When I departed for the Nevada desert a week and a half ago, I wasn't sure exactly what to expect. I was heading to Burning Man for the first time, and I suspected it would either be one of the best or one of the worst experiences of my life.
Happily, it was one of the best, though this was for reasons I couldn't have anticipated.
Burning Man, for the uninitiated, is loosely described as an annual week-long arts festival that takes place in a temporarily constructed city in the Nevada desert (called Black Rock City). Burning Man operates on 10 philosophical principles, one of which is "leaving no trace" -- which means that once Burning Man is over, all -- and I do mean all -- physical remnants of its 60,000 inhabitants are gone. There are other major features, such as its gifting economy (only ice and coffee may be purchased, otherwise no exchange of money is allowed) and the most visually obvious of the 10 principles -- "radical self-expression."
Because Black Rock City only exists for a short amount of time each year, it is lacking in some basic infrastructure we are used to in the U.S., such as indoor plumbing, cellular phone service, paved roads and electricity.
This might sound like a nightmare to you. But it wasn't -- at least for me. Burning Man is many things to many people -- for some it is a spiritual journey, for others a debaucherous escape, and for others still it is a million other things in between. For me, it was an exploration -- I wanted to see where the wind would take me, so to speak, and it took me a lot of places I didn't expect!
These are the biggest life lessons I learned from my time living in Black Rock City.
1. Release Control
By agreeing to enter Black Rock City, you have to be willing to relinquish some level of control, as well as any compulsive status-updating addictions. 60,000+ people are all journeying on a two-lane highway into the desert (except for the minority who charter planes). As you can imagine, it takes awhile. Impatience gets you nowhere, so you quickly learn to embrace the journey.
Within a few hours after our arrival, Black Rock City experienced a freakish electrical storm. Exhausted and wet, I watched someone get shocked by lightning right in front of me. (He's OK, but he has a scar on his leg to show for it.) Rain, thunder and lightning were not on the list of things I had prepared for. It is the desert, after all!
As a general rule, I hate getting rained on. However, the storm happened and we adapted. We got wet and we dealt with it, because there was no other choice. Resisting the rain falling on your head does not stop the rain from falling on your head, it just makes you more miserable while it's happening! When the weather reverted back to its usual desert state -- hot, dry and hotter and drier, I dealt with that, too.
Attempting to control anything but your own actions and reactions is an exercise in futility, but all too often we forget that. I can too easily fall in the trap of attempting to make everything in my life conform to the way I think it should be. There's nothing like a week of living in a temporary city filled with tens of thousands of people and no running water to remind you that exercising control over my reactions is the most fulfilling and useful thing I can do.
2. Everyone Craves Connection
Another of the philosophical principles of Burning Man is "radical inclusion" -- meaning everyone, no matter who they are, what they look like, where they come from or what they believe is welcome. For me, the most magical part of the Burning Man experience was the dozens of connections you make each day with people you randomly encounter. No matter which dusty road you head down at any time of day or night there is someone who greets you, gives you a hug or invites you to join them for anything from a mimosa, ice cream, blueberry pancakes or a spanking. (Yes, a spanking! You don't have to accept the invitation if you don't want to!)
The willingness of nearly everyone I came across to stop and chat, share a smile, a compliment, a hug or a gift (I received gifts as diverse as a vial filled with Black Rock City sand, a string of LED lights and Chapstick necklace) proves how much we all want to connect with others.
Oftentimes we operate in public in a bubble of anonymity where we actively avoid connection with the people around us. We can become too distracted, busy and focused on ourselves to recognize the humanity of our fellow humans.
Burning Man gave me the perfect opportunity to be reminded that while I often fall into the trap of being disconnected from those around me, in reality it is within my power to pause, look a stranger in the eye and experience a moment of acknowledgment of each other's presence.
3. Loneliness Is a State of Mind
Though I went to Burning Man with some of my dearest friends, I spent at least part of each day out on my own, riding my bike (no cars allowed) or walking aimlessly. Some days I spent hours on my own in this way.
I went to large parties on my own and took long bike rides through stretches of desert on my own. And I never felt lonely. It was never long before a stranger I passed along the way engaged me in conversation, and it was easy to view my alone time as mere pauses of solitude in between a new connection.
In fact, I began to view being alone as a surefire way to ensure I connected with someone new. When I was with my friends, it was easy for us to fall into our usual rhythm of conversation and inside jokes. As fantastic as that time was, we were all much less inviting to others when we were in our predetermined group.
In the "real" world outside of Black Rock City, the same mindset can apply, if we choose to view life in this way. Being alone doesn't have to translate into loneliness. We can even choose to view being alone as an adventure that can lead us to infinite possibilities!
4. Don't Judge Your Journey
Burning Man is not the same experience for every person. It would have been easy for me to look at other people and compare my "burn" to theirs. For some, their time in Black Rock City is completely life-changing. Others have non-stop fun and excitement. Some people use it as an opportunity for purposeful personal growth, reflection and expansion.
I went to Burning Man simply wanting to be open to whatever came my way, and that is the journey I experienced. If I had a different goal in mind, I probably would have had a completely different experience. And that's OK. As someone wise once said "comparison is the enemy of happiness." That is as true for life as it is for Burning Man.
5. Release Attachments
The entire existence of Black Rock City is temporal. The "man" of Burning Man is a stories-tall structure visible for miles around. Each year a new man is constructed because at the end of each Burning Man the current man is literally burnt to the ground.
There are other gigantic, fantastic structures that are also burned -- a huge and ornate temple and other large-scale art pieces. When I first saw these beautiful pieces that would be burned, I felt a pang of regret. Though I knew similar structures were burned each year, I thought, "Well, maybe this year they can refrain from burning this one!" (There goes that desire to control rearing its head once again.)
Of course, they were designed and assembled for the purpose of being experienced and appreciated for a short time and then burned. A huge part of the beauty and appreciation we feel for the entire Burning Man experience is just that -- we enjoy the present moment and then we release our attachment to it.
Not everything will last forever -- not even our very lives -- but that only makes the gift of being alive all the sweeter and more precious. It was natural that I saw something beautiful and intricate that was obviously constructed with much love and care and wanted to hold onto it. I've done this my whole life, with people and relationships and physical items I've become attached to.
I don't plan to start burning my possessions or deconstructing my very home anytime soon. However, I do plan to practice the art of releasing my attachments when the time has come to move on.