Lots of people have been asking, “How was Burning Man?” Since that question would require at least a one-hour answer, I decided to save the bulk of it for a blog that I can share with you in writing, so you can all sit down when you have some free time and go over it at your leisure.
My Burning Man experience started long before I hit the playa (“the playa” being the flat, dusty desert where Burning Man is held). I knew I wanted to go to Burning Man this year, and I wanted to be able to contribute to the community with the healing arts that I have been learning this past year, but I wasn’t sure how to do that. When I discovered that the Heebeegeebee Healers were open to taking new members, I was ecstatic. I bought my Burning Man ticket and signed up with the Heebees right away. I had trouble sleeping that night.
Being a new “heebee,” camping with some very experienced and gifted healers, I decided to offer my support services rather than presume to play on the front lines. A call from Shakti (Joanna), one of the organizers, changed that. She convinced me to take on more of a leadership role at the greeters station, as well as spend some time delivering my healing services. It was a bit scary to step up to that role, but I took it as a sign from the Universe that it is time for me to quit playing small and realize my full potential.
Other preparation for Burning Man included organizing my flight, rides to and from the Reno Airport, and freight for my bike and some gear that I couldn’t take on the plane. There were some moments when I wondered whether it would all come together, but it did. (Special thanks to Kevin Longeway for hauling some of my gear down on the trailer.)
On Sunday, August 30, I left for Burning Man. My flight went through San Francisco on United Airlines. It was a quick connection, which I thought was great, until we sat for a while at the gate in Calgary, and I realized I might not make the connection. It turned out that they had time built into the schedule to allow for mechanical difficulties etc, so we got to SFO on time, and I made my connection. Upon arrival in Reno, however, I discovered that my bag was a bit slower than I was. While I ate a 14-oz steak dinner at the Grand Sierra Resort (don’t even ask how much that cost), my bag got on the next flight, and by 8:00 we were reunited and ready to pack up the van organized by a Burner (fellow participant) at the Resort. After a stop for supplies at the Save Mart, we were on the road by 10:15pm.
Burning Man is about 2 hours from Reno. With the traffic at the beginning and end of the festival, that can quickly turn into a 6-hour trip. So, we learned the art of surrender as we sat in a traffic jam until about 4:00 in the morning. By 4:30, I was at my camp in my sleeping bag. I got maybe an hour of sleep that night.
At the end of our Orientation meeting Monday morning, I offered to do a 10-minute guided meditation for clearing our minds, grounding our bodies, and enhancing intuition. Several people thanked me afterwards, including Andrew Hammond from Santa Barbara, who was one of my co-leads at the greeter station. I had seen his name on the email distribution before coming down, and had also spoken briefly with him on a conference call. I had noticed earlier that he had the same name as my next-door neighbour in my freshman-year dorm at Queen’s University, but being a common-sounding name, I wrote it off. However, when we met face to face, the similarities were too much to ignore. After 16 years apart, never having kept in touch, and having each crossed the continent, we were suddenly reunited on the same team in the Nevada desert. That blew my mind and amazed me every time I thought of it for days afterward.
I think God likes playing little jokes like that. And Burning Man is such a great place for pranks like that. In addition to the sheer madness of the reunion, it was a great reminder of how far we had each come since our university days.
So now we come to my first day at Burning Man. You can see why it’s so hard to explain “how was Burning Man” in a sentence or two.
The Heebeegeebee Healers have developed a strong reputation in their 10-or-so years on the playa. With 45,000 people sleeping in tents and RV’s (when they sleep at all), dancing, biking, walking, making new friends, drinking, and generally rediscovering themselves on whole new levels, there is an overwhelming need for healing. Tired Burners come in droves looking for massage therapy, energy work, or just someone to talk to about a crisis. The services we offered also included chiropractic, acupuncture, Reiki, chakra-balancing, Thai massage, crisis counseling, palm-reading, and a few other modalities that I had never heard of.
It was a beautiful and heart-warming experience to be at the vortex of so much healing going on for so many people. Just counting the people we treated one-on-one, we provided healing for 984 people in 6 days. If you count the people we helped in classes and groups, I believe the number was closer to 2000.
The HBGB camp consists of about 65 people, all of whom contribute at least 4 hours a day to various specialties, including kitchen and camp maintenance (on the support side) and in the healing space, greeting and treating clients. The HBGB’s also provided workshops, discussion groups, partner massage and yoga classes to many hundreds of others who came through our camp. In addition to the 28 volunteer healers that camped with the Heebees, there were also a couple dozen guest volunteers who came to us looking for an opportunity to serve in our space. Even though healers only worked 4 hours a day each, our healing space, with 14 massage tables and 4-5 mats on the floor, filled up to capacity several times in the 48 hours that it was open through the week. Several healers worked in the adjoining “chill space” where people were invited to relax and sometimes participate in classes (when the classroom was double-booked).
Physically, the HBGB camp consisted of seven tents made of parachutes held in place by 10-foot poles and ropes. Three of these joined together to form the healing space (1 chute) and chill space (2 chutes). Across the alley, the classroom hosted hundreds of people a day in yoga classes, spiritual discussions, rituals and lectures. Across the yard, two chutes provided shade for about 18 tents each (Dorm 1 & 2), and another chute provided kitchen space.
I think we must have had the best kitchen on the playa. With 7 fridges and a freezer (powered by our friends with the 25kW solar array), a steady supply of clean water and two gas stoves, our kitchen staff provided three gourmet meals a day to 65+ people for a week (and a few on the early- and late-crews before and after the event). I ate much better food there than I ever do at home or in Calgary restaurants.
In addition to these spaces, we also had a bike-rack with communal bikes, a sink with drainage (but no running water) for brushing teeth etc, and a communal shower. The shower worked with gravity-fed, sun-heated shower bags that hung on racks throughout the day, until they were needed. The shower facility was big enough to host six people at a time, but normally only had about two at a time. People often showered with buddies to hold the little plastic hose while scrubbing. It was not very private or protected from the wind, so showers were usually quite quick. This encouraged the economical use of water. Even on a hot day, it felt very chilly to be naked and wet while the desert wind blew through. On the plus side, the shower system added to the intimacy of the camp, as both male and female heebees helped each other through the breezy (and non-sexual) experience of getting clean on the playa (if only for a few minutes before the dust took it all away again).
I want to say a word about the dust. The playa dust is a powerful common experience for Burners, almost in a religious sense. With the huge variety of individual experiences on the playa, the dust is one constant. We all experience the dust. People may experience the Man in different ways, but we all get dusty in pretty much the same way (some more than others).
The dust forces us to surrender much of what we hold onto in civil society. When we’re at home, we like to stay clean. We wear clean clothes, wash our hands before eating, and take dusty shoes off at the door. On the playa, everything is covered in dust – even the pillows we sleep on at night (although some people develop methods for reducing pillow dust). We breathe it, sleep in it, eat on it, get dressed in it, and are pretty much covered in it most of the time. You can’t avoid it. The dust calls us to let go, to give in, and to experience life on the playa in the moment, without attachment. After all, we are dust – all of us. We are spiritual beings, but we are here experiencing life as carbon-based life forms, and so we must accept our lives as beings of dust.
Living in the moment meant letting go of plans sometimes. Before I left home, I spent hours going over the playa calendar and picking out the events I wanted to attend. I had my schedule all worked out. And of course, in true Burner fashion, that all changed as soon as I hit the playa.
Leading a team at the greeter station for four hours a day was much more strenuous than I imagined. Hundreds of people lined up throughout the day seeking healing for their bodies, minds and souls. A few came in as acute cases, hardly able to move, or having been deconstructed so completely by their experience on the playa that they had trouble functioning, and needed to talk to someone. Many were just looking for whatever they could get in terms of massage or energy work, to help them relax their tired bodies and minds.
The way it worked was that healers would come in at the start of their shift, and place a sign-up sheet on a bulletin board. Most would take four clients in their two-hour shift (often two shifts a day) – a half-hour each. As soon as the sheets went onto the board, the crowd of clients at the greeter station would grab pens and sign their names. Sometimes the sheet would not even make it to the board before the list was full of acute cases on our under-the-counter priority list. The need was truly overwhelming, and it was hard for me to turn so many people away.
But I also experienced synergy many times. A client would be standing there explaining their need for physical therapy, and a volunteer healer with that specialty would show up offering their services. People got taken care of in amazing ways.
In addition to greeting people at the front and helping them understand the process, our team of five had other duties. Signing up volunteer guest healers and making sure they were fit to treat patients was one task I did not take lightly. Inviting a stranger in to massage naked people, without being able to check their accreditation, set us up for the risk of exploitation. I really had to trust my gut instincts and push my intuition hard to make wise choices. Luckily, almost all of the guest healers were very helpful, talented and respectful. Unfortunately, a couple others had to be weeded out very quickly.
I’m calling the team the “greeter” team for simplicity but it was actually called the “Greeters and Faeries.” The Faeries would both “ferry” clients back and forth to the healing space when it was their turn, and also watch over the healing space to make sure that everyone was safe. We had some wonderful people on this team that provided essential components to the healing experience. I would name names, but wouldn’t want to leave anyone out. You know who you are.
My Greeter/Faerie shifts were Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday. Monday being the first day was very full. The rest of the week I was able to make it to a couple workshops. However, I often was quite tired after my shift, so instead of rushing off to an event, I would hit the steam bath (aahhhh), take a shower, lie down, or hang out in the kitchen writing in my journal. Most of the time, however, I did not take the time I needed to be by myself, so this week I have been catching up on journaling and napping.
The steam bath was great. Also powered by the 25kW solar array, it was right next door to the Heebee camp. And because the heebees were held in such high regard in the community, the steam bath staff would let us in after they had officially closed for the day around 7:00. Although it was very hot out, and much hotter inside, it was good to clean out the dusty pores with steam and sweat, and then step out into the wind, where even on a hot day it suddenly felt very cold. It was also a nice intimate atmosphere, with about a dozen naked men and women huddled in European-style, in the misty-wet darkness, away from the noise and harsh desert sun of the playa.
One of my favourite workshops was the Eye-gazing. It is amazing the level of intimacy that one can develop with one minute of looking into a stranger’s eyes without giving in to the temptation to look away. We practiced giving and receiving love with our eyes. My experience of myself in that space was that I found it easier to give love than to receive love. When I realized that I was receiving love and was not able to avoid it, I nearly cried. I had a lot to write in my journal after that.
On Thursday and Friday, I provided healing energy to a total of 13 clients in just over 8 hours. They were all beautiful people, each with their own unique gifts and needs. I was privileged to be able to work with them to provide healing. One or two of them later returned to the camp to volunteer their services and pay it forward.
Doing the healing work in that space was very different from my Calgary experience. Distractions abounded. In addition to being surrounded by a couple dozen people in various states of dress all doing different work, and working on a floor mat instead of a massage table, the environment was challenging. The wind whipped the sides of the tent back and forth, often hitting me lightly as I worked. Across the alley, monkey chants created a weird and wonderful racket of primitive background noise that covered up some of the pounding of the raves down the street. The heat and dust were ever-present. I worked in my boxers usually; no healer was permitted to work entirely naked for professional reasons, although most of the people in the space were dressed in normal daytime playa apparel, which was not much. Despite the distractions, I enjoyed the time there, and was able to help some people on their journeys, for which I am grateful.
Friday morning I had a mini-meltdown (as so often happens to Burners). The official heebee time for heal-the-healers was 9-10am every morning, for an hour before we opened. I went in looking for some help to balance my energy, which was feeling low, needy, and a bit depressed. Everyone was busy, so I laid down to relax and give myself a little reiki treatment and meditation. But after a few minutes, I felt the pain more, and I started to cry very quietly, face down on a blanket on the floor. I just wanted some help and I didn’t know where to turn with all these busy people.
Then I felt a pair of hands on my back. Alan, one of my fellow healers, showed up and invited me to cry out loud if I wanted to. That is hard for me, being a man, surrounded by people that look to me for support and strength. But I was able to start crying and release the pent-up frustration and sadness, not only from a week on the playa, but from many years, all the way back to childhood. He helped me breathe into it, finding ways to release the energy with breath and intention, and also counseled me on looking at the pain in new ways, to release it over time. By 10:00 I started feeling a lot better, and after a bit of journaling, I was ready and able to help others for a few hours.
Saturday night, the Man burned in a spectacular display of flames and fireworks. It was beautiful to watch. It was a very different experience for me this time compared to 2006. That year (my first Burn), the night of the Burn was a very spiritual experience for me, allowing me to let go of some limitations I had held onto for too long. This year, my spiritual experiences were spread out throughout the week, and the Burn night was just for chilling out and being entertained. I joined a group of the heebees to watch the Man burn and then gallavant around the playa looking at art and hanging out. (At least, I think that was the night we did that… it all blends together… It was the night we stayed up all night with Kate until she left early in the morning.)
Sunday and Monday were a ton of work, tearing down tents and packing up gear. It was hot and dusty. On Sunday, I wore shoes and socks to protect my feet, goggles to protect my eyes, a dust mask to protect my nose and lungs, and sunblock to protect the rest of me. On Monday, I added shorts to the list, and a shirt part of the day, to protect the parts of me that were not accustomed to so much sunshine.
Sunday night the Temple burned. Our group was a bit disorganized (myself more than anyone else) and we didn’t make it out there until after the fire was blazing, and the Temple collapsed. Some people were disappointed about that. It was another experience of letting go.
The Temple carries with it the grief, regrets, hopes and fears of thousands of Burners. While the burning of the Man can represent anything from protesting oppression to an understanding of one’s own mortality, the burning of the Temple represents a release of grief and pain that we all carry, from lost relationships, loved ones and opportunities. Hundreds of messages are scrawled on the walls of the Temple throughout the week, and pictures of departed loved ones are posted on the walls. We have the privilege of reading stories from the lives of hundreds of strangers, and then, at the end of the week, it is released in a conflagration of flame and heat five stories high. While the burning of the Man is surrounded by a festival of music, dancing and cheering, the burning of the Temple is surrounded by a holy silence, broken only by a few whispers, and the roaring of the flames. Only when the fire has raged for long enough to release the pent-up energy, does the crowd begin to stir, some to laugh, others to cry, many to cheer.
On Monday at 5:45pm, the sound of a trailer door locking echoed across a bare desert floor where a village had thrived only a day earlier. Not so much as a carpet fibre remained. Exhausted, the handful of remaining Heebees from the strike crew climbed into three vehicles and headed out for a 6-hour Exodus. Because of the traffic, it took us from 6:00 to about 8:30 to get to the highway. It was about midnight when we finally pulled up to Star-Man’s home north of Reno to spend the night. We had made one stop on the way to use some porta-potties at the Empire Store, and get some snacks out for a make-shift supper.
Despite the long trip, I enjoyed my time cuddled into the back seat with a new friend from the HBGB crew. There were five of us in the truck, with lots of room to spare. We enjoyed soft music on the radio (a nice change from the thumping of the raves on the playa) and pleasant conversation. I personally enjoyed a gentle intimacy of caring for, holding and being held by a woman that I had grown to respect and care for throughout the week.
Like everything else at Burning Man, it was transitory. It embodied the tenth Burning Man principle of “Immediacy.” It was a few hours in time that I lived as fully as I could, letting go of the need to hold onto the relationship forever, letting go of the need to make it something it wasn’t, letting go of the need for more, or less, than I was experiencing right then. In that way, it was like meditation, only with less solitude.
After we got to Reno, we had another hour or so together in between checking email and showers and setting up for the night. Then we crawled into our separate beds for a few short hours of sleep. Early the next morning, she left for the airport after a brief good-bye hug. I spent some time at Star-Man’s house hanging out with the handful of left-over heebees, doing laundry and chatting about getting together somewhere before the next Burn. I hope it happens, but with Burners, it’s never a guarantee. Then by mid-afternoon, the last of us left for the airport, to separate cities and separate lives. And that was that.
The flight home was largely uneventful. I was so tired. I’m still tired, three days later. My dreams are filled with unprocessed experiences and playa dust. From dust I depart; to dust I shall return.
I miss those people.
I could really use a heebee handshake right about now.