I have always envied people their transformative experiences at Burning Man. Friends, acquaintances, strangers whose stories I read on the internet. “Burning Man changed my life!” they say, and point at one instance, one specific moment where they realized their life was going to be different moving forward.
This will be my 12th year in a row of attendance at the event, and I’ve never experienced that lightning bolt of differentiation.
Burning Man HAS changed my life, though, just not in the way I expected. It occurred to me recently that my life would be entirely unrecognizable if not for Burning Man. Transformation has snuck up on me slowly, over this dozen years of participation. (more…)
[This post is part of the 10 Principles blog series, an ongoing exploration of the history, philosophy and dynamics of Burning Man’s 10 Principles in Black Rock City and around the world. We welcome your voice in the conversation.]
There have been some recent losses in our community — suicides and accidents — that serve as stark reminders of the impermanence of it all. My heart goes to the friends and family impacted by these losses. For those of us connected through social networks, both personal and online, we are entering new territory. No generation has shared and mediated grief through digital space like we do, and no generation has been so removed from religion. In the spirit of continuing the exploration of how we talk about impermanence in a radical, creative culture, I’d like to share the following reflections. (more…)
There was a lie that spread through our community this year like a virus.
This mistruth was far more insidious than any fake trash fence concert, under-Playa tunnel system or elusive “dark rave.”
It continues to affect the way we interact with one another. (You may even still believe the information to be true.)
But I am here to set the record straight: There is nothing wrong with a traditional hug.
By “traditional” I mean that you lean to the left as you embrace.
This year I was ”corrected” close to 100 times by people who explained that the right way to hug was “heart-to-heart.”
This was usually followed by some version of a story about how the traditional hug aligns our livers and therefore creates a toxic exchange of energy. Whereas the heart-to-heart aligns our hearts and therefore results in a more loving exchange.
Now, let me be clear: I think a heart-to-heart hug is great. And if you want to suggest we do a right-leaning hug after we do our traditional hug, that sounds super to me. The more hugs the better.
But what often happens is that people stop me mid hug and “correct” me during the approach. “No…let’s do it heart to heart!”
You may have even done this yourself. I get it, you meant well. Who wants to spread toxic liver vibes?! But what ends up happening is that the loving process of a hug abruptly becomes “wrong.”
1) I see someone I care about.
2) Our eyes light up.
3) We approach one another, arms outstretched.
4) Then as I am beginning to surrender into their warm embrace I hear, “Wait, no…” I am chastised and corrected. NO! BAD! BAD BOY!
This is the exact opposite intention of a hug.
PRO TIP: If you would like a heart-to-heart hug, first complete the traditional hug, then ask for a second, heart-to-heart hug. Don’t bring any judgment, correction, or mistakes into the process.
Now, to address the root of this virus: There is nothing toxic about a traditional hug. A traditional hug is AWESOME.
A hug is the most basic expression of connection that exists between two humans. If you prefer them right-leaning, fine. But a full body embrace is a beautiful thing that has nothing to do with the alignment of organs. (A sexual embrace is much more organ-dependant…but that is an entirely different topic.)
I’m not sure who started this idea virus about toxic hugs. I’m sure it was someone well-meaning, heart-centered, chakra-balanced, and micro-biotic. Or maybe it was a whiskey-swilling trickster.
But I am here to set the record straight.: All hugs are good.
Seriously. Let’s think about this.
How many of your (left-leaning) mom hugs while growing up filled you with profound comfort and safety?
How many of your past lovers’ (left-leaning) sunset embraces left you buzzing?
How many (left-leaning) hugs have you given your children that washed away their tears?
I don’t mean to pull rank here, but I have hosted the weekly podcast, “Hug Nation” for 13 years. Online friends send me every article on hugging that gets published. People are eager to share every new hug technique they learn with me. (Cinnamon Swirl, anyone?)
I have literally hugged 10’s of thousands of strangers – nearly all by learning left. And the connection has always been pure, beautiful, and love-filled.
Heck, we may have even hugged at a festival in the past. If not, hopefully it is just a matter of time. If you are unconvinced by my ranting here, we can plan on doing both a traditional and a heart-to-heart when we meet.
In some circles of friends, the heart-to-heart has become the norm. I have no issue with that (although I have had my share of “head bonk” near misses). Some people have even perfected a hugging approach that severely exaggerates the right lean to ensure they get a heart-to-heart. That is a fine solution if you can do it without making the recipient feel awkward. What I feel called to address is the demonizing of the traditional hug and the act of correcting people as they enter an embrace. There are so many things that need fixing in this world – the hug is not one of them.
So, while I am thrilled to see people excited about any type of hugging, I ask that a heart-to-heart is done *in addition* to the perfect traditional hug that we have all grown up with.
And while I do consider myself a hugging expert, I admit that there are those who know far more about hugging than I. So I humbly bow to the wisdom of Amma, the greatest hugger on the planet – perhaps ever to inhabit a human body. She has hugged over 33 million people. I once waited in line for a full day to receive one of here profoundly love-filled hugs. Guess how this living saint hugged me? Yup. Liver-to-liver.
But this isn’t just about hugs.
It is about how easily we believe what we’re told – and how quick we are to pass it on.
Remember: Experience is truth. Everything else is stories.
We must be in a constant state of evaluating the stories we are told. Believe whatever you want, but do so by choice. Do so with awareness. Do so with a degree of inquiry.
Ronald Reagan once said, “Trust, but verify.” And in this area, I agree with him.
Caution is becoming exponentially important as faux-news sites are being blindly shared in social media among our community.
Skrillex and Diplo did not get booed.
Plug-And-Play camps did not ruin Burning Man.
There is nothing wrong with a hug.
I imagine that refrain must be annoying to people who have no interest in going. And it might be frightening to someone who is going for the first time. Maybe that change is exactly why you are going (or continue to go) to that wacky gathering in the desert.
I admit that I am one of the ones guilty of making that grand claim. After 16 years attending, I can barely remember who I was before I went to Burning Man.
I’ve had pink hair (year-round) for over 10 years. I help run a charity based on Gifting. I do a weekly podcast to recalibrate to my Highest Playa Self. Even my corporate job is linked to Burning Man: My CEO recruited me after watching some of my Playa Tips & Tricks Videos.
I’m not saying it will affect you the same way. But it might. Be open to it.
In fact, be open to the possibility that ANY experience in your life could dramatically change the way you see the world. A setback on the road. An interaction at a truck stop. A massive dust storm. A conflict with a campmate. These “obstacles” can be the very treasures that give your life meaning.
These “obstacles” can be the very treasures that give your life meaning.
Here is a short video answering the question of how Burning Man has changed me.
Side note: To everyone working their butts off to finish and pack up their creations: THANK YOU! I hope to be able to hug you, look you in the eyes and say it to you face…but please know I am GRATEFUL for your artistic spirit and your heroic efforts. I love you.
I hope you can join me on my Pink Ride on Thursday or enjoy some of the refreshing treats at my camp.
Friday evening of my second Burn, I had one of the holiest meals I can remember. As the stars came out, a big group gathered at camp Sukkat Shalom, lit candles, gave blessings, drank wine, and fried up crispy, savory latkes for each other to eat. It was an ideal way to ground the frenetic energy of the week in preparation for the following night’s burn. The cross-section of Burners interested in gathering to welcome the Sabbath was unlike that of any other on-playa scene. The wine, talk, and song flowed late into the night.
In subsequent years, the scene has been crazy. An overwhelming number of people show up. While I think that’s a great sign, it overloads the camp, and food is scarce. No theme camp’s gift is inexhaustible. But this year, Sukkat Shalom is crowd-funding a blowout Shabbat dinner experience. Here’s why I hope you’ll support it. Disclosure: I know and love lots of the people who run Sukkat Shalom.
The next-level Sukkat Shalom Shabbat dinner will begin under a blinky dome with LEDs that respond to the group’s singing as it welcomes the Sabbath, the holy day of rest and reflection, which ends at sundown on Saturday before the Man burns. The multi-course meal will be served at a Bedouin-style communal table in a subtly designed sound environment. It will be a sacred celebration, but it will also be a full-spectrum stimulus any Burner will love.
Sukkat Shalom is not a religious camp. Its name means “shelter of peace” in Hebrew, which is a thoroughly Jewish concept, but surely it’s one that makes sense to anyone who’s ever been to the Black Rock Desert. The camp calls itself “Jew-ish” (emphasis on “ish,” a term I personally can’t stand), but it does so in the name of inclusivity. It’s a camp run by some Jewish people and some non-Jewish people, and it has no religious requirements or expectations, but it’s framed by some Jewish concepts that apply beautifully on the playa. Shabbat is, in my opinion, the most powerful. Who doesn’t feel the specialness of Saturday at Burning Man?
I think about religion the whole time I’m in Black Rock City. There are so many pieces of religious life there if you’re inclined to look at them that way. The annual trek out there can feel like a pilgrimage. One of the central architectural features of the city is its Temple. Over the course of the week, time is demarcated by a series of ceremonies and offerings, the burns being the biggest examples. The desert itself is a classic site of personal revelation.
But the most powerful part of Burning Man culture is that it’s not prescriptive. These components of the experience are not specific representations of religious ideas. They’re archetypes of them, there for participants to share through their own lenses of meaning, even totally unreligious — or sacrilegious — ones. Just like the Temple is for everyone on the playa, regardless of what it means to them, I think Shabbat can be, too.
Now that we’ve talked about our playa fails, let’s talk about playa miracles. The little wins and big scores that happen at Burning Man are part of the magic.
My first playa win came before I even got to the event. When the car overheated in Fairfield, Calif., my friend and I experienced our first playa fail. But when we found a rental agency with one pickup truck in stock, we had our first playa miracle. They didn’t even ask us if we were going to Burning Man — heading to the desert can be a deal-breaker for most car rental agencies. Three hours after pulling off the highway we were back on the road and rocking out to satellite radio.
On my first night out in Black Rock City I lost my coat. I was riding my bike and suddenly the coat was gone. The coat was the color of playa dust — perfect, because it never looked dirty. This feature also made it impossible to find because it was camouflaged on the ground. I finally gave up, mad for losing it and mad for littering. I hoped it would make its way to someone who needed it.
The next morning I visited my friend Thumper at his camp. He put on a fresh pot of coffee and I settled into a lawn chair for a session. We were catching up and having a good laugh. “That bike your husband loaned me is a real cream puff,” he said. “It made it about 10 feet before breaking.”
I told him about losing my jacket. His face changed. “Hold on,” he said, “I have something for you” and ducked into his trailer.
He emerged carrying a coat on a hanger. It’s almost the same color as the one I lost but a vintage style with a furry shawl collar. I tried it on and it was a perfect fit. When he told me “It’s from the Gooey collection” my eyes welled with tears. Gooey was a friend — a lit firecracker, a generous soul and a Southern charmer. Her ashes went in the Temple after she decided to end her life.
One more burn for Gooey and warm nights for me. I know she’d want me to have the coat and I can’t help wonder if that’s why I lost mine. Coincidence? Miracle? Divine intervention? Call it what you will, there is magic in the desert.
The study, which involved 16,227 Burners over four years, found that Burners are more emotionally expressive on the playa. But they’re also more in tune with their emotional states, so they’re more aware and expressive of both positive and negative feelings.
Now, this was a self-reported, on-playa study. Lead author Kateri McRae came right out with its biggest caveat in an interview with PsyPost: If you ask people about their default-world emotional states while they’re all high on life at Burning Man, they might give biased responses. They might over- or underreport how inhibited they are or how well they appraise their emotions at home. So we shouldn’t get too excited about exactly how much of a difference Burning Man makes, according to this study.
But the researchers are trying to get at something bigger than Burning Man itself. They think cultural context — the shared mix of values of a place and its people — can actually change the emotional norms. It might be more socially adaptive to be emotionally intense at Burning Man than it is in the default world. And if that’s so, it’s worth looking critically at the way any cultural context affects people’s emotional lives.
Burning Man’s context is temporary, and that’s key to this study’s line of inquiry. What we really want to know is whether a brief, deliberate break from our default social arrangements can affect us profoundly enough that we come back to the world healthier and happier.
This is where we tell a story about consumer culture and mass media in the default world versus gifting and the Ten Principles at Burning Man. The default world is repressive, and Burning Man frees us to be ourselves, so the story goes. It’s always tempting to let ourselves feel like we do it better.
But don’t forget that Burner culture is self-selecting. It’s too easy to say that we go to Burning Man because it is an emotionally liberated place. We go to Burning Man because we want it to be that way, and then we try to make it that way.
This study makes an interesting case that cultural context, even when it’s temporary, can change the way we feel and know ourselves. But let’s not get hung up on whether or not Burning Man is better than therapy. Rather, let’s take heart in this: If a bunch of emotionally liberated people want to get together and build an emotionally liberating place, they can. We did.
There is no one as enthusiastic as a second-time Burner. After our first time, we can’t wait to go back and we can’t stop talking about the playa. Our restlessness is palpable. Second-year Burners have been stoking that fire for 12 months, fresh off a transformative experience. We want to do it all over again, only with better gear and more art and more friends. We understand the lay of the land and the porta-potties and we’re ready to pitch in.
All the costumes and camping supplies and decent food — the things I needed that first year when I didn’t even have a chair — don’t add up to the exquisite mind-blowing first Burn. Burning Man changed my life. My experience as a virgin Burner was typical: my mind was blown wide, wide, wide open. I was grateful, gracious and disbelieving. It’s all I could think about when I returned to the default world. I ached to be back on the playa. I came back to BRC ready to do it all over again and my expectations fell flat. Where was the lightning bolt to my psyche?
Subsequent Burns are more about reigniting that original flame, more life-affirming than life-altering. Some years it’s a big fire; other years it’s a lot of dust. The months spent daydreaming of electric moonscapes and deep playa kismet and … well, I still do that. I want to be closer to that wide-eyed wonder. Could y’all bottle that for some of us old-timers? Maybe start a theme camp that serves some of your fresh-Burner juju?
After 12 Burns I don’t expect the catharsis and epiphany I experienced walking around Black Rock City in 1998, colliding with splendor at every turn. A few years in I accepted the ebb and flow. Don’t get me wrong — I am excited for BM2013. I’m looking forward to driving with a friend and camping with a group of women. Mixing it up is a good way to get a fresh perspective on the event.
Taking time off from the playa is one of the best things for reigniting the flame. My return to the playa was resplendent and relaxing and hilarious and serious and sad and wonderful. I still get teary driving into Black Rock City; the first glimpses of the event on the horizon feel like coming home. I cry when I take my annual solo bike ride along the trash fence and stare back into the city. I may be a realist but I’m still a softie.
I’m not trying to bum you out. Burning Man is the greatest. Your second Burn will be splendid; so will your tenth. But after you know what to expect, maybe things start to seem a little less grand. Your mind gets occupied by other things. You consider using that vacation time elsewhere. Everything evolves: Burning Man, Burners, anticipation and expectation.