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Leah Lamb Headshot

How I Got F*cked by Burning Man, and Other Sacred Ceremonies

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(photo by: Trey Ratcliff)

So there I was, marching through a sandstorm in the middle of the night, tears streaming down my face. I felt myself getting pushed further and further into the desert by the incessant, blaring boom of loud bass, desperately seeking the outer edges of the playa to escape the competitive cacophony of music and voices and lights and wild and colorful outfits. I couldn't help but wonder why I had chosen to do this, rather than to be in the warm embrace of my boyfriend back home. I had to remind myself, over and over and over again: I had purposefully stepped into this seven-day ceremony. And this was only day two.

So how to begin talking about how I got f*cked by Burning Man? Do I begin with the sandstorm? The church bell? The man dressed like a chicken who cracked jokes while following us to the bathroom...?

Let me start by creating some context: Last January, my best friend and I had just flown through a lightning storm and landed in Iquitos, Peru, a humid, dingy, polluted city at the edge of the rain forest. It was late. Our room was dimly lit, and mosquitoes were attacking us from all angles, our clothes were sticking to our skin and we were trying to pack for a boat trip that would lead us further down the Amazon and into the forest for a ceremony. "We're f*cked," my friend said. We'd been getting along marvelously until that moment. I tend to take words seriously, and the framing of situations even more seriously. The idea of starting a "sacred" journey with the attitude that we were screwed before it even began didn't sound like we were setting ourselves up for fun. And so I responded viscerally, yelling "We are NOT f*cked!"

"I don't mean, we're F*CKED. I mean, we're f***cked." She held the word softly, rather than shoot the word out. It took another 24 hours and a meeting with a shaman before I finally got what she meant. We had committed to going on a journey, in the rainforest, with a shaman. We had committed to opening our souls to be examined, to be willing to see all that was living inside, the beautiful and the ugly. I looked into the eyes of my best friend and said with gentle resolve, "You're right, We're totally f*cked."

My friend was using the term in the same vein as how Ani DiFranco sings about it in her song "Untouchable Face" I didn't get the term in this context until I watched Ani sing it in a large stadium filled with young girls yelling "Fuck you" along with her at the top of their lungs. She stopped singing to explain how they had it all wrong: It wasn't a line meant to be yelled at someone in anger; it was a line that you sing to yourself, and to the creator of pain and all living things, about what it is to be broken open to the mystery of love, of loss, of how you can love in loss -- it is far more than words strung together, in an otherwise profane statement, can articulate (or at least that's what I took from when she told everyone to stop yelling at her song). It's about when you lie back and open your heart to let the universe penetrate you -- when all the love and like and vulnerability and anger mix into one ball of a word. It's the sacred "f*ck" I'm speaking of.

So now that we have that straight, let's continue.

I've gone to Burning Man seven times. For the first six of those times, it kept getting better and better, filled with more and more fun. I had to think twice about whether I was going to write about my experience this year. (Who wants to hear about me not having fun at Burning Man?) But here's the thing: Every time I go, I experience the same wild moment as I look across that open desert of art and mutant vehicles and costumes and disco sparkles; had someone given my imagination a blank canvas and said "GO!" there is no way I could have even imagined Burning Man. And that's the beauty -- no one person did imagine Burning Man. It is this wild, collective community of full-hearted participation, joyful playfulness and epic generosity.

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(photo by: Trey Ratcliff)

Each year, the experience of being at Burning Man -- of living outside of time, outside of schedules, telephones, obligations and deadlines -- has created a space, a spaciousness, that has given me the opportunity to connect with this wild experience of living on this planet in a different way. But this year, I got to experience living Burning Man as a ceremony in a way that I hadn't before.

OK, fine, that isn't entirely true, but it sounds good, so let's go with it. (The truth is, there was a moment: We were somewhere looking at something amazing, and my friend said rather offhandedly something about Burning Man being a ceremony, and I was stopped in my tracks, realizing that I had forgotten that. But that came later). Back to now: So there I was, walking through the desert, tears streaming down my face, wondering why the hell I had spent so much time and energy to get here. For what, I wondered? For this sensation of being completely overwhelmed and this moment of sadness? Why hadn't I just gone to Kauai? This is not what I came for, I was thinking to myself as I watched yet another tutu-clad raver bop on by. What is the point of this discomfort and insanity? Why am I wasting my time on this when there are scripts to write, and projects to plan, and books to finish? There are far more important things for me to do.... I started the litany of excuses and complaints to justify my malaise.

And then something happened. It's rather inexplicable. I realized that this feeling of overwhelming angst and complete sensory overload, that the fact that my system literally couldn't handle one more thing (in retrospect) is exactly what I had come for -- the time and space to get real with how I feel about the world at large, to actually take the time to feel the stress in my body due to overpopulation, due to the non-stop noise and complete lack of opportunity for a break or real rest, due to the humdrum, non-stop, go-go-go, build-build-build, hear-me-no-ME world we are living in. I was able to witness and directly experience the impact of the full spectrum of human capacity on me, and it was, well, a sacred bummer.

Ok fine, it didn't feel sacred at all in that moment. But I managed to stick with my "right place, right time" dogma of Burning Man. And with that, I was able to stay present, despite the extreme discomfort and joylessness that I and my playa buddy couldn't seem to shake in that moment. It was ok. This was right. I realized that if I could just stay with it, to be present with all that was happening, if I could look the fear and sadness and completely overwhelmed feeling in the face -- if I could celebrate this as the medicine of the ceremony that I had chosen to attend -- well, at least I would be able to see it for what it was and not carry the weight of what I was feeling on my back like a 10- ton anvil that was felt but not seen.

OK, fine. It's not like that revelation just popped into my head in that moment. It took a few days to settle in and come alive within me, this truth about how I'd been experiencing life in general.

So perhaps the time has come to talk about Burning Man as ceremony. People are drawn to use it as such, there are weddings, memorials, engagements and more. Turns out Lee Gilmore wrote an entire book on the subject, Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man.

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(Photo by Kait Singley)

Burning Man is filled with wind, heat, cold, exposure to the elements and a lot of people who can push one to the edges of one's comfort zone, you end up with what many in outdoor education refer to as a positive thing. When you push through your comfort zone, you get to cut through and reveal the allness of what lives within you: the good, the bad and the ugly and see what you are capable of and what you are made of. That is the gift of the Burning Man container. It's not like Burning Man has to be a ceremony to experience that, and some approach it Vegas style: what happens at Burning Man stays at Burning Man. But for me, over the years I have made a practice of carrying the experiences, the opening for new awareness and perspectives to carry into life in the "default world."

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(photo by: Trey Ratcliff)

But there is something I hadn't accounted for: When you step into a shaman's circle, you know that you are working with that shaman's medicine. I hadn't bothered to think about what medicine Burning Man was handing out this year. As luck would have it, the theme was "cargo cult" -- in other words, false idols. When I started to look at my experience of preparing, and getting there, and being there and the discomfort I had with myself and others and the shift in my long-held views of myself and others, I started to understand that I had stepped into this soup without fully appreciating the ingredients.

I was still wondering why I chose Burning Man over Kauai as I was standing 15 feet from a crane dangling a gigantic disco ball, watching go-go girls dressed in white fluffy boots dance on top of a truck, when the man next to me shared why he was now straight-edge and didn't drink or use drugs. He explained that he had left his family when he was just out of high school to join the army, and had returned to our country as a veteran and ended up homeless, withering away in the streets as a drug addict, and was rescued by a homeless shelter, and how he found his strength again through rock-climbing, which had eventually led him to a successful career. It was then that I realized that every projection I could have placed on this tall handsome hunk of a guy was blown to pieces, and as my heart softened to his fragile humanity and his extraordinary strength, and in that moment, I got f*cked by Burning Man.

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(photo by: Trey Ratcliff)

When I wandered the playa with a sign offering my gift of wacky mythic stories, an older woman ran up to me and said, "I really need a good story right now." When I finished, and she wiped the tears from her face and engaged me in a philosophical conversation about how we choose to carry or witness another's pain, I got f*cked by Burning Man.

And when we sat in the little church for a few hours past midnight, and watched as each new person came in and rang the bell in his or her own way, singing opera to us, giving confessions that would make you blush and bowing at our feet... as I sat in awe of our innate desire to create and express ourselves through any and every avenue provided: I got f*cked by Burning Man.

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(photo by: Trey Ratcliff)

This year, I fell in love with humans again. After receiving so many messages from the news about people being forces of destruction on our planet, it was rejuvenating and enlivening to be reminded of our ability to be extraordinary, ridiculously creative, innovative, brilliant, generous, kind, as well as selfish, self-serving, fearful and more.

Burning Man as ceremony isn't done in silence. This ceremony is about what happens when all of our atoms bump up against each other and meet. It is the wild cacophony of music and beats and glitter and sunshine that everything between misery and ecstasy all happen at once. As we walked across an almost empty playa in the final moments just before sunrise I couldn't help but revel in the thought that last night, new lovers met for the first time, weddings were consecrated, relationships exploded to enter into a new expanded place of love and others had broken a part. All on the same desert floor that we were all dancing upon.

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(photo by: Trey Ratcliff)

When I look at Burning Man through the lens of ceremony, I realize the power of a strong container. Burning Man's container is 68,000 people deep and six miles wide. It's that container that ultimately creates the safety that allows us to experience all of that freedom and embody any and all archetypes. Case in point: Speaking with a Burning Man virgin at the Astral Hair Wash, I told him that he had to make it out to the deep playa and touch the trash fence before leaving. "Will I get lost?" he asked. "You might get disoriented, but you won't get lost."

In hindsight, I realize, it's in knowing that you will be caught, even if only by a three-foot fence -- which allows for you to wander further than you might normally, without fear of getting lost -- that lets you go so far out with your thoughts, with your ideas, with your expression, your creativity, your anger, your ecstasy, your sadness, your love, your fear and more. It was in the midst of all of that beauty that I was able to open to all that was present, understood and mysterious. And that~ is worth celebrating. It's knowing that there is a container that allows for bold and daring maneuvers of the heart, mind and body; and that your friends, and a little fence made to capture garbage, will be there to catch you. It's like any good creative exercise -- all the freedom you need to expand into something you never dreamed possible, and just enough structure to inspire brilliance.

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(photo by: Trey Ratcliff)

So yeah, I got f*cked by Burning Man this year. I surrendered and received and dove for all the lovely little lessons it threw at me. It wasn't always fun (and many times it was), but it was far more than fun. It was extraordinary.