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Why Burning Man Didn't Suck This Year... and What We Can Learn From It

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There were many reasons veteran Burners like me -- this year was my 11th -- thought that Burning Man might suck this year.

There was a ticket fiasco, in which the event sold out and scalpers appeared online selling tickets at five times face value.

There was, we were told, an unprecedented number of newbies, threatening to overwhelm Black Rock City with well-meaning, but clueless, partying -- and, we were also told, accompanied by an increased police presence.

And then there was the bad weather: lots of dust, lots of wind, lots of reasons to stay away this year, which I and my partner almost did.

Yet Burning Man didn't suck. Although larger, it didn't seem that different from past years. It had all the magic, community, sacredness, emotional center and impossible-to-describe otherworldliness that we Burners struggle to convey to outsiders, many of whom still seem to believe this experimental city is just naked hippies getting high in the desert. (At this point, I'm inclined to let folks believe that if they want. Maybe letting go of that kind of assumption is a good prerequisite for participating.) And while the reasons for this non-sucking may largely be mysterious, I think that all of us -- especially those of us involved in building countercultures and cultural enclaves -- can learn a lot from how Burning Man managed to stay vital, and real, this year.

First, the Burning Man organization (BMORG or BORG, depending on how sympathetic you want to be) did much more than in past years to educate newbies about the values of Black Rock City. I've never seen Burning Man's "10 Principles" -- including radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, and so on - so prominently displayed as this year, including in the run-up to it. (One theme camp poked fun at all this preaching by depicting the 10 principles as the 10 commandments, stone tablets, thee's and thou's, and all.)

This was a crucially good decision. True, it was a departure from Burning Man's more anarchic, choose-your-own-adventure beginnings. It had a whiff of indoctrination. But compromising on some of that original ethos in favor of maintaining community norms was exactly the right move. The first-timers I met, and they were indeed plentiful, were a little naïve, a little clueless, but also generally enthusiastic, willing and prepared. They were kind of cute, really: like boy and girl scouts in EL-wire, happily replicating the memes of Black Rock City.

In fact, let's face it: Burning Man has always had its share of douche bags, and for my non-commoditized money, I'll take this year's naïve party kids over previous years' drunken frat boys any time. Maybe the event selling out had its upside: the dudes who just want to shout "show your tits!" were almost nowhere to be found, shut out, no doubt, by the sellout crowds. Sure, there were still a few bad apples. But in general, the newbies I met erred on the side of exuberance, not douchiness.

So in addition to congratulating the BMORG for educating the new kids, I want to thank the new people for bothering to take it seriously. Virgins no more, now it's up to you to explore how you are going to radically self-express next year, and how to integrate the peak experience of Burning Man into your lives in the default world. Here's a hint: as Rilke said, you must change your life.

Another thing the BMORG did right was continue its emphasis of non-Black-Rock-City Burning Man culture. As last year, Thursday night of the event was centered around over 30 regional Burning Man communities burning effigies encircling the Man. This, plus printed propaganda, suggested a future for the culture beyond the limits enforced by the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada. Instead of a sense of "how much more can we take," these gestures gave me a sense of "here's where we might go next."

Finally, I think the bad weather actually helped. I don't know if marginal attendees bailed at the last minute, although the glut of below-face-value tickets in the week leading up to the event suggested that they did. (As one of those who criticized the BMORG's policies to fight scalping, I will hereby eat crow and declare the BMORG the victors in that particular battle.) What I do know is that those of us who made the trick had to stick together out there, because it was occasionally quite rough. Anyone who thought they were headed for a party in the desert likely got a rude awakening when their poorly-staked tent blew over in a dust storm.

Mostly, though, the weather seemed to increase solidarity. (We also got lucky: the worst of it came on the Wednesday night after the event, in the form of a heavy rainstorm which wreaked havoc on those still packing up.) It gave immediacy to the "10 principles," especially the parts about communal effort and civic responsibility. And, let's be honest: if more casual burners decided to sit this one out because of the weather forecast -- and, again, I was almost one of them -- that's just fine.

Throughout my career, I've sought to make peak experiences more available to more people. Whether in directing spiritual retreats, or the teaching I do at Burning Man, I try to share with others a little bit of the light that others have shared with me. In so doing, though, I wonder if I fall prey to the marketing mania of our consumer culture. Burning Man sold out this year without having done any advertising at all, and when its organizers realized that things might be getting out of hand, they doubled down on maintaining their values.

Not everything was perfect. There are plenty of gripes to be griped about the BMORG's weird hybrid of communal ethos and centralized decision-making, or this or that project that did or didn't get funded. Fine. The fact is, for this year not to have sucked was a minor miracle that came to pass not because of divine providence or dumb luck, but because of some really smart and sincere people doing some good thinking about a high-quality problem. By allowing the community to evolve, they managed to keep it true to its core principles. As the last motes of dust are washed out of our fuzzy coats and bright blue wigs, it's a value worth contemplating.

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