It Is What It Is

This amorphic title is probably the smartest thing I can say about my experiences in the massive (70,000 people) social experiment called Burning Man. But since stupidity has never stopped me before, I guess it won’t stop me know… read on for some personal accounts of this mayhem.

The Way

First of the RV breakdowns. A total of two flats, two tires came off, the propane pipe teared, step broke, roof leaked and the headlight burned out !!

First of the RV breakdowns. A total of two flats, two tires came off, the propane pipe teared, step broke, roof leaked and the headlight burned out !!

The adventure began when I joined Cinco, an old friend, who was kind enough and connected enough to find me a last minute ticket. I joined the two Lords, who were to become my guides and close friends in the days to come. We traveled in an RV manufactured on the year of my birth, which made me feel really old, especially as it started to disintegrate. The first explosion of a tire happened close to civilization, at the outskirts of Reno. We waited 6 hours until a truck big enough to lift the RV and put on the spare tire arrived. When the second spare tire exploded we were in the middle of nowhere and ended up spending the night camping on the side of the road with the beautiful starlit sky above us.

The city started out empty

The city started out empty

The rest of the way to the town of Gerlach we drove at 5 miles per hour with one wheel missing. We got a taxi from Reno to deliver two new tires to the local car shop and we were finally on our way to the famed Black Rock City, or so we thought… Passing the line at the entrance only took us an hour and a half, almost a miracle as people sometimes wait 12 hours. But the adventure wasn’t over. We got pulled over by the Police because one of the RV’s headlights had died. Dogs were running around the RV and sniffing it searching for drugs. We were saved, (once again) by Liz, a bubbling green braided master of flirtation who had been traveling behind us since the first flat tire. She had spent the day in Gerlach talking to the cops and knew the guy who had stopped us. She told him about the horrible two days we had and we were let off without even getting a fine for the busted head light, just a citation, the policeman said ‘you can smoke because it means nothing’.

 

Work Hard Play Hard

Building our camp!

Building our camp!

Cinco, who organizes the couchburners camp (based on couch surfing ideas), had gotten us early entrée tickets and from the night we arrived we began working. We marked the camp territory, built shade structures, organized hangout spaces, a kitchen and a makeshift shower; in essence we made a home for us and the people that would shortly join.

Seeing the city slowly build up and getting to experience it while it was still quite empty was a real privilege. Once the official gates opened an influx of people arrived and the mayhem began.

The Rules

Radical self reliance. Prepared for everything :)

Radical self reliance. Prepared for everything :)

Despite what one might expect, there are many rules to burning man and much bureaucracy; there is even a DMV office to register art cars and a media office you have to get permission from if you want to use photos for commercial use. The first few days, my rebellious self felt annoyed by these rules but throughout the burn I had come to look at the rules differently. First I thought they were a great way to create some common ground for a community, then I felt that the rules were an anchor designed to help me create some structure in the mayhem. Finally one of the Lords corrected my way of thinking, making me look at things from the view point of the burning man meme itself. The burn is an idea that has been evolving for 30 years and these rules were the evolution needed for the burn’s survival, any symbiosis with the human population, was because the burn needed humans. If too many people died or got injured the burn would be canceled. The same went with the no Mooping (matter out of place) rule. One had to pick up all the garbage because it was federal land and that was the rule they put forth. It wasn’t there to help me not lose my stuff (although it did as I devised a philosophy of MacGyvering everything to my body with carabineers and duct tape!) It also did not mean burning man was a community based on ‘green’ ideas as the carbon footprint of burning everything was massive.

The Radical self-reliance rule was much the same. A festival insisting on keeping its own freedom from any cooperation or endorsement, especially in the harsh environment of the Nevada desert, had to depend on participants’ self-reliance. The fact this rule created abundance which allowed for a gift economy and from my subjective point of view made me feel that the playa ‘provided’ me with help whenever I needed, or that by giving to the system I felt immediate benefit because I was part of the system, did not mean I was actually of any importance. It was a byproduct of the meme’s survival.

For me, self-reliance also meant that as usual, I came expecting the worse. Perhaps that was the reason the harsh conditions (a hail storm on one day and a sand storm on another) almost did not interfere with my experience. It might even be the opposite; they became part of the adventure.

The city filled up! Room for everyone and anyone... with a ticket :)

The city filled up! Room for everyone and anyone… with a ticket :)

Inclusion is another one of the burn rules, you do need to have money for your ticket and food and water but except for that the burn accepts everyone and anyone – this rule gives the burn an extremely robust survival trait. The byproduct of this is that there is something for everyone. From hippy new age ceremonies, to alternative energy lectures to 24 hour raves,  a roller disco, opera, endless art, things to climb, games to play and more and more and more! Even an orgy dome I tried to enter, but the line was too long. Personally I found the burn was a great place to taste new things like trying to play with Aerial silk for the first time, but it was not a place to deepen skills to a higher level. Martial arts and contact improve classes were present in the burn but at a surprisingly amateurish level.

 

The Candy

A picture that is worth one word!

A picture that is worth one word!

There are many different candies present at the burn, some legal everywhere, some legal in certain states and some that should be legal. Experiencing the city in different states of consciousness made me think of the burn as an amusement park specifically designed for taking psychedelics. It’s probably the safest place in the world to experiment with your brain, not only because the community tolerates it but the city’s design itself, with the man and temple at its center, surrounded by the circular streets provide order and structure and safety.  Crossing every main intersection in a straight line is almost impossible as something random will pull you towards it. So you wander around bouncing like a particle in strange magnetic fields using your momentum to explore and move randomly but still being pulled back to safety and close to assistance.

The truth is the only times I got injured or felt things were dangerous and didn’t make sense were when I was totally sober. I injured myself while climbing, crashed my bike and got totally lost, my attention kept being distracted by whatever craziness was going around me leaving me vulnerable.

An infinity mirror from our neighbors, the Thumper music camp, who played amazing music day and night (pic from their Facebook https://www.facebook.com/thumpercamp)

An infinity mirror from our neighbors, the Thumper music camp, who played amazing music day and night (pic from their Facebook https://www.facebook.com/thumpercamp)

Tasting different candies with different people was an amazing experience and experiment I have yet to fully digest. It allowed me to experience the circles within circles of social holons, there was me, there were us, there were others, closer and further, disco balls reflecting each other bouncing our signals, creating an infinity mirror. The multiplexing of the input channels I perceived changed based on the distance to others, how well I knew them, and the candy.

The famous pulpo mecanico art car. It shoots fire at night.

The famous pulpo mecanico art car. It shoots fire at night.

On my first night out with the two Lords I felt (or imagined) what I can only describe as the ‘collective’ consciousness of the playa. I was pulled towards these massive music breathing mechanical beasts lined up, shining, moving twirling in a line. I was the first to realize it was the art cars, waiting for the DMV to give them a license.  We danced in front of them and I noticed how each art car sucked in different people based on their musical preference. We finally moved past them and entered a ‘hotel’. It might be moving but not because it has wheels. The Lords laughed as I was sure the hotel was moving. We walked on a two story high plank (safety third!) into what I perceived as endless looping corridors (next day I realized it was just two rooms with a window connected between them). Most of the time I didn’t know if I was in a dreaming or not, it was a reverse function of a lucid dream, a dream reality, a rabbit hole. I collected Chewy bar wrappers I ate as a ‘reality check’ to test the time passage and consistency of this world.

That night I learnt the importance of being well lit at night. Providing light to the playa at night is a gift for everyone. Besides, having a special light signature means people will find you and you won’t have to search for them. Luckily, the two Lords were priests in this light religion creating their own led lit clothing and ‘pimping’ my outfit for the next nights out.

The city at night, so many lights!

The city at night, so many lights!

There was so much information, so much noise; the easiest way to stand out, to be something your brain could focus on was to increase the volume. More light, louder sound! This is probably what leads to the burn philosophy of ‘if you can do something you might as well over do it!’ An interesting ‘Dan Arieli’ phenomenon I became aware of was how comparison is an important factor of my brain function. Music or no music my brain was always attracted to music, even if when I got to the sound system I didn’t actually like it! The expectation, the need for it was almost more enjoyable. It’s an important bias to remember, something or nothing (relationship, work or whatever), your brain will always tilt towards the something, even if it’s not what ‘you’ really want.

I also realized how awful this ‘body bureaucracy’ is. Drink, pee, drink, pee, eat! my body kept signaling and pulling me away from all the wonders around me. Peeing is one of the hardest things on the Playa, you can only pee in designated bathrooms that are hard to find and each visit to them is terribly magnificent. It also offers a ‘time out’ from the others, just you and the melting, breathing toilet walls.

That night l got the playa name ‘Ninja’. Cinco gave it to me while we were talking quantum physics on the couch on top of the school bus. I love the name, and it’s a great excuse for me not to hug people which is one part of the burning man religion I choose to be very selective with. ‘Sorry I’m Ninja, I don’t hug people I kick them’. As for the rest of the ‘religion’, I was only too happy to convert. The burning man is something to believe in, something bigger than me. It has no god, it does not presume to make sense but if every one believes in it, the power of belief makes it real. When I realized that, I joined in doing things I wouldn’t usually do like drinking some alcohol and enjoying the collectivization of it.

Another night there were four of us roaming the playa as if in a computer game charging up from heat or music, laughter or comfy cushions, creating our own unique space, attuned to each other’s needs and feelings in a way I could not have ever imagined. “Someone needs to pee but it’s not me,” I remember saying and someone would admit it was them. I got sucked into Monica’s white laughter managing to escape only because I remembered Lord’s instructions, “That empathy, you have to learn how to put up borders, how to realize if something is coming from you or if is the being imposed by something outside of you. It’s all about suggestibility; your brain can be convinced of anything. Try to realize how other people or groups affect you and change the environment and the dynamics of the moment. That’s why tripping with someone is the truest mirror.”

My failed reaction time experiment. The first hour or two after taking candy there is a slight improvement but later, when the ruler looked like it was leaking and moving results get worse with time.

My failed reaction time experiment. The first hour or two after taking candy there is a slight improvement but later, when the ruler looked like it was leaking and moving results get worse with time.

There were moments I literally could not identify my own hand and for the first time nail polish did not seem totally idiotic, it could be used as a personal identifier for body parts. I played with this suggestibility convincing myself and others that I was never cold and could be used as the group’s radiator. A later experiment proved that this suggestibility has its limits. I was unable to convince my brain my reaction time experiment was important. I was however able to ride a bicycle 10 times better in these altered states, even through a dust storm which blinded me. My current hypothesis is that my brain recognized bicycling as a survival need while catching a ruler on cue was not deemed important enough to allocate resources to. The limbic system has much more power over the organism in these altered states – it doesn’t help to ‘tell’ your brain what to do, you have to ‘feel’ it.

I found myself unable to enter someplace (the embrace massive statue which felt so ‘heavy’ and depressing) while physically being stuck to others (an art structure called the bee hive). In my two visits to the temple I was totally brought back to real reality. The temple is a place where people mourn, cry and release whatever is in them that needs letting go of. They write on the walls and leave notes and pictures and at the end of the week the temple is burnt down in silence. I understood the need for such a place but felt it was not for me, the most I could do was offer my support to those who needed it.

Another life changing experience was feeling a funktion one audio system, the crisp clean waves of sound engulfing me creating coherence even if I didn’t like the music itself, an audiophile was born!

I do not know if these candies are ‘only’ a magnifying glass of all the tinny cues and inputs that usually do not reach the higher cortex functions or if it really is an ‘extra’ sense, I have yet to be convinced that there is a practical difference.

The temple

The temple

Anyway, this crazy night ended with watching the sunrise outside the temple. It was nothing like any sunrise I had seen, the colors were changing in super slow motion, the mountains were emerging, vibrating into reality, bringing a new day. I had this intense epiphany, realizing the world was like the playa, it my playground, to explore, to experiment, to enjoy. A few nights later trying to survive a dust storm as the man burnt (What’s the big deal? It was just like sex for the first time, too many expectations!) I felt the exact opposite ‘I was the world’s playground’; being pulled and pushed by so many forces that were totally out of my control.

The sensor Hamsa! Part of Pulse And Bloom by Saba Ghole

That’s when Lord noticed what I thought was the most amazing art piece on the Playa (Photos HERE). We were sitting on comfy cushions below fake led lighten palm trees. There were two ‘hamsa’ shapes marking hand prints on each side of the tree. “There is a sensor here,” he said as I looked at him, thinking he had finally flipped. “It measures your heart beat”. As he touched the sensor the led colors changed and began pulsing at the rhythm of his heartbeat. When I touched the other sensor my heart beat was added in a different color. A biofeedback loop was created slowly causing us to merge our heart beats, ultimately syncing them into mesmerizing pulses of light. I melted, loving this world, where someone will create such beauty, such genius, even though so few will actually notice it. It is what it is, I thought for the millionth time that week, letting it all pass through me.

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