermanence in many ways makes good times more meaningful, and in the same way helps bad times to pass more quickly. Impermanence isn’t something we should beat or overcome, perhaps with luxurious or material possessions. Impermanence should be embraced. Burning Man helped me embrace impermanence. There’s no other experience that is more about the present moment than Burning Man.
Last, and definitely not least, is the individuality that is expressed at Burning Man. No other time in my life have I felt the ability to truly be myself, to do whatever I felt like at a given moment, with no thought at all about others’ expectations. Like the man, expectations are burned.
I’ve been struggling for the last two months trying to find an idea worth devoting myself to for the next phase of my professional life. Throughout this self-exploratory period I’ve struggled with what others might think of me or my ideas, taking certain feedback too personally and ultimately letting the software community control my dreams and passions.
No more. Burning Man is the amazing experience it is because of how individual it is. With no social construct to guide art or events, the imagination runs wild and creates truly beautiful, inspiring forms of art and events. The same can be true for software. I’m done looking for an idea that will please others. I’m going to build what I believe in. Nothing more, nothing less.
Furthermore, the individuals that spend months planning events or creating art give away their creation for free, to the gift economy at large. And they’re happier because of it. Compassion is the true path to inner happiness because giving to the community around us strengthens the community, bringing more love and compassion to ourselves in doing so.
At Burning Man there is no one to be other than yourself. Yourself, self reliant, in the present moment, always. I’ve never experienced anything like it. As entertained as I was for the week I was living in Black Rock City, I took away far more in personal values than I could have ever expected. I’m a better person because of Burning Man. I’m stronger and more self confident, caring less about the social pressure I so easily let control my decisions.
I can’t recommend Burning Man enough. There’s something for everyone there. It will help you find yourself. And at the very least, it’ll be a damn good time.
Update: I found a video that depicts the nightlife at Burning Man in as accurate a form as possible. Though the feeling one has of being on the playa cannot be documented.