Every year, 70,000 participants flock to Black Rock Desert in Nevada to build a temporary metropolis and society. For a week, we’d bring everything we need, eager to take part as citizens in this magical community.
Started as a bonfire ritual at Baker Beach in San Francisco in 1986 with a symbolic burning of a large wooden effigy (“the Man”), Burning Man is now a global movement in community, art, and self-expression, a celebration of life sans pareil.
Burning Man represents a gigantic playground to fully embrace elements of a life well-lived according to the Third Metric of success in Arianna Huffington’s best-seller Thrive: Well-being, Wonder, Wisdom, and Giving.
When we die, our eulogies celebrate our lives very differently from the way society defines success. It’s easy to let work take over and forget the relationships and things that truly sustain us.
One month after the burn and back in the “default world” (what we call the world outside of Burning Man and Black Rock City), I also sat down to reflect on some key lessons learned this year:
1) Wonder: life in the “here and now”
This year, we re-entered Black Rock Desert, eager to explore and play in this giant sandbox like wide-eyed children again for a week. “Welcome home!,” the dusty lady who checked our ticket at the gate yelled.
As a technologist who truly values time to get unplugged, I look forward to turning off all notifications for the whole burn week every year. There is no other place on Earth I feel more connected, human and alive. Happiness and true enjoyment come from living in the present moment.
When we occasionally stop and allow ourselves to live life fully in the present moment, we start to notice and embrace a whole new world of possibilities. Life is filled with a childlike sense of awe and wonder. Wonder refers to “our sense of delight in the mysteries of the universe, as well as the everyday occurrences and small miracles that fill our lives.”
We’d roam around on our bike, more often than not without a set destination. Biking under the 100-plus-degree scorching desert sun, I marveled at every other art sculpture out there on the “playa”. The art theme this year, “I, Robot”, was a play on the many forms of artificial intelligence that permeate our lives. The playa, means “beach” in Spanish, refers to the majestic open space that enclosed our utopian “city”, a metropolis shaped like a giant fan.
I am once again reminded of the importance of wandering around and allowing oneself to get lost in the environment, open to life’s wonders and mysteries. For Thomas Jefferson, “the object of walking is to relax the mind. You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk. But divert your attention by the objects surrounding you.”
“The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise… but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day” – Henry David Thoreau
Trust in the energy of the universe. “Live life as if everything is rigged in your favor.” (Rumi)
There is something quite special and beautiful about that magical serendipity on the playa. We bump into people we want to see without planning to. We meet strangers who became friends. Whatever we look for just magically appears. “The playa always provides,” we’d say.
2) We can create anything we imagine.
As we were biking, a dust storm or occasional “white-out” would wipe out our entire vision. And yet there was sensory overload, a sort of constant stimulation that keeps us hooked on everything we see: acrobats performing gymnastic feats on a swing, colorful costumes that play to this year’s theme “I, Robot”, the smell of grilled chicken a nearby camp is giving out, music coming from all possible directions.
Einstein once said, “physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world.”
A whole new world was built within a week. A new society emerged with its own set of rules. In this world, we can freely choose and act, limited only by the capacity of our imagination.
This empowering lesson reminds us: we can create our own reality; every day is a blank canvas, to be drawn and colored however we want to. If we are lucky, we have about 30,000 days to play the game of life. So let’s wake up every morning excited about our life, grab that paintbrush, and use all the colors and brushes to bring to life what we envision for ourselves and others.
3) The impermanence of all things
After a week, we pack up and leave Black Rock City with nothing left behind, not unlike the impermanent nature of all things. “Leave no trace” is one of Burning Man’s 10 key principles. In the end, everything at Black Rock City returns to dust.
In Thrive, Arianna Huffington discussed the importance of “death” in living a successful life. “Without ‘dead’ there is no alive. The fact that our time is limited is what makes it so precious.”
Life is ultimately very short, and everything we do counts. We should strive to enjoy every moment as much as we can.
4) Communal effort: Gifting, generosity & kindness of others
In this de-commodified society, gifting becomes the norm.
There is no money at Burning Man. And no, it does not run on a “barter” system. Instead, we experience the generosity and kindness of others. “Gifting”, “communal effort” and “participation” are three of the 10 key principles at Burning Man.
I was biking around one day, and within the span of a few hours, had bacon and eggs for breakfast, a massage and steam bath to decompress after a crazy night out that ended on the art car Robo Heart, attended workshops on energy healing and “how to design the future”, all provided for and by citizens of Black Rock City.
Amid the scorching desert heat and freezing cold, these authentic human connections keep us warm and alive. It is easy to get lost; we sometimes experience the kindness and generosity of strangers who invite us in for a cup of tea, some food, or simply a much needed long embrace.
Amid the scorching desert heat and freezing cold, these authentic human connections keep us warm and alive.
A key element in the Third Metric of success has always been the willingness to give of ourselves, prompted by empathy and compassion. Burning Man gives us an opportunity to redefine and completely create a new society we want to live in, one where we are kind, generous and empathetic to one another.
5) “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless.”
The Temple has always held cosmological importance in Black Rock City and our shared Burning Man culture. It is a special place for healing, sharing emotional experiences, and connecting deeply with one’s own self and other burners. The temple burns on Sunday night.
The Temple, a beautiful swirling structure named Galaxia this year, has a kind of magnetic energy that grips us the moment we walk inside and leaves us in utter awe. It reflects “the mad masquerade and joy of our community” but with “sacredness, solemnity, a sense of remembrance, grief, and renewal” (Burning Man, Building the Temple).
The symbolic burning ritual means different things for Burning Man participants. For me, this year’s burn signifies the death of several old relationships. I went to the Temple earlier in the week to write letters and put down objects of remembrance. A solemn mood enveloped the Temple: folks were chanting and sitting in silence in honor of the departed.
When someone wrongs us, it is our natural tendency to blame. The Temple was thus the perfect place to let go and forgive ourselves and others. There is nothing more draining than holding grudges. A wise artist there told me, “Learn to absorb what is useful, and discard what is useless. We do that all the time with physical things, but not enough with the space in our mind. Let it go. Live life light.”
What pearl of wisdom! Once a year, participants look forward to this symbolic burning ritual as a fresh new start, ready to take on new bold endeavors for the year.
At Burning Man, every sunrise and sunset becomes a celebrated phenomenon, a festival of its own. We’d count down, clap and cheer triumphantly as the sun rises, and howl collectively (yes, howl!) at the exact moment the sun goes down. We dance to music late into the night to celebrate life. Every single day is quite literally a cause for celebration.
How can we bring the same sense of wonder and gratitude into our daily lives: to wake up every day – fully charged and invigorated to do what makes us come alive most, to keep pressing on – even when the going gets tough?
I found the “ten finger gratitude exercises” by Oxford clinical psychologist Mark Williams to do wonders. In this daily exercise, you list 10 things you are grateful for and count them out on your fingers. Gratitude is proven to lower stress, and give us a greater sense of calm, empathy and compassion toward others.
“Everything contains some special purpose and a hidden blessing; what then could be strange or arduous when all of life is here to greet you like an old and faithful friend?”
~ Marcus Aurelius
7) Well-being: meditation & nature
I recently discovered the 6-Phase Meditation by MindValley, which covers gratitude, forgiveness and powerful visualization techniques, all in 15 minutes. Having tried many forms of meditation for years, I found this to be a very effective way to start the day.
I started to integrate moments of mindfulness into my daily life. I’d take the East River ferry to work instead of the subway in order to enjoy the Manhattan skyline (to my surprise, the ferry is just as fast, if not faster sometimes). Fall is my favorite season to enjoy long, meditative walks in New York. I started to take more trips upstate to Hudson Valley just to revel in the beautiful autumn foliage.
Arianna Huffington affirmed in Thrive: when we die, our eulogies celebrate our lives very differently from the way society defines success. It’s easy to let work take over and to forget the relationships and things that truly sustain us.
“It’s easy, in effect, to miss the real point of our lives even as we’re living them”. – Arianna Huffington.
Drop me a line here if you enjoy the piece. Or maybe, see you in the dust.