THERE’S A MOMENT where the world disappears.
The dust storm glides in, swallowing the rows of RV’s, the mutant vehicles, the daytime ravers, the rows of furry bicycles, and the comforting street signs that triangulate your location in the crowd of 60,000. I feel like a sketch on a page, as if the artist has decided to erase their efforts and start again.
Dust tickles my throat and I stop pedalling my bike. I slip my goggles down to protect my eyes and adjust the mask around my nose and mouth. The whiteness becomes total. I search it with my eyes, marvelling at its thickness. This nothingness.
I wonder – if the world is gone, does that mean I still exist too?
This is my fourth consecutive Burn and I feel uncertain. Each year came with a corresponding “theme” that characterized the lessons learned. My first year I was invited to witness Death and not look away. The second year I chronicled the rise of compassionate Warriorship. On my third return to Black Rock City, I fell in love, and it was not with a person. Rather, the Temple of Transition stole my heart and taught me the meaning of Devotion. And now, once again I stand in the desert and wonder why I returned.
Last year was perfect. Last year was the culmination of my spiritual pilgrimage to Burning Man. My soul had been blown wide open by beauty so tender, and moments so timeless, they threatened to invoke tears from memory alone. And yet a part of me recognized the debt incurred by joining this parade of creativity: the money, the time, and most importantly, the fossil fuels.
“When you get the message, hang up the phone,” said the venerable Buddhist trickster Alan Watts. My instinct told me I was done. Instead, it was time to get to work. The default world is the one that’s burning.
Like a lover pulled from the sheets too soon by the first light of dawn, I could not resist the Playa. As if to welcome me home, the dust caresses my skin and colours my hair. She licks my ears with her soft lips and envelops my body with her cloak. I close my eyes and face darkness, her breath filling my consciousness, drowning even the steady thump of the distance dubstep. Time slips away.
I feel the sun again on my skin. When I open my eyes, she’s gone. I realize my Burning Man is a woman.
“The search for love often begins when a person realizes that he or she feels incomplete. Many people seek relationships to try to find love — to find their ’soul mate’ or ‘other half’. In other words, many seek to complete themselves through searching for love outside of themselves; love given to them by another person.” – Arttemis and Krystalle Keszainn
I remember her taste. Like the first kiss after a trip abroad, the concoction of toothpaste, lip balm, cigarettes (perhaps), and the bite of sex is unnamable.
I remember the intoxication. It is not possible to convey in words but I will try: riding atop a mutant vehicle, rigged like an old time fishing boat, chemicals soaking in my bloodstream, DJ weaving beats like an ambient shaman, awe dripping from my jaw as I look out at the wondrous sea of human creativity with glittering headlamps and EL wire.
It is positively magic. It is the moment I realize that despite all the packing, the money, the border crossing, the ridiculous costumes, the anxiety, the expectations, the heat, and the dry, cracking skin – it was worth it. It is the moment I’ve tried to explain to friends back home only to be greeted with their “knowing” smiles and their thoughts of “it’s just a bunch of hippies in the desert.”
Burning Man reveals a world I continually believe is impossible. And I forget. I always forget.
I reach into my faux-fur vest and pull out a plastic mickey of vodka and rasberry lemonade. I drink deeply, even though it’s warm. I have a few extra beers in my backpack, along with a Redbull and energy bar. The night shift has just begun and She is beckoning me to dance.
I join my joyful pack of companions and we let the night unfold.
“Not only do we look for love from our partner, but we also attempt to change aspects of our partners that we are unwilling to address in ourselves because we are unwilling to admit they may exist in us. Many of us find it much easier to blame our partner for any challenges or discomfort in the relationship than to look within ourselves and accept responsibility for the disharmony we may be creating.”
Aftermath. As I melt in the scorching shade of our camp, I question our decision to locate within the loudest possible region of Black Rock City, next to the white domes of Fractal Nation and the unreasonable bass of Root Society. Sleep, usually a foreign concept anyway at Burning Man, has not come easy.
Like a scorned lover I judge the shit out of her. I wanted her to endlessly entice me with her beauty, her whimsy, and her profundity. And instead she has offered relentless baking earth and sweltering heat, guffawing jackasses in tutus and Sparkle Ponies with nipple pasties. Suddenly she all seems so contrived, like a painted prostitute playing a role instead of the real thing.
I have been here before, in other, more corporeal relationships. I used to bait my ex-girlfriends with leading statements like “You don’t really like me, do you?” as a way of inviting them to fall in to console my ego. I used them to fill the deep hole that lay at the core of my being, which for so long I refused to acknowledge. I needed a “soul mate,” another person to mask the innate incompleteness.
Sweat drips down my chin. My body aches aches with sleep deprivation and my mind slips from the rails while processing the moment.
Burning Man, what do I want from you?
I begin cataloguing all the aspects I would change: camp in a quieter zone of the city; drop 20 degrees during the day and raise it 20 at night; manifest a less crowded orgy dome; tame the alkali dust from burning the skin off my feet; have a Queen size bed in a silent chamber; and a strong WIFI signal to check emails. Pathetic.
The dust rolls in and I escape into the RV.
“This spiritual contract allows relationships to act as catalysts for our spiritual growth and evolution. When we enter a relationship we’re forging a spiritual contract with our partner saying, “I’ll be a mirror for you so you can see your divine reflection — all the attributes, light and shadow, that reveal who you are and who you are becoming — if you’ll do the same for me.” As partners act as mirrors for each other, they reveal aspects of each others’ self that were previously hidden from them. The “shadows” of each partner are gradually revealed.”
An hour before sunrise and I’m sitting in The Temple of Juno.
I’m halfway through my shift as Temple Guardian, a volunteer role to glide silently through the halls of grief and offer support to Burners as they leave their offerings. This support could be a hand on their shoulder, a hug, a tissue. Or it could be holding space, a presence, a grounding. Small pushes from a great distance, I was told.
This is my third time serving, and second shift this week. Last year I shot a love letter to the Temple of Transition, the beating heart of Burning Man. I knelt at her feet and wept. Inside the perimeter, I watched her burn in the eyes of others, partly to bear witness, and partly because I couldn’t see her go.
Tonight, this year, the Temple is reborn in a new skin but I feel her familiarity.
Suddenly, a shout from outside and a distraught man barrels into the inner chamber hurling himself on the wooden altar. He crashes to the ground, knocking poems and photographs from their perches. He’s shirtless, scraggly hair, clad in raver pants.
“Voice!” yells another Temple Guardian from across the chamber, calling the nickname for the Guardian shift leads. She rushes over while others join her, including myself. I wanted to call for the Voice but I didn’t. I’m not sure why I didn’t.
The distraught man is carried to the corner and surrounded, gently, by Guardians. They speak softly, but firmly, assuring him everything is fine. He is safe. Wild eyed, he points to the Voice, a meditative fellow in a large white faux-fur coat and screams, “I don’t trust you! Get out of here! Get out of here!” The Voice backs away.
An hour later the Black Rock Rangers have arrived and escorted the man to the ambulance. They drive into the dusty night and Burners flow back into the central chamber, like ocean water filling a broken sand castle.
I resume my walking meditation around the Temple. The walls are papered with messages of sorrow: lost friends, lost parents, lost moments. The temperature has dropped precipitously, and my three layers fail to keep the cold at bay. The stars wink overhead, a canopy of portals to a more vibrant universe. Time ceases to trickle and I enter the realm of the eternal.
Sunrise. Brilliant rays crest the horizon, conjuring infinite shadows along the dust.
I spot a woman visibly carrying the weight of the collective grief. She appears in her mid-30’s, brown hair, dressed like a Burner who’s been here before, but perhaps hasn’t been intimate with the Temple. She stumbles from wall to wall, her movements becoming more erratic, drunk on sadness, an onslaught of pain. I follow quietly in the shadows, grounding her from a distance.
I want to go to her. Offer her…what? An embrace? The presence of another human being? But I can’t. I won’t.
The woman emits a cry and flees from the Temple.
“The mirroring of our light and shadow attributes continues until there is no duality or polarity within us; until we are truly heart-centered in all ways and at all times. This is the ultimate potential of a sacred relationship.The love shared in a sacred relationship is a gift reflecting the infinite self-love within each person. ”
What is Burning Man?
I used to think she was a lover who incinerated my falsehoods, my ego, and my pretence, leaving the blackened core of Truth. But now, I realize she does not reveal Truth. She reveals my edges – those parts of myself that continue to keep me from giving myself wholly, and whole-heartedly to the moment.
I realize I withhold my love behind the deep fear of rejection. This core wound began when ejected from the womb, leaving behind the garden of Oneness for the labyrinth of Separation. It is the journey and the tradeoff we all must make, the price we pay for the exquisite beauty of being an individual. To offer our vulnerable selves in pursuit of wholeness is to risk the mortal shame of rejection. In response, we armour our hearts with a story of self that occupies the center of the universe. Now I realize, any tale with my self at the center will end. Because life must continue.
The chill morning wind dances along my skin and I know She is nodding her head in approval. I now realize why I had come back to Burning Man. Like a mature lover, she gently leads me back to myself, reflecting the current state of my consciousness.
The role of the sacred relationship is to help me uncover my edges. But only I can tear them down.
I realize I will return to her someday, but not next year. And perhaps not the year after that.
But when I do, I know she will be waiting. Listening.