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Burning Man: Growing a Conscious Community

9/16/2009 12:00:00 AM

Tags: Burning Man

For more than a decade, I’ve wanted to participate in Burning Man, a weeklong Leave No Trace arts festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert that comprises the world’s largest temporary community (and, for one week, the third largest city in Nevada). This year, I became a Burner—with renewed faith in what can be accomplished within community.

Burning Man is a huge experiment in radical self-reliance, radical self-expression and a gift economy—all of which combine, as Jay Michaelson points out on Huffington Post, to create “an ideal place for self-reflection and self-transformation.” The Burning Man mission is “to generate society that connects each individual to his or her creative powers, to participation in community, to the larger realm of civic life, and to the even greater world of nature that exists beyond society.” 

burning man sculpture
A massive human figure sculpture by Dan Das Mann and crew is made from metal scraps, nuts and bolts. 

During the week, a dried-up lakebed known as “the playa” became home to a vibrant, thriving community of 42,000 people in which every individual is responsible for his or her own survival. No money changes hands during Burning Man; there are only gifts—amazing, unthinkably generous gifts. One day we ate grilled tuna, offered up by Alaskan fishermen who had caught it the day before; every morning we ate pancakes provided by a nearby camp and drank coffee served up to the entire community by our campmates. We danced to the beats of celebrity D.J.s, who were there just because. We prepared a candlelight dinner for 45 people using only a grill, with garbage bags and boxes as pans and serving dishes. We fed our camp chili cooked in our solar oven (in only three hours).  

solar oven
In the hot desert sun, a solar cooker heated up a batch of chili in just three hours. 

And in all of this, the playa remained pristine. Radical self-reliance and the Leave No Trace ethic meant there were no garbage receptacles—not even ash trays. Littering was perhaps the only act in this crazy circus that would garner judgment; it was not done. 

We brought our own cups and carried them home when we stopped for a drink. We gathered up the smallest specks of moop (a Burner term for “matter out of place”) and put them in the sack of garbage that we would carry out. Knowing we would live with our garbage for the week, we made very little. I’m still in awe that this could happen; one of the many Burning Man lessons I took away was that we humans can do anything—when we’re working in conscious community. 

burning man the man burns
The man burns. 

I learned many, many things at Burning Man. Chiefly, I learned to be responsible for my own stuff and be generous in community. I learned the beauty of radical participation. And I learned, on some primal level, how to love—truly love—this crazy mass of humanity that I belong to.  I want nothing more than to return each year bearing greater gifts—and to spread this burning love throughout my world. 

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