“It is, we are, I am,” is the secret mantra of creativity that drives people back to the desert each year, to return sleep-deprived, covered with impossibly fine dust, and, though there is an outward call for self reliance and Self-expression, to return with a felt sense of having participated in something much, much larger and more powerful than any one person can do on their own.
Pilgrimage to Burning Man
Every year in late August, people all over the San Francisco Bay Area, throughout the country, and from distant parts of the world, prepare to make their annual pilgrimage to the one of the most inhospitable, gorgeously beautiful, and intensely sacred gatherings to emerge in the United States.
Set upon a totally flat, dried-up Pleistocene lake bed some 90 miles north of Reno, Nevada and guided by the principles of a gifting economy, self-reliance, and radical Self-expression, some 50,000+ people will build a circular city in the shape of a time piece and fill it full of art, workshops, and performances, all centered around an effigy of a man at the very center, a man who will be ritualistically burned towards the end of the week long celebration.
It is easy for those who haven’t been there to dismiss Burning Man as some sort of grand yet pointless party, a chance for people to show up in the same way they might on a weekend trip to Las Vegas: to blow off steam, to get wasted, to be promiscuous, to behave “badly,” then, leaving it all at the edge of Sin City, return back to their more or less well-adjusted lives.
On the surface, it is a fair comparison. But a deeper look unveils something far, far more profound and enlivening.
Burning Man’s Founder
Not long ago, I had the good fortune of listening to a lecture by the founder of Burning Man, Larry Harvey. In 1986, on Summer Solstice, on the heels of a two-year depression stemming from losing the love of his life and finding himself a single father, he and another man, Jerry James, along with a few of their friends brought an effigy of a man to Baker Beach in San Francisco, on the shores of the Golden Gate. There, upon the shoreline, with the mighty Pacific in the background, they erected the statue, and, attempting to let go of their pain, lit it on fire.
That was a visceral moment of profound creative insight, and one that would set in motion the experience and the culture of Burning Man, a culture that has since expanded creativity and innovation in areas such as art, architecture, sound and light installations, music, clothing, even the way individuals relate to one another. Most influentially, Burning Man has created a whole new cosmology, one that is intensely experiential, creative, and innovative.
Looking a bit deeper, however, Larry Harvey and his friends weren’t exactly creating something new; they were tapping into something ancient and primordial.
The Original Burning Man Flips Modernity on It’s Head
During his talk, Larry Harvey explained the reason behind the burning effigy’s impact on all those who were there. He said that the way modern humans see the world starts with ourselves, then with the opinions of others and shared experiences, and finally some sense of agreement on what is actually true out there. In short, for most of us, our experience begins egocentrically and expands outwards, from “I am” to “we are” to “it is,” a fact which most do without question.
During that powerful first burn on the beach, however, the doors of possibility flew wide open.
When the pain of loss in Larry Harvey’s heart met the formless expanse of the ocean in the background and the image of the 9 foot statue burning on the shoreline, everything flipped, revealing the felt sense of the vital cosmologies of primitive cultures. Suddenly, the felt sense on Baker Beach that day was “it is” (the man burning on the shoreline) “we are” (we are all sharing in this experience) to finally “I am” (I am but part of this larger than life experience). Like the celebrated Buddhist guru, Padmasambhava, morphing into his wrathful emanation, the wild-eyed, flame-covered Dorje Trolo, the man burning on the beach was a moment of powerful healing and creative catharsis.
Burning Man and the Source of Creative Insight
In order to understand the power of Burning Man specifically, and, more generally, in order to understand creativity and innovation, this is an essential point: creative insight does not come from within us. It comes to us from outside.
As represented by the proverbial light bulb flashing over a person’s head, creative insight is something we receive, in most cases, in an instant. This is what I call “the experience of insight” the non-conceptual, felt sense of something inarguably true and ineffable coming to us. When we have such insights, we are left to unpack and interpret those insights so we can share them in some way with others. This desire to share ushers in the active phase of creativity, what I call “manifestation” where we look honestly and rationally at what we can and cannot do, evaluate our resources, ask others for help, and set out to give form to those creative insights.
Burning Man Moves from the Ocean to the Desert
After the profundity of the first burning of the man, it became and annual event. Its popularity grew quickly, eventually outgrowing Bakers Beach. In the early 90s they moved the event to the Black Rock Desert near Gerlach, Nevada, where it’s been growing ever since.
Even though the current location of Burning Man is at a bone dry location in the interior of the continent, the city is still symbolically and visually set up to replicate that first burning of the man. Black Rock City’s streets begin about a half a mile from the effigy of the man at the center, and, in plain view, run from 2 o’clock and go to 10 o’clock, leaving a wide open space in the center which extends towards the eastern horizon. This primordial space is known as The Playa, or “beach” in Spanish. Symbolically, The Playa is where the ocean meets the land, creating a fertile edge condition ripe with creative potential. Upon it, art installations pop up from the cracked desert floor while art cars sail about like ghostly ships atop a cosmic dust ocean.
Burning Man’s Secret Mantra
“It is, we are, I am” is the secret mantra of creativity that drives people back to the desert each year, to return sleep-deprived, covered with impossibly fine dust, and, though there is an outward call for self reliance and Self-expression, to return with a felt sense of having participated in something much, much larger and more powerful than any one person can do on their own. Burning Man has become one of the most powerful, most innovative, most creative cities in all the world. And though it is active but one week every year, its effects reverberate outwards throughout the year to all parts of the world.
You can choose to see Burning Man as one of the greatest parties the world has ever seen. And you’ll have a great time if you do. But if you want to reap the real fruits of attending, treat it as a pilgrimage to an unfathomably sacred place, a chance to set intentions, to explore aspects of yourself you don’t normally get the chance to, interact with other unplugged human beings with time on their side, let the primordial ground of creation fill you to capacity, and to return with gifts for others.
In that way you won’t just return with your camping gear and wardrobe full of dust. You’ll have experienced on the deepest level what it means to be a creator moving over the primordial ground of creativity itself.
What type of creator are YOU? Take the Creativity Quiz and find out!
About the Creativity and Bay Area Innovation Series
The Bay Area is hands down the single most creative and innovative region in the United States.
Home to such major players as Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, Oracle, and numerous others, the Bay Area receives a whopping 32 percent of all the venture capital invested in the United States, according to the Bay Area Regional Center. It also has the second highest concentration of Fortune 500 companies next to New York.
All the money aside, the Bay Area has either begun or fostered the growth of such influential cultural movements as The Counter Culture Movement, Free Speech, Gay Rights, California Cuisine and the Local Foods Movement, the Internet, municipal recycling programs, Beat poetry and literature, psychedelic experimentation, and music festivals, such as Burning Man.
In this series, I will explore various ways of understanding the proliferation of creativity and innovation of the Bay Area, including Feng Shui, geology, culture, urban design, and history, hoping to shed a bit of light on a place I love so very much, hoping to honor some of the ways it has shaped my own creativity throughout my adult life.