From the dust we come, to the dust we must return.
“What the fuck, man? I just don’t see the point. Shit is just fucking… dusty.” My friend says to me as I pack my bags for the Playa. My thoughts echo his sentiment. What’s the point of coming together with 70,000 people in the middle of the desert to brave extreme conditions only to have a big party?
I gathered my things for Burning Man the festival that has called my name for years. I remember seeing an image of a buddhist monk sitting in conversation under an umbrella on the desert sand and something about that picture spoke to me. It told me of a place like no other where conversations about spiritual topics take place. The backdrop, a serene landscape unlike any other I’ve seen before, a blank canvas for the imagination to paint its soul. This backdrop is known to the Burning Man community as the playa for it resembles the sands of a beach.
Before arriving on the playa for my virgin burn I was told of the Black Rock Desert terrain. The dust of the playa is so fine that it gets into your clothing and does not come out. For someone like myself who anally dresses nice, this is a worry. My OCD self wonders how to keep things organized as entropy ensues. Vinegar needs to be applied daily to the skin to balance the ph levels as the dust is alkali. Scientifically speaking, I don’t know how this works or what it means, I just know you’re supposed to continually spray vinegar on shit. What a bother!
For this reason, I had this idea that the dust of the playa was not to be touched, it was toxic. I thought the less exposure, the better! I rolled up my windows driving in, and put on layers so no dust would touch me. I did what I could to prevent my skin from touching the dust of the playa. Needless to say, it was a lot of friggin work.
And so I underwent my journey through the dust. Many things happened to and through me during the course of my stay on the playa. I witnessed an unforgettable unfolding, which is new age for, “I saw some shit!” What I found is there is nothing but story on the playa. Strange coinciding events transpire in synchronous harmony to create experiences that are unique to each individual. Still, in the midst of all this I struggled to find my stride. Nights were difficult for me as I often found myself alone wishing to be with company. At times it felt like I couldn’t quite get aboard a train that was already moving. My experience on the last day there shifted things considerably and put it all in perspective.
Because of a work trip to Japan, I had to leave the playa early. Before parting I was called to visit the temple, a structure that stood at 12:00 on the clock that made up the map of Black Rock City (BRC). Beyond the temple is deep playa – the unknown, uncharted. To me, deep playa represents the heavens above and depths of the soul, beyond the reach of the mundane. As the wooden effigy known as, “the man” stands in the center of the clock and middle of time, the temple is the grand central station where one finds departure from the dusty earth to the deep cosmos. Pictures, photos, memories of loved ones line the temple walls as people reverently pass through.
And so I set out on a journey, leaving from my camp, Red Lightning. I passed the scarf draped tipis that formed the mandala and the looming domes on the Esplanade that played Android Jones’ Samskara and housed the DaVinci dialogues, for which I was invited to film. I peddled past the man at the center of BRC, who this year stood in Florence atop a structure modeled on the baptismal font in front of the Florentine Duomo. I know the building well as I’m accustomed to passing it on my daily commute when I teach in Florence, Italy.
I reached the road of lamp posts that led from the man to the temple and continued to peddle on when a voice inside of me very clearly and distinctly said, “Walk! One does not ride to the temple, but must approach by foot.” Far too often we zoom around life allowing our speed to deprive us of the journey. The steps of a well earned travel give as much meaning as the destination. “Walk” the voice repeated, “show reverence” and so I slowed my ascent, got off my bike and began my approach.
As I said above, ‘there is nothing but story on the playa’ and when you peddle past it you miss out. The first story I passed on the way to the temple was that of a deaf couple entering through a door along the walkway, which read above its frame “New Beginnings”. The couple poised to enter from the far-side of the door and were intending to walk through the door together when the woman, put her hands up to halt the action. “Wait, no. This isn’t the right way. Hold on, let’s do it a different way and enter from the other side.” All this was expressed in her actions and sign language. The beauty of their interaction and desire for a proper new beginning was clear and genuine.
Even though the couple were interacting with an art piece along the side of a road, I could tell that the ritual held meaning for them. Maybe, they had just finished a difficult phase in their relationship together, possibly even a separation. This ceremony of walking through a door in the middle of a desert was important to the couple, and the manner of which it played out particular to her. All this was conveyed in the way the two interacted with each other, no words needed to be spoken.
So, there I was witnessing this enjoyable story unfold and grinning from ear to ear. The man of the couple saw me smiling and signaled to me a thumbs up, a sort of, “How’s it going? You good?”. I gave him a thumbs up back and smiled. He then approached me and gave me a fierce hug. When I say fierce, I mean FIERCE. The type of love that is overpowering, wells up from a deep source and consumes. I can still feel the embrace. It was strong, powerful. The hug told me I was no longer a stranger, but somehow part of their story. For I, out of 70,000 people running around the playa was present at the very place and time that an important moment transpired.
The couple left and I proceeded onwards towards my destination. Shortly there after I was forced to stop as a train crossed my path. The art cars at Burning Man were of all sorts: trains, planes, boats, etc. On this train I saw people dancing and partying, one guy in the middle stood out. He was a young, possibly Puerto Rican, guy in the middle of the first car rocking a fur coat while dancing in an intoxicated reverie. What struck me about him was that he looked like he could have been a kid I grew up with in New York City. Not your typical burner type, which is predominantly white, he looked like he could have been off the block.
This guy, this papi, looks at me, gives me a nod and thumbs up on some, “Yeah, that’s right. I’m gettin my freak on. Wha?”
I loved it. To me it represented the liberation from the confines of a role. There exists many cultural barriers for a person of color to make it to the playa. One must put up with the stigma placed on them by society as well as culture, be it african american, latino or strict eastern parents, etc. I train Jiu Jitsu in a gym that is predominantly spanish and black. When my professor, who is black, heard I was going to Burning Man he laughed at me. To him, Burning Man is “that crazy white people shit”. And to tell the truth, it is… and it’s not.
Once the train passed my midst, it stopped to let a few passengers on. As the conductor was loading up the bikes of the new recruits I felt it… the temptation to ditch my plans and hop on the party train; take a ride and see where it goes. There are hundreds of art cars on the playa, all journeys without destination. It was a desire of mine to get on one and see where it took me. And so it gave me pause. This was finally my opportunity to hop aboard the train of Burning Man that somehow eluded me for most of my stay.
In scriptwriting, it is the job of the writer to place the protagonist in difficult dilemmas, a choice between conflicting desires. It is in the act of choosing that the audience gleans insight into the values of the character as each decision is goaded by one’s values. Since story pervades playa, every event is an opportunity to look into the mirror of the soul. All events hold meaning. In that moment, standing on the path to the temple, confronted with a choice to indulge my desire for party and adventure or heed the temples call, I saw my own value system that continually plays out in my life.
As I turned my head back towards the temple and began to move my feet in its direction tears welled up in my eyes. My purpose in life was so clear in that moment as was the reason why I often find myself alone. I am on a particular path, in sanskrit a marga. There is some deeper motivation that constantly calls me, some knowing that awaits. Sure, I hop on the party train everyone now and again and see where it takes me, but I always come back to this calling path for that is my life and my samskara, my inclination. Friends who dig astrology like to call it my Sun conjunct Saturn. Whatevs. It is what it is.
And so I walked. Each step taking me closer to my goal, the temple. While the playa danced with life and activity elsewhere and other travelers passed me by, I walked to my destination. But, nothing is ever easy, is it? Once committed to my path I was challenged and shit got real Dorothy, real quick. The wind began to pick up and dust began to blow. The path I was on soon became completely engulfed in a thick white cloud, a common occurrence on the playa known as a ‘white out’. BRC and all its 70,000 inhabitants disappeared and If I thought I was alone before I was wrong, for now I was completely isolated. I could barely make out a few feet in front of me. The wind blew so hard I lost all sense of direction.
But, I kept walking. What kept me on track during the white out was the lamp post which would appear every so often. Like a fun cliché, these posts were overt signs that I was on the right track. Left by benevolent souls, these posts guided me to where I was heading and appeared every so often as gentle reminders. “Keep going. Keep going.”
Then as if storyboarded by the best cinematographers in Hollywood, the clouds of dust parted to reveal the top of the temple looming forward like a beacon of hope. I had made it, I had arrived. After I parked my bike I entered into the sacred space. The vibration was already set and reverence in tune. For all over the playa was life, activity, dance and party, but here in this sanctuary people slowed down, they paused. People stood by walls littered with messages for loved ones passed and beheld photos, pictures, items of remembrance.
I walked peacefully along these corridors and entered the inner chamber where people sat in silent reverence. The feeling of this sacred space still resonates within me. People crying, some sitting still, silence pervading. All were touched. All brought the magic and were brought by it. The temple had no closed walls and this inner chamber was still outdoors. Dust on the ground, dust on everything and everyone.
In the very center of the inner chamber was an altar decorated with offerings and memories. A triangular needle pointed upwards from the floor and touched the tip of a triangular needle that hung from the ceiling in a meeting of earth and heaven. The beauty of this imagery was simple and zen yet evoked the awe and inspiration of Michelangelo’s sistine chapel.
It was here that I sat, here that I found my place in silence and felt the passion of the people around me: awe, wonder, desire for truth, love, the pain of loss, separation, the desire for union and connection. There was a still depth in that inner chamber. On the altar, someone had written: “to let go is to lift up.” I sat, completely covered in “toxic” dust from head to toe as the winds blew more on top of me but I closed my eyes and surrendered. I let go and lifted up to touch the needle hanging from the rafters. It was in my meditation that the purpose of the 8 day festival in the desert was revealed.
We are dust. All is dust. Literally every single thing in this world is created from stardust. In the end only stardust remains. We build structures, empires, dynasties, create roles for ourselves and order society, but it is all made from the same substance… dust. Like sandcastles standing on the edge of time, the structures we place faith in dissolve in the cosmic order, only dust remains. All is impermanent, all must go. This is why the man burns. Hold not onto any structure or order for it too shall become dust. The dust blows and we are blown with it. Lives touch lives, connections are made, but in the end there is only love, which remains.
When I open my eyes, I no longer saw a crazy festival, difficult to relate to. I saw people, living life and having experiences. It became very difficult from that point onwards not to look someone in the eye, be present and feel a person when talking to them. Of course, not everyone wants to connect in a deep way, a lot of people avoid eye contact. One of the first people I saw was a beautiful woman dressed up like a would-be-trophy-wife for Conan the Barbarian. I looked at her and she lowered her gaze. The type of woman, who possibly in her normal life of being a model is used to being looked at, but rarely ever seen.
I looked around for other people who were having the same heart opening experience I was having. They were there. I found them. Like looking for a sample to create a music loop out of or the perfect soundbite to drop onto an editing timeline, I intuitively and creatively found people with whom I had some story with. They just appeared and beamed at me a smile that would say in Dr. Seuss cadence, “I know and I know that you know that I know”. They would see me seeing them and immediately it was clear to both of us that there was an interaction for us to share, some experience of each other to be had.
I think its easy to see Burning Man as a massive party. Indeed it is, but there is something more that transfigures on the playa. When telling my mother about my Burning Man experience, she reminded me of Open Space Technology – a form of information sharing that grew out of the break room. For it’s the idea that most takeaways in a seminar are gained in the downtime. That is where the most powerful connections are made and pertinent conversations take place. I see Burning Man as that, a break from the mundane world and initiation into a super ordinary experience. Even though BRC is built around a clock, one enters into kairos time on the playa. Things happen when they are supposed to not when they are scheduled to.
It is in this break from chronological time (the time of the mundane world) that one is confronted with her/his shadow as in Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. The harsh environment of Black Rock Desert and it’s all pervading dust provide a formidable ordeal to reckon with. And it is through such confrontation that one gains the elixir of experience that is brought back to the mundane to heal a broken world. In the week after Burning Man, embers from the playa conflagrate social media. Tales of discovery, gifts and boons flicker in my news feed as people decompress their concentrated dose of the hero’s journey on the playa. My ember is the story just told, revealed to me through the dust of the playa.
Like reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Burning Man is a week long spiritual reminder of who we are. Meditating in the dust of the playa temple I was reminded of the naked sadhus of the East who are covered in ashes, a symbol of impermanence. Dagdhabiija in sanskrit means burnt seed – those that have been through the fire of experience and have no logs left to throw on it. And nirvana literally means ‘to blow out’. Once the fire is extinguished and the final flame left to flicker, no more experience to be had, the fire simply blows out. To let go is to lift up. To surrender is to put down the role and release the identity. In doing so one drops all burdens touches heaven and the sacred temple within.
There is no avoiding the dust for it pervades all and in fact is all. I love the etymological coincidence that the word ‘playa’ is close to the word ‘play’. For the playa is where we play our roles and enact our dramas. It is where the hindu concept of liila (divine play) transpires. All games are played, all roles are assumed, but they are just that… roles. Once the week ends and the man burns, people pack up and go home. Only dust remains.