I felt a spiritual climax when I watched flames engulf a giant wooden man in the Black Rock desert and a profound connection to the 66,000 other "Burners" sharing the ritual with me, putting the past behind us for another year, until the next Burning Man festival.
As the charred wood of the man crashed down, everyone -- from Buddhists to crystal experts and environmentalists to Tai Chi masters, Tantra gurus and hardcore house music worshippers — cheered. I wanted to cry out that our generation is far from lost.
Perhaps we haven’t given up on the idea of religion, but are just re-inventing it. After all, Wikipedia defines religion loosely as “an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.”
As I rode my flower and parasol-adorned bicycle back across the desert dust referred to as the "Playa" to do a final check at our camp for "MOOP" or litter, I couldn’t help but wonder if Burning Man could fit that bill. Here's how Burning Man is kind of like its own religion:
Come one, come all.
Nearly all religions seek to be inclusive. Although, often, there are barriers to entry, like the need to convert, seek forgiveness or reconsider aspects of oneself, such as homosexuality.
Burning Man boasts radical inclusion. The original "Burners," who gathered through word of mouth, were considered to be participants by virtue of surviving in the desolate Black Rock desert. Now, even though Burning Man attracted a largely white, affluent crowd, tickets are available to all.
There are even low-income options. The key barrier to entry is being quick-fingered enough to secure a ticket in the online sale. Upon entering Black Rock City, everyone is greeted with an enthusiastic “welcome home,” and first-timers, or "Virgin Burners," are initiated by being rolled in Playa dust.
From there, anything goes because another radical aspect of Burning Man is the self-expression. All events and camps, even the few up-market camps, are open and available for anyone who wants to wander.
For those who miss out on the annual pilgrimage to Black Rock City, alternative Burning Man events are springing up. There is AfrikaBurn, hosted in South Africa each April, and Robot Heart parties that take over Brooklyn warehouses in the name of Burning Man.
Ten is the magic number.
Burning Man’s 10 Principles aren’t obligatory like the five pillars of Islam or clear rules like the 10 Commandments. They certainly don’t prohibit adultery, orgies or cock rings, but they do emphasize civic responsibility, environmental protection and community.
Gift-giving is taken seriously; anything from necklaces to waffles, water, unicorn love potions and hugs is great. The Playa dust seems to magically kill any germs shared by passing around communal cocktails.
I had tasted the Burning Man generosity even before my first "Burn." A stranger shared her hotel room with me when I was stranded in Tulum over New Years, citing “the spirit of Burning Man.”
If music is the food of love, play on.
Every religion unites, celebrates and worships through music, whether it be by chanting, hymns, Zoroastrian or Shintō music.
While there are various music options at Burning Man, like the Michael Jackson vs. Prince marathon, house music dominates. It thumps day and night across Black Rock City.
Each night, the famous Robot Heart truck drives high-profile DJs into the open desert, followed by thousands ready to salute the rising sun. If you watch the crowd as the beat drops, you will see such cheering, jumping, singing, dancing and throwing of hands into the air that you would be forgiven for comparing the passion to a stadium of excitable Gospel music fans.
A picture speaks a thousand words.
Symbolism is a key to religion; from the Buddhist Wheel of Dharma to the Hindu Om to the yin and yang to or the Christian crucifix, symbols are prominent religious fixtures.
"Burners" have the silhouette of the burning man, with his arms held above his head. It can be seen across the Playa and beyond, tattooed on skin, engraved on to wooden pendants and painted on RVs and clothing.
“The human soul can always use a new tradition...”
…So said writer, Pat Conroy. The Burning Man festival has created various traditions, most importantly the ritual burning of various sculptures.
The first burn of 2014 was a work called "The Embrace," at sunrise. The last burn is always the intricate wooden temple, on the walls of which people leave remembrances to lost loved ones. Silence falls on those who remain to watch it burn.
The climatic tradition is burning the effigy of the wooden man, a tradition that begun with friends burning a 9-foot wooden man and a smaller wooden dog on San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986. Now, on the second-to-last night of the week-long festival, Burners unite to watch the spectacle, let go of unwanted emotion and set new intentions for the year ahead.
'Til death do us part...
Wedding ceremonies are a key part of any religion, and while Burning Man includes classes on open relationships, it certainly creates long-lasting and monogamous connections, too.
The Burning Man website gives tips for planning wedding ceremonies that states,
There are no legal requirements concerning what you must do or say at your wedding. Create any sort of ritual, game, or party you like.
The power and the glory
Even in the USA, where there is separation of Church and State, religion holds sway. The Church, for instance, is a landowner and biblical principles have greatly influenced law-making.
While long-time Burners say the Playa was once for hippies, it now also draws the groovers, shakers and music makers of Generation-Y, from big-name artists to spiritual leaders.
While Burning Man doesn’t yet have billions of followers or centuries of tradition under its belt, like conventional religions do, it has created a set of ideals that many aspire to uphold. It provides a focus through which people can connect with one another and the universe. So, many claim it to be a “life-changing experience.”
The real world seemed surreal to me after Burning Man. I had to make a conscious effort not to use the Playa name bestowed on me or hug everyone I passed.
Photo Courtesy: Tumblr