Beyond Burning Man
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Beyond Burning Man

Excerpts from “Turn Your Life Into Art” by Caveat Magister

What is a psychomagical experience and how can it be a catalyst for transformational moments? Discover the answer in Caveat Magister’s newest book, Turn Your Life Into Art: Lessons in Psychomagic from the San Francisco Underground. Come along as Caveat lays out the very building blocks of peak experience design in such a way that anyone can concoct collective, magical, transformational moments literally anywhere. Below is an excerpt, for your reading pleasure.

Chapter 3: The World As We Live It Is a Magical Place

I’m not sure I should tell you this story. It could get me in trouble, this is one of those events that everyone involved in pledges never to talk about. But hell, by the time this is published it will have been years ago.

That’s no excuse, of course, and if anything gets me ex-communicated from part of the San Francisco art scene, it’ll be telling you that one of the events in this story happened. But, you know what? It’s too damn good.

One year, a bunch of us dressed up in formal costumes and broke into a private park at night. The advance team set up nocturnal stations, with glowing lights and surreal decorations and small art experiences you could discover, and musical instruments that could be played, and we all wandered through the dark garden, in our finery, coming upon these places, and it was utterly otherworldly. Extraordinary.

A small group of people among those attending had said they’d wanted to do something secret with me while we were in the garden, and I’d said sure, because I trusted them. But in the process of breaking in to the garden, I’d gotten separated, and instead of trying to find them (this was a strict “no cell phones out” event), I’d just wandered on my own. And by midnight, I hadn’t seen any of them again.

But they were still together, standing around a piano in a grove, and it was getting late, and they had plans to keep. They debated whether to fan out and search for me and then meet back in 20 minutes, or if they should just give up and catch me in more mundane circumstances.

“No,” said Robin Ziiro. “We’re going to perform a magic ritual, and summon him. Henry just learned to play ‘Hallelujah’ on the piano today: he’s going to play it on this keyboard, and we’re going to get everyone to sing it as loud as they can, and Benjamin’s just going to show up.”

That wasn’t a random choice. The night before, there had been a tribute event to Burning Man founder Larry Harvey, who had died a few months before. As part of that event, in the Castro Theater, I had sung Hallelujah, backed up by a men’s choir that only performs Leonard Cohen songs (yes, it’s hard to believe San Francisco is a real place, sometimes), to a packed house of 1,500 people. The experience had been intense, and cathartic — one of the greatest musical experiences of my life — and I’ve been associated with that song to many people in the San Francisco underground scene ever since.

The very next night, Robin was saying that the symbolic connection would have a real world effect — singing the song would have the power to bring me forth.

They tried it.

At that moment, far across the park, I was walking through the botanical display, lost in my head. And then, faintly, I heard the beginning of the song. And, swear to God, my neck snapped in the direction of the music as a tingle went down my spine and I felt a compulsion to rush over and join in the singing. I was — this is the right word — compelled.

But I said no.

No. I mean, come on, I told myself: just because someone’s singing this song doesn’t mean I have to rush over and sing it too. What is that? It’s nonsense. Irrational. No, I’m going to slowly finish the rest of my ancient plant walk, and then leave like I was going to go anyway.

The thing was, I didn’t know where the music was actually coming from, and as I finished my walk and headed towards the garden’s exit … I realized I was moving closer to it. The song was on my way out.

Well, now I had to do it! Didn’t I? Once again, I felt that strange compulsion, a clear sense that that’s where I had to be. And once again, I mentally kicked myself until I knew better. Because, really now: I didn’t write the song. I don’t own it. Other people get to sing it. Leave it alone. It’s time to go home.

I walked around a bend, and I realized that the path I was on was literally taking me right past the grove in which the large group of people were all standing around the piano singing the song.

And now I wondered: had I really just coincidentally walked right up to this, or had I subconsciously led myself over to it, not even consciously knowing where it was, because I wanted to join in?

That was ridiculous: it was on the way I would have gone even if there hadn’t been music. Even so, in that moment I really didn’t know.

But I was still not going to do it. I wanted to, but I wouldn’t. At this point this was sheer cussedness, a refusal to even consider that this song could possibly have anything to do with me. It seemed prideful, egoistic, to think that the people singing it could want me there as much as I wanted to be there. So I walked down the path, passing the clearing, and because it was dark on the path and only vaguely lit around the piano, nobody even noticed me.

The piano kept playing as I passed, but now nobody was singing. “Okay,” the piano player said, still playing. “I know this song has more words. There are more verses. Does anybody know them?” Quiet. “Does ANYBODY here know the rest of the verses?”

I stopped in my tracks. Oh, the hell with it. This was too much.

I walked into the clearing and took up one of the verses that I didn’t think they’d done. The crowd went wild — I didn’t recognize anyone yet, my eyes hadn’t adjusted, but a lot of them had apparently been at my performance of the song the other night. I was instantly not only singing the song, but leading it, and we were all in this together.

It was, on its own terms, a wonderful moment for me.

And then, when it was all over and we’d all cheered and we’d all clapped, I felt a hand on my shoulder, and turned to find Robin, and everyone I’d been supposed to see, all right here.

“Wow,” I said. “This is quite a coincidence.”

“No,” she said, “it’s not.” She explained that they had done this on purpose: cast this song as a spell specifically to summon me.

And I have never known what exactly I was feeling in those moments — was I really compelled? Why was I resisting? What the hell was actually going on? But it felt, it really felt, exactly like I had been summoned, and that no matter how much I resisted I was gradually, irresistibly, pulled in, led by either an external force that genuinely summoned me, or my subconscious mind, which tossed me in the direction of that singing, no matter what my conscious mind told me to do.

And they’d done it on purpose.

Am I seriously saying we are touched by the gods, that our souls have destinies they want us to fulfill? That the world is an enchanted place?

No, but I’m saying we experience it this way. We experience it this way at the very core of our being. There’s no use denying it.

What should we make of this? Does this mean we have to take gods and souls and destinies seriously? Or that, because of its siren call, we must reject enchantment all the harder in order to support rationalism?

In his 1969 book Love and Will, legendary existential-humanistic psychologist Rollo May (a teacher and mentor of Kirk Schneider, the San Francisco psychologist whose work I cited in the last chapter), gave what I think is probably the best description I’ve ever seen of what we are to make of the gods and demons and enchantments that our (psychological) world is full of.

We cannot take them literally, May said, because to do that is to return to superstition and lose our ability to think carefully about them.

But …

We also cannot think of them as wholly symbolic, because to do that renders them bloodless and powerless, and thus stops describing the experience of them that we actually have — wherein they are tremendously powerful, tremendously vital and alive, and tremendously real.

We have to treat them as neither literal events nor entirely psychological ones. To understand these experiences, we have to understand them as operating on multiple, sometimes contradictory, levels. Levels that come together to create an experience that is extremely powerful, even magical, offering catharsis and insight we need.

Many people have come to think that the advance of science has tamed the unconscious — that the more we’ve secularized, the more we can design our lives around rational principles that are easy and make sense, and so we can do away with the enchanted nonsense of the unconscious.

The evidence suggests that this is not how things work. The secular world is not so secular — it has just learned not to talk about its superstitions in polite company. Silicon Valley and Wall Street types who disdain the very idea of visiting a church use psychics, consult astrologers, and spend obscene amounts of money on New Age health products that have no more scientific validity than the health potions in a video game. And that’s not even including “scientific” replacements for superstition like “uploading our consciousness to the cloud,” or “the world is a simulation,” which are little more than Christian eschatology transferred over to the latest technology.

Have you been to a trans-humanist party? They are filled with people talking about the singularity in exactly the same way that kids at the YMCA summer camp I attended as a teenager talked about God. Which, not coincidentally, is how hipster atheists will also talk about the power of “art” at their parties.

However rational we get, however much we learn about the world, we do not “outgrow” the unconscious, or the way that it speaks to us in ways that seem — and perhaps even are — enchanted.

This is a given. Awe and wonder are fundamental to being human. They don’t come to everyone from the same sources, but the experience is basic to us all.

We may use scientific terms, or art school terms, or religious terms … but all of our lives are oriented in some way towards the experiences of the soulful and the enchanted.

How that plays out, not whether, is the most important question. But we start from this point: we’re not talking about magic and enchantment and the soul as literally true in the superstitious sense, but we are also not talking about them as purely symbolic metaphors. Our experience of them is very concrete and specific.

This is also the level that, over and over again, we’ll see the kind of experiences people learned to design in San Francisco operating on. Shockingly real for something so magical.

Larry Harvey with Caveat Magister at Esalen, 2015 (Photo by John Curley)

Caveat Magister is Burning Man’s Philosopher Laureate and has been writing about Burning Man culture and community for years. You can read more of his writings over on the Burning Man Journal here, and learn more about Caveat’s latest book, Turn Your Life Into Art, here.

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