Burning Man 2019: Reflections
So, alright. I just came back from Burning Man 2019, which if you have somehow not heard about is currently about the coolest thing in the hipster/tech/liberal community. It is also woefully explained, and so I will do my best to explain my personal thoughts about it. There are surely better texts about Burning Man, but this one is mine.
As a very brief intro, Burning Man is a festival held completely by its own visitors, in the Black Rock desert of northwestern Nevada. In a dusty, hot arid splotch of nowhere, once a year 70,000 hippies gather together to build a city that exists for a week and throw a wild-ass party of acceptance and self-fulfillment, self-expression, crazy art, and partying. Since the desert supplies nothing, all the participants bring their own stuff from home - water, shade, food, tents, clothes, night lights, games, bikes, the party itself, etc. The temporary erected ‘Black Rock City’ is a shanty-town of well-organized sand streets, and a transient makeshift community of people who just want to be nice to each other suddenly comes to life for that one week in the desert. The weather is harsh: the days are very hot, and the nights are very cold. Such are deserts. There is also dust, dust everywhere, all the time. Dust that will never leave you or your stuff, in more ways than one.
It’s a real community, with real people who are there for a full week with no internet or other distractions, and no money to exchange. Just like any other community, patterns quickly emerge: few are those who camp alone, and most goers are part of a ‘camp’, which is exactly what it sounds like: a group of people who share resources (and occasionally, friendship) in order to brave this world better together. Camp-goers camp together, bring communal food/water/bikes, and build their art/shade/entertainment together. Camps range from 2 to hundreds of people. A big part of the event is about Giving to others, and so each camp tries to do something cool or fun like host games or events and/or give free food or drinks to other people. As the community grows, some camps take on special community-building roles: camps that help with medical issues, or give out morning coffee, or help you fix your bike. (The event is spread across approximately 7 square miles of desert, so people generally bike everywhere). Some people build ‘art cars’: giant parade dance cars for picking up people and hosting random parties in the desert. The general mood set is one of kindness and enthusiastic sharing, and most people are happy to give their gifts to their fellow burners. The result is an amazing atmosphere of giving. People are working hard to share their gifts with strangers. This, motherfuckers, is what we could have had instead of capitalism.
But anyway. Naturally, there is an endless amount of nudity, sex, and drugs. And that’s great, because these are all great things. We are all nude under our clothes. Most of us have the same dangly parts, and all of us are pointlessly ashamed of them, suffering needlessly. In Burning Man, you will see enough nudity to make you feel better about your body, and about others. You get used to it really quickly, and that is again a Very Good Thing. Life is too short to worry so much about dangly parts (not to mention that not only are they not bad, they’re actually some of the best shit life has to offer). But we’ll get back to that later. This whole text is one stream of consciousness (if you haven’t noticed yet) and it’s hard to make all loose ends make sense, but then nobody made you read this, so what do you have to complain about? I’ll touch upon the drugs later.
It is not quite clear what you are ‘supposed’ to be doing at Burning Man. There are suggested principles and so on, but it’s really up to you to figure it out. You could say that you’re not ‘supposed’ to do anything, and I would strongly agree with that. Different people have different interests: many are interested in the crazy abundance of wild artistic constructions spread across the desert. (Art which deserves its own blog posts, but this is not the place.) Others are there to party. Some are there for the sex, or the drugs, or the self-exploration. Some are there for the people-watching itself, or the contemplation and reflection.
And so you are thrust into an odd, parallel reality - almost a sci-fi movie not unlike ‘Mad Max’ or ‘Westworld’. There is sand and sun everywhere, your ‘home’ is a tent in a small camp of people you sort of know, hopefully you have enough water, and you move around on your bike, exploring other camps and their games and their gifts. Or maybe you go see the art. Or maybe you sit around and do drugs. Just like life - you can choose what you do. And what you choose to do might be quite interesting: given a choice to enter a new society, what would you choose to do, and who would you choose to be?
It’s a real mini-society, and despite the playfulness, the stakes are very real: the elements are hard enough, but the ensuing dynamics result in real relationships, real emotions, and real reactions. People feel real joy, and real pain. People get injured, and some people even die (almost every year). The way you behave under such conditions tells you something about who you are.
So yeah. It takes a few days to figure out all of the above (depends on how much you are paying attention). Things are different if you are there alone, or as part of a couple, or a group of friends. It seems to me that all too often, things I could say ‘about Burning Man’ apply just the same to discussing life in general: You’ve got your camp which is your origin (kind of like your family, for better or worse). You are with them and depend on them, and hopefully you get along with them, but that’s not always the case. Hopefully they give you emotional and physical security, but that’s not always the case either. You don’t really know what you’re supposed to do, but you might as well go out and have fun. You should help others, but you need to figure out a balance between enjoying yourself and helping others. Who will tell you how to figure out this balance? Nobody. You figure it out for yourself, and to be honest you will never know if you got it right or not. Welcome to life, we’re all still figuring it out.
Ok, great. I’m super happy I managed to write out all of the above. It is of course not comprehensive, but I’m proud of what I did manage to write. Now that the introduction is done, some of the finer points I wanted to make, in no particular order:
One underrated (and perhaps unspoken) theme of Burning Man is Acceptance. Generally, participants are extremely accepting. One of the principles touted is ‘radical inclusion’, which means anyone can join Burning Man, but it goes further than that: you will be accepted. Your skin color, your sexual preference, your gender, your nakedness, your style, your dirtiness (showers in the desert are, uh, sparse), your clothes. You. Dress however you want. Be whatever you want. It’s fine. We love you just the way you are. And yeah, you can hang out with us.
This acceptance is powerful. People really have a need to be accepted. A significant other or a best friend or an awesome therapist, over a long period of professional care-giving, can (hopefully) give someone this feeling, and this is what you get at Burning Man. You are accepted, and you are great just the way you are, and people accept you. Hopefully, mixed with realizing who you really are (see above), you can also accept yourself, which is a powerful, powerful sensation. You are probably not perfect, and that’s fine. You’re not perfect physically, and you’re not perfect mentally, nor socially. In certain ways, you probably kind of suck. And that’s ok, we all do. And we accept you. And you can accept yourself. In fact, we expect you to participate and actively accept everybody else. You are the party, yo.
So a group of nice people decided to go to the desert and have a good time and accept each other and do some art and games and party. This is what you get. It’s pretty cool.
Drugs are super important and interesting (which is itself the topic of a post or a book or a whole life devoted to exploring consciousness). If any law enforcement is reading, then I would of course never encourage anyone to take any illegal drugs, but with some drugs there is no ‘maybe’ about it: You take this shit, and you know.
As an example, on Tuesday I had a chemically-assisted profound trip which resulted in me realizing some deep insights about myself; namely: just how safe and secure I usually feel. Due to my own personal set of background circumstances, at this point in my life I feel - in a physical sense - very secure. I am male, fit, healthy, resourceful, social. I have traveled A TON. I am not generally concerned or worried about anything physical, and I am very confident in my ability to be just fine in any reasonable situation, and that includes being stuck in the middle of the desert at a foreign festival. Literally, what could go wrong? If push comes to shove I can always beg others for food or shelter or help. I’ve been through worse and it will be fine.
But the thing is… it gets boring. I want the adventure; I want the excitement. I want to get in trouble. I want to feel the danger. I want to have stories to tell my grandkids. I want to get smashed and lose control and wake up in a ditch somewhere (alive). It so turns out that other people get concerned when you share revelations such as these with them. It is hard to convince people that no, really, I am not worried about waking up in a ditch; I relish the notion. I welcome it, and hope for it. (If you are under a chemical influence, people will be doubly concerned!). I am not a particularly brave person (and I am especially terrified of heights); I’m just successful and bored. I just want some adventure. A fun challenge.
On this particular Tuesday night, after enough chemical and mental manipulation, contemplating what path would lead to such adventure and freaking the hell out of my wife, I ended up visiting my good buddies at Zendo, a camp that helps people who are, uh, going through a trip and could use some emotional support. (If you find yourself thinking, ‘I wonder if I should maybe go to Zendo at this troubling time’ - then you should go to Zendo immediately.) After a long chat with my good buddies at Zendo I ended up bike-wandering deep into the desert. I promised my worried wife I wouldn’t do anything stupid (side note: it is a beautiful thing to self-watch, when you are really tripping, to see what principles remain salient even when you realize your mind is playing tricks on you and you’re not sure what truth is anymore. One of my guiding principles turns out to be: do what I promised my wife I would do.), so I decided not to pursue anything too rough tonight. Instead, I mused about the concept of testing my boundaries, and decided to test BM’s boundaries, in the physical sense.
And so I biked out into the desert darkness, turning away from all the lights (oh man. well, everybody brings LED lights and nighttime can feel like a giant carnival. Some describe BM as a giant EDM festival, which is not wrong), trying to find a place of darkness, and see where the hell Burning Man even ends. I did find the end – a small plastic fence encircling the entire area. How mundane. Finding out the boundaries makes everything seem a lot less intimidating: it’s a big place, but it’s not limitless. (I keep coming back to how so many realizations about Burning Man apply equally about Life).
Not far from the dark emptiness - grateful for some quiet, away from the bustling parties - I stumbled upon a tiny wooden structure about the size of a dog-house, shaped like a tiny Tibetan pagoda, along with Tibetan prayer flags. I’ve spent some time in the Tibetan Himalayas, and this little structure was spot-on. This little “Tibetan pagoda” was just sitting there, shining alone in the darkness, constructed by a random Burning-Man’er who had decided to gift it to the playa. I sat there for a couple hours and watched the party lights from afar, and contemplated. I contemplated thoughts about Burning Man - some of which you may have read above. I contemplated how I don’t really like to party, but I do like to test my own boundaries, and I like to contemplate. And how Burning Man can be different things for different people, just like life; and that my ‘thing’ is to contemplate Burning Man - just like I enjoy contemplating life.
(This ^ is the type of shit that certain drugs will get you. I could say much more about the life-altering and mind-expanding virtues of certain mixtures of chemical/natural compounds, mental exercises and set & settings, and I do. If you’d like to further discuss this, especially if you are in the Bay Area, please contact me: email@example.com.)
San Francisco is a magical city
I was born in a ‘suburb’ of San Francisco called Palo Alto, which was and is home to Stanford University, and is today famous for being part of Silicon Valley and the ridiculous amount of innovation (especially technological innovation) that is spearheaded in the area. San Francisco and Silicon Valley have been, for many years, a paragon of progression.
The reasons for the SF area being exceptionally forward are an interesting academic discussion: it’s likely some mixture of historically (and still) being a frontier town, far from the ‘old world’, which leads to people who feel they are persecuted or limited in the old world migrating to a more open area, combined with perhaps some of the world’s best natural drugs being available here. Even in the modern era, a destination which requires traveling generally means the people who are there are ‘travelers’. Travelers are often similar in the sense that they are more open, accepting and humble: this both leads people to travel, and is a result of traveling. Seeing that the world can be in different ways, being part of the ‘out-group’, not speaking the language, relying on others for kindness and help - all of these help transform us from being selfishly secure to honestly open. By now, it might be a self-reinforcing circle: SF society is generally accepting and innovative, so the individual becomes generally accepting and innovative, which re-leads to the entirety of society being this way.
The reasons being what they may, the results are obvious and undeniable: the best people in the world are drawn to the Bay Area. I am Israeli, and it is obvious that the Israelis one finds in SF & around are ‘the best’ Israelis, in the sense that they are accepting, kind, humble, and less ego-driven.
(This is a group attribute, and some variance and anomalies still exist. Clearly douchebags can be found everywhere, and certainly in tech/entrepreneurship circles. Observing the mean or mode or the entire distribution, however, will clearly show a noticeable positive edge for [group] in SF vs [same group] in other places.)
Upon observing this trend, it turns out to be the case for other groups as well; not just Israelis. The ‘Russians’ (ex-USSR) folks you meet in SF are the best ‘Russians’. The White Americans you meet in SF are the best White Americans. (These are the socio-ethnic groups I am personally intimately familiar with; it seems to me that other groups follow the same pattern, and I’d love to hear others’ impressions on this).
All of this is to say that SF is a magical place, with magical results. The revolutions of free love, female sexuality, gay acceptance, transgender acceptance, hippies, weed acceptance, psychedelic acceptance, anti-war, pro-choice, pro-helping the poor: all of this has been led/co-led from San Francisco. Burning Man, too, started in San Francisco. All of these things coming from the same place is not a coincidence. San Francisco is a magical city. In Burning Man, you meet A LOT of people from San Francisco and the Bay Area, to the point where it’s a cliche. People joke about it, but as my wife Lily says: in every joke there is a little bit of joke. San Francisco is truly a magical place, where you can meet magical people, who will accept your shit and encourage you to be your true self and will go party with you in the desert to contemplate and celebrate this acceptance. And yeah Mister or Ms. Reader dude/tte, you should come too, we’ve been waiting for you.
(Recommended reading: Summer of Love, San Francisco Values)
Words mean what people think they mean, and this word is a loaded one, so I will do my best to explain what I mean when using it, and why I use it. I believe it is an accurate portrayal to say that I am a hippie. My wife Lily is probably one as well, but she can say so for herself.
We were sitting in a tent, smoking. We were smoking because it seems the heat (or setting) was not great for consuming the chemicals we wanted in an edible fashion. Also smoking is social and nice. We were sitting with a group of our German buddies from the camp (oh, SF/BM brings the best Germans, too. And they’re a long way from home as well). Maybe we were talking about sexuality or nudity or some other form of acceptance; it wasn’t a particularly emotional conversation
I have long hair (this is my third time growing my hair out: at ages 17, 25, and 31). I am very, very liberal and accepting. This obviously includes sexuality and religion and the usual suspects. I think we should help the poor. Stop torturing animals. Save the planet. Raise taxes and redistribute wealth. But it goes further than that: I think everybody is ok and there is never any logic in being angry at anyone. Everyone lives their life by the values they were either taught or born with; even the worst amongst us either think they’re doing the right thing, or can’t control it. To really drive the point home (and this is where I might lose some readers): even Hitler thought he was doing a good thing. He did not consider himself as ‘evil’. In his eyes, he was the good guy, and he lost the war to the bad guys. Child molesters either think what they’re doing is ok, or can’t control themselves. So are rapists. Murderers. Everybody. We’re all stuck in our mind, doing whatever our brain tells us to do. We can’t control our brain and we can’t control our thoughts and we certainly cannot control the resultant actions.
This does not mean I am some holy magi and I never get upset. I, too, cannot control my own thoughts or actions or emotions; man, I wish I could. I get angry and sad just like the next guy; maybe more. But that’s irrelevant: the core point is that at least on a conscious, rational level I accept that everyone is doomed to be who they are and doomed to do what they do. There’s nothing to be mad about, and we should emotionally try to accept that such is life and such are others, while in practice doing what we can to mitigate pain in all forms and spread the love.
So yeah - I think I’m kind of a hippie. Not the type you’d expect, because I suppose most of the original hippies did not own iPhones and weren’t officers in the military and did not make their money writing software. But times change, and some modern hippies indeed do all this stuff. I am one of them. There’s no prize for being one, but it’s nice to know who you are, and it’s nice to share it with your readers. If you ever need a hug or a pick-me-up (or heck, even if you’ve read so far), send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org. I promise to do my best to answer.
And Burning Man is exactly a festival of hippies.
Burning Man is not a place/event that is hard to survive. Or rather, it wasn’t for me. As I noted above, I have had my particular set of life circumstances. I’m not the world’s toughest guy, but I’ve spent sufficient time traveling, camping, and being in the desert that BM is really a walk in the park.
As a young child my parents would take me hiking in the Judean Desert and we would discuss water discipline and how to carry someone that fell down. When I was 12 I joined a youth movement called ‘Rangers’ (loose translation) which was all about hardcore hiking and camping. Because Israel is half-desert, much of this was in the desert. We would carry backpacks with sleeping bags and heavy water and rations and hike dozens of kilometers navigating up mountains and across deserts, using just a physical topographical map, if anything (this was way before smartphones and before most of the Internet). We would cook food by a campfire. I did this throughout my childhood.
When I turned 18 I joined the Israeli army (like many Israeli men) and eventually became a Military Intelligence Officer. We spent a lot of time in the desert in the army, too. In Basic Training and in Officer’s Course (6 months, first 3 of which were in the desert) we would eat “combat rations”, which is a small box containing bread, tuna/spam, peanuts, and dried fruit. We would often eat it with our hands. Our hands were always dirty, be it from dust, sweat, tuna oil, M16 rifle soot (the black grimy powder you get when cleaning a rifle), or blood (from minor open wounds you get by dealing with everything with your hands. So my first quarter-century of life was quite accustomed to desert survival.
When I left the army I went traveling in South America for a little less than a year. This trip included most countries in South America (Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Columbia). It included sleeping outdoors in the Southern Andes in Patagonia for about 2 months straight; hitchiking with trash trucks across La Carretera Austral and Tierra del Fuego, climbing up ice mountains, getting disoriented and lost in the Bolivian wilderness, hiking for weeks in the Huaraz mountains in Peru, and crossing the deserts of Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia) and Salar de Atacama (Chile). I crossed freezing chest-depth rivers at the edge of the continent with all my shit held above my head, slept on deserted nudist beaches in Uruguay, fished for phiranhas in the Brazilian jungle, biked down ‘death road’ in Bolivia.
When you travel alone, you quickly learn the real meaning of self-reliance, you learn how to talk to strangers and make new friends, who’s got your back and how to have your own back. You learn whatever shit you have to learn in order to make sure you are ok physically, mentally, emotionally, and - if all goes well - achieving self-fulfillment.
Later in life I traveled elsewhere (e.g. norther Indian Himalayas) with similar stories, but by now the ‘damage’ had already been done: I am who I am.
Anyway. The point of all this is not to convey how badass I am (I’m not), but just to say that some people have a particular set of life circumstances which makes Burning Man… not difficult at all. Yeah you sleep in a sleeping bag and it’s hot at day and cold at night, but… we brought a car full with our crap, and our camp brought a TRUCK FULL OF STUFF for us, including a generator(!). This is all thanks to the super awesome dudes who organized our tiny camp (thx, Brian!), but life was just chill. We were drinking cold alcoholic drinks and eating grilled cheese sandwiches. I met a fellow Israeli and we discussed how his upcoming military reserve duty would obviously be harder and worse than Burning Man. (“I’ve got ice cream in my RV’s freezer, what ‘survival’?” He said.)
(As a side note, maybe ‘survival’ for white people is ‘having a giant party with cold alcohol and lots of drugs’, but this is not the same way the rest of the world uses this word. As another side note, it’s good that the BM org and community make sure to pound the notions of ‘survival’ and ‘self-reliance’ into everyone’s mind, so the participants step up and make the event what it is, rather than a cluster-snafu of thirsty, miserable people.)
So anyway: in Burning Man you will likely be sleeping in a sleeping bag, in a tent, in the desert, being dirty all the time and having to figure out where you get your water and food for a week. For some people that is extreme camping (and I respect that, we each have our difficulties), but for some of us it’s just camping in the desert and that’s not particularly difficult. And that’s ok.
Topics that didn’t make it
Here are some points I wanted to make but got tired before I reached them:
In-group/Out-group: The difference between being ‘white’/’the default group’ and being an immigrant (‘outsider’): I have experienced both modes; in the US I am effectively an immigrant, and an outsider. And I know this because I know what it’s like to be an insider: in Israel I was/am an insider. I know everyone and I know the rules and I know the institutions and I know how shit works and how to get anything done. In the US I know nothing of this, and I have a very small ‘network’ and I’m still figuring shit out and LIFE IS DIFFERENT when you’re living with a suitcase and you’re terrified of getting life wrong. And it is HARD for immigrants to connect with in-group members, and vice versa. I am/have been on both sides of this line, and I have seen it is hard from both sides. So it makes sense that white people (who are more stand-offish to begin with) connect less with Israeli/Russian/Hispanic immigrants and vice versa. To all my immigrant homies (or “ex-pat”, the more PC word, since ‘immigrant’ sounds poor and less presitigious) - we gotta stick together. We got each other’s back. It’s gonna be ok.
Magic: Burning Man has made me believe in magic again. Which sounds trite, but requires us to define what do we mean by ‘magic’. My meaning is: things I don’t understand, and I don’t think science understands. Things that are odd and interesting, but do not [yet] have a “scientific”-style explanation. If you have taken psychedelics and thought about this, you KNOW such things exist.
First time: a common topic at Burning Man is to discuss ‘how many times have you been to Burning Man before’, and especially noteworthy is if it’s your first time. This was my first time, but I felt as ready as ever. Be a hippie, camp outdoors, dress however you want, do whatever you want, embrace minimalism, self-expression and radical inclusion? I’ve been living this life for as long as I can remember. As the greeters say at the gate to Burning Man, right after you’ve passed the traffic and the cops and 8-hour drive from San Francisco, and right before you become one with the dust: Welcome Home.
ὁ δὲ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ
Thank you for reading this. I hope it has benefitted you in some way and that you have enjoyed it. If you disagree with something I wrote or think I missed something important: well, you can write your own post about it, and I encourage you to indeed go ahead and do so. All I can say, standing upon the shoulders of giants, is that the unexamined life is not worth living.
May angels lead you in, and I’ll see you on the other side.