A skeptic attends Burning Man, assists in harm reduction for those on bad trips, and finds dharma all around him.
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.
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.”
It was enticing to step out of character, get over myself, and consider doing something I had dismissed for so long. Imagining myself at Burning Man purposefully, providing a useful service, made the prospect of attending seem less hedonistic and more like a pilgrimage. I had associated Burning Man only with self-indulgent pleasure-seeking, but now I was wondering whether it could be something more. Intrigued with the Zendo Project, which I imagined to be a Buddhist outpost for harm reduction amidst a chaotic scene of unrestrained decadence, I decided to go.
On the ground of Black Rock City, I was met by a welcome team, embraced, and greeted with a hearty “Welcome Home!”—a salutation I found at once charming and presumptuous. The flat terrain was covered with a thick layer of white alkaline powder, and dust storms were frequent. The city was one big construction zone clustered around a 100-foot effigy of The Man, a crude wooden statue rigged with lighting and explosives. Going up all around it was an ocean of tents of different sizes and colors, geodesic domes, yurts, and stories-tall steel sculptures all organized into camps with exotic names. I found my trailer at the edge of the Fractal Planet camp, dropped my bags, and took a bicycle (handily left for me in the trailer) out on the town for a look around the city where I’d be living for the next week.
The best light and temperature at Burning Man is in the late afternoon through early evening, when the heat has subsided and the cold night air has not yet arrived. Amber light floods the city, and human skin takes on a mesmerizing glow. I panicked when I realized I had left my wallet in the trailer, but it was a fast recovery to remember that financial instruments like cash and credit cards were useless here. Unless you wanted to get ice or coffee at the Center Camp, there was nothing for sale. Burning Man operates as a “gift economy.” Food, drinks, and other provisions are available for free, but for the most part you are supposed to bring everything you need, along with gifts to offer to others.
Usually one feels vulnerable or incomplete without any legal tender, but here I felt a novel sense of liberation from my financial persona. This alone was a significant experience—to no longer have any need to compare or rank your economic self in relation to others. The concept that all people are equal takes on a visceral truth here, and alternative ways to express abundance and self-worth become evident: by stepping down from judgment (of yourself and everyone around you), by the ideas you hold, by the laughter you share, by the desire to create or appreciate beauty, and by the love in your heart. I have rarely felt as free as I did riding those dusty streets, exchanging smiles with all who passed me, and admiring the amazing and surreal art projects going up everywhere. 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.
The next morning, I went to the Zendo Project’s all-day training for volunteers, scheduled compassionately for 11 a.m. Linnae Ponte, the Zendo Project manager, provided a warm and informative introduction to the practice of Harm Reduction. Sheelo Bohm, a holotropic breath teacher, offered specifics on how to care for those having difficult psychedelic experiences, while Sara Giron, another volunteer, told us how to work with the body, deal with trauma, and take care of ourselves along the way.
Annie Oak, who ran a teahouse on the opposite side of the playa (an art car was designed to shuttle back and forth between the two posts), pointed out that like it or not, thousands of people will come to Burning Man and use psychedelics outside of supervised medical contexts, many of them for the first time. It’s not rare for first-time users, especially with high doses and inadequate preparation or guidance, to have uncomfortable experiences. But as Annie said, “a difficult psychedelic experience is not necessarily a bad one.” They can be frightening, but are also among the most valuable experiences someone can have.
Zendo volunteers are expected to embrace a code of ethics while providing service. They must be rested, calm, compassionate, and alert—and of course, sober—as they hold space for guests, treating them with care and dignity. This includes asking their permission before any kind of counseling or touching, and sticking with them until they leave the Zendo. No sexual advances should be made, and any such advances from guests are to be tactfully deflected. One of the primary issues during the training was how, where, and whether to touch those who have placed their trust in us while in a vulnerable state. Volunteers also have to keep their attention on potential changes in the state of their guests, and ask senior volunteers for help if needed. During the break, I recalled a tweet from Thich Nhat Hanh sent right before I left for the event: “The noblest aspiration is to help people suffer less.” The pre-training for Zendo volunteers felt like a class in a bodhisattva finishing school.
I reported for duty at the Zendo for the Saturday night shift. Within a few short hours, the Zendo Project came to life, replete with Chinese lanterns, Tibetan rugs, air conditioning, a table full of snacks and beverages, and lots of pillows and blankets. A network of people in places where there were sure to be high amounts of drug use, such as massive dance gatherings, had been informed about the service and asked to make referrals. Yet even as it neared midnight, few clients had yet found their way to us.
Suddenly, a troubled young woman dressed tribally in the style of Mad Max appeared in the door covered in fine white sand and needing hydration. New clients continued to arrive, and suddenly we were very busy. My first client was a 20-year-old male from upstate New York who was having his first experience with LSD. It was not going well. Everything looked dark to him, and strange hallucinations were persistently intruding into his field of vision. He was scared and wanted to hear that this was all temporary. I reassured him that his discomfort would be short-lived, bringing him water and extra pillows. I wanted him to know that I was available to witness what he was going through. I listened to him talk about his life, relationships, dreams, and fears. Then he fell asleep, freeing me to assist a female volunteer across the room. She was working with a 23-year-old male who had probably mixed a variety of substances (including alcohol) in unknown doses and was panicked that he wasn’t going to survive. At the same time, he was making uncomfortable advances toward her. His hand moved closer to my associate; I took hold of his wrist and asked him if I could help. I held his arm gently but firmly at his side while speaking softly into his ear, telling him that he shouldn’t worry. Despite my antipathy for his behavior, I found I was willing to be his protector. The on-duty medic noticed his movements and took his pulse, which was alarmingly high. To be safe, arrangements were made to transfer him to a local hospital. He took my hand as the medics prepared his gurney and asked, “Am I going to die?” I said no, that he’d be back on the playa in a few hours.
At Burning Man, three in the morning is still early in the evening, as being asleep is the best way to get through the long, hot mornings and early afternoons. It felt good to have made myself useful, and it was time for some entertainment. A few fellow Burners and I set out on our bikes to explore the musically jubilant and psychedelically illuminated playa. You practically needed sunglasses to dim the brilliant kinetic lights on the Esplanade, a phosphorescent and LED boulevard of wonders. Deep whooshes of bursting propane fire would shoot up randomly as part of a large art installation, sending chills down my spine. As we crossed into the deep playa, the open desert extending beyond The Man, it became visually obvious how vast this city of light and sound really was.
Soon the Temple of Whollyness came into view, standing out as a stunning jewel of geometry against the barren playa. A pyramid built entirely without nails, screws, or other hardware, the Temple is spiritual ground zero at Burning Man. A basalt sculpture representing a human being dominated the center hall, and throngs of people were keeping a hand on it as if it might recharge their lives, giving the scene a Mecca-like vibe. The people of Burning Man endowed it with their memories, prayers, and tributes, attaching pictures and writing notes directly on the walls and beams of the Temple.
Circumambulating inside the pyramid, I reflected on the power of pilgrimage, of seeking the grace to live one’s life in a new way. Now that I had radically removed myself from the habitual patterns of everyday life, serendipity and synchronicity rushed into my experience. I found myself running into old friends whom I had never expected to see at Burning Man, and it was amusing to see the same thing happening to others. As the sun came into its dreamlike glory, we biked over to the nearby Abraxas, a massive art car in the shape of a golden dragon, for some soft dancing, Zen aerobics, sky worship, and one final chance to socialize before bedtime.
Traveling the playa, experiencing scenes from the fantastic to the crudely immature and everything in between, I found more improbable resonance creeping into my awareness between this artsy hi-tech desert ritual and Buddhist ways of being. From the generosity, non-judgment, and eightfold path-like principles practiced by Burners to the sacred geometry of the city’s layout to everyone’s acceptance that it would all disappear in a matter of days, the playa was permeated with a Buddhist view of life.
And while Burning Man is of an entirely different character, it did have its similarities to a Zen retreat: attendees are hoping for a shift in their perspectives; people are, for the most part, on their best interpersonal behavior; and they take on new names, sleep less, and have amazing insights. Unlike the program at a Zen retreat, many people simply come to dance all week, make love, or blow their minds open with psychedelics. But everyone has permission to follow their dreams and pursue what makes them happy, without judgment. And while some found happiness in pursuing sense pleasures, others took solace in yoga, meditation, and intellectual inquiry. The vast variety of intentions and possibilities don’t seem to separate Burners from one another; rather, it unites them. On the playa, a playful attitude and an open mind are required—and rewarded.
The evening after The Man burned, I made one last visit to the Temple. I arrived just as the ushers started asking people to leave, so I quickly photographed some of the most striking of the messages and mementos that adorned every inch of reachable space. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man in his 50s drop to his knees on the soft playa floor and begin to cry out loudly. His moans of pain were heart-wrenching and relentless. I wondered how to move around him without appearing disinterested or unaffected by his suffering. Then a strange impulse came over me. I walked slowly toward him, knelt down, and put my hand on his back. I was afraid that I was thrusting myself uninvited into his situation, that my gesture might seem arrogant, aggressive, or awkward. As my thought continued down that track, a young man kneeled beside me and placed his hand on the other side of the man’s back. Moments later, another man lent a hand to his shoulder. Then a woman came to his other side with her hand outstretched.
For a few minutes that seemed much longer, the four of us held him in his space and witnessed his repeated cries. Suddenly, the man stopped. It occurred to me how hard it must be to stay focused on your suffering when others are physically demonstrating their compassion for you. After another half-minute we all slowly rose to our feet and hugged each other, one by one, including the man, who now appeared to feel somewhat better. The temple bells began to ring, hastening our departure. We had to leave before the Temple burned.
To growing numbers of people, Burning Man has become a new culture, even a surrogate religion. My friend, the New Age author Daniel Pinchbeck, likes to say that Burning Man is “hedonism with spiritual overtones.” But he also pointed out that it still has no truly ethical or liberating imperative: “The wealthy and privileged can now undergo the annual psychedelic apocalypse in the desert, but it doesn’t transform their values or lead them to use their life energy for the benefit of the downtrodden, or to sustain the planetary ecology as a whole.”
Still, for those who understand its deeper purpose, Burning Man remains a major catalyst and cultural accelerator. As one longtime Burner, Parker Johnson, explains: “No, the event and organization does not have a mandate or a plan to transform or liberate mankind, but it does provide a container—a living ritual—for people to touch into a part of themselves and of the collective, which can be wholly transformative.” As I prepared to leave the playa, I reflected on the greeting that begins every social encounter at Burning Man: “Welcome Home.” My spirit did feel at home here. The dust and heat notwithstanding, I was a Burner now, and the other Burners were my sangha.
The next day began the tear-down process, marked by the arrival of the Playa Restoration All-Star team. Within just a few days, 45 city blocks would disappear under their feet, and in the end there would be no trace left of Burning Man in the ancient Lahontan lake bed.
Allan Badiner is a writer, teacher, and an activist with a special interest in how Buddhism relates to modern social problems. Reprinted from Tricycle (Spring 2014), a quarterly magazine that provides a unique and independent public forum for exploring Buddhism and introducing Buddhist thinking to Western disciplines.