Share Your Gifts at Burning Man
If you’re into exploring other worlds, altering your sense of gravity, and playing in some of the biggest waves on the planet—you just may want to jump in.
Photo by Zippy Lomax
It was the night of the burning of the man, a climactic moment near the end of the weeklong festival when almost the entire city of 60,000 gathers in one place to witness the burning of the centerpiece of the city. Amid the sheer chaos I dared to leave my group of friends to say hello to my long-lost friend Dan, whom I had just caught sight of in the crowd. I plunged through the sea of costumes, flashing lights, and wide-eyed dancers and climbed aboard Dan’s art car—a rolling desert island covered in swaying palm trees and bathed in soft mood lighting. I had barely caught my breath when he asked,
“Why do you come here?”
I had been asking myself that question all week. It started day one, when I was biking through the vast and empty playa at midday, all alone—the majority of the friends I usually attended with now making or tending to babies, traveling the world, and otherwise taking care of the necessities of life. And yet here I was, again, my eyes and nose filled with dust, wondering if it was time for me to grow up or grow out of this experience, when what appeared to be a 90-year-old man rode by on an ice-shaving cart. He was the most radiant old man I had ever seen, and I came back to my senses—at least for the moment.
Because in that moment I remembered the quote from Naima Penniman, of Climbing PoeTree: “Creativity is the antidote to destruction. Art is the opposite of the violence that divides us. It is a tool that builds empathy across difference and awakens us to new ways of participating in the creation of the world.” Okay, maybe I didn’t remember that full quote in the moment, but it does speak to the core of what draws me back to this Wild West showdown of creativity. In these crazy times on our planet, when we have more inquiries about the quality of the future than answers—this is a place where we can flex our collective creative muscles to engage, collaborate, and maybe even invent some new solutions. For one wild week a year, this desert becomes the canvas of invention and innovation for artists, builders, makers, Mad Maxers, dreamers, visionaries—and in a society where time itself has been commodified, we get the privilege of living outside of time.
Burning Man provides an exceptional range of experiences: dream it—and you can create or experience it. In addition to the wild costumes, the complete absence of costumes, and the variety of art vehicles and climbable sculptures, you can deepen your relationship with your beloved at an intimacy workshop; dance the night away at a rave party; learn to salsa, contact dance, or merengue; practice yoga during sunrise at the temple; explore your sexual desires in the orgy dome or bondage classes; explore your sexual identity at the gender blender camp; host a wedding, a funeral, or any other kind of ceremony; attend a TED Talk; or use it as a Silicon Valley networking event. Any experience you want to have is up to you to find or create.
All of this takes place in a wilderness setting—even if it stops being wilderness when “the city” is built. You still live under the sky more than under a roof, with the stars and moon and night and the blazing heat of the sun during the day, at the whim of the wind and sand, and in the chill of the coldest hours before the dawn. How you meet all this, along with the dance parties, is your vehicle for transformation—even if Burning Man (thankfully) doesn’t bill itself as a transformational festival.
I liken Burning Man to a pilgrimage of sorts: to check in on one’s personal State of the Union. Sure, you could more easily go on a trip into the wilderness or take a meditation retreat, but rather than struggle through the confines of one’s mind, Burning Man provides a magical mirror that reflects where you are through the collective. You get to swim in the flow of trust and serendipity outside the confines of social status or work title, or you can even leave behind your own name. The one thing we are judged on—if judged at all—is how we share our essence in the moment.
Friends who arrived on Wednesday had their heart set on adventuring into the heart of the playa, despite my pleas to avoid the desert at the height of the midday sun. We rode our bikes out and had no sooner gathered around an art installation called The Dusty Supper (a Burner version of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper—a long table set with plates, goblets, and chairs) when the wind kicked up. We were now in a whiteout—the sand taking to the air and making it almost impossible to see one another. This was exactly what I had wanted to avoid.
“What are we supposed to do here?” a woman with a thick German accent asked. The question seemed ridiculous, and the only logical thing to do in such a moment is to play.
“We make magic!” I answered as I opened my “magic” wicker basket and asked her to choose an object. She picked out the golden foil covered in stars. I then instructed her to stand back and read from a book of Rilke love poems as I gathered the 10 men lingering in the area into a tight huddle.
“What kind of magical tool shall we give her?” I asked the men.
“We need to crown her Queen of the Playa,” one answered.
They all agreed, she needed to be queen.
“And what special powers will this crown give her?” I asked.
“She will be able to make beer from dust!” another answered, keeping to the theme of the art piece. So we pulled her into our circle, and sat her on a throne decorated in roses, and as a group, confirmed her coronation.
We had our laugh, exchanged hugs, and went on our way. No sooner did we leave than the storm cleared and a man walked up and offered us a cold beer.
I kid you not.
The Power of The Gift
But still, the question lingers: what makes it feel so special? Chip Conley, entrepreneur, TED Talk speaker, and founder of Fest300.com, which tracks the best of the world’s festivals, explained that festivals are nothing new in history; we have been gathering to celebrate abundance and give thanks to the gods for eons. Then he explained the novelty of our moment: that the new festival culture is growing at an exponential rate. “Festivals are antidotes to digital life,” he said. “The more URL we get, the more IRL (in real life) experience we need. Face-to-face time is what we have scarcity around.” The difference between other festivals and Burning Man is this: “Most festivals, you pay your money and expect the festival producer to give you something. But here, you make your own experience. That is why Burning Man continues to evolve.”
And evolve it does, primarily in terms of what Burning Man’s “gift economy” might actually be. “When it all started in the ’80s,” says Larry Harvey, founder of Burning Man, “San Francisco was a very affordable town and had a thriving culture for artists. They were gathering in people’s homes and hosting salons, and, given the culture and sheer quality of the artists, there was an inherent culture of generosity—people drawn to sharing their artistic gifts.
“We went through several iterations once we moved the event out to the playa. The inquiry started when a man showed up to sell fireworks. It was the first time someone had done that and we didn’t quite know what to do with it. By the end of the week he was so affected by our culture (and probably that no one was buying his fireworks) that he started giving them away. After that we made it official: no vendors. Then we had a few years of discovering, as a community, what gift giving is all about. It morphed into a barter system, but we decided that was just mimicking the economic system, so we strongly advised against it. Then there were the years of giving plastic trinkets. But in its present iteration it seems to be morphing into something else, where people are coming with the gift that is theirs to give. Sometimes that looks like a ride on an art car, sometimes it looks like something else.”
Brad Nye, one of the founders of a camp called Red Lightning, caught my attention at dinner when he gave a rousing talk encouraging everyone to show up fully with what they had to give—and that this could be a place for people to connect with their soul work. It was a relief to hear the recalibration of the gift-giving culture as one of soul purpose. It was so simple and right in front of me the whole time. Handing out stuff as gifts had often seemed like paying taxes.
The way I’ve given my “gift” at Burning Man often happens on a quiet late afternoon once the wind has died down. I usually walk into the desert in a bright-red floor-length dress, holding a blue umbrella with strings of medicine bottles attached that hold the names of stories. The offering is simple: I ask whomever I encounter to reflect on where they are in their life and what they want to give attention to, and then to choose a bottle. And it is magical: I’ve ended up in deep conversations about love and loss, and taking on other people’s woes; and those wild experiments in giving my gift had the effect of shaping the way I offered my own form of storytelling.
This relevance of giving our unique gifts to the world took over and I began to see that in a web of infinite connection: the DJ who shares his gift of music, who helps the dancer become more embodied and attuned, who then inspires another to reach out of their comfort zone in a moment of inspiration, and in their dance, a heart is opened, and that open-hearted person has different kinds of interactions on their way home, and might be more open to a conversation than they would have been, and ignites an idea in someone else, and that person might just find themselves imagining a new way of designing the electric grid. And while that might seem like a fantastical fantasy, this much I know is true: while the impact of this festival isn’t measurable, it is trackable. The festival is taking root around the planet through “regional burns”; and the two fastest-growing regionals are in places of major conflict—South Africa and Israel. Burners Without Borders was organically born out of Hurricane Katrina (which happened during the festival) and has evolved into an official nonprofit that organizes around disaster relief, while groups this year from the Red Lightning Camp have organized to bring their structures and community to Standing Rock.
The experience of Burning Man stands in stark contrast against the constant disruption of connection I feel in my everyday life. Here you have the wind and the clouds and the dust and the sun and the naked guy walking by and the woman playing her violin next to the ballerina, and all the noise in your head is quieted because the beauty of life is calling for your attention, and life feels really full—it actually feels larger than life.
Among the Embers
It took me five or six years of going to Burning Man before I finally stayed for the burning of the temple, which is when I discovered what grounded this wild and crazy event. After raging, dancing, screaming, laughing, and dancing for days and nights on end, people become softer, quieter, and gentler with each other. The hyperactivity comes to a lull, perhaps just from exhaustion, but maybe because we walked through sandstorms and windstorms together, we shivered through cold nights and sweated and burned through hot days, we explored new and extravagant acts of creativity that inspired wonder and play, we hugged more people than we did in the past year, we howled at the sunset, and we danced as we watched the sunrise. We pushed some limit of curiosity, self-expression, physical exertion, or wonder, we were exposed to more electronic music than any normal person should be, and at some point or other when we reached outside ourselves we felt how good it feels to be connected. And now we were finally sitting in complete silence, coming together to pray for each other, these magnificent humans who have shown their truest or wildest colors to each other—all because we were in a container that invited the most radical expression of self.
Although I had set out to watch the temple burn with camp mates, we lost each other, and I promptly ran into an old friend dressed in a pink bunny suit. The last time I had seen her was at the Paris UN Climate Talks. I set out my big red blanket near the burning embers of the temple, and as she curled up and went to sleep, I took out the medicine bottles that had the names of stories on them—and was immediately surrounded by people filled with curiosity. With every story told, a bottle was given away.
I then rode my bike home through a frigid night, stopping at every fire to warm myself along the way. At one fire an Israeli woman who looked to be in her early 70s struck up a conversation. She told me that when her husband asked what she wanted for her birthday, she answered “a trip to Burning Man.” She said her children were appalled. I asked her what she had learned while here. She smiled at me and said with true wonder in her voice, “I never knew people could be so beautiful.”
Advice for Virgin Burners
Whenever I meet a virgin burner I give them three pieces of unsolicited advice:
1. Ride your bike into the middle of a dust storm.
Code for: Allow the elements to scrape off the exterior that you think you need to survive the world, so that your essence can shine.
2. Make it to the trash fence.
Code for: Leave behind the comfort and security of the city and explore the unknown until you find the outer limits of what you are capable of.
3. Integration is a bitch.
Going back to your “normal life” is hard. And you can’t help but wonder (if only for a moment) which one is more real? Clean up slowly… As you wash off the dust, watch and listen for what old parts you left behind and what new parts came home.
Kiss from the Universe
I walked through the temple in the middle of the night, and settled finally on a spot outside, where I placed a box containing a large stack of business cards in the wall. Those cards held the name and URL for an online film company I had designed to tell the stories of people healing in the presence of the natural world. I hadn’t had what it took to build the team and gather the resources for the vision to succeed, so I was handing the cards over to the temple that would soon burn. As I did, something much larger surfaced to be released: the shame I felt about this failure to launch. As the tears fell, I settled into deeper truths about my continued arrogance and stubbornness about trying to accomplish large and small things on my own, and my tears turned into quiet sobs. And as I prayed for something different, the arms of some kind person wrapped around me and held me tight. I never saw the person. We never spoke. But that sweet moment of someone reaching out of their world and into mine… felt like a kiss from the universe.
Leah Lamb says her first love is storytelling, and her work has appeared on stage and television as well as in magazines including Fast Company and National Geographic. Leahlamb.com