Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Got any regrets? Burn 'em!

Not a bad bonfire
Dust storms rage across an apocalyptic landscape filled with brightly painted bodies writhing to the pulsing rhythm of electro beats highlighted by intricately orchestrated laser light patterns and roaring belches from a dozen military-grade flame throwers. 

Sound like a good place to seek enlightenment? Maybe not, but Burning Man is the frenetic center of the world's creative class and there are a lot of lessons we can all learn from what for many is an annual pilgrimage.

In 1986, Larry Harvey was dumped by his girlfriend. He took it hard and the doom and gloom of a failed relationship soon set in. But then he had an idea. He invited some of his friends to a bonfire on Baker Beach in San Francisco. Then he crafted a wooden figurine and added it to the flames. 

The "Burning Man" was himself. More specifically, it represented all the things he wanted to let go of so that he could turn a new page in life. It wound up being an interesting page to turn: since that first year Burning Man has moved to the desert in Black Rock City, Nevada and evolved into a 60,000+ person event.

There are 10 core values that form the cultural foundation for the event. The seriousness with which participants live by these values really transforms the event. Three of those values in particular shaped our experience every single day :
  • Radical inclusion. Anyone and everyone participates. Whether you're into tap dancing, software development, BDSM, environmental activism or corporate finance, you're invited. Participants set aside judgement and accept each other for who and what they are.
  • Radical self reliance. Everyone is camping in an extremely harsh desert environment. Given the sheer volume of people, large art installations, moving parts, sandstorms and flamethrowers my guess was that approximately thirty five people would die during the event. To our amazement, nobody diedThe worst injury we witnessed during the entire week was a bike collision (the riders were naked which didn't help). Everybody has to pack in and out their own shelter, food, water, shade, etc.
  • Gifting. No cash is allowed at Burning Man (the only exceptions are for buying coffee and ice). Instead, participants bring things to give away if they want. We were gifted individually made Vietnamese iced coffees, a ride in bike taxi,  gourmet Montreal meat sandwiches, ceremonial green tea worth more than its weight in gold, a lecture on microeconomics, and much much more.   It reminded me of the potlatch ceremonies of the Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest.
The unifying theme of the event is letting go. Whether it's your cultural moors, societal norms, emotional baggage, or clothing, you're encouraged to leave it at the door. The result is an atmosphere of imagination. The air is permeated with possibility (and dust) and thoughts are unleashed beyond their normal boundaries.

You may not want to go camping in the desert, but every one of us could let go more often. We require permission only from ourselves to live the lives we want to live. Burn those regrets, tomorrow's a new day.


Co-posted on www.eliotpeper.com

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