5 Ways to Make Life More Like Burning Man

by Troy Dayton

photo by Peter Kaminski

So you’ve been to the playa, and you’ve seen the promised land – the promise of freedom, of self-expression, of immediacy and creativity and community.  The playa fed you, and it changed you.  It provided you opportunities for growth, you took advantage of those opportunities, and you came out the other side more the person you’re here to be in the world.

But then Burning Man ended, as it must.  It was burned down, dismantled, packed up into dusty vehicles and carted away.  Now, you find yourself without the the steady flow of magic that helped you become more yourself.  You’re “home” (in the traditional meaning of the word), and you’re probably wondering whether you can still be the person you liberated yourself to become at Burning Man.

You can be.  All you need to do is to make use of these 5 principles:

1. There is no default world

2. Expect more from strangers

3. Form your camp

4. Be part of the generosity economy

5. Embrace impermanence

1. There is no default world
photo by Scott London

Burners have come to use an unfortunate term when referring to life after Burning Man.  They call it the “default world”, as if magic only happens in the desert during one week of the year. This is particularly unfortunate because there is one great secret to bringing everything you love about Burning Man into the rest of your life and to making the rest of the world more like Burning Man.  What secret, you ask?  As it turns out, there is no default world.

We’ll say it again, because this really matters.  There is no default world.

If it helps, you can think about it this way.  Some art installations are just too big to bring to the playa.  They need to be left out in the rest of the world.  In fact, really the whole world is just one, big, world-sized, interactive art installation.  It’s all just a series of temporary encampments in which humans have, through their ingenuity and creativity, figured out how to interface with the wilderness and live together in clusters.  Just like the street clock and the open playa, the rest of the world is available to explore and interact with and play with while wearing one costume or another, playing one role or another.  There is no default world.

When you start to recognize the true, interactive nature of what we’ll call “the extended playa” (that is, the world-sized, extra-playa art installation), you’ll find that so much more is possible.

2. Expect more from strangers

photo by Tyler Powers

In a community like Burning Man, you can assume, even assert, the right to approach any random person and have an interesting interaction.  There’s room to transcend the ordinary superficial greetings and interviews.  You can introduce yourself effervescently, or oddly, or launch right into the middle of the conversation you wish you were having with someone.  You can overtly express interest and curiosity.  You can play.  You can do all this because you expect, more often than not, that your enthusiasm and curiosity will be met with the same.  You expect people to be interesting and to be excited by your invitation to play with them.

It’s no different on the extended playa.  If you give people a chance to be their more expressed, more playful, more connective selves, more often than not, they’ll take you up on your offer.  Everyone everywhere wants deeper connections, more meaningful interactions, less seriousness and more play.  If you expect this of the people you meet, you’ll be right more often than not.

Hugs and affection are a particularly important domain in which to expect more from strangers.  We all need love, and hugs are one of the best ways to deliver it.  Take the risk to go in for a hug.  You’ll be surprised how many people reciprocate.  Of course some people will be hesitant. They may not even know that hugging is an option!  Or they may just be plain scared of hugs.  That means it’s your job not to be scary.  You can pull this off by hugging people in a way that demands nothing of the huggee.  Practice being sensitive to where the other person is at while still expressing your affection and admiration.  If you get it right, you may notice them releasing and relaxing.  Hugs bring us together.  You are just the right person to initiate them.

Not only is there no default world, but there are no normal people.  There are, however, many people who have gotten good at projecting the appearance of normality.  At Burning Man, the endless parade of people flaunting their unusualness brings joy and excitement.  The unusual is both delightful and challenging, enticing and intimidating.  Out here on the extended playa, people love the unusual just as much as you love it at Burning Man, but there is such a constant press to conform to social norms, that we sacrifice our wonderful weirdness, our playful impulses, and our freaky freedom just so we can fit in.  Without even realizing it, you have probably come to participate in this system of socialization, subtly and continuously discouraging people from coloring themselves outside the lines.  It takes some deliberate effort to reverse that tendency.  Part of expecting more from strangers is noticing the weirdness in others and encouraging it to express itself.  When you encounter someone who is already weirder than you, instead of looking away or otherwise indicating disapproval, remember the courage it takes to break with norms, and you’ll realize just how valuable that smile or that nod can be.  Say “yes” to the strangeness of strangers.

Remember, nearly everyone you know was once a stranger.  Expecting more of strangers increases the likelihood that the people you meet will become a part of that sometimes elusive network of connections we call community.

3. Form your camp

Open Mic Meditation Group (Bay Area Edition)

Isn’t it nice to have a group of people to return to after you venture out into the playa, take risks, and try new things?  Everyone needs the support and embrace of their camp.

Many of us had the experience, in high school or college, of having a group of people we considered our own. Being brought together into a shared environment over and over again, and enduring challenges together, created a sense of reliable camaraderie. The adult world, however, is not set up for us maintain these kinds of bonds with groups of friends. That’s why forming your camp in the extended playa is so important.

Have you found your people?  Do the people who populate your life excite and inspire you?  Do they encourage you to be more yourself, to become more of who it’s possible for you to be?  One way to know you’ve found your people is that you find yourself sharing the kind of love, intimacy, and vulnerability with your friends and colleagues that most people expect only from a romantic partner or their best friend.  If you don’t have an abundance of these kinds of connections yet, it’s time to find them.  Start your quest by going to the places where your kind of people go.  Search in workshops, meetups, trainings, celebrations, festivals, and conferences around activities and topics that draw you.  These tend to be environments where people are deliberately brought together to have meaningful contact.  Make use of those contexts to start new relationships with more realness and risk than you used to bring to interactions with “strangers”.

Once you find your people and develop new kinds of friendships based on growth and support, then what?  Now it’s time to make an impact together.  Camps where people just hang out together are okay, but the camps that thrive are the ones where people are about something.  They offer up something that they enjoy offering to others.  In your camp on the extended playa, don’t just make the time you spend together about catching up, discussing current events, or consuming entertainment.  Getting up to stuff together can be so much more fulfilling.  Support and challenge one another to grow and develop, and find ways to contribute to your larger community.  Contributing to one another and to the world around you is what gives your camp meaning.

4. Be part of the generosity economy

Perhaps the most transformative feature of Burning Man is the gift economy.  There is something so profound about receiving a gift simply for being in the way of someone else’s generosity.  Unconditional generosity stems from a belief that everyone is special, deserving of approval and random acts of kindness.

Giving in this way is so freeing, such a pure expression of our desire to contribute, such a celebration of our connection to everyone else’s humanness.  Receiving in this way can be equally freeing, especially if you’re someone who always gives to others as a way of life.  When the people around you are indulging in the joy of giving, letting yourself receive from them is an act of service!

On the extended playa, giving stuff away isn’t always so easy.  We may be met with suspicion, with people wondering what our hidden agendas are, what debts they may be incurring if they accept our gifts.  You yourself may be afraid to be so unconditional with your generosity.  Will your gifts be rejected?  Will you get your own needs met?

Start small.  Give a flower to your barista.  Smile at people you pass on the street.  Offer free hugs at the subway station.  Notice what the little things are that people around you might need to make their lives better.  Give away snow cones in the summer and hot chocolate in the winter.  Heck, you can even give away healthy food if you want!  Offer your services as an everyday counselor or a roving massage therapist.  Notice how it makes your life better to give, and how it changes your community.

Take it further.  If you really want to take the generosity economy to to the next level, organize your camp to do it with you.  Giving stuff away can become a way of life for you and your people.

5.  Embrace impermanence (at least for now)

Burning Man is the ultimate expression of impermanence.  An entire bustling city grows from nothing and back to nothing in just one week.  That art piece that you spent so much time on and infused so much meaning into is burning right before your eyes.

No matter how much time, work, and love go into creating the things you create, they will all only ever be temporary . . . your art, your relationships, your children, your very life.

In fact, one of the things that makes beautiful things beautiful is their ephemeral nature.  Imagine an epic sunrise that just goes on and on.  Someone would come by and exclaim, “Look at those incredible pink clouds!”, and you would respond, “Yeah, whatever.  They’ve been like that for hours.  I’m ready to get on with the morning.”

We suffer when we remain attached to things that are impossible to hold onto.  Cherished experiences slip away and are gone, leaving us with nothing but grief and loss.  Learn to embrace the relentlessness of change, and those tears become a celebration of the preciousness of each moment.  Everyone watches as the beauty of the temple is consumed by flame, and we sense our connection to one another.  We’re all together in this impermanent dance with life.

Impermanence may be heartbreaking, but it’s also kind of awesome!  It means that we get to remake the world in every moment.  Our relationships, our identities, our careers, our expression of who we are: none of these permanent-seeming parts of ourselves are set in stone.  Even if they were, erosion and entropy and mortality would wash the stone away in time.

The sad news is that every good feeling, fulfilling relationship, or special moment is fleeting.  The great news is that every bad feeling, shitty relationship, and terrifying moment is also fleeting.  There’s nothing to do but surrender to the insecurity and beauty of loss and change.

You knew that Burning Man would end shortly after you arrived.  There’s freedom in such temporality.  You got to see just how versatile and creative you could be, knowing it would soon be over, and knowing it was impossible to hold on to any experience for too long.  Really, all of life is like that, just a series of moments.  Let them go and discover who you can be now.

What Now?

We can hear the beating of a different drummer rising up through you and into action, ready for you to burst into the world as the new and improved creative spontaneous hug machine you always knew yourself to be.

But wait, when you wake up in the morning, you’ll still be looking at that same old to-do list, the same responsibilities to others, the same fires to put out.  Where does carving out a new more expanded creative self fit into all that?

That’s the tough part.  It involves making tough choices about what to prioritize, what to risk, what to release.  It also requires, bit by bit, infusing your existing activities with creative joy and presence.

Don’t forget.  A more magical world is possible: more inclusive, more generous, more free.  Well, actually, you will forget.  Impermanence works on your mind quicker than on almost anything else.  But then you’ll remember you forgot, and you’ll step out into the beauty of the extended playa once again.

“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between their work and their play; their labor and their leisure; their mind and their body; their education and their recreation. They hardly know which is which. They simply pursue their vision of excellence through whatever they are doing, and leave others to determine whether they are working or playing. To themselves, they always appear to be doing both.”  -Francoise Rene Auguste Chateaubriand

Troy Dayton (T. Dazzl) – Co-founder of Burner Map and blogger at Burner Love.  Troy currently serves as co-founder and CEO of the legal cannabis investment and research firm The ArcView Group and a board member of the Marijuana Policy Project.  He cofounded Students for Sensible Drug Policy and is a founding board member of The National Cannabis Industry Association.  Troy previously served as Director of Development at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). Troy just returned from his 13th consecutive burn.

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52 Responses to 5 Ways to Make Life More Like Burning Man

  1. Beautifully said Troy and Steve. Reality is up to us and we can treat it like PlayDo or Silly Putty if we want. We can mold our world to include more kindness and surprises and fill it with laughter and love. Hugs, David MagicHands

  2. They should have begun this with:
    1. Stop Bathing.

  3. Alan Hobbs says:

    Very Interesting

  4. Donna Rae says:

    Well now… how well-said and well-timed is this? Thank you so much for starting this conversation, strangers. 🙂 There IS no default world – every time I use the words, I bite my tongue a little, because I don’t really mean them… I believe the playa remains in our hearts and our actions can make this apparent.

    Extended Playa Anecdote: I was going through security at the Reno airport coming home from the playa (was it really almost 2 weeks ago?), and the officer who was working with me was just really kind and friendly, and I appreciated that. And I wanted to hug him, almost did actually. He seemed to know that I wanted to hug him; he smiled and said “You’re not there anymore.” I smiled back. ♥

  5. Domino says:

    Great article. Definitely needed. This article and the vision it shares are a great treat, so is finding out that it has been co-written by a burner I know (Troy!) and seeing comments from other burners I know (David!!!) Thanks.

  6. Rishi says:

    One idea that I took away from the playa this year came from the saying ‘the playa will provide’. Just as the playa will provide what you are looking for, the world will provide what you are looking for – you just have to be bold enough to seek it.

    • Kristine says:

      Even more than being bold enough, you have to learn to trust the world to provide for you…

    • Reverend Bobo says:

      ..and the playa will take away….

    • Que says:

      “the playa provides” is not a burner idea. That’s an idea propagated by dirty hippies. Radical self reliance is what we are shooting for. Take care of yourself, don’t be a parasite. What the playa provides is magic coincidence. if you happen to forget the poles to your tent the playa will not provide new poles but a considerate burner may be able to help out with their spare tent. Stop being a parasite! Get your shit together before you come out to the desert.

  7. Halcyon says:

    Absolutely fantastic. Wonderful lessons wonderfully said. <3

  8. Franko says:

    i’m going to start using “Extended Playa” instead of “Default World” from now on. what a perfect phrase — i hope it catches on!

  9. Jim Treebeard says:

    I tried to live BM year round once. I got as far as Reno before people told me to “put some clothes on”. 😛

  10. Heather says:

    That was a great read. Even for someone who has never been a Burner. I’ve always wanted to go but never had the chance. All of the advice given is helpful for anyone struggling with the monotony of day to day living. Thank you!

  11. Dadara says:

    I am happy to see that me and my bankers from the Exchanghibition Bank are on the photo below “1. There is no default world”. Because this art project dealing with the value(s) of Art and Money is trying to build bridges between the desert and the default world. Bringing money to the moneyless Playa and spreading a different way of looking at values and money to the default world.

    Last year we officially presented our first Infinite banknote to Larry Harvey in a shopping center in Amsterdam 😉

    And now we would love to bring the Transformoney Tree to the default world! I can imagine that a tree covered in real money will be very confronting and thought-provoking in a real city center. If anyone has any ideas/connections, please let us know.

    Since we all live in Amsterdam in the Netherlands we don’t have that much of an infrastructure in the States. But who knows we might find the right connections here 😉

  12. Chicago Burns says:

    Let’s at least all decorate our bikes. I miss my yellow flowers.

    • Chgo. Burns…and that is my old home town so 2011 was my first burn and this year when 2012 started and they posted a live feed, I found myself very connected to the event even though I was not there. In a sense I was there that week. On impulse I grabbed my Burn Bike and completely pimped it out, painted it, etc. While doing so, I saw that I hadn’t even cleaned all the playa alkaline dust from it. Anyway-the bike project connected me to the spirit of the thing and also gave me an idea for our camp theme. (I am enrolling players to become part of one encampment. Can’t wait for next year. Anybody know how and when you can find out the “theme”?

  13. sky says:

    While I agree with much of this, I don’t think anyone has “the right to approach any random person and have an interesting interaction”, whether at BM or elsewhere. This fails to acknowledge the discomfort that many women feel when continually approached by men who feel entitled to an ‘interesting interaction’. And ‘taking the risk’ of going in for a hug is often invasive – ask first! But generally, yeah, these are good suggestions!

    • Que says:

      It’s not just women. I like hugging when appropriate. But the true sense of a hug can be expressed in many ways that are far less intrusive, and far more respectful. What ever happened to the idea that we can do whatever we like at burningman as long as it doesn’t negatively affect others. Sure offer a hug but if the other person declines then back off. I had someone offer a hug and I declined so they said, “I’m a hugger” and came in for the hug anyway. To which I said, “Oh, I’m a rapist so you’re gonna have to take it in the ass.”

    • Eric Smiley says:

      Good point. I think it’s about using intuition and showing consideration, whether on-playa or off. Unfortunately, intuition and consideration are often the first things to disappear when people are drunk. At least with me… hence my being a playa teetotaler 🙂

  14. kendrick says:

    Thanks for saying what needs to be said loud and often. Ended last year’s ramblings about our rites of passage with this.

    “Just before our cars escaped, a dusty virgin told me he didn’t know how he’d tell people about this. Told him he couldn’t. Some talk about the default world, make the trip to escape reality for a week. In the face of escalating challenges confronting humanity community needs fostering. The societal ostracism of difference needs an end. People need to talk again, face to face, not through little screens. There is still nothing to fear, but fear is winning the battle. Black Rock is reality that needs to reach the world at large.”

    in dust we trust

  15. Lisa says:

    Thank you, Kathy.

  16. Cormac says:

    Well said both of you. I’ve wondered for years how to keep the post-burn spirit fresh and pungent, you both have a beautiful template to work from! Thank you!!

    Franko: it’ll stick! Love it!

  17. Alex says:

    i followed this advice and hugged my postman , im in the process of being sued for sexual assault

  18. Kyle says:

    Very well written. Thank you.

  19. Randi says:

    Fantastic sentiments! I’d just like to make a quick reminder about being extra sensitive when gauging strangers’ desire for interaction. While most folks would love the opportunity to be more connected and less guarded, they also live in a world where most stranger-initiated interactions don’t have the wholesome intent that you might. This is especially true of male-initiated interactions with females. So listen to those social cues, check your intent, and wear your good human intentions on your sleeve. Cheers!

  20. crystel says:

    wonderful, wonderful. thank you and hugs. i’ve already started forming my camp, opeing my heart and my arms. I love life MORE b-c of Burning Man.

  21. Raoul Trujillo says:

    Great read. I’ve been going 16 years from the early days and njust got back. Our tribe is strong and we grow just like the Man does in size. Just live it breathe it, shit ALL the time EVERY DAY and EVERYWHERE and you’ll see, it’s easy done than you think. Our universe operates with this same principle that exists at Burning Man. There is no separation. Thanks guys and welcome the the Burner world of Transformation and metamorphis, (My first camp name)

  22. Juicee says:

    Just wanted to say .. in the last pic.. both of those officers have wood. Bahaha!

  23. Cory5000 says:

    Wow, beautiful but very sad…..thank u for sharing

  24. chelsea says:

    Awesomely inspiring. Feeling revved up to interact with the world of my extended playa and play all that I can.

  25. Fixer says:

    Interesting take on it. I’m 56 been burning only a few years, spent my whole life getting paid to play at festivals so the idea was a bit foreign to me. But one thing I noticed is that burns and Burning Man just didnt really seem like a big earth shattering experience, I mean it felt like home, I knew they were my peeps from the first burn, but it just feels like an extension of my life because I am one crazy mofo and live a crazy mofo life. It’s like my friend Padre told me when I complained that hallucenogenics never work on me. “its like taking aspirin for a headache you dont have, you’re already crazy, how could that work?’

    I’ve lived bu the Ten Principles forever, but I think we need eleven. Gratitude.

  26. Rip says:

    Wonderful article and love the idea of the extended playa. Agree with the comments about being careful about stranger hugs, but also believe you can “hug” without being totally physical. Look at the Dalai Lama – he radiates hugs. We are all more intuitive then we think, and even the most uptight person can feel it if you are open, sensitive and projecting caring.

  27. Michelle says:

    Wow, I am revived! Thank you for putting this into words so beautifully.

  28. Soal says:

    Amazing post. I will try and bring these 5 things more into my life and art.


  29. Que says:

    I get it you want to extend the interactions of the playa to the default world and it would work better if we didn’t make the default world a separate place by calling it by a separate name. But you must be living in San Francisco. Have you seen the rest of America?? Try hugging a thug in the hood next time you are in the Detroit. While most of America isn’t as bad as that I suspect your hugging in Montana would be poorly received as well it should, because it is culturally inappropriate in that situation. You can call the default world “Happy Smiley Place” if you like but I went to Burningman to escape the horrible conditions and social alienation rampant across America. And I still don’t see America getting any better despite all our desert partying.

  30. Sherri Carroll says:

    Find your camp? I went to Burning Man to find other humans because there are none here like me. I work in my studio all day everyday by myself with very little human interaction that’s why I NEEDED to go. I didn’t have a camp there, i went by my self because i dont know anyone. You must live in the city because id have to drive at least 2-3 hours in either direction to find anyone who might have at least one or two similar interests as me. The article is inspired but not very realistic.

  31. durgy says:

    That was a refreshing read. It is also gives a map and a challenge to dragging the dust away from the Black Rock Desert . . . even past Gerlach! This new game intrigues me. Someone is getting a hug

  32. Tumbleweed says:

    Beautifully said! I’ve often struggled with the transformation from my week on the Playa back to my 51 weeks away. You helped me see things differently. Thank you!

  33. Mother says:

    Love that the Last and definitely not least principle was to embrace impermanence! Embrace impermanence, no matter where your “extended playa” may be! If we learn to realistically accept the things that we cannot affect and embrace change, we can then start our individual quest to manifest the extended playa and make it a reality. Once we learn to enjoy the small moments in life and are able to release those moments to capture new ones; then we can start to live in the moment.

    Remember! “Bucket Lists are for the Dying, go out and LIVE!!!”

    Great article Troy and Steve, well said!

    BTW Que, you’ve never had a Gangsta Hug??? That was on the menu at the Hug Deli this year, only cost ya 2 compliments! Even real thugs give hugs; just not to everyone…


  34. Playa Nai`a says:

    Just what I needed to read– immense gratitude!

  35. curtis says:

    “remember the courage it takes to break with norms”

    “Let’s at least all decorate our bikes. I miss my yellow flowers.”

    Just inspired me to go for a cruise around the seawall on my tallbike, thanks.

  36. CamWilli says:

    Fantastic article!! Really inspiring and also realistic. Thank you.

  37. Eric Smiley says:

    Splendid article. Perfect timing for me. Thanks.

    Here’s an anecdote I sent out to my campmates a while back. Enjoy.
    Yesterday I took a break from work and walked a few blocks down to Grocery Outlet. My brain felt heavy, eyelids barely open due to the playa-lag I always experience for a week or so after returning from the dust to the cool, damp air of the Northwest. I noticed while shopping that I was gazing for extended periods at all of the people I saw, as though each of them carried secrets that I needed to learn, as though they were all exceedingly beautiful, or like lighted sculptures in a desert that were placed there for me to feast my eyes on. Then the “reality” hit me, and I tried to stop myself from continuing these prolonged glances, as in that “transitional” neighborhood if I stare at the wrong person I’m liable to get myself shot. How can I send out this connecting energy without putting my life in danger, or at least really offending someone in the peanut butter aisle? I filled my basket and headed over the the checkout lane where one man was finishing his purchase. The woman at the register shouted to a co-worker behind me and said “Anna, can you grab this customer so I can close up and go on break?” I glanced behind me and saw an older, tired-looking woman slowly approaching. “Whadya want?” she asked the woman at the register. At this moment I saw my opportunity to show my Burner colors. “Well,” I interjected, “she says you’re supposed to _grab_ me. I don’t know if that’s against company policy, but here I am!” I threw my arms up like the Man on burn night and kept them there. She looked baffled for a brief second, then started over my way where she threw her arms around me and gave me a long, mmmmm-style hug, prompting laughing and cheering from onlooking customers and workers. I could barely hold myself together. As Anna took care of my purchase, I said, “Now I know where I can not only get cheap groceries, but where I can get me a fix of looooove!” She looked at me in the eyes, and by the sparkle I saw in hers, I knew that she was sharing a secret with me. I loved life right there under the fluorescent lights and cheesy music. I was home. Only without the dust.

    Lesson learned. Throw your arms up and surrender to love any chance you get.

  38. Connie says:

    Holy shziint, this is so cool thank you.

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