What can we learn from Burning Man?

A year ago a Mountain Wisdom friend invited me to Burning Man. I was unclear what to expect and even a bit apprehensive with the expectations to spend a week in the desert, the dust and heat, so many people… I asked Carolina to join and we made it the celebration of our 20th wedding anniversary. It turned out to be a transformative experience for both us. We lived the utopia of a different society with meaningful human interactions and experiments.

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Burning Man 2019 brought 75000 ‘burners’ to Black Rock City, Nevada. The event is governed by 10 principles that were very tangible and present throughout the week, and I will share them further down in this blog. They made me reflect on what the burners call ’the default world’, i.e. the one that we live everyday.

Our personal experiences are difficult to put in words. I will try to share some of the lessons learned:

  • Everyone contributing and playing to their strengths: on the Playa there is no money and no payment; every participants is offering his/her services. We were invited to a healers’ camp; every day I worked a shift of 3 hours tending to burners interested in coaching on purpose in life and in business. The rest of the time we could benefit from other people’s offerings which includes anything you can imagine and a lot more.
  • Live in the moment: a week without internet/phone, without commercial brands and consumption, without the slightest chance to see and experience it all, creates a fertile ground to live in the moment. Getting lost on the Playa is a great way to find yourself. And we had multiple situations where the universe provided exactly what was needed in a given moment, e.g. a bike repair, sun screen, a jump starter. With thousands of people living in the moment, attention and awareness increase and a different level of human interaction is possible.
  • No ranks, no titles: many people adopt a Playa name (mine is Wanderer) and hardly discuss what people do in the ‘default’ world. It is also a really multigenerational experience: we met and shared the camp and the Playa with people from all ages and many walks of life.
  • Human connection: we engaged with hundreds of people, in longer and deeper conversations or in shorter interactions; all of them were refreshing, interesting, many of them inspiring and touching. We experienced a genuine interest in other people and a great reward whenever we stepped out of our comfort zone and reached out to new people. There was always an interesting twist, a surprising insight coming from these conversations. In the temple, a wooden structure inspired by the Japanese torii gates, people shared their sorrow, their lost loved ones, and the vulnerability created a special connections with other fellow humans.
  • The power of self-organising teams/camps: while there is a Burning Man Org setting up the grid of Black Rock City and defining the principles of the event, Burning Man by and large operates through self-organizing teams. About one thousand camps are set up by groups who organize their tents and infrastructure, kitchen and showers and plan for the delivery of their offerings. I also assume that the organization through camps is an effective filter for the selection of the participants and somehow a quality control to bring well-intentioned participants to the event.
  • Creativity and self expression: the most visible form of creativity are the stylish, colorful and provocative art works distributed all over the Playa and the costumes and dresses made up for the event; and then there are all the offerings, ranging from food to entertainment, from massages to classes, from foam home to roller coasters, from coaching to bike recycling etc etc. I cannot remember such a breadth and depth of self expression and creativity.
  • The personal journey: my week was a roller coaster; at the start I was overwhelmed by the offering, got very irritated with the conditions, eventually started to calm down and take it in, live in the moment, get inspired by amazing offerings by teachers, shaman, dance and touch. I can absolutely relate to this year’s theme of Metamorphosis and feel that a transformation took place. But I trust that some old companions of mine like my German postwar upbringing and my critical judgmental mind got addressed and potentially could be left to the burning fires.
  • Purification of the desert: many spiritual traditions suggest experiences in the desert; it is hot, dusty and you are forced to address your fears and yourself. At times it feels as if the dust and wind are sanding and refining the profile. It feels like a transformation…


Here are the 10 principles that govern the event:

  • Radical inclusion: everybody is welcome, everybody’s talent is invited and encouraged to be shared.
  • Gifting: this is probably the most powerful principle. There is no money, no barter; everything is based on gifting which feels very rewarding and human, both on the giving and the receiving end.
  • Decommodification: the organization wants to keep out all kind of intermediaries, brands and commercialization. Their lack on Playa is a powerful invitation to engage in human interactions.
  • Radical self reliance: it is a harsh environment and you need to take care of yourself, i.e. hydrating, protecting skin, eyes, mouth and nose. Getting enough sleep and shade. People are open to help and, interestingly enough, the right help tends to show up at the right moment. Still, everybody takes full responsibility for oneself.
  • Radical self expression: there are no limits to creativity and the colorful costumes, art pieces, and service offerings.
  • Communal effort: our camp was organized in teams of healers, fairies, kitchen and infrastructure teams; all work for 3 hour shifts and gentle reminders reinforced the discipline. The whole event strives to foster collaboration and gatherings in places, around art work or events.
  • Civic responsibility: all events should contribute to public welfare and connection. The whole event is compliant with local, state and federal law.
  • Leaving no trace: huge efforts are made to keep the Playa and Nevada clean; MOOP (Material Out Of Place) is taken very seriously; camps that do not comply can get disinvited. And yet, the leaving no trace feels a bit like last century’s concept. Huge amount of trash is produced during the Burning Man week and the big bags signed with ‘landfill’ are scary. Similarly the omnipresence of generators and air conditioning suggest the huge amount of energy needed and probably wasted. And we couldn’t help but wondering about the carbon footprint of the event including the travel of the 75'000 participants. We hope that the event delivers benefits to further develop and improve our societies to justify the huge collateral damage (and our intercontinental travel also contributed to the carbon footprint).
  • Participation: everybody is actively participating, you hardly find any one being idle. People contribute by playing to their strengths or passions creating thus a potpourri of contributions.
  • Immediacy: immediate experience and living in the moment is a cornerstone of burning man. Active participation and co-creation in the moment shape a unique environment and experience.

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Getting to and leaving the Playa is a huge logistical challenge.
The organization is managing the traffic through pulsing, leading to hour-long waiting times. As the pulse allowed us to move on, our RV’s engine didn’t start. Its battery had suffered during the week in the desert. My first impulse was to walk to the ranger station about a mile away and find some authority to send organized help. As I started to walk, I saw a car, three cars behind us, being jump started by another car. I asked for help which was granted immediately. The jump start cable was provided by another burner, and within a couple of minutes our RV was up and running again. No need to look for authorities as the universe could solve our problem on the spot. And as we got the help we connected with the neighboring cars and drivers, learned about their burning experiences, shared some apple and kind words and used the following pulse to leave the Playa.

We are now back in the ‘default’ world and wondering what we can apply. Many of the principles are useful for our family lives, corporations, and communities. I will personally experiment with self-organizing teams, gifting and live in the present moment. And at immigration I chose the officer instead of the machine and had a quick chat about humanity at the airport…