DIY Spirituality

My bio on this fine site says I’m going to blog on my “mainstay obsessions — culture, ritual, and spirituality,” and it is time to roll up my sleeves and get started. But first, I want to say a little more about how I come at all this.

I’m a big nerd, of the genus “academic minor” to be specific. My training is in the fields of religious studies and anthropology — neither of which are necessarily what you think they are anymore. (My two favorite online reads on these topics are the blog savageminds.org and the zine religiondispatches.org, but I digress). What this means is that from the minute I first stepped onto the playa back in 1996, I started taking mental notes for my ethnographic magnum opus on Burning Man. That work will finally be out in about a year’s time (academic publishing can be sluggish, especially when you have a toddler and a move to LA to deal with — more on that another time).

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what I call “DIY (do-it-yourself) Spirituality” and how it connects to something called “Convergence Culture.” I think Burning Man exemplifies this par excellence. Now, I suspect some of you are probably grousing — “I ain’t no navel gazing, crystal waving, woowoo chanting hippy. That’s not what Burning Man means to me!” But maybe you do go there to express your truest sense of self and to feel connected something larger than that self. And a lot of you create, perform, ritualize, and play with this sense — freely pillaging from a global treasure trove of cultural and religious symbols as you do. I’ve got a long, carefully nuanced argument about this that I’ll spare you all for now, but basically that’s what I mean by “DIY Spirituality.”

As to “Convergence Culture” — that’s a nifty concept coined by another nerd (of the genus “aca-fan major”), Henry Jenkins. His argument is also long and nuanced, but he neatly sums it up as being about: “media convergence, participatory culture, and collective intelligence.” It is “where old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways.” (See Convergence Culture.)

There are some handy ideas here. For one, that bit about “participatory culture” might sound kinda familiar, no? (To my knowledge, Jenkins has never been to Burning Man, but — to paraphrase the Cacophony Society — I think he may already be a member.)

Convergence of another sort can be seen across the history of religions through what has been called “syncretism” or “hybridity.” Traditionalists have seen such processes rather less generously (or hopefully) than I do, but it is indisputable that diverse religions and cultures inevitably tend to borrow from and occasionally merge into one another whenever they come into contact. While not even I would consider Burning Man to be a “religious tradition,” its hyper-symbolic mash-ups playfully appropriate religious motifs from a vast global well of symbolic resources. Crosses, devils, labyrinths, buddhas, goddesses, gods, and ‘hello kitties’ — the list is potentially endless.

Finally, social media tools have recently made it ever more possible to see how individuals are locating both traditionally religious and DIY spiritualities in new communities and participatory cultures online. I’ve got several illustrations of what I’m talking about — both from Burning Man and elsewhere — up my sleeve. But these will have to wait for another day, lest I take up more than my fair share of pixels on my first post.

For now, I’ll stop to ask — what do you think? Is Burning Man a space for DIY Spiritualities? What does Burning Man mean to you?

About the author: Lee Gilmore

Lee Gilmore blogs on her mainstay obsessions: culture, ritual, and spirituality. A Bay Area expat, she teaches Religion and Anthropology at California State University, Northridge and currently resides in LA. She is the author of Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man (forthcoming 2010) and co-editor (with Mark Van Proyen) of AfterBurn: Reflections on Burning Man (2005). While serving on the Media Team from 1997-2001, she met and married the father of her now 2-year old future Burner. She made her first pilgrimage to the playa in 1996 and hasn't been quite the same ever since.

11 thoughts on “DIY Spirituality

  • AMEN!!! I actually gave a talk at SXSW called “Mashup Spirituality and The Belief Buffet.” Burning Man was definitely a part of my presentation.
    The internet and it’s ability to help you find like minds – regardless of geography – allows for us to keep sampling from the buffet of ideas until something tastes right. If it doesn’t resonate, spit it out. As we live our lives, we may find our plate filled with dishes from all over the globe, from all types of teachers/chefs
    I found The Burning Man community 12 years ago via online connections. Once baptised by dust, I found the insanely fertile environment ideal for developing DIY faith.

    PREACH ON, lgilmore!!

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  • This really is what attracted me to BRC initially since I have been into a convergence mentality for a while and had reached a point in my seeking where , after a few years break, was ready to move forward. Now it begs the question – are many people attracted to it that have that mindset already or is it ‘discovered’ through interactions in our fair city. Another thing is that , and this may be in my own crazy world, is that I wish for something to happen in my life before entering the gates to BRC, so it may be that my perceptual filters are influencing my experience. A devoted christian that goes there may have quite the different experience where it is faith affirming. It may be an interesting project to go around and discuss with different spiritual backgrounds their input on it.

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  • I am a disabiled Registered Nurse from ga. I have always wanted to go to the burning man. I know it will cost a mint just to get there. My question is: what should I do there? Maybe blood pressures, blood sugars and 1st Aid. I can walk some but I’ll need a scooter. I am also artistic and have always wanted to live a bohemian life style. Should I go more in that direction. Do you sell things or give them out for free?

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  • Cathy– your queries are really beyond my scope, but do check out http://www.burningman.com/first_timers/ & links therein for a few answers to your questions & mucho good info all around. Also, re your scooter: http://www.burningman.com/on_the_playa/playa_vehicles/index.html

    And JeffZ– It may be an interesting project to go around and discuss with different spiritual backgrounds their input on it
    Indeed it was! (that was more or less my dissertation project)

    Thanks all for the pithy comments! Next post is already simmering on a backburner.

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  • As a former conservative minister turned BRC citizen and spiritual atheist I love this whole topic. How can I get on your email list to let me know when the book is available? My email is on my website: serenadavidson.com
    I am now a professional photographer specializing in capturing the essence of individuals. I find that I still use many of my ministerial skills in my new career and love how revealed people appear in front of my camera because of the spiritual connect. Whether they consider it a spiritual experience or not I often find my artwork to be part ritual and part spiritual connection to the people I am photographing. In the best of portraits it can be seen.

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  • This years burn really hit home for me. I cannot even EXPRESS how pivotal it was for me to go this year. Last year was my first year and you can bet that I was prancing along the playa like a prisoner finally escaping and seeing the sky for the first time in years.

    This year was a bit more spiritually deep for me.

    I explored the art, went out on my own, met some great people who helped make this whole experience possible and I found myself. It was a raw and awakening experience this year than it was my first.

    There were a lot of things I wanted to let go of this year at the temple. One was the emotional baggage of losing my mom, my best friend, 5 years ago. It still feels like yesterday and yes I blamed myself for losing her but not after the burn. I let it go. I told her that I loved her at the temple and not to worry and then I walked away. I watched it burn. It was so invigorating.

    For about six months, my brother had been taking care of my grandmother, who had raised him growing up. She was deathly ill and a month before BM she finally passed by his side. He didn’t think he would be able to make BM this year because he wanted to take care of her. He was a little bit in a funk the first couple days but finally spread his wings when he decided to mentally let her go.

    The biggest part that Burning Man played was when I got back. The very next day, I wake up for the first time in my own bed and hear that my grandfather shot himself. My mom was my grandfathers shining light, my grandmother was always his rock, and they had both passed. I was shocked, in tears, at first. We arranged the funeral at the Oregon coast, where we used to play as kids. It felt good. We were all laughing and jumping in the water. The spirit I gathered from Burning Man made me stronger to bear all these hard times. Since the experience was so fresh in my memory I was able to see the brighter side of things.

    I feel like if all these events had taken place without BM I wouldn’t have been so strong. I wouldn’t have any fond memories to cloud the bad ones. I would still have baggage.

    The spirit lives through you, I say. You see the light in things you never thought you would before. Burning Man was my savior.

    Thanks for reading.

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  • DIY Spirituality might be the flip side of the Convergence coin. In other words, what is happening in pop culture (the convergence of old and new media, etc…) may also be happening in the religious realm. The new is colliding with the old in religious sectors, causing changes to happen. Some are reactionary, extreme regressions into hard-line conservative expressions of faith, while others are beautiful and experimental. It seems our culture is reshaping religion.

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  • Hi,

    Enjoyed your site I for many years have really felt like I have been on a journey of self discovery of my own personal spirituality. This has taken me through many different but all amazing spheres in my quest to learn more, NLP, Hypnosis, Remote Viewing, Remote Influencing, Reiki, Chakras etc etc.

    I like your term DIY spirituality cos now more than ever I realise we have everything we need to survive grow and spread love not hate and its all within ourselves we dont need anything else. and for me its not about chrystal balls either its about slowing things down and allowing yourself to TRULY connect with your own deep self.

    JOhn.

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