Radical Self-Expression Abounds at Burning Man

"Let me entertain you!"

Burning Man is not just a wild party in the middle of the Black Rock Desert. There are deeper meanings. The Burning Man experience is a pathway to self-discovery and change. For many it has become a way of life, an elixir from post-modern suffering - a reprieve from loneliness, consumerism, alienation, fear, and meaningless gadgetry. Money is non-existent, as the transfer of goods and services is based on a gift economy. Mundane living is the default dimension. Burning Man is not a permanent place, nor is it intended to be. The notion of unending habitation has been the bane of most utopian groups - people simply do not stay. Burning Man is different; it is a state of mind. It is a rite of passage through the portals of creativity, self-reliance, kindness, and connection to community.

We rolled into the desert encampment of maybe 50,000 ‘burners' having no idea of what to expect. After cruising through colorful neighborhoods of theme camps, art installations, and bizarrely costumed inhabitants, we maneuvered our Dodge minivan between a few tents and an RV. The settlement was protected by a corral of bicycles adorned with flannel horse heads. Tom emerged as a Timothy Learyesque figure, grinning from the portal of his camper. "If you need something,  don't  ask...just come on in and help yourself...welcome to our family." He was a river guide and restaurateur in 'the other life'. During our entire stay, he maintained an unwavering stance of friendliness, good humor, and generosity. When I asked to help with one of his every-night dinners: "Just clear out of my way," said Tom, as he hastened to present my favorite beer.

I had never before been so graciously looked after by someone I did not yet know.

What was billed in my mind as "the best party I'd ever attend," turned out to be so. Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Germaine Greer, Ram Dass, Salvador Dali, Mama Cass, The Road Warriors, Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Timothy Leary, Federico Fellini, Jim Morrison, and their avatars, were all there - to name just a few.

I felt the buzz of hominid openness and the joy of spontaneous conversation. Almost from the get-go, I was smiling... no, grinning... noticeably happier than usual. I was savoring a precious glimpse at the hidden worlds of fantasy and longing of the fascinating personas in my midst.

the joy of creative self-expression

The desert was alive with mindful disinhibition. Some dressed as pirates, others ballerinas, there were men in skirts, and eloquently gowned women with parasols; others adorned themselves with animal ears whilst sporting matching tails. Some took on the accoutrements of biblical icons. A multitude paraded nearly naked in the noonday sun. There was also the Critical Tits Parade, aka Boobs on Bikes, featuring 1000 topless women gleefully cycling in unabashed solidarity.

The big grin is being around so many compatriots behaving a bit naughty, creative and nice - all at once!


The pièce de résistance was unbridled cycling on miles of high desert plain - no roads, only colorful celebrants, fantastic art installations, fantasy transporter vehicles, techno music, and friendly travelers.

The Burning Man Temple is a place of meditation and spiritual contemplation

cycling toward the temple

Participation invokes tolerance for intelligent diversity. Commitment to radical self-expression (look and act according to however you think and feel) is linked with appreciation and respect for the uniqueness of others. The Burning Man community encourages shared values and normative expectations for personal responsibility, active participation, reverence for nature, and altruism.

At the moment, probably more trash can be found on the moon than anything left behind by 50,000 or so pilgrims in Black Rock City. There is a covenant between the burner and community: Respect for the Sanctity of Fellow Inhabitants and the Land of Shared Encounter.

mutant vehicle

Burning Man

provides irrefutable evidence that under certain conditions large scale hedonic expression can occur without immediate harm. Alcohol and drugs are accessible in a sensually charged atmosphere, with few episodes of impropriety. More importantly, participants experience personality change after having completed the journey. The experiential transformation is encapsulated through French anthropologist Arnold Van Gannep's (1960) three stage model for a rite of passage:

• Separating from former status - usual roles in work, home, family and community;
Transition - a period of learning new customs and expectations;
Reintroduction - reentry into the community with a new status marked by a series of rituals and     standards of conduct.

Feeling the Fire of Burning Man Ablaze

Burning Man Ablaze

A multitude of "burners" return year after year. Affecting countless others, a growing number carry their personal transformation into their everyday lives. Masterfully embedded in a philosophy that promotes self-reliance, creative self-expression, personal growth, and altruism, Burning Man is immersion in a highly experiential environment, replete with unprecedented exotic, sensual, and fantasy images, set in a context of extreme humanism. It is a mind-blowing experiment in the formation of an alternative raison d'être. It calls for active participation in community life and on-going celebration of what humans can achieve.

Suggested Reading

Craving for Ecstasy and Natural Highs: A Positive Approach to Mood Alteration, H. Milkman and S. Sunderwirth, Sage Publications, Inc., 2010


About the Author

Harvey Milkman, Ph.D.

Dr. Harvey Milkman is professor of psychology at Metropolitan State College of Denver specializing in cognitive-behavioral approaches to mood alteration.

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