In the summer of 2015 I had the profoundly life-changing experience of participating in Burning Man, a weeklong, transformative cultural event set in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. Burning Man is best characterized by its wonderfully welcoming community, awe-inspiring art liberated from commodification, and untamed celebration of our gift of self-expression.
It was my first “burn” and I was a bit apprehensive about immersing myself in an experience so different from my social conditioning over the first thirty years of my life. I felt I needed a jolt of something to help get me out of the rut I was in at the time.
A Need for Healing and Community
I was raised in a devout evangelical Christian home and spent most of my teenage years as a skeptical but committed Christian. By the age of twenty, after a period of intense study and contemplation made more urgent by the death of my grandfather, I had declared myself an agnostic and limited my spiritual practice to meditation devoid of any supernatural narrative. A backpacking trip to the religious sites of Israel and the West Bank, including a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2005, yielded no sense of divine connection, despite my openness to it.
I had left home for basic training the day after I graduated from high school and spent the first five years of my adult life in the military. My experience there contributed to the fracturing of my worldview.
The deeply painful experience of seeing friends in the veteran community struggling with physical and psychological injuries, substance abuse rooted in those injuries, and suicide—as well as witnessing from afar the consequences of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq—caused deep and long-lasting moral injury that I continue to wrestle with.
Despite my resulting dread of conflict prevention and resolution, I developed a passion for the field that motivated me to eventually move to Washington, DC, and pursue graduate studies focused on US foreign policy in the Middle East. By the summer of 2015 I was feeling burned out by my absorption in the high-stakes Iran nuclear negotiations, which I was analyzing in a professional capacity while advocating for it in my own private capacity. I was looking forward to a week of rest and adventure in the desert.
My journey to Burning Man was something of a spiritual rite of passage in itself. It entailed a circuitous flight from Washington, DC, to Reno, Nevada, followed by an overnight stay at a Reno hotel that I imagined purgatory must be like if there were such a thing.
The next morning I departed with my partner and friends for Black Rock City, the otherworldly Burning Man metropolis in the middle of Black Rock Desert, Nevada.
Upon entrance through the gate, newcomers are instructed to disembark from their vehicles, roll around in the powdery playa dust, and ring a bell, at which point the “burner” greeting them gives them a hug and says, intriguingly, “Welcome home.”
“Thanks,” I recall replying, shrugging bemusedly to myself.
First Glimmers of Light
Our group arrived a couple of days before the start of the burn to set up camp. The austere setting initially looked and felt something like a refugee camp or scene from Mad Max, complete with dust storms, hot, arid days, and cold desert nights.
The evening before the first day of the burn, glimpses of warm, welcoming LED lights and “EL wire” looped around bikes passing ethereally across the deep playa began to appear in the distance, and we ventured out to enjoy some of the newly installed art exhibits.
The next several days were filled with a stream of blissful awakenings to beautiful sunrises observed from the cool shelters of tented cafes; whimsical, irreverent, and dramatic artistic performances and competitions; mazes; art galleries; sound baths, meditation and massage workshops; nourishing meals shared with friends; and captivating music and dance parties.
Some of the events were intensely spiritual. One of the most important I participated in was a workshop on forgiveness. The woman who organized it had endured sexual trauma as a child and had the courage to work through her pain and provide others a space to heal from their own emotional wounds.
As the sun began to set majestically into each evening, the wild revelers of Black Rock City began to howl like coyote across the playa and we joined euphorically in a wave of celebration of our freedom in this remote, enchanting place.
Then began the procession of the art cars and “mutant vehicles”: a fire-breathing dragon, kraken, and other mythical beasts, a neon blue Pac Man monster, a brightly glowing large yellow rubber duck, a giant fuzzy bumblebee…all fixed atop the chassis of vehicles and mounted with massive sound systems that boomed all night across the playa.
Each night we biked up and down the streets, around the esplanade, and into deep playa in search of new adventures. Every genre of dance music imaginable could be found, curated by superb DJs and complemented by cultural motifs from around the world, along with brilliantly designed visual effects, art props and the costumes of participants. The spirit of the place was warm, jovial, and celebratory, as if we’d all found ourselves together in some wonderful lucid dream or a heaven I’d never imagined could exist—a place where we could express and celebrate our aliveness to the fullest.
The final evening we attended the ritual of the burning of the Man: the gigantic art structure positioned at the center of the playa. It was a deeply moving ceremony, preceded by a stunning performance featuring hundreds of fire-spinners from around the world. There were also elements of public spectacle, with shouts and jeers alternating hilariously between, “SAVE THE MAN!” and “BURN HIM!” as if he were facing a public execution in some barbarous medieval land. This was followed by a reverent silence as he began to burn.
I laughed and cried at the tragicomic beauty of the experience and as I watched the flames engulf him, I contemplated the symbolism this ritual offered. I reflected on the untamed joy and passion with which we had burned that week, the ways in which society punishes us for allowing our inner light to shine through, the impermanence of this existence, and my renewed desire to live my life to its fullest.
I asked myself in genuine astonishment during one absolutely breathtaking sunrise that week, “What did I do to deserve this?” It made me profoundly grateful to be alive and made life truly feel like a gift. It was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had.
The Power of Burning Man
Burning Man transformed me on a deep emotional level and has provoked me, in the three years since I returned to the relative drabness of the “default world,” to contemplate its nature and potential implications.
I believe that the Burning Man community has the power to help elevate our human civilization from its bleak state, replete with stifling conformity, corruption, repression, and conflict. The celebration is by nature abstract and ephemeral, and I believe this is the key to preserving its spiritual purity. If it retains its spiritual essence, free of market or political co-option or the lure of narcissism, it will continue to inspire generations to come.
Artists have the power to help us accomplish this because, at their best, they can inspire us to envision a world that could be if we’re willing to do the work to realize it. They remind us that life is a gift—that it should be lived vibrantly—and they rejuvenate us so that we can persevere in our efforts to elevate each other.
At a time when we’re faced with horrific conflicts, toxic political cultures, climate instability, and many other problems, we must learn how to express and manifest a vision of our shared human civilization that can transcend this self-destructive madness.
I didn’t find God in Jerusalem but I feel, in a sense, that I discovered hints of the divine in all of us in Black Rock City. The magic of Burning Man truly made me wonder if there is something more to this existence than what our religions or scientific theories enable us to comprehend. Whatever the case, it reminded me on a profound level that this life is a gift.
May we burn passionately with love and gratitude toward a brighter future filled with peace and spiritual abundance for us all.