I've spent years coming up with reasons not to go to the riot of creativity known as Burning Man, which transforms an alkaline lakebed into Nevada's fifth largest city every year before Labor Day. You know the excuses: I'm not a hippy; I can't take the time off; I don't want to dress up in weird costumes; I don't want to camp in the desert; I can't afford it; it's just not for me; etc.
All fair reasons. But as I attempt to re-acclimate to the "normal" world and deal with the physical and mental remnants of my first Burn, I can say with certainty that every reason I had for not attending Burning Man was wrong. Very wrong. It's because of one's preconceptions that the most difficult thing about Burning Man is overcoming them and attending for the first time.
Though there can be struggles after that.
As a writer, movie critic and political commentator raised in a family of scientists, I pride myself on my ability to analyze, draw conclusions and articulate them in a concise and persuasive manner. However, this is solitary work that sometimes isolates me in my own head, preventing me from engaging with others and what's happening around me.
I'd hoped that I could get away from that at Burning Man. But once there, my mind returned to old habits and I found myself trying to figure out Burning Man instead of participating in it. What did that piece of art mean? What were people getting from it? What was that person trying to prove by dressing like that? My mind insisted that Burning Man was something to be studied at arms length, not experienced.
This struggle came to a head on my second night. One of the biggest challenges at Burning Man is keeping a group of people together, and after becoming frustrated trying to keep a group from my camp organized and moving, I gave up and went off on my own. With my physical separation now matching my mental isolation, I was engulfed by a despair as dark as the unlit playa. Despite the distance I had traveled and the leap of faith I had taken, I had brought my mind and all its hang-ups with me to Burning Man, and I felt imprisoned by it. I was as alone as ever, just with more interesting stuff to look at. I wondered if coming to Burning Man had been a terrible mistake and if I would even make it to see the Man burn.
I guess you could say that I hit Burning Man bottom. But the next day, something amazing began to happen -- I started to let it all go.
I stopped wondering about the message behind someone's costume or art and simply marveled at its beauty and creativity, thankful that so many invested so much time and effort on projects to be enjoyed by all. I gave up on trying to see everything -- an impossible task -- and embraced what was in front of me, which always held the potential to be the most meaningful thing I'd experience all week. When a girl I had the hots for went off with some other guy, I stopped acting like it was all about me and simply let it go. I spent a night out with a group from my camp where my fondest memory will be that, against all odds, we managed to stay together the entire night. I realized that I wasn't visiting a culture, but was a part of creating it. And on the night the Man burned, I hooked up with a woman -- something unusual for me -- and I can't even tell you how it happened.
In short, for a few days, I escaped the lonely places in my head and was able to live in the moment with wonderful new friends in a way that I had never experienced before. Others will probably get something completely different from their time at Burning Man, but that's what I got. It's what I needed. It was glorious -- a vacation like no other.
Burners often have playa names -- a name one uses at Burning Man that is either given to you or that you designate for yourself. At first, I was given the name Asian Shaman Pimp as a description of how I looked in one of my outfits. But by the end of the week, I had a new name -- All In -- a reflection of my desire to stop analyzing, take risks and live in the moment as fully as I can.
I'll definitely be returning to Burning Man next year. I don't know what I'll find. But I look forward to introducing myself to new people and possibilities, saying, "It's a pleasure to meet you. I'm All In."