This is the story of my experience at Burning Man 2017.
The first day I ran around like a kid at Disneyland, poking my head into every corner, trying to see and try everything. Black Rock City (what the encampment is called for a few weeks each year) is indeed a theme park — except for adults, and minus the corporate branding and, you know, safety. It is highly disorienting, an endless white plain devoid of geographical reference points, all attention focused on the humans and their creations.
And what fanciful creations they are. On every side are sculptures and contraptions of every shape and size: a 5-story tall crystal-encrusted gramophone, a ferris wheel full of skeletons, a giant artificial tree of leaves embedded with LEDs pulsing in beautiful patterns, a plane in mid-crash, a spiraling staircase full of old pictures. The camps themselves are works of art: giant carnival big tops criss-crossed with hammocks, geodesic domes full of foam toys, insulated yurts, and a full-size 747 fuselage someone managed to tow out into the desert.
But even with all the art and structures on display, the greatest works of art were the people. They were dressed as sultans arrayed in their finery, as dinosaurs, bunnies, and dominatrixes. As ballerinas, Eastern enchantresses, and of course, many were simply naked. All the creativity and self-expression humans are capable of was on display with every glance down any street. And it was wonderful.
But by the beginning of the second day on the playa (what they call the desert expanse), I was feeling disoriented. I had no anchor to lean on, no comfort zone to retreat to, and no clear sense of what I was actually doing out there in the middle of nowhere. The roles and the functions I knew to perform were unneeded, superfluous. No one was interested in productivity advice.
I went wandering and ran into an old acquaintance from my days at Parisoma. We talked for awhile about our experiences, and he invited me to a burner wedding his friend was hosting that afternoon. Riding out onto the playa, a lone art car surrounded by 50 bicycles, was a surreal experience. We were all mostly naked but with scarves covering our mouths and goggles covering our eyes. There was a dust storm, and we couldn’t see more than 50 feet in any direction. The world seemed to swallow us up, our little band of travelers crawling our way through the dust.
The wedding was beautiful, an outpouring of love and connection amongst a close group of burner friends. Afterwards I went to the temple, where people leave photos, poems, letters, and mementos of people they’ve lost. The sense of grief was palpable, and the emotional energy in the air vibrant. I left a photo and a message for Daniel, who left us in April. The temple and everything in it was burned on Sunday.
Some time later, meditating by The Man (the huge, 80-foot wood statue of a man that is burned at the end of the week), I was overcome with a sense of being closed, defensive, and overwhelmed. It was too much to take in, too much to process. With all my normal surroundings stripped away, and nothing to distract me, I realized that what was left was a pervasive sense of fear. Fear was the basic lens through which I viewed the world. It had no direction, no source, no purpose. It was the water I swam in — the default context. I meditated and did what I’ve learned — gave the fear love and attention, invited it in, welcomed it.
And then my campmates found me, and Part II of the day/night began.
We returned to the camp, took some LSD, and made our way to Camp Mystic. It is an entire encampment of interconnected structures, artwork, venues, workshops, and events for one sole purpose: to explore the alternate states of consciousness afforded by this magical substance.
The main venue was a large, club-like space with a small stage at the front, and several floors of scaffolding going up the walls. The night started mellow, people dancing and talking. We camped out on a second-floor overlook, and watched the performances begin. They were remarkable: several types of fire dancers, gymnasts and acrobats hanging from the ceiling, acroyoga performers using their bodies as instruments. As the LSD began to take hold, everything became magnified: the colors, the music, the performances, the emotions, the sensations all took on a more meaningful intensity. Everything started to just make sense.
I left our group and started wandering the place, moving through the crowd with a sense of belonging and connection I’m not sure I’ve ever felt. I could feel how we were all connected, like a sixth sense. Around me people danced in the most sensual ways imaginable, but somehow it was a shared experience, not an exclusive one. Each person’s energy was uniquely textured, whipping off the angles and movements of their bodies like water. I’d stop and have flashes of scenes frozen in my vision, the beauty and harmony of what I was seeing imprinting itself on my mind.
At one point as I was dancing, I came upon a couple in their 60s dressed all in white. They wore robes and crowns, like a king and queen. After a few moments they both looked at me intently, and then looked at each other knowingly and nodded. They positioned themselves on either side of me and held my shoulders and arms. I closed my eyes, and suddenly felt like I was being pushed through layers, a succession of the most intense emotions I’ve experienced — fear followed by anger followed by shame followed by happiness — and then I felt with a great sense of relief something be pulled away from me. I opened my eyes and asked the royal couple in front of me “What was that?” The queen told me, “The man behind you extracted an entity. It was a strong one.” I looked behind me and there was indeed a man behind me. The king told me, “Thank you for allowing us to be part of your completion. You’ve been working on this for a long time, haven’t you?” I said yes.
I spent the next several hours roaming the grounds, talking to anyone I could, trying to discover what was going on in this place. A couple I met sitting on the floor told me that everything about this place was designed for healing: the men met early in the morning to consecrate the grounds, to “hold the space” for the women to come in afterward and add their life-giving power. Everything about the design of the place — from the decoration to the artwork to the music — was designed to create the ultimate LSD experience, and then to take full advantage of the opening it created to change how people thought and lived. Even the sensuality and fire-work was chosen for its healing capabilities.
Stepping outside of the tent, I was greeted by Muzais, a young man with a smirk on his face and an outlandish purple top hat. He greeted me knowingly, “Welcome to your transformation.” I asked him where to begin, and he pointed to a giant board I hadn’t noticed before. It was a jam-packed schedule of events, classes, and workshops on every topic imaginable, from redefining masculinity, to energy work, to using psychedelics for entrepreneurship, to tackling climate change. The effects of LSD last for 10–16 hours, and as we all kept saying to each other, “there is so much work to be done.”
I was up for the next 16 hours, about 36 hours total. I roamed the playa, talking to everyone I could about the truth I was seeing. I stood at the foot of the man, embracing and crying with John, who had done the lighting for the event as a volunteer. I was overwhelmed by his contribution, however humble and unnoticed, just so that I could have this experience. I sat with Cano at the white grand piano he had made and lugged out to the desert. He designed it so a row of lights would turn on with each key press, creating a light show with every song. Wandering under the stars, whole chapters of my life were rewritten, interpretations and meanings dissolving and being remade. Memories I’d forgotten that I’d forgotten exploded into my mind from nowhere, seeking the attention and forgiveness they needed to be complete. Standing under the stars of the playa, I was awed by the beauty and perfection of the universe, every strand converging and finding a connection in me, the interpreter and the witness of my experience.
I attended 3 workshops in my altered state of mind, and it felt like the bandwidth of what I was able to take in was increased 10x. They hit home for me, not as abstract intellectual discussions. The first was a men’s circle, where we discussed what it meant to be a man, the models that were passed down to us, and the impact holding on to those models had had on our lives.
The second I stumbled into accidentally. It started with a traditional cacao ceremony, singing and chanting, followed by everyone drinking a cup of raw cacao from a small village in Mexico. It was stimulating and opening, and we followed it with a healing exercise. About 40 people in a tent walked around, making eye contact with each person they passed. Once you found someone you connected with, you stood face to face a few inches away. One was named the Giver, and the other the Receiver. The Giver’s job was simply to witness. To see and to love, with total acceptance, nonjudgmentally. The facilitator asked the Receiver to think of a traumatic memory, and to forgive it. To love and accept it, as an essential and valuable part of the journey that had brought them to this place. Almost everyone was crying, the emotion in the room falling in waves, as we saw and we healed the memories that had dominated us for so long. I learned so much about the memories I had kept hidden, thinking I was protecting myself. Offering them up as life rafts that had helped me survive, but that I no longer needed, whole structures of self-reinforcing beliefs emerged from the darkness. Questioned in the light, they disintegrated. Thinking about those memories now, I feel only gratitude, in the place of shame and pain.
The third was a talk on bitcoin, and the incredible potential of blockchain technology to revolutionize philanthropy. It was a technical talk, full of the details and challenges and considerations of a very real-world enterprise. And this, like everything else, was perfect. Because again and again, I’ve seen that immediately following an experience of healing and transformation, right on the other side of that door, lies an intense desire to help others. To pass along the energy, to heal in the ways you’ve been healed. To make a difference with this absurdly valuable life we’ve been given. The blockchain has the potential to completely revolutionize the way finance, government, investing, charity and many other sectors are conducted, removing the central authorities that restrict and regulate the flows of money that are so needed. And there are some incredibly capable people working on doing just that.
Many other things happened, but for me the theme of Burning Man 2017 was healing. Something that I had no idea I needed or wanted. Something that has never shown up on any list of goals, priorities, or projects. Something I didn’t know I didn’t know.
What I realized over the course of the week was that there is a global movement of transformation. So many people are contributing in their own way: energy and body work practitioners, fire-dancers, orgasmic meditators, Landmark, Chinese and Eastern medicine practitioners, yoga teachers, meditation teachers, therapists, artists, writers, teachers. Even productivity experts. The religions of the world started this work thousands of years ago, and now we all have a part to play, if we choose to accept it, in transforming what it means to be human. There is no time limit, and no goal, only choices leading to consequences leading to different kinds of lives leading to a different kind of world. It is our choice what kind of civilization we create, and our responsibility begins with being the kind of people who constitute such a civilization, one human at a time.
Follow us for the latest updates and insights around productivity and Building a Second Brain on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube. And if you're ready to start building your Second Brain, get the book and learn the proven method to organize your digital life and unlock your creative potential.