The Playa Provides, lessons from the 2016 BurningMan


  • I came back from my seventh and longest Burn a couple weeks back. For many readers, the only question is “why?” For a few others, the feeling might be envy. My fellow Burners are glad to share the MAGIC.

Magic Sculpture

I can assure you that if you have not been it is unlikely that your idea of what BurningMan is is largely wrong. I’m sure of this because I brought a virgin Burner, a hippy character from the SF 60s, with me to spend ten amazing days on the Playa this year. You know how someone can be so stunned by something that they can’t stop talking about it, that was my friend Michael, playa name Excelsior. He couldn’t stop telling me and others that this is not what he expected, “this was an alternate universe.” The scale, the love, the welcome, the art, the openness, the art, the love, the brothers and sisters, the scale, the variety, ….

When one passes through the “gate,” some small wooden teepees set up in an otherwise empty desert, you are welcomed HOME. Though Michael fully participated, he later admitted that he found the notion suspect, only two days later to say “I get it, this is home.”

My favorite BurningMan saying is “The Playa Provides.” This is the outcome of family meeting each other’s needs, one-to-one, thousands of times, again and again. We are home and we are family and this is a tremendous part of why BM works. It could be the AA battery from a neighbor, it could be the bed offered and taken by a passer-by in the night too far gone to wisely walk across the Playa, it could be the lanterns offered too late night arrivals soon to become fast friends to aid in setting up their tents, massages offered and accepted, or the unquestioned help in securing a shade structure mangled by the wind. Nothing any good neighbor would not offer, but something happens here on the Playa that creates instant friends and neighbors. The Playa’s beautiful starkness and the intent to celebrate by thousands as by magic creates a sense of massive love, a shared sense of belonging to the same alternate universe where we are connected and in a common spirit in a single community but each with our own cause, our own raison d’etre.

I fear boring you with superlatives, but part of it has to be the best hugs — unless you don’t want them. But not two or three, but at least ten a day, twenty or a hundred or more if that is your desire. And from all manner of folk, or just pretty girls or boys if that what you crave or you otherwise limit yourself too. Every hug, or almost so, met with genuine feeling and caring. These are no pat on the back discomforted hugs, but full body hold me hugs.

The freedom to (re)create is part of what makes BM a great experience. The art on the Playa being a significant invitation to create, but most importantly it is the freedom to create, express, explore, oneself — radical self-expression. This shows up in the myriad of costumes you, no doubt, have seen, but also in untold spaces that invite rest, fun, and exploration. I offer rest, conversation, coaching, coffee in the morning, and alcohol in the evening, and have a quiet burn punctuated by many exciting, fun, intense, exploratory interactions. A neighbor created a massage space open to all, no masseuse, just an enclosed space — two tables and chairs — for anyone anytime to share a massage or just to come into a space sheltered from wind or dust — which naturally led to shared massages.

The Temple just before being burned

Neighbors are, I think, inevitably, some of the most intimate connections that are made. However, I would not dismiss random meetings, in a bar, at an art installation, or bicycle collisions can create fast friends or lovers. I think that is the core of what is so special there, you can meet someone completely unexpected and exciting at any moment, or wander into a life altering experience, or share tears, or joy, or wonder. And he, she, non-gender pronoun, is all around and everywhere. You just need to be willing.

The remains of the Man after it was burned

Burning the man and other structures is symbolic of acknowledging the impermanence of life, and therefore the importance of grabbing on to your experience and living it fully.

Experienced burners make much of owning your own burn. This means that there is not one experience on the Playa, but 70,000 experiences. You need self-acceptance, non-judgment of others, acceptance of the diversity of human experience — it is all there. When you own your burn it is inevitably a good burn. Which is not to say shit doesn’t happen on the Playa, but when it does others will help.

It is my experience that everyone that comes to BM gets stretched in some dimension of their person. Your idea of yourself, your ego, grows. One’s self-imposed limits get pushed by choice or circumstance. The growth folks experience is what all the excitement is really about.

Everyone comes away with new possibility. The old passes and something new is born.

The Temple fully engulfed

Radical self-expression and wild ass costumes are part of the gig, as is incredible works of art, but they are not the thing, they set the stage for full force human interaction.

Art, Art, Art
Relaxing by my fire after all but packing up and heading home is said and done

In the end, it is all gone, burned to the ground or carted back home, and thje question becomes what will you take back to the “default world?” For me, what we take back, lessons learned, is what it is upon final consideration the real point of BM. My hope is we all bring back an expanded awareness and a sense of belonging to the human family and a sense of responsibility to make this world better, more inclusive and supportive.

My personal gig on the Playa is to practice my coaching, something I’ve done since 2010 when I was getting certified as a coach. In this capacity, I have many great experiences. They are not all coaching, but many great conversations and sharings.

Playa Coach

One last story and I hope lesson — namely to roll with what shows up and the Playa and your life will provide. I invite a Chinese man to sit and chat late one morning. I do this for two reasons, one is he is moving at the right speed and two it is so great to see a growing presence of people of color and different ethnicities on the Playa and I want to touch them if I can. Turns out he is from Taiwan and he is here with a group that brought an art car that is a figure of The Buddha — I’m sorry to say I never saw it. Anyway, we are chatting in difficult English about how he joined this group for an interesting experience. It turns out he is a monk. As we are talking as my Playa Coach sign attracts two guys (probably in their 20s), one of which has a question for which he is seeking to answer. Our conversation interrupted already, I ask him (call him Q1) what is the question? It seems he is an SF software developer and he has made an app to tell him, and only him, random things of what to do while on the Playa, and his app has told him to “go to where he is now”. He wants to know what this means. I direct him to my new Buddhist friend (BF), as this seems a Buddhist sort of question to me. Q1 asks in English, but BF says, “I don’t understand the question, my English not good.” Q1 asks, “oh what dialect do you speak?” BF replies, “Mandarin.” Whereupon, a fifteen-minute conversation starts in Mandarin. Meanwhile, his friend (Q2) implores, “so coach me on finding a relationship here on the Playa. Q2 is gay and he is not looking for a hookup which he asserts is his default, but something deeper. We proceed to have a great conversation that works for Q2, and we end just as BF and Q1 come back to English and Q1 now feels he understands the message of his app. We chat a little more and I encourage Q1 that this seems like the foundation of a good idea for an app. I hope he is thinking about it. We all hug and go on our way.

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Eo, eorojas@gmail.com, is a life performance coach. AKA Playa Coach while at the Burn and 30 year software developer and engineering leader.