Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end.
-Walter Pater, 1868
I’m in Estes Park Colorado for the Anusara Grand Gathering, sitting underneath a flagpole on the YMCA campus. Sprawling granite and hints of the seasons first yellowing Aspens in Rocky Mountain National Park herald the coming of the fall Equinox. This landscape and this gathering – the tight-bodied, fresh-faced and full-hearted yogins parading the grounds – is about as far from the arid, dusty, aesthetic overload of Burning Man, as acid is from alkaline. But alas, since my return from desert delirium the dive into sweet reverie of those 7 days of dust continues…even here…especially here.
Perhaps you’re very familiar, a fellow burner, three, four, five years in. You could be a real veteran of the playa, clocking staggering statistics of your dedication, a slight touch of cynicism flavors your nostalgia of days past, for what once was. You could be new to it, and curious… waiting the day when resistance no longer makes sense as your friends and communities one-by-one peel away to join the larger counter-culture – swept into the stream of 45,000 yearly participants from all around the world. You could be like my parents, who patiently and skeptically sat through my two-hour recount of the experience the other day, “hmm, uh-huh, …interesting, wow, really?”
And those of you who haven’t been but have heard too much about it like Elephant Journal’s Jocelyn Hamilton, who has resolutely decided long ago to scratch it off the list of ‘I’ll try anything once’, are probably rolling your eyes at the Walter Pater quote I led with. I challenge you to stay with me for a moment, because no matter what your playa positioning is I would argue, in full view of some of the nicest posteriors in yoga (no seriously, it’s distracting) that the ‘to-go or ‘not-to’go Burning Man debate is really quite silly. That, within its pink faux-fuzzy parameters beckons a glorified, choose-your-own-adventure-novel that some would prefer to leave on the shelf – to which I say fine. I’ll be the first to admit that Burning Man is not for everyone.
That said I’m going to go out on a limb here and join the thousands of people who can confirm that there is something unique bubbling beneath the surface of that particular event that for good for bad sets it apart. Do I dare enter into the conversation the purpose of art? To shock, to amaze, to inspire, to disgust, to attract and to repel, to provide an experience with which we touch on one or more point of the entire spectrum of human emotion, the human condition… Personally I rest satisfied knowing that a lively debate exists at all. That any article written about Burning Man conjures pages of resolute reader comments – most of them strongly worded. What cannot be debated is the very obvious fact that what Burning Man does for any part of the whole is leave impact. To which I deem this giant art project a raving success – so there.
I will further argue that just like ‘real-life’, if you do choose to attend Burning Man it will be for you what you choose to make it. You are the agent of your own experience, attitude and all, on the Playa as much as off. Crazy, I know.
This years’ visit to Black Rock City was my third consecutive year since my virgin run in 2008 and WOW was it different! Which is not saying anything really except that repeated experiences on the playa are damn-near impossible. Change one small variable, one camp, one activity, one boyfriend (haha) and you’ve significantly changed the whole.
Here in Estes Park I’m staying with friends with whom I shared space, love and laughter in the desert. Among Burners we use a term called ‘decompression’ which constitutes the days, weeks, and perhaps months post-Burn where we wind down to find our feet planted firmly back on the earth in our respective regular life-roles. But a big part of this idea is the absolutely imperative and beneficial desire to first contemplate, then assimilate and integrate our experiences. I had a friend once say after his first year that he returned more creatively inspired than ever before in his life – and this sentiment, this reservoir of creative impulse is not unique to him.
So suffice it to say we’ve spent some time in reverie, remembrance and discussion for all that transpired. It has been out of this reflection that I articulated the following, only to realize (shock, gasp!) that what I took from my experience was not an altered state of consciousness, fewer brain cells, and underwear that aren’t mine, but a reinforcement to the nth degree of the principles by which I live my life.
Love is the Highest.
My Burn this year was about love and no, I’m not talking the abstract 1960s love-everybody-we’re-at-a-festival-wheeeeee!-kumbaya-type-love (although hits of those moments are great). I’m talking about loving myself enough to say yes to choosing friends, and family – and a sweet partner – who are life-affirming. People who are also seeking deep intimacy, both on and off the Playa, who put themselves in service of the community, who are in the practice of having a conversation with Spirit, who are dedicated to health and vibrancy and living life to the fullest. Burning Man for me, like the rest of my year, was about my sadhana in relationship with others.
Camp Sweet Snugs, a mini-tribe within the infamous hula hooping camp called Spin Cycle, served to be the foundation from which all experiences arose. Our family unit was a safe haven full of laughter, movement, cuddles, camaraderie, and discovery. As Douglas Brooks says: “you are the company you keep, so keep good company.” Check.
Surrender is a Fun Exercise.
This year I finally felt plugged in and totally at ease – a state of being that can be challenging in the midst of dust storms, screwy scheduling, mobs of people and unintended/unexpected scenarios. So I’ll tell you my secret: Burning Man is about surrender. Surrender to the elements, to all your expectations, to the fact that you just may not find that party you heard about or the friend you said you’d meet. Instead get really good at flowing along in the moment, and acting on sweet spontaneity with a ‘now-or-never’ sparkle in your eye. Addicting? Yes.
Total Self Sufficiency is Empowering.
Burning Man is about radical self-reliance. You bring in everything you need to survive in the harshest desert conditions for one week – and most choose to bring more to share. This may sound bare-bones and brutal but you have to understand: what you think you ‘need’ for the week out there may include items like a couch, solar panels, a full bloody mary bar and the majority of your closet. This is not a carry-on bag destination. And the empowerment part comes in after you’ve lugged all your stuff down 3 flights of stairs in your San Francisco home, to load a car or a truck and drive it hours (for some people days) across the state/country – and then to spend 24 hours in the dust or the better part of two days nesting and decorating, making Shri, driving rebar into the ground – only to take it all down again one week later. Again, not for everyone, but surely you can understand the feeling: the more effort you make and intention you hold for yourself and others, the more rewarding the experience.
On the YMCA campus here in Colorado there is a sign off the trail that says: Warning: Shortcutting Causes Erosion. Fellow burner, yogi and friend, dk, joked that that sign should be the title of this article and we got a good laugh out of it. Shortcutting your part impacts everyone out there. AND paradoxically the support of the community at large on the playa for those odds and ends left at home or forgotten altogether is unparalleled. Which makes ‘total self-sufficiency’ not totally about the self, but about doing your best and your part in conversation with your camp and community.
Out of Self Sufficiency Comes the Innate Capacity to be Generous.
Abundance vs. Poverty Consciousness.
You may poo-poo the ‘gift-economy’ of the Playa, but In my experience our inability to naturally and willingly gift, share and provide for others is out of a fear-based scarcity complex – commonly referred to as poverty consciousness – which at its core is a deficiency of trust. Similarly our tendency to grasp, lust-after and cling-to something is a product of that same fear. When we show up with all we need and more, we collectively shift into abundance and abundance provides for others without expectation of return or outcome. We give because it brings us joy and we receive because we feel the subtle energetics of no-strings-attached.
Uninhibited Self-expression is Equal to Radical Self-acceptance.
Tutus, nudity, art projects, mutantized vehicles, slam poetry, tears and trash-talking. You see it all at Burning Man. And there is something about seeing it all, that gives you permission to act in the moment as your totally uninhibited and free self – which is inherently saying YES to that aspect of your inner world. The beauty in accepting your own expression with open arms is directly related to your ability to accept that of another. You don’t have to like their mode of expression, but you do have to accept it. So uninhibited self-expression is equal to radical self-acceptance, which is equal to a celebration and recognition of diversity as art. IMHO.
Holy Hell! No F’n Way!
When you simply can’t grasp the once-in-a-lifetime, phenomenal experience you just shared, the flabbergasted reaction is one of total elation, nine times out of ten accompanied by a profanity or two…not intended, just that potent! You get these on the playa – at least one, at least once. My moment this year was in a small airplane upside down about 11,000 feet above the city. Just seconds after the last skydiver (fuzzy fro helmet and all) jumped and the hatch slammed shut with finality, and moments before the heart-pattering nose-dive. Just about that point of the tailspin where you see out your little window the brilliant blue sky, then earth, then sky, then earth and you realize with jaw-dropping, disorienting wonder that yup, you are in fact, spinning.
Adventure baby. I learned long ago to love it and live for it. Find your opportunity to make a break from the expected and flip your lid.
Inspiration Begets Inspiration.
Yesterday in the first class of 3 with John Friend here at the Grand Gathering he said that when something blows us away, in awe and in wonder, it remind us to be bigger, to usher in the imprint that will plant a seed in the fabric of our lives. This profound sense of ‘whoa!’, when probably assimilated, reminds us that we’re all part of something greater than our daily do-ings and do-er-ships.
I couldn’t say it better. Inspiration when percolated begets inspiration. It charges our batteries and motivates us to step into greater roles as the artists of our lives.
The Sacred is Everywhere.
We awoke Saturday morning at sunrise and pedaled out to deep playa, chasing Abraxus the copper dragon art car full of our Bay-area friends. Mornings on the playa are magic. Impossibly blue skies contrast the cracked, white dust of the ancient lake bed, and the sun, as it peaks over the mountain horizon, casts hues of red and pink on the Martian-like landscape, catching in its glint the art projects scattered about the scene. Soon layers, jackets and gloves from the chill of the dark night are peeled off one-by-one as the early birds (or late-nighters) usher the desert warmth back for another go.
The temple, one of two Burning Man structures that have shaped the experience of Burning Man and return each year built new (the Man being the other), rises out of the earth this year like an intricate wooden wave to our left. All week participants have taken the temple art into their secret lives and molded, shaped the blank canvas with messages, prayers and stories. They have left sacred items, stuffed pieces in the cracks – hints of the fragility and depth of the human heart – to be transmuted, transformed along with the fire that will consume the temple the next day, marking the end of Burning Man for another year. What began as a pile of wood became sanctified, the air thick with meaning.
The sacred is everywhere, or anywhere rather – one note, one touch, one smile away. That morning as the sun tickled my face there wasn’t one bit of my world that didn’t feel perfectly in tune, resonating harmoniously to sing the eternal story of shared experience.
And of course there is always more to be said about this event taking the counter-cultural world by storm, but I’ll leave you with this – another excerpt from Walter Pater, who so brilliantly speaks to our innate desire and curiosity to leave the mold behind, to embrace the dust, debauchery, and delight not only at Burning Man, but in life, in whatever form it arrives – perhaps a yoga conference, a poetry reading, or a trip around the world. May we always take the time to open the windows on our day-to-day and let sweet variety in to clear the air.
In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening. With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch. What we have to do is to be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions, never acquiescing in a facile orthodoxy of anyone else’s or our own.
We have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among “the children of this world,” in art and song… For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.
All photography by Mario Covic: www.mariocovic.com
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