8 Lessons From The Playa

October 28, 2012 | By | 2 Replies More

Burning Man

The playa in the Black Rock Dessert is a dried salt bed of open land where thousands of people gather every year to create a temporary and experimental community.

This place is called Black Rock City and it only exists for a week. The event is Burning Man. It’s one of the largest art festivals that draws over 50,000 participants, also known as “burners” from around the world. There is nothing in the dessert except for the stuff people bring with them. At the end everyone leaves the land as if nothing happened, but participants return to their daily lives forever changed.

This was my virgin year. My first burn. Here are eight lessons from my experience:

You get out what you put in

Burning Man is unlike any other festival where you watch a concert or show. You are the performance. Everyone is allowed to participate or contribute in their own way without fear of judgement. The special talents or gifts you contribute on the playa enhance the collective experience and can bring joy to others.

I remember one late night on the playa running into this food cart called “Let’s Get Toasted.” This vendor was making cinnamon sugar toast and passing it out to everyone around him. He didn’t do it to make money because he was gifting. There is no commerce on the playa since Burning Man is a gifting economy.

There was a long line about 20 people deep waiting for a piece of toast. There was only one toaster out of three working, but everyone waited patiently. Anticipation for the warm sugary toast seemed to be a bonding experience of its own to bring people together.

Every time a piece of toast was almost about to pop up, the lights on the vendor’s food cart would blink and the motor of his electric generator reved three times. Vroom… vroom… vroom… Everyone cheered because that signaled that the next batch was ready to be made.

I saw a huge smile on the toast man’s face and felt the happiness he spread to others from sharing.

Participation at Burning Man can be done in a variety of ways such as wearing a costume, giving gifts to random strangers, helping a camp set up, volunteering as a lamp lighter to light the city, or it can be as simple as being there for someone in need or making them laugh. Burning Man was about contributing, interacting and connecting with others.

The more you participate, the more you’ll get from the experience.

You create your reality

Anyone can dress however they wanted to or be whomever at Burning Man. The amazing thing is no one cared how ridiculous you look. I saw everything from people running around naked with body paint to elaborate wacky outfits. One girl in my camp along with her friends decided to make beaks and dress up like birds. They chirped and flocked around the playa. That was their performance.

Since this was my first year I didn’t have many costumes. However, I had a superhero cape that I wore. I didn’t pretent to have any special powers per se, but I took it upon myself to make sure my campmates and strangers I was around were safe. I walked people who where lost back to their camp. I listened to strangers if they needed someone to talk to. If I wanted to dance, I looked for a sound camp to party at. Whenever I felt the need for inspiration, I roamed around to view art. If I wanted to relax, I just stayed at my camp or went to a meditation session.

Wandering around the playa I saw people who were high on drugs beyond belief dancing like zombies. There were also many sober people who were there to check out the art and community aspect of the burn.

There is something for everyone at Burning Man. You create and seek out the experiences you want to have on the playa.

Live with less

Inside my tent

I camped for a week with the essentials for survival. The only shelter I had was a tent. The few clothes I wore was enough to protect me from elements of the dessert climate. The weather varied from over 100 degrees in the day to 45 degrees at night.

The only vehicles allowed on the playa were art cars, so the primary mode for burners to get around was on foot or bike. In this experimental community with over 50,000 people, there was less carbon pollution within a 7 mile radius. I actually enjoyed riding my bike around.

I brought the minimum amount of food and water to get by. The dessert heat shrunk my appetite so I ate less.

In order for me to take a shower, I used a garden sprayer which was efficient in using less water.

Everything you bring to the festival you have to take back out. Burning Man is one of the largest “leave no trace” events, so I thought of ways to minimize trash and waste. I tried to evaporate as much grey water as possible, but I ended up carrying three gallons out. I didn’t think it was that bad for six days.

When I lived with less at Burning Man, I knew I didn’t needed much to be happy.

Speak from the heart

There were a few evenings during the week I volunteered at The Temple as a guardian. The Temple is a non-denominational sacred space where burners go to pray, mourn, or meditate. Whatever the burners decided to use the space for at the moment called upon, that was the purpose of The Temple. I was part of a group of volunteers who quietly watch over the area to ensure safety of the participants.

The morning after I arrived on the playa, I went to temple guard training. It was about an hour long class with about 15 or so other people. We learned about our roles and responsibilities as well how to handle certain situations we may possibly encounter. I also learned about how to speak from the heart in a positive non-confrontational way.

As a Temple Guardian, we were not enforcers of rules. Safety was important so one of the things that participants weren’t allowed to do inside The Temple was smoke. It’s like puffing away in a place of worship. I had to gently remind visitors who did smoke that it was a sacred space for everyone. Since it can be a challenge to deal with the emotions some people may be experiencing or figure out what mental state they are in at The Temple, I had to be careful with how I communicated to others.

It may have been easy to say “hey… you can’t smoke here,” but it was much nicer to tell people that “The Temple is a special place for everyone who visits… we’re only allowed to smoke outside the perimeter.”

There’s always an effective way to get the message across when speaking from the heart with good intentions.

Be present

Its easier than ever to get caught up with technology by constantly checking our phones, email, Facebook, Twitter, and text messages. Having a cell phone is a mere distraction if we have to be wired all the time. People checking their text messages while driving have caused several accidents. It’s taken them away from focusing on the road.

When I hang out with friends at dinner it can be annoying or rude when they check their cell. Unfortunately, it’s become the norm in our society today.

On the playa, its difficult to get a cell signal or even an internet connection in the middle of nowhere. It is possible to get internet on the playa, but seriously… why be wired during vacation? Being disconnected can set you free.

Spontaneous performances, gatherings, or parties happen at Burning Man at a moments notice. An art car might have driven by that I want to jump on and ride across the dessert. If I wasn’t living in the now, I may have miss something cool that was right in front of me.

Be present to enjoy the amazing experiences and opportunities that are right infront of you. Thinking about the future or living in the past can distract you from living in the now.

“Most people are prisoners, thinking only about the future or living in the past. They are not in the present, and the present is where everything begins.” ~ Carlos Santana

Gifts can be simple

As I mentioned earlier, Burning Man is a gifting economy. Nothing is bought or sold on the playa. Gifts don’t have to be actually have to be material things either. They can be in the form of a compliment or helping someone set up their tent.

I came across this video on YouTube by Halcyon that explains the art of gifting. I was fortune to meet him and thanked him for creating this video. This was extremely helpful to learn more about the gifting culture at Burning Man.

Share the experience with others

I drove nine hours from Vegas with a friend who stayed at another camp. I purposely wanted to go to Burning Man by myself so I could connect with strangers and meet new people. Its easy for me to meet people in the default world (a term burners refer to as the rest of the world that is not the playa), but I wanted to camp with no one I knew.

Art car at Burning Man

On our first night in Black Rock City we arrived late in the evening and she dropped me off at my camp. I spent the next hour or so setting up my campsite. After I pitched my tent, I rode my bike around the open playa. It was about midnight already and the moon slightly lit up the dark sky. My energy was low from driving all day, but I pushed myself to venture out of my camp. I was just an observer that night riding around watching people dance in front of illuminated art cars with loud bass bumpin’ electronic music… boom… boom… boom… lasers in the sky, blinking lights… it was over stimulation.

I pause for a moment, took a deep breath, and smiled. I had finally made it to Burning Man. Although I was so happy at the moment, my first night was lonely.

The following morning I met my campmates whom I would spend the next several days with. One girl I befriended said that she was headed to center camp to mist people with water to cool them off. It was hot that afternoon. I brought this golf umbrella I rigged with misters around the edge that connected to a pressurized garden sprayer. The misting umbrella I made was my gift to the playa this year.

We ventured out on our random act of kindness mission to provide comfort to others in the heat by spraying water on anyone who wanted to be cooled down. We passed out jolly ranchers and gummy bears too.

I could have misted people on my own, but sharing the experience with my new friend with the purpose to make others happy was so much more fun.

Live with gratitude

Many theme camps and people shared a variety of things such as displaying artwork, gifting massages, meditation sessions, yoga instruction, compliments, hugs, ice cream, booze, bacon, music, knowledge, personal stories, and much more which contributed to enhancing the collective Burning Man experience for everyone to enjoy. A few of my campmates helped me set up my tent in the dark. It made me think about how thankful and blessed I was to receive all these things and get help from strangers. It inspired me to share more with others without asking for anything in return.

I felt a genuine “thank you” at Burning Man. Every time I interacted with someone whether it was by misting them with my golf umbrella, sharing candy, or making someone coffee, they would pause for a moment, look me right into my eyes, then say slowly… thank… you…

It wasn’t a quick thanks… it was… thank you… most burners I interacted with appreciated the littlest things.

Whenever I received a gift, I also made it a point to really connect and say “thank you.” After I lived in the dessert for almost a week with the basics for survival, I appreciated everything these strangers share with me.

There are people around the world who live on less than a dollar a day that are in far off worse situations than me. I feel fortunate and blessed everyday. Instead of thinking about things I don’t have, I’m grateful for what I do have. It makes me want to be a better person, help out those in need, share more, and pay it forward.

I’m already excited about next year. I can’t wait to go back “home” to the playa and learn more.

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Category: Stories

Comments (2)

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  1. Callie says:

    Wow – what an experience. I am dying to go to Burning Man one of these days, and this sounds like great advice to me!

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