The way people talk about Burning Man, you’d think it was heaven on earth.
A place where only magical things happen and if you’re not feeling wondrous and euphoric and oh so sparkly at every single moment, then there’s something wrong with you.
Sorry, but that ain’t true.
Burning Man can be a place of magic and ecstatic highs, for sure. But it’s just as much a home to lows, frustration, and loneliness as well.
And that’s what makes it so special.
My first Burn was in 2012. I wrote at length about how ecstatic and life-changing it was. The experience was so chock-full of highs, it was easy to forget the lows.
But the lows were there. They always are. You just never hear about it on your social media stream.
No Burn is complete without long stretches of loneliness. Punctuated bouts of frustration and exhaustion. At least one solid ragequit sesh (bonus points for tears).
And that ubiquitous moment where you’re feeling down and out, watching everyone and their frickin’ unicorns have the most magical time ever, wondering, “What’s wrong with me? Am I not doing it right?”
You’re doing it exactly right. Trust me.
To think that unpleasant emotions shouldn’t happen out there – or that you’re doing something wrong if you experience them – is not just inaccurate…
It’s missing the entire POINT.
Burning Man is special BECAUSE it’s a place where we’re allowed to feel those lows!
Where our raw, messy humanness is completely embraced.
Not just the shiny, fun parts.
ALL of it.
See, in the default world, our culture teaches us that we should never feel those “negative” emotions.
That we should only feel the “positive” ones. Only show others the “good” ones. Heaven forbid if anyone saw us upset or sad!
But at Burning Man, this emotional repression finally loosens it’s iron-fisted grip.
Here, every emotion… Every way of being. Every raw, authentic expression of humanness is not just allowed – it’s welcomed!
On the playa, seeing someone cry is just as beautiful as watching them dance. It’s a dance of it’s own.
And the invisible boundaries that keep all of these emotions from touching or crossing-over, come crashing down.
Emotions and experiences all swirl into one unidentifiable, pulsing mush of aliveness – where you’re ecstatic one moment, crying the next, then feeling angry and alone, while simultaneously overflowing with gratitude.
This is what healthy human expression looks like once we free it from it’s cage and let it naturally roam.
When we drop the notions of what we’re supposed to feel and how we’re supposed to be – and just FEEL and BE.
Freedom to be fully, messily, divinely human.
These “negative” emotions deserve to be felt. And expressed. Without shame or judgment.
They contain, within them, immense beauty and numerous gifts.
My most powerful experiences on the playa were often made up of these lows that we so fear.
Like wrapping my arms around a stranger, holding her as she sobbed in the middle of a blinding dust storm. Flagging down an ambulance and frantically guiding it to a couple convulsing on the ground. Bonding with a journeyer in a quiet teahouse over how down and alone we both were feeling.
Look, I’ve had a million feel-good moments on the playa.
But it’s these “low” moments that have stuck with me. Challenged me. Touched me.
And left on imprint on my heart.
That’s what makes Burning Man so different from other festivals, like Coachella or EDC.
At those festivals, it’s all about having as much fun as possible.
At Burning Man, it’s about opening up to as much as possible – to the highs, lows, and everything in-between.
Diving fully into uncharted territories. Touching depths you never knew existed.
And letting them CHANGE you.
There’s a reason why Burning Man is called a “transformational festival”.
It’s about more than having a good time. It’s about learning. Growing. Walking out of the playa slightly different than how you walked in.
And as is true in life, the experiences that teach us the most can often be the difficult, painful ones.
Case in point: my second Burn was the exact opposite of my first.
I was sick the whole time. I felt out of place. Like I didn’t belong. Sure, there were moments of magic. But they were mostly drowned out by a constant, unwavering malaise.
It was an extremely depressing experience. Especially after having such an explosive, life-altering first Burn.
But looking back, it couldn’t have been any other way. This low was EXACTLY what I needed to experience.
It taught me humility. Shined a light on the subconscious thought patterns and insecurities that were holding me back. Showed me that Burning Man couldn’t fix the rest of my life – especially the parts I was neglecting. And it revealed to me the ever-changing nature of the Burn, and consequently, of life itself.
It was harsh medicine. Not the kind I wanted to drink down. But what I deeply needed.
As the oft-repeated Burner saying goes:
“You don’t get the Burn you want, you get the Burn you need.”
I love this saying for many reasons. But mainly for pointing out that what you WANT and what you NEED are two very different things.
And what you need can come in many different forms – high, low, and in-between.
Whatever gets the job done.
So, if you ever find yourself in Black Rock City and notice you’re feeling down. Out. Frustrated. Or disconnected.
Just know that you’re not doing anything wrong.
You’re doing Burning Man completely, absolutely, 100% right.
Let whatever you’re feeling be felt. Listen to what it has to say. Don’t try to run from it or shut it down, like you usually do.
Remember, you’re now in a place that embraces ALL of you. Not just part of you. Not just the magical you. Not just the you-that-woke-up-on-the-right-side-of-the-bed.
All. Of. You.
So do yourself a favor and extend the same courtesy within, to your sadness, anger, and pain.
Dust off the doormat and invite them in with open arms – just as the playa does for you.
You are all welcome here.