Who the hell are “Burners,” anyway?

We are what we do

A few months ago I was asked, in one of those email groups where people ask each other things like this:  “what does it mean to be a burner?  What are the core beliefs that unite us?”

I didn’t respond, first and foremost because honest-to-God do I have that kind of time?  No I do not, and it is hugely irresponsible of people to ask me open ended questions.  It’s like offering a hypochondriac free medical advice.  His whole weekend’s shot.

But I also didn’t respond because I’d been wrestling with that question for some time … and had no good answer.

I know that the most common response is “The 10 Principles,” but … I don’t see it.  I bet 90% of the Burners reading this can’t name all 10 without looking them up.  Of that 10% who can, I bet 90% of them didn’t know all the 10 principles … or anything about the 10 principles … back when that magical moment happened and they first decided:  “Oh, I like this.  I want to be a part of this.”

It’s also commonly understood … though not often talked about … that most of us interpret the 10 Principles differently.  Some of us (I’ll raise my hand) believe that “Radical Inclusion” means “everybody can participate in Burning Man,” while others take it to mean “everybody should feel included and accepted by people at Burning Man”:  we’re worlds apart.  Exactly what “Gifting” means is not a matter of settled tort.  How “communal” does “Communal Effort” have to be?  You might as well ask how many Burners can dance on the head of a pin, except that this was settled by 2005’s massive art project “Dance on the Head of a Pin!”  It’s 82, and they light the pin on fire.  Man that really should have been funded.

The 10 Principles are great guides, very useful, and well thought out – but they can’t be the philosophical core that unites Burners if most of us don’t know what they are and those who do don’t agree on what they mean.

They may also be expanding:  several regional groups apparently have added an (unofficial?  semi-official?) “11th principle”:  Gratitude.

So I was stuck, and have been for some time.

What connects the sound camps to the Barbie Death Camp to the Heebie-Geebie Healers?  What connects the Thunderdome to hula-hooper camps to the solo camper way out at the “million dollar view”?

We’re looking for that magic, unifying moment where everything comes together – like the one where Rabbi Hillel is asked to explain the whole of Judaic thought while standing on one foot.  He lifts his left leg up, says “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  The rest is commentary,” and puts his foot down.  Fuck yeah.

But for Burning Man I had nothing.  And while that used to be an academic question, it has now become one of some urgency:  more new burners are coming in, fewer veteran burners can attend, and the nature of our community is at a crossroads.

It seems like we should have an answer.

Last weekend I sat in on Burning Man’s Regional Network Conference in San Francisco, listening to regional network reps compare issues, best practices, and thoughts about Burning Man’s future.  There were also free tacos.

Much of what I heard was inspiring (drama or not, there’s going to be *awesome* stuff happening on the playa), and edifying, and I’ll share some of it with you in future posts – and after processing the experience, two things have become clear.

First, I never want to talk about Burning Man that much ever again.  I mean, come on people:  enough’s enough.  Don’t you also watch Mad Men or something?

Second, I think there’s another approach to understanding what Burners have in common, and I’d like to present a rough draft of it here:  something to hammer to see if it holds up.

Burners are united by common actions and not common ideals:  the reasons we “burn” aren’t consistent, and don’t really matter.  What we think “burning” means isn’t consistent, and doesn’t really matter.  The fact on the ground, that we “burn,” is the only one that counts.

That may have been obvious to some of you, but I think the implications are important.

It’s consistent, first of all, with the way most of us encountered Burning Man and decided to participate:  we didn’t study up on the 10 Principles, or any other philosophy, and then say “Yes, this is for me.”  We came because we heard people were doing amazing shit:  and when we saw it we thought “I could do amazing shit too,” and changed our lives.

It’s also consistent with the way Burning Man actually evolved:  the Man burning came first, the Temporary Autonomous Zones in the desert came first;  art cars and theme camps and fire dancing came first.  It was only after Burning Man formalized and organized that the 10 Principles were developed as a way of trying to explain what the hell this is.  They were supposed to be explanations, but in fact they are aspirations:   the 10 Principles, loosely speaking, are our goals, not our commonality or raison d’etre.  They’re things we strive to be, and admire when we see in others.  They’re where we want to go … they’re our road map … but the Burn came first.  With Burning Man, the experience always comes first.  That’s key.

The idea that we’re united by our actions, rather than our motives, ideals, or thoughts, means that when we try to communicate Burning Man to the rest of the world, we do it by doing.  In many ways this is already happening:   Burning Man’s policy to the press has always been “come and participate” – never “come and watch and we’ll explain it.”  The Los Angeles area Burners have a brilliant tactic of explaining Burning Man to newcomers by having them join in the creation of a community garden … it’s much easier to get Burning Man across when you’re creating something special with others.

Perhaps most importantly, this means that there’s no restriction on our potential diversity.  While Burning Man is, as I’ve argued before, fairly homogenous compared to much of the country it pulls from, the fact that it’s about “doing” rather than “believing” means that we don’t need to ask people to leave their beliefs and principles at the door.  You can be a Christian Burner, a Hindu Burner, a Marxist Burner, a Neo-Conservative Burner (shut up, people:  yes you can).  How smart you are, or how well you parrot a few key phrases are irrelevant:  your “conversion experience” is about lending a hand, not changing your mind.

But if “Burning Man” is about verbs, not nouns:  what is that verb?  What does it mean “to burn?”  A convincing case could have once been made that it was to attend Burning Man, but that hasn’t really been true for a decade, if it ever was, and it’s certainly not true now as the Regionals pick up steam.

So:  “to Burn” can be defined as?

It comes in two parts.

Part the first:  here’s what happens.  Most of our lives are spent as agents of social control.  I don’t care how non-conformist you are, it’s generally true.  We spend our days and our nights implicitly saying “no” to one another in order to keep society functioning.  But then, for some period of time … at the burn, or a regional, or just on a good night out, we stop saying “No.”  We say “Yes.”   We stop acting as agents of social control and instead become agents of possibility:  we create possibilities that society does not normally allow, and then we participate in them – and open them up for others to participate in too.

To “Burn” is to become an agent of open possibility, creating a liminal space where something amazing can happen and anyone can join.  It doesn’t matter why you do it, what you think is happening, or what you want to get out of it.  You may not even get what you expect out of it, because you’ve given up acting as an agent of social control and have instead invited everyone to play:  you created the game but it’s not your game.  It’s a gift.

(Note that many of the principles are implied here, such as Immediacy, Gifting, Radical Self-Expression, and Radical Inclusion – but the precise meaning and exact ratio are irrelevant:  what matters is that people are doing stuff.  The principles are a road map rather than an explanation or reason.)

Part the second:  Possibility is messy.  But however messy the liminal space has gotten, you keep it from messing up the world around you.  You clean up after your possibility.  You … say it with me now … “leave no trace.”  Again, it doesn’t matter why:  whether you’re an environmentalist or a neat freak or a law-abiding citizen at heart.  What matters isn’t what you think:  it’s what you do.

So, what is a Burner?  It’s someone who Burns.  And what is to Burn, told while standing on one foot?  To Burn is to act as an agent of possibility:  creating a space where something amazing can happen, letting anyone join, and then cleaning up after it when it’s done.

The rest is commentary.

It doesn’t matter why you do it, what it means, or what you get out of it.  What matters is that you participate.

So … What do you think?  Is this true?  Is it helpful?

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man.  His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization.  Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat grew up wanting to be a Russian novelist, but the closest he ever came was getting personally insulted by the first democratically elected president of Poland. He is not an official representative of Burning Man, or even an employee, and does not speak for the organization. He archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com

46 thoughts on “Who the hell are “Burners,” anyway?

  • Well-said, Caveat! As always, I enjoy your posts. I think this year’s bumper stickers might just say “Burning Man: People Doing Stuff”, ha.

    I’ve always seen Burning Man as 50,000 people who get together to entertain and delight each other. Who spend months leading up to the Burn consumed with creativity, all leading up to one week where they unleash that energy/creativity/delight upon the populace. It’s not top-down entertainment which perpetuates the entertainer/spectator Hollywood model of fame. It’s a completely democratic, distributed, self-perpetuating model of entertainment, a currency of ideas rather than stardom.

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  • Being a Burner is a lifestyle. And the meaning of that lifestyle changes and evolves along with the event itself. To define what a Burner is today is to define the current lifestyle as it now exists…

    Currently, the Burning Man lifestyle is a slap in the face to every other human being on earth – a wasteful and prideful corporate resort that tyrannizes the culture it has plagiarized.

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  • Being a BURNER is a style of life

    teach and be tought, old to young, young to old

    Fertility 2.0 12 should spread it out :-)

    I agree, Well written. Well said. Well done.

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  • What struck me immediately upon first arriving on the playa in 2007 and what keeps me coming back is the sense that Burning Man is a space where people can be true to their inner selves. It sounds so corny, but there it is. Doesn’t matter how that manifests, the specifics are secondary. But the energy created by 50K people expressing themselves exactly and fully how they truly would like to is amazing and palpable.

    So, for me “to burn” is to align inner and outer selves and let it all hang out.

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  • @JV

    I’m not actually convinced that there are a lot of people at Burning Man being true to their inner selves. I know that’s what we tell ourselves is happening, but, could so many people’s inner selves possibly all want to wear furry boots? It seems to me that, given an environment of great freedom, people use it to experiment and try on new selves … whether or not they’re authentic … and that’s a good thing.

    I’ve written about that here. http://blog.burningman.com/2012/01/uncategorized/authenticity_at_burningman/

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  • Caveat,

    John Lennon climbed a ladder in an art gallery and used the magnifying glass to reveal a single word written on a ceiling panel: “YES”… and then divorced his wife and married the artist.

    As everyone who has tried it will attest, saying “yes” on the playa can be a powerful experience inevitably leading to strange and wonderful things. But what about “no”?

    I’m sure others are thinking what I’m thinking so I’ll go ahead and say it: proposing that (in my words) “burners are ‘yes’ people” might lead some to consider that the converse of your claims are also true. If I understand properly, “yes” implies a burner and “no” implies not one. To me this denotes “radical inclusion” applied to participation – the personal effort to be open to what happens, to involve yourself in the environment no matter how scary, weird, loud, colorful… whatever.

    Thereby, “no” means “No thank you; I’m not ready for Burning Man.”

    This distinction wields power. It implies that there may exist some means of self-selection of burners from non-burners (if there ever was or is such a thing as a non-burner). Is this really the “philosophical core”? If so, I dig it.

    I may, also, be reading into your words more than intended. Either way, thank you for writing this post and opening up this dialog publicly. It takes courage and I appreciate that tremendously.

    DP

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  • @Dan

    “It implies that there may exist some means of self-selection of burners from non-burners”

    most people don’t like burners. so i’d say a burner is anyone who is oblivious to how much they suck, and those who want to be like them. and then everyone else in the world.

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  • I think adherence to the 10 principles defines what a burner is.

    Radical Inclusion:
    Anyone can try to buy a ticket. Once through the gate, you’re included. Although that doesn’t mean people are going to be nice to you. It also doesn’t mean you get access to private parties at camps or on art cars. It just means you get in to the event.

    Gifting:
    If you bring a bunch of little things to give away to people who don’t turn their noses up at you, that’ll cover it.

    Decommodification:
    No cash can be exchanged on the playa (except for drugs, etc). That doesn’t mean you can’t buy goods and services on the playa before or after the event.

    Radical Self-reliance:
    Try not to get sent to the medical tent. If you do, that’s okay too. That’s what it’s there for. And don’t mooch too much, but you can mooch as much as you can get away with before someone calls you a moocher.

    Radical Self-expression:
    You don’t have to wear clothes. And no one is going to throw dust in your face for starting a drum-circle. Plus, you’re free to dance like an idiot to bad music.

    Communal Effort:
    Volunteering your labor and feel superior to people who don’t.

    Civic Responsibility:
    Obey the laws.

    Leave No Trace:
    Clean up your shit. But if you don’t, someone else will, so don’t worry about it too much.

    Participation:
    Volunteer more free labor and work your fucking ass off, because Larry doesn’t do shit and needs the help.

    Immediacy:
    Get it in mind that your free labor is a spiritual exercise brining you closer to Nirvana. The price of your ticket makes you part of a counter-cultural movement and seemingly better than the so-called members of the default world who don’t ‘get it’ like you do.

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  • ‘Burning’ for me is the outward declaration and self affirmation that I forfeit inhibition of any kind. No fear. To believe there is no need and only desire. That my presence on Earth is not the punchline of some cosmic joke, but the sheer power of will, existence itself.

    We are united by our ability and desire to let go of fear and to exist in a way that is profound to ourselves.

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  • Shiny things make me smile. I like my furry boots and my funny cloths. I really don’t have much to say about anything that goes on there, I just like the people. Counter culture? Inclusion, exclusion? Does it really matter? As long as you bring enough shit along so you don’t end up as a friggin sparkly pony I think you’ve got the idea. Enjoy the art, love the people, clean up after yourself and give back to everyone. If you do, you’ll have a great time.

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  • “We came because we heard people were doing amazing shit: and when we saw it we thought “I could do amazing shit too,” and changed our lives.”

    Fuck yeah! Principle-schminciple this is what’s true and will remain true no matter what else changes.

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  • @ Tallon

    I think you make Caveat’s point. Believing Buring Man is defined by the 10 principles will only lead to disillusionment and bitterness. There were Burners before there were principles and the principles tried to create a Burner box, but that is antithetical to the spirit that created Burning Man. If I were going to write the principles they would be 1. Appriciate the amazing shit you see. 2. Do some amazing shit yourself. 3. Don’t be an asshole. Done and done.

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  • @Peace

    “There were Burners before there were principles”

    not really. the whole “burner” identity came along after about 2003. just another label to separate ‘them’ from ‘us’. it’s total bullshit.

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  • Burningman was an social experiment that sought to discover what life would be like if we eliminated judging others from our repertoire of social interactions.. It required a Tabla Rasa, a blank slate, where this experiment could occur without the contamination of a judgement filled world. The experience was mind blowing. To suddenly be in a situation where you were not judged for your actions was intensely liberating. The psychological armor we all wear to protect ourselves from the mob of judgements we inhabit in the ordinary world could be dropped , freeing up tremendous stores of energy, which, given the artistic bent of early participants, lead to extravagant creative moments. The experiment ended when the outside world was sufficiently connected to the playa to negate the blank slate effect. ( I would estimate this occured in 1997 but that is purely subjective) Back then there was not a name for who we were, no one cared, and I don’t think most people who attended were interested in being lumped into groups; ANY groups. Free thinkers, wild minds, creative non conformist; We didn’t fit in and we liked it like that. ” Burner” is a term that makes it easier to talk about Burningman participants without using 7 syllables. But the original experiment has run off the rails ( did so years ago) and what occurs now is a very amazing simulacrum of a judgement free culture. Sort of satisfying and freer than my home town and I get to see a lot of friends which I do not call “Burners”.

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  • @Quentin

    Seems like the whole non-judgment thing has gone off the rails for you (and I agree that’s much of the magic), but for many of us it’s still in full force. I think it’s something you choose, not something native to the event. as you say, the event is just a space to practice. I don’t think you can say “it was better before” and still exist in a culture of non-judgement. You have to say “it is what it is” a behave without fear of judgement and without judging others. And guess what, back in the “old days”, when you managed to have this wonderfully non-judgemental experience, people were judging you. They didn’t tell you and you didn’t care, but it was happening. Seems like the thing that changed the most was you. Why not let go the idea that it was better before (a judgement) and just let your loving freak flag fly like you did in those days. I think you’ll find the environment is just as conducive as it was before.

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  • @ quentin davis
    so quentin, will you be in NO at the end of this month?

    @ Lucas
    I like that last sentence so much I feel a need to repost it again.

    “We are united by our ability and desire to let go of fear and to exist in a way that is profound to ourselves.”

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  • @Peace: Um, aren’t you judging @Quentin by pointing out what you perceive to be his judging? Kinda like this: “Look! See how much this person is judging!!”. The nonjudgemental thing would be to let him say his “peace” and not pick him apart.
    ahem.

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  • This is a question that we asked ourselves here in the Pacific Northwest almost two years ago, when we were developing a new Strategy and Mission for Ignition Northwest. The original mission statement said that we served “Burners”, but our community struck that verbiage because it was “not inclusive”. There are “burners” in our community who have never been to the desert and never will be, but they are more “burner-y” than some of the burners I know!

    Congratulations on putting into words what we struggled with last year… Saying that “Burners” are, “…people who act as agents of possibility…” is some lovely phraseology, and I think something that will make even jaded Burners like myself smile and nod quietly to themselves.

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  • @Thermal

    Perhaps…I didn’t really say I wasn’t. And I’m not really saying judging is bad in all situations, or that it is possible to refrain from judging in all situations. I was actually analysing Quentin’s statement. He implied the current makeup of the event was forcing him to make judgements and causing others to judge him. I was simply pointing out that judging others was his choice and that none of us has ever been in a situation where others weren’t judging us, even in the early days of Burning Man. Was I wrong about that? (Feel free to judge me)

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  • “Welcome Home” is one of the first things you’ll hear at the gate going into the playa. And soon there you are—home among your human family. Burning man to me is about really coming home. But remember that Burning man did not invent this type of gathering. Pagan events have been going on for thousands of years. The burn is just a throwback to something bigger than ourselves as individuals.

    A little story: During my virgin burn a woman, a “stranger”, stepped up and gave me a very warm embrace. And she told me that everything would be fine once I had found my people [within Black Rock City].

    It was then that I realized I had just found 50,000 of my people. She was no stranger. She was my human sister. She had brought my spirit home and didn’t even know it. What a gift.

    We are all children for a week at Burning Man, allowed to play outside the default world for a little while; able to let down our walls with no fear of being judged. The creative energy and “doing stuff” is simply what happens when people are allowed to express themselves freely that way. I believe that our ancestors had this connection and it is up to us “Burners” to carry that torch.

    Welcome Home-

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  • Burners are those who metabolize (as in like burning calories)… for some reason, even more so when they do it on the playa.

    Those who do it on the interwebz are pixel fetishists.

    imho :)

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  • a ‘burner’ is anyone who has attended the event more than 3 years. you’re a burner if you paid for your ticket and attended the event 3 times. that’s it. there is no other qualification. it’s as simple as buying a ticket a few times.

    then you are in a super-class of individuals who are spiritual and pushing the boundaries of society – 3 tickets and you become better than your neighbors. you become better than everyone who has not bought 3 or more tickets. you are part of an elite movement. edgy and professional and forward thinking, and the rest of the world just doesn’t GET you. they are the sheep and you are so cool, you’re not even on the farm anymore. you’ve gone OFF the farm – 3 tickets and you’re flying, leading the way; setting the example. totally awesome.

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  • It feels like the ticket situation is having a positive side effect. Like the bitter-burnt-out-cynical-downers are self-selecting out of the population. God bless and I hope you find something that feeds your soul as well as Burning Man STILL feeds mine. Maybe I’m just too stupid to know the difference, but I’m okay with that.

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  • I’ve been once, in 2008. I had a blast. Haven’t been able to make it since (school), don’t know when I’ll make it next (money), but I’d sure love to go back to the playa one of these years. I feel comfortable saying that I’m not a non-burner, but I don’t like to categorize myself nowadays any more than I did when I wasn’t a non-punk rocker.

    I guess what I mean is I’m a whole long list of different things. And I liked going to Burning Man. And I don’t like wearing pants.

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  • @Frank NY

    What kind of creepy big-brother monitoring do you think BMorg is doing? They’re supposed to know what happens on the venice boardwalk? You ARE there eyes. Now that you know, you can tell them and they can do something about it. Would it help for BMorg picture nazis to be around every corner. Ug. If you haven’t noticed they’re dealing with bigger fish right now.

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  • Greetings,
    Burning Man just got put on probation by the BLM for exceeding the 50,000 person cap last year ( BM claimed 53,000). According to the news BM is appealing the decision – why? if they get a probation two years in a row their permit will be cancelled. Hence, in a worst case scenario this could be the last year if they go over the limit.
    Who are burners? obviously those who are under the cap with a ticket, and if the Borg lose the appeal, clearly this year they maybe having to refund tickets at the gate due to size limitations – that should be interesting if it arises. Maybe they just undersell the event, like if they still have tickets simply do not sell them.
    The issue though is next year. By putting the burden on BLM to be the bad guy as to the number of people who can be admitted I am sure the ticket costs this year will pale as to the ticket costs next year, as well as which or what burners get in.
    Question? do you have to go to burning man to be a burner?

    Ghost.

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  • What does is mean to be a “Burner”? It means you have had the expanding mind experience that you only can have at Black Rock City, and people, I don’t mean LSD, Shrooms, Weed or any other drugs… I mind expansion of your thoughts, your views, your spirit, your connection to whatever is your reality. You go there the person you have always been, and leave there the person you were meant to be. You come back to “reality” and realize that for the first time in your life, for 7 days you lived in a Utopian Society, where the rage, meaness and cruelty of Life was not existent, and if it happened to pop its head into Black Rock City, it either mutated to a higher existence or it got escorted out of the event with firmness and love. It is a feeling of pure love and a connection to your fellow Burners in a way that is most unusual in reality. People at Burning Man are just fundamentally good people. The first year I went 2008-American Dream, we did not have a clue where to camp, etc… we ended up camped right in the middle of some middleastern camp neighborhood, surrounded by Israelis, Pakistanis, Saudi Arabians and Palestinean’s. They all got along beautifully with each other. I asked one beautiful Israel young man “Wow, I am amazed, you are all getting along so well, how can that be when you have some serious problems in your own region of the world”? He smiled at me and said “We left all our assholes at home.” That said it all. You go to Burning Man because you are seeking a better world…maybe unconciously. You might think you are just going for the big parties, drugs, and pretty girls and boys, but it works it mojo on you and you leave a different person…. dusty, tired, body exhausted – but your spirit is filled and you can’t wait to “Go Home” again.

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  • Being a burner means that you are on PROBATION this year thanks to the Borg. BLM has put the event on probation because of too many burners at the 2011 burn. How did that happen? The management team for the Borg can’t count or are just greedy and let the overpopulation happen and damn the consequences. You just can’t fix stupid……

    You can read the article in this Sunday’s online edition of the Reno Gazette/journal

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  • I must say, I like you’re standing-on-one-foot explanation of what a burner is.
    It’s so wonder-ful that people gather together and resonate with the energy of possibility and end up delighting and inspiring each other.

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  • Being a burner is a state of mind and going to Burning Man enables my states of mind to grow. If you practice BM culture in the default world than you are a burner.

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  • @Mercedese – Thank you for posting! The response “we left our assholes at home” definitely describes my experience at Burning Man.

    The playa is a place of unique individuals where you are not judged by your economic status, education or religion as you often are in the default world. The clothing (or absence of it) not only allows people to express creativity, it is an example of people allowing themselves to be “free” of the perceived norms and limitations held by society.

    For some people attending BM may be their first experience that allows them to realize that they have been unconsciously doing what society expects of them – Burning Man awakens the unconscious mind.

    For me…I have been told all my life that I am “too forgiving” “too accepting” and that I “trust people too much”. At Burning Man I discovered thousands of people who share the attitude of acceptance, which allowed more personal growth. Burning Man truly is home.

    I agree with Open-Minded..Keeping the BM culture (and practicing unconditional acceptance) in the default world should be the goal of all “Burners”

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