Radical Ritual Is Never Easy, But It’s Always Worth It
10 Lessons From Burning Man 2017
Yesterday, I returned to civilization from ten days in Black Rock City. It was my second Burn — I first went back in 2014 with my best friends Levi, Brooke (Levi’s wife), Mobius (Levi’s brother), and our homies. This year was a little different since Levi passed away from brain cancer in January. Our crew decided to camp together once again, to pay tribute to Levi’s life and his love of the playa, getting weird, and living in the moment.
Levi loved Burning Man. When you were with Levi on the playa, he used to make everyone dress up in fancy outfits and lug 40-pound suitcases of sushi and sake out to the middle of the playa to have a ceremony at 2 in the morning. On another occasion, he had our friend Ben Madden play a Casio synthesizer for 45 minutes while he gave a lecture (on zero sleep) on the dangers of human addiction to technology.
I remember something Levi used to say when we left Camp Grounded (the summer camp for adults he created), and I think it’s fitting to apply it to coming home from Burning Man. “Just because it’s over, doesn’t mean the feeling of camp has to end,” he wrote in our Digital Detox re-integration field guide. “As we leave, inspired and full of life, each and every one of us has an incredible opportunity to bring this energy back home. From dinner tables to conference room whiteboards, living room floors to street corners — let’s make and take the time to look up from our screens, celebrate humanity in the present, and give ourselves the chance to take big deep breaths. We are flying through space at 66,000 mph on a huge island-dotted-swimming pool called Earth — and that alone is amazing.”
Here are a few ways we celebrated Levi’s life this past week and the lessons he taught me (and all of us) about why radical ritual matters.
1. Radical ritual is never easy, but it’s always worth it.
As we move ever so quickly to a life lived and shared online, Burning Man reminds me that in-person gatherings are at the heart of any life worth living. Radical ritual means taking the time and space to curate a meaningful experience, in the presence of others. It means pausing now to honor your intentions, emotions, fears, and dreams.
On Tuesday night on the playa, Mobius, Jane (Levi’s friend), and I made a picnic to take out near the Temple. We had miso soup, crackers and brie, and Mobius even had a cassette tape player, with a playlist that included “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Home”. We shared a little picnic a few hundred meters from the Temple and I could feel Levi there sitting with us being like, “You motherfuckers brought brie all the way out here, that’s amazing!” He was really proud.
You should have seen the look on the faces of a group of random young virgin Burners when they came upon us and realized that we had a cassette deck and cheese and crackers. It was this guy Matt’s birthday and “Home” started playing not long after he rolled up with his girlfriend. “Alabama, Arkansas, I do love my Ma and Pa…” He was like, “Home is my favorite song.”
Then Mobius busted out an old Nokia cell phone and jokingly said, “Yeah, your Mom just called us and wanted to wish you a happy birthday — she’s on the line right now on FaceTime.” For a split second Matt was like, “No way!!!,” until he realized we were just fucking with him and the Nokia snake phone hadn’t been functioning for ten years. Anyways, I think we made that dude’s night and I know Levi was with us the whole time cracking up with a huge grin on his face.
2. Radical ritual makes you laugh and cry at the same time.
On Wednesday evening, Levi’s best friends Joe and Lindsay hosted a ViPASTAna dinner at our camp, Camp Codos, in honor of Levi. Levi was a big fan of the vipasana tradition (a 10-day silent meditation retreat), and had always talked about bringing that intention (and fucking with it) on the playa. Lindsay thought it would be cool if we all shared a yummy pasta dinner, in silence. We shared parmesan cheese and salty crackers, pesto pasta, pasta with olive oil and garlic, and pasta with fresh tomato sauce, while thinking about Levi as we ate. Levi used to host massive 300-person silent dinners at Camp Grounded, and it is truly a powerful experience to ponder where your food came from as you eat each bite.
All of us started crying a few minutes into dinner, and by the end of it, we were also laughing. Radical ritual causes you to embrace the full range of human emotions, just like Burning Man does, just like life does. The highs and lows make life real. If you aren’t crying and laughing every day, you probably aren’t living a full life.
On Friday evening, we had Shabbat dinner at our camp. Levi always loved Shabbat, after all, he started an organization called Digital Detox, and Shabbat is the original old-school digital detox; it’s how Jews have been incorporating rest and renewal into our lives for generations. As we sang the blessings and stood around in a circle, I realized that radical ritual is a deeply grounding and connecting force. I felt my grandmothers and my family with us during Shabbat, I felt Levi with us, I felt Levi’s parents Bluma and Edward with us, I felt the universe there in that circle with us. Traditions matter. Honoring the past matters. Respecting your elders matters. Taking the time and space for mindful practice matters.
3. Radical ritual is an invitation to deepen your closest friendships, welcome strangers into your life, and challenge yourself beyond your own assumptions and expectations.
Of all the sparkly things to look at in Black Rock City, nothing is more beautiful than the sky during sunrise. I saw four sunrises this past week and I will remember each of them for the rest of my life. For one, I was all alone — Mobius and Jane left after our picnic near the Temple and I biked out to the trash fence as the first blue light emerged in the sky. As the rays of light peaked over the desert horizon, I saw a baby ambling around the trash fence with her parents, not far from that “This fence paid for by Mexico” sign, and I started crying.
Later in the week, I shared sunrise with my friends Heady, Margie, Honey Bear, and Taco. We sat at the Temple, right next to the shrine Brooke had built for Levi, cried, and then giggled as we ate mango and dates and figs, and then looked in awe as a pink ball of fire emerged over the horizon. It’s hard to describe in words what the sun looked like that morning — as my friend Taco said, it looked like a Tycho album cover. It was the most beautiful sunrise I had ever seen. I know everyone says that at Burning Man, but it’s true. And Levi was right there with us.
Knowing Levi, he would have been glad Brooke placed his shrine facing East toward sunrise, but he probably would have requested that we move the Temple five inches to the left. “Um, guys, do you think we could move this thing — just a little bit? I mean, I don’t have the best view of the Tree of Tenere, and I think I’d have more shade if we moved things around a few feet.” I was like, “Fucking Levi, you motherfucker!”
4. The world needs more Temples.
At my first Burning Man, I didn’t spend too much time in the Temple. The place overwhelmed me and was just too emotional for me. I found that it messed with my vibe. Sure, I visited a few times, but I didn’t want to. This week, I spent more time at the Temple than any other place besides my camp. It was the centerpiece of my experience. Our friends built a beautiful shrine for Levi on the 3:00 side of the Temple, complete with photos, letters, crystals, and even Levi’s favorite hat that he used to wear at Camp Grounded.
I visited Levi in the middle of the night, when I was speaking gibberish. I visited him at sunrise. I visited him at sunset. I visited him alone, I visited him with friends, and I introduced him to strangers. Each time, we got to catch up and share a joke and then cry together. I told him Camp Grounded this year was amazing, but it wasn’t the same without him. I told him I missed him and just wanted to take a walk down Valencia St. with him, and have him take me out to dinner, only to realize that he didn’t have his wallet and I’d have to pay. I told him waking up each morning to his brother Seth playing guitar on the playa was a dream. I told him his brother Mobius was driving me absolutely nuts, telling me what pieces of art I could visit on what days, and at what specific times of day. I told him that it took us two hours every night to get ready to leave camp and head out to the playa, but I really wished he was there, so that it would take us four hours while he tried on different costumes and got dressed.
Thanks to our dear friends who are Temple Guardians, we got to say a special goodbye to Levi, on the afternoon of the Temple burn. We sat on top of Mr. Felix’ happiness art car (thanks Felix!) and each of us shared something we were grateful for, a gift Levi had given us. Most of shared that the happiest moments in our lives and the people we love most, all exist because of him. Then, we walked to the Temple, hand-in-hand, under burning flames held up by BRC Rangers who were honoring fallen Rangers, and had ten minutes of silence with Levi. I will always remember that walk to the Temple. Even Levi, who may well have earned two-and-a-half PhD’s in Radical Ritual, was losing his shit.
With everything going on in the world right now, we need more Temples. We need more people taking time to experience and feel the pain and suffering of others.
5. Without your creative contribution, there is nothing.
At my first Burn, I didn’t fully understand the power of service and contribution in Black Rock City. Sure, I gave out lots of hugs and fresh mango, but I didn’t truly get it. I was there mainly to enjoy myself. I was mainly there to party. This year, I was there to enjoy myself (obviously), but I also learned that Burning Man is a city, not a festival. In a city, people work. People build things, people make shit happen. A festival is just people partying. A city is a place where people create and contribute.
On Monday evening, Brooke, Mobius and I volunteered to be lamplighters. The lamplighters light the city. Every evening before sunset, nearly 200 volunteers walk around the Esplanade, the 3:00 and 9:00 promenades, and from Center Camp to the Man and the Temple, to light the spires that provide navigation for the city dwellers at night.
Brooke told me that Levi had always wanted to be a lamplighter. We were given white robes, and Mobius and I were in front of the lamplighters, crying out to clear the way for the lamplighters holding 40 heavy kerosene lanterns on their shoulders, “Make way for your lamplighters, make for your lamplighters!” At my first Burn, I don’t think I even realized that each spire was actually lit by someone every single day.
This year, I started noticing the care and attention and detail that is put into every single thing that happens in Black Rock City. The art, the infrastructure, the DPW, how the city runs. It’s truly a humbling experience to stand in awe of the human hours that go into making Black Rock City what it is. Did you notice the art piece WORD out on the playa? From afar, it looks merely like four letters — kind of a boring piece. Up close, there were thousands of words from texts of holy scriptures on each letter. I was spellbound. That level of detail is everywhere you look in Black Rock City.
I think all of us could spend more time acknowledging the people in our day-to-day lives (medical and emergency service professionals, artists, farmers, hospitality workers, postal workers, builders, waste collectors, etc.) that allow us to survive. Cities, whether BRC or any city in the world, are fueled by service and creativity. All of us should contribute more to the cities we live in, and support those who provide us the tools to do so.
6. Interesting things start to happen when you can’t find your friends.
You bump into a lot of people at Burning Man who are fixated on staying with their friends for their whole Burn. I’d often see these people coming out of an art car or a porta potty screaming, “Rachel! Rachel! Where are you Rachel?!!!” Usually, the good citizens of BRC start fucking with someone like this and everyone starts going, “Rachel! Rachel!!! Rachel!!!!!, which is hilarious but probably makes the person who lost their friends feel even more lonely.
Now, don’t get me wrong: losing your friends on the playa can be an overwhelming experience, especially for those on something. You start to freak out and wonder where you are and how the hell you’re going to make it home. But while I did everything I could to fight loneliness at my first Burn in 2014, this time I embraced it. I intentionally ditched my friends and encouraged them to ditch me. Being solo allows you to explore freely and do exactly what you want to do, including sleep or rest or talk to someone beautiful.
Another person I met on the playa this weekend, put it even better. She said, “All week I’ve been trying to hang with my friends since I thought they were cool Burners who knew everyone. I finally realized they weren’t cool at all, they were pretty fucking boring. Since then, I’ve been loving life.”
7. Schedules are not fixed. Plans are not official. Directional coordinates can always be changed. The spaceship called Earth is moving and you must be your own pilot.
I think a lot of people come to Burning Man expecting someone to curate the experience for them. “At 6pm, you should go to this… at 2am you should see this DJ set… Eat at 7pm.. Robot Heart will be here at this exact time… Don’t miss Daft Punk at the trash fence… Thursday is the best day for ______…”
FUCK THAT SHIT! The only person who can curate your experience, the only person who knows how to live your life, is you.
One day, I left my camp with the plan to go to a Naked Yoga class at 11am. I stopped to see a friend at another camp, only to realize she wasn’t around. As I got ready to leave and try to make the yoga class, another person handed me a cup of coffee and a plate of fresh salad greens and a breakfast taco with bacon. Clearly, I was going to be late for the naked yoga class. When we finished our food, my new friend and I embarked on a three-hour adventure, where we napped in the O of the XOXO, visited a massive 747 airplane, and got a mist bath as we took a nap on fur pillows in the shade.
While we were in the 747, we were asked to write down “the emotional baggage we wanted to leave behind.” One of my pieces of baggage was the need for things to always go according to plan. The need to control everything. The need to always know what’s going to happen next.
My most rewarding experiences at Burning Man happened when my plan fell apart. The pancake breakfast I got at the airport when I went to pick up my friend and he wasn’t there, and they had no idea when he was arriving. The ridiculously moist bundt cakes and iced coffee I enjoyed with my friends Shmu and Gypsy, after the Hotel California claimed they didn’t have our massage reservation for 8 people on file (“plenty of room at the Hotel California,” my ass). The fire throwers (and fire spitters) during a Diplo set I randomly stumbled into with my buddies Heady and Zeb, because we were in deep playa when we noticed lasers and fire coming from Camp ?. Had we planned on attending that DJ set at a specific time, we probably would have missed it.
8. Stop trying so hard.
Sometimes you have to go off-path in order to find what you’re looking for and sometimes you have to stop trying so hard. One morning, I was on my way to the porta potty to take my morning poop, thinking about how I hadn’t had a playa romance yet, when my beautiful neighbor asked me if I wanted some coffee. I had met her the other morning while she was building camp and introduced myself, but figured she wasn’t interested in hanging out with me. Not sure why I had that assumption, but I did. I told her I’d love some coffee, but after I went to the bathroom. After what seemed like two hours in the porta (ain’t nothing like a morning shit in your favorite neighborhood porta potty — mine was three down from the left), I stopped by her camp and we sipped coffee and chatted. I told her I was going to find some shade to take a nap and asked if she wanted to join. She said yes, and we ended up taking a nap in the shade, giving each other massages with coconut oil, and making out as my friend Balance recited a singing poem about how Disney World is manipulating peoples’ brains with virtual reality technology.
That episode made me realize that I should stop doubting myself, and that interesting things start to happen when I get out of my own way.
9. Real life is cooler than Instagram.
I kept seeing people try to capture their experience at Burning Man on their phone and it struck me as a futile endeavor. What wouldn’t you take a picture of out there? The whole thing is epic. Literally every single piece of art, every person, every outfit, every moment is Instagram-worthy. I can’t tell you how much of a bummer it is to emerge from appreciating the universe at the Reverbia color dome, or staring up the Tree of Tenere, and have someone say to you, “Excuse me, can you take a photo of me and my boyfriend?”
Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful my friends got a few pics of our camp so we can remember being there, and I’m grateful talented photographers with high-res cameras captured the Temple and the art for us all to savor in the months and years to come (yes, this post would not be as interesting without the photos in it). And yeah yeah yeah, I will obviously post 1–2 photos of the experience (I mean, did you see how good my sun-kissed skin looked at sunset in that fur vest, brah?!). But I’m also grateful I had no cell service and that I decided to keep my phone locked away in my bag for all but five minutes of the past week. Maybe next year we can collectively decide to have just one or two days where cell phones are permitted on playa, and all the other days you have to keep your cell phone locked away at camp.
10. Remember to look out for each other. We’re all in this together.
The night of the Man burn was beyond intense. At first, I was in awe of how beautiful the tiny embers were as they burned in the sky above the Man, kissing the stars, falling down like little tears of joy, marking the end of the week and the collective shared experience of BRC. My friend Nadia had appeared literally out of nowhere — like a gift from the Cosmos, and we watched the Man burn together, cuddling and staring up at the embers in the sky. Then, rumor quickly spread around that someone had just run through the safety perimeter and jumped into the fire. Some of the people sitting with me had even seen him run past the Rangers. I got very sad and the rest of the night was very somber, as people learned that a fellow Burner had just committed suicide in the presence of 70,000 people.
We need to do a better job of looking out for each other, not just at Burning Man, but always. We need to do a better job of helping those who suffer, especially those who suffer from depression and mental health challenges. Burning Man is not a casual place. It is a city of extremes. It pushes people to the brink, it makes you feel all the things, energy and exhaustion, ecstasy and despair, happiness and sadness, clarity and confusion, sometimes all at once.
May we continue to spread light, and use these lessons of radical ritual to make more people feel like they have a home and a purpose in a world that can sometimes be really dark. That’s exactly what Levi was up to in his 32 years on Planet Earth. May we continue to shine his light, may you continue to shine your light, and may all of us continue to shine our collective light, across this universe and beyond.
As Levi used to say, “Never forget that we’re all in this together.” Also, fuck your Burn.
Read these stories next:
Adam Smiley Poswolsky is a millennial workplace expert, keynote speaker, and author of The Quarter-Life Breakthrough. He writes about how to live a meaningful life, and speaks to companies about how to attract, retain, and empower millennial talent, and how to create a purpose-driven workplace.
Want to re-publish some of this article on your blog or website? Awesome! Just send me a quick note via my website so I can give you permission.