At the end of the summer I made my first pilgrimage to Burning Man. It had sat resolutely on my bucket list for a few years and finally it was happening.
The Burn has always appealed for a number of reasons. I love the values that emanate and encapsulate what it stands for – radical inclusion, self-sufficiency, expression, creativity, outrageousness, chaos, and counter-cultural rebelliousness, amongst others. It sticks two fingers up at mundane civility. It challenges adherence to stale norms. These, coupled with the extremity of its natural setting, make it one of the most adventurous, enticing events that exist. Something I just had to experience.
However, the reality was very different from the fantasy. Rather than enjoying the festival, I found myself despondent, lost and alone, exacerbated by the sensation that everyone around me seemed to be having the time of their lives.
Earlier this week back at home I went for a run over Clifton suspension bridge, only to be stopped by the police as someone had just jumped to their death. Whilst I was enjoying a deeply enriching autumnal evening, another person had ended their life. An extreme example, but a reminder that two people can experience the same moment in the same place in very, very different ways.
Burning Man was not all bad. In fact, I feel like it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my adult life. Months later, I’m still affected by what happened to me out there in the desert. I’m glad it was on my bucket list, as it taught me more than I could have imagined, in most unexpected ways.
This post is an attempt to capture some of that learning before – like the playa dust that I’m still shaking from luggage and clothing – it’s no longer perceptible.
But before I begin, a deep thank you to the friend who invited me to his camp and shared his tent with me. This post might sound unappreciative, or you might feel responsible for what happened to me. Don’t. My experience doesn’t reflect the extraordinary generosity and spectacle you and your team created. The responsibility is all mine. Secondly, to my friends who scooped me up at the end and, with oodles of love and warmth, nurtured me through the decompression. Thank you.
I made some interesting choices before the festival. I had a number of different offers to join camps, but none from people I know very well and so really, I was heading to this festival alone and, truth be told, I quite liked the idea. That should have been the first warning sign – I would never go to Glastonbury on my own!
Yet my life over the last decade, perhaps longer, has been one of the ‘lone wolf’. I have moved from country to country, business to business. I have transformed from someone who didn’t like to spend time alone, to someone who revels in it. My dependencies on people and life at home made traveling in my early years often painful and a discomfort. Yet I have become someone who can live on the other side of the world away from my family and friends and be happy, mostly. Before Burning Man I was proud of that transformation – I’d become self-sufficient. And in that independence, I felt powerful.
I believe that boarding school leaves a child detached long into adulthood, sometimes permanently. One learns to fend alone, away from family. During those years at school I never mastered the art – or perhaps never managed to feel comfortable in that aloneness, despite it being one of the things I was being unwittingly schooled in.
However, in later years I’d grown into it. The detachment became a useful armour. In San Francisco I’d lived in 10 different apartments and for a couple of years afterwards living out of a suitcase moving from country to country, working remotely and I loved it.
The entrepreneur’s way is one where you are forced to plough a lone furrow and I have done that on three continents. My independence has also become a defining feature of my love life – I have remained single for most of my adult years and, although it’s hard to understand what the alternatives might have been had I been more open, it’s felt right. Or at least no-one has convinced me otherwise… yet.
Others who’ve been to the armour-building world that is boarding school don’t seem to have taken such a radical approach to their independence. And whilst I have had moments of missing and wondering why I have shied away from opportunities to remedy this, I have been true to myself – even despite societal pressure and regularly attending events where dozens of my friends are all partnered up, without exception. It’s been a part of my growing. An analysis of my love life would be worth a separate post, or posts, but I digress.
This independent Tom is the person that ventured out to Burning Man – the man who’d learned to fend for himself. The powerful, independent being that had grown out of my lonely, bullied and troubled youth. (I don’t describe it this way to try to attract sympathy – after all, whose youth is not troubled?)
I felt ready to be able to dip in and out of the various parties, experiences and opportunities that the festival offered. I may be over-analysing but it was almost as if this was a chance to put that independence to the ultimate test… and I crumbled.
I’ve never really believed in Damascene moments, but this is as close as I’ve been to that, or a breakdown. Somehow the searing desert light shone a spotlight on many of the choices that I’d been making over the years and pierced deep into my hardened heart. I found myself in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been – the Temple at Burning Man – weeping. Anyone who’s been will attest to the extraordinary emotion that this remarkable place can induce. Yet, whilst others mourned for lost lovers, family and friends. I mourned the years without deep human connection in which I had slowly become protected against the world. It was all me, me, me – something again that the amour had hardened and encased.
In the desert, some combination of events led me to a place where my armour was removed and I, feeling naked without it, had the shit kicked out of me just when self-reliance was most needed.
I don’t really feel the need to go into much more detail regarding specific events. In fact, nothing particularly drastic happened. A clutch of moments. Wandering off into the uninhabited areas of wide expanse feeling deeply alone. Battling through dust storms and playa dust. Climbing statues and art installations. Riding art cars. ‘Sleeping’ (the use of inverted commas appropriate given I was 15 meters from a $160,000 sound system) for 24 hours solid to try to escape. Attempting to engage in conversations, but lacking in confidence so that, despite the radical inclusion, I couldn’t click and found myself regularly misconnecting. Heading off to a sunset party and finding the music, drinking and cavorting so predictable and so boring. I realized that over the years I had been to hundreds of bars and clubs pursuing cool, yet enjoyed very few. Alongside love, I’d like to write another post about the pursuit of cool and how unhappy it makes so many people.
Perhaps the overwhelming feeling was that, despite the fact Burning Man was new and many of the countries and adventures I’d been on were too, I was taking the same me on each of those journeys. Deep within the amour that once protected me, I had become less and less open to what was really happening, instead shielded by that disconnectedness. You can travel the world and meet extraordinary people, but if ones armour is too thick, you see and experience very little of it.
The realization that hit home was that life was about people, love, connection and being open. I know this already – I have read and acknowledged it a thousands times – but I have never really felt it like this before. Like many things, until you experience something emotively, knowledge remains conceptual.
Burning Man felt pivotal. I’m proud of the independent man that I’ve come to be. As a (sometimes too) sensitive, emotive, empathetic person – my independence had been hard won. But I hadn’t realized how resolute it had become, nor that the armour, that would have been far more valuable in my youth, had started doing much more harm than good.
It feels that Burning Man was the apex of that journey for independence. Now to turn back.
It will take time… little, gentle steps in a new direction. Personalities are like shipping tankers – they take a long time to turn around. Even in the last few months, I’ve slipped back into old ways. But… now I have new knowledge this breeds new power. I’ve noticed there’s strength in vulnerability and noticing the armour and that it is long past its sell-by-date, and trying to keep noticing it, is the first step.
Sadly, as people get older, I notice they often start to become less and less connected to people – the clichéd middle-aged man who over works and has few friends to confide in as they retreat into their family, work and responsibilities.
It seems I am swimming against the current, again… but so be it.
I’m ready to begin a return journey… to people, to connection and to vulnerability and back to Burning Man one day with a different agenda.