How the alchemy of Burning Man succeeds in changing lives. The cohesive, counterculture event, which encourages radical self-expression, produces an energy to overcome your inertia preventing you changing – perfect for kickstarting that new bit of life and energy into your life in the New Year
Defining the undefinable
Although Burning Man is beyond definition Kristen gets some way there. For her, it is “a week-long temporary community based on radical self-expression, creativity, survival and sharing” that “attracts a unique community of artists, performers and free spirits” with an emphasis on collaboration, cooperation and shared experience. It is hosted in a dramatic, dusty lakebed hours from civilisation in the Nevada desert – it is completely built, then taken apart each year by 65,000 people. There are 10 principles penned by Burning Man’s co-founder reflecting its culture: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy.
More important than a definition and principles is to know what it is like to live and feel these transformative experiences. From sitting in the expanse of the desert to experience we are all connected, to listening to a DJ who wants you to experience God through music. Others watched the sunset in the middle of a crowded, dusty dance floor whilst I chose to explore peoples’ career dreams. Burning Man proved to be more transformative than I ever could have imagined.
We have take off
As a temporary experiment to create an experience of caring and profound human contact, Burning Man provides a place to escape reality, be creative and dream. This explains why Silicon Valley’s tech elite come to the event including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Eric Schmidt and Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos.
It was the festival that gave Casey Fenton the inspiration for his global website Couchsurfing, now the world’s largest travel community which helps locals host travellers in their homes and explore their cities afresh. “It was going to Burning Man and seeing regular people really going for their dream,” says Fenton, who attended his first festival at the age of 21 and has returned regularly over the past 15 years. “I left thinking I could do something. It’s a really, really inspiring place.”
Burning Man gives us what we need along our journey helping us understand who we are, start to make change as we start doing new things, interact with different people that inspire us and reinterpret our life stories through the lens of the emerging possibilities.
Martin Seligman, a professor in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the father of positive psychology, identifies three different possible orientations to happiness: pleasure (short term experience), engagement (often medium term projects) , and meaning (long term stuff). Burning Man is a playground of experience where we can get back in touch with the experience of pleasure and engagement, and remember again those things in our lives that give us this. If we’re lucky we’ll meet great people to have reflective talks about ourselves and what we really care about too.
Experimentation and individualism
I went to Burning Man as part of The Live Your Dream Campaign. I wanted to realise the dreams of people nurtured by the culture of Burning Man that lift the human spirit, address social problems
and inspire a sense of community and cultural engagement. I explored peoples’ dreams through coaching conversations, then asked each person to write down their dream on a postcard and then take a picture of them with this. I then emailed them this to remind them and hold them accountable to realising their dream in the upcoming year, along with individual coaching and emails to keep them on track.
For me, like many others, Burning Man inspires participants, invokes deep thought about what you are bringing to the playa (the name for the dusty lakebed that it takes place on) and the world, and provides opportunities to try new ideas in a safe format. It gives people permission to experiment and think of possibilities that they may never have been able to do before.
Here you can take the first steps towards your dream. People show up and leave behind anxiety, fear and uncertainty. Rank, education, status and red tape hold no one back here. All feel free to follow their interests and experiment. Rapid feedback from the supportive 65,000 strong community will quickly tell you whether your idea will work and, more importantly, whether you’re willing to invest the time and energy to realise your dream after Burning Man.
Community and new networks
Forget networking meetings. Burning Man provides an incredible opportunity to explore your interests with like-minded people. Ironically, the community emerges through the celebration of individualism: it’s the sheer brilliance of peoples’ ideas, creativity and imagination that are inspiring for so many.
Connectedness is present in the willingness and desire to help, to share and to contribute. The acceptance makes this a safe place to try out new ideas. Whether it is helping the neighbour build an art installation, inviting a passerby for dinner or simply giving a hug, the community is a connected and cohesive but arbitrary group. The harsh conditions of extreme temperatures and ‘white out’ dust storms, combined with radical self-reliance (you carry in all your water, food and shelter for the week into a completely decommodified community where you can’t buy anything) certainly amplify this connectedness. The experience often forges strong relationships, which endure past the festival to help participants cultivate a new network of like-minded, creative individuals in the months and years to come.
Serendipitous learning is not uncommon on the playa. I learnt greatly from dance, voice and healing specialists that will enhance my practice immensely. There are literally 1000’s of experts bringing a huge resource of knowledge and skills and know-how just because they want to.
Make sense of our new identity
In the days and weeks following Burning Man, participants can pursue the identity they’ve experimented with over the week. People pursue authenticity in their workplaces and neighbourhoods. Some consider Burning Man’s countercultural principles and activities a decommodified haven from conventional society where deeper authenticity can be sought. Peoples’ openness and sharing is said to parallel the intimacy that arises from long-term relationships with people whom you don’t feel as if you have to put on a show, but can simply be yourself. The identities people try on at Burning Man and the values that they act in accordance with are all the more profound. People who are at an impasse in their lives can find the beginnings of solutions at Burning Man and they can quickly shed their former identity, even ones as entrenched as being a lawyer, banker or other high-paying, high prestige jobs. When the statue of the Man burns on Saturday, everyone is encouraged to let go of whatever they need to and let it burn. What a burn it is too!
I’m already looking forward to more creativity and connectedness next year – I hope you can make it!