Burning Man is kind of like Fight Club.
You can’t possibly explain it — or even fully understand it — until you’ve been. And, after you have, all you’ll want to do is share with others how life-changing a wild week in the Nevada high desert riding art cars, hugging strangers, watching wooden birthday cakes explode, and crafting metal bikinis can be.
If you’re thinking about going to Burning Man, this guide to the 10 Principles of Burning Man and how you can apply them to your own life in the everyday “default” world may help you figure out if it’s for you. I’ll share with you bit about my own experience as well. Ask me any questions you have in the comments.
What Is Burning Man?
Burning Man is not a festival. It is not Coachella on acid. It is not a giant art exhibit. It has many of those aspects, but first and foremost, Burning Man is a community.
At Black Rock City — the temporary city that houses 70,000 to 80,000 people in Nevada’s inhospitable, alkaline dry lake bed that is the Black Rock Desert — you can dance to some of the biggest DJs until dawn, watch naked men chicken fight on a chandelier, spend your morning dusting stained glass fireflies, climb a three-story sculpture in a leather duster, go bowling before a dust storm hits, learn how to give a proper spanking, eat freshly made beignets, or hop on a random art car and see where that takes you.
If you can imagine it, it exists at Burning Man. Even if you can’t imagine it, it probably exists at Burning Man.
But what is nearly impossible to understand before you arrive — welcome home, btw — is that while Burning Man is all of those things, it’s also none of those things. It’s not the things you can do. It’s the spirit with which they’re given and the vibe of the community that persists all over the playa (the dry lake bed on which Black Rock City is established) that makes Burning Man so unique.
It’s undeniable that it feels fantastic to be accepted you for who you are. Now imagine an entire city doing that — a city the size of Mountain View or Kalamazoo or Evanston — and you might start to understand why so many Burning Man attendees struggle with decompression, a.k.a. the harsh reacclimation to the “default” world post-Burn.
When I was planning for my first Burning Man as a Burning Man Virgin — or “Burgin” — I was researching how to protect my car from playa dust that coats the Black Rock Desert. I came across a post that essentially said, “Your car will never be the same after Burning Man. Then again, neither will you.”
Remember how I said it wasn’t a festival?
Who Invented Burning Man?
Burning Man’s history is rooted in radical, artistic expression. It began in 1986, when Larry Havey and his friend Jerry James burned an 8-foot tall man on San Francisco’s Baker Beach while friends and bystanders watched.
The next year, they decided to do it again — this time with a bigger man. As the event (and the man) grew, a community developed and its principles started to take root.
In 1990, the Cacophony Society — a network of creative types who describe themselves as “united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society through subversion, pranks, art, fringe explorations and meaningless madness — brought Burning Man from the beach to Black Rock Desert.
“Project Mayhem was based on the Portland Cacophony Society, which I used to do more of. They get together and pull these enormous pranks.” — DVDTalk.com interview with Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk
Like Fight Club, if you attend, participation is mandatory. Though, you’ll probably come back with fewer bruises than you would if you spent a night in Tyler Durden’s basement. (Well, unless you end up in the Thunderdome — then all bets are off.)
What Are the 10 Principles of Burning Man?
The principles, according to Burning Man’s official site, “were crafted not as a dictate of how people should be and act, but as a reflection of the community’s ethos and culture as it had organically developed since the event’s inception.”
Harvey wrote them down in 2004, and they became known as the 10 Principles of Burning Man.
If you combine these principles with an understanding of the experience’s history, you’ll have a sense of what you’re in for — and what you’ll take home with you.
(No, not an art car! Put that back where you found it right now.)
Here are the 10 Principles of Burning Man — and how I’ve been trying to apply them to life “off Playa.” (In other words, in the mundane, fire-breathing-dragon-free world we tend to default to).
1. Radical Inclusion
“Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.”
At Burning Man, you’re always welcome and encouraged to participate.
Imagine a city where people are looking to connect. That person shouting at you through their megaphone really does want you to come over and drink their coffee or dance in their giant igloo.
And when you do, don’t be surprised when the person standing next to asks your name, gives you a hug, and starts a conversation that leads to an adventure.
How I’ve Applied This Within the “Default World:” I was always a member of the “you can sit with us” camp, but sometimes I let my fear of rejection get in the way. Or I worry that an event will spiral out of control. (Seriously, Jerry, no giraffes next time.)
After Burning Man, I’ve become a firm believer in the more the merrier and have been making a concerted effort to grow my community and make others feel welcome. For instance, at parties, I’ve become more intentional with inviting those who seem to want to join a conversation, but who are hesitant, in. If they say no, that’s okay too!
“Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.”
Burning Man is not based around a barter system. It’s a gift economy. And, there is a large chasm that separates those two. There is no exchange for this-for-that. Gifts are given without the expectation of anything in return.
Gifts are given with the intent of “here, you look like you could use this.” I personally found that when I began to give without expectation of anything in return I became less guarded, less protective, more open towards those around me.
On the last day of the Burn, I went out into Deep Playa to check out what remained of the art. By the time I was nearing the city again, I was a bit zonked. As I passed a two-story upside down ice cream cone, a guy on a megaphone invited me to come have iced tea and cookies. What a gift! I fueled up and felt immediately rejuvenated.
A gift can be anything: champagne, a hug, a random guy who bikes up with pepperoni pizza just after you said you were craving some, workshops on vulnerability, someone helping you build your tent, or someone simply sitting with you and hearing your story undistracted. They’re all gifts.
Burning Man is a gift economy, not a barter system. And there’s a large chasm that separates those two. Gifts are given without the expectation of anything in return. This helps create a culture that’s less focused on “mine” and “yours,” but more on “ours.”
How I’ve Applied This Within the “Default World:” One night biking back to camp, I realize that so much of what we receive every day is a gift… it’s just less obviously wrapped. So now, I continue to give without expectation of reciprocity and I keep my eyes open to the gifts that others are providing.
“In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.”
Or, in the words of Durden, “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate, so we can buy shit we don’t need.”
At Burning Man, you’ll find products with obvious branding that have been playfully modified — a U-Haul truck becomes a U-Fall, for example. And using Burning Man as a backdrop for product placement is frowned upon, because it’s not in alignment with the decommodification principle. It still happens, but less so than Instagram models would have you think.
How I’ve Applied This Within the “Default World:” I don’t wear many logos anyway — but this principle made me hyper aware of how many products and brands are pushed at us every day. Like with this site’s banner ads! Which we love because they keep us afloat. Thanks, advertisers!
4. Radical Self-Reliance
“Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.”
Do not show up at Burning Man unprepared. The Playa does provide and it’s not unheard of to ask for something, turn the corner, and have someone gift it to you. But come prepared.
Bring the proper shelter, and pack everything you think you might need. You won’t pack all the right things. Things will still go sideways, but don’t be a “sparklepony” lost in a dust storm without goggles. That’s a metaphor, but also a very possible reality.
I made a checklist of 250 items to pack. It wasn’t perfect. I never opened the lozenges or the tissues. I packed too much food and too little coconut water. I should have brought more lights.
This principle goes beyond “stuff.” Are you having a rough day? Feel free to connect with friends and loved ones, but be self-reliant too! Eat something. Drink water. Take a nap. Take a break. But don’t take it out on them. Handle your stuff.
How I’ve Applied This Within the “Default World:” As an overplanner, I’m actually trying to plan less. I don’t want to be unprepared, but maybe I don’t need to create a color-coded map for every vacation. I really wish that were a joke. It’s just a cry for help.
5. Radical Self-Expression
“Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.”
Be yourself. Whether that means dressing like a VSCO Girl or wearing devil horns, a cape, and nothing else for the entire week. (If it’s the latter, plan to spend every night in the middle of a sound camp’s dance floor or else you’ll freeze.)
But Radical Self-Expression isn’t just about wearing what makes you feel most like you — it’s about doing the same.
Have you always wanted to spend the day on a megaphone playfully heckling everyone who walks by your camp? Bring a megaphone.
Do you want to learn how to properly spank someone? Go to one of the dungeons and learn.
Want to challenge yourself and be more vulnerable with people? Try it out.
Want to make an art car that looks like a giant T-Rex and transport people around the Playa? Get building.
Admit you actually don’t hate Nickelback songs that much? Ok, let’s not go overboard.
Explore what makes you happy or explore what you want to change about yourself and fully embrace it (with the consent of others of course).
How I’ve Applied This Within the “Default World:” At Burning Man, I wore what I’d ideally wear everyday in my default life. This generally meant a lot of black, leather, fishnets, and iridescent accent pieces. Though, by the end of the week, my aesthetic could be more accurately described as “wearing whatever isn’t covered in playa dust yet.”
I’ve kept all of this going — in a slightly more subdued way — off Playa.
But, I started expressing myself in other ways too. On the first day of Burning Man, a camp member asked me what my intention was for the Burn. My first answer? To be less of a planner.
As soon as I said it, it felt inauthentic. I found him again a few hours later and said, “I know what my intention is. It wasn’t that. It’s to be less guarded.” And, oh, does the Playa provide. In dust we trust, right?
I went into Burning Man guarded and anxious. After a week of meeting people, hugging countless strangers, making friends, and having inumerable vulnerable conversations with people I’d just met, that guarded feeling melted away.
I left Burning Man feeling open-hearted and ready to connect. It isn’t always easy — especially when talking to people who are still very guarded — but the more open I am, the happier I seem to be.
I came out open-hearted, vulnerable, and ready to connect. And, every time I feel myself falling back into my “default” approach, I speak from the heart. It isn’t always easy. I find it harder when I’m talking with people who are guarded because when I do, I find myself slipping back into my old ways. But, like attracts like, and the more open I am, the happier I am, and more I seem to attract those who are too.
6. Communal Effort
“Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.”
Burning Man is constructed by volunteers. Everyone who comes brings something to make the experience better for everyone. Whether that means for you going all-in on your outfit or camp theme, creating a piece of art, or picking up MOOP (matter out of place), we’re all in it together.
How can you contribute to making Black Rock City better? If you’re an artist of any type, consider creating something and sharing it with the community. If you’re not, many camps welcome volunteers, so if you find one that interests you, ask if you can help.
And, throughout the week, make sure to pick up any MOOP you see!
How I’ve Applied This Within the “Default World:” We’re all on this Earth together, so I try and make everyone’s day a little better if I can.
Sometimes that means reducing my carbon footprint (and future houseguests) by buying only recycled toilet paper.
Sometimes that means helping a friend who needs a favor.
Sometimes that means sharing cheese puns.
7. Civic Responsibility
“We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.”
Safety third, but don’t actively try to cause harm to others. Also, don’t break the law. Co-founder Harvey explained how you can have civic responsibility in a City birthed by the Cacophony Society here.
How I’ve Applied This Within the “Default World:” I still miss my cat-fighting coke den, but it was time to shut it down.
8. Leave No Trace
“Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.”
Seriously, pick up MOOP! MOOP is “matter out of place” — in other words, anything that wasn’t originally on the Playa.
When you go out, bring a little MOOP collecting bag with you so you can grab anything you see. That goes for plastic, sequins, feathers, hair, goggles, or rubber chickens (we found one when doing an ice run and had some fun using it to squawk at people on the way back.).
If you pack it in, pack it out. If someone packed it in and lost it, pack it out.
Burning Man takes MOOP very seriously. After everyone leaves the Playa, the Playa Restoration Team stays for weeks, collecting MOOP that remains and making a MOOP map. One month after the event, the goal is not to have more than one square foot of debris per acre.
According to BurningMan.org, “The environmental standard for Burning Man is measured in terms of “residual debris” and states that one month after the event, the Burning Man site must not exceed an average of one square foot of debris per acre (1ft2/ac.) during the BLM’s Post-Event Inspection…Translated into percentages, this means that exceeding .002% of debris per acre on average would fail the Burning Man event. That’s basically ZERO PERCENT.”
How I’ve Applied This Within the “Default World:” I’m making more of an effort to participate in cleanups, pick up trash when I see it, and find ways to make my everyday life more sustainable. Not sure where to begin? Here are some ideas to get you started.
“Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.”
Burning Man is all about getting involved. You’re not there just to be a passive observer! You are not a tourist!
You’re there to participate. Do things you know you want to do. Do things you’re not sure you want to do.
Test your boundaries.
Could you get hurt? Sure! Are you going to learn something about yourself? Probably.
Could you get hurt? Sure! Safety third, after all! Are you going to learn something about yourself and get a new memory? Probably. At sunset one night, I went down a giant slide and went heels over head at the bottom, and got a nice playa dust burn for my efforts. But, hey, 95% of that experience was great, including the view from the top!
At the end of my first day at Burning Man, our camp leader asked how my day was. I told him it was alright, but not great — I’d been invited to things all day long, but said no to most of them. When I was with my friends that day, I went with the flow, but when I was on my own, I didn’t feel confident enough to join in.
He listened and then told me something that changed everything.
He told me that every day, he plays a little game with himself. That every day, he allows himself to say “no” to only one invite. So, every time he’s invited to join an experience, he has to ask himself, “Is this going to be my one no for the day?”
This completely changed my experience.
Suddenly, Burning Man was a playground.
And, the more I embraced this philosophy, the more I enjoyed my experience.
How I’ve Applied This Within the “Default World:” I still only allow myself one no a day.
In the month since I’ve returned from Black Rock City, this has led to: texting someone a butt selfie during a game of truth or dare, taking a boxing class, playing in a drum circle on the beach, sitting in a friend’s hot tub, saying yes to attending a Full Moon party, taking a giant unicorn pinata mascot to Palm Springs… and much more.
“Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.”
Everything in Black Rock City is temporary.
The city itself only exists for a short time each year.
The art you cruised by yesterday and said you’d see by tomorrow might be a pile of ash in the morning.
You will miss out on things, because there is so much to do at all times, but if there is something you want to see or do, don’t wait.
On top of that, be in the moment. Be present. Stop chasing after the next experience. And, be present in the one you’re in so you don’t miss it.
In Black Rock City, almost no one is connected to the Internet and taking photos to “capture” the moment is less embraced than in the everyday. Why? We’re all so busy being in the moment that we don’t need to stop and record it.
How I’ve Applied This Within the “Default World:” First, I put down my phone.
This sounds simple, but we’ve become conditioned to distraction — reading news, skimming through social media, or refreshing our inboxes instead of making conversation. All of it can wait.
I’ve found people are more likely to approach me because I don’t look “busy.” And I’m less likely to miss something happening around me.
I also try and live in the moment, because Black Rock City isn’t the only thing that’s temporary. That great sunset? Temporary. Getting to call or see your parents? Temporary. That party you were invited to? Temporary. That feeling of butterflies when you fall in love? Temporary.
If there’s something you’re not doing out of fear of how it would work out, ask yourself: How would you feel if that person, event, or experience disappeared forever?
Some treat Burning Man like it’s New Year’s Day. A reset. I don’t know if I do yet. But, my birthday comes pretty close after. And, my intentions for this year are to be present, to say yes to more things, and to stay open. Is it easy? Fuck no.
Do I think it’s worth it? Fuck yes.
Recap of what the 10 Burning Man Principles have inspired me to try and do in the default world:
– Be open.
– Operate from a place of love and abundance, not fear.
– Stay present.
– Let go of expectation.
– Find ways to make the world better.
– Speak kindly from my heart.
– Handle my emotional “stuff.”
– Be grateful or gifts.
– Accept that everything is temporary.
– Invite everyone to join. Be the one to say hello.
– Be an active participant.
– Stay off my phone unless I’m alone.
– Allow myself just one no a day.
– Be present. Do your best not to multitask.
– Trust in the dust.
My background is in publishing (I've worked at Parade, Men's Journal, Us Weekly, Stuff, Blender, Beachbody, and more), mostly with a focus in health, fitness, and entertainment. I've also run my own baking company and competed on Cupcake Wars, so hit me up with your baking questions!
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