ashes to ashes, dust to dust
From my spot on the ground, I marveled at a massive treehouse-like structure lodged inside the belly of a wooden statuesque animal. Later, I'd learn this magnificent creature was a bison. I watched in wonder at the flurry of costumed “burners” engaging with the sculpture: some climbing its 2-story ladder, others queuing at a makeshift, moneyless bar beneath the bison's head, and still more dancing at the adjoining DJ booth. Lost in my thoughts and trying to identify the animal, a man with a deep Southern drawl introduced himself. He was part of the crew that had spent six months fabricating the artist’s vision, piece by piece, and then transporting it by truck all the way from New Orleans to Nevada. After a week, this incredible construction would be burned to ashes.
This spectacle encapsulates the essence of Burning Man: an annual gathering of over 70,000 people of all ages, races, and nationalities. Every year, a temporary community is erected in the middle of a seven square-mile stretch of dusty land a few hours northeast of Reno, Nevada, dubbed “the Playa” (which aptly translates to “beach” in Spanish). The event’s core principles include radical inclusion, self-reliance, and self-expression, and they foster the greatest example of freedom, compassion, and originality that I’ve ever witnessed. Before attending, I was not only skeptical, I was terrified. Intentionally trekking into some of the harshest conditions imaginable with thousands of perfect strangers to figure out how to survive and thrive seems like a questionable pastime and use of resources, but I now understand the allure. Burning Man is not just a week filled with events and adventures that sober and drug-fueled minds alike can dream up. It is a transformative ceremony that beautifully imparts some of the most profound life lessons available, should its participants choose to pay attention.
First, people are inherently creative. That doesn’t mean that everyone is an artist on his resume, but there is no denying we all possess a multitude of natural gifts. There are no bounds to imagination and we are individually responsible for actively deciding and generating our respective realities. On the Playa, the awe-inspiring artistry, juxtaposed with the extreme elements of heat, dust, and (in my case last week) unprecedented rain and mud, deepened my appreciation for human resilience and innovation. Despite the challenging backdrop, people not only survived, but they created what was surely one of the most memorable experiences of their lives. Case in point – I witnessed a leader from my own camp engineer a small, 3-foot replica of the eponymous “Man” effigy. Due to weather conditions, the actual ceremonious burn in the center of the Playa was delayed indefinitely, but our mini burn drew an impressive crowd of a few hundred people who were overjoyed to support each other and celebrate, regardless of the circumstances. This ingenuity brought a rare intimacy to the large-scale event and an even deeper appreciation of its splendor.
Another observation I made as I walked, biked, skipped and trudged through the largest adult playground ever conceived was that we are all still kids at heart yearning to play without judgement or expectations of how to behave. It felt like I was returning to a natural state – no masks, no mirrors – just pure joy and fun. As I pedaled around the Playa on my lime green beach cruiser in a tutu and furry bear hat, I couldn’t ignore the fleeting feeling I had and the silly grin it elicited. When did I forget that fun is a necessary ingredient for a fulfilling life? While serious responsibilities and genuine hardship are inescapable realities for us all, if we never stop to celebrate the unlimited miracle of our existence, we’re missing the point.
Most importantly, the tradition of constructing magnificent art installations surrounded by music, educational workshops, spontaneous happenings, and a giant party with an intentional plan to burn it all down after a week underscores the ephemerality of life. That environment reflected my default state, which is to amass material possessions to buffer the discomfort of the full spectrum of the human experience. Yet, it reminded me that I don’t get to keep anything when my time is up. All I really “own” are the memories. The Playa is the epitome of nature – real, unpredictable, and ever-changing, and it’s from the cycle of creation and destruction that new ideas spring forth. Ashes cultivate the soil for future creation, over and over again in perpetuity. My time at Burning Man reinforced that despite my desire to hang my hat on some grandiose meaning of life, the purpose is simple: just to live its fullest expression. So, go play in the dirt, offer help to neighbors in need, cry among strangers in a temple bonded by collective suffering, and watch as it burns to the ground, knowing we have the power to build it all over again, ever different and better than before.
"By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return." Genesis 3:19
"All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return." Ecclesiastes 3:20