5 Things I Learned at My First Burning Man

Self-actualization is nice. Collective-actualization is why we are alive.

Smiley Poswolsky
Sep 2, 2014 · 9 min read

Two weeks ago, I made the decision to attend Burning Man for the first time. I had been making excuses for years on why I couldn’t go (“it’s too expensive,” “I don’t have goggles,” “techno isn’t my thing,” “my costume wardrobe is kind of lame,” “The New York Times says it’s played out — the techies have taken the playa over worse than they have taken over the Mission,” “I don’t own a CamelBak,” etc., etc.) but this year I finally bit the bullet. Instead of putting it off for the future, I finally accepted the time to go was now. A friend of mine passed away recently and his death has made me realize how fragile life is, how impermanent we are, and how little time matters except for what we are doing right now.

Last night I arrived back in San Francisco after a week in Black Rock City and the experience was nothing short of life changing. Truth be told, it’s hard to capture Burning Man in words — even those aerial high-res photos don’t do the playa justice. If you had a camera on all 70,000 people on the playa, you’d still miss 99% of what’s happening. How can you document what the soul experiences? How can you describe what collective transformation looks like? The word that comes closest to describing my experience at Burning Man would be “Wow” — I think I said “Wow” 37 times on my first night. Here are a few life lessons I learned at my first Burn that should tie me over at least a few weeks as my anticipation for next year is already growing.

1. The universe shakes with love when everyone is doing their thing at the same time

I have a lot of friends who are creators and entrepreneurs. People who are doing their thing and making cool shit for the rest of us to enjoy. It’s really nice to go to a friend’s book release party or a friend’s Kickstarter launch or support someone opening their new food truck. It’s a whole other experience to be in the presence of 70,000 (70,000!) people doing their thing. To celebrate the collective expression and actualization of a entire city is nothing short of transformational. That’s what happens every second of every day on the playa. No one is just pushing paper or wasting time doing something they don’t want to be doing.

Everyone is doing their thing, whatever that thing is, all the time. You want to meditate? You can meditate. You want to walk around naked? You can walk around naked. You want to make french toast for 1,000 people? Make french toast for 1,000 people. You want to practice somatic dance? Practice somatic dance. You want to listen to Dennis Kucinich give a talk about the military industrial complex and why the militarization of local police forces is wrong? Word. You want to learn how to give yourself an orgasm? Awesome. You want to dunk your head into a tub of cold water as your ass gets slapped ten times and then take a shot of whiskey? Enjoy. You want to ride your bike under the lights of the night like you’re the captain of the fastest spaceship known to man? Godspeed. You want to mourn the passing of a close friend at the Temple? Beautiful. You want to celebrate your friends’ union at the Temple? Beautiful. You want to dress up like a gorilla? You’re the most amazing gorilla to ever live.

Everyone doing their thing. At the same time. That’s what makes Burning Man so special. It’s for anyone and everyone to enjoy. There is no one “type” on the playa. The traditional labels we place on people (techies, clubbers, hipsters, hippies, dorks, jocks, athletes, artists, entrepreneurs, etc.) have little meaning on the playa. You’re whoever you want to be out there, which is a truly liberating sensation. You’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing, which is whatever the fuck the you want. No one asks for permission on the playa. No one goes, “Hey man, it is cool if I wear these pink tights with kittens on them?” Self-actualization is nice. Collective-actualization is why we are alive.

2. There is nothing that can’t be done

To see the intention behind the art created at Burning Man is worth every penny spent by every single person that attends the event. You can’t put a price tag on how good it feels to dream or believe or understand or empathize or challenge yourself. I have been to many MOMAs and world-class museums and nothing comes close to the experience of seeing art on the playa. The entire place is a piece of art. At night, the place is so kinetic and colorful it feels like you’re watching the Big Bang happen over and over again. Black Rock City makes you see the world differently. Each camp is an installation. Each piece on the playa plays with the mind, body, and spirit. Pieces are meant not only to be looked at or talked about; but touched and explored.

To say, “I saw Embrace at Burning Man,” does not capture the fact that I meditated at the top of Embrace with 25 people while someone played the tabla, or exchanged a loving glance with the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen while we both watched Embrace’s heart beat, or watched Embrace burn up in flames from the trash fence in deep playa while the blood orange sun rose over the desert, and the hot embers fell through the sky and landed on my toes.

To say, “I went to the Temple,” does not capture the fact that I felt more grounded meditating in that enchanting space than I have ever been while praying in any temple, church, or mosque. One evening, in the span of an hour at the Temple, I went from celebrating the wedding of my two campmates as the sun set beyond the mountains of Black Rock Desert, to attending a memorial service honoring the life of my friend who recently passed away. The playa finds a way to hold space for everything all at the same time. When you breathe inside the Temple or walk up through Embrace (and when you understand the impermanence of those spaces — and the impermanence of everything — including ourselves) you realize anything and everything is possible. That we have the potential to create what we are yearning to create, and that we must create it now.

3. Self-reliance only gets you so far

There is something incredibly powerful about living in a desert environment. It pushes you to the brink. You are hot, you are thirsty, you are dusty, you have been in a porta-potty 17 times in 3 days, you are dirty, you are tired. There is a reason radical self-reliance is one of the key principles of Burning Man. Without it, you can’t survive. On Thursday evening, I embarked on an overnight solo journey to the deep playa. Everything I had with me was essential to my survival: water, oranges, my bike, my headlamp, my jacket, my goggles, my scarf, and EL wire to light up my bike.

In the morning, after I watched the sunrise at the trash fence and saw Embrace burn, it started to get windy. In the span of a few minutes, I went from being able to see all the way from the fence to Embrace and the Man to having zero visibility. Dust covered my eyes and I got caught in a complete white out. You learn a lot about your own capacity to survive in such a situation. You get scared. You don’t know where you are or where you’re going. And yet, you know what to do. I luckily found shelter at the Black Rock Observatory, where I camped out with several other stranded Burners, sharing my oranges and slices of dried mango. We had fun given the fact that we couldn’t see anything around us in any direction besides dust. Eventually, seven of us embarked back towards camp. It felt like something out of Star Wars. The only way we all made it back is because we stuck together as a unit.

For me, this was the most poignant lesson I learned at Burning Man. You have to listen to your gut. You have to know yourself; who you are, and what you want. Do you want to bike to the trash fence? Do you want to sleep? Do you want to drink alcohol? Do you want to dance? Do you want to do yoga? Do you want to meditate? Do you want to make love? Do you need to go to the bathroom? WHO ARE YOU? WHAT DO YOU WANT? NO, FOR REAL: WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU WANT?

No one in life ever asks you what you want; you have to manifest it for yourself. You need to know yourself in order to survive. You need to practice radical self-reliance. And yet, self-reliance only gets you so far. In the end, you may survive on your own. But you will only thrive by connecting with others. You will only thrive when you open yourself to receiving. You need a city to call home. You need a camp. You need a tribe. You need someone to say “Welcome Home” to you when you’re home. You need a pack to survive a dust storm. It’s exploring this balance of self and community that is at the heart of Burning Man and any life worth living.

4. Gifts change lives

Nothing can prepare you for the culture of gifting in Black Rock City. In the span of a few days, I was given all of the following by complete strangers: watermelon, a cold pickle, a piece of french toast with powdered sugar and cinnamon, a bacon bloody mary, truffle salt popcorn, a red velvet cupcake, a cone of orange sherbet, jugo de naranja, iced chai, a lavender mist bath, and a steam bath.

The default world is transaction-based: you give someone money, and they give you something in return. When you give without asking for something in return, you breakdown barriers and you change lives. You make people happy. You inspire people to pay it forward. You remind people what it means to feel alive. Contrary to what a “gift shop” might have you believe, you don’t need a reason to give somebody a present. It doesn’t need to be someone’s birthday or Father’s Day or a wedding to give someone something. You don’t even need to know someone to give them a present. It’s amazing what can happen when we open ourselves to giving and receiving. We stop judging. We start to see others as equals and understand there’s a collective consciousness at the root of humanity.

5. Silence is bliss

Silence is hard to find on the playa. My single biggest problem with the event (and the only thing that might keep me going every year for the rest of my life) is the constant, abhorrent, deafening sound of house music. I heard it when I was meditating in the morning at my camp. I heard it when I was napping in a hammock in the late afternoon. I heard it at the Temple when I was celebrating the life of my friend who had passed away. I even heard it at the trash fence at sunrise when an art car rolled up blasting some awful awful awful “Unce Unce Unce” song that I had already heard 342 times that day. (It’s like, “REALLY? YOU’VE BEEN DANCING TO THE ‘UNCE UNCE UNCE’ SONG ON REPEAT FOR 7 HOURS — DO YOU REALLY NEED TO LISTEN TO IT AT 6:30AM JUST AS THE SUN IS RISING? THE EARTH CALLED, IT RAN OUT OF EARPLUGS. CAN’T YOU PLEASE TAKE JUST A 5 MINUTE BREAK?!”)

To find silence in a sea of sonic chaos is rare, but when it does happen, it reminds you what matters most in life. You notice the sun, the stars, the mountains, and the desert. You can hear the Earth sing. You remember where you are and why you are there. Sometimes in the default world it’s hard to find a moment where there’s not a push notification, a phone call, a meeting, or a sound hammering for our attention. We have to carve out moments of silence in order to breathe, in order to remain sane. Same thing on the playa. You have to seek out silence and space; but when you do find it, even if just for a brief moment at sunrise, or when you close your eyes at the Temple, or when the playa clears out during a dust storm, it reminds you that you are whole. It reminds you that everything is here for a reason and everything is going to be okay.

Beyond Burning Man

Dispatches on impact and innovation from Black Rock City and beyond.

By Beyond Burning Man

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Smiley Poswolsky

Written by

Author of The Quarter-Life Breakthrough. Speaker. Millennial workplace expert. http://smileyposwolsky.com/

Beyond Burning Man

Dispatches on impact and innovation from Black Rock City and beyond.

Smiley Poswolsky

Written by

Author of The Quarter-Life Breakthrough. Speaker. Millennial workplace expert. http://smileyposwolsky.com/

Beyond Burning Man

Dispatches on impact and innovation from Black Rock City and beyond.

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