Part III: 7 Spiritual Lessons of Burning Man – Self, Society, Spirit

Part III: 7 Spiritual Lessons of Burning Man – Self, Society, Spirit
November 5, 2013 Adam Gilad



PART III: Self, Society, Spirit

(This is Part 3 of a 3 Part Series on “Burning Man as Spiritual Teacher” by Adam Gilad.  Adam is an Emmy-Nominated producer and author and leader whose teaches how to awaken through freedom into love.)

4. Our Socio-Economic Values Need To Be Aggressively Revised

In some ways, you can view human culture as an ongoing battle (a true “dance macabre”) between fear and love.

In this corner… fight or flight.

And in this corner… face and embrace.

We live in a harrowing new age of anxiety where every flu-ish duck, every mile of melted ice-cap, every new demonic breed of hurricane, every act of violence, every call for jihad or vengeance or imperial wrath unleashed is shuttled around the globe at lightning speed.

Ignorance of what we humans are wreaking upon the planet and its residents – and upon each other – is no longer bliss.

It is a cop-out.

Yet, what are we to do?

Can we really feed all those starving children?  Get jobs back for those good people in the factories of Detroit and North Carolina whose lives have been auctioned off to the vast sweatshops of Guangzhou?  Stop the slaughter of elephants, rhinos, sea-life and who knows what undiscovered flora and fauna in the Amazon, the very lungs of our biosphere?

I wish I could.

As I’m sure you wish you could.

But you and I are specks against the monied machinery of destruction.

Things need to change, and only the greed-addled, vestigial rearguard of a filthy, reckless industrial economy (yes, you – Brothers Koch and “Fox and Fiends”) are paving a path of lies to prevent the necessary changes.

The changes will come sooner – or too late.

The hoarding of wealth in the top 1%, decimating the good people of the middle class.  Fracking of the water tables.  Wiping out the large fish supply of our oceans. To say nothing of the fact that more and more, we are a security apparatus with a country rather than a country with a security apparatus.

Eisenhower warned us.  Jesus warned us.  Tom Paine warned us.

Endless growth and profit-as-highest-human-purpose are unsustainable and, because we possess limited resources, ultimately a villainous philosophy.

Now let me be clear, because this has become a (well-funded) knee jerk subject…

Our Western liberal economic system has liberated humanity from misery and penury more than any philosophy or religion ever.  And infinitely more than any socialist ideal.

Our wealth and economy is perhaps humanity’s most astonishing achievement.

It’s just got a bit off the rails, ladies and gents.

Our economic freedom needs to be tempered with wisdom and responsibility and brotherhood, and right now those forces are being pummeled (read: lobbied) into retreat.

Or as Bill Maher put it, ‘yeah, I know what you’re thinking: ‘But Bill, the profit motive is what sustains capitalism.’ Yes, and our sex drive is what sustains the human species, but we don’t try to f**k everything!”

Breaking free into a new level of an evolved, wise economic society is NOT something that can be done, as Russia and China have tried and failed, with top-down coercion.

It is something that has to bubble up from the wisdom and goodness and far-sightedness of the human spirit.


What does this have to do with Burning Man?


Because Burning Man is not merely the party of all parties.  Not merely a rave in the desert.

It is an experiential visioning of a new way of being…

And core to the experience are the 10 Principles that founder Larry Harvey sketched out about 9 years ago.  Everybody who goes gets a copy of these Principles.  Everybody knows them.

The idea is to not only live these values on the Playa, but to bring them home and make them part of our daily lives. Here they are as articulated by Larry Harvey, with my summarized, extracted lessons…

Principle I:  Radical Inclusion
Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.

Spiritual lesson:  there is no “other.”  Othering is the source of division, hatred, genocide.

Principle II: Gifting
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.

Spiritual lesson: we are each most whole and happiest when we operate from generosity and a sense of abundance.

Principle III: Decommodification
In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

Spiritual lesson:  the best things in life don’t have logos on them

Principle IV: Radical Self-Reliance
Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.

Spiritual lesson: it’s all you, baby.  No excuses.

Principle V: Radical Self-expression
Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

Spiritual lesson: to create is to awaken continually.  Water your seeds, and shelter the saplings of others.

Principle VI: Communal Effort
Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.

Spiritual lesson: we’re in the game together, folks.  There is no such thing as a “self-made” man, or woman.

Principle VII: 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. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.

Spiritual lesson: be smart, be nice, keep your agreements, hold the container meticulously.

Principle VIII: 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.

Spiritual lesson: it’s the Boy Scout rule. It’s true for campsites.  It’s true for your friends and lovers.  And it’s true for the eco-system.

Principle IX: Participation
Our 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.

Spiritual lessons:  come out of the shadows and shine your light, muthafucka!

Principle X: Immediacy
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 exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience

Spiritual lesson: be here, now.  Always.

In sum, these 10 sound simple.

In practice, they are profound and challenged by distractions, fear, heart-contraction, convenience, greed.

And most destructively, these principles are challenged by cynicism.  Any one or any organization that sets itself us as “moral” is bound to invite sticks and stones.  And especially when it’s done on this massive scale.

Are the principles kept immaculately by everybody?

Of course not, although I love picking up MOOP (“matter out of place”) on the Playa when I pass it, and it warms my heart to see others doing the same, unprompted.

And ironically, as my son has mordantly pointed out, two main benefactors of Burning Man are the oil industry, filling all the RVS converging in the middle of nowhere, and Wal-Mart, whose Reno shelves are stripped bare by the pilgriming hordes.

Vision.  Action toward the vision.  Vision.  Action toward the vision.

It’s how humans work.

Just like the little engine that could.

5. We Need Awe, Wonder, the Sublime and Grace

Among the many crimes of W. was to steal the terms, “Shock and Awe.”

When I think of shock, I think of “the shock of the new” as it has been applied to art and creativity, modernism and innovation.

And when I think of awe, I think of the celestial spheres, childbirth, Scarlett Johansen’s lips.

When you read the Psalms (not the chest-thumping revenge-y parts, but the parts like this, “”Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy; they will sing before the Lord”), when you stand in front of a Turner seascape, when you listen to Beethoven’s 9th or Chopin’s nocturnes or hell, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, you experience just how shocking and awesome it is to be a conscious human being capable of creating and experiencing beauty and the sublime.

We all yearn to be awed.  We watch America’s Got Talent or the X Factor or American Idol so we can experience that soaring gorgeousness of humanity blooming like an angel unfurling its wings for the first time, showering us in, and reflecting our own light and glory.

We all want to share in the experience the sublime, that which, while it reminds us of our tininess, expands us by reminding us that we are part of something infinite and beyond imagination.

And I have a strong intuition that the more happy sublime beauty and grace we experience, the less of sublime horror we desire to experience (like it or not, a nuclear explosion is one of the most searingly gorgeous and awe-inspiring things you will ever witness).

In other words, let us cultivate experience of the sublimity of creativity and life, so that we need less of the sublimity of destruction and death.

The life-affirming sublime pulls us toward the light.

In Burning Man, to have a tall ship, masts ablaze, pulsing with a hundred ecstatic dancers and shooting lasers into space appear out of the mist, glide by you like a circus of joy, then vanish again into the mist – lifts the heart.   As does the desert sky resplendent with stars.  The sudden white-outs.  The double-rainbow that spanned the entire festival after a short rain.

It makes you glad to be alive – and endows you with what Wordsworth called “natural piety”…

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky.

So was it when my life began;

So is it now I am a man; So be it when I grow old,

Or let me die!

The Child is father of the Man;

And I could wish my days to be

Bound each to each by natural piety.


Burning man is one of the few places where the human sublime so magnificently meets the natural sublime.

So many ways to kneel and kiss this ground.

6. We Are Hugely Privileged

As Joni Mitchell sang, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”

And what is true for paradises that become parking lots is true for hot showers, air conditioning, restaurants, pharmacies, supermarkets and burgeoning farmers markets.

We are not only privileged.

We are hugely privileged.

Even if we hate our jobs.  Haven’t achieved all our goals. Don’t dive a Tesla.

But if you are reading this, damn, you’re a lucky bunny.

It’s a funny thing, but I expected to be dead by now.

I even practiced dying in my bed as a child, popping up to shoot over the headboard at unknown enemies – and, in turn, taking a bullet to the chest, just like in the movies.  Tragically.  Nobly.

My father had seen action in WWII, across France and Germany.  My grandfather rode as a sergeant in the US Cavalry (I know!!!) in WWI against those self-same Huns who more recently have re-geared their mechanical genius into giving the world such beautiful Z-4s and espresso makers.


I fully expected that by the logic of generational math that I would be fighting WWIII.

But I escaped that fate, as have we all… so far.

Any student of history knows that this last generation, save perhaps those brave and dutiful souls who have enlisted to fight the government’s wars abroad, has mostly been exceedingly lucky.

We have grown up in absurd abundance, with more food, more healthcare (so far) and Starbucks built within Starbucks within Starbucks. When I returned from a half-year journey through India a couple of decades back, I remember standing in an American supermarket dumbstruck by the infinite rows of sustenance.

It would be stupid – and callous – not to attend a feast of human exuberance like Burning Man and not bow deeply to the reality that we are lucky f**ckers who have the option to party and reflect and connect like this for a week.

Being in harsh elements and being responsible for your own food and water and survival sharpens one’s gratitude for our daily bread in the outside world.

We live incredibly privileged lives, historically and globally.  And that necessitates three responses, at least…

(1)               Live in Gratitude, Practice Gratitude.

Do not take this good fortune for granted.  As Ann Richards famously said of the dark buffoon George W. Bush, “he was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.”

Well, if you were born in the States or a similar country and not dirt poor, or to abusers, well, historically speaking, you were spat out at least onto first base.


Never stop saying thank you.  For offerings of love, asked for or not.  For little kindnesses.  For the food you eat.  For your organs that somehow work.  For shelter.  For clean air and water.

Saying thank you is way of waking up.


(2)               Give Back

In some way.  In any way.

Give money.  Give time.  Uplift the suffering and the unprivileged.  Yes, I get where Ayn Rand is coming from, how the Commies stripped her family of its wealth and dignity.  And yes, I get the importance of encouraging responsible, smart, motivated people to create new industries and new technologies relatively unfettered.   Of course.

It’s that “relatively” part that is the rub.

We, as humans, live in community.  And I wouldn’t want a world of Ayn Rands and Rand Pauls without the counterveiling heart of Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, Jesus, Buddha, Martin Luther King, Richard Branson and the founders of Kiva and the Grameen Bank.

As Israel’s greatest and most tender poet, the late Yehuda Amichai wrote…

Big hands hold little hands

 that’s what they are for.

(3)               Party Hardy

Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die.  Old truths stick around, and few are truer than this.

Celebrate for its own sake.  You are alive, dammit.  And you are conscious of your life and of its brevity.

Enjoy the damned thing.

You will notice, with a quick scan of the lifeless blackness of the cosmos above your head as far as we can see for the moment, that life is a rare and fairly unusual thing Walt Whitman urged you to “suck the marrow” from it while you are here.  I would add to that list some tequila anejo and green juices, but that’s me.

And celebrate the fact that you’ve kept your sanity.

Marc Gafni has written that each of us, as individuals, experience the irreducible gap between our ability to feel and our ability to heal.  That gap does – and should – remain alive and pungent in our hearts.  But it should not blacken it.

We live in a world of outrageous pain, loss, starvation, disease, confusion, tragedy, cruelty.  The only response, as he was written in detail, is “acts of outrageous love.”

Celebrating your very life is the foundational act of outrageous love for yourself.  It vitalizes you and give you the juice and sense of overflowing abundance to give and outrageously love others.

The fact celebrating your life also happens to reduce cortisol, anxiety, blood pressure and raises neuroplasticity, immune system vigor, your general vitality, your will to live and make a difference in other people’s lives is a happy bonus.

A big one.

The party is on.

Get it while it’s hot.

Or as Rumi so sweetly put it…

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened.

Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading.

Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel

and kiss the ground.

7. We Are Going to Die

Maybe not tomorrow, exactly, but geologically speaking, pretty damned soon.

I have mentioned the death-and-promised-resurrection experience that the culminating conflagration of the Man offers to all at the end of the festival.

But there is another metaphor suggested by the Playa that hands you another brimming shot glass of “memento mori.”

On this lifeless plain of dust and wind, where not a blade of grass grows and where once forests of sea-vegetation flourished, hosting teeming schools of plesiosaurs or whatnot, one is naturally faced with death.

Though our hearts beat now, though the illuminated art cars cruise by though the girlies shake their booties and the boys strut their stuff – we are all Ozymandius sooner or later, we are all destined to be a “colossal wreck” and the “level sands” that surround the Playa for miles only make it more stark…

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

You watch the gales raise sand on the horizon like a shroud and block out the sun.  You strap on your goggles and your mask.  You huddle in clusters or dive into the nearest yurt.

All day and all night this sand lifts and drifts and resettles in tiny dunes and flats.


And – and I owe this observation to

my wise and wistful son, Amit – just like the sand, we burners blow around the Playa.

We rearrange ourselves just as the sand does, though with some volition, of course, but it is volition unloosed from needs and schedules.


Another wind of caprice blows in and off we tumble to another camp, another stage, another shelter, another chance encounter, another friend for a moment, a hug a smile, a lover then…

…pffft… we are gone.

As ultimately we shall we be, once and for all.

We don’t know when it will happen.

And ultimately, despite our blurts and bombast, our magnificence and our mirth… we shall, as a life, as a culture, as a species, as a planet, leave no trace.

But by the grace of thousands of hardworking, desert-braving individuals, by the grace of our abundant economy, by the grace of the U.S. Department of Land Management and by the grace of the life-force that animates this planet right now…

… next year, the Man shall rise again.


Photo Credit: (No copyright infringement intended.)


About The Author:

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image1An veteran of Indian ashrams, Nepali and American Buddhist monasteries, Peruvian jungle medicine journeys and advanced Jewish study in the heart of Old Jerusalem, #1 Best Selling Amazon author Adam Gilad invites his readers into conjuring a robust life of passion, authenticity, daring and, ultimately, deeply fulfilling relationships with themselves, their lovers and the wonder of life. A Stanford Graduate Humanities Center Research Fellow, Emmy-nominated Executive Producer and former co-owner and on-air host of National Lampoon Radio, Adam enjoys exploring the world as an entrepreneur, father, writer and spiritual adventurer.  Adam brings together a unique mix of global wisdom traditions, spiritual cheekiness, advanced education and expansive practices that has attracted a following of over 50,000 in the dating and relationship world.  He has authored countless audio trainings and created several programs, ranging from learning the “language” of the other gender, cultivating a dance of the sexes rather than a battle, playing the spectrum of sexual polarity and always, always, always, opening to fearlessness in self-awareness, self-evolution, compassion, forgiveness and really good wine.  He is the father of two grown sons, who have taught him more than all the above, combined.  Learn more and subscribe to his uniquely provocative online newsletter on how to create a life of bold love at and


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