burning questions

Since coming back from my first trip to Burning Man, I’ve been turning over some questions in my mind. Well, not some questions, just one question, or rather multiple angles on a single question, trying to get to the heart of the matter like an artist’s chisel biting through stone to find the sculpture within. The question I started with was, What do you do with the problem of Burning Man?

And what’s the problem of Burning Man? That you have to come back, is the facile answer. Re-entry into “default world” is a problem. You spend a week in the desert without a lot of structure or societal expectations, immersed in humanity with good will and open spirits. There is some kind of magic in the desert, there is every kind of magic in the desert. And then you have to return “home” and face a world with a lot of structure and without a lot of humanity. This is such a problem that a common reaction is to reverse the concept of home, so that a return to the desert every year results in a resounding call of “Welcome home!”

Home is where the heart is, so I can understand why people would call a place home if it’s where their hearts are most alive. But your heart is always with you – if it’s not, you’re not alive, and I mean this figuratively although it’s literally true – so if you’re not at home wherever you are, this is literally (and now I mean figuratively) a mortal problem.

I would restate the Problem of Burning Man as a problem of dust. In the desert, the dust is everywhere, it covers everything, seeps into every crevice, covers you, envelops you, surrounds you and blinds you. The dust is everywhere and it doesn’t matter. What matters is the experience you’re having, the openness of your heart and largeness of your spirit, the humanity around you and within you.

And in the real world, you don’t see the dust. But the humanity that you now know exists is completely buried under vast layers of societal structure, expectations, obligations, fears and neuroses. These are layers of dust that matter more than anything else, for they prevent you from reaching the things that truly should matter most of all. In the desert, the dust is everywhere, highly visible and yet it doesn’t matter, while in the real world, the dust is everywhere, invisible and seems like the only thing that does matter.

So the Problem of Burning Man is not that you have to go home, or that you have to figure out what’s worth calling “home,” but that wherever you go, the humanity that you discovered in the desert is actually there as well, but covered in dust that you can’t see and so can’t ignore.

What do you do with this Problem? Some people opt out of the life they were living, quit their jobs, leave their lovers, hit the road. Some devote their lives to digging through the dust, joining non-profits, humanitarian missions, trying to dig through the vast invisible desert to find the humanity underneath. Some descend into cynicism and escapism, hating the world they live in while waiting only for a return to the desert.

For me, I’ve enjoyed carving out this problem with my dull chisel and a few blows of a heavy hammer. I’ll probably continue to work on it, wielding increasingly sharper tools and refined motions. Once it’s carved into a delicate figurine, I’ll have to decide whether to toss it into a dark closet, or put it up on the shelf, or carry it around in my pocket, or swallow it whole and make it forever a part of me.

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6 thoughts on “burning questions

  1. The answer how to reconcile experiencing the beauty of free expression with being confronted with the daunting task to solve huge problems in society = maybe a little virtual world could help that you may know – a bit of cross-cultural collaboration, deep engagement across ethnic, gender and age boundaries and becoming a better person in the process. Sorry for these convoluted sentences, English is not my native language and I tend to translate the German in my head hahaha. Anyhow – thank you for being there at the inception of the world which I and many others still love a lot and shape every day! Greetings from Hamburg with the latest look at creativity: MAchinima in SL = http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zVSGu8MCe8

    • On my first day on the playa, I was riding around with a friend, who was absolutely blown away by the amazing sights and sounds. He turned to me and asked, “Have you ever seen anything like this?” It was supposed to be a rhetorical question. But I had seen it before, I’d seen the creativity that comes from unencumbered souls striving to weave their dreams into reality.

      And so I replied, “Yes, I’ve seen this before. In Second Life.”

      Sometimes I think Second Life was Philip’s answer to the Problem of Burning Man. I’ve never asked him; perhaps I will.

  2. For reasons that I’ve not yet fully understood, I found the time watching Ginsu experience Burning Man to be as happy a time as I’ve experienced in my already happy life.

    This is a beautiful and such a powerful observation that we each (all of us who are moved by it) must in some way make sense of this message – that ALL the world MUST at it’s core be this way. So… what do we do? What action do me / must we take if we “really understand” this message?

    When I first went to the playa in ’99, the software/design/thinking around Second Life was already underway. But when I saw the strange and positive impact that the experience had on us all, I was very happy that Second Life might hopefully have a similar feeling. I think maybe that Second Life is a slower and more nuanced way of coming to the same place that Burning Man brings you to in one awe-inspiring, sleepless, 24-hour-or-so moment.

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  4. This post really struck a chord with me – I’ve never been to BM, but having done a few thru-hikes over the years and I can understand the issues of re-emergence into society. Experiencing lengthy periods of adventure and moments of magic with dust and dirt covered humans of all ages and societal class, sharing organic “EST” moments of total honesty, and making your home whever you happen to find yourself tend to reshape a person. I remember returning back home to my “real life” and blowing job opportunities by answering my prospective employers questions with straightforward, unguarded, but inappropriately honest answers. I didn’t see the same wonderful connection in their eyes that I had seen reflected back at me from people in my “trail life”. I would eventually find a new job, then after a year or two the old familiar itch would creep in to take off into another hike, another escapist adventure. Upon returning, my Zen-like tranquility and unadulterated love for others would last for a month or so, then the anxieties and annoyances of the “real world” would start to creep in again. At this point in my life, the opportunity to take off for six months at a clip is no longer an option, so I strive to maintain that appreciation and clarity of the moment, and compassion for other humans I bump into every day. Interesting blog by the way- keep it up!

    • Thanks Tom. I’ve been “inappropriately honest” at work for a long time. It probably limits the number of people who are comfortable working with me, but I think that’s a small price to pay for being able to be a fully integrated personality – i.e. basically the same person in any context, not having to pretend you’re someone you’re not to anybody. I’m not always successful in being that person, but I think it’s worth trying.

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