What I tell people when asked about
tl;dr — You should go and experience it for yourself.
Hearing descriptions of Burning Man, especially from people who have never been, reminds me of the tale of the blind men who were asked to describe an elephant.
The gist of the story is captured in this excerpt from Wikipedia:
The men assert the elephant is either like a pot (the blind man who felt the elephants’ head), a winnowing basket (ear), a plowshare (tusk), a plow (trunk), a granary (body), a pillar (foot), a mortar (back), a pestle (tail) or a brush (tip of the tail).
These descriptions miss the elephant-ness of an elephant — its essence, its je ne sais quois.
In a similar way, Burning Man is variedly described as being like a rave, like a drug-fueled orgy, like a hippy gathering, like an electronic music festival, like a crazy survival challenge in a desert and so on and so forth.
Analogies are powerful, but as the elephant parable shows us, they can be very misleading. One thing being like another, by definition, implies it is not exactly the same as that other thing.
So, what is Burning Man? The only answer that approaches wholly correct is Burning Man is what you experience at Burning Man. After all, in a world that lacks objective truths and is constructed by perception, the only truth available to you is the truth you experience.
Burning man is what you experience at Burning Man
Now, that is a very unsatisfying answer. So when people ask me this question, I describe what I found most salient about Burning Man. What, for me, was the essence of the experience. These are still words, symbols and analogies, but if nothing else, I hope this perspective will renew your curiosity to go see the elephant for yourself ☺
Before I talk about Burning Man, it’s worth reminding ourselves how much our thoughts and actions are influenced by our context. We are social creatures and all social circles have norms. We learn them quickly and intuitively and align to them in an effort to fit in and survive.
There are norms for how you behave in a restaurant in your neighbourhood, norms for how you dress at work, norms around what are acceptable topics of discussion and what aren’t in any group, norms for what is cool and what is not and so on and so forth.
You may break some of these norms, some of the time, in some of these contexts, but most of the time, the powerful social urge to fit in overrides all else. Over time it becomes hard to tell the difference between a learned norm and your underlying true self.
Over time it becomes hard to tell the difference between a learned norm and your underlying true self.
At its heart, Burning man is a social circle that has norms unlike any other circle I have been in or am part of. Two of the most significant departures I experienced in the norms of Burning Man were:
1) Complete suspension of judgement
2) Permission to be open to new experiences.
Seems simple right? Yes, stated in words these are trivially easy to conceptualize. But, conceptualizing something is very different from experiencing it.
I live in a metropolitan city that is considered open and liberal, but it comes nowhere close to Burning Man. People walking past me smiled at me for no reason. Strangers gave me gifts and an instant sense of camaraderie emerged with people I had just met and barely interacted with.
What was I doing making all this happen?
Nothing. As far as I could tell, nothing about who I was affected these interactions. In fact, nothing about who anyone was seemed to change the way people interacted with them at Burning Man.
Nothing about who anyone was seemed to change the way people interacted with them at Burning Man.
Burners did not care who I was. Not in an apathetic way, but in an accepting way. No matter what facade I presented, I would be accepted.
This realization unlocked a powerful revelation.
When I can be anyone and be accepted, I come closer to my true self, unfettered by expectations.
There was no reason to hold up any facade or play any role. I didn’t have to play the role of a citizen of country X. Or be the resident of city Y. Or act like an employee of company Z.
The externally mandated parts of my identity peeled away like the skin of an onion and stood in clear contrast to something deeper within me. Some semblance of my true self.
This was a powerful experience. For me, and some people I know, this was a rare, maiden peek into our inner selves. It was scary, it was beautiful and it was enlightening.
What emerged from my peek and how Burning Man played into that is probably worth a separate essay. But just this — just the possibility of being able to look behind the curtain of social mores, even if briefly, made it all worthwhile. If that piqued your curiosity, maybe you should go do it yourself ☺