Burning Man (Patterns)

Apologia: Truth be told, I don’t write about Burning Man from having direct experience. I’ve had clients who were “burners”, and have observed from a distance this annual ritual (according to a BM ad) “emphasizing art, self-expression and self-reliance.”

Now, I must admit my real interest in Burning Man is that my son Michael has attended BM 16 times, and sets that week aside every year on his secular, spiritual, and personal calendars. And, as his father, I can readily see its attraction and value.[1]

And if I were a younger man, I’d want to go myself.

A quick history: This annual event emphasizing art, self-expression, and self-reliance began in 1986 on Baker Beach in San Francisco and moved in 1991 to Black Rock City in northwestern Nevada, a temporary community about 100 miles from Reno.[2]

A central theme involves the construction of a giant “man” around which a community constructs itself for a week or so, and then climaxes with the ritual burning of the “man” to the ground, after which everybody cleans up, packs up, goes home, and the desert is returned to its former state. This year, the size of the community was reported to be 73,000.[3]

My own fascination with BM

Many years ago I read the late Joseph Campbell’s seminal work, The Hero With A Thousand Faces[4] where I was introduced to the “monomyth” – or the “hero’s journey.” It’s a synthesis of the great myths and stories from all cultures – comprising three stages – separation, initiation, and return. It also involves the religious idea of “cleansing,” giving a sense of the character transforming from old to new.

“Burners” leave (are called) away, separating from their everyday lives, to what is (in other settings) often called “a mountaintop experience” – where a mystical city emerges from almost nothing, from a desert floor, (as the BM ad states) “emphasizing art, self-expression and self-reliance.” Always central is the monumental structure “Man” – as if reminding all that this glory and ecstasy is what we humans can build, can become.

But, as Campbell reminds us, we then have to leave the mountaintop, we have to “return” to our homes, to our people – but with a new awareness, which I’ve come to call “Now I know who I am.” Or as Campbell has stated, “with bliss-bestowing hands.” Or, in other words, “with healing gifts.”

For me, the genius of BM is that one has to leave it. The “Man” who dominates the scene, has to be destroyed. Even the Temple of the Heart, (of which Michael writes – cf Footnote #1) has to be incinerated. Nothing can be left, the City of creativity, ecstasy, even the deep experiencing of each other’s humanity, the synchronizing of so much that is both sacred and profane. For a time the desert blossomed, and we have been cleansed.

But for a larger Purpose.

For those of us who go to Church – we must leave the building and beauty behind (now empty) and go home. I recall, in my youth, the sadness of leaving after a week at Church camp. After a vacation, we need to go home. When we graduate from college or university, we now have to take those gifts we’ve gained, out into the world and use them to make it a better place. Even after the richness of a wedding ceremony and party, the bride and groom have to leave and go alone, and to a new marriage bed. After a funeral, we have to leave and go to a world with an empty place.

There’s a danger in staying ‘on top of the mountain’. I’m sure some enterprising entrepreneur has fielded the idea “ Let’s build condo’s here, so Black Rock City can be year around – an eternal Burning Man, with a huge towering bronze ”Man” surrounded by permanent gas-fed torches. No, Black Rock City has to die, in order that the people can follow through on its purpose.

In some citadels of culture, such as politics, corporate culture, and churches, there’s a danger of staying enclosed too long, and getting “cooked.” No wonder there’s so much sexual and other inhuman abuse and corruption emerging from those ‘high’ places.[5]

So often something has to die in order that a larger purpose can live.

Two other patterns I see when looking at Burning Man.

1) BM is a cyclical (annual) ritual, one can return again and again to be refreshed, cleansed and matured. It’s akin to other ‘holidays’ (Holy Days) in our cultural calendars (including Sabbaths and Sundays). I’ve noticed this with my son.

2) It can become easy for the wealthy and entitled to want to expropriate it. This year I understand there was an influx of private planes and luxurious RVs, and a number of the well-known in attendance. However, the desert rains this year befouled those expensive modes of transportation as well. Human greed can be a terrible befouler of that which desires to be good.

A final hopeful note (even from an outsider)

I’m reminded of the Biblical New Testament Parable of the Rich Young Ruler (Matthew 19:16-23, Mark 10:17-22, and Luke 18:18-23.). RYR asks Jesus, “Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The man answers Jesus that he has kept all the commandments. Jesus then says, “(Only) one thing you lack. Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor.” – and the man went away sorrowful, for he was a man of great wealth.

Burning Man, with its inherent roots, seems to understand this.

Many of the rich and famous will come to Burning Man, but probably cannot ever be transformed by it. Sadly, they may corrupt the real BM in the process. Or perhaps the gods of the desert, or the Almighty himself, may, as in The Old Testament Book of Exodus, destroy the army and chariots of the Egyptians at the Red Sea, so his chosen people could escape and pursue their journey to the Promised Land.[6]

Pay Attention


[1] For his own account of this year’s Festival, go to The Temple of the Heart.
It’s much more personal than what I’m writing here.

[2] The transition from the ocean to the desert itself has mythic as well as phylogenetic significance.

[3] It’s reported that at the first BM, on that San Francisco beach, there were only ten to observe the incineration of the first “man” structure.

[4] (1949), (My copy is Meridian, 1970). Campbell summarizes the monomythic character journey as:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
See more at https://theconversation.com/are-you-monomythic-joseph-campbell-and-the-heros-journey-27074

[5] When the Hebrews of The Old Testament entered Israel, the Promised Land, eleven of the tribes were apportioned sections of land. However, the 12th tribe, the Levites, had no land, for they were the guardians of the Temple, the only ones who could enter the otherwise forbidden Holy Places without getting ‘cooked.’

[6] With apologies for the limiting gender attribution.


   For an extensive photo coverage (85 photos in all), go here. You can see that the whole enterprise does have a ‘fantastic’ (mountaintop) quality to it.

   Of course, Burning Man has its detractors, I’ve read a few of them. And they may be, in many ways, right. That doesn’t mean I’m wrong. I hope what I’ve written is a worthy observation of an important institution and energy toward a more livable, creative and ethically responsible world. And it only arises once a year from within a desert place. And then it can live on in the homes and villages and communities of our beloved land.