Posts in ritual

September 14th, 2012  |  Filed under Afield in the World, Culture (Art & Music)

Opera de la Playa

[Jennifer Raiser is an avid long-time Burner, Burning Man Project board member, theme camp leader, and Black Rock Ranger. Her writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Nob Hill Gazette and most often for her publication, SFWire.]

 “How was Burning Man?” they inquire as I ascend the shallow red-carpeted stairs leading up to the Opera House. It is five days after Exodus, and I am reluctantly back in San Francisco, Center Camp of the default domain. I am here to mark the festive highlight of another tribe, the ninetieth annual Opening Night at the Opera. To some, this happy occasion commands the same kind of importance that we associate with Burn night. Tonight’s task is to write about the grand gesture of opera and the people who are its patrons. I am charged with distilling and interpreting the evening into an article to be read by those who attend, and those who do not. The dual role as enthusiast and observer is familiar. On playa, I am a passionate participant, a Ranger, a theme camp leader, a volunteer and an author; here, I am a friendly alien who comes from that arid planet near Gerlach and happens to pen a social column.

Acquaintances here are polite and prodding about the desert. They indulgently inquire about Burning Man in the same way you might bring up a shared alma mater, or a mutual love of licorice, knowing it is a certain conversation starter. Some truly want to know, some want me to know that they know, or think they know, about my annual retreat to my happiest (and saddest, and most demanding) place on earth. I try to disarm their suspicion with the comparisons between tonight and the burning of the Man. In both places, I remind them, like-minded spirits gather to share a communal dinner, enthusiastic dancing, and well-stocked bars openly coursing with goodwill. We are corseted and costumed in ensembles carefully curated for the occasion.  We mark this artistic triumph with the biggest party of the year. Read more »

June 15th, 2011  |  Filed under Spirituality

Passing Through

Photo: mkgraph

How do you know when you’re grown up?

The question may strike you as trivial, but let it sit for a moment. There are clear answers to it in some parts of the world, but the part from which I hail is quite vague on this point.

All the rights of passage in my life so far have been either dully underwhelming (my Bar Mitzvah? my driver’s license? my 18th birthday?), or they’ve been sudden, shocking, and rushed (graduation, first apartment, income taxes). None left me with a sense of having transformed in any believable way. When I have felt initiated, it has typically been into something unwelcome. (Oh, boy. Now I’m a taxpayer.)

Photo: Dave Millar

America doesn’t really have formal initiations. We have prescribed achievements, hoops to jump through, but they don’t come with any kind of clarity or assurance. Our institutions offer us degrees or licenses or certificates, but it’s still up to us to figure out for ourselves what good they are.

When I think of my ideal, romanticized rite of passage I wish I’d had, I wish for two things: some kind of shared experience, in which my community recognizes the occasion together, and some set of values or principles that become mine to live by afterward, so I know what to do.

Whether I imagine some solitary wilderness trial, or a purging, cleansing ritual, or some kind of quest, or some transmission from the elders, whatever exotic, nostalgic rite comes to mind, I want this communal recognition that something BIG has happened, and I want a way to understand what it means.

Read more »

June 1st, 2011  |  Filed under Spirituality

What Time Is It?

Photo: mkgraph

A rite of passage is an act of growing up, and I don’t just mean maturing; I mean getting older. Time, at least from our ordinary, human perspective, only moves forward.

As rites of passage go, our week at Burning Man is pretty long. That’s a lot of time to reflect, a lot of days to fill with activity. Where should we go next? What should we do? For a ritual, this Burning Man thing seems kind of unstructured. Now that we’re here, are we just supposed to wander around?

Of course, the ritual does have a structure; it’s just more complex than the structure of, say, a Caribbean cruise, where some guy in shorts and a white sun visor tells you what to do all day.

There’s the burning of the Man on Saturday night, of course, and the Temple the next night. But those are all the way at the end.

What about this morning, now that we’ve finally got the tennis balls on our tent stakes and the pink fur zip-tied to our handlebars?

I guess we’ll look in the What-Where-When Guide… Read more »

June 25th, 2010  |  Filed under Spirituality

Theater in a Crowded Fire

As the Burning Blog’s occasional religion and spirituality blogger, I would be remiss if I failed to mention a couple recent posts about Burning Man on other blogs and online mags. However, in this case, I must admit that my task also falls into the category of (cough) blatant self promotion, as I am the author of the interview and guest post in questions (and, coughs again, the book+dvd that inspired them).

The first interview was featured in an excellent online magazine called Religion Dispatches, which seeks to engage diverse, progressive, and academic perspectives on religion in an accessible public forum. My piece (which the editors titled Burning Man: Religious Event or Sheer Hedonism) set out to summarize some of the key ideas in my book–namely, why does Burning Man (sometimes) smell like religion? And, then what does that say about some of the directions that religion seems to be evolving these days? Broadly, I encourage folks to reconsider the concepts of “religion” and “spirituality” as defined less by matters of institution, doctrine, and belief and more by questions of ritual, practice, and experience. From this perspective, Burning Man can be seen as an exemplar of the extent to which spiritual feelings and desires often emerge in settings not traditionally defined as “religious,” and I argue that this should cause us to stop and think about what we mean by the terms “religion,” “ritual,” and “spirituality” in the first place. Cross-culturally speaking, I think the ideas and experiences which we attempt to describe with such language are much larger and more complicated than is popularly understood.

The other essay was a recent guest post on one of my favorite blogs, The Wild Hunt, which is widely considered to be among the best sources for news and commentary on contemporary Paganism. Here, I dig down a bit deeper on a related set of questions about the relationships between Burning Man and NeoPaganism. In this context, I like to distinguish between uppercase Paganism (as a specific family of religious traditions) and lowercase paganism (as an underlying, primal “root religion” that underlies all global religions and that also pops up in festive ritualistic events like Burning Man.)

Finally, I was also interviewed last week by writer and longtime Burner Erik Davis on his Expanding Mind podcast. Along with his co-host Maja D’Aoust, we had a delightful conversation about (you guessed it) Burning Man and its religious elements.

The book itself is the product of over 10 years of participating in and observing Burning Man and its surrounding culture–including numerous interviews and an online survey. (And who knows, maybe some readers here contributed to this research?) I wrote the book because I wanted to tell the story of Burning Man (or, at least, my version of that story), and because I think the event has something important to teach people about the nature of spiritual expression and experience in late modernity.

Finally, since I suspect some readers may wonder if I am abusing Burning Man’s anti-commodification ethos by linking to commercial websites and, well, pitching my project, please believe me when I state that academic publishing typically runs at a loss and academic authors make very little money. Since I’m a big nerd for religion and anthropology, I see this book (and DVD) as my particular art form and as my way of participating in this community. I’m honored to have the venue of this blog to tell folks about it. And should you want more info about me or my project, I’ve put together a simple page here.

Coming soon: a brief recap of other recently published books that cast scholarly eyes on Burning Man.

June 15th, 2010  |  Filed under Culture (Art & Music)

Lamplighting: Function Becomes Ritual

[Steve Mobia was amongst the original Cacophony Society members who went on the "zone trip" to immolate the Burning Man on the Black Rock Desert in 1990.  In Burning Man's early years, he helped create desert fashion shows, large format photographs, and the first pirate radio station – hosting a program of experimental music called "Mobia's Trip". He was the first Lamplighter, organizing and running the Lamplighters from 1994-1999. His flaming helmet is now part of Burning Man's historical archives. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

For those who have just started attending Burning Man, you may not even notice the many hanging lanterns that dot the major streets in Black Rock City.  At one time these lanterns (along with the lit neon on the Man) were the main navigation on dark nights in the desert.  Though the increasing presence of generated electric light has made the hung lamps less necessary along the city streets, the ritual of Lamplighting continues and is one of our oldest traditions at the event.  The lanterns are most visible along the promenades leading to the Man and beyond to the Temple.

Lamplighter Procession, 2006

Lamplighter Procession, 2006

The Lamplighting ritual at Burning Man is a quiet yet essential part of the communal desert experience.  It creates a sense of a real city with street lamps and invokes an old tradition of lamplighting that contrasts nicely with the technical innovations of today.

I was the original Lamplighter and ran Lamplighter Camp until the year 2000 when Brien Burroughs and later others applied their energy and ideas to the task.  I’m hoping that the denizens and luminaries of today’s Lamplighter Village expound on the monumental operation they’ve been running since the turn of the century.

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May 18th, 2010  |  Filed under Spirituality

The Temple: Sacred Heart of Black Rock City

[Lee Gilmore teaches Religion & Anthropology at California State University Northridge and is author of Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

As travelers, historians, and archaeologists can tell you, great cities contain spiritual and ritual centers–physical manifestations of the human quest for the transcendent and magisterial.  Grand cathedrals, imposing temples, and mosques with soaring minarets–each an attempt to intersect both divine and earthly powers.  For Black Rock City, that heart is perhaps best identified with the annual Temples–each an ephemeral locus of memory and mourning.

 

Rod Garrett tells us that the origins of BRC’s famous layout of concentric circles lay in pragmatic and organic decisions.  Nevertheless, when viewed through a symbolic lens, its template readily suggests a labyrinth or mandala.  The placement of the Man at the BRC’s center readily evokes what historian of religion Mircea Eliade called the axis mundi–a symbolic manifestation of the sacred center of the cosmos and the location of hierophany–the eruption of the sacred into the profane world. As both the spatial center and temporal apex towards which each annual event is definitively aimed, The Man forms axis of space and time in Black Rock City.

Yet over the course of the past decade, the sacred heart of Burning Man has shifted a few hundred yards outward.  Where the Burning of the Man can bring joy, catharsis, and transformation sharpened into a singular, ecstatic moment, Temples’ rites can engender a deeper and perhaps more difficult self-examination in asking us to consider our own mortality.

The Temples grew out of tragedy and immediacy when Petaluma artist David Best first transformed his 2000 playa installation called the Temple of the Mind into an impromptu memorial for a friend who had died in the weeks just before the event that year.

Temple of Tears, 2001

In 2001, a similar but significantly expanded structure would be called the Temple of Tears where all Black Rock Citizens were invited to inscribe memorials upon ornate wooden walls and to leave behind photos and other objects of personal significance. As my friend and colleague Sarah Pike has noted, through the physical inscription of memories on the Temple’s walls, and in turn through reading the inscriptions of others, participants were able to share, ritualize, and transform private grief into public expression in ways that are generally unavailable to many contemporary Americans.  Finally, on the festival’s final night, the Temple and its tokens were ultimately offered up in flame, dust, and ashes as thousands looked on in reverential silence.

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July 14th, 2009  |  Filed under Culture (Art & Music), Spirituality

Creativity, Collaboration, and Catharsis

For those familiar with the emotional catharsis that can be discovered through the Burning Man experience—resonating both on and off the playa, and effecting real change in the worlds beyond Black Rock City—this story may strike a chord.

A couple months ago, Harley DuBois, longtime BRC LLC member and City Manager, was invited to serve as an “Instigator” and lead a workshop for museum professionals attending a “Creativity and Collaboration” retreat at Asilomar. (Other “Instigators” included representatives from the Exploratorium, LucasFilm, and an “Alternate Reality Game” designer, among others).

For Harley’s session, she worked with participants to build a Shrine dedicated to memorializing loss, with the plan to collectively burn it that evening. (Sound familiar?) Prior to the workshop, she sought the support of David Best—well-known to many Burners for initiating the annual tradition of building memorial Temples on the playa—in order to obtain materials and to learn tips on Temple construction from the master.

In facilitating the Shrine’s creation for retreat participants, Harley had them organize themselves into four groups—sorters, builders, decorators, and mavericks—in order to expedite various aspects of construction. createcollaborate But perhaps most importantly, she asked them to talk with one another about loss as they worked in their groups to create the Shrine, and to “get it real in their bodies.” For some—the great majority of whom had never been to Burning Man—this was more than they had bargained for.

Harley reports that some participants were soon sobbing out their grief, as they confronted various losses and deaths encountered in their lives. Later, the small groups were asked to report back to the rest. Harley recalled one woman in particular who spoke of “emptiness” and the difficulty of holding on to people and memories, as she held her hands gently cupped.

Read more »

June 16th, 2009  |  Filed under Culture (Art & Music), Spirituality

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?