Wednesday, June 27, 2012

What I Learned from Burning Man

The other day, I was talking with my friends at Dark Garden about why I do what I do and why I love what they do, and Kristin asked me to write it all down. So here goes.

Most of you probably know all about Burning Man, but for those who don't, it's an enormous art and costume event held in the Nevada desert every year. It's impossible to sum up, so if you're not yet acquainted, see their website for more info and countless photos.

Burning Man is not for everyone. Accommodations are primitive, and the environmental conditions are harsh, you definitely can die out there if you don't take care of yourself. But, if you're willing to put up with some inconvenience and can handle a desert environment, it's one of the most incredible places on Earth. Another interesting aspect of Burning Man is that it's a gift economy- people bring lots of stuff to give and share with others, but nobody buys or sells anything (well, almost, you can still buy ice and coffee). And coming from the real world, being in a commerce-free environment for even a short time really effects your mindset and the way you interact with others, more than you'd expect.

My husband John and I went to Burning Man a number of times in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In recent years, we haven't gone because we've been focusing on trying to make our everyday lives more full of art and fun. But, I remember it fondly and would love to go again sometime.

I learned several important things about life, that I still use on a daily basis, from my experience at Burning Man.

No Spectators. Participate. Don't go to a show- BE the show. Don't just expect to sit back and be entertained- be entertaining. Don't just be a passive consumer- if you're not adding to the environment, you're taking away from it. If you go to a costume party, dress up. Play along. Pull your own weight. Add to other people's enjoyment, and you'll find that you end up having more fun also.

Don't interfere with other people's experience. Appreciate geekdom without judgement. Try to help out where and when it's needed, but try not to impose your own preferences on others. You like what you like, but it's not for everyone. Me? I love clothing, but I could care less about sports. For other people, it's the opposite, and that's fine. All really interesting people have some really weird thing that they're totally into- bass fishing, repairing old clocks, tesla coils, 1920s Weimar Republic  cabaret music, whatever. I am less interested in the content of their interest than I am in their enthusiasm for whatever that thing is. I like people who geek out on stuff, and when you allow yourself to see what they love from their point of view, it's all cool.

Ditch the mediocre.  The biggest, most important lesson I learned at Burning Man is to appreciate both ends of the experience spectrum. Think about it this way:
- To stay alive, there are a certain number of well-defined things you HAVE to do or to have, just to stay alive. Shelter, basic nutrients, sleep, lots of water. That's the 'required' end of the spectrum.
- Then there is this big range of things that normally take up most of your time, energy, resources, and attention: web surfing without finding anything really interesting, doing other repetitive tasks to try to stave off boredom (unsuccessfully, because they're also kind of boring), working at some unfulfilling job that doesn't really appreciate you, watching not-so-great TV, spending time with people whose company is not all that fun or inspiring for you, etc. etc. etc. Empty distractions. Busy work. Wasted time.
- Then, at the other end of the spectrum are the things that many people consider 'trivial' or unimportant, but which is actually the truly interesting, good stuff. Art. Fashion. Travel. Really, really good food. Whatever it is that you truly enjoy, that makes you feel happy and alive.
I had an epiphany moment at Burning Man when I realized that the middle, mediocre portion of experience was, in that environment, completely missing. And that by taking that away, and slamming the totally necessary up against the completely frivolous, you realize that the completely frivolous IS totally necessary, and that without it, staying alive just isn't worth it. Since then, I've been trying to reduce the mediocre middle from my life as much as possible.

None of us is guaranteed a 'full' lifespan, nature or accident can pull the plug on us at any time without warning. If you're lucky, 40 years from now, what are you going to remember? 5,000 hours spent in front of the Xbox? I doubt it. A trip to Venice? The joy you feel while building a beautiful piece of art? Playing with a happy, hilarious kid? Making out with the person you love? Definitely.

To sum up: Life is short. Do what you love to do. Make it count.

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