The Mythology of Burning Man

My sojourn to the festival in the desert verified something: This is the most widespread example that America has at consciously creating a modern mythology.
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People walk toward the temple at Burning Man near Gerlach, Nev., on the Black Rock Desert on Friday Aug. 31, 2012. (AP Photo/The Reno Gazette-Journal, Andy Barron)
People walk toward the temple at Burning Man near Gerlach, Nev., on the Black Rock Desert on Friday Aug. 31, 2012. (AP Photo/The Reno Gazette-Journal, Andy Barron)

There's nothing quite like spending hours rubbing vinegar and lemon juice over the clothing and camping gear you hope to remove Playa dust from. Yet on the long ride from Gerlach to Los Angeles, I felt kinship to the cars and RVs I passed plastered in white sand. Upon pulling up to my apartment, my neighbor asks, "Salt flats?" I laugh, responding, "Burning Man." She says, "Ah."

'Nuff said.

The annual ritual known as Burning Man probably had 60,900 meanings for everyone in attendance this year. But my second sojourn to the festival in the desert verified what I recalled from my first: This is the most widespread example that America has at consciously creating a modern mythology. Myths have always had conscious and unconscious elements -- the ritual is consciously constructed, but what happens within the container of the construction is anyone's guess. This is the empty space where magic happens.

To dive further into this idea, I'd like to use Joseph Campbell's four functions of a mythology to show how beyond a party and getting f'd up in the desert, Burning Man is a mythology in the making, creating a social order relevant to our time, right now, 2012 America.

The Mystical Function

Campbell's first requirement was that mythology must inspire awe in the universe. Modern America was built on biblical desert mythologies, even if most Americans would want to do anything but live in such an environment today. Standing in the middle of the Playa -- the art-driven center of the camp -- at 2 a.m., whipping yourself around to find a perfect circumference of lights, mutant vehicles and sound systems the size of midtown Manhattan clubs is, to say the least, awe-inspiring. All mythologies were created by humans; I hope we're evolved enough to understand that no god rushed down from wherever to "give" a human some special message. Therefore, what really matters is imagination. Burning Man is a safe space to fully explore and share your creative edge. Seeing what 60,000 humans can create in the span of a week, only to be destroyed (explained later), is more mystical to the human mind than reading stories of a man who might have done this or that thousands of years ago.

The Cosmological Function

Campbell's second function was that a mythology had to explain the shape of the universe. Obviously, we've had many different shapes offered to us. The shape of Burning Man is impermanence, a principle deeply entwined with Buddhism. While the entire gathering has been written off as wasteful -- it is not cheap to attend; I spent $1,200 for six days -- the festival is a living example of what art and life can be when we move beyond the bottom line. Think about this: In the span of two weeks (including build and breakdown), a city is constructed, celebrated and deconstructed. This is the exact representation of the triune deities of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva in Indian mythology. Creation, destruction and, yes, sustainability; the ritual occurs yearly as an annual reminder of the transience of life, much like the Mexican myths of the corn goddess or the eternal return of Osiris. Theology teaches us the importance of the afterlife, which often serves as a way of not taking responsibility for the life we are living now; think of the anti-global warming furor of the GOP, for one example. When the man burns on Saturday evening, we are reminded not only of very old fire mythologies, designed to represent the impermanence of nature, but that we are part of an extremely long process that did not begin nor end with us. Celebrating the process for what it is defines our cosmological outlook.

The Sociological Function

Once we understand that nothing in nature lasts, we are free to design our own social order in accordance with that process. The sociological function validates this. This year I camped at Fractal Nation, where the mayor, Charles Shaw, believes that Burning Man is "post-apocalyptic training." He went on to state that it's not some biblical apocalypse he's invoking, but rather the process of watching what's going on around us: a crumbling economy, a split government and a cultural anxiety unseen in American history, save maybe when we began stealing this land from its former inhabitants. Survival skills are necessary in such an imagined society. No one sees the physical Burning Man as a sustainable culture -- it's an inspirational, creative tool to use when you return to "life," much like any mythology we've invented. The importance lies in not seeing the gathering as a dogma, instead treating it as an ever-evolving culture that, by definition, demands "radical inclusiveness." Forget the 99%/1% battle, and imagine a culture where everyone's voice is honored, everyone's art at the very least seen.

The Pedagogical Function

The fourth is most interesting in terms of Burning Man: how to live under any circumstances. This function carries humans through all stages of life, from birth and childhood to adulthood and beyond. Most importantly, it deals with teaching us how live with integrity. The function is designed to teach people how to realize themselves. Burning Man is a valuable container for such exploration. In my yoga classes, I often remind people that they are in a safe space to explore their psychological and emotional processes. Yet, inhibitions remain -- it is a local studio, and mores exist. Those are thrown off the building at Burning Man. The two times in which I attended, 2007 and 2012, I was in very different states of mind. Both times I was able to process and, more importantly, integrate what I had experienced with support and encouragement.

During his talk at Fractal Nation, author Daniel Pinchbeck invited audience members to share their feelings on how the evolution of consciousness is taking place. His one requirement was that no one spoke of it in negative terms, and he cut off any speaker who launched into what reality isn't. While there's nothing wrong with criticism, being able to define how consciousness is evolving, which will inherently be how your consciousness is evolving, in purely positive terms allows you to imagine a reality you want to create, that you are excited about taking part in. What a beautiful process.

As one teacher of mine always remarks, how we do anything is how we do everything. Having a community support our progress and creativity on such a scale is unlike anything America is experiencing. Ritual is a human function; it will appear whether or not we consciously create it. To be involved in actively engaging with a festival devoted to impermanence is more valuable than grappling with a theology that demands a sacrifice of integrity in submission of false ideas. The only idea that matters is the one we create and live with our fullest and most uninhibited expression. This is how the mythologies we invent define us, and how we live our mythology without fear.

Burning Man

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