Burning Man – Where Anything Goes And Your Money Is No Good
Burning Man, the grand-daddy of festivals is about to happen. It’s next week, out on the Playa of western Nevada. Some 70,000 people will construct a town, called Black Rock City, in one week, complete with medical, fire, public safety and other services. And, the most amazing art installations I’ve ever seen on the Playa.
Some people call it ‘wild’, but not me. It’s a cacophony of people doing all kinds of things. And I suppose you can find pretty much anything that you want there. And truly, that’s no different than the world in general. There’s everything from acroyoga, to metal bra making, to metaphysical stuff to serious lectures, and all kinds of music in the 24/7, neon exploding, fire erupting, Rocking City. And, 70,000 people all riding bicycles to get from place to place.
It’s sensational — kind of a combination of Las Vegas, Disneyland, Mardi Gras and New York City all rolled into one at night, and Mexican siesta on the Playa during the day. Groups of people form ‘Camps’ and set themselves up together.
There are three things that I particularly find startling to my thinking, apart from the mind-bending experience of the whole City being built in just one week. It’s amazing to see people think and act in new ways. Ways that challenge my senses of what is predetermined culturally and what choices I can make personally.
The first thing that blows me away, is that there is no money exchange. It is purely a gifting economy in Black Rock City. The only thing that you can apply money to is the purchase of ice or coffee. There is no need to use money all week long, not because you brought what you need but simply because someone will readily give you what you need. Amazing, huh?!
You can go to the ‘Bacon’ Camp, and be handed bacon, to the wine and music Camp for entertainment, to the chocolate Camp for your sweet tooth, or the bike Camp for your vehicle fix up. And it’s all free. Someone has chosen this to gift. Some people make jewelry and others make covers for your bike seat so it’s comfier, it’s all there. Some people ‘gift’ in smaller ways, and some people ‘gift’ in bigger ways — whatever they determine.
But it is part of the culture of the City to come prepared to gift. There is someone from southern California who puts up this huge tent that looks like it came straight from “A Thousand And One Nights”, and erects it at Burning Man complete with any kind of alcohol that you prefer and a full Broadway show production. That’s one big gift that is inspired for the week.
It’s magical to me to see how the City works all week long with no money exchange. You do have to buy a ticket to get into Burning Man, but then once you are there any form of financial exchange is considered inappropriate. Fascinating!
It’s a departure from where money in our world is defined as something that you need to obtain the goods and services that you need to sustain your life. In fact, here’s how we define money: Money is energy. It is a means of exchange that helps you acquire the earthly things that you need. Most of the resources in the modern world cost money, yours or someone else’s. You cannot pretend that money does not exist, or that you are above it when you live in the American economy, except in Black Rock City for the week.
And then there is the art that is gifted. Since mobility in the City is generally on your bike, you hop on it and ride well out into the Playa to see all that has magically appeared. On my first adventure, I had no idea what to expect. My friend and I peddled out into the vast open space. The Playa was once the bottom of a pre-historic lake that is now sacred Indian land. It’s a flat wide open area that runs for 20 miles without a single blade of grass and fine sand for as far as the eye can see.
It’s smooth sailing on a bike, expect that every once in a while you can hit a ‘pillow’ of sand and be stopped dead in your tracks. My friend and I peddled away from the U-Shaped Black Rock City, and into the middle of the “U”, where the art began.
There were all kinds of ‘large’ to ‘larger’ art instillations. First, we came upon a big installation that was the letters ‘Love’. Then, we moved on to a larger installation that was the size of a two story building that was reminiscent of the ‘old woman who lived in the shoe’. We got off our bike and walk up the shoe!
But here was my favorite! We rode four or five miles out into the Playa and were stopped in our tracks. In front of us was an 80-foot woman, made of mesh, that towered oner the mountains far in the distance. She was magnificent, with every detailed sculptured to perfection. But here was the jaw dropping part. If you stood there long enough, she breathed!
If you stood in awe of her, quietly and with reverence, you saw that her breasts lifted, her buttocks expanded and her belly rose, just like a real woman. The artist had captured her with such splendor. She was the Heroine woman!
In the whole week, you’d be lucky to see about 1/10th of the art. There is so much. And, it’s all gifted. That night the explosions of lights and fire of the U-shape of the City were the backdrop to this artistically created woman who represented the courage and strength of her Heroine self. I had all I could do not to break into the Helen Reddy song, “I Am Woman”. “I am strong, I am woman!”
The second thing that blows me away about Burning Man, is kindness. Imagine a whole City of ‘gifting’. It is thrilling to see a mass mindset of ‘what can I do for you that will make you laugh, feel alive, give you pleasure, ignite your taste buds or rock your world? That prevailing question lead to a week of experiencing more kindness than I ever witnessed in my whole life in one place.
I saw people leave their ego behind, and reach out in ways that were expressive of themselves and giving to others. This rocked my world. And it inspired me to ask that question often: ‘what can I do for you’..? I felt less judgmental. If someone walked down the street by me and they were naked and painted from head-to-toe in silver paint, I just thought — wow! look at that self-expression.
Things that I might have labeled odd in the world that I had left behind for a week, suddenly made sense in this world. Not that I would necessarily walk down the street naked and painted all silver, but what was I perhaps missing because I had pre-defined opinions about the way to be? Maybe there was some room for my thinking to expand.
And, in this culture where I experienced so much kindness, I felt safe to let my identity of ‘who and what’ I had pre-determined that I am to dissolve a bit and take in the new expanded and kindness-filled life.
There was another art installation that messed with my perceptions. It was simple in its construct but very effective in its creation. It made my whole world turn upside down, and often cock eyed.
It was a series of lights directed onto the Playa floor that moved in waves and different configurations. Now we know that the Playa floor was as flat as a pancake — but when you rode your bike across these lights, it scrambled your perceptions and suddenly it felt like the ground was moving away from you. Knowing the ground was flat didn’t make any difference, and all too soon the inevitable happened — bike over and butt on the ground. It took some practice to stay upright. I mused about how life does this to me sometimes too.
The way it works at Burning Man, you take your cup and your plate and your utensils, and voila — some kind person fills them. My Camp was Lavender Lounge, that year. On the hot dusty Playa, we spritzed you with lavender water, and offered head massages. It was a very popular spot.
Black Rock City, is 3 miles wide from the top of one side of the ‘U’ shaped community to the other ‘U’ shaped side. There was so much gifting that you’d be lucky to see only a small part because you’re tempted to stop at each Camp along the way. You just ‘tool’ in on your bike and you are greeted and offered some bit of enjoyment. On a hot day, snow cones were appreciated or just a siesta in a hammock, or a band of guitars.
One of my favorites was the Camp with a real live shower! In this ‘gifting’ economy, the small things were true pleasures. And people noticed what you needed. That felt particularly kind to me.
The third thing that blows me away about Burning Man, is that they burn all of the wooden structures of art and others down at the end of the week. Yes, everything! All of those incredibly ornate, time-consuming-to-build, and fabulous installations down by setting them into big raging flames.
That’s something that you can do when you are out on the desert and there is nothing around except vast expanses of sand. And the coup de gras of the ‘Burn’ is Saturday night when they burn the ‘Man’. The Man is a wooden structure built to stand some 150 feet into the air. Each year there is a different version of the Man — and no wonder because each year the Man gets burned right down to the ground.
Here was my dilemma. Should I take a picture of the Man? Because if he was to be burned would I be memorializing something that was meant to be temporary? I worked on that one all week!
On Saturday night 70,000 people ring this big wooden structure of some form of the Man. There are fire dancers, and torch bearers, and fireworks, and so much to tantalize and inspire. When the Man starts to burn, his hands rise into the air. It takes four or five hours for the Man to fully burn and all sit there mesmerized.
Beginning on Thursday, they burn the other structures on the Playa too. A big multi-story Pagoda, the ‘woman in the shoe’ installation, and other things that make you just shake your head and ask – ‘why would they burn that?’ This too messes with my perception of things needing to be permanent as I see them. Isn’t that of value, and why would they send it up in smoke, I asked?
It’s curious that someone would invest two years to build such a grand art instillation as the Pagoda with it’s intricately carved inside and extensive photographic works on the outside. So many people enjoyed this work all week. And, then you burn it? Wow!
This is the culture of Burning Man. It’s temporary. It comes and goes in a week. The analogy is maybe: a week, a lifetime, what’s the difference? It is all temporary.
Our magnificent selves, they come into full being (hopefully), and then they go. What is there to be shocked about to experience this transition? 70,000 people build Black Rock City, and then it goes away — and then it happens all over again next year. I must admit that I first felt some sadness seeing it all go away at the end of the week, and yet knew that it was nature’s way of being.
There was much for me to learn in Black Rock City. I was fascinated to be in a community of ‘no money’ exchange. I liked that it brought out that to ‘get’ you needed to ‘give’. There was an energy and spirit that made the society blossom from this way of being. It gave me hope that in this way all can be taken care of in the world.
I got that money is not the issue, but that kindness is. I’m not saying that money is not important in our world, it is, but that the focus of creativity and inspiration was a better outcome than the pursuit of the gathering of money just for oneself. You could feel safe in this world because you could find what you needed. When people feel safe, they behave better.
And, I got that our blossoming selves are temporary. That living fully into the moment, reaching out with as much of your unique gifts and talents and living in joy, were living the fullest life. And, that it made no sense to waste time getting to 100% to doing this, because at some point Black Rock City was only a memory.
When I entered back into the world from Black Rock City, I felt like I came from an alternative universe back to this one. As if the sand storm parted and I came through the worm hole back to this side. But I came back with the questions. What is money for? Who do I want to be now that I know that I am free to choose? Who do I love with kindness? When it’s all over, what memory will I have created?
“And, can I go around again?“, because Black Rock City was one hell of a good time!! And, yes, I’m all set to go again next week!
Joan Perry is the publisher of www.WomensWealth.money, the national authority site for women and money. She is a Best Selling Author of ‘A Girl Needs Cash’, Random House; and Living Proof, Celebrating the Gifts that Came Wrapped in Sandpaper (co-authored with Lisa Nichols). Joan is also the creator of The Women’s Wealth Model, A Heroine’s Journey to True Wealth,. As a pioneer in the field of women’s wealth, she founded the first female-owned investment banking firm that underwrote and traded municipal bonds for major governmental entities. Now as a women’s wealth advocate, she serves as a teacher, coach, writer and speaker.