Burning Blog

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.”

In Conclusion

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.

About annhumphreys

I travel and teach hoopdance as a movement meditation. Yes, I mean meditative movement with a hula-hoop. The hoop can playfully and gently bring anyone into their embodied center and open the world of dance and creative expression. My greatest joy is to witness this blossoming in my classes and workshops. http://lineandcircle.com/
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2 Responses to Burning Blog

  1. meg says:

    enjoyed reading your blog 🙂

    perhaps the gawkers gawk because…being at Burning Man is overwhelming? i wouldn’t know – i haven’t been. but some people have trouble breaking out of their everyday, 9-to-5 life. should they not be allowed to experience Burning Man then? is Burning Man an experience only for artsy, creative types? or perhaps they gawk because while a tenet of Burning Man is inclusiveness, the Burners themselves may not act so inclusive? or that Burning Man means different things to different people? again, i have no idea.

    as someone who is not so comfortable hooping in public in my 9-to-5 life, i imagine it might be a million times more intimidating to be at Burning Man, see a whole slew of hooping legends with amazing flow and then feel like some sort of awkward human stuck firmly to the ground.

    i don’t know. i certainly didn’t mean this to come off as attacking you at all and i apologize if it feels that way. i have thought about going to Burning Man, but i have noticed a definite…elitist? attitude held by some Burners that is off-putting. as if i am not radically open or transformed or evolved enough. lots of us mundanes are deeply yearning for something more, something transformative – we just may not be very good at expressing that.

  2. annhumphreys says:

    I sincerely appreciate your words, Meg, and I believe I understand where you are coming from. My words about gawkers here have touched nerves with others, as well. I was feeling particularly raw when I wrote it, less than a week after the festival.

    Reflecting now, I don’t think I put enough effort into distilling and conveying *exactly* the type of encounter I had so many times at my last burn which made me so uncomfortable, and angry. I was in no way pointing towards eager new participants who enter into Burning Man fully, with open heart and mind. I hope my exposition here will make it clear to whom I meant to refer.

    In response, I draw from the Ten Principles of Burning Man, which are the guiding ethos of the event and shape its culture–a real, living entity that affects all who participate. Sharing this culture is what commits people to Burning Man year after year. One of the things that is most valuable to me about the phenomenon of Burning Man is its capacity to contain embodied truths which might seem too oppositional to coexist. Yet, within the sacred container of the burn, divergent truths DO coexist, peaceably. The principles I cite here express this capacity within themselves.

    First Principle: Radical Inclusion. “Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.”

    This is a simple truth. No one is *turned away* from Burning Man because they are not wearing a costume or show up at the gate without fire spinning equipment.

    Two subsequent principles identify the aspects of the spirit of Burning Man which I feel were violated by the gawkers to whom I referred in my post.

    From the Third Principle: Decommodification. “We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.”

    And the Ninth Principle: Participation. “Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.”

    When I am at Burning Man, I feel safe. I especially feel safe wearing the fun, expressive, costume clothing that might, in another context, expose me to unwelcome interest from random men. Therefore, when I am standing in the coffee line at Burning Man, and half the people around me are also in costume and sharing *with* me that safe space which I appreciate so profoundly–i.e. NOT staring at my ass and trying to catch my eye–and the other half of the people are solo middle-aged men who are blatantly *not* in costume and *are* staring at my ass, trying to catch my eye, and holding a camera, I get angry. I don’t feel safe. I feel that my opportunity for safe, fun, creative self-expression is being consumed as a commodity (for free) by random men in a manner that I have very specifically *not* consented to. I watch these men walk around Center Camp, staring at other women’s asses and exposed breasts and trying to strike up conversations with them, and I feel extremely angry not only for myself but for all the women who are hoping to comfortably avail themselves of this safe space and are now being gawked at and hit on.

    I can’t help but feel that, by hiding behind conventional clothing, cameras, attitudes and habits from what is often referred to as the “default world,” these men are not participating in Burning Man. I would welcome their participation, were they to offer it. But it is not being offered.

    I hope this clarifies what I meant. I was really talking specifically about this issue, and should have spoken about it more specifically to being with. Thank you for participating in the conversation!

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