What Burning Man Taught Me About Death, Dancing, and Intimacy

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My journey to Burning Man started when I met two Canadian entrepreneurs in Nicaragua earlier this year.

After swapping a few travel stories, the Canadians said they were going to buy tickets for “Burning Man.”

Me: “What’s Burning Man?” Canadian 1: “I’ve been to 50 countries and done a lot of interesting things, but Burning Man is the coolest thing I’ve ever done. It transformed my life. ” Me: “What’s so great about it?” Canadian 2: “It’s a new type of society in the desert. There’s art, drugs, talking robots, and a gifting economy. You come out of the experience with a better understanding of yourself.” Me: “That definitely sounds unique.”

I still didn’t understand Burning Man, but I was curious to learn more. Having two well-traveled people say that Burning Man was such a unique and transformative experience intrigued me. What was so special about this event?

As someone who seeks out new experiences to better understand myself and the collective human experience, this seemed like an event that I needed to attend.

So I purchased 2 tickets and messaged a friend who I’ll call Pooch.

Me: “Hey man, it’s been a couple of years. Hope all is well. I just bought two Burning Man tickets.” Pooch: “Life is good. Did you mean to send me stuff about Burning Man?” Me: “Yep. I’m looking for the right person to join me for the experience. All I know is that there is art, robots, and an economy that operates without money in the middle of the desert.” Pooch: “I’m all in.” Me: “Perfect.”

That conversation began a 6-month journey. Pooch and I needed to figure out how to get to and survive 8 days at Burning Man, which is a temporary city constructed in the middle of the Nevada desert.

Instead of getting caught up in the endless literature and advice about Burning Man, we adopted the simple approach that I’ve used for all of my travels: figure out what I needed to survive Burning Man and then see what the universe has in store for you once you get there. So we found a camp of fellow Burners providing infrastructure, food, and water, bought a few costumes, and headed out West.

Before arriving at Burning Man, I didn’t watch any videos, look at photos, or try to understand what the experience was. I wanted to arrive in the desert with a beginner’s mind and be fully present with the experience.

It’s been a few weeks since I returned from Burning Man. I survived, had a fantastic time, and left feeling a refreshing inner stillness. In addition to learning that Burning Man is much more than a party in the desert, I learned a few things about myself. Below are three lessons I wanted to share from my first adventure into the desert.

A big release puts the soul at ease

When my mom committed suicide last year, my soul split to shreds. I lost my biggest supporter, the person who would love and support me no matter what I chose to do in life. I’ve been on an intense journey to mend my soul since then.

As a part of my healing process, I’ve written about my experience. I wrote about my mom’s impact on my life, my attempt to find meaning in my suffering, and my mom’s path to suicide.

While these reflections helped me understand and process my experience, they didn’t calm the emotional volcano brewing inside me. For months, I experienced sudden waves of intense sadness. Everyday moments like seeing a parent play with their child or hearing friends speak with their parents would trigger the emotional volcano.

The problem is that I didn’t know how to release these emotions. I needed a deep and long cry, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Growing up, I learned to hold back my tears. My mom would cry frequently and turn to me for advice. Instead of letting her see the pain I felt from seeing her suffer or telling her about the fear and anxiety I felt as a teenager navigating a challenging world, I remained strong for her. I learned to neutralize my emotions so that I could be the rock that she needed. So despite feeling a building emotional energy that began to take a toll on my mind and body, I couldn’t release it.

Fortunately, Burning Man provided the right space for my big release. Every year at Burning Man, people build a temporary wooden structure where Burners leave pictures, notes, and other remembrances for people they’ve lost. It’s called the Temple.

On the last day of Burning Man, everyone sits in a circle in silence while the Temple is burned. This experience symbolizes the release of the pain, suffering, and memories that people leave in the wooden structure throughout the week.

When I heard about the Temple, I knew that I wanted to spend time there. I needed to explore my inner volcano. So one night after Pooch and I explored the art installations in the desert and talked about life,  we wandered into the Temple just before the sunrise. As I walked into the Temple, an intense wave of sadness, suffering, and memories crashed over me.

Looking around, I witnessed the painful side of the human experience. Some people sat silently with their eyes closed. Others wrote notes while tears streamed down their face. And many people sobbed uncontrollably while embracing others.

This was a profoundly spiritual moment. Once I sat down, my mind took over. The emotional volcano inside was ready to erupt.  Over the next few minutes, I fully re-experienced my mom’s battle with death and began sobbing.

I heard my grandma crying while delivering the news over the phone. I had just woken up from a 48 hour stomach sickness in Bali and struggled to process the nightmare that was unfolding.

With tears streaming down my face, I drove my motorbike straight to the beach, my mom’s favorite place. As I felt the sand between my toes, I looked at the ocean and wondered how I would adjust to life without my mom. I wanted a moment of peace, but it never came.

I felt the ache of my back on the exhausting 40-hour flight from Bali to Orlando. Anxiety and fear poured through my being as I anticipated not making it back in time to see my mom’s eyes one last time.

I sat in silence on the car ride from the airport to the hospital. Entering her room, I felt a new depth of pain. My mom was hooked up to dozens of tubes and in visible pain. This wasn’t right. I re-experienced the miracle of my mom lifting herself out of bed, looking me in the eyes, and giving me a fierce hug. Nurses cried while watching this moment that defied their understanding of what someone in my mom’s condition could do. I wasn’t surprised. When it came to me, my mom always found the strength.

I felt the isolation and pain of spending Christmas alone in Mexico while I talked to doctors about my mom’s short- and long-term outlook. Neither scenario looked promising. My family asked me to make the decision about whether or not to remove her from life support. It was the worst decision I could imagine confronting.

Viktor Frankl’s message came to mind: We don’t get to choose the cards we’ve dealt, but we do get to choose how we respond to those cards. Before flying back to Orlando to bring my mom’s story to a compassionate ending, I numbed myself with margaritas.

Speaking with the doctor when I arrived, I focused on my mom’s best interests, and once the tubes were removed, she looked at peace. Her suffering was almost over. Exhausted and in agony, I sat by her bed for 48 hours.

I didn’t know whether she would survive another hour or many weeks. A nurse reminded me to be present with the time I had left. That was good advice. Watching my mom struggle to breathe, I felt my soul slowly ripping apart. But I continued to hold her hand and stay strong for her. I needed to stay strong one last time.

As she took her last breath on my 25th birthday, I felt relieved that her suffering was finally over. My grandma and I were the last ones left in the room. We held each other’s hands. We knew that we had done our best to avoid this outcome, but we couldn’t escape the disappointment of the painful ending.

My grandma left me in the room. I kissed my mom’s forehead and left knowing that life would never be quite the same. Sitting in the Temple, I relived this entire experience. The tears and pain poured out of my body.

Finally, I let it flow. I went to sit near Pooch. He was having an emotional moment as well, and he gave me a long hug as I sobbed. Pooch asked if I was going to leave anything in the Temple. I took out a small picture of my mom, appreciated her joy-filled smile, and found the courage to walk over to the middle of the structure and attach the picture with a few notes I had written.

Pooch and I had one final embrace and left the temple. We watched the sunrise on a couch in the middle of the desert. I was exhausted, but my soul felt at ease. I had a new lightness to my being. I thought, “So this is what Burning Man is about.”

When the Temple was burned down on Sunday night, I released my pain, guilt, and disappointment.

If you’re scared to dance, just dance

I’ve been socially anxious about dancing since my youth. My awareness of this anxiety began with feeling out of place at middle school dances. It heightened in college as I found myself feeling uncomfortable on dance floors filled with drunk people having fun.

I just didn’t feel the music flow through my body. My natural discomfort with dancing intensified after a few small comments: “Don’t be so stiff.” or “Loosen up Cal.” And while these things were said in jest, they paralyzed me. Every time I ended up on a dance floor, I felt a disconcerting combination of panic and discomfort.

While everyone else seemed to be dancing the night away in bliss, I moved myself to a corner and had another drink. After I left my job in investment banking and started to travel, I decided to break this fear of dancing. My years of pain created a desire for change. I was tired of feeling like a loser while everyone else seemed to be letting go, relaxing, and having fun. I stopped tolerating my bullshit belief that I just “don’t like dancing.”

I knew that I had enjoyed dancing a few times, and I committed to figuring out how I could become more comfortable on a more regular basis. I knew from prior experiences overcoming my fears that I needed to tackle my anxieties head-on. I needed to dig deep into the source of my discomfort and expose myself to uncomfortable situations. On the other side of that hard work would be a guy who enjoyed dancing.

Two practices helped me begin to tackle my fear of dancing. First, I danced in places where I didn’t know anyone. While traveling abroad, I often found myself on dance floors where I didn’t know anyone. In this context, my fear of being judged went down, and I was able to safely experiment with dancing in my own way and at my own pace.

Second, I began closing my eyes while dancing. This practice helped me bring the music from my mind to my body. In listening deeply to the music, I was able to loosen up and begin to move my body to the rhythm of the beats. It probably looks weird when I do this, but it helps me get going if I’m a little stiff and self-conscious.

Finally, I sealed the deal on my years of work after doing a few ecstatic dance sessions at Burning Man. Ecstatic dance is a free-for-all dance practice in which you move authentically to tribal and electro beats. I tried it for the first time this summer in New York, and I did it twice more at Burning Man.

Ecstatic dance has been the most helpful part of my journey to finding comfort and joy in dancing. During the practice, you just move to the beat of your own drum for an hour. It’s liberating.

I left Burning Man with the worst of my social anxiety about dancing behind me. It’s been a lot of challenging work, but it’s been well worth the newfound lightness and joy I find through dancing.

Intimacy is a journey, not a destination.

“Intimacy is the capacity to be rather weird with someone – and finding that that’s ok with them.” – Alain de Botton After a slow start to the morning, Pooch and I sat in our dusty tent:

Me: “Hey Pooch, you want to go to an intimacy workshop?” Pooch: “Let’s do it.”

We mounted our bicycles and headed to the camp hosting the workshop. As we approached, we saw a group of 100 participants. Apparently, lots of people are curious about understanding the whole intimacy thing.

The workshop leaders kicked off the session: “Thank you for coming. We’re going to start with a brief demonstration. Pay close attention, and then we’ll do some group activities.”

The two male leaders gazed into each other’s eyes in silence. Slowly, they moved closer to one another. One guy lightly touched the other’s face. Silence and tension pierced the room as they inched even closer, never breaking the deep gaze. An electrifying kiss ensued, and everyone applauded. I thought, “Holy shit. That’s what intimacy looks like.”

The intensity of the experience increased as we practiced the same exercise with complete strangers. The workshop leaders encouraged us to slow down, use our eyes, play, and sit in the tension we were consciously building. I had never been exposed to intimacy in such a direct and powerful way.

Reflecting on the experience, I thought about how easy it is to get wrapped up in the hyper-speed and de-personalization of our tech-enabled world. I walked away ready to slow down, look people in the eyes, give longer hugs, and more fully appreciate the people in my presence.

If you want to experience this feeling, you don’t need to go to Burning Man or kiss strangers. Start by picking a friend you’re comfortable with. Then, commit to looking into each other’s eyes for three minutes. Pay attention to how you feel during the experience. Try to synchronize your breathing with theirs. Observe how their eyes change as the time passes.

Debrief with one another afterward. This is a powerful exercise. Get started.

The verdict on Burning Man

All the Burners I’ve met said that you have the Burning Man experience that you need, not the one you expect. And although I’m cautious of the “Burnier than thou” mentality, I think this is true. I went out to the desert with the intention of being present and experiencing something unique. I did just that and left feeling calm, centered, and confident.

I came away understanding more about the depth of intimacy. I came away feeling more at ease about the loss of my mom. And I came away ready to storm dance floors across the world with a spirit of joy. I still don’t know what Burning Man is, but I’ll be going back next year.

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