20 Jul 2017 23:37
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Alice Grove is finished. I'm going to take some time to just do QC for a while and then start another side project sometime in the fall. Patreon subscribers will get sneak peeks, advance previews, and other stuff as it develops. Thank you for reading my comics.

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Posted by Namiko Uno

Shanghai’s fourth annual Regional Burn, affectionately called Dragon Burn, took place from June 27-30, 2017 in the scenic forests of Anji, China. The event drew over 400 participants and included many new Theme Camps, a dual purpose Mutant Vehicle and mobile DJ stage, and the first ever temple, known as The Fire Lotus Temple.

Here’s a gallery of images from this year’s Burn; all photo credit to Tutu 胡堃.  Enjoy!



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Posted by Tony "Coyote" Perez-Banuet

This year will be the 20th Black Rock City that I have etched into the desert, but it will be the 22nd Golden Spike that I will set. That’s because there was a county line border dispute in 1998 — the first year of the Golden Spike Ceremony — and I ended up setting it three times.

Sheriff Skinner of Pershing County didn’t much like Burning Man. In fact, he hated it. So much so, that he had flexed the powers of his office in the off-season to have the event banned from his county. And now Will Roger and I were riding around the south end of the playa in his blue Chevy pick up truck with a glitchy GPS trying to find the Pershing/Washoe county line.

“You sure the county line is this far south,” I asked Will. “We’re getting pretty close to Gerlach.”

“Yep, pretty sure. But the bad news is that this is where all the mud is.”

I had flown over the Black Rock Desert earlier that year and had seen the dark water stain that settled at the bottom funnel of the playa like the bilge of a boat — pretty much right where the county line sat.

“Well, this is it,” said Will, stopping the truck as we arrived at the GPS waypoint. “This is where the Man is supposed to be.”

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Posted by Jon Mitchell

It’s hard to get ready for Burning Man! That’s because preparing for Burning Man is really preparing for several dozen different but related kinds of things.

Every few years — maybe after just enough “Hey, what do I bring to Burning Man?” emails from dad — someone with an account on this blog remembers to collect all the various kinds of resources appropriate to the present Burning Man era and post them in one place for your convenience. Now is one of those times.

  • The obvious place to start is the Survival Guide. It’s essential reading for before you pack, and you should read it again when you’re done. You can find it in the envelope with your tickets, on the web, or as a PDF
  • Need a ride? Have buttspace and need gas money? There is a rideshare board for that.
  • This cool website called BurnerMap was made by Burners Like You™, and it puts you and your friends on a BRC map, so you can know where everybody lives. Requires a Facebook account.
  • Someone named Jessie, formerly named Mama J, created this awe-inspiringly detailed packing and planning spreadsheet and would like to share it with you.
  • There is this task management app called Asana that’s good for keeping organized when planning complicated things like camps, art projects, or even just personal packing. They made a whole Burning Man Asana thing because they get it. You might find it stress-relieving.
  • While you’re working on things, you might discover that you need help or collaborators. You’ll find those on Spark, our online collaboration… network… thing.
  • Of course there’s ePlaya, which stands for “electronic playa”. It is full of ancient Burning Man wisdom as well as other Burners with whom you might want to connect. If you use that website Reddit where people vote on each other’s karma or whatever, there’s also /r/BurningMan, which is also full of Burners.
  • The Playa Events Calendar will show you an exhaustive list of what’s prooooobably going on in Black Rock City each day of the week.
  • Finally, if you’re into just kinda wandering around — which is definitely the easiest way to have fun at Burning Man — you could plan a few destinations ahead of time using the 2017 Theme Camp listing.
  • Did I forget anything? It’s probably already covered in the Burning Man website’s Preparation section.

Okay, that ought to help. If your dad or dad-like figure is asking you how to prepare for Burning Man, just send along this link and be done with it. You have enough of your own packing to do.


Top photo by Andrew Wyatt

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Posted by DaveX

A ritual is speaking words, using gestures, performing actions or using traditional objects in a set sequence. This sequence is repeated over and over, becoming something important to the group and held in reverence.

It’s clear which was the first Burning Man ritual. It’s the one that has formed the actual epicenter or fixed point of the event. And these days, for the most part, this ritual is conducted by unknown persons in ways you do not observe…

Well, this year, you’re invited to to be those people — to build and burn your own Burning Man or Woman and create your own ritual or meaning… or simply to gather with a group of friends who want to set up a funky wooden Man to burn and invite all of their friends to join.

Larry Harvey, a guy who has done that very thing several times, wrote this introduction to the history and meaning of the Man Burn ritual. Below you’ll find Part Two: the details about when and how to actually do this yourselves.

Building and Burning your own Burning Man: Important Days and Times

Friday, September 1

6 pm — Waxing Your Man

Join us for the Burning Man ritual of waxing the Man. Meet about 400 feet towards the Temple from the Man — look for the flag.

For years, the Man has gone up like a candle, and that is because he is one!

Learn this age-old skill and hear tales from those who know the ways of the wax. Make your own wax packets to fuel your burn.

Bring burlap to be waxed and some leather gloves.

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Posted by AngelBe a.k.a. Pamela Biery

What’s still there in Black Rock City on Sunday night to light your Exodus? For the past five years or so, it has been the box-lit SwagMart sign, usually somewhere near Center Camp or Rod’s Road. This year, SwagMart is moving on with new graphics, but its traditional signs and artwork have a new life at the Morris Burner Hostel’s patio and art garden in Reno.

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Posted by Brody

When was the last time you were grateful for running water? For your refrigerator? For any number of modern conveniences? If you’ve been to Burning Man, you’re probably familiar with the joy of that first porcelain flush toilet after days of porta-potties. The smile on your face as you wash your hands with real soap and water from a tap. Food that’s not Spaghetti-Os from a dusty can warmed on your car’s dashboard.

Even though the novelty value of indoor plumbing soon wears off again, being without it for a while is a valuable experience to re-set our brains. How many people go through their entire lives taking it for granted that there’s always flush toilets and running water and refrigerators? The ritual of going to the desert once a year and choosing physical hardship on purpose in a relatively low-stakes environment, can remind us to be grateful.

The Roman philosopher Seneca, in his Moral Letters to Lucilius (Letter 18: On Festivals and Fasting), wrote of the ideas of purposeful hardship bringing gratitude for the gifts in life that you do have, of seeing your situation with fresh eyes after ‘practice’ stress.

“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence…Endure all this for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more, so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby. Then, I assure you, my dear Lucilius, you will leap for joy when filled with a pennyworth of food, and you will understand that a man’s peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune; for, even when angry she grants enough for our needs.”

Stress is an interesting thing. Recent research shows that stress isn’t necessarily harmful to us, but can be positive or negative depending on our perspective. There’s even a reduced association between stress and mortality when you provide help to others! Imagine that, helping your neighbor tie down their shade structure during a crazy dust storm just might help you live longer.

Cloud haven (Photo by andrew wegst)

Fire-mediated serotiny in plants is a process by which seeds are only released in response to fire. (Serotiny, generally, means the seed is released in response to some kind of stressor rather than just spontaneously.) Giant Sequoia trees, for example, can only germinate from seed in response to a forest fire. Does Burning Man provide the fire, the low-stakes necessary stress, spur life change? Burning Man is an intense place full of intention, expectation, experimentation. Are the odds higher there that you’ll find the particular fire that unlocks that little seed you’re carrying around inside? It’s a seductive idea, and if you ask a roomful of Burners I imagine you’ll hear some stories that start with “Burning Man changed my life!


As the time to head to the desert grows closer, I invite you to practice gratitude for what you have.

For what you’re choosing to go without to get dusty with 68,000 of your new friends.

For what you’ll find there.

For what you’ll give.

Top photo: Dust Storm over Crude Awakening (Photo by Ales aka Dust To Ashes)

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Posted by Caveat Magister

Not long ago I overheard a discussion between two OG Burners about leadership.

Leadership at Burning Man, one said to the other, isn’t just management. Just because someone has managerial powers – they can set schedules or assign shifts – doesn’t make somebody a leader in our culture.

No, the other one agreed. But if leaders aren’t managers, does that mean leaders are the visionaries? The people who have the big ideas to make things happen?

Oh come on, said the first one. We both know brilliant visionaries who couldn’t lead a picnic. You wouldn’t want them in any kind of leadership position: just because someone has ideas doesn’t make them a leader in Burning Man culture.

Okay, sure, the second one said. But then … if a leader isn’t the manager, and a leader isn’t a visionary, what is a leader in Burning Man? What does leadership mean?

This is especially complicated in a do-ocracy, where on the one hand we all have to band together to do something as extraordinary as building a city – but on the other hand, everyone is encouraged to be their own visionary, and to not wait for approval from some external source to do what needs doing.

What does leadership mean in this kind of culture?


Default World, Default Leadership


The question of what “leadership” is and how to cultivate it is a massive industry, filled with books, gurus, mailing lists, and consulting fees based on easily memorizeable slogans with the shelf life of a TED Talk. But whatever the high-minded rhetoric, “leadership” in conventional organizations tends to default to one of two practical meanings, neither of which can possibly work with Burning Man culture.

The first is power: leaders really are managers, they are the people who ultimately have their hands on the levers of administration, and when they make a decision everybody is ultimately expected to fall in line because might makes right. This, of course, is wholly incompatible with do-ocracy.

The second is that the leader is ultimately whoever provides the money. Funding equals influence. We’ve all seen it happen. Once again, though, it’s completely unusable for us: a culture that values decommodification can’t locate leadership in funding. By definition.

So the two most common shortcuts that most organizations use to settle these questions are not available to us in either practice or theory.

But if we can’t look for Burning Man leadership in either power or funding, management or vision, where do we find it?

We start by stepping back from ideas and looking at practice: when Burning Man culture is working, when it’s at its best, who is leading, who is being led, and what do they all do?


Volunteers and Amateurs make Burning Man happen


Burning Man is unique in that it isn’t created by “Burning Man.” Wherever Burning Man happens it’s created by the people who show up, not by the people ostensibly running things. Critics say that this immense culture of volunteerism is exploitative – that people should be paid for the labor that they do. And there’s something to that. (We recently devoted a whole year to looking at questions of art and money, and “starving artist” isn’t an ideal we think anybody should shoot for.) But the culture of volunteerism – the fact that it’s passionate volunteers and amateurs constantly developing this culture in their own image – is also what keeps Burning Man from becoming driven by economics, from becoming professionalized and slick and predictable.

Burning Man’s culture of volunteerism, in other words, is not simply a response to limited funding: it is a fundamental condition. If you take away people’s ability to step up and engage in a do-ocracy– if you say “let the professionals handle it” for every important decision – then you are no longer doing Burning Man. The culture must resist professionalization, and Burning Man’s culture of volunteerism is the front line in that process.

Volunteering for Burning Man – by which I mean not just “The Burning Man Project” but everything in the culture, including Regionals, theme camps, and art projects – is therefore a unique experience (I can tell you that first hand) and almost entirely unlike volunteering anywhere else.

How is it different? Oh I’m glad you asked.


Vive la Difference


The first major difference is the status with which volunteers are accorded. In almost any other organizations, to be a volunteer means to be low on the totem pole. It’s almost a stigma: you’re not even necessarily really “with” the organization you’re volunteering for. The distinction between “staff” and “volunteers” is ironclad. At Burning Man, on the other hand, the distinction is wafer thin – if it’s useful at all. Burning Man volunteers are at the highest levels of the organization, they are staff, in pretty much every meaningful way.

Theme camps, regional events – any significant effort in Burning Man culture has volunteers at all levels of the effort. Far from being a stigma, to be a volunteer is to be recognized as a cultural co-creator. You have access to a level of status that is simply not available to volunteers almost anywhere else.

It goes further. In most organizations, the higher up in the organizational echelon staff get, the more important and meaningful the tasks they get to do are. The lower you are in the organization, the less important and less meaningful the tasks get, until you come to volunteers, who are given what is essentially leftover work, the least meaningful and the least important.

But at Burning Man, volunteers not only have the capacity to do work that is as important and meaningful as anything else people do, but are specifically encouraged to find the work that is intrinsically meaningful to them and to do that, even if it takes them outside of the existing organizational structures. In fact, in Burning Man culture people are encouraged to create their own organizational structures if it enhances their capacity to engage in intrinsically meaningful work.

As a result, volunteers in Burning Man culture have access to importance, to relevance, and to intrinsic motivation that in most places is hoarded by the people at the top of the organizational chart. This not only lets them act in ways that are meaningful to them, but to use their skills to their fullest, and develop new skills to perform tasks. Further, volunteers have opportunities usually denied them to create social capital. Because they’re not “just” volunteers, and neither are the people they work with, and because they can make decisions and engage in meaningful work and develop skills, they have things to offer one another that are unrestricted by centralized authority. Their social capital is meaningful, and it’s theirs to use.

All of which is to say that in conventional leadership culture, there are qualities that are hoarded at the top of an organizational structure: access to status, the ability to perform meaningful tasks, to make decisions in accordance with your values, and the ability to establish and use your own social capital. Only the top ranks get to do any of that.

But in Burning Man culture, volunteers say these are the very things they get, and that keep them engaged and coming back. (This is true in my own experience, in those the many volunteers I’ve talked with, and has been recorded by academic research such as that conducted by Katherine Chen, among others.) I think it’s exactly right to say that what differentiates Burning Man’s culture of volunteering from other cultures of volunteering is precisely that in Burning Man, these things are not hoarded at the top, but are spread around as much as possible.

For purposes of easy reference, I’m going to refer to these qualities as:


  • Relevance: volunteers are not lesser than staff, not second-class participants, they are recognized as being as valid and important here as anyone else.
  • Autonomy: Volunteers get to choose what kinds of work are important to them, and make decisions and act according to their own values. This ranges from how they dress – or don’t – to the name they use, to the whether they take this work home with them, to starting new initiatives because they see a need and want to fill it.
  • Competence: Volunteers get a chance to use their skills to the fullest of their abilities. If the work they’re doing now doesn’t properly utilize their skills, and they want complicated and engaged tasks, we’ll find it for them. And if they want to get good at new things, we’ll help with that too.


Not incidentally, Autonomy and Competence here together describe Aristotle’s definition of happiness: which is to work to your capacities towards a goal that you find meaningful. Volunteering for Burning Man is a way for people to do that. Which is huge. It really sets us apart.


  • Finally, volunteers get Relatedness: they not only get a chance to join our existing community, but to form their own communities within it, and to develop social capital and use it meaningfully.


What Leaders Do


So – when volunteering in a Burning Man context is working, when we’re doing it right, volunteers experience Relevance, Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness. And when they’re not experiencing this, something is going wrong, we’re not achieving what we want to. These terms may not be exactly right, there may be better ones, but I think they clearly indicate what we’re getting at. (And, for the record, three of these four – Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness – I’ve cribbed from the Self-Determination Theory school of psychology, which I’ve long admired. This is both a recognition of my intellectual debt to professors Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, and an acknowledgment that maybe we should come up with our own terms at some point).

But broadly speaking, you see what I’m getting at here: whether they’re correctly labeled or not, these are the dynamics that make our volunteer culture unique, and amazing, and functional, and … Burning Man. We don’t hoard Relevance, Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness at the top, we spread them around as much as possible, we want everyone to experience them, and have them as part of their work, and make their decisions based on the fact that they have them.



Okay. So … back to leadership.

If those are the conditions that make our volunteering what it is, that help create do-ocracy, and our organization and culture is based on do-ocratic volunteers at every level …

… then “Leadership” in Burning Man culture is indeed not being a manager or a visionary, but being a person who helps spread and distribute Relevance, Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness. That’s what Leaders do – they create the conditions in which our volunteers and teammates can have that experience of intrinsic motivation, of developing social capital, of using their skills to the fullest, of having a meaningful place in our community, where they do work that is meaningful to them.

They may or may not be managers. They may or not have a team rank, or be official in any way. They may or may not have power of any kind, or new ideas. But whatever the team goal is, whatever vision the team pursues, whatever the specific structure of the team, however decisions get made, wherever money comes from … the leaders are the people who make create the conditions whereby others feel relevant, autonomous, competent, and related. Which means, of course, that indeed anybody can indeed be a leader. Leadership is not a zero sum game.

(It should be noted, of course, that Competence and Autonomy and the rest are not ours to control:  people can simply be these things, and that’s all for the best. But when we form communities, which any team is doing, social dynamics often lead people to feel like they don’t have these things. That they are the province of a few. Perhaps that’s why daily life often feels so dis-empowering.  In any case, these things are not ours to control, but they are things we can encourage and support.)

That, it seems to me, is the fundamental dynamic at work – and it is one that seems to me to emerge out of the 10 Principles. People who are able to act on their own intrinsic motivation are better able to engage in acts of self-expression and immediacy; people who have social capital and recognition are able to more effective give and engage in communal effort; people who feel connected are more apt to participate, and so on down the line.

Now there are many, many leadership techniques that could be compatible with doing this – active listening, delegation, etc. etc. – but such techniques can be used anywhere, from giant impersonal corporations to classroom management. They may be good ideas, but nothing about them is unique to one particular leadership culture or another.

But if you want to know what sets leadership in a Burning Man context apart – if you want to know what our leaders do if they’re doing it right – I think this is likely the answer. They help others participate in do-ocracy by spreading Relevance, Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness around to everyone they can. They keep these from being hoarded qualities.


Author’s note: I’d like to thank the participants in the “Philosophical Fridays” discussion groups, without whose engagement these ideas would not have developed.

Cover Photo by Scott Stallard

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Posted by Jon Mitchell

We might like to dream about Black Rock City existing all alone on some moon of Jupiter or something, but that dream is always temporarily dispelled on the way in and on the way out. There’s a gate. There’s a perimeter. It’s an enclosed, defined space. That space — as well as the massive ritual of entering and exiting it — is created and managed by the Gate, Perimeter & Exodus (GP&E) Team.

Getting into and out of Black Rock City is no mean feat — nor is managing that process safely and effectively. Easeful entry and exit requires your help and cooperation. The experience is emotional for all of us, and there are many mysteries and questions. In this video, Ira Wing from Gate, Perimeter & Exodus will take you on a tour of everything involved in getting BRC’s humans and their vehicles in and out.

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Posted by Maria Gotay

Camp Walter shows up big at Burning Man, painting the playa fuschia with their Pink Party and covering ground with their six iconic Mutant Vehicles.  Since 2009, they’ve brought a new attraction to the playa each year, including their trademark Walter, a enormous Baja Beetle named Big Red, a fire-breathing behemoth horned truck named Heathen, the dance-til-you-can’t Kalliope three-story laser-and-flame-clad immersive party stage, 2016’s flame-licked UFO mounted on an Italian truck chassis, Mona Lisa, and the stationary Peace Train installation. Their camp is home to over 250 campers. Located at 10 and Esplanade last year, it’s safe to say they were one of the Burn’s biggest and brightest camps.

(Photo courtesy of Walter Tribe)

But how did they come to rock this hard? Ever since I encountered their “Peace Train” at a mindful music festival called FORM in 2016, I wanted to get to know Walter. The influence of the Walter Tribe extends beyond the playa and into their home community in Phoenix. They’ve dedicated years to creating immersive experiences that cut across time and space, distance and communities, moving people figuratively and literally. What powers them to burn so bright?

The Walter Tribe is an eclectic and friendly bunch from Arizona, “a tribe of people who are passionate about being creative and seeing just how far the envelope can be pushed in terms of building something unique.” They are not just Burners and builders — they are students and event planners, DJs and curators, art directors, photographers, healers, teachers, mechanics and volunteers. Their family spans multiple generations, featuring a build team working well into their 70s alongside fresh-faced ambassadors and some children who have been to the Burn as many years as they’ve had birthdays. Kirk and Mary Strawn are the founding parents. Kirk, an M.D., inventor, philanthropist, and builder, came up with the idea of repurposing an old fire truck into a something that would inspire. He worked with the tribe to repurpose the frame to build the world’s largest VW Bus, the 13-foot luminous Walter, in 2009. Walter is truly something to be seen, featuring 10,000 L.E.D. lights, a 4,000-watt sound setup and a 330-gallon water tank that feeds an onboard misting system.

Kalliope (Photo courtesy of Walter Tribe)

Burning Man may be the community’s vastest (and dustiest) home, but their art makes waves in many other places. Their Kalliope stage made its large-scale music debut in 2014 at Bonnaroo in Tennessee, offered as an alternative stage for DJs to create a more intimate and interactive party. Since that initial integration, they’ve worked with Bonnaroo to build out more and more interactive experiences, from art car parades to costume parties, to share a little bit of that Burning Man vibe with a more festival-oriented crowd. Their Walter Bug is on tour much of the year, touching down at like-minded events and local parades and art festivals.

(Photo courtesy of Walter Tribe)

But much of the Walter Tribe’s greatest work happens at home in Arizona. Their efforts are concentrated at the Walter Dome, a lot that houses their maker space, gallery, and brewery in Scottsdale. The Walter Art Gallery hosts shows from all-local artists, some of whom show Burn-inspired work. Next door is the massive builders’ haven where Walter was built, and they now share space with curious builders in the community. Through an old VW bus, a small door leads to the Walter brewery where they have taps of collaborative brews. On a Friday night at the Walter Dome, I sipped a Solar Flare Grapefruit IPA and talked the 10 Principles with some of the Walter Fabrication Crew, and we watched the smiling community gather for one of their epic potlucks.

A trip to Phoenix wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Walter Presents, an events and office space where the other half of the Walter Tribe, the production team, operates. Here, the crowd shifts from builders to yoga-pants-clad urbanites, and it’s HQ of communications for the tribe. The massive building, a hostel for the rowdy art cars, hosts large-scale parties, art shows, and even yoga classes. Previously a production studio, it now features murals and rooms full of props suspended from the ceiling; wandering through felt like floating through a black-lit kaleidoscopic dream. The building is slotted to get a gut renovation and rebuild. Once that makeover is complete around 2020, it will operate as the biggest events space and most iconic landmark in the Phoenix downtown arts district.

I got to see the space through the eyes of their director of community engagement, Anna Allebach-Warble, who says some of their favorite events are those that keep them local. Bringing the party (a.k.a. the Mutant Vehicles) to the local Pride parades is a sure way to make the community smile, and providing a presence at college events around Arizona opens the door for students to imagine their own creative potential and rethink the concept of “partying with purpose.” Walter even collaborated with Arizona-based Purdue University, where their vehicles Heathen and Kalliope received pyrotechnic component upgrades by students in the “Propulsion Design, Test, and Build” class. This year, for the first time, Walter is even trying their hand at their own three-day festival in Phoenix called “Lost Lake” in collaboration with Superfly Presents.

Anna sees what they do as planting seeds for the proliferation of arts in their community. Trish Turpin, the art gallery curator, who’s never been to Burning Man herself, agreed: “We want to spread the idea of Gifting and Radical Expression here in Phoenix. The merits and principles of Burning Man may be even more important back in the world.” In fact, Walter Tribe members often refer to the “100-year plan” that allows them to imagine how their work evolve over the long term in Phoenix, at Burning Man and beyond, long after the next generation of Walter Tribers have taken over. The idea is close to founder Kirk Strawn’s heart. “Burning Man is the area you experiment, and you learn about what you might do in the real world,” he says. “It brings collaborative, participatory and creative origins out into the rest of the world.”

Top photo courtesy of Walter Tribe

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Posted by Maria Gotay

Day three of the Burn. It’s Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday, depending on when you finally pulled that old ’97 to the distant corner of clock hand and alphabet, draped yourself in faux fur and hit the playa running.

By now, the initial shock of the place has worn off, and you’ve grown accustomed to desert days. Whether you’re returning home or recently de-flowered, the week is at its purest halfway through.

You’ve danced in a way you haven’t all year, swiveling on joints like some sort of primitive dinosaur. You’ve bumped to the bass blaring from the loudest sound system, waking up a few hours later with a crusty smile and distant ringing in your ears. You’ve climbed into a giant butthole and ridden the slide down into a mess of pillows while singing the national anthem.

Desert Days

You’ve seen the sun set: a blazing rose thrown across the sky and sinking beneath the mountains. You’ve rejoiced as the same simmering comet rose 12 hours earlier. You’re a vegetarian but you’ve had bacon, and you’ve fallen in love with more people in three days than in the rest of your life combined.

You’ve given presents, or received them, and you’re heavier in weight and grace from all the artifacts you’ve collected. Now a pack of gum has transformed from personal survival rations to an invitation tucked inside a metallic pack, a portal to a new group of friends.

With half the week left, you know the best is still before you: long, magical days of romping around, art-gazing and going deeper and deeper inside yourself.

From the Inside Out

But what about your outside?  You’re finally getting used to your new playa body. Your skin, dry as hell, alternates between chalk-coated and stinging from standing vinegar baths. But the dust has such a soft ashiness once it’s coated your full body. Your face is smothered in different combinations of adornments, like the rainbow chalk pen a new friend drew across the bridge of your nose or the smeared face paint that a mystic channelled onto your forehead.

Your hair… well, that desert dust has filled it with natural highlights and puffed it up to an unnatural volume and tangle that makes you look like Cruella Deville when you catch a glimpse of yourself in a car window.

You are absolutely the crustiest you’ve ever been, and don’t let the #modelsofburningman instagrams fool you: You’re going to look like a lost moon child of Lysithea zapped back to the Stone Age. It’s at this point that you’ve embraced the layer of dust that coats your tent, your food, your chalky face. Halfway through the week, you’ve become.

Some might say you’ve let the crazy in, but we know: You’ve just become yourself. A creature of the desert, in harmony with the elements, in tune with yourself. You race on your bike like a warrior, chasing your simplest expression. You breathe in your mantra like a buddha, setting your truest intention.

Looking How You Feel

For the first time, you stop giving a fuck about how you look and you start looking how you feel — which is bliss or fear or pain or love, and, most importantly, honest, raw authenticity. And you realize that there is absolutely nothing as beautiful as you.

As day three bleeds into four and five, you might continue to brave the dust and let it compound in limestone layers with goosebumps popping through like rocks in a zen garden, but you’ll likely wash off that initial layer of “becoming”.

You’ll end up getting sprayed down at the human carwash, naked among a crowd of 20, or you’ll receive a gentle, peppermint-infused wash from Sweaty Betty’s. Not to worry, though — it’s soon replaced with a fresh coat as a dust storm rips you off your bike and into a cyclone.

End of a Cycle

But with the new coat comes a little bit of panic. The cycle of the sun is shrinking under the desert sky as the week comes to an end. Is it really ending so soon? I haven’t done everything! There is so much more to be learned! Your hair sucks up the dust again, growling like a vindicated lion’s mane, back with a vengeance and hoping to attain its former glory.

But you know you’ll be out of the desert before long, and the jojoba oil conditioner waiting for you back home has moved into your realm of consideration, a tease back to the world you once knew.

You’ve also moved on from your desert wig’s novelty, for you have far more important things to worry about now — like finding the fabled playa oyster bar, discovering when DJ So-and-So is playing next, or a mission to find the San Francisco venture capitalist you fell in love with.

The last few days are a whirl of flames and beats, a rush to see and feel it all. In the end, you watch the city fall to the ground in ash and ember, searing your week’s learning in your heart. Your hair has dreaded, stuffed up under a captain’s hat, begging for a bathtub.

Looking Back

Weeks, months, years later, you’ll look back at photos and remember the week’s peaks and valleys. A bittersweet album of dust and glory — all the amazing people, places and faces of Black Rock City. But that one photo will stick out: you sprawled across a inflatable unicorn, wearing nothing but a white nightie and many layers of necklaces, chain after chain of gifts from your new family.

You’ll remember that this was halfway through the week, and the pivotal moment you stopped letting anything interfere. You started at home: with yourself, with your community, with the desert. And you’ll think, Damn. My hair looked good.

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Posted by Caveat Magister

The term “healing ritual” often gets thrown around in ways that suggest it would be better if it were thrown out.

But let’s put New Age woo and dusty theology aside for a moment (although I enjoy dusty theology the way some people enjoy runny cheese) and ask the question on a more basic level: is there in fact a relationship between ritual and a successful recovery from injury or illness?

I promise there will be no crystals mentioned in this post.

The history of Western medicine has been the (very successful) attempt to strip “healing” down to its component parts and determine which have a demonstrable effect and which are mere ritual and cultural practice.   To the extent that we can’t get rid of ritual and cultural practice altogether, we’ve written them off as the “placebo effect.”

But an increasing body of research suggests that writing them is the wrong approach. The aspects of medicine that we’ve been trying to discard are in fact vitally useful – and there are even instances in which medicine without the placebo effect is ineffective medicine.

Or, to use the words of Harvard Medical School’s Program in Placebo Studies (PiPS):

“For many years, the placebo effect was considered to be no more than a nuisance variable that needed to be controlled in clinical trials. Only recently have researchers redefined it as the key to understanding the healing that arises from medical ritual, the context of treatment, the patient-provider relationship and the power of imagination, trust and hope.”

Double-blind clinical trials conducted through PiPS have had doctors go through the “ritual” aspects of patient care and then inform patients that they were going to be given a placebo – a sugar pill – instead of real medicine. Even knowing that they were not getting the medicine, the health of patients who went through the ritual of treatment still improved – sometimes more than the effect of using the actual drugs without the “medical ritual” component.

The placebo effect, then, is not “just the pill,” in the words of Harvard Professor of Medicine Ted Kaptchuk, who’s said in interviews that “The placebo effect is a surrogate marker for everything that surrounds a pill. And that includes rituals, symbols, doctor-patient encounters. … It’s basically the water that medicine swims in.“ And it matters.

Ritual can have a measurable impact on both subjective well-being and objective measures.

Not for everything, of course – let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. The research doesn’t suggest that ritual can shrink tumors or kill bacteria. The effect seems (thus far) limited to areas of the body which have a clear pathway to the brain. So it’s at its most effective when dealing with issues like pain, fatigue, nausea and malaise. But not only do these things matter – they’re what the reductive, “strip it to its component parts” approach to medicine is very bad at managing.

A July 2011 article published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that “placebos can have effects similar to powerful medications as measured by a self-appraisal of subjective symptoms” for people suffering from asthma. Similar research, published in major peer reviewed journals, has shown such effects for chronic arm pain, acute migraine headaches, chronic lower pack pain, and osteoarthritis of the knee, among other maladies. There’s a host of research (not involved with PiPS) showing that visualization and relaxation techniques can create significant improvements in the lives of people who are suffering from the side-effects of chemotherapy.

“We’re showing,” Kaptchuk says, “that it makes major changes in people’s lives.”

Which raises the question: if ritual is actually a significant component of empirically based medicine, what creates this effect? What makes a “healing ritual” most effective?

The research is still ongoing, but to my mind the factors are best described by what a 2015 article in the New England Journal of Medicine calls the “therapeutic encounter.”

In a broad sense, placebo effects are improvements in patients’ symptoms that are attributable to their participation in the therapeutic encounter, with its rituals, symbols, and interactions. These effects are distinct from those of discrete therapies and are precipitated by the contextual or environmental cues that surround medical interventions, both those that are fake and lacking in inherent therapeutic power and those with demonstrated efficacy. This diverse collection of signs and behaviors includes identifiable health care paraphernalia and settings, emotional and cognitive engagement with clinicians, empathic and intimate witnessing, and the laying on of hands.

A related idea was proposed by Psychology Professors Art Bohart and Karen Tallman in their 1999 book How Clients Make Therapy Work, in which they say that for most issues, the efficacy of mental health treatments come not from the particular approach that the therapist uses but whether or not the patient and therapist establish a meaningful connection. If they do, therapy is more likely to be effective across most measures – if they don’t, nothing done in therapy is likely to help much.

I suspect this same dynamic applies to the healing effects of rituals. The various specific elements that seem to make a difference – the use of meaningful symbols, the dress and behavior of the ritual leaders and participants, bodily engagement of various kids – are all fundamentally in service to the basic issue: does the participant feel connected to someone or something? A person, a community, a higher power – something?

When that happens, I think, ritual power is real and good things follow. When it doesn’t, the ritual is empty formality with no impact except, maybe, boredom.

What we clearly know is that the ritual elements of cultural practices matter on a far more fundamental level than they’re often given credit for. Medicine without ritual is less effective; community without ritual is less connective; life without ritual of some kind is less meaningful, and even (some research suggests) spirals into neurosis and nihilism.

From a medical standpoint, the new placebo research is indeed bizarre and fascinating. From a humanistic standpoint, however, it’s very much in line with what we think we know about ourselves.


Cover painting “The Lady’s Death,” by William Hogarth, 1743


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