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Saturday, 08 September 2012 09:34

BURNING MAN 2012: Sustainability, Spirituality and Creativity

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NOTE: For the second consecutive year, I am honored to be cross-posting the annual Words of Power Burning Man story with my friends and colleagues at Buzzflash/Truthout, one of the great cyber bastions of progressive politics and culture.



(Richard Power at Burning Man)


The Climate Crisis is a planetary emergency; and the great nations’ refusal to respond is the greatest failure of governance in human history. 


In 2011, I journeyed to Burning Man to get a better sense of what the future might look like, after the collapse of the climate upon which civilization has been predicated. I was looking for a healthier post-apocalyptic vision than Mad Max in the Thunderdome.


After all, it is quite plausible that we will have to move whole cities into new deserts, and dwell there nomadically. What if we approach the seeming inevitability of total systems collapse as an opportunity to celebrate life rather than simply a struggle to survive? With its Ten Principles, and its demonstrable actualization of those principles, Burning Man offers some inspiring indicators of a way forward.


In 2012, I returned to the Playa to deepen my communion with what is going on out there, and to better understand just how it reverberates throughout the world beyond.


At this late hour, only massive, global non-violent evolution can rescue the future.


The Wheel and the Fire


Wandering in the sandstorm that welcomed me, I was soon pondering the Wheel and the Fire. These two powerful ideas have meant so much to us over the Millennia. 


Our best current guess is that fire came into human hands sometime between 500,000 and 1.4 million years ago. The potter’s wheel appears in Sumer in 4000 B.C., the wheeled cart appears in Sumer in 3500 BC.  But the fire and the wheel not only loom large in our outward evolution, they also loom large in our inner evolution.


Close your eyes and conjure the Tarot’s Wheel of Fortune. Conjure too the Dharma Wheel and the Medicine Wheel.  Feel them all turning at once, inside of you, and all around you, wheels within wheels. (“Ezekiel saw the wheel way up in the middle of the air …”) Have you even seen any of the aerial photographs of the whole of Burning Man? You can easily google these images. The scene most resembles the diagram of the great circle of the I Ching, in which all 64 hexagrams are laid out along the circumference. Each solid line, the expression of Yang energy, each broken line the expression of Yin energy; each three lines composing a trigram, each two trigrams coupled to form a hexagram, and within the hexagram, inner trigrams that revealing even more about life’s mysterious flow.


And what about the fire? Well, we exist only by the fiat of the great fire of the Sun, and we whirl in orbit around that Sun on a planet, which at its core is itself a burning ball of fire. But even more immediately, each of us, from the moment of birth on, is burning up from inside. Each of us from our first inhalation is alive with a fire that is consuming us from within. Yoga teaches us this. Kali Ma devours us all from within. We are a beautiful sacrifice from beginning to end. We are all Burning Man and Woo Man.


This year, there was more fire than ever before on the Playa, not only the Man and the Temple, but also fires for each of the regional organizations, as well as some great works of art that were turned into pyres earlier in the week.

For us to arrive at the massive, non-violent evolution required to save the future, we need to harness the inner powers of the fire and the wheel, for ourselves and for each other.



(Burning Man 2012: Photo by Richard Power)


Voices in the Whirlwinds, Visions in the White Heat


Just wandering up and down the avenues, through the camps, circumambulating the wheel; wandering in the ecstatic whirling of the sandstorms, wandering in the white heat that sets fire to the air when the dervish winds aren’t whirling, that’s what I choose to do at Burning Man, always moving, staying open, imbibing the ineffable etheric elixir that emanates from the atmosphere in that gathering of tribes. Letting the story I will tell emerge.


This year, as I wandered, I discretely left behind signed and dated copies of Humanifesto: A Guide to Primal Reality in An Era of Global Peril, here and there, in Center Camp, at Everywhere, in Media Mecca, at the Temple; only one at a time, and only two or three a day. After an hour or so, I would loop back to see if they were gone, and invariably, they were, except for those instances in which I had the rare pleasure of watching someone discover the book, read through it for awhile bit, and then slip it into their backpack. This is how I choose to promote Humanifesto at Burning Man 2012, anonymously, randomly, trusting to the magic of the moment and the power of the place.


What If …


Burners talk of the “default world,” the term refers to the world beyond the Playa.


The “default world” is in a mystical sense a somnambulist world; psychologically and politically, it is a world steeped in denial and dysfunction; economically, it is a world of cruel disparity; socially, it is a world of stifling alienation.

In the default world, façade is exalted and authenticity is scorned.


But on the Playa, there is a remarkable radiance that emanates from many Burners, especially the younger ones. Because for a few intense days and nights, they have shed their default world personas, so they shine. Yes, in “radical self expression” they have discovered themselves, and in “radical inclusion” they have embraced themselves.


Wandering in the white heat, mirroring that radiance back to those in whom I encountered it, I had a vision. If/when the default world suffers its total systems breakdown; maybe we will simply decide, en masse, to be ourselves.

And what if this is who we are?

Imagine …




Remember the Biblical story of the voice that spoke out of the whirlwind?


This time, it is different. It is not a lone prophet journeying into the wilderness to listen to the voice of some god speaking from inside a whirlwind; this time, it is a legion of prophets and prophetesses, journeying into the wilderness to SPEAK their own truth from inside that whirlwind. Here are just ten I have selected out of those fifty thousand voices.


Fortuitous Circumstance


Zoa (as in Proto-Zoa or Meta-Zoa) is the first of three compelling pieces of visionary art that frame my testament to Burning Man 2012.


On Wednesday, aboard the Golden Dragon Abraxis, on a news media art tour of the Playa, Jess Hobbs, founder and lead artist at the Flux Foundation, offered us some delicious insights into its creation.



“When you first come on the Playa, you see a series of four seedpods gathered together as if they had blown across the Playa and piled up together. Tonight, the second process will be a beautiful and dramatic burn, with crescendos and colors, and explosions, and then on Thursday morning you will wake up to a newly transformed Zoa, three sculptures that will be things you didn’t necessarily expect to happen.


“The first words we started exploring when creating Zoa were ‘Fortuitous Circumstance.’ We used the seed as the symbol to express this idea that with happenstance, and community, and people, things can form in ways that you do not expect. The group that created Zoa is the called the Flux Foundation; and the piece isn’t the work of one artist that you can point to, there are one hundred and thirty people who worked on the project. There were probably sixty core people there every night. Metal workers, wood workers, plumbers, burn architects, administrators, fund-raisers, etc., working together to create this piece. We are not only creating art work for Burning Man, we are a non-profit and we use the platform of public art to teach people skills, and empower them, and create leadership roles. We were founded in 2010, after we did the Temple of Flux. We were generously given the project of designing and building the temple that year,; and you know the temple is a gift that we give to the Playa and everybody in our community, but what we didn’t realize is that the temple would give us a gift,  it gave us the gift of knowing  we could achieve a dream and found a group around our passion of doing collaborative work.”


In her work with the Flux Foundation, and as the founder of ALL Power Labs (which specializes in biomass gasification), Hobbs is exercising two of the great the 21st Century imperatives, i.e., communicating the great truth that all life is a oneness and developing the means to live sustainably in celebration of (and service to) that oneness.


We Are Animal


With numerous larger than life works like Celtic Forest in 2008 and LOVE in 2011, artist Laura Kimpton has made a profound impact on the collective psyche of Burning Man. Her art delivers powerful messages, which although rich and complex are not at all subliminal.


Kimpton’s 2012 creation, EGO, dominated the Playa until it burned.


In our brief but illuminating interview at Burning Man, Kimpton offered elucidation.


“All my art is to teach people that we are nature, that we are animal, that we are not separate from nature, and that thinking we are separate is our problem.  I built a sixteen foot steel book [The Book of the Raven], and you could turn the pages, but it had images on it, because I have another message, which is that the left-brain people like me, the artists, the people who think in images, we were told we were dumb, which is the stupidest thing in the world. So I thought it would be funny, being a dyslexic, if I got known for LARGE WORDS. And I play into how powerful words are to people in society. This year, I did EGO. It’s twenty feet by sixty feet, and made out of plaster of Paris molds of trophies, religious relics and animal parts. And we are burning it on Saturday night. Ten thousand pieces, four hundred separate molds made out of only found objects. And after it burns, you can take away pieces …”


The Juno Temple


The Burning Man work of David Best is legend.


He built the Temple of the Mind (2000), the Temple of Tears (2001), the Temple of Joy (2002), the Temple of Honor (2003), the Temple of Stars (2004) and the Temple of Forgiveness (2007).


In 2012, Best returned to build the Temple of Juno.


“I don’t usually give a name like that to it, but the reason for ‘Juno,’ is that she was the goddess that protected women,” he said in a brief presser at Media Mecca.


“In our society right now, women’s rights are really under attack by the right wing conservatives, and I felt that [in keeping with the theme of Fertility] we should at address women’s rights in the temple … “

According to Best, the Juno Temple was built by as many as a hundred or so people, from all over the country and the world; and his role is best described as that of a “coach.”


“The temple is a unique project,” Best reflected. “I never see it as an art installation; I see it more like the café or the Porta Potties, i.e., as an integral part of the community, not a private thing.”


First assembled on five thousand square feet of open space at a closed down factory in Sonoma County, the Temple of Juno was then disassembled and transported to the Playa in several trucks. On-site work started weeks before the opening of Burning Man.


The structure consisted of 800 custom-cut panels made from three hundred thousand pieces of cedar (“so it should smell good when it burns”) and using “both positive and negative pieces of wood.”


But of course it is not the vision with which a temple is conceived, or the mastery with which it is built, that makes it sacred, it is the love of those who birthed it; just as its sacredness is sustained only by the love of those who cross its threshold.

“I have two dogs, four children, a wonderful wife, cows, sheep, chickens; I live in Petaluma, California. I am not really very spiritual at all; my role and the temple crew’s role is to make a place where other people can manifest their spiritual needs …  Every night, I kissed the crew goodnight, and every night they kissed me goodnight … We cried before we finished it, so that we didn’t have to cry when we went in it.”


Desert Power


In Burning Man 2011: Primal Culture and Core Civilization as a Moveable Feast, I cited Black Rock Solar, Burners Without Borders and the Black Rock Arts Foundations as tangible ways in which the Burning Man ethos is bringing change for the better to the “default world.” In 2012, the work of these entities continues to evolve and expand.


At Everywhere on the Esplanade, I caught up with Marnee Benson, Deputy Director of Black Rock Solar, long enough to got a rundown on the organization’s efforts to provide renewable energy services to non-profit, public, low income and educational sector organizations, with emphasis on rural and tribal clients.


“We just reached our second megawatt. So in the past five years, we have installed two million watts. We have started a new program, a grant program. We are offering design and build on solar for art and education projects that have community benefit.  We installed an off-grid solar array for a non-profit organization called Urban Roots Garden Classrooms. It is a primarily educational non-profit, teaching people about locally grown foods, and seasonal and organic foods. They have about 2500 kids a year come through. They are one of our partners in Green Nevada, so we are pretty excited about that. We have a few projects on the Playa that we have supported with equipment donations, or design and build, or just money. We also started an energy efficiency program, so now we are offering energy audits and upgrades for our non-profit partners, so that we can get them on the path to conversation before we install renewable energy. That’s really important to do, to look at it more holistically.”


Yes, harnessing the true desert power of the Sun is vital to our future, and Burners are among those leading the way.


Being Human 20,000 Years Ago


Kevin McLaughlin is a world-traveling photojournalist whose work has appeared in the Guardian, New York Times and Irish Arts Magazine.  McLaughlin is also a Burner.


‘This is the America I subscribe to,” he told me at Camp Journeylism, where we had both pitched our tents. “From a European perspective, I see Burning Man as representing true American values: integrity, sharing, community, creative freedom, respect for human rights, and the acceptance of all of humanity. I really hope that Burning Man points the way towards a regeneration of those values that America needs to get back to. America needs to re-tap into the source of its original greatness, and share it with the world …”


McLaughlin speaks rhapsodically of both the “cathartic release” of Burn night and the “mystical silence: of Temple night.

“Burn Night is what I imagine it must have been like to be human twenty thousand years ago. When the Man comes down, the energy is just so intense, so liberating. And when the rangers allow us there is a point when the man is down safely and there is nothing left to fall, the Rangers step out of the way, and the Man is handed over to us, the participants. And we run in, fifty thousand, in communal ecstasy, and we circumambulate the Man, anti-clockwise, three times, like Muslims at Mecca during the Haj. When you are in that moment, you totally lose sense of yourself, and you realize you are a part of a great energy flow, and take on your place on that communal vibrational energy … I know it’s real, because I see it in people around me, in the people I talk to on that night; in the conversations and acknowledgments with utter strangers who I will never ever meet again. But we all recognize something in us, and it is the same thing we recognize in each other. It can’t really be done justice in words; it’s something you have to experience. This is a shamanic event. And it is a Western Kumbh Mele. It is a marriage of the sacred and the profane, and in that is its perfection.”


“And then Sunday night is Temple night, and the contrast to the Burn of the Man couldn’t be any starker, because on Temple night, you have fifty thousand people around the Temple in utter silence. Think about that, fifty thousand people not uttering a word. None of this back beat, none of this hip hop, none of this surging, celebrative energy – all of that evaporates, and everyone focus on the Temple, and like psychic lasers, we fire everything at it, and it ignites. And it you have never felt love, if you have never felt real, true love, that’s a place to discover it.”


We Are Enough


Salomeh Dastyari Diaz works in the field of organisational development and human potential. She coaches, consults and facilitates programs in leadership development, culture change, strategy, communication, and business skills, and imbues it all with her passion for personal mastery and global transformation.  Salomeh is also a dancer and a somatic educator. “My reason for being and doing,” she says, “is to witness authentic shifts in individual and collective awareness, toward sustainable outcomes in life, through conscious ways of being with each other, our world and ourselves.”

How does Burning Man inform, nourish or inspire her?


“When I think of Burning Man, I see a nautilus of possibilities. What I enjoy most about this experience is the sense of community, collaboration, finding myself sitting on the edge of the desert watching the happenings and feeling the silence inside and around me … the anticipation of what emerges as I cycle through, or walk the steps, the mystery of greetings and gifts, the collective entrance and exodus, and a strong sense of personal responsibility for my participation … a deep sense of ‘togetherness’ …


And what does Burning Man offer the world, what is its message?


“A pilgrimage. Freedom of expression, but informed by a strong sense of collective awareness and oneness; an opportunity to embrace our vulnerability, and give ourselves the primal permission to be creative and explore more of our ‘self’ in its entirety and in unity. We are enough.”


The Meaning of Meaning


I have not yet attempted to get a one on one interview with Larry Harvey, founder and executive director of Burning Man; although I have no doubt it would be a remarkable dialogue. But, honestly, his remarks at Playa press conferences in both 2011 and 2012 offer all the background you really need to understand the deeper intentions and the future direction of this extraordinary phenomenon.


What about Black Rock City as a metaphor for the future of society?


“Well, ‘metaphor’ is perhaps a good word, since we have never said we were constructing a utopia. I will believe in a ‘perfect society’ when I meet up with it, because I haven’t met a perfect person, but I think it you can. Part of the ambition behind growing it into a city was to make it a very persuasive example, and a genuinely civic place that is a home to anyone who comes … We think it has enormous potential, especially since [Black Rock City] has become an Olympic that foments culture, and we do think our culture has a broad application in the world, and we have seen participants leave here and apply the values to an amazing variety of endeavors. Having founded a non-profit, the Burning Man Project, we are working to extend that culture around the world. At this point, we have a global network of communities, and we think that many of those communities can form larger gatherings, each broadcasting its culture to the surrounding region, and then linked with all the other communities globally can bring change in the world. That’s the premise we are working on. We think what is to come will be to [Black Rock City] what [Black Rock City] was to that little gathering on the beach … This is a non-profit not just founded to do good works, but to promulgate a culture … “


“There was a time when it seemed like we were out on the open sea navigating as if by dead reckoning. We didn’t see much like us in the world. Lately we have been looking around to see what is like us … On the Playa, you will see a tiny dot, you realize it is a dazzling piece, and then as you come upon whatever it is, it rises before you, as if it leapt out of the Earth, it moves … On this voyage sooner or later, we are going to see little dots, and they will seem insignificant, but by and by, they will gradually increase, and then suddenly they will rise up before us, and we have to be really ready to be a part of and help lead a flotilla, and that is what is going to happen, and when it happens, it will be a big story and everybody will think it occurred overnight …”


What about spirituality and Burning Man, in general, and in particular, that first instance of burning the man on the beach, was the motivation for it spiritual?


“Spiritual is as spiritual does. No spiritual meaning was self-consciously applied to it, but it was certainly spiritual in certain key ways, here we worked together to create this effigy that in effect an image of ourselves and there it was against the infinitude of the ocean, which is vastly greater than us. To describe all that in spiritual terms, we have three feeling states, “I Am,” it came out of us,  “We Are,” in order to make it we had to work together, and “It Is,” not only the Man but the Universe, that we somehow belong to in doing this gesture. So “I Am,” “We Are” and “It Is” is a spiritual arc. You shouldn’t ask me these questions now I am going to get metaphysical. I am sorry, now I am going to talk about the meaning of meaning … If something really means a lot, it is not a function of logic, it is not a result of self-consciously assigning a spiritual value; really, it is a leap of the heart, your heart says “I Am That.” That’s called Radical Self-Expression. And if you link it with Communal Effort, then it is “We Are.” So it always was innately spiritual … I have very strong reservations about ‘Supreme Beings’ but I do believe Being is Supreme. …”


MamaSutra Speaks


Sustainability, spirituality and creativity are powerful themes at work within the evolving legend of Burning Man, and in both this story and my Burning Man 2011 story, I have explored all three. But human sexuality is also a robust theme within this evolving legend; indeed, much of the sensationalistic or superficial media coverage would lead you to conclude that sex was the dominant theme, although it is definitely not so. Therefore, I would be remiss if I did not explore it here, and do so in a meaningful way. So I invited the participation of a Facebook friend, Lanae St. John.

Lanae is a sex education expert with a definitively 21st Century perspective.


“In doing my work as The MamaSutra, a sexologist, blogger, and sexuality educator, I dedicate myself to two of the most controversial areas of human sexuality: 1) Helping to normalize the conversations between parents and their children about sex and sexuality, and 2) Helping women attain and enjoy healthy female sexuality. I say controversial because daily I read about ways these topics get stigmatized or silenced.  I wish to change the many ways in which our American society prevents healthy adult sexuality. I believe this can be done by educating people about what a huge part of everyday life sex is, informing the public about what people do sexually and how they feel about it, helping people understand that talking about sex does not harm the audience, and ultimately removing the shame and guilt around sex and sexuality is a good thing.”


Burning Man 2012 was Lanae’s first experience of the Black Rock City.


“Some of my friends were shocked that I was going, because I am ‘not exactly the target demographic.’ I play the part of vanilla REALLY well. I’m not someone you would picture enjoying an event based on sex, art, music, drugs, and getting hot and dirty out in the desert. (Well, sex yes, but…) Despite all of the inferred drawbacks, friends had raved about their experiences and, in some instances, their subsequent life altering decisions. My business partner in NotSoSecret.com and co-host for SexxxTalkRadio, Alyssa Royse, is a long-time burner and she invited me to join her theme camp. Since my two daughters would have time with my mother and then their dad, it was the perfect time for me to go. 

In the weeks before the event, I did my best to ignore the reputation of Burning Man, i.e., that it's a big f*ck fest and that everyone is running around in the desert naked. To that I would say the experience is different for everyone. I did not participate in either of those Burning Man traditions. For me, this was a retreat of self-love and personal exploration, I had no intention to “hook up” … I feel like I am still processing all of the happenings and experiences, but I can say there is a certain magic there that I can’t yet describe. I will equate the experience of being at Burning Man for 9 days to my experience of going through an 8-day SAR at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. Being in an environment of open and loving acceptance of everyone (radical inclusion) is a beautiful and sadly rare thing. This aspect alone makes the ticket worth the price of admission. The opportunity to watch and learn what was happening in the bigger event (the whole festival) and then process those observations and experiences with a smaller community of loving and non-judgmental folks (your theme camp) is also key to making the event such a learning experience… My focus of self-love was reinforced halfway through my stay. I was feeling incredibly homesick. I had hit the wall. I missed my kids (although knew they were fine). I was getting really tired of the dust and whiteouts (although I knew I could handle whatever the desert threw at me). Late that night, out with friends, I ended up dancing by myself, and then chatting about my work with an utter stranger. Soon I felt very happy, and very contented. These feelings had been missing from me for a while, due to relationship woes and other concerns of the Default World.  But that rekindled happiness fed upon itself, and it helped me bring back to the self-love I had let go of in my last relationship. It was a wonderful feeling.”


And how has Burning Man informed or inspired her work in the world?


“Burning Man has inspired me to continue the sex education work I love in spite of any opposition because it truly matters -- to children, to teens, to parents, to adults, to men, to women, to everyone.  We all deserve to have healthy, happy and wonderfully loving and connected experiences with each other.  Sex is a big part of these connections but it is not the only thing; Self Love, too, can be found in each of the 5 Building Blocks to A Healthy Sexuality, i.e., Communication, Consent, Respect, Pleasure, and Fantasy.  This realization is comes from my experience at Burning Man, and it will influence my work going forward.”


Camp Validation


Pete Guinoso is one of the leading yoga teachers in San Francisco, Berkley and Northern California. He is also a serious Burner, having journeyed to Playa for eight consecutive years. But Guinoso had to miss Burning Man 2012, and for damn good reasons; he is focusing on his recent marriage and on his burgeoning yoga business.

So I felt it would be insightful to include his voice in this story.


“I went to an all-boys catholic school on the East coast. I spent 14 years working for a pharmaceutical company in research, manufacturing, and sales. When I first went to Burning Man, I felt that I was having an awakening, as if from a deep sleep. It was a whole other world, one that offered (and invited) deep expressions of truth, gratitude, community, art and music, all of it framed with non-expectation, and based on a gift economy.


“The theme camp that I co-created with my friend Amy Ehrlich is called Camp Validation. We made stamps that read, ‘VALIDATED,’ and bore the image of a thumbs up. We would walk up to people and ask them if they would like to be validated. Most people would look at us, and ask, ‘What does that mean?’ We would respond, ‘We are here to tell you how freakin' awesome you are!’ Once people realized what was going on, they loved getting validated. Some of them were moved to tears by spending a moment seeing and sharing the truth of their own beauty with utter strangers.  Burning Man has a strong sense of community that breaks down all barriers of age, race, social status, gender, etc. One of my favorite experiences at Burning Man is arriving at the Playa, and pulling onto the streets, where all the camps, and having so many people looking up, and smiling and waving at you, and saying, ‘Welcome home.’”


In what way has Burning Man informed or influenced Guinoso’s spiritual journey and his yoga, whether directly or indirectly?


“Every moment is a sacred moment. This is one of the great truths I have experienced, and Burning Man was one of the first places that I felt people were actually living this reality. Time seems to disappear at Burning Man, and you drop into "Playa Time," which is another indicator of living in the moment-by-moment experience. Those moments with the people you meet, the art you experience, and the music you encounter (or make) are profound, just as any moment is profound -- IF you give your full attention to it. By being open to other people’s authentic self-expression, we can cultivate compassion and kindness for people that are very different from us. Black Rock City is like a big canvas. People go there as artists, to express themselves in any way they want. And this should be true with life as well. Don’t waste your time worrying about what other people think of your "art."


So what does a diehard burner, like Pete, do when he can’t make it to the Playa?


“I have been working on bringing the Burning Man experience to this ‘world.’ I do ‘Free Hug; events around the Bay Area throughout the year; sharing hugs with people walking by. Just before Burning Man 2012, my wife, Stephanie, and I spent a Sunday morning a week before Burning Man validating people at the corner of Ashby and College in Berkeley. It’s definitely a little harder to connect with people off the Playa, when you are validating people on an urban sidewalk. I guess most people just didn't get the memo that this world is a playground within which to connect with other people in a fun way.”


Do you know why 350 is the most important number in your life and the lives of everyone you love? Go to 350.org for the answer.


Richard Power is the author of eight books, including Humanifesto: A Guide to Primal Reality in an Era of Global Peril, Between Shadow and Night: The Singularity in Anticipation of Itself and True North on the Pathless Path: Towards a 21st Century Yoga. Power writes and speaks on spirituality, sustainability, human rights, and security. He blogs at http://words-of-power.blogspot.com and http://primalwordsofpower.blogspot.com, and is a member of the Truthout Board of Advisors. He also teaches yoga.