If you missed it, catch up on Part 1’s first three lessons.
The weather, with both rain, mud, and sand-storms, made 2023 a year to remember, allowing for a myriad of emotional highs and lows. Burners refer to our regular lives as the “default world,” implying that the ephemeral experience of Black Rock City is somehow special and unlike any other part of our lives.
I view Burning Man as the experimental container through which you can access a huge range of experiences — in a mostly safe environment — that can be hard to find in the default world. It’s set up so that instant community is easy to find, the gorgeous desert setting surrounded by art creates many chances for awe and joy, and the variety of camps expands your perspectives. Finally, the sheer power of nature and living outdoors means that you’ll have to deal with the physical adversity that our houses typically insulate us against.
Read on to hear about the range of emotions we experienced in a matter of days, and how beautiful the life lessons turned out to be. These continue to be applicable, both on playa and in the default world.
4. Seek Awe
A large part of Burning Man for me is about the art. But unlike a museum, the art here is interactive and people are a crucial element of the piece. Yes, wandering through the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Louvre or the Sagrada Familia allows us to gape and be transported into the artist’s vision of the world, yet we are often behind a glass plate or a rope divider reminding us to keep our distance and DON’T TOUCH. In contrast, the art at Burning Man is all about participation.
The playa is a giant playground. Each time you venture out, there’s new art to discover, even though you think you’ve traversed this path at least four times before. It’s impossible to see everything. Serendipitously following art cars or wandering with new friends leads you to even more new installations.
From a distance, you can see a giant mechanical winged pegasus. Yet when you get close, you realize you can get the sculpture to move. Awe comes when you’ve gotten three other people together, positioned on all four corners of “Wings of Glory” by Adrian Landon, and you realize that you must all press the buttons simultaneously. Three, two, one… FLY.
Inside the Temple of the Heart, everyone has left tributes and stories of the souls that have passed. She holds space for the community to process grief, and to be awed by the collective beauty of thousands of wooden flowers and home-crafted alters.
The Elder Mother tree by Charles Gadeken is a gathering place for people to marvel at the iridescent cubes, to listen to the fairytales from around the world, to control the colors of the tree by using interactive placards, and to try to conquer its heights by climbing. The art is magnetic — in one afternoon, we saw about 10 weddings at the base of the tree.
Burning Man helps facilitate these experiences of awe. And we can continue to seek them throughout our everyday lives.
5. Celebrate New Experiences
The desert and survival conditions of Black Rock City make it an easy place to have new experiences. So often in our everyday lives, we fall into patterns of going to work or school (or zoom), making meals, exercise, watching media, then falling asleep to start this all over again. I got the privilege of experiencing Burning Man through the eyes of my first timer sister and through the week, we continued to remind ourselves to celebreate every single new experieince. That each of these was “the first time…”
—The first time… lying in the dust creating a sand angel.
—The first time… erecting a 10-foot shade structure in the hot sun as two short women.
—The first time… grieving our dad together at sunset in temple.
—The first time… biking blind through a sandstorm.
—The first time… staying up all night dancing and exploring under the blue supermoon.
Each experience was unique and breathtaking. Each was unforgettable.
Especially this last one.
I like to climb. In college, I used to rock climb. Now, I often climb tall trees. I climb most of the art structures we see. I generally take calculated risks and it mostly works out.
I said mostly.
This time, I learned that it’s not wise to climb structures that aren’t designed to be scaled. It’s not wise to climb slippery metal sculptures. Especially in the rain. Especially in a sleep deprived state.
My sister and friends watched in horror as I slipped down the Elder Mother tree, landing in an awkward face plant in the playa dust. I’m told I looked terrible with blood streaming from my mouth and chin.
There was some shock. Some pain. Some disbelief (remember that healthy ego of mine?). A lot of embarrassment.
It led us to explore the medical facilities where burners who are cardiologists, nurses, anesthesiologist in their regular lives, take on volunteer shifts. We got to ride a makeshift “ambulance” to Rampart, the bigger urgent care facility in center camp staffed by Nevada medical professionals, completely equipped to do X-rays, head scans, and many other urgent care facilities.
After the shock wore off. After it was became clear that all the blood was from light flesh wounds. After it was clear that I wasn’t concussed, I looked over at my sister and laughingly said:
—The first time… going to the Emergency Room at 3am at Burning Man.
We burst into laughter, relieved that there was no lasting damage.
I’m grateful for the medical staff and to also experience a whole new side of the playa infrastructure.
6.Embrace the Challenge
The heavy rains started on Friday afternoon.
Burning Man is a giant city of 70,000 and I was teaching a workshop at 2pm at Shaman Dome, a good 20 minute bike ride across the playa from our camp. We’d spent a lot of the wee hours of the morning at the ER and I wasn’t feeling great with bruises and a black eye starting to emerge. We headed over early so I could plan the session. I was secretly hoping no one would show up especially as the wind started howling at 2pm and I rushed to secure all the flapping sides of the canvas dome.
We had a full session. I ran a large group through a visualization of their power animals and how to shapeshift between the traits of collective animal guides present in the space and on the playa. As the heavy rains started to pound, I cut the session short, telling everyone to get back to their camp safely.
By 3:30pm, we were well and truly stuck. We couldn’t wheel our bikes more than 10 feet without them getting mired in sticky mud. We tried to walk, with our shoes covered by garbage bags, but the heavy rains made it impossible to get more than 100 feet without physical exhaustion.
So we stayed.
We spent hours in the dry-ish kitchen at Shaman Dome. I experienced my lowest point of the burn when I lost one of my contact lenses while scraping off the mud from my boots. I’m practically blind at a -9.5 in my left eye and when I lose my sight, I freak out. The kind folks at camp gave us the warm jackets off their backs, and told us they were setting up a tent with extra sleeping bags for us. Gradually, the energy shifted as we swapped stories and played games. The camp served a full hot meal for everyone present. It was close to dark, and as we were contemplating a sleepless night in wet tents, we heard a collective cheer outside and all around us.
In a brief break in the rain, you could see the most beautiful full double rainbow arch across the sky.
Taking it as a sign, we put on garbage bags and decided to trudge barefoot across the open playa back to camp. That hour-long mud walk, complete with full body falls while being blind in one eye, was one of the most breath-taking periods of joy that I remember. We danced, we sang, we twirled our way through the mud and rain. And eventually made it back to our warm dry camp.
Challenges teach you resilience and on the other side, brings amazing feelings of exuberance, having finally made it through. It may never be something we willingly choose to undergo, yet life is chaotic and uncontrollable. Burning Man simply brings more of those experiences to the forefront.
Hello! I’m your host, Tutti Taygerly. I’ve spent 20+ years in product design & technology, leading teams at startups, design agencies, and large tech companies. I left Facebook in the summer of 2019 to focus on executive coaching full-time. I write about topics related to leadership, diversity, & design which you can follow. Feeling overwhelmed by busyness? Check out my book Make Space to Lead.