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The Overwhelming Nature of Burning Man

On a fundamental level, we are human beings with a nervous system. I prefer my excitement/anxiety in the middle of the road. Too much and I can feel my mind shutting down, reduced to the primitive protective state of shock/numbness. Too little and I feel stuck, unmotivated, existentially down. Finding a setting that matches my need to “stay centered” is challenging. I want to find a place which is fascinating, enlivening, transformative, but I don’t want to be too stressed out, guarded, overwhelmed. For adventure and to honor this inquiry, I decided to check out Black Rock City, home of the mythic Burning Man.

Burning Man

It is Sunday, the opening day. I am sitting patiently on the warm highway asphalt. The Northern Nevada desert here is mountainous, gorgeous and surprisingly pleasant. For 10 hours our convoy of RV’s, trucks, trailers, station wagons and jalopies has been mostly still, with an occasional surge forward of a couple of miles. It isn’t a bad place to be stuck. Everyone on the road is excited and most are friendly. I am traveling with a crew of four. We are all first timer “virgins”.

As the sun sets, we descend into the strange flashing lights of the playa. I feel something strongly I didn’t fully expect: fear. There is an underworld element at play. We are trading realms. The gate keeper welcomes us home and asks us to roll in the soft pallid dust. As I obey, I sense that I am a little checked out, numb, in shock. What is this place? What is happening here? This doesn’t feel like home.

The search to find a spot in the crowded Black Rock City is intimidating. We are not in an established camp. This hurts us because we have no idea where to go. We settle in an area which seems empty but then are warned away from it. It is someone else’s territory. Tentatively we locate another small spot. We slowly unpack and groggily set up our basic structure (a foam hexa-yurt). It is 4am. I am beyond exhausted and have a massive headache. My whole crew looks weary and apprehensive. We bed down. I hope thing get better.

As I wake, the playa attacks my senses. My nervous system is continuously overwhelmed. I cannot find the right balance. I want to escape. My fight/flight response is triggered.

First, there is the sound. From about 1pm until 9am the next morning, some type of electronica is vibrating into me from a multitude of sources. There are four hours of relative quiet and then the cycle starts again. Interspersed with these beats are random screams and provocative shouts. These scare me a lot. Am in a freaky dream?

Then there is the dust. It is ubiquitous. It is all pervasive. It is the true God of Burning Man. There are times when the wind shapes the dust into a complete whiteout of vision. I stop what I am doing and marvel at my envelopment. Wily dust devils spin into camp, wreck tents, and then swivel out. I get used to having a fine layer of playa all over my body and in my lungs.

The evening lights displays are dizzying and dazzling. I am awed by the kaleidoscope of sheer luminous lunacy: spinning rainbow wheels, extravagantly lit and extraordinarily weird mutant art cars, elaborately glowing costumes, the massive and majestic shine of the art installations themselves. All I do is close my eyes and ask, “Is this really happening?”

It is possible to be overwhelmed by beauty. On the third day of my visit, I am especially taken aback by the amount gorgeous men and women in various guises, stages of exposure, body paints, tattoos, the uninhibited flow of their sensuality. I want to join them and feel liberated. I cannot. I am in playa shock. I feel small and shy.

I fully realize how a clean private bathroom is important to my sense of wellbeing. The less said about the porta-toilets, the better. They greatly add to the tension of my experience. Every time I feel an urge, I grumble. I curse my body for its need. My visits to these little plastic monsters are short horror films.

I am searching for warmth. I desire inclusion. I want to belong to this place and have fun. I want to have a meaningful experience. There are friendly faces and smiles along the great avenues of Black Rock City. There are good people who want to share things. There is a lot of alcohol. Drinking it sometimes makes me a little better, sometimes a little more removed. For every genial glance I receive, I also get a look of forlorn, pretentiousness, protectiveness, preoccupation. Lots of people are checked out. There are camps who broadcast harsh judgments toward you on their megaphones as you walk by. It makes for a very mixed experience. I don’t know whether to love or hate this place. Most camps feel exclusive, with cliques, and are hard to mingle with. I do not generally feel welcome. It saddens me.

Others in my own camp are suffering. One fellow, in particular, is truly melting down. He is a good friend. I don’t like seeing him like this. He is quiet, numb, depressed, hiding from it, isolating. I want to help but don’t quite have the bandwidth. My attempts make him more resentful. I try to stay in my own experience. It is impossible. His energy draws me in. After the second major day of dust storms, he calls it quits. He escapes to a Reno hotel.

No one can really prepare you for what you will face at this festival. All the guides in the world won’t tell you how it will be. What I wish I had more warning about was the survival element. It is really intense. I am not a flower that wilts easily. It took me five solid days to learn how to simply survive this place. I am laid out, spread eagle, on the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

The Man burns. The temple burns. Wild conflagrations of light erupt on the playa. Art cars, the floating night clubs of this desert, celebrate these destructions with groovy music. Furry, L.E.D. lit dusty dancing dervishes surround, worship the fires and the sound. I’d be lying if I said I am not enjoying myself, am not amazed, don’t have feelings of wonder in my experience. I do. But it is also really hard. The steering wheel of my mind is having a difficult time staying in the middle of this bumpy road.

As the dawn breaks on this final morning, I sit by the fires of the fallen temple and chat with random, dusty, ash-faced companions. It is very human and endearing. For the first time, under the purple hues of the morning sky, right here at the end, I am balanced. This helps me feel something I really aspired for the whole time: I am home.

It takes a mind to “find your nerve.” It doesn’t happen when you are overwhelmed. I might go back, but I probably won’t. At a basic level, I was afraid most of the time. I don’t want to hide from that anymore. I am tired of bypassing the messages of my body. For me, happiness lies in finding the goldilocks porridge of the middle way. It is a cocktail of daring and calm with an aftertaste of cool vividness. It is worth searching for, even if you wreck once in awhile along the way.

Travis Robinson

Travis Robinson

Travis Ben Robinson is a writer and psychotherapist in private practice as well as Psyched in San Francisco. He has spend considerable time living in meditation retreat centers in Brazil and Northern California. He also worked as a white water river guide for over a decade in the Rockies of Idaho and the Central Sierra foothills.

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