Going in to Burning Man earlier this month, I had no idea what was in store for me. I figured this was good, as everything I read said “don’t go in with any expectations, and you won’t be disappointed.” I did my fair share of article-reading and video-watching for tips to be prepared for a week without plumbing, electricity, cell phones or grocery stores. I panned through pictures of lights, art, people, and dust, everywhere. I read about managing relationships, hydration levels, nutrition, and above all: my sanity. Hours of preparation were put in, yet my notions of what was on the horizon were all blasted apart the moment we arrived on the playa.
Since I live on the East Coast, a trip to the Burn is not a common occurrence among my acquaintances. Once we were back, everyone wanted to know my opinion on the experience. I definitely had the feeling that most people who asked had a preconceived notion of what Burning Man is, and the type of people who attend. In these conversations, I found it very difficult to express my thoughts on the week I had spent in the desert. The summary of my time is so much more of an internal shifting than a chain of memories, and how do you explain that to someone?
I could definitely write extensively about what happened to me that week: the sights, sounds, and smells; the people I met, hugged, high-fived, and waved to; the art and technology I enjoyed and took part in; the wind-storms and intense sun I endured; and on and on and on. I’ll keep that rundown for my journal, and instead share what happened within me.
I have returned from the Burn with: a renewed sense of creativity and wonder
I did not even realize that I was missing art in my life. Teaching and practicing yoga is my main creative outlet in the ‘default world’. My creativity started to build prior to the week in Black Rock City in a few ways. Burning Man is a hotbed of self-expression, so I put in some hours brainstorming outfits that would bring out my personality. There was also time pondering possible gifts to share with old and new friends.
Once on the playa, the creative capacity of the human race was revealed to me on an enormous scale. I experienced art as an invitation for thought and introspection, as an outlet for pain, as a method of helping others to connect, and as an expression of love. Art is so much more than drawings, sculpture, and lights. It is a way of trying to explain the experiences and emotions that come from an often complicated and confusing life. I started to see the whole journey of life as a blank canvas, just waiting to be sketched, painted, crumpled up, and put back together in a new way.
Life does not have to be taken so seriously. You can play, experiment, make mistakes; it’s all beautiful, and it’s all art.
I have returned from the Burn with: the desire to strengthen my connections with others, and form a community
The community created during the week of the Burn reminds me of a quote from Bruce Lipton’s book The Biology of Belief. This temporary city is a prime example of a group of “like-minded people who are working toward advancing human civilization by realizing that Survival of the Most Loving is the only ethic that will ensure not only a healthy personal life but also a healthy planet”.
Prior to Burning Man, I had been in denial about how closed off I had become to the outside world. My life was a revolving door of schoolwork, planning yoga classes, teaching yoga classes, and sitting at home with the husband. While I have a lot of love to share, I have been keeping it to myself. This has been going on for YEARS. I attribute the phenomena almost entirely to my discomfort in conversations (more on that later), and my desire to stay in my comfort zone.
The openness and welcoming I felt at Burning Man blew me away. There was not a single time (unless is was self-imposed) where I felt like I did not belong. The love between new friends, old friends, and strangers was exhilarating. This was a love not expecting anything in return. It was a love aimed at helping each other survive and thrive for a week. Living in the South, Northeast, and now by the nation’s capital, I have rarely witnessed this level of connection between a group of seemingly unconnected people. There is always some amount of tension or dissension. I now see what an amazing world we could create if we only learned to work together instead of competing to get to the top.
I have returned from the Burn with: a new comfort in myself
While I tried not to have expectations for the week, I did have some hopes. One wish was to find a way to finally allow myself to be me around everyone I meet (basically the premise behind Atman Unleashed). A few months ago, after I started meditating again, I spent some time looking back at my behavior in social situations. I realized that I tend to spend a lot of time observing other people interacting. I analyze the interactions people have with each other or within a group, and then mold my subsequent interactions with them in a way that I think will be most ‘pleasing’ (i.e. what will make them like me?). This requires subtle changes in my personality and energy, and quickly eats away at my vitality. Because of the effort required, I would often just stay in observation mode and avoid the bother of deciding who I needed to be. I had accepted the futility of this mode of action, but had not yet found a way to step away from shape-shifting attempts and embrace authenticity.
I am (incredibly) happy to say, I have arrived. Stepping completely out of my normal world and coming ‘home’ was just what I needed. No due dates, class plans, emails, or blog posts. Just good ole communion with self, others, and nature. The transition was far from instantaneous. There were rough periods sprinkled throughout the week. While I pretty much immediately felt comfortable going out on my bike on my own, and relished in the freedom, I could not bring myself to enter any camps for the first couple of days. I was still holding on to my fear. I broke down a few days into the week, and spent 20 hours inside our yurt; no food, no water, no trips to the bathroom. I would wake up off and on, and find myself still crying, unable to find any will to walk outside. Alonzo finally managed to get me up from hibernation, and we watched the sunrise near an abandoned art installation on the playa.
I was numb. I couldn’t even tell you what I was thinking, or what was causing the low. Looking back now, I think it was the realization that I was still holding back in a place where literally ANYTHING goes; you can be anyone you want, and you will still be loved. If I still maintained stringent control here, where was the hope that I could let go back in society?
Finally, I agreed to cheer up; and I just did it. I took a breath, slapped a smile on my face (artificial at first), and went on a walk to get coffee, collecting MOOP along the way. The nagging melancholy slowly started to disintegrate. I stopped being concerned with perceptions, and started viewing the world as it was. Living in the present, not in the past or future. This is something I preach daily to Alonzo and to students in my yoga classes, and I finally managed to follow my own advice.
My smile became real again, and I shared it with everyone I saw. I laughed, I loved, I bathed, and I weathered a few more storms (internal and external). The challenge of facing such an extreme physical environment, coupled with being so far outside the comfort zone of my living room, drew me out of my shell. I realized I had spent the first half of the week letting fear get in the way of my experience; just as I had let fear dominate the last decade of my life. Finally, I was over it. By the end of the week, while I still found myself on the outside looking in from time to time, I discovered that now it was done out of an enjoyment of watching others connect, rather than in an attempt to choose my own next steps or statements.
It sounds crazy, it sounds unreal. At times I still don’t even believe it myself. But I am changed. Something false in me burned away that week, while my truest self started to bloom. I know challenges will continue to arise in life, and there is plenty left for me to work on, but I have access to a level of peace now that was previously deeply buried.
To everyone who ventured out to the playa with me, I have infinite love for you. To anyone struggling to embrace life instead of hiding away: I feel you, I see you, and I swear the fight is worth it. For me it took a week of burning sun, whipping wind, intense isolation, and deep communion. I sank to one of my lowest points, unsure if I would ever escape. In the end, I rose higher than every before, and I’m liking the view from up here.