Wednesday, September 9, 2015

What I learned from Burning Man

Burning Man is often described as a giant party in the desert. But I’ve also seen it described as “part entertainment, part therapy” and I think that description is much more accurate, at least for my own experience. Burning Man was a week of ups and downs, where I learnt about new ways of being, new ways of interacting, and new ways of thinking:

  • I learned that I still have a lot of social anxiety in new situations. I spent the first 2 days in an anti-social funk. I felt like I didn’t belong, like I wasn’t cool enough, like I didn’t know what to say or how to act around everyone. I eventually got out of the funk, thanks to a few nights of sleep and the emotional resets of the mornings, plus a reminder from my partner that other people felt that way too. I’m glad I got out of the funk, but I hope I can learn from the experience how to get out of funks faster - or how to avoid getting into them to begin with. I’ve seen how important my first interactions and thought processes are in new social situations, so I need to really prepare for those, so that I can start off on a good social foot.
  • I learned how to let go of accomplish-all-the-things mentality. Burning Man is chock full of workshops, and I love workshops. I was hoping to fill my day with workshops from 9 to 5 to make sure I got to experience as much as possible. But I soon realized that it just wasn’t possible/desirable to fill my schedule to the brim and experience the rest of Burning Man culture. I wanted to get to know my campmates, so I chose to have long breakfasts in the morning, meaning I missed all the morning workshops. I wanted to experience the offerings of random camps, meaning I sometimes missed afternoon workshops too. At first, I wasn’t happy about all of that workshop missing, as I was thinking to myself how much I was missing, but then I’d remind myself that if I’d never know about a particular workshop to begin with, then I wouldn’t be stressed about missing it— so why should I stress now that I knew it existed? There are lots of things that we all miss ever day that we don’t know about, and our lives go on.
  • I learned new forms of group play. There was an entire camp devoted to different forms of contact between people, and I got to experience a few of them:
    • Contact improv: It’s hard to explain what this is, at least in writing. It’s connecting physically to another person, like with your hand or arm, and moving with each other. It’s like a conversation between two bodies, and it can be both intense and fun, especially when you start lifting each other. It was also a good experience for my partner and I to do together, as it meant watching each other get quite physically close to people besides each other, and being okay with that. Mostly okay. :)
    • Ecstatic voices: We spent the first half of this workshop making sounds. Then we sat around in a “sound circle”, spending 30 minutes listening to ourselves, listening to each other, and making sounds inspired by our own inner voices and the external voices around us. At times, there would be harmonies and crescendos, and at other times, it would be a complete cacophony. It was fantastic to release all that sound energy in the group circle.
    • Acroyoga: One of my campmates is a yoga instructor, and offered to teach Acroyoga one day. I was the only one that took her up on the offer, so I got a private lesson. I first experienced the “lunar” side of Acroyoga - the more therapeutic side where the base stretches the flyers in ways that feel so good. Then we played with the “solar” side - the more acrobatic side where the base gets the flyer into positions that look impressive and that really feel like flying. My campmate told me that she originally got into Acroyoga when she was single and lonely, and she found that the physical interaction of Acroyoga was enough to lift her out of a loneliness funk. After my own session of Acroyoga with her, I could definitely see that benefit.
  • I learned new forms of meditation: I typically think of meditation as sitting in one spot, listening to a voice tell me what to do and how to breathe. I discovered many other flavors of meditation in the Burning Man schedule and tried out a few:
    • Singing bowls: This was the closest to what I think of as meditation. We sat around a man who alternated between singing and making sounds by tracing his fingers around bowls. It was beautiful, and an opportunity for me to see if I could declutter my mind without a narrator. (Not that well, yet!)
    • Laughter meditation: I walked into a room full of people walking around and laughing, and assuming that I missed the instructions, I joined them, alternating between forced laughing. and spontaneous laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. We then laid on the floor in what I know as the “Ha ha game”, where each person lays their head on the next person’s belly, and you attempt to make each other laugh by laughing yourself. We laid there for the rest of the time, emitting all sorts of human and animal laughter sounds, and I loved it. 
    • Deep listening: This was halfway between meditation and voice coaching. As a group, we both made and imagined sounds - like my favorite, the sound of a nearby waterfall, growing louder as we got close and stepped under, then growing softer as we walked away. We also listened to the sounds around us and tried both “inclusive listening” (focusing on a single sound) and “exclusive listening” (taking in all the sounds at once).
    • Chanting: My partner and I walked into our camp’s dome one day to find a circle of campmates chanting. We joined them, and proceeded to chant the same two “sentences” over and over. It was beautiful, and put me into a very relaxed and open state. 
  • I learned to be more comfortable with affection. Burning Man culture is huge on hugs. New strangers hug each other when they meet each other, and I was very adverse to that at first. I thought to myself, “No! You have to earn a hug first! You can’t hug strangers!”—but I eventually came around to appreciate the awesomeness of that much affection and warmth. I even had a few very-long hugs with friends, managing to stay in them without making awkward comments the whole time.
  • I learned how to be more comfortable in my body. No, that doesn’t mean that I spent the week naked. But many folks did spend it naked, or near-naked - and seeing their comfort with their bodies helped me have more comfort with my own. If all of them were okay enough with their bodies to walk around with them on full display, then why shouldn’t I be okay with mine? Maybe next year, I’ll show my belly to the world. Get ready! :)

Besides learning a lot, I was also very inspired by the creative and participatory nature of everything. I hope to find ways to bring more of that back into the "default world."