Exactly one year ago today I was about to start perhaps my most amazing life experience: Burning Man(http://burningman.org/). Describing this experience is quite difficult, as any facts and numbers will not really let you get the true ‘gist’ of what it really is. Nonetheless, as in these days I read many superficial notes on BM (from people who often have not been there, or worse did not even get informed about it), I wanted to write down few notes. If you want to try and see what Burning Man was for me, read the few things below.
First some facts. Burning Man is a week long (maximum; but people can decide to stay even for less) living experience in the middle of a hostile desert in Nevada, close to Black Rock City. It always takes place in the week prior to US Labor Day, and this year will mark the 30th year that this event takes place (it did start in 1986, even though the first two years it took place on a beach close to San Francisco). In the past couple of years, close to 70,000 people attend the event to enjoy a full week of events of any sort (art, dance, partying, etc.). To access, you have to buy a ticket (this year it is $390) and then make sure that you get to the Nevada desert well prepared, surely ready to survive for a week of extreme conditions, from temperatures ranging from 0 to 45 degrees Celsius, chances of sand storms, and likelihood that no food nor drinks will be available, besides your own. Water, being the most precious resource, will be scarce: you can imagine the consequences of that. This special week in the desert will feature more than 1500-2000 events, always free for every Burner.
Now some underlying ‘substance’. Burning Man is an amazing social experiment. I believe the most impressive and impactful experiment you can have the luck to participate in. To add a bit of personal flavor to this statement: I can tell you that, even though I was lucky to have a very eventful and interesting life so far, Burning Man has probably been the most amazing and fascinating experience I have done in life as of today.
“Why is it so impressive?” you might ask. This is where things get difficult to get through, as usually, no matter how good I could be with writing about it, living “the playa” (this is how they call the desert area dedicated to Burning Man) is just another thing. I think though that sharing with you some of the values and rules that drive the Burning Man week might get you an idea of what it could do to you. So here are the principles and set of rules that impressed me the most (not a comprehensive list):
1. Radical Inclusion: in doubt, you welcome anyone in your community. Only once you know someone, you can decide to exclude them. Very interesting concept, based on trust. We tend to do the opposite in our real world, even though countries and local communities differ a lot in this.
2. Gifting (and De-commodification): there is no economy within Burning Man. You cannot buy anything (except for the necessary ice and for coffee – don’t ask me why ☺). You cannot even exchange, as in bartering. You can just give, not expecting anything back. This is huge, and after the first 24 hours, it starts getting you. It revolutionizes the way you feel about your possessions and it makes you discover concretely the happiness you can easily generate in each other’s.
3. Radical Self-Expression: every one is motivated to express themselves as much (and to the extreme) as they like (as long as they do not affect the rights and liberty of others). This makes the initial impact with this world quite shocking for most. After few hours though (in my case it took a day), you start leaving behind many pre-conceptions and stereotypes that you would use as tool to make you judge people. The result is fantastic, and in combination with the rule of “Radical Inclusion” it helps you open up to any type of person, making hundreds of pleasant and enriching encounters and friendships.
4. Participation: who steps onto the playa is pushed to participate active to the Burners life. You do not go there to be a spectator: it’s a show where all are actors, and all are spectators at the same time. Fantastic feeling!
5. Leave No Trace: you would be amazed by how attentive people are to make sure that the desert is respected as an environment. After a week of crazy parties and all sorts of events, including also the burning of many artistic structures several tens of meters high, as 70,000 burners leave the playa, you will be mesmerized by seeing the desert as clean and empty as the first day when you arrived. While Burning Man is certainly not an event that promotes ecology and green-sustainability (e.g., there is strong use of petrol/gas for fire works and machinery), the teaching of respecting the environment you inhabit still clearly comes across.
6. Immediacy: contrary to our society, where things have to be planned, reserved, scheduled, etc., Burning Man fosters this mentality closer to concepts of serendipitous discovery, improvisation, surprise. This just makes the entire experience even more impressive, as in the most unexpected (bike) turn, you will discover a Olympic gold-medalist skater entertaining people with their dance, people gifting you with some delicious ice-creams, or simply some funny dressed people passionately wanting to stop you to invite you for a English tea breakfast in the middle of the playa (at 6h00am).
Now imagine living by these rules while trying to ‘survive’ in the difficult conditions I described above. As you try to be attentive to your new life habits, you tend to become much more receptive to anything new, and so you open up also to live by ‘unnatural’ standards like the ones suggested by the Burning Man organisation.
Ah, let me tackle a classic topic. Contrary to what (uninformed) people believe, the event is not for drug-addicts or wild partygoers. I did enjoy it fully without ever needing to smoke a joint, drinking too many vodka+redbulls or getting any other type of brain-alterating substance. I remained ‘clean’ 100%. Yet, it was the most amazing experience of my life. Furthermore, probably the majority of the people who attend do not make use of any drugs. I have seen 3 year old kids, and 80 year old couples enjoying the playa, and certainly they were drug free.
One final note that I think is very important. The many thousands of people who attend Burning Man every year and that come out of it incredibly impressed by the experience, do not naively think that the real-world should all be a big messy and anarchy-driven Burning Man World. Contrary to social movements of the ‘70’s, I feel that most of the Burners realize that this is just a social experiment (but heck of a good one!). They know that rules that apply within the playa could never work outside of Black Rock’s desert. Yet, experiencing such interesting and eye-opening way of living teaches you something.
To all of you people, to whom I have the greatest respect because moved by curiosity, humbleness and open-minded attitude, I hope these words have helped you a bit to know more about Burning Man, and its value to our society.