Burning Man was definitely, unequivocally, a ritual of consumer resistance, even a cathartic ritual of rebellion (Gluckman 1954) that left society mostly unchanged, although more wryly amused, by its annual passing.
Modern and primitive, postmodern and digital, stone age spiritual hothouse, outdoor desert revival meeting and high-tech futuristic idea exchange, it was a time out of time that uniquely represented its time (see Pike 2001). It resisted American hegemony, late capitalism, monopolistic powerful markets, heavy-handed and unidirectional persuasion, impositions of bitter morality and sexual propriety, governmental invasions, overly sanctimonious interpretations of spirituality, and the power of industries and the mass media (Kozinets 2002). Why? Because those were the powerful forces of its day, manifestations of a world still throwing off the skin of old fixations, machine age inequities, colonial repressions, and Victorian age perversions as it was stepping into a world of intensely new technological powers and global connectedness without any guidemaps about how to dispel old notions of exclusion and inclusion, in-group and out-group, right and wrong, reality and unreality.
The twenty seventh century obviously has the same problems, mounted onto other problems, different problems, but what Burning Man’s utopian spirit says to you and to all times, if I can be so bold as to interpret it, is that we need to try to address these problems at times in a way that playfully, openly, experimentally, and with a sense of freedom suspends the rules. It is productive to occasionally untie ourselves from the past and from anyone else’s definition of what the current situation is or future is going to be. Think for yourself, and for your immediate clan. Express what’s within, and act from it as your foundation. Yeah, it sounds flaky and New Agey. Don’t forget that Burning Man is distinctly San Fran, as Californian as alfalfa sprouts, granola, and Zen Buddhism. So maybe Burning Man it’s odd, but maybe it’s a lesson, too. You obviously brought me back because you believed that is.
Burning Man changed with each season, with each day, within each theme camp, within each blazing heart. A mutable metropolis, far more insubstantial in the end than the shifting sands it was built upon. And perhaps that insubstantiality is its greatest gift and its biggest lesson. Watching the city rise on a Sunday and collapse the following Monday allowed us a god’s eye peek at the way things really are, at every city, at every civilization. We bonded together in intense closeness because the sense of Being in all the hyperactivity, the burning and mortality was simply so intense. We were watcher’s at the world’s end, dwellers for a time in a city on the edge of forever, compatriots in chaos, reveling in it all because it was utterly clear to us that, past and future combined within it, this moment is all we’ve got.
There is no going back.
You can try to breathe life into Burning Man’s rituals after six hundred years down and out, but they’ll probably seem as stale, boring, lifeless, and irrelevant as many religious rituals did for many of the adults living in my time and my society. Let it lie. Let its body rest in peace. The vibrancy of Burning Man wasn’t in what we thought or did out on the scorched earth of Black Rock City—which wasn’t really all that remarkable, after all —but was in the spirit of the place. It was alive—so alive—with the presence of the moment. That’s what the chief difference was. The art, the decorations, the drumming. Those were all props. On the main stage, the play was devoted to concentrating our collective energies on the ever-fragmenting presence of present moments, making the most of every second by actually being within it, being here now, watching the ineffable butterfly for a moment as it flits behind your eyeballs, catching it, and then gently setting it free, aware of the experience’s every instant.
There is no utopia.
Really there’s only now.
Ken Wilber said it perhaps best, in his wonderful New Age Hindu Freudian book The Atman Project. Interpreting the meaning of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and its Bardo Thotrol, Wilber (1980, p. 175) wrote that its true meaning was
In this moment and this and this and this, an individual is Buddha, is Atman, is the Dharmakaya—but, in this moment and this moment and this, he ends up as John Doe, as a separate self, as an isolated body apparently bounded by other isolated bodies. At the beginning of this and every moment, each individual is God as the Clear Light; but by the end of the same moment—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye—he winds up as an isolated ego.
The process of getting out of this cycle is one of anamnesis, forgetting how to forget your true self, remembering that you’ve remembered what you always were: that clear light. It’s in all the great books, Hindu, Buddhist, Kabbalic, Sufi, Platonic, Christian. It fascinated so many great minds, among them Philip K. Dick, one of the greatest science fiction authors, modern mystics, and ontological philosophers of our time (see Sutin 1991).
Anamnesis, the reincarnation of the moment, the self’s remembering of the self: ultimately, I think that’s what Burning Man really teaches us. Surrounded by the carnival, the endless promenade, the colors and smells and smoke and sun and bodies, you are drawn back into your own sense, your own body. Surrounded by hundreds of silly ideologies, you feel freed from the bullying ideologies that drive your own life, your petty hungers and wants. Almost against your will, you are trapped again in your body and forced to experience the now. Not some TV set reality, not some marketized mall. But right here, right now. Encouraged to burn the things you don’t need, you realize just how very much you don’t need. Toss it all in the fire. Good bye, good bye. That’s the utopia, I think. The youtopia. The place of freedom, where it’s just you and a clan and the land and the sky, in cozy close communion.
It’s real. It feels right. As I write this last paragraph, it dawns on me again crystalline as rock hard Chicago ice. There is no home, not really. There’s no going back. Primitive retroscapes. They’re Rorschach. They’re real only in our imagination. Everything in the past is an interpretation, a projection of our imagination. History’s history. I’m a cosmic robot. I’m words on a page.
Sure, we have remnants, shards, junk that’s left behind, scattered around. But what made the past moment precious wasn’t that it was in the past. It was that it was in the moment. This desperate thirst for the perfect past. It’s only a way of avoiding the perfection of the present. A way of avoiding saying our true names. A way to continue to hate our true lives, I guess.
There’s only the moment. And six hundred years ago, my moment passed. Dead and gone. Comatose, packed up, pulled the plug. Dead and gone.
The shop rocks again, and lurches. A bright light fills the place. We’ve been hungering, I’ve been hungering, for a perfect place, a place to return to. If only I could have another chance. If only I could get back to the perfect past.
The brightness is incredible now. Flashpoint.
It’s soft, and smooth, and wet and dark. Slow waves, distant drumming, the hum of conversations. The sea, yes, the Great Mother. The smell of salt and flesh incredibly close by. I just want to sleep. We want now to sleep. Go back to sleep, I think.
It’s a slow rocking sensation.