6 Life Lessons I Learned at Burning Man

liberty revolution sign burning man 2009I’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.mirror art black rock city burning man 2009

16 Responses to “6 Life Lessons I Learned at Burning Man”

  1. Cherie

    Beautiful reflections 🙂 I’m so thrilled we got the opportunity to share Burning Man with you.

    Reply
  2. Nancy

    Wow. Love the post. What poignant life lessons.

    I have only recently begun to read more about Burning Man, so your post really helped to teach me more about it. It also made me want to make plans to attend the next one!

    Reply
  3. Trisha

    Burning Man is the one experience I look forward to the most each year, and most deeply regret missing on the (rare) years that something keeps me away from (like this year 🙁 )…..and yet, as you’ve discovered, it’s the most difficult thing to describe to those who have never been there.

    I think one could speak about their own experience there for hours, and a listener would still not be able to understand, as much because they are only getting one POV as the fact that any one person simply cannot see and experience it all. Even going year after year one only absorbs a tiny amount of it.

    But you’ve done an excellent job of taking away some important lessons and passing those on, so that while someone who has not been may still not understand it, but at least they can now understand what someone can get from it.

    I hope you’ll go again next year – I plan to!

    Reply
  4. Carrie

    JoAnna,

    Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts about Burning Man.I can imagine that it must be hard to write about. Something as big as this does not conform to words easily I am sure. I’m sure too that when you’ve had more time to reflect on your time in Black Rock City, there will be more creative spurts of energy and passion ensuing. I’m really happy to hear that you had such a fantastic time. Thank you!

    Reply
  5. ian

    love it! many similar thoughts struck me… especially the “why not?” the insane creatively puts the “real world” to shame…

    Reply
  6. jessiev

    what a wonderful article. i haven’t been to burning ma, but i can’t even imagine going to something to big and life-changing. YAY you!

    Reply
  7. Alanna

    I love this post…you’ve captured some great points. There’s just SO much to say, it’s hard for me to say anything at all…great post, JoAnna.

    Reply
  8. PeaceLove

    Like sex and psychedelics, Burning Man must be experienced to be understood. Beautiful post, but of course writing about burning man is like dancing about architecture; the only language of Burning Man is Burning Man. When people ask me about Burning Man I simply reply, “It’s not what you think.”

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      You’re absolutely right, PeaceLove. Burning Man is an experience that can’t honestly be conveyed through writing, photography or film. Though I tried to capture some of the essence through my personal experience, every person absolutely has to participate in it on their own terms in order to truly understand what it is.

      Reply
  9. Cassidy

    I went in ’07 & ’08 and had to miss last year. Got tix for this year in Feb 🙂 and am taking my Virgin boyfriend. I stumbled across your post and had to let you know it brought tears to my eyes. I miss “home” so much and am counting down the days till I get back. I suppose I’m a lot like the lady with the rainbow dreads you mentioned in your other post – so much more comfortable there, in my own skin. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I won’t be going to Burning Man this year, but hopefully I’ll make it again in a few years. It had such a profound affect on me that I’m still trying to take it all in … almost a whole year later!

      Reply

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