sent to my newsletter on Sep 2, 2019
I just got back yesterday from 9 days of living in a city in a desert without any contact with the outside world. Yup, I went to Burning Man. I’d never been before, and it was a really interesting experience.
I don’t think I would do a good job of explaining to you exactly what Burning Man is like or all the things I did, so I’m not really going to try. I want to share a little collection of thoughts from the week, along with a little bit of context to help those thoughts make more sense.
I’m not sure how exactly to describe it, but essentially Burning Man is a gathering of people in a temporary city built in a desert in northwest Nevada. The city is about the same size as San Francisco, and ~80,000 people live there for a week. People mostly travel around by bike, and it takes maybe 30 minutes to bike across the city.
Many people attend as part of a themed camp - I was part of one called The Dumpling Trap, a 21-person camp organized by Jackie Luo. Every themed camp has a “gift”, and ours was a dumpling lounge that played trap music and had cards on the lounge tables to facilitate deep conversations and vulnerability. We essentially built a restaurant in the middle of the desert for a week! (And we even had a permit and followed food quality standards!)
There’s no money at Burning Man. Our camp brought all we needed to survive in the desert, but there was lots more to experience through the gifts provided by camps and individuals around us. Some folks in our camp baked a huge birthday cake from scratch at a bakery camp. I frequently visited a piano lounge nearby where people would jam together. My friend joined the Burning Man orchestra. There were places to get massages, have a steam bath, find a soulmate (it was called costco and was pretty cool), and a bunch of other wild things. And all of these camps brought supplies into the desert and built their camps and gifts with hard work, just like we did.
In the daytime it got very hot - sometimes too hot to rest comfortably. At night it got cold enough that we had to wear many layers to stay warm. Camps put on events at all times of the day. I generally spent my time split between hanging out with people at our camp, napping, going to camps for their events/gifts (often getting distracted along the way), and wandering around to look at the art sculptures in the middle of the city.
Also, there was no cell reception. I turned my phone off for the whole week and didn’t even use it to take pictures or check the time.
So anyways, here’s a sampling of some things I was thinking about this week.
My friend gave me some really great advice to me on the way there - she said she doesn't consider Burning Man a "fun" experience. It’s a place to acknowledge insecurities and challenge yourself, to struggle and reflect and have big highs and lows. She said that it’s always been intense for her and so worth it, and not exactly "fun".
This was very true for me as well. Every time things felt hard or challenging, I remembered what my friend told me and felt a little more at peace with my situation.
Fear of missing out is a classic feeling at Burning Man because there is so much to do, and it’s impossible to do it all. (I interacted with maybe 1% of camps/art?) I got pretty comfortable with hearing my friends talk about their experiences and being excited for them without feeling like I needed to do all of those things too. This was honestly made easier by how obvious it was that there was no way I could do everything.
There was a great lounge named Pink Heart with a quote on the wall: “love more, fear less, float more, steer less”. I notice I’m often happier in my life when I release a bit of desire for control over how I think things should look (i.e. I’m happier when I steer a bit less).
I noticed that when I went out exploring with intentions of finding something exciting, I ended up restless and not very interested in a lot of what I saw. Chasing stimulation made it harder to be curious and open to different fun experiences. When I explored with curiosity and “I wonder what this thing might be like” thoughts, I had a lot more fun and found a lot of cool stuff. Many people I talked to had similar experiences.
This reminds me of when I go clothes shopping and try on a bunch of random weird stuff that I don’t even know if I’ll like - I often find things that are fun and surprise me. When I judge clothes carefully before even trying them on, I often end up exhausted and empty-handed.
I was expecting time to be weird because I wouldn’t know what time it was. Instead, time was weird because of how slow it passed. Every day had multiple big excursions and intense events. By afternoon, morning activities felt like they happened days ago, and by evening the afternoon felt like distant past.
I’ve heard people talk about how time feels more stretched out when you do many new and different things, and time spent on repetitive or continuous things (like a 9-5 job) passes much faster. This was true to the extreme at Burning Man - it felt like we’d been there for months.
This is a bit harder to explain, but like… I didn’t use my phone, didn’t use money, had different daily activities than my usual life, spent time with different people... and the city’s social norms were also fairly different than “default world” (a Burning Man term for the outside world).
I barely thought about the internet or life back home. It was really hard to even remember what it was like - my job, my partners, my routines - they all felt foreign and distant and fuzzy.
In this way, I feel like Burning Man is an amazing vacation in that it really is a break from daily life. It’s not a restful vacation, or a fun vacation, or a break from having problems, but it did feel super good to separate myself from some “default world” things for a bit.
I went into Burning Man already knowing a lot of critiques for it - it’s a bunch of mostly rich, privileged people getting together to escape their problems for a week and spend lots of money and fossil fuels in the process. People in our camp were estimating we each spent at least $2k on camp dues, the ticket, travel, clothes, and supplies. It’s a very expensive one-week vacation. The festival is also not very racially diverse (very white), has lots of cultural appropriation, and some questionable consent culture. I knew these things and… I just chose not to dwell on them over the week. Burning Man was a selfish experience for me, and it was probably net good for me and for my camp’s community ...but I’m pretty sure it’s net bad for the world.
There were a lot of people wearing only underwear, or even no clothing at all. Many of the camps also had themes around sexual content (BDSM, sexy dares, stripping, etc). I found it fun to wear lingerie, feel sexy, and feel like sexy self-expression was celebrated and okay. I also really liked how normalized nudity and “conventionally sexy” clothes felt, to the point where I didn’t find them sexual at all.
These things actually feel somewhat in contrast with each other - normalizing sexiness, while also normalizing and desexualizing things that are usually considered sexy. It’s hard to know the intent people have when they wear something that could be considered sexy, and I had some interesting conversations with people around their own clothing intentions and how they interacted with other people and their clothing decisions (When is it rude to stare? When is it rude to complement? How do gender roles play into this?)
As someone who is very uncomfortable being pressured to do things, I thought a lot about consent throughout the week. Many camps had sexual aspects to them. For example, at one bar, to get a drink I had to roll dice and perform a random dare such as “get spanked” or “bartend topless for 15 minutes”. There’s a lot of fun to testing my own boundaries and seeing what it felt like to do activities like this. But it was also super scary for me to roll the dice without trusting that I could comfortably say no.
Some camps didn’t talk about consent at all. Some talked about it as “people should only do things if they consent”, which felt like messaging around seeking a “yes”. But the only camps that I felt comfortable at were ones that made it clear that I could say “no” and that this would be respected.
One camp had a handout on how to intervene if it seemed like someone was being pressured to do something. I saw someone wearing a necklace that said “you can always say no”. A friend said she got a sponge bath at a camp, and the person washing her said she could raise her hand at any time (didn’t even have to say anything!) and he would stop washing her and they could touch base on what would be okay. I loved seeing these things. This is the standard I have for good consent culture.
Having strong feelings was a lot more normalized at Burning Man. I felt very little pressure to get over emotions quickly, and because I had so much time, I found myself taking space to dive deeper into some feelings.
I had a lot of mini depressive episodes where I craved strong connections with people and felt disconnected from others, and it often spiraled into self-isolation. I’ve heard people talk about how in big cities like New York, there’s so much to do and so many people around, and this makes feelings of loneliness much harder to process. This completely applied to my Burning Man experience.
I also had an exciting moment of rage when someone was rude to me! Instead of reacting with thoughts of shame around having done something to upset them (which is what I commonly do), I felt very confident that I had acted reasonably and that they were being rude. I walked sternly back to my camp, and angrily punched a pillow. I rarely express anger like this and was really proud of myself (which amusingly dissolved the anger pretty quickly).
It was easy to look around and perceive that everyone else was having a pure fun time while I was not, but I ended up talking to a lot of other people that were also having some strong negative emotions as well, and this was very comforting.
And I reminded myself Burning Man isn’t a “fun” experience, it’s just an experience. A challenging and interesting one.
One thing I figured out throughout the week was how much more enjoyable it was to spend time with groups of approximately 4 or fewer people. Once groups pass this size, it’s very easy for someone in the group to feel unhappy but have minimal power to change the conversation topic or the activity the group is doing. I talked to several people about their experiences isolating themselves in situations like this (either by leaving the group, or by staying with the group but not participating in their fun).
Because of the lack of phones, it was extremely difficult to keep track of people and make plans. Leaving a group could mean you’re alone for the night. I maybe wish I’d spent more time alone (ideally more deliberately, and not as an act of isolation during social anxiety), but I was so deep in strong cravings for connection that it was difficult for me to feel safe to take time for myself. Now that I’m back home and spending more time by myself again, I am remembering how healing and empowering it is.
Perhaps there’s something more to think about here around spending time “by myself” while surrounded by people. It’s easier to spend time alone in my room, and harder to feel okay spending time not being social while in a group or on the streets of a busy city.
There are more thoughts and stories I have, but I think I’ll leave it at that for now!