An Emotional Survival Guide to Burning Man
I remember my first Burn fourteen years ago. Having been told mental preparation for Burning Man required physical preparation, I created checklists to monitor my checklists. Arriving on the Playa, I expected an elated nirvana, but found an emotional hell instead. While “welcome home” was the mantra of the day, I felt far from home amongst the wilderness and weirdness of Black Rock City.
After all my physical and mental prep, I realized I’d done no emotional prep. The Burning Man Survival Guide is the organizational compass for clarifying Burning Man’s 10 principles, the 18 things we must bring, and the 8 things we can’t bring. Arguably, no better citizen’s guide exists on the planet. And yet, this cultural compass didn’t properly guide me to the “true north” inside.
This Emotional Survival Guide is as much for the virgin Burner as it is for the veteran.
It’s a reminder of just how magical and manic this event in the desert can be. Just last month, a study of more than 16,000 Burning Man attendees over four years was published in the Frontiers of Emotion Science. Not surprisingly, the study showed that people are less inhibited in expressing emotions while in the desert. But, it also determined that a certain kind of reframing of one’s experience—especially in the positive direction—and maybe even an appraisal of one’s life, is quite common in Black Rock City.
The philosopher Lao Tsu once wrote, “Be at one with the dust of the earth. This is primal union.” Not bad advice for our favorite desert dust storm. Or, maybe the man who wrote, “Fun is good,” Dr. Seuss, is more your style. This epic video from 2011 based on Seuss’s famous book, Oh, The Places You’ll Go, offers some of the best emotional advice from the Playa.
1. Islands are more intense.
“Island fever,” the feeling of being stuck somewhere without an ability to escape, is something you’ve probably experienced if you’ve spent any time on an island. Whether Balinese or Hawaiian, islands can bring forth magnified emotions and increased volatility alongside (sometimes) unpredictable volcanoes. Burning Man is a desert island. Once you enter the gates and commit to the experience, you’re not likely to leave until the exodus. As a result, you may feel more joy and bliss alongside some sadness and anger. I like to think of it as reverting back to childhood. Adults often have mixed emotions. Kids don’t. So, just as we see the purity of certain emotions in our young ones, we see the same in ourselves at Black Rock City. Knowing this will help you to feel less like a basket case when your emotions ebb and flow in the desert.
The Latin root of the word “emotion” means “to move.” Emotions are vehicles for transforming or moving your life. The weather is an apt metaphor for this: sunshine or rainstorm (you’re likely to see both), neither is stationary on the Playa. They come and they go. Our sudden emotional storms and flair-ups mirror the capricious nature of the desert’s turbulent weather conditions. Quell any fear with the understanding that these emotional trade winds will quickly change. Just ride the emotions out. And, don’t merely observe the external weather patterns. Ask yourself, “What’s my internal barometer telling me right now?” The better you can forecast what’s brewing, the better you can create the right habitat for letting your emotions move through you. Sunshine tends to follow the rain.
2. An open heart completes any wardrobe choice.
If our emotions revert back to childhood in the desert, it’s not surprising that we play fanciful games of dress-up as well (we do this back at home in all kinds of more subtle ways). Burning Man is one big costume party. And some people spend an entire year crafting their wardrobe and refining their body. So, don’t spend too much time comparing and contrasting with all the beautiful bods and bodacious outfits on the catwalk of the Esplanade. There are all kinds of people who look, smell, and maybe even taste like you. And, eventually, everyone is covered in dust, anyway.
Wear what feels comfortable. Your best accessories will be an open heart...and a hug. You're not going to feel "up" all the time. But you will find that emotional vulnerability might just be the most enticing fragrance on the Playa. Richard Bach wrote, "The opposite of loneliness is not togetherness. It is intimacy." Be open. Be intimate. Be human. And you won't be lonely.
3. Disappointment = Expectations – Reality
Know yourself. Expect nothing. Two mantras that will serve you well. Whatever you expect, you’re likely to get the opposite. Feel free to set broad intentions for your BM experience, but hold lightly your expectations. I remember a good friend crying in my lap, “I expected this to be the happiest place on earth and I’m feeling sad. I’m such a loser!” Remember #2 in this guide. Stop comparing and start living.
Burning Man mirrors “real” life. The reality is, you’re going to fail. Your shade structure will fall down. You’ll forget where you parked your bike. You’ll realize you left your favorite veggies at home on the kitchen counter. Expect failure and greet it with a smile. Know that in this convoluted environment, failure may be the doorway to unexpected serendipity. Say yes to that. And, don’t expect an epiphany, a new boyfriend, or the high you may have experienced before. Every year is different. It won’t be like last year. It will be like this year.
4. Learn to truly surrender.
“Surrender” is a word that used to make me shudder. Perhaps it was “Surrender, Dorothy” that defined surrender for me as defeat. 20 years ago, I started saying this mantra three times each morning, “As I surrender, more love comes to me.” Nowhere is this truer than at Burning Man.
When your “happy bubble” gets popped—and it likely will—there’s a place for catharsis and connection. The Temple, which plays second fiddle in the popular press to the Man, is the space where you can surrender to the feelings for a lost loved one, a dream that didn’t come true, or for your digitally distressed existence. Going cold turkey from one’s iPhone sends many reaching for a shot of Wild Turkey or some other distraction. At the Temple, you can leave behind a symbolic memento or simply a wish. Just remember that most people come to Burning Man to surrender something. You’re not alone, yet you have the space to be alone with your emotions. And, it’s impossible to feel alone for very long.
5. Choose your nest carefully.
Emotions are contagious, especially in the Petri dish of Burning Man. Psychological studies show that our reference group has a big impact on our perception of our wants and our needs. This is one of the values in hanging out with people different than you. They help to modify the narrative in our heads. In the context of Black Rock City, your camping mates will have a significant influence on your experience…or even your perceived experience of your experience. So, choose your neighbors wisely. Remember that, even if you go with your five best friends in the world, at least a couple of them will fray your nerves over the course of a few days given the magnified nature of this desert microcosm.
Give yourself permission to dip in and out of the swirling human soup as you please. Spend some time alone exploring. One of my favorite experiences was riding my bike deep into the Playa with my Priscilla Queen of the Desert frock blowing in the wind, tears on my face (due to a romantic breakup), and Moby on my Walkman (the year 2000). A handsome gentleman in a maroon-draped cape (also wearing a Walkman) pulled his bike up to mine and we spent the next half-hour gliding across the desolation, silently, alone…yet together. My favorite Burning Man principle is “Immediacy,” which is such a touchstone to whatever healing or hilarity you need in the moment. Your nestmates will alternately embrace and unnerve you.
6. Stay open and curious.
Cruising around solo is a good thing. It allows you to meet people you wouldn’t have met otherwise. Think of Black Rock City as a foreign country where your sense of adventure and curiosity is directly proportional to the experience you create for yourself. In the digital age, we’re familiar with FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), based upon seeing our friends cavorting all over Facebook. At Burning Man, get in touch with MOJO (Momentary Jolts) by being aware of what’s directly in front of you. You may hear remarkable stories of art seen, drugs ingested, and sex experienced. Don’t envy. Just appreciate life’s electricity that you felt when you were truly experiencing your own MOJO earlier in the day. And, don’t feel that drugs, sex, or staying up till dawn are required to have a mind-blowing time. There are open camps for everyone—from 12-step sober, to yoga serene, and everything in-between.
I love the Burning Man guide to all the parties, classes, and events of the week that you receive upon entering Black Rock City. But, it can also be overwhelming. You can’t see or do everything. Nor would you want to. Savor what you did experience, rather than focusing on what you didn’t. Try wearing a smile to dinner and asking your friends, “What emotion did you learn about today and how do you think it might serve you at home?” Think of this as emotional boot camp…or kindergarten. Show and tell your emotions. I know this sounds silly, but you’ll be surprised by the connection you’ll make with your campmates when you start a sentence with, “I felt vulnerable today…or courageous…or, I learned about my relationship with humility this morning.” Oh, the places you’ll go…
7. Tend to your Hierarchy of Needs.
Psychologist Abe Maslow would have had a field day studying Burning Man (my 2010 camp was called “Maslowtopia,” a self-actualizing community). In the desert, many of us try to “be all we can be” and leap to the peak of Maslow’s pyramid without taking care of our physiological base. When in doubt, drink some water and take a nap. Or refer to the 12-step acronym, H.A.L.T., when you’re emotionally frazzled: Am I Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired? Look after your emotional health by making sure your physical needs are being met.
Your Burning Man home—whether it’s a tent, the back-end of an SUV, a yurt, or an RV (I’ve done them all)—should feel like a sanctuary. We need a place to recharge after so much stimuli, and this is especially true if you’re more of an introvert. Bring a few trusted servants from home: your loyal pillow, some sprigs of lavender, your most cathartic book, a picture of a family member, your favorite comfort food. In moments of unrest, it’s nice to have a pacifier.
8. Be a conscious couple.
Burning Man can be both stressful and blissful for couples. As mentioned earlier, all emotions tend to be heightened in Black Rock City and whatever is stewing in your relationship may come to a full boil in the middle of a dust storm. The great magnifying mirror of Burning Man can bring you closer if you’re ready for that. If not, just be prepared for a rocky ride at times and the reality you might stage the commonly witnessed “Burning Man fight” in front of your campmates.
Be aware of what you’re getting into. If your partner suggests you go to a “poly party” (a polyamorous affair), and this is the first you’re hearing of his or her taste for non-monogamy, this may be the perfect environment for you both to come clean amongst all the dirt. Make a pact with each other about what you are looking for from this experience—both for yourselves and for your relationship. And create an understanding in advance of how you’ll communicate if either one of you is feeling jealous, lonely, or exasperated with the state of your relationship.
9. Learn how to give and receive gifts.
Practicing gratitude is the world’s most reliable way to introduce happiness into your life at a moment’s notice. Fortunately, Burning Man’s gifting economy creates the perfect habitat for you to ratchet-up your gratitude practice. When you’re feeling lousy, give something to someone else: a smile, a shoulder, a foot rub, a cold drink, help cleaning a tent, or making a meal. This could very well help to solve the potential relationship problems mentioned above.
Burning Man is not a spectator sport. It’s an immersive, participative, full-body contact experience. Use this time as a unique opportunity to see how gratitude can replace gratification as your currency in life. Happiness is not about having what you want, but wanting what you have. Remember, the modern treadmill of being distracted by new, shiny objects isn’t limited to the 21st century. Socrates wrote, “He who is not contented with what he has would not be contented with what he would like to have.”
10. Use what you’ve learned to appreciate the exodus.
You’ll hear a lot about how difficult it can be to leave Black Rock City. People often talk about this in the context of the traffic jam that can occur on Sunday or Monday morning. But, “post-Playa depression” is quite common—and not just for first-time Burners. I’ve written a couple thousand words here on emotional survival at Burning Man. But an entire book could be written on how to return back to the “default world,” taking what we learn from our experiences and incorporating it into our everyday lives.
I grew up near Disneyland, so I had numerous opportunities to feel the pain of the exodus from the Magic Kingdom as a child. But, eventually, I realized (paraphrasing Helen Keller) that if I spent too much time focusing on the closed door, I could not see the door opening right in front of me. Let your memories simmer and know that there are all kinds of ways you can engage with the Burning Man community year-round.
Whether it’s in the desert or after you’ve returned home, let your emotions be your guide. When you’re most confused by your emotional reaction to something, ask yourself, “What is this emotion trying to tell me right now? And, is there another emotion hiding beneath the surface?” Envy can masquerade as indignation or resentment. Fear can loom behind anger or frustration. Our emotions let us know that we are alive and that we care about something.
I’m sure I sound a bit like a “street shrink” here. But Burning Man is not about shrinking…it’s about expansion. I’ll close with a quote from Gabrielle Roth who created the 5Rhythms dance movement and had an indelible impact on my emotional life as a young adult…
“There is no true joy and compassion except through the difficult emotions – all we get without the experience of fear, anger, and sadness are cheap imitations of joy and compassion – pleasantness and sentimentality.”
You’ll likely find me at Black Rock City on the Rhythm Wave dance floor, honoring Gabrielle as she passed away last October. And, I bet we’ll find pictures of her face and long, sinewy body in the Temple.
I wish you the best on your journey.