The Burn Mentality & Its Life Lessons

Burning Man 2013 Effigy

Burning Man 2013 Effigy

If you don’t know what a burn is, then you’re not alone. It’s not a new phenomenon, but it is one that has gotten more popular in the recent decade. The burn culture and mentality are relatively new concepts to me, but the basic principles are not radical. I first was introduced to it when a few friends of mine posted some photos of Burning Man in 2009. For the next 5 years, I heard about it here and there, but never really understood the point of going to a festival without music. Bonaroo, I could understand; Woodstock, I could understand; but a burn? What was that?

One day in 2014, my friend begged my husband and me to go to the Euphoria burn in Georgia. The proper custom for going to a burn is to be invited. My friend did more than that and actually bought us tickets. I was skeptical because I didn’t understand the point of going to “some hippy festival” and getting all dirty, when there was no music to listen to. I had done irresponsible things for years, but now I was focusing on my career. I had packed away all my “weird” clothes and traded them in for a Coach purse, because that categorized me as a typical, middle class, up and coming professional. Despite my skepticism, my husband and I went. We even convinced my brother to tag along as well. My friend talked about the experience explaining that it was a highly spiritual environment and because of that, I went. I suppose I realized I had a lot of questions about myself that I needed answering. I am forever grateful to my friend for pushing us all out of our comfort zones. By doing that, she changed our lives.

You might be asking yourself, what’s the difference between a burn and a festival? You camp at a burn, just like you do at a music festival. You dress however you want at a burn, as you do at a festival. People do psychedelic drugs and have a blast at burns, just like at festivals. However, a burn is not a concert. At concerts, many people do drugs to escape reality or other people. At burns, since people are encouraged to seek connections with others, the drugs have the opposite effect: they bring people together. Everyone is searching. At burns, you make connections with yourself, connections with others and connections with the universe. This kind of openness allows people to understand the true sense of who they really are. The principles of the burn allow all facades to be stripped from your being, leaving you with the raw, the real and the authentic. This means that each friend you make at the burn is instantly more connected with you than a friend you would make in “real life”.  This authenticity and “realness” leads to connections that leave you feeling elated, floating, calm and centered for weeks and weeks after a burn. I don’t know of any other event that leaves such a lingering trace on your life as a burn – even an epic vacation.

Burns are life-changers and the burn mentality is a way of life for many people. When you agree to participate, you agree to the mentality. Being at a burn means you are the entertainment. This is radically different from other events involving collective groups of people. Weddings, music festivals, football games, theater performances and many other events have spectators and audience.  Burns are particularly interesting because at a burn, YOU are the event. As burners, we are expected to participate fully so as to provide for a collective joyous experience for all.  We practice the radical giving of love and affection without expecting sex in return. We do not introduce ourselves with handshakes, but rather with hugs.  Unsolicited back rubs are generally well received (although you should always ask for consent).

Burning Man Arial View

The most famous burn is called “Burning Man” which takes place in the United States every year ( Directly lifted from Wikipedia we can learn that, “Burning Man is a week-long annual event that began in San Francisco’s Baker Beach and migrated to the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada.  The event begins on the last Monday in August, and ends on the first Monday in September, which coincides with the American Labor Day holiday. It takes its name from the ritual burning of a large wooden effigy, which is set alight on Saturday evening. The event is described as an experiment in community, art, radical self-expression, and radical self-reliance.  Burning Man is organized by Black Rock City, LLC and has been running since 1986. In 2010, 51,515 people attended Burning Man. 2011 attendance was capped at 50,000 participants and the event sold out on July 24.”

The burning of the effigy on Saturday night is the main event. When participants first arrive on site, they are able to visit the effigy, climb on it, draw on it, do or leave their artwork on it or any other spiritual artifacts. This begins the process of giving meaning to a symbol that we will later use to cleanse our spirits and start over again. We use the healing properties of fire to cleanse our bodies, minds and souls from the negativity, pain and sadness that are constantly present in our daily lives. Fire has been used by human civilizations for various reasons since the Paleolithic era. When we connect with each other through fire, we are channeling an ancient ritual that is bigger than the sum of our collective consciousness. It is common to burn effigies as an act of protest. In our case, we are protesting certain aspects of our “real life” that are unchangeable. We protest the commercialism, greed, violence, lack of consciousness, hate, pollution, fear, sadness and pain that we see daily. We protest “normal”. We protest “the Man”. Many camps begin to set up on Wednesday, creating a lot of build up for the Saturday night event. Most people choose their clothing with care as to reflect what they want out of the ritual because when the effigy is burned, so are our pasts. This world lacks spirituality and in place of it, religion is shoved down the throats of the masses. This forced fake spirituality causes people to go numb and start living life as if it were on autopilot. When we burn the effigy, we can finally wake up.

Alchemy Burn, Georgia, 2014

The burns in Georgia are mirrored after this famous burn in Nevada. The principles are the same and the idea and feel of it are the same. Because of the scale and climate, Burning Man is considered to be a more extreme event. The weather in Georgia during the spring and the fall can be tough, but it is nothing compared to the scorching desert and high winds of Black Rock City. Despite the location of the burn, all burns adhere to the 10 basic principles. I will explain each of them to you and my experience integrating them into my life. They must all be employed together and burn participants are responsible for making sure that others adhere to them. In fact, making sure people follow the principles is a principle itself! Brilliant!

The first principle of Burning Man, which you also find at burns around the nation, is Radical Inclusion. Radical inclusion simply means that no prerequisites exist in order to participate in the burn. Personally, I find this principle extremely comforting. I was the subject of a lot of bullying in elementary, middle and high school and I always felt like an outsider and a “weirdo”. I would think I was part of a group just to turn around and discover they had been messing with me; doing things like inviting me to places that no one else shows up at. I have never felt truly included in any group: until I came to a burn. Here, I didn’t feel excluded from any group. That to me is radical. I embrace this radical inclusion of others and the beauty it brings. You can be anything from naked, to clothed, wearing a weird hat, or bald, saying weird things, barking like a dog, howling like a wolf, cooing like a dove or completely out of your mind on psychedelics. Everyone is included and welcome. There is something healing about the first principle of the burn.

The second principle is Gifting. The burns are devoted to acts of gift giving because the value of a gift is unconditional.  This does not mean you must exchange the gift for something of equal value. You are simply encouraged to give away things and be comfortable receiving gifts in return. Bartering is largely discouraged and burners are encouraged to give gifts freely to one another unconditionally. That may sound ridiculous, but it is not. Have you ever had a stranger give you a handmade gift, asking for absolutely nothing in return? What about tea, food, water, clothing, time, massages, earrings, poems or love? And doing it simply out of the pure joy of life? By giving and receiving gifts freely, the participants are reminded of their own self-worth as well as that of others. When you receive so much, you are inspired to also gift back to the community in return. The contagious spirit is electric and that is why people walk around at these events feeling elated and incredibly valuable.

Camp Incendia at Alchemy, Georgia 2014

The third principle is Decommodification. This means that no cash transactions are permitted between attendees of the burn. If you need something from someone, you’re going to have to use your charming powers of persuasion to get it or you won’t get anything. Money doesn’t matter here and you can’t buy anything. I cannot tell you how freeing that is in and of itself. Actually I prefer the idea of our burns to that of Burning Man, because at our Georgia burns you cannot even buy ice or coffee. I can easily go four or five days without seeing any cash or credit cards. Heck, most of us purposely lose our wallets, keys and cell phones on the first day of the burn. No one even mentions money, prices or paying your fair share. Your ticket pays for the event space, the porta potties and the emergency staff on hand. Nothing else is able to be bought unless you leave the property. When everyone is stripped of monetary worth, it suddenly becomes possible for you to see them for their true worth. When you see someone for who they are, then real connections are possible between the two of you.

The fourth principle is Radical Self-Reliance. At the burns, participants are encouraged to discover, exercise and rely on their inner and outer resources. Everyone is expected to be responsible for their own sustenance. In my experience, packing all that I will need for a four or five day camping trip is very humbling. It makes me realize how much actual shit I need to stay alive, and by hauling all my trash back out as I leave, I am keenly aware of my carbon footprint. Brushing my teeth over a bush makes me think about the type of toothpaste I’m using and washing my dishes in the grass makes me reconsider using that bottle of industrial cleaning solution. These are things that I personally am not as aware of in my regular life. Realizing how many possessions you “need” to survive allows you to take a moment and reflect on what really matters. When the weather gets tough, and your clothes, shoes and tent are all put to the test, you generally find that you never needed half of it. All you really need is one or two pairs of shoes, one coat, one or two shirts, some versatile pants, and not nearly as much food and way more water than you ever expected. This allows you to return to your “old life” appreciating clean, running water and roofs that don’t leak. It is important to keep in mind that if you combine the principle of gifting freely with the principle of radical self-reliance, some people confuse that with radical self-entitlement, which is not one of the ten principles. You need to bring what you will require to stay alive and happy. If you don’t bring water, don’t expect someone else to provide it for you. If you don’t bring drugs, don’t expect to get high. If you take the time to make true connections with people, you will have everything you need in abundance. You only have to open yourself up and share all of you to receive everything in return.

The fifth principle is Radical Self-Expression. This principle pushes you to the very edges of your being. It requires and demands authenticity from you so that you may express yourself to the fullest extent. The first burn that I went to, I didn’t wear a whole lot of “silly” things because I felt “silly” doing it. I mean, yeah, other people could walk around in pajamas with feet or hats right out of a Doctor Seuss book, but I felt like I was faking it if I wore it. Little did I understand how much of my child-like playfulness I was repressing. At my second burn, Alchemy in 2014, I felt more encouraged to do things that were “silly” and in order to reach that part of my soul, I had to channel my inner child. I remembered playing dress up as a child and absolutely loving it. Why had I stopped? By wearing literally any object of clothing exactly as I wanted to, not as society tells us to, I felt freer than if I could fly. When I truly asked my body what it wanted to wear, I got some very interesting answers. For a certain hour or two, the answer might be “absolutely nothing!” while only minutes later, I would decide to put on my corset from the renaissance festival.  By turning myself over to the spirit of the burn, the universe and my conscience, I could listen to what my body really wanted. In this way, I was able to allow my exterior to reflect my interior.  The beauty of radical self-expression is that it includes people and camps. No one, other than the individual or a collaborating group, can determine its content. The creativity at burns is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient. The event is clothing-optional and public nudity is common, though not practiced by the majority.

The ceiling at Incendia, one of the theme camps at this year’s Alchemy burn 2014, Georgia.

The sixth principle is that of Communal Effort. The burn communities value the creative cooperation and collaboration of all participants. They take great care in producing, promoting and protecting social networks, public spaces, works of art and methods of communication that support this interaction. Everyone is expected to help out, whether that be helping your neighbor with his tent or doing a volunteer shift. We come together to make a community, so we must all participate fairly, freely and generously. Basically, this principle is the “Don’t be a lazy asshole!” principle. If you see someone in need, you should help them. We protect our spaces – physical and metaphorical ones.

The seventh principle is that of Civic Responsibility. We value a civil society. Really, who doesn’t? At the burns, community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. That means that you’re responsible for making sure people don’t get too near your fire-twirling station or hurt themselves on your hanging rings or silks. All burn participants are also responsible for making sure their camps and actions are in accordance with the local, state and federal laws. Even though there isn’t a police force patrolling, we collectively agree to maintain order amongst ourselves.

I absolutely love the eighth principle, which is Leave No Trace. This is a thoughtful form of “non-pollutionary tactics”. All the burn participants are expected to respect the environment and the land that we have been so generously given to burn on. You pick up your trash: all of it. Organic and inorganic. Of course you know your beer can is trash, but do you know what else is?  Yes, your grapes are trash. They leave a trace. Yes, your ashes are trash. They leave a trace. Keep them in a tin. At all burns, we must be committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. At every single juncture, we clean up after ourselves. We burn our fires above ground. We haul our entire trash collection and recycling home, and we never put non-human waste into the porta potties.  Not only do we erase the evidence of our presence, we strive to leave such places in a better state than when we found them. We pick up MOOP (Matter Out Of Place) everywhere we go. We also jokingly call each other out as MOOPers when we get too carried away with the good vibes and leave our shoes or clothes lying around the campsite.

The ninth principle is that of Participation. This is where you realize that you are the event. It’s humbling and heartwarming. The community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart. People are encouraged to participate, rather than observe. When the effigy burns on Saturday night, if there is to be an accompanying drum circle, it happens organically. No one counts on entertainment unless they plan to be the entertainment. You get what you give and increased participation will mean an increased joyous experience. I have read that at Burning Man, there are “plug-and-play” camps where the participants just pay and show up, their RVs stocked for them and their bikes decorated with lights and streamers. In my opinion, this is in direct contrast to the idea of participation and I’m very glad I did not see that at the Georgia burns. Everyone participated and there were no spectators.  We were the event.

And the tenth and last principle is that of Immediacy. An immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in the burn culture. It is the principle that I am most grateful for and the one that has changed my life the most. As burn participants, we seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves. The goal is to break down the obstacles that prevent us from seeing the reality of those around us. By participating in the society, we are more able to connect with the natural word and exceed human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience. This is a very spiritual principle and one that not everyone embraces. I believe that in order to achieve the true immediacy, you must surrender yourself fully to the universe. Only then will you see the connections that bind us all together as one and be able to recognize your inner self.

Phoenix rising from the ashes

Theme camps are usually a collective of people representing themselves under a single identity. Theme camps form to create an atmosphere that their group envisioned. The camp that I now belong to is called the Phoenix Nest and as any good theme camp, they have a motto that helps the all phoenixes focus on the central theme for our camp: personal transformation. The center of our camp is the Egg, which is a structure that we build on site. The base is pentagonal and 8 foot wooden beams extend up at 60 degree angles towards the edge of the ceiling. They are met with horizontal beams that complete the first 10 triangles. Above the first 10 triangles, the roof forms – made out of 5 more equilateral triangles. All these angles and beams create 15 gaps that all contain 8 foot equilateral triangles inside of them. We then cover the Egg in tarps to keep the rain and wind out. There is one door which we shroud with sheer cloth. On the wall opposite the front door, we have a beautiful decorative tapestry that pays tribute to Native American art. Below that is our altar where we have candles, incense and sage. There is more artwork on the walls and strewn all over the floor are mounds of pillows and blankets. From the ceiling hangs a huge metal chain, fastened a strong carabineer that suspends a giant ring called a Lyra.


The Egg of the Phoenix Nest, undressed

People who visit our Egg are encouraged to kick off their shoes and get cozy. Our camp welcomes meditation, back rubs, cuddle puddles, long talks, intimate conversations, crying, sharing and comforting. It’s a safe place that people can come if they are overwhelmed during the burn. For us who camp next to it, it’s a source of strength and stability. In providing and maintaining tranquility at camp, we are able to maintain it within ourselves. This is incredibly important for seeking personal, spiritual and emotional transformations.

I didn’t read the phoenix nest motto until after I had returned from Alchemy in 2014. Now that I have, I know that I truly belong in this group. I thank each and every member of the Phoenix Nest for being so welcoming and embracing of the real me: all of it. Because of them, I am reborn.

To my Phoeni, I say: “This past weekend, I opened myself up to both my light and my darkness. I embraced the darkness in the most extreme of circumstances and by embracing the darkness that surrounded and enveloped me, I was able to die and be born again. I committed myself to being fully present for my own transformation and did not run when it became difficult, painful or sad. I protected the egg and our fire circle with my energy, intention and love so that it could remain a beautiful holding space for the transformation of my fellow phoenix. I did not judge my fellow phoenix campers, nor did I judge any of our visitors. I own the reactions that I had in response to the actions of others. Not only did I own that, but I owned my joy, my fear, my love, my anger and my life experiences. By understanding all of this, I embraced the rise and fall of my own spiritual journey, so that I may rise from the ashes again and again and again”[1].

You’ll never know what it’s like to go to a burn unless you go to a burn. But if you want a general sense of how participation, love, collaboration and art work in these situations, this is one of my favorite videos from Burning Man:


I am a Phoenix.

I open up to both my light and my darkness.

I am committed to being fully present for my own transformation & to holding space for the transformation of my fellow phoenix.

I release all judgment of the experience of others & acknowledge that any emotion I experience as a result of another’s action is purely my own.

I own my joy
I own my fear
I own my love
I own my anger
I own the unique and well-rounded story
that is my life’s experience.

It is through this understanding that I embrace both the rise and fall of my own journey, so that we all may rise from the ashes over and over again.


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