When people ask me what it’s like at Burning Man, I tell them that it’s impossible to describe because it’s so many things. And because I couldn’t possibly predict what their experience would be like. And because it’s always changing. I tell them it can be everything from a non-stop dance frenzy to a chance to connect on a deep spiritual level with yourself and others to a mind-blowing art show to a weird carnival-like ride of unpredictability. You can spend the week anywhere on the spectrum from totally sober to decidedly not. You can stay in one place under the shade and watch a mad cast of characters pass by or you can be in constant motion pedaling across the desert sparking little happenings everywhere you go. The only thing I can guarantee is that you will be dusty. And I expect that something will surprise you.
I find my answer to be informative, intriguing and somewhat unsatisfying. It’s the best I can do.
It still doesn’t answer why I go. For that, I want to share with you one of my highlights from this year, the kind of experience that is rare in the regular world but which I think should happen all the time. As you read this, know that I was completely sober, sipping nothing but water all day.
It was late in the week and I was off on my own. I left my campmates to go dance outside to Random Rab while the wind was blowing (I happen to love immersing myself in the elements). Afterwards, I rode around a bit, bumping into some friends by chance and purposefully visiting others. When I heard a good friend of mine had gone to Center Camp, I decided to try to find him there.
I walked into the large tent that surrounds the social heart of Burning Man, taking in the high energy of the mass of people, such a contrast to the majority of my rather quiet, connected day. I knew before arriving that I had a slim chance of finding my friend and had decided to try simply as the Next Thing To Do, unconcerned if it didn’t happen. (Writing that makes me think of Winnie the Pooh, which then makes me think that the Tao of Pooh will be on my list of required reading for all future Burning Man newbies).
Center Camp is designed in concentric rings, with a large central open area for active gatherings/performances (e.g., hula hooping, contact dance, the marching band competition), a wide band containing clusters of seating areas and art displays, and an outer ring with performance stages and the all-important cafe (selling one of only two things allowed to be sold on the playa, the other being ice).
Center Camp was really busy, which I guessed was because it was windy. Truth is, I don’t usually spend much time there so perhaps it’s always that busy in the daytime. I wouldn’t know. That day, being in the midst of all that activity felt novel and fun.
I walked around the circle in jagged path, looking for my friend and seeing no one that I knew. Just before I was going to head out to pick up my bike and continue my journey, I saw a man standing shirtless near one of the stages painting his own arm. He had a Burning Man symbol airbrushed on his bicep and was augmenting it with bright colors in acrylic paint. Since he couldn’t reach the back of his arm, it looked naked, neglected.
I stopped and asked if he wanted me to paint the back of his arm.
He looked up and I saw he had a beautiful face with bright eyes ringed in glitter. His smile was filled with light and needed no augmentation. He said yes, he would love it if I could add some paint, that he wanted more. By luck or perfection he had a second small paintbrush sitting on the paper plate he was using as a palette. I picked it up, chose one of the primary colors and began to decorate his skin.
At first I didn’t know what I would add, but just started and soon began to feel his gracefulness and decided to bring that out with flowing shapes. After a short while, he said “we’re running out of paint” and asked if I would stay there while he went to retrieve more. Yes, gladly. While he was gone, a woman began to sing on the stage, accompanied by a man on acoustic guitar. She said that usually they have a 7-piece band and were expecting their drummer to be there and they hoped that he was ok and not lost out there in the dust. They sounded beautiful.
When the man, my canvas, returned, he had more colors and a new brush for me. It was 1/2″ wide and flat and wonderful. I asked if I could paint his back and he pretty much glowed yes. (I should be honest here and acknowledge that I have thing for backs and his was particularly beautiful, being muscular and wonderfully smooth). I spent I don’t know how long loving his back with my brush. I didn’t think about a design. I felt what I should paint. We would take breaks to dance to the music (now accompanied by the drummer who had arrived safely, “without his drums but with his mouth,” and was beatboxing his way through some fabulous tunes) and cheer our appreciation with our applause. When a woman and her child came by we turned to chat and coo and delight in – well – delight. At some point we exchanged names. And we continued to paint.
I was blending colors in a way I never had before (I’m not a painter) and they were beautiful. I was exploring this brush that was new to me and savoring its possibilities. I found that this man’s spine wanted to be brought out through geometric shapes. As I moved my brush over his shoulders, I discovered that I was painting shapes that turned into feathers. I told him this surprised me and he told me that what surprised him is that I would know that feathers were perfect for him.
A woman came up and asked if there was a line, if I would paint her, too. A cluster of older men came up to take photos of the work and just enjoy our giddiness.
As I was feeling his back was complete, we were running out of paint. I was filled with sensation. I had just had the most intimate experience of my week, and loved that it happened standing in the middle of the busiest place on the playa. I had disappeared out of my head and into my body, flowing with an outpouring of creativity, tapping into a place that needed to be released, giving this man the gift of my attention in a way that celebrated him and that he could carry forth.
It turned out that this was his first year at Burning Man and he had only been there a day or two. He was one of those who felt like he belonged there, living in flow and beauty. To top off a moment that needed nothing else, he pulled out a book of Rumi poems from his pack and read one at random to me just before he left. It felt like the perfect close to our time together. He then closed the book, dropped it in his pack and drifted out into the crowd. I returned to my camp aglow in the feeling that I had the experience that I had been wanting, the feeling of giving and creating that lifts me outside of myself and makes me fill with light. I felt full. Happy. Expanded.
That, my friends, is an example of the kind of thing that can happen at Burning Man. My hope is that we can all experience that kind of connection-without-expectation, that kind of creative flow removed from the constraints of time. My hope is that there’s a way to find this in our regular world, that it doesn’t require the creation of a temporary city of 50,000 people in the middle of a desert, doesn’t require being pushed that hard by the elements in order to let go of our usual internal checks and hesitancies. Until we get to that point, though, it’s a great place to practice.