BURNING MAN… Embracing the Juice of Reality

Burning Man is a collective critique of modernity and a reminder that the ancient pagans knew more about reality and the soul than many appreciate today.

Preparations are being made. Lists are being checked and rechecked. Exotic wardrobes are being assembled. Art pieces are being carefully packaged. Social media is a buzz. So go the final preparations for the annual pilgrimage to the desert that attracts 70,000 persons for a week of carnival known as the Burning Man Festival. It is not a casual party for the unprepared or faint of heart.

Burning Man is the zeitgeist cultural event for the emerging New Copernican ethos. Widely misunderstood, its cultural importance cannot be under estimated. As a rule, one’s awareness of Burning Man will indicate whether one is a settler or seeker—the two basic attitudes one can have toward life.

Comic-Con explores the mythological universe of Marvel and DC. Its exploration of an alternative mythic world is safe, air conditioned, and at arms length. In contrast, Burning Man is in your face.

It creates a temporary immersive experience of a New Copernican world. The contrast for many is shocking. In providing such a venue, Burning Man is both a critique and affirmation—a critique of status quo modernity and an affirmation of a still emerging post-postmodernity in a host of neopagan flavors. Because of the harshness of the environment and participatory expectation, Burning Man creates the potential for a life changing experience like few other events. It is the front line and purest expression of the New Copernican ethos.

There are lots of sanitized discussions about millennials that focus on the generational cohort more than the mindset that they represents. Within institutional church settings, most of the millennials found there are “hybrid New Copernicans”: young people who have one foot in the past and the other in the present. At best they are “semi-seekers.” One’s reaction toward Burning Man is a pretty good test of whether one has adopted a hybrid perspective.

Burning Man is a counter-cultural festival held each year in the desert north of Reno, Nevada, during the last week in August. For a week the pop-up metropolis, Black Rock City, is one of the largest cities in Nevada complete with a post office, airport, and police force. The festival is dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance. It is a combination of a 24/7 Rave, nudist camp, Occupy Wall Street, Green Peace, and Cirque du Soleil. There is no water, electricity, Internet, or any of the usual modern conveniences—just fine corrosive alkali dust (frequent dust storms), high heat by day, and extreme cold by night. Burning Man is a social experiment in self-reliance and decommodification. There is no money used at the festival, nothing can be bought or sold. There are no sponsors or advertising. Everything is based on a sharing economy. A bedrock premise of the festival is to “leave no trace.” Great lengths are taken to return the desert back to its pristine untouched condition after each festival. On the whole the festival is a marvel of planning, self-reliance, and ecological sensitivity.

Burning Man is a social movement, now with smaller festivals held around the world. It began in 1986 on a beach in San Francisco, produced by founder Larry Harvey.

The event takes its name from the symbolic ritual burning of a large wooden effigy (“the Man”) that traditionally occurs on the Saturday evening of the event. Today it stands as the Super Bowl of contemporary counter-cultural expression, now attracting Hollywood A-listers and Silicon Valley executives. Tesla and SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk famously said, “Burning Man is Silicon Valley.” Burning Man has become a living expression of the cultural zeitgeist: “A city in the desert. A culture of possibility. A network of dreamers and doers.”

The Burning Man culture is based on ten values; principles that largely express the contours of the New Copernican sensibility: no boundaries, a priority on experience and participation, expressive individualism, respectful community, autonomous authenticity, oneness with nature, and a search for justice, beauty, love, and spirit. Burning Man is more than a fun festival, more than an updated Woodstock. It’s the New Copernican sacred site and legitimizing pilgrimage. Less a music festival, it’s a social experiment and cultural critique. The festival’s ten principles were written by Larry Harvey in 2004, after the anarchy of Burning Man in the 1990s required more social structure. He wrote,

  1. Radical Inclusion
    Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
  2. Gifting
    Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.
  3. Decommodification
    In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.
  4. Radical Self-reliance
    Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.
  5. Radical Self-expression
    Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.
  6. Communal Effort
    Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.
  7. Civic Responsibility
    We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.
  8. Leaving No Trace
    Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.
  9. Participation
    Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.
  10. Immediacy
    Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.

The exponential growth of Burning Man has led to its detractors and has required more rules. Some question its authenticity today compared to a much looser, wilder, and more dangerous scene in the 90s. But the growth of Burning Man and the tensions it has inspired make the lessons of Burning Man much more influential within the wider culture. The vision and structure of Burning Man is much more applicable elsewhere. One soon expects to see more filmmaking made with Burning Man as the cultural backdrop.

At its best, Burning Man is an experience of liminality, a desire to transcend or find the sacred in the ordinary. Burning Man founder Larry Harvey writes, “Were we to remove all soul and all spirit from experience, we would be left with little more than what William James called, ‘a cold and a neutral state of intellectual perception.’ In such an arid landscape, there would be no urgent meanings, no riveting purposes, and the juice of reality would be squeezed out of the world.” What is society like that is collectively open to the next person without judgment and open to the possibilities of the universe without hesitation?

If Burning Man is New Copernicans’ most reflective cultural event, then this spiritually open secular festival is their natural habitat. If we pay close attention to the world they are now creating in business, education, politics, religion, and philanthropy, we can begin to see the long-term significance of this emerging perspective. New Copernicans are in the process of rethinking our understanding of human society. We are now caught in that brief interlude between the lightning of their insight and the thunder of its implications to cultural institutions. Burning Man is the exploratory experimental front edge of this emerging world.

Burning Man puts a face on the New Copernican ethos. As such it will naturally make traditionalists uneasy. It will raise red flags and foster uncomprehending questions. How can one make this neopagan bacchanal culturally significant?

But for the seeker of new possibilities beyond the boundaries of status quo convention, Burning Man is the momentary experience of a different kind of world where love, beauty, and spirit have room to flourish in a nondualistic embrace. Burning Man is more than Mardi Gras in the dust; it’s a collective critique of modernity and a reminder that the ancient pagans knew more about the depth of reality and the contours of the human soul than is typically appreciated in contemporary society. Burning Man provides the space to explore this depth and these contours once again.

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John Seel is a cultural renewal entrepreneur and social impact consultant. He works with people and projects that promote human flourishing and the...
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