Still on a wildly distorted schedule on this 3rd day of re-entry following my fourth year in a row attending the Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, NV.
Even calling Burning Man an ‘event’ or ‘festival’ immediately throws you off-track, if your intent is to understand Burning Man without attending. In fact, I would submit that it can take some of us (in particular those of a more Victorian background) a few or even several burns to really understand and participate fully in it. Every year the burn has been and meant completely different things to me. This year, I saw with greater clarity that the burn is an event that occurs within the individual. (** I’ve never liked the word ‘individual’ due to its overuse in law-enforcement contexts, but we’ll put that aside for now and just appreciate its capacity to make a useful designation in this case **)
Fittingly, I read the final pages of Jung’s memoir, “Memories, Dreams, and Reflections,” on the plane home, and in this sort of ars vivendi he strongly emphasizes the need for each individual consciousness to experience its own illimitable nature. He discusses at length the many impediments to experiencing the full mystery of the psyche, first among them being the conscious mind’s need for truths to fit into a sensible frame in which there is no contradiction. To Jung’s (singularly vast and richly informed) understanding, this is the endless stumbling block we find ourselves stuck on over and over again. Because to look dispassionately and without judgment at what *is* will never reveal a portrait that makes sense on a human scale.
Jung felt that symbol alone possesses the power to reconcile the brutally divergent truths that make up our lives. His lifetime of study brought him to the belief that “archetypes…are pre-existent to consciousness and condition it,” and therefore “do not in any sense represent things as they are, but rather the forms in which things can be perceived and conceived.” As Jung saw it–and I hereby disclaim my lay status in daring to assert and comment on Jung’s views–the human psyche may only achieve some semblance of wholeness and peace through direct assimilation of conflicting truth through symbol. Which brings us back to the burn.
Burning Man is, among other things, an immersion in symbol, archetype, and myth. The landscape you are accustomed to living in is stripped down to a huge bowl full of hot (then cold) white dust. In this crucible you are set completely free to explore what comes up when you release your habitual identity, daily schedule, & familiar context and plunge headlong into an inexhaustible cornucopia of art and play.
Another essential feature of this landscape is that many rules and taboos of ‘the default world’–as it is very semi-affectionately called among burners–are suspended, allowing what my friend Ferol Humphrey calls “the wildness” to come out and play. The necessity of allowing the wildness to take hold impressed me deeply this year, literally on a physiological level. I could recognize in many fellow burners–as well as, in some, fail to recognize–the almost rag-doll-like relaxation in the human body which has arrived into the radical present and is there to receive what is. The body language of someone who has not yet understood how to burn still stands held at a particular angle towards what is expected to happen–often, some kind of disappointment is anticipated, because something in particular is desired. I found myself thrown back into this habitual response from time to time. Looking towards a stretch of time as a surface meant to receive the imposition of my idea. I would often tune into the fact that this was happening through how my body felt. Was I stiffly leaning into the next moment, looking for the illusion of what I wanted so badly? Or was my body supple, pliant, and yielding to the moment, deeply trusting its instinct to adapt and flow with what is?
I cannot comment on this burn without taking note of my particularly strong feelings with regard to gawkers, also known as tourists. Despite the 10th Principle of Radical Inclusion (everyone is welcome at Burning Man regardless. Regardless.) to me, gawkers are not burners. A gawker is someone who comes to Burning Man and brings intact his (or, very occasionally, her) default personality, clothing, expectations, and desires. And watches.
A burner comes to Burning Man to participate. To burn. To be of, to co-create, to allow that which has been disallowed, to follow the elusive, to surrender to what cannot be understood. To burn is to radically share an act of community, trust, humility, curiosity, and belief on an unimaginable scale. At the burn, some of the deepest dreams see the light of day and feel the breath of life for the first time. By consenting to burn myself, I co-create a safe space in which others might take that journey. I do not impose the margin of the observer between myself and my fellow burners. I do not stand apart and watch.
When I am looking at sculpture, dance, play, and experiential art on the playa, I am an active witness to the emergence of creative energy through the human form. Though I can see that my very stance towards this subject is defined by a resistance to what is (and therefore abandons the very values I have come to associate with Burning Man–as Jung says, “How can anyone live without inconsistency?”) I am driven to express how uncomfortable the gawking at this year’s burn made me. I have never before felt such a powerful discomfort around this. I wondered if there were literally more of them this year. Impossible to know. I don’t know what approach I will take regarding gawking from this point forward, but I know I felt a lot of anger. “Hello. *I* stayed up nights sewing this costume by hand. What did YOU do?” “So, did you come to the burn to open yourself to radical transformation? BECAUSE THE REST OF US DID.”
Not really. I haven’t come to a conclusion at all. The experience is still opening as it falls around me like a meteor shower. I stand among the rain of memories, blazing bright.