Dusty Thoughts: Bring back the best of Burning Man to the Default World

I finally managed to put my Burning Man experience into words. Along with the pictures from my disposable film camera, I hope this will give you a sense of what the life at playa is about, and how I’ve been trying to hold onto the principles of Burning Man in the default world.

Sunset at the playa.

I came back to San Francisco from Burning Man around 10:30 pm on Labor Day. As soon as I put down my dusty belongings on the apartment floor, I rushed to shower thoroughly for the first time in a week and went to bed immediately afterward. Going to work the next morning was surreal. I could see myself still riding a bike on the playa. I could feel the dry sand hitting my face and irritating my eyes. But, in reality, I was sitting on a southbound Caltrain with AirPods in my ears, listening to a Burning Man Decompression playlist.

The following month was a slow process for me to reflect on my first Burning Man and thinking about how to bring back the best of the event to the default world. Yes, the burners are a self-selective crew who are attracted by the thrilling, wild and spiritual nature of Burning Man, but some of the people who attended could be the same people I took Caltrain with. They behaved the way they did because Burning Man was such a different environment from the default world. Even though the circumstances are different, and I know that it it would be unrealistic to expect people to hold up the same standards in the default world, Burning Man was so incredible that it made me think about if I could bring the some of its spirits to my regular life.

I want to write this article to share my experience at the playa because I know many of my friends are curious. I also want to share some of my attempts to channel the some of the principles of burning man in the default world and acknowledge that doing it is difficult.

The center camp at Burning Man, where people gathered for talks and performances, to do acro yoga and to get coffee.

1. Communal Effort: Creative collaboration and cooperation

The Burning Man community values creative collaboration and cooperation because we all have to rely on this community, in some ways, to not only survive at the desert but also to build an entire city, offer activities and create art pieces. In essence, Burning Man is a transcendental process that brings people together to celebrate art, fire, and community. This year, seventy thousand people came to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada to build a city that lasts only a week. It is thrilling to think that the Black Rock City is constructed entirely by men and torn down by men.

Participating at Burning Man reminded me that every group we belong to is a community that requires our input. Building things, even with the help of other people, can be hard on the playa. On our first day, after a seven-hour drive, we arrived at the playa under the scorching sun around 1 pm. Striking up a canvas tent and unloading our belongings in the heat was difficult enough for me, and I had only done the bare minimum of building a shelter for myself. Knowing the real people who spent the time and effort to build the infrastructure at our camp and at the Black Rock City at large made me appreciate the services made available to me. For example, an elderly gentleman at our camp took shifts guarding the temple to make sure no one attempt to get inside during the temple burn. A camp dedicated to the Black Rock City Newspaper curated the content and printed all the copies before this year’s Burning Man even started. Anyone who served free food at the playa probably had to bring loads of refrigerators to transport the food and make sure food were fresh. Someone even opened up a bakery at Burning Man — imagine the amount of work he did to make that happen.

I want to live with the same kind of gratitude for the things I usually take for granted in the default world. It is a lot harder to get into the same mindset, I realized because we often think we paid for the things we get, whether with money or other types of resources and therefore we deserve it. But nothing comes easy. Even the things we do pay for are a result of other people’s effort, and they deserve our gratitude and respect.

Our community kitchen has an impressive spice collection.
Tearing down the shade structure reminded me of the effort of those who put them up at the first place.

2. Radical Inclusion: Anyone may be a part of us.

At Burning Man, we all acknowledged that everyone put a tremendous amount of effort to be there, so we respected everyone. We believed that people wanted to be there for a reason and therefore everyone has equally compelling stories to share. Ideally, there is no discrimination based on face values or people’s backgrounds. All identifying features make no difference at this place during this particular time. There is an idealized driving force to remind people to suspend our expectation and bias towards each other temporarily.

We were warmly welcomed when we crashed a stranger’s wedding on the playa.

As a designer, I found this principle particularly resonating because people there believe that everyone deserves empathy. However, it is incredibly hard to stick to this principle in my regular life because I make assumptions about other people all the time. A lot of the times, I am not even aware of this behavior until facts contradict my assumptions.

As a foreigner and a person of color in the US, I sometimes resent how people make assumptions about me and the places that raised me. But to win the empathy I deserve, I probably have to take a step back and try to see any stranger as a piece of empty canvas. Sometimes, we are too bothered by our own troubles to make mental space to care about the people around us genuinely.

3. Participation: Achieve being through doing.

There is a saying at Burning Man that goes “the playa provides.” It means that there are all sorts of events and artworks offered by other burners that you can participate and interact with, and you are also expected to give back to the community. This year I stayed with Camp Soft Landing and volunteered at a full circle tea house that was open 24/7. Burners could come here any time, rest, and share anything on their mind. As part of my responsibility at the camp, I served an overnight shift at the tea house.

Although I had some hesitation about staying up the entire night, the six-hour shift went by surprisingly fast. Throughout the night, different groups of people came in, sipped tea at our circular table and shared their stories. A stranger parted me a piece of crystal he mined at Arkansas: “You served me tea, of course, you deserve this gift.” By the morning, I was awake enough to watch the beautiful sunrise on the empty playa with my friends. When the sun popped out behind the mountains on the far horizon, it was so bright that we had to look away.

Burning Man was made up of a collection of unexpectedly beautiful moments. You have to go to Burning Man to collect your own.

Sunrise at the playa.
“We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.”
The 10 Principles of Burning Man

4. Radical Self-expression: Be your authentic self.

On Tuesday, we wear tutus.

Burning Man celebrates the unique gifts of the individual. Everyone is encouraged to celebrate their authentic selves free from judgment. One of the ways for expressing yourself in through the way we dress. On #tutuTuesday, we saw all sorts of people wearing the dress and were inspired enough to go to a tutu workshop to make our own tutus. It was liberating to be encouraged to dress whatever way you want and not feeling judged.

It was incredible to me that self-expression is validated, celebrated and even prioritized at Burning Man. I also had the luxury to express myself through participating activities that made me happy. Burning Man is a place that turns adults into children again. For once in my life, my days were “not dictated by to-do lists,” as my friend put it. I had 24 hours a day, and I could choose to spend it however I wanted.

The playa invites everyone to play. Burning man is a place that turns adults into kids.

Burning Man proved to me how creative human beings can be when they have absolute freedom even under harsh physical circumstances. I was curious if I could relate to my work in a more personal way so that I could invest my authentic self to the work I do and be more involved with the group I work with. A big step I took was to talk about my burning man experience in the format of a Pecha Kucha talk at my workplace. Even though it was not a professional experience in any way, it was inspiring enough that I wanted to share with the people I work with. My 7-minute talk turned out to be the start of a more significant effort at my design team to build a safer team culture by letting people talking about themselves — their hobbies, stories, experiences — at our team meetings. A place where people can bring their authentic selves to work will encourage more open communications, bolder actions, and ultimately, higher-quality work.

5. Radical self-reliance: Discover and rely on your inner resources.

Burning Man is so rooted in the old way of living. Your amenities are stripped down to the bare necessities. Of course, you will be as comfortable as you can afford, but many of us only had access to the most essential things. Therefore I was forced to reflect on what I needed to survive — water, food, shelter, and communities. Yet in this environment, people push themselves to build art and communities. People are forced to strip down their capitalist desires. People are not exerting effort to earn a living but to try to live a life. Burning Man proved that it is possible and inspirational to live like that.

My body coped surprisingly well at the playa. I was able to sleep most of the nights soundly despite the constant beats from competing directions. I did not get sunburned and even barely got tanned thanks to my 70 SPF sunscreen. I also had fewer acne on my face compared to when I was back in San Francisco. By the end of the week, I was used to the presence of playa dirt everywhere that I was shocked by how clean the streets were once we came back to a city.

I also relied on my inner-self to navigate overwhelming spectacles. I kept an open mind and tried to say “yes” to as many experiences as possible. I know that I will always have the moments I collected at Burning Man to rely on when I feel lost, and I will tell myself:

“You’ve survived the playa, and you’ll survive this one, too.”

And finally, more photos:

The temple from the outside and its interior.
Huge puppets at the playa.
Beautiful space at Camp Contact, where I attended workshops.
The Glen Crew, people who made this trip memorable, at the man burn.

Special thanks to Annie Lye who helped me translate my thoughts into words, the Glen Crew for making this experience possible and for Sean Zhu for helping me navigate through the streets of the Black Rock City.