Plato's Allegory of the Cave
tells the story of a group of men chained to the wall of a cave. Behind them, a fire burns and people walk back and forth in front of the fire carrying various objects. The men chained to the wall have never seen the fire, or the people walking. They have only seen the shadows the people and fire are casting on the wall in front of them.
Reality, for these chained men, does not include fire or people carrying objects. Their only reality is the shadows they see. Everything in their world, to their knowledge, is shadows on a wall.
Imagine if one of those men were to be freed from his chains and was able to stand, turn around, and see the people and fire behind him. Literally, he would have a new perspective on the entire world he lives in. He would suddenly have an awareness of things he had never dreamed of. But also, and even more importantly, he would have a new understanding of the world he has always known. Most of all, he would gain a new understanding of himself, and his own place in the world. And if he is once again chained to the wall, once again only able to see the familiar shadows, he will never see them in the same way for he has been transformed by the experience. His world has expanded. How would he explain his experience to the men around him who know nothing of fire or other people, and have never thought there was anything more than shadows?
We are all like the men chained to the wall. My entire reality is nothing more than my mind's interpretation of my own experiences. My reality expands when I experience something new, or when my mind is made to work in a new way. And though my world seems large and limitless, it is impossible for me to imagine what fires are behind me, still to be discovered, that can transform me and my world view.
The rewards of experiencing truly new things or finding ways to make one's mind work differently are obvious: new perspectives gained, greater understanding, new knowledge of the universe and the self, transformation. Cultures throughout time have employed various methods to achieve these new perspectives. Vision quests, spiritual journeys, etc. Native Americans used peyote among other things to achieve enlightenment. And when the U.S. Government began experimenting with Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) in the 1930s as a mind-control drug (not successful), many Americans found its properties as mind-expanding, and it became the most popular drug of the 1960s counter-culture searching for a new world-view. (Dr. Kary Mullis, 1993 winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, invented PCR (a method for detecting even the smallest amounts of DNA in ancient materials) after experiences he gained from taking LSD
Burning Man achieves this kind of transformative experience by its mere existence. As such, it is as difficult to explain as it would have been to explain the roaring fire to the men chained to the cave wall with no similar concept or frame of reference upon which to draw. It is such a foreign experience, in such an alien place, that merely describing its elements can not come close to recreating its transformative effects. And photographs can not even begin to relate its immense size. You can try to imagine a city of 40,000 residents (the size of Black Rock City this year), roughly the size of my hometown, Grand Island, Nebraska, to get an idea of size, but it bears no resemblance to any American city in any other way.
Unlike Grand Island, this city was not there a week earlier, and next week there will be no trace of it. Instead of buildings and houses, this temporary city's structures are tents and large art installations, some functional and others decidedly dysfunctional - none built to last, and most built to be destroyed in fire. This city has completely different cultural rules and a completely unique fashion - a mix of necessity and counter-functionality (goggles and face masks for the blowing dust, umbrellas for shade, fur, strangely enough for a hot desert, bright colors, even armor and clothing that shoots fire).
Money is of no value (nothing is allowed to be bought or sold, aside from the coffee hut, where you can buy coffee) and thus the barter system is employed for all other commerce ("You have popsicles? I'll trade you for one of these bags I made to hold your water bottle.") All that is asked of you is that you participate, not merely observe - and that you leave no trace. When Burning Man is over, there will be no evidence that it has ever occurred - not a single cigarette butt, tuft of fur, or charred piece of wood. Not even footprints, which blow away quickly in the sudden desert windstorms.
Samuel R. Delany creates an uncannily similar city, Bellona, in his 1972 novel "Dhalgren." Of course, all 40,000 participants don't find the same significance in the event. For many, Burning Man is a big party, a terrific reason to celebrate. Still, these participants add to the experience as a whole. There are, of course, still others (few, thankfully) who don't respect the event for what it is at all. Not even the most basic requirement, "leave no trace."
But for me, and countless others, there is great significance to be found in this unusual event. Five years ago, on a clear Sunday night, Jay and I sat down on the playa under an impossibly starry sky, and we professed our love and sealed our commitment to one another. We had first met just five weeks earlier, and Burning Man proved to be quite a test of our relationship. In so many ways, it is a memorable experience to share - and in as many ways, it is a series of ordeals to endure. We managed to share, and endure... and confirmed by the end of our time in the desert what we had already been thinking - that we were right for each other.
This year marked the fifth anniversary of that moment in the desert for us. I wish more of our friends and family could have been there to share it with us. I wish we had found all the friends who WERE there, but such is Burning Man.
It was a memorable experience, to say the least. And here are some of the memories I created. Click the link below to view my photo album.Burning Man 2004 Photos