by Jorg Ihle
2006 was to be my first burn and before I even set foot on the playa I had already encountered the flames of a burning man. I myself was set on fire. Not literally, but metaphorically speaking. Just two days before my departure to Black Rock City I took what is called the “Phoenix practice” or the “pepper bath”. You bathe in a tub of very hot peppers and herbs for 25-plus minutes, all along feeling like the flesh is burning off your skin. The bath is not only a very powerful detox, but also an intense challenge to the mind.
During the bath someone died, someone I had long desired to let go off – but was too afraid to do. I call him “The Sleeper.” He was the part of me that loved to hide behind the illusions, who didn’t want to awaken.
Feeling scared and uncertain I embarked on my 12-hour drive from Los Angeles to BRC. And as the miles of beautiful countryside passed by my car window, I became very emotional and anxious, understanding that a big release was upon me. I knew that Burning Man will transform me; I knew that change had opened its doors for me.
As I arrived, I was of course overwhelmed by the beauty, the creativity, the love and the freedom that Burning Man presents. And for my entire stay that feeling of being overwhelmed never seemed to seize. Like Alice, I felt I had gone down the rabbit hole, everything was magical and fantastical.
I danced and partied, loved and connected for the first days. I just took everything in, went with the flow, enjoyed a life in a free spirited and non-judgmental environment. I was high on life!
Then came my last day, Saturday, the day the man was to burn. I felt a change inside me, a deep longing to finally experience why I had truly come to Burning Man. The playa had opened me up, I was finally ready to surrender to my hopes and fears. And so I went to the temple, a place I had avoided until then. The second I entered the sacred space, my heart opened, and there was no more holding back the emotions. I cried a river, I mourned the loss of my dear friend The Sleeper, who for so long had guided me through this life. And it was there that I watched him sail away, disappear into the horizon of the desert heat. I thanked him, blessed him, and waved good-bye.
And then the tears faded away, and lightness overcame me. A heavy burden had been lifted off my 32-year-old shoulders.
And so I left the temple, at peace, ready for my final confrontation.
I had previously stopped by the Death Guild’s Thunderdome and although I was too afraid to enter, I knew that my warrior soul desired to experience it.
I returned to our camp where I was painted in the tradition of a tribal warrior.
Ready for battle, I watched the man burn, and as he went up in flames, I knew it was time for me to finish what I had begun.
“Two men enter, one man leaves” is the chant at the Thunderdome. The battle cry was all too familiar to me, for I am a big fan of the Mad Max franchise. But I do recall thinking that it makes no sense here. At Burning Man two men enter and two men leave. The Thunderdome here is just play, make-believe.
As I was strapped into my harness and handed my weapon, I noticed how calm I was inside. The peaceful warrior had not left me. I knew that I had already won the fight, simply because I had accepted the challenge.
As we were unleashed on each other, I suddenly felt the transformation. Fear was no part of me. I felt strong, balanced, focused and confident. That truly disturbed my dear opponent. It must have been an uneven fight, for he was so nervous he could not even touch me. I on the other hand began to play with him, tease him, taunt him in a very playful manner. The fight became play for me, for I did not fear losing or even dying!
When the fight was over, we embraced brotherly, and I thanked him for allowing me this experience.
And as I stepped out of the Thunderdome it really hit me. The crowd’s chant was true after all: two men did enter and only one man did leave. The Sleeper was now completely gone, and only the peaceful warrior remained.