Every year, Nevada's Black Rock Desert gets transformed into a bustling metropolis known as Black Rock City.
It's the epicenter of Burning Man, an event focused on art, self-expression and the celebration of community.
Though Burning Man may seem something like a cult, you can't help but be intrigued by its gatherings. There's talk of costume-clad nomads and “mutant vehicles,” but most of all, the heart of this pop-up city is something called The 10 Principles of Burning Man.
Burning Man co-founder Larry Harvey wrote these Principles back in 2004 to act as a rulebook for the Burning Man community.
Though it's emphasized that these Principles should not dictate how people present themselves at Burning Man, they should act as a North Star for all who participate in the Burning Man experience.
I have no plans to ever attend Burning Man, but the Principles did spark my interest. Is it really possible to follow these "rules" at Burning Man?
Or -- seemingly even more impossible -- would it ever work to follow them in everyday life?
Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.
Let's be honest, the first rule is a pretty easy rule for anyone to understand: Give people things without assuming you'll get something in return.
About two weeks ago, I impulsively decided I'd become a jewelry maker, and I started hunting for tutorials online. I bought tools for wire-cutting, pliers for clamping chains and about a million little stones to string together.
My intent was to create jewelry and earn hella cash… but because I'm devoted to the Burning Man mantra, I decided to give my friend one of my creations completely gratis.
I feel really good about this, and don't expect anything back from her. But maybe she could pass along my name to anyone interested in buying jewelry? That seems kosher, right?
In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.
So... I guess that's not kosher.
Rule number two sort of reinforces the first rule (for people like me, I guess), and really ensures that there's no form of self-promotion going on.
So, that necklace I gave to my friend comes with no free advertising. Fine. Take the stupid gift and tell nobody about your super talented friend.
Not really happy with this rule, but hey, I'm going with it.
3. Radical Inclusion
Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
This is probably my favorite rule of the bunch, and something I can wholly identify with. I firmly believe that being kind to one another is the easiest thing to do, especially if that person is a stranger.
Commuting to and from Manhattan every day can be a wild card -- you truly never know what kind of people you'll interact with. But it pays off in spades to be polite, smile and actively try not to hit people with your purse as you're running to catch the train.
Since I'm no longer a commuter, I figured I'd have to make due. Instead, I chatted up the receptionist at my dentist's office (shout-out to all you Invisalign users!) before my appointment rather than sitting in the waiting room.
It's funny — you see certain faces often enough and have no clue what kind of people lie behind them. I now know Camille is a pretty fantastic lady, and she loves my homemade jewelry (does this break rule two?).
4. Radical Self-Reliance
Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.
Self-reliance is sort of the antithesis of who I am, unfortunately.
Can't open the jar of salsa? Ask my fiancé for some help. Issues with my computer? Text Dad. Contemplating my sheer existence? Group chat every single friend I know.
So let's say the idea of relying solely on myself to fix anything completely on my own seemed damn near impossible.
I spend most of my days by myself in my house. As a freelancer, I get to enjoy working from the comfort of my office (bed) and waking up whenever I want (noon).
While I was a bit stumped on figuring out how to nail this principle down, I saw it. A spot of green on my otherwise white wall. It was a grasshopper, and I was scared.
My first reaction is usually to run like hell, but then I realized the spirit of Burning Man placed this creature into my life solely for this one principle.
I grabbed a plastic cup and a paper plate. I walked right up to that grasshopper, placed the cup around it and slid the paper plate under the lid. I jimmied my front door open with my elbows and set that insect free. I did it all on my own.
I am a hero.
5. Radical Self-Expression
Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.
Swinging 180 degrees from the previous rule, self-expression is my jam.
I have been, and always will be, quite content being who I am and not being shy about it. If anything, I should probably tone it down a bit, but no way that's happening today.
Today, I can offer myself as a gift to the world. Why? Because I got consent from the Burning Man rules, that's why.
Though public nudity is common at Burning Man, I was a bit weary to express myself that way. So, I did the opposite. I added layer upon layer of clothing and headed outside for a walk. In August.
Heads turned (obviously), but this is how I chose to express myself. Let your freak flag fly, people!
Not pictured: Me, in an ambulance, suffering from heat stroke.
6. Communal Effort
Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art and methods of communication that support such interaction.
In layman's terms, I took this principle to mean it is encouraged and expected to work with and help one another.
As luck — or misfortune, really — would have it, my fiancé and I are renting a home that is now being put up for sale. It came as a surprise to us, but as renters, we have no choice but to pack our stuff up and move.
I've been procrastinating putting my life back into storage boxes and avoiding the idea of leaving my "home sweet home" behind. But after I read this rule, I decided to start collaborating with my fiancé, organizing our rooms and figuring out how to deconstruct our very constructed, very perfect home.
7. Civic Responsibility
We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.
I get this this rule. Truly, I do. But I really can't tell you how to "follow" this rule, so instead of coming up with something incredibly original, I just followed the laws.
I didn't litter. I didn't get intoxicated (publicly). I didn't speed — but my God, driving through that school zone was murder.
And then I called it a day.
8. Leaving No Trace
Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found it.
I am a messy person by nature, but I do not screw around when it comes to the environment.
I throw out other people's garbage if I see it laying on the ground. I forego the plastic bag at the grocery store in an effort to help this planet. I recycle!
I feel like this principle should be so obvious that it shouldn't even be a principle.
Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.
What… does this even mean?
I feel like this is the radical self-inclusion rule on steroids. I'm no scientist, but I think this rule means instead of surveying something, participate in it instead. When it comes to most activities, I'm an observer.
I'm the kind of person who enjoys watching the sport more than doing it. So when a friend of mine asked if I'd go for a run with her, I hesitated. My body was saying "no, absolutely not," but the principles were telling me, "get your ass off the couch," and I had no choice but to oblige.
But as I was running, I realized this rule that I previously thought to be pointless was actually pretty important. In saying "yes" instead of "no," I was able to catch up with a friend, release some endorphins and get some sun.
It was a simple act that held a lot more meaning than I initially thought it would. I feel like I'm sort of understanding these rules a little bit more now.
Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.
Overcoming barriers that stop us from being who we truly are may sound like weird mystic talk, but it actually makes a lot of sense.
Instead of trying to dissect this principle and figure out how to obey it, I decided that after a long day of following rules, I'd simply stop.
I'd just exist and not try to appease the Principles of Burning Man. Because after an entire day of participating in a culture that I'm not attuned to, it is up to me to recognize that only I have the power to cease the experience.
And perhaps that's the whole notion behind the 10 Principles of Burning Man. Maybe it's really all about understanding that you, and only you, can enhance the way you experience the world. So, connect with others. Say "yes" instead of "no." Walk around your house naked.
And, if you happen to stumble across a pop-up city in the Nevada desert, don't just observe the wonderfully weird community — join it.