I checked my packing list for the long Labor Day weekend: antler headpiece, hair extensions, hot pants, fur coat, support hose and estrogen cream. My husband and I were going to Burning Man for the first time -- under the tutelage of our 26-year old daughter, Zai, her partner, Phil, and a large group of their friends.
We packed up the car with food and water for five days, drove to the Nevada desert, and, after a three-hour wait at the gate watching the sunset -- some waited 23 hours while the gates closed for rain on the playa -- it was our turn at the entrance. A distant din and twinkling lights beckoned in the otherwise dark void ahead.
"Welcome home," the young attendant smiled as she took our tickets. "First time?" We told her it was. "Birgins! Please get out of the car, roll in the dust, and ring the bell!"
It's easy to make fun of Burning Man from a distance, and many have. It's even easier up close: People stroll naked or half-naked, in Star-Wars-meets-Mad-Max-meets-Indian-guru garb. Sessions are offered on respectful fisting, penis worship, and making your own greeting cards by stamping your genitals with colorful paint on cardstock -- a craft I typically enjoy, though I've never used that particular stamp.
There is no Internet or cell coverage, no plumbing and no power grid. My husband Arjun gravitates to new experiences, and while I'd rather meditate in a lush forest, I was determined to keep an open mind. I respected our daughter and trusted that what she valued here would be revealed to me. After all, her visit the previous year had inspired her decision to leave a secure job and pursue her passion for metal working and furniture design. I wanted to know -- what could be so powerful here?
Zai and Phil had arrived days earlier and were camped a half-mile away, but telepathically, they showed up at our camp moments after we arrived. "Put warm clothes on, we'll take you out to the playa!" they urged, as they wired our bikes and camelbacks with electroluminescent (EL) wire and showed us how to work our headlamps. (We needed to be visible on the playa so as to not get hit by roving art cars and buses.) Pedaling quickly through camp and out onto the open playa on our too-small bikes, I felt like the kids in ET pedaling out into the night...and the elixir of childlike wonder that bubbled up was irresistible.
My headlamp lit the three-foot space in front of my bike, but beyond, otherworldly creatures and fantastical vehicles lit with multicolored LED lights crawled the dark sea around us: a giant flame-throwing octopus on wheels, a 17th century sailing ship, a six-foot set of teeth on wheels.
We stopped to take it in. But as Arjun lifted his camera to his eyes, Zai admonished with the first of the community norms: "Be present, Papa. Don't observe this through a lens. You have to respect people's self-expression." A young man materialized to offer me a tiny, warm, freshly baked chocolate chip cookie. It melted in my mouth, and I started to thank him but he disappeared through the door of an old-West porch front. I parked my bike and walked around the back. There, cowboys draped themselves over porch rails that enclosed a completely outfitted Old-West kitchen, where my cowboy was pulling another pan out of the antique oven. He tipped his hat and smiled at me.
"Let's go find the chai cart!" Zai said. We hopped on our bikes and again pedaled over the hard desert floor, occasionally slowed by patches of soft sand and moving EL wires we presumed to be people. We pulled up to an oasis called Pulse and Bloom--a "pond" of 15-foot high rowlux and steel lotuses softly lit in blues and pinks and standing out against the black starlit sky. Each lotus arose from its "pad," a round patterned cushion where pairs of people curled up together or talked or slept. Some people had their hands on sensors in the stems, which registered their pulses and shot colored light up the stalks, in an attempt to synchronize their heartbeats. Pulse and Bloom arose from the collaboration of a neuroscientist, electrical and lighting engineers, an architect and artists from around the world.
The chai cart tricycle that Zai and Phil had built--inspired by chai carts she'd seen in India where her grandmother lives--was parked at the edge of the placid lotus oasis. Fluorescent orange, it was decorated with a detailed painting of Ganesh and a canopy of saris and marigolds, a bright lasercut "CHAI" sign, and LED accents to illuminate the cart in the night. People milled about the cart, chatting and warming their hands on the steaming cups of spicy tea. It gets cold after midnight in the high desert.
Next, we stopped at The Embrace, a seven-story wooden sculpture of the torsos of two people in an embrace. It rose out of the desert like the Great Pyramids of Egypt. Inspired by the lead artist's loss of his stepfather, it is a monument to intimacy--the feeling of being loved and the power of loved ones to shape our lives. We walked inside the sculpture on the ground floor, and there hung two mechanical beating hearts the size of small cars. We climbed narrow staircases to look out through the eyes and over the playa. Later in the week, we would watch this entire edifice burn to the ground at dawn.
At the other end of the emotional spectrum stood The Temple of Grace, a lacy wooden filigree dome nestled within a courtyard. Inside the circular space, people were gathered in hushed silence, meditating, or weeping, or just sitting still. Intended to honor "transitions," it was a receptacle for pain and sadness--to be released in a burn at the end of the festival. The interior walls were lined with small wooden paddle-shaped panels that could be removed and written on. "How do I stop hurting my loved ones?" one read. Another: "Dad I hope you get well soon and come back to life. I miss you and want you to know it's ok you left but don't lose me please. I love you." And another: "Goodbye my lower self. I will not miss you. You caused grief and I forgive you. I am on a journey to find myself. I will always be happy."
"Skrillex is playing," Phil said as we walked out. A quick bike ride brought us to yet another kind of experience -- a surprise electronica dance party DJ'd by the five-time Grammy winner Skrillex. Flanked by women in white bikinis and knee-high fur leggings, he stood atop a three-story art car. I popped in my earplugs as the electronica raged.
Burning Man, like all art, is famously a different experience for different people. It is often derided in the press for the sex and the drugs, and indeed there are certainly plenty of opportunities for those who seek it to explore new aspects of sexuality or altered experiences. One mother left a heartbreaking plea in Center Camp for help finding her son, last seen bicycling the playa, on acid, in a wedding dress. "Please return him," it said, "and don't offer him any psychedelics."
That we were in a different culture was palpable, but unlike the "default" world (the outside world), here in the "real world" the norms were explicit: radical inclusion, self-reliance, self-expression; community, civic responsibility, participation; decommodification and gifting. Jockeying for status was replaced by genuine interest in the other person. And it helped that no one was on a screen, checking messages.
The challenge to conventional thought was everywhere: men in tutus and skirts, giant imaginary vehicles shooting out flames, a parade of bunnies, an alligator rising from the desert floor. Yet it was not a free-for-all, and safe boundaries were evident: the poly group barred monogamous couples and single males; workshops were offered on communication, consent, and appropriate negotiation of sex; camp rangers roamed constantly, gently inquiring if people were all right; viewers were held safe distances from burning structures by lines of watchful volunteers. (The only zone not respected was silence -- there was no escaping the noise.)
Nor have I been met anywhere with such a stream of generosity and warmth -- a cold pickle offered here, a spontaneous hug there, an icy Coke, or a bracelet etched with the word, "Love." As Arjun and I bicycled past a group of young men, they rated us with large scorecards, "And here comes a couple all in white....What do the judges say? 10, 10, and 10!" Of course the only number they had was 10.
As a developmental psychologist, I appreciated that many in attendance were young adults. Intense questioning and exploration are developmentally appropriate when young people are sorting out their commitments to the many dimensions of their lives--their political views, spirituality, intimacy, work, sexuality.
We humans are wired to evolve, and it would be terrible if subsequent generations unquestioningly replicated the status quo of the previous ones. At Burning Man, that challenge culminates in the ritual burning of The Man, the representation of the establishment and the status quo. How much safer to witness a controlled burn in a safe space than to act it out in our streets or places of government.
Much has been made of the tech takeover of Burning Man, but I saw a quieter, less noticeable revolution taking place, led by social scientists and healing practitioners. Research over the last few years has demonstrated the power of our social relationships, for better and for worse: Scientists find that social pain lights up the same neural pathways as physical pain; that abuse and early trauma can change the developing neuroarchitecture of a child's brain; and that chronic interpersonal distress can cause health, emotional, and economic problems well into adulthood, potentially derailing a person's life.
On the positive side, good relationships can buffer the effects of illness and other challenges, even poverty; they are predictive of happiness; and they lead to better health and longevity. If the '90s was the decade of the brain, close on the heels is the decade of social relationships. Indeed, it is one key to solving some of the world's important problems.
The Temple, The Embrace, and Pulse and Bloom, and many more installations at Burning Man, are cues as to where some of the leadership is headed. We attended a TEDx conference in Black Rock City that focused in one way or another on relationships: how our individual realities are socially constructed; the complexities of helping others; how to listen longer; and why we should tell someone what's amazing about them while they're still alive. Many of the classes, activities, and installations -- however outlandish -- were really about awakening to our aliveness and managing our relationships better, and some, naturally, landed better than others. One session focused on the healing of gay men's relationships with their fathers. Acroyoga, the cross between partner acrobatics and yoga, seemed the epitome of rationality: One person was on his/her back with feet up in the air, while the partner did yoga balanced on those upturned feet--a feat that required intense focus simultaneously on oneself and one's partner.
The Millennials -- the generation that was educated with a respect for diversity, a social consciousness, environmental responsibility, and collaborative learning, and is famously kinder and more authentic -- will continue to help us evolve interpersonally. And we older folks, who have already made most of our important life choices, can still benefit. Even though sessions on "third acts," or menopausal sex, or relationships with grown kids (or foreign policy, Arjun lamented) were noticeably absent, I made my own self-improvement list to take home -- be more responsible for my own happiness, be more present for others, and take more social responsibility. I also felt my own boundaries soften, as I kept work anxieties at bay and made more room for others.
Every evening at sunset we gathered at Zai's camp for dinner. Twenty-five young people pulled their plates and cups from their dusty backpacks to receive the food offered from that evening's cooks -- carrot ginger soup, coconut rice, caramelized beets -- cooked over a barbeque, by each of them in turn, in the makeshift kitchen complete with homemade sink and gray water collection system. As we appreciated the food, we went around the table to share a happy moment from the day. "After three days I finally took a good poop;" "I was deeply rejuvenated by a long nap;" "I explored an art installation that was profoundly moving and inspiring;" "I saw my brothers naked for the first time since we were little." Many eyes welled with sentiment. Arjun told the young people stories of Ganesh, the god of his childhood community in India. And then they disbanded to don their desert galactica gear and EL wire and head out into the night.