The temple is burning and the smart-ass remarks and peanut gallery squawking has died down, and now 26,000 people and I are silent. The temple swells up in flames, raining ash like a cottonwood tree or a Balinese cremation ceremony, and we are all still together, faces burning in the heat. The massive fire swallows the temporary structures instantly. The quieted crowd remains long after the wood transforms. A young man towards the front looks back over his shoulder at a quarter of a hundred thousand faces and says: "I'm going to think about the way people treated me this week, and the way I treated them, and I'm going to take it with me." The sea of people turns back across the evening desert to climb into their vehicles and join the mass exodus to default reality.
The continuing cultural prototype that is Burning Man could not survive 365 days a year as it does for that nine day stretch each summer. What does last is the spirit of inquiry and social curiosity. What it has created is a network of creative cultural entrepreneurs and a nation-wide community of questioners in a time of consuming assumption.
What is striking about this annual event is what it has created here at home: a vibrant group of artists and techies all networked; collaborating to create non-profits, job opportunities, creative projects, and local meaning. I've been most struck by the shape of the lives of its participants. Burners have created lifestyles, occupations, and values radically different from those conditioned into and imposed upon them. These are not the assumed party chasing, fancy-free, reality-dodging lifestyles, but rather priorities that privilege integrity, creativity, participation, engagement, and responsibility.
I encountered much of the "oh, the big desert rave" reaction when I told family and old friends about my plan to attend Burning Man Rites of Passage this year I was consistently surprised to find that, much like life anywhere, it is what you make of it. Burning Man can be a sacred experience, a drug-binged reaction to your overly stressful life, a post-divorce-finding-yourself-again fling, a distant view of another life form, or a lovely place to connect with new friends. For me, it was a parting of veils; glimpse into someone I have longed to be and dreamed of being brave enough to become. It was an experience full of kind, compassionate, inquisitive people looking to double-check their place in an ever expanding world of ideas. It was simply possibility and, for me, a gentle dose of hope.
Returning, on the other hand, has not been so gentle. Finding a place among a globalizing world that finds itself in a species-wide fiasco of identity and direction is quite a task. I am humbly reminded everyday of how much transition we are experiencing culturally. My hope is that humanity, the United States, and our local Bay Area citizens will choose curiosity instead of rigidity, creativity instead of stagnancy, participation and engagement instead of complacency, and responsibility instead of placing blame on everything larger than them.
I am all about holding government and businesses accountable, and I will always support movements that ask for responsibility and transparency from our social structures. However, the principle of radical self-reliance has instilled in me a belief in the tremendous amount of personal power one can gain from simply beginning with themselves. How are my actions, habits, and beliefs shaping the world around me and what can I do to live a more financially, socially, environmentally, and culturally sustainable life?
The answer for me today is to keep asking questions, and to keep checking my assumptions about people and what is valuable in the face of rapid world-wide change.
I didn't attend Burning Man 2011 and discover my hidden self, or decide to run away with a tattoo artist and open a bar in Puerto Vallarta. I simply watched my assumptions about what I have to be to matter or count in the world burn. I too will think about the way people treated me out there in the sand, and how I would like to carry that with me.
I am but a world,