Burning Man: Psychedelics and Harm Reduction

A skeptic attends Burning Man, assists in harm reduction for those on bad trips, and finds dharma all around him.


| Summer 2014



An art car at burning Man

"The 'mutant vehicles,' or whimsical art cars, were spectacularly creative, ranging from a giant flame-throwing octopus to a wide oriental carpet seemingly flying over the sand."

Photo by Giedrius Dagys

As I approached Burning Man’s Black Rock City from the air, the clouds cleared in a flash to reveal a large, intricate crescent in the sand. With a population of nearly 70,000, the temporary settlement for the annual art and music festival springs into being from the dust for a week before every vestige of it vanishes in flames. I was struck by how similar this almost-perfect circle of a city was to a Tibetan sand mandala, and how its fiery fate resonated so strongly with the ancient and artful message of impermanence.

Low tolerance for desert heat, strong aversion to unruly crowds, and an abject hatred for dust are just a few reasons why I never planned to go to Burning Man, where thousands gather each year in 110-degree heat smack in the middle of a petrified Nevada lake bed (called the “playa”) for a week of psychedelic-fueled festivities. In fact, I planned never to go. Black Rock evangelists once dragged me to a San Francisco “Decompression,” a post–Burning Man party. Not partial to indulgent costumed affairs and immodest displays, after two hours of this cacophonous chaos I longed to see any evidence of normality. Another problem was what I imagined to be the widespread, indiscriminate use of hallucinogens, empathogens, and alcohol at the festival. I recognize the value of many varieties of psychedelics, provided that they are used mindfully, as a sacrament, with the specific intent of having a spiritual experience—but I was not at all sure that this was what the annual legions of scantily clad Burners had in mind.

Burning Man dates back to 1986, when solstice bonfire gatherings were hosted on Baker Beach in San Francisco. The credit for the original Burning Man bonfire is given to Larry Harvey, Jerry James, and their friends, who burned an eight-foot-tall wooden sculpture said to represent past romantic involvements. Harvey described his mission as “creating a place that would give people permission to act on their dreams.” These two overarching themes—freedom and creativity—are still central to the festival, and you are ostensibly free to do and create as you like as long as you aren’t hurting anyone else in the process. In addition, Harvey articulated ten core principles at the heart of Burning Man: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, participation, immediacy, and leaving no trace.

Since the ’80s, Burning Man has grown from about 20 people to 68,000, turning through the years from a small gathering of friends into a giant costume party with awe-inspiring pyrotechnic displays, not to mention a reputation for debauchery—and the presence of law enforcement. Despite its third core principle of decommodification, it is now a $23-million operation, mainstream enough to attract all kinds of celebrities, especially top Silicon Valley players. The entire executive team at Google has been to Burning Man, and this year Mark Zuckerberg helicoptered in for a day and handed out grilled cheese sandwiches. His nemeses, the Winklevoss twins, were also in attendance, along with everyone from rapper Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and actress Susan Sarandon to Michael Levitt, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and Charles Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economics.

The Zendo Project and harm reduction

This unexpected journey to Burning Man had its roots in London. My interest in the intersection of Buddhism and modern problems and my book, Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics (2002), had rendered me, for better or worse, the default speaker on the subject of dharma and drugs. I was invited to be a panelist at this year’s Breaking Convention, a biennial conference on psychedelic consciousness, along with many others, including Rick Doblin, the visionary founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), who dreams unshakably of U.S. government-approved psychedelic medicines, and Katherine MacLean, a Buddhist researcher at Johns Hopkins University who is conducting clinical trials with psilocybin mushrooms for PTSD-afflicted veterans. As we chatted after our respective talks, Rick and Katherine both turned to me suddenly and said, “Hey! You have to join us at Zendo Project at Burning Man and look after people who need support!”

The Zendo Project, they explained, began as a portable space for meditation made from 5,000 pounds of recycled corrugated cardboard, designed by the Zen architect Paul Discoe and funded by the Austrian Zen teacher Vanja Palmers. MAPS undertook the job of turning the space into a kind of psychedelic emergency room, in part to demonstrate how the Burner community can care for its own. Psychedelic experiences can seem dangerous, but police or doctors are not always necessary when there are compassionate, attentive, and well-trained community members available to help. As Brandy Doyle, a MAPS staffer, said frankly, “Psychedelics, while not used by everyone—or even by most—are, for many, part of the festival’s celebration of free expression and pushing the limits of possibility.”