I’ve been home from Burning Man for almost two weeks. As I’ve decompressed and eased my way back into the “default” world, the people who I’ve found to be walking common ground are other burners who have also been readjusting to the lives we left behind before venturing into Black Rock City in northern Nevada. Some feel lonely and others frustrated or upset. Some have embraced a new direction in life. The readjustment process is not unlike what many Peace Corps volunteers experience when they return home from service. Just as two years of service in a developing nation can never be summed up in a single conversation, neither can Burning Man.
I’ve read articles and essays, looked at pictures and watched videos of this year’s Burning Man event, but none of them truly captures the spirit of Black Rock City. People keep asking me to tell them about Burning Man, but I’m not quite sure what they are asking. Everyone who attends Burning Man experiences something significantly different than everyone else. While we all share the same living space for a week, every experience is intensely personal and profound—and for many of us, it is life-changing as well.
So while I can’t draw a pretty picture of what Burning Man is and I can’t speak for any other burners, I can share the following with you. Here are six life lessons I learned at Burning Man.
1. No perimeters define creativity, beauty or art.
Nowhere else have I experienced such a concentration of such spectacular surroundings. Burning Man is an expression of passion. People are real. At first I felt like I was watching a parade of outrageous costumes, but then I realized that burners just are. People are decked out in fur, feathers, leather, wings, masks, wigs, lingerie, lace or nothing at all because they want to and they can … and because they are comfortable doing so. I overheard a middle-aged woman with beautiful rainbow-colored dreads say that “out there” she is considered a weirdo, but at Burning Man she can be herself.
Despite the fantastic clothing and stunning tattoos that I saw, I realized that the real beauty of burners comes from within. It may sound cheesy, but there is nothing they won’t give. People are generous and open on a level I’ve never experienced. Like the people, Burning Man’s art ranges from fantastic and functional installations to simple, subtle pieces. When viewed in the context of an environment of open expression, everything is multi-dimensional. People invest incredible amounts of time and effort to construct the installations and art cars on the playa, and in return, people who view them are welcome to share in their creative passion.
2. Community is real. Burning Man is probably not sustainable in the long run, but for a single week, the true definition of community comes to life. People give and receive with graciousness. They take the time to get to know each other. They help each other. They share bikes, clothing and food. And many times, these exchanges happen between complete strangers.
3. Never say never. If I hadn’t seen it before, I feel like I’ve seen it now. If it can be done in the harsh environment of Black Rock City, I am convinced it can be done anywhere. Both good and bad (as defined by our society) happens at Burning Man, and I witnessed only a tiny fraction of it. If people believe they can do something and they are set on doing it, they absolutely can do it.
4. Experiences are created from pieces. Burning Man in and of itself does not define my experience there. Every element that came together during that week—the people, the conversations, the camaraderie, the challenges, the opportunities—defined my comprehensive experience. Likewise, no one thing in the default world can define an experience. A number of elements—the time of day, our surroundings, our emotions, our pre-conceived notions—create an experience. If something isn’t working, I’ve learned to change just one or two things about the moment and suddenly I’m empowered to control the experience.
5. Ask why not. I’ve gotten so used to asking why I should do something that it never dawned on me to ask “why not?” The default world defines our confines, and I’ve come to live within that space and stopped questioning anything beyond that comfortable area at some point in my life. Early in the week, I was faced with completely harmless situations at Burning Man that I immediately questioned. By the middle of the week, I began to view the same situations in a different light—instead of asking myself for validation I gave myself the freedom to do what was comfortable, safe and right for me and in the process realized that allowing myself to ask “why not” opened up many doors I had closed on myself.
6. The only person holding me back is me. In light of my “why not” discovery, I realized I hold the power over me. I have to let myself feel raw emotions. I have to let myself take chances. I have to be the person who determines how hard I’m willing to work toward something. Luck plays a small part in life, but for the most part, the only person holding me back is me. If that discovery doesn’t empower change, I don’t know what can.