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
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.
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
Steve Bearman, Ph.D. – Founder of the Interchange Counseling Institute in San Francisco, Steve is a counselor, social justice educator, and workshop leader. In addition to teaching Interchange’s year-long Counseling and Coaching Training Program, which is now in its 10th year, he also leads workshops on community building, relationships, overcoming anxiety, gender role conditioning, healing body shame, death and grieving, and spiritual practice. Steve just returned from his first burn.
Troy Dayton (T. Dazzl) – Co-founder of Burner Map. Blogger at Burner Love. Co-creator of Open Mic Meditation (Bay Area edition). CEO at The ArcView Group. Troy is on the leadership team at the Interchange Counseling Institute and a graduate of the program with a life counseling practice. Troy is the former Director of Development at MAPS and fundraiser at the Marijuana Policy Project. Co-founder of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Troy just returned from his 12th consecutive burn.