For an event of its size, Burning Man has very few rules. It is a pretty successful experiment in letting people set their own limits, exercise their judgement, and govern themselves. There are however, ten principles – not commandments, but rather a reflection of the community at Burning Man and an integral part of what Burning Man is, at its core.
I want to share the ten principles here as well as my thoughts on them and how well I personally feel that I embodied them – a Burner’s report card, if you will. I spent a lot of time reflecting on the principles both in Black Rock City and since my return. Many of them have almost been like New Year’s resolutions to me, and left a clear path of change in their wake.
As you will see by the volume of text to follow, I felt most moved by the principles of radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, and leaving no trace. The text in italics is part of Burning Man’s official explanations of the principles, and what follows are my own musings.
1. Radical Inclusion
Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
One thing I found interesting is that — in a place where the average person might have blue hair and genital tattoos that you can most definitely visually confirm due to their lack of pants — the people that we as a community needed to be reminded to be radically inclusive of were very different from those you might need to be reminded to be radically inclusive of in the “default world,” as Burners call it. In Black Rock City, Radical inclusion was invoked when reminding Burners to be welcoming, rather than hostile, to law enforcement on site, and once again to remind Burners that P. Diddy’s attendance was not the sign of the Burn-pocalypse.
I struggled with my thoughts on radical inclusion – it can be either a beautiful path to an open heart, or a great socially-acceptable excuse to dismiss normal boundaries and hug a person who is sending you very clear social signals that they do not, in fact, want a hug.
On one hand, I embraced radical inclusion and that everyone’s burn was as important as mine. As someone who used to brazenly call 311 the second my neighbors fired up their 4am drum circle, I was surprised how easily I adapted. If someone was blasting death metal while I was trying to do meditative yoga or circus tunes when I wished to sleep – no big deal! I brought ear plugs! You do you! It came naturally in Black Rock City.
On the other hand, I occasionally felt that the principle of radical inclusion was being taken advantage of. Late one night while walking home with a few friends, we were approached by a young guy who we warmly welcomed. As we offered our gift of Extra Joss energy powder, which I had brought from Indonesia, his side of the conversation turned more leering. Had I been home in New York I would have turned on my heel and walked away without another word. But it was Burning Man, and so we kept smiling. Part of me felt he was enjoying watching us struggle to maintain radical inclusion while also sending clear social signals that we were uncomfortable. It devolved to him screaming graphic sexual threats at us as we finally walked away. So yeah. I would like to radically include that guy with a firm slap across the face! Not only was he a jerk, he took advantage of one of the purest principles of Burning Man to further his jerkiness.
I struggle with where to draw the line with radical inclusion, but it has undoubtedly had a positive effect on me in reminding me to be kind, connected and open to each person I come into contact with, every day.
Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.
I think gifting was my favorite principle. I was raised by a family of fiercely generous spirits and showing others hospitality and generosity is deeply important to me. And yet I still managed to be blown away by the kindness and seemingly boundless generosity shown to me by total strangers. Nothing is allowed to be sold at Burning Man – ice and coffee aside – and so goods and services are given freely, without expectation of anything in return. Whether I was having my bike tire tube replaced by a mechanic who had set up a temporary shop around the corner from my camp or being handed a fancy cocktail by a smiling mixologist in a pop up bar or getting a much needed massage inside a yurt, people were pouring their skills and gifts and resources into making sure that 67,999 strangers had a comfortable, safe, fun and enlightening week in the desert. And they asked only for a smile in return. These were radical acts of generosity, and radical acts of kindness.
While it is a utopian idea that admittedly has very little application in the real world, I enjoyed this short-lived Eden where everyone contributed what they could or what they enjoyed, be it providing haircuts or performing acupuncture or giving lectures on the importance of human touch or handing out frozen bananas. Wouldn’t that be a beautiful way to live? To do what our individual hearts and minds are best suited for, regardless of a paycheck?
Of course, there is a point where the system fails. To my knowledge, no one offers to clean the porta potties – that’s a paid position performed by contracted employees.
I started the week in a fairly good place in terms of gifting – it is probably the principle that comes the most naturally to me. Yet Burning Man did inspire me to take it to the next level. To be radically generous. On one quiet afternoon I layed in the temple and wrote a list of three concrete ways in which I can be a more generous, community oriented person. I have started to implement them and it has been a really positive change.
Our community seeks to create environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.
I can’t tell you how inspired I was by the complete lack of commerce and advertising at Burning Man. I spend an unusual amount of time thinking about consumerism and it’s place in my life and our society, so I was just amazed by the lack of it I experienced this week. What an inspiration to live in an — albeit temporary — society where not an iota of attention is payed to the label on a piece of clothing, the make of a vehicle, or the price tag of anything.
It’s a difficult principle to bring into the other 51 weeks of the year. Yet Burning Man was a precious reminder to collect experiences rather than stuff, and to love people rather than things.
4. Radical Self-Reliance
Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.
In terms of physical self-reliance, I aced it. I had more food than I could eat, and enough water that I could offer our extra gallons to those that started hanging out “Need H2O!” signs outside their camps midweek. I even had a medical kit, and an overflowing box of earplugs, and those little sticky things you put on blisters.
And yet in terms of emotional self reliance, I floundered. I am used to being a very independent person – you kind of have to be to do what I do for a living! So imagine how frustrated I was to realize that on this particular week, I really needed people. And a lot of those people weren’t there for me in the way I wanted them to be. I’m going to write more about this in an upcoming post, but suffice it to say, I didn’t fully exercise radical self-reliance. And you know what? I think there is a limit to it. Sometimes, people need other people – in fact, many of the other Burning Man principles speak to this. I found that paradox very challenging to reconcile. This is a principle I hope to focus on in future burns.
5. Radical Self-Expression
Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. It is offered as a gift to others.
Other than bringing a suitcase full of costumes, I’m not really sure how to evaluate my participation level here. I mean, I felt I was properly expressing myself, but was I doing it radically?! Okay, I’m clearly not taking this one too seriously.
I think this is hard for me to measure because I don’t feel expression is something I struggle with. I mean, I come on here a couple times a week and radically express myself to the tune of about 2,000 words. Nailed it!
6. Communal Effort
We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support cooperation and collaboration.
Financially, I contributed to my camp’s art car and I put in a – admittedly tiny – amount of time contributing to the vehicle’s set up and tear down. But that’s pretty skimpy compared to what many folks at Burning Man put in.
In the future I would like to volunteer part of my week to being a more contributing member of Black Rock City.
7. Civic Responsibility
We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants.
I had a hard time defining civic responsibility in practical terms, so I did some research. The best definition I found was this: civic responsibility is about leaving communities in better condition than we found them. In my mind this really ties into Communal Effort, above.
While this is a more subtle principle for me, I think I did it justice. We followed the speed limits, fixed our MOOP violations, and heeded requests from BMORG (Burning Man Organization). When I got home I filled out the census. Sign me up for jury duty. (Actually, I would totally love to sit on a Burner jury.)
8. Leaving No Trace
Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.
The leave no trace aspect of the event was a huge wake up call for me. Being forced to live with every scrap of garbage you produce for a week is enlightening. I found my mind often wandering to composting, recycling, and ways in which to reduce the amount of trash I create and packaging I use. Many of these things are difficult with my current lifestyle, but I hope to implement many of them – finding new homes for things I no longer need rather than throwing them in the trash, buying used rather than new when I do need something (or even better, sharing resources with others or making do with what I already have), eliminating my use of single-use items, and simply living with less.
Since my return I have recommitted to living green. I finally ordered the gimmicky collapsible tupperware I’ve been talking about for ages to reduce the takeaway containers I get when traveling, I’ve been fiendishly recycling, and I’ve been carrying my reusable to-go cup everywhere and asking to get my Diet Cokes in that instead of paper cups (and sometime Chipotle gives me a free soda in exchange – score!) These changes may only have a microscopically positive effect on the Earth, but you know what? They have an unbelievable positive effect on me.
We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play.
My first instinct is always to sit back and observe before I jump in. And I think I did just that this year. I spent a lot of time observing, reflecting, and eventually brainstorming on ways I’d like to be a more active participant in future burns (ie. volunteering, creating a piece of ocean-inspired art, starting a travel-themed camp, etc.)
Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world.
Immediacy was undoubtedly the principle I most struggled with. My brain seems to fire on ten thousand cylinders and quieting it to allow me to live in the moment is one of my greatest challenges. I knew it before, but Burning Man really highlighted it for me — I am on a one-way train to burnout with my current lifestyle. I was so exhausted by what had come right before it and the thought of what was soon after that I spent a lot of the week feeling overwhelmed and unable to just live in the moment. It was a much-needed, and very firm slap across the face. The biggest change I would make for future burns would be to slow down my travel schedule beforehand and prepare not just physically, but emotionally.
Whether you’ve been to Burning Man or not,
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Ten Principles…
I love these founding principles and think it’s a great thing that someone (or a group of people?) have come up with trying to create a temporary utopia for thousands of people. I think society is too stringent on unspoken rules and regulations on how you should be in life or how you should perceive things. What I took from the Burning Man principles is mainly that life should exist without these unspoken rules and see what happens.
Again, definitely a event that’s now on my bucket list!
So glad to hear that, Sally! I found living with so few rules to be really interesting. It’s amazing how well people take care of themselves and each other, when you give them the chance.
Those are some pretty high-handed principles! All worth following, and what an interesting way to put them into action (Burning a…man). I hope everyone was able to take away as much as you did!
Ha, and don’t forget burning a temple the next day! To be honest I’m not 100% sure where all the burning really fits in 🙂
I think it’s amazing how an event of the size of Burning Man can be governed by only these ten principles – it gives me hope for humanity! I’m not sure which of these principles would be the hardest for me, but I’m assuming that the challenge lies in incorporating them into one’s lifestyle completely and radically and not just doing them superficially.
So true, Melanie. As you can see some of them came naturally to me, others were a true struggle, others I more or less ignored. It would be an interesting journey to track over several Burns!
I loved reading about the ten principles and your reflections on them. What a fantastic idea for a post! And as always, love the photos. It is such a photographic festival, I could look at your pics all day!!! Looking forward to the next one.
Thanks Sarah! I know this is a word-y, muse-y post and I wasn’t sure how it would be received. Appreciate your feedback!
I wonder if I knew the people giving away free acupuncture, because a lot of my classmates were obsessed with BM and would go and still go every year. Did you get any acupuncture? I get a lot of criticism from environmentalists when I tell them I’m a traveler, because they say that taking flights is one of the biggest ways to leave a dirty carbon footprint. I try my very best though to live as green as possible. Did you get any criticism when you told people you were a traveler?
I didn’t get any acupuncture, Andi! At least one camp where you could go to get it was called the HeeBeeGeeBee Healers, if that rings any bells! I didn’t get any blowback about the carbon footprint thing, more people were more interested to talk about the exchange of cultures, etc. Considering the travel it takes for just about ANYONE to get to Burning Man, you’d be pretty hypocritical to call someone else out on it 🙂
This was such an eye-opening post, Alex! I have known a few people who have gone to Burning Man before, but I admit that despite this, I knew next to nothing about the festival prior to reading your posts. It sounds like a really lovely experience and it was really fascinating to read through the 10 principles and your reflections on them. I know I would struggle with “immediacy” as well; I manage to be anywhere but here wherever I happen to find myself!
I am glad to hear I’m not the only one, Steph. The only two times I’ve found that I can occasionally “tune in” is when diving (works pretty well) or when doing yoga (works occasionally!)
Wow! This sounds like one special place. I hope I get the chance to go one day 🙂
I hope you do too! 🙂 Good luck!
Again, love this post. Thanks for really diving into what Burning Man is all about and changing the minds of a few prior non-believers! 😉 (hint: that’s me)
My pleasure! Thanks for having an open mind 🙂
Alex, I’ve really enjoyed your posts on Burning Man. Can’t wait for my first burn. Love the idea of a travel-themed camp. TBEX Black Rock City next year?
That would be amazing! 🙂
I have never come across a festival that has principles like that – or any principles for that matter. I love it that people mostly seem to stick to them too. Looks like a really special event. You made me really curious now.
I admit I haven’t been to many festivals but it was quite interesting to see one elevate itself above just a wild party. Such a cool experience.
Great post! Your writing is vivid, thoughtful, and honest – I always enjoy your updates. As some others have commented, I have never really thought much about Burning Man, but am now intrigued by it. Like you, I’m a great solo traveler (at ease on my own and in diverse cultures), but I wonder how I would fare in this environment; either way, it looks like such a unique event, I would love to experience it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Alex!
I encourage you to give it a try, Paul! It’s pretty unique… I have a feeling you might like it based on what you’ve said here 🙂
My favorite line from this:
“These changes may only have a microscopically positive effect on the Earth, but you know what? They have an unbelievable positive effect on me.”
I’ve never thought of that, even though I’ve felt it. Thank you for putting it to words!
Also, I absolutely support a travel-themed camp! Next year will be my first burn and I will gladly help with that!
Awesome post, Alex! Your whole BM series has been great for me. Best wishes to you!
Thanks Andy! A few more posts to come…
I just returned from a more localized burn in the Northeast which, while smaller than the Black Rock City burn, fully adheres to the 10 Principles and provides a very intimate burn for so many of us. If anybody wants to get a real sense of the 10 Principles in action, don’t feel you need to make the time (and cost) commitment to go all the way to Black Rock City (if you are from the East)…look for regional burns. Of course, going to Black Rock City one year will be like my Haj trip to Mecca for a Moslem, but all burns are beautiful things if you set your intention and go in with a fully open mine!!!
I was hoping to make it to the Northeast regional near my hometown of Albany, but ended up being out of the country. I will try again — I’d love to be part of a more intimate, small scale burn!
I found your posting while I was creating the ten principles welcome signs for our regional burn here in Ohio as part of the DPW team. I am so grateful that you took these to heart and shared this with the world. I loved the comments others left that showed how many people’s perception of Burning Man is far from what the event is really about. I hope you were (or will be) able to experience more burning man events! There are many great regionals here in the East, and around the world!
Hey Abie, thanks for this lovely comment! I’m signed up to my hometown’s regional burn group but as I travel internationally about eight months out of the year I’ve been yet to catch one so far. One of these days! I did just get back from my second spin around the playa and look forward to blogging about that once I’m done processing 🙂 Happy burn!
Alex, thank you so much for being vulnerable and sharing your experience here. I’m currently in process on writing a blog about the ten principles but haven’t finalized my thesis/intention on it. It’s really cool to see all the feedback you have gotten here from people who are not entirely in the know about the event and it’s culture. I believe my direction will now be catered toward educating those who aren’t familiar about Burning Man rather than mostly appealing to those that have been to Black Rock City. Thank you for the inspiration!
Thank YOU for reading, Vincent! 🙂 I love sharing my experiences at Burning Man, it’s fun to connect with both other Burners and those who are just curious about the festival and what it’s like to live it. Maybe see you on the Playa someday!
Hey Alex, well said! I have been a burner for 3 years now and the principles change and evolve for me. I am now remembering to radically include myself also, we are so focused on friends, art, theme camps, gifting etc, that we forget to take care of ourselves sometimes. Have great one!! Drink water! Happy Burn!!
That’s an awesome reminder and a great perspective, Pieter! I’ll be writing about my experiences at Midburn (the Israeli regional) soon — stay tuned!