Steven Budden is just a man at Burning Man, trying to comprehend a great mystery.
I can’t breathe. Dust is on my teeth. It’s a hundred degrees. I don’t want to move. I’ve reached my threshold for voluntary misery. I grew up in the Arizona desert and I left to find respite from arid climes. I just need moss and seawater. I’ve also reached my threshold for visceral sensation. Plunged into the inquiry of what is real. No digital device to numb me. Sensations rich and palpable.
This is my first experience with Burning Man. My partner and I decide to go, just out of curiosity, for three days. Sort of a sojourn into the mystery. We know nothing about burning man, other than to expect the unexpected and to go where the wind carries us. Like spores. Oh and we heard to keep an eye out for orgies, drugs, and art. They have a tendency to crop up in the Black Rock desert.
We arrive at 10 pm and it’s 1am before we finally get our hands on our tickets and find our spot, in the darkness, at the edge of god knows where. It’s overwhelming. Miles and miles of people clustered into camps. No trees. Nothing but humans, their accouterments, and space.
The tickets are beautifully designed, luxuriously printed with embossing (I used to toil in the printing industry). The program and the included map are stunning. The marketing collateral is clearly top notch.
As soon as the tent is recognizable as a tent and the mattress is inflated, we fall asleep instantly. It’s more travel than we’re accustomed to.
We wake, on just a few hours of sleep, to the sun pummeling our tent. I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but it’s cooking us alive in a nylon Dutch oven of our own creation. It takes a moment to realize where in the hell we are. Hell. Oh, wait. We’re in the middle of nowhere. In an ancient seabed, in the desert, in Black Rock Nevada.
We decide to set out and wander aimlessly out on the playa on old beat up beach cruisers we bought for $50. Squeaking through the dust, I’m riveted by her beautiful body bouncing on her bicycle. I’ve never seen her ride one. Something about a woman on a beach cruiser always thrills me to my core.
My tire is grinding against the frame. I have trouble keeping up. Hers has no brakes. She has trouble slowing down.
It is a surreal experience. The sheer scale of the wooden artifacts is staggering.
A pair of lovers in plywood, embracing one another. We venture inside. The heart, a mechanical device that actually beats, has broken down to beat no more. Interesting omen.
The infamous temple, resurrected perennially, is an ornate plywood cathedral decorated with prayers written in magic marker, and an altar in the center, where people leave relics of their departed lovers, family, and friends. Robin Williams is a theme. A picture of him smiling as a much younger man is harsh to see. I decorate a piece of wood with a mechanical looking heart and write “Already healed.” A mantra I often whisper to myself. I’m tired of people living in the future, in the land of someday. I’m tired of doing it myself. Mostly I’m thinking of her.
We scramble from shade to shade. Our tent is useless in the daytime; more like a dry sauna. So we’re relegated to wanderers. Holy mystics. Like everyone else here. Well, not everyone. Half the populace sleeps all day and travels by night. The other half seems to do the opposite. That’s us. We are tender souls and delicate bodies… we love our sleep.
We plop down in a tent of healers to take a nap, and they announce a practical tantric workshop starting in the next tent. We lie in a heap for a few minutes, deliberate silently, and decide to open ourselves to the synchronicity. We scramble over. It’s hot. Someone admonishes us for going to the wrong tent. I grimace. We stumble into the one next door. Some people are naked. Most are scantily clad.
“There’s not as many naked people as you’d think here,” I muse.
“It’s because you want to be naked yourself,” she whispers.
This workshop is an introduction to the more animalistic / mammalian aspects of the species. We roar into each other’s necks and bellies. The workshop facilitator is an older man, amply oiled, dark orange from the sun, hairy with a flowered skirt around his loins and a large round medallion hanging on a chain around his neck. Beads of sweat on his ruddy face. The tent seems to be camouflage. It’s a surreal, hilarious experience… the first of many.
He speaks sincerely. The theme is that humans want to be playful, they don’t want to kill each other, and that monogamy is a device constructed by the man. I think. Anyway, I didn’t really buy into the plug for polyamory, but the workshop ended on a tender note, when her and I sat in front of each other and spilled our hearts out about what body part we loved about each other.
She praised my hands.
“They’re so gentle and strong,” she whispered, “And so skilled in so many areas. And they look like you’ve done some work with them. And I love the way they touch me.”
I praised her lower back.
“It’s the perfect resting place for my forearm; a call to support you. And beautiful beyond belief. It’s the hinge of your beauty.”
We flop back down, eat a date / nut cookie, and peruse the program schedule to see what looks interesting. I see something about an alternative form of masculinity for men only. She finds a workshop about releasing the full force of your feminine rage. I can tell she’s set on that one. There were others that kind of fell away, not because we didn’t want to attend, but because we wanted to keep things fluid. A Shaman Wedding and a Death / Release Ritual, for instance.
We fall into oblivion again from sheer exhaustion compounded by obvious dehydration.
Dinner is smoked salmon on quinoa crackers. And an odd mishmash of samples of things we never eat normally, like beef tacos, otter pops, and a snow cone.
The next day, her and I wander into a large circus tent. Men and women separate and face each other from across the floor.
Each woman is to choose a man that she feels represents men, and unleash her rage upon him.
It is about respecting, witnessing, and acknowledging women as complete beings rather than mere sex objects. I grapple with this as one young topless woman in panties is doing downward dog, with her rump in the men’s faces. I can tell this is going to be an interesting experience.
There is brief introduction, and it begins.
After an endless twenty seconds, my partner volunteers. It’s why we’re here. I swallow hard. Fortunately, rules dictate that she can’t choose her own partner, me. She chooses an older man, probably the oldest man in the room. I think it’s an interesting choice.
“I think you’re fucking clueless,” she begins, through clenched teeth. It’s not so much the words but the energy behind them that has the power. In fact, I hardly remember the words, even though I was right there, listening with my whole body to every single syllable.
All of the women lighten their load, carried for centuries, with a deep sigh. I remember one clapping ecstatically as she began. Broad smiles. They huddle together on the floor, in profound community, with tears streaming down their faces. The men are requested to remain standing shoulder to shoulder.
I see her turn red. She growls and screams. I’ve seen it before. I’ve faced it, like a tsunami. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. The three-minute timeline seems endless. As the facilitator warned ‘It will be the longest three minutes of your life.’
A little context:
Before the ordeal, men were brought outside and taught to stand in their power. We visualized a situation where we would willingly give our lives for a cause… for love.
It’s the untamed west. A band of marauders is on their way across the landscape. Soon they will be on my land, to take whatever they can, and rape my wife and daughter… and probably kill them. I take a gun, and head into the trees, kissing them one last time. I’m going to buy them some time and take out as many as I can. My last stand. Not knowing whether they would get out alive or not. Just doing what I could do in the moment.
This was supposed to represent a moment when “pure” consciousness, the quintessential masculine trait (according to David Deida’s version of ancient tantric teachings) surfaces.
And we stand strong, feet parallel, chest up, ready to receive, and fully feel and yet remain strong. Silent. Adamantine. I know this. I teach it to clients myself.
The older man is in pain, but he’s learned to grimace through it. Poor bastard, I thought. Anything she unleashed, I felt. Since I was the primary male in her life, I thought that would only happen with her.
I was wrong. I felt every woman’s pain just as deeply.
A few lines that stick with me…
“I’m not just a pussy. I’m brilliant. Stop thinking about whether it would be worth fucking me. I can light up your world.”
“People see me as a pretty face, and I’m suffocated inside. Put into a box. I want someone to love me for what I am, not what I look like.” (This was the woman doing downward dog topless).
“Your hard on is not my fucking problem. Go figure it out. I’m a human being. Don’t fucking touch me unless I ask you to. Ever!”
“I’m older, and all you see is this shell. There is so much beauty and wisdom in me, and I can still feel as deeply as anyone. And I’m virtually ignored because I’m older. I see it in the way you’re looking at me now. Even now!”
“When he hurt her, when he spoke of her in that way, you did nothing. You did nothing to defend her. With all your strength, you failed in that moment.”
Finally, one woman chooses me. I don’t want her to choose me for some reason. She looks familiar somehow. She is wearing a white dress and artificial ivy wreath around her head. (It’s Burning Man, after all).
She launches into me about violence toward women and the military industrial complex. Men are destroying the world and each other. She thumps me in the chest with her palm. Again and again. I stand strong. Bounce back. Now I’m not into the military. In fact, I’m more aligned with pacifists. But I feel what she is saying. I am a representative for all men in this moment. I won’t take it personally. But I do feel the fury fully.
“You were bright and creative,” she sobs. “You brought so much joy and beauty to the world. You can still be that. It’s still inside of you.”
There are tears in my eyes as she drops the microphone, weary, and slumps back into the community.
One woman, in a primal gesture of defiance, goes around the room and slaps every man briskly. I feel the anger well up in me. My face gets hot like a furnace.
I still feel the sting of that slap. It was a necessary experience. I needed it in that moment, just to anchor it all in. This was really happening; it wasn’t some cerebral self-help workshop.
Another goes around the room and looks every man in the eyes. She stops at me and her breath quickens and she convulses and cries. I see you, I think, and I’m sorry. I don’t know what she’s crying about. Is it because she feels seen or because she sees me? I have no choice but to be with it.
Two men insist that they deserve a space to respond. When they aren’t allowed, they ask to be excused. They have to get the last word in. That’s how ingrained the patriarchal mindset is in their tissues. Otherwise they can’t bear it. ‘Don’t ask to be excused… ‘ I think. ‘Just fucking go. You won’t be missed. We will take up the slack.’
A few times I glance around at the other men, curious about what they are experiencing; hoping deep down that they are feeling something… anything. If they are, I can’t tell. I feel alone. Few male tears fell. I feel like if they watered the desert floor, something miraculous might grow. Few faces contort. I sigh and bring the focus back to my own experience.
I feel tears welling up. Sometimes I swallow them back. Mostly I pray for them to fall. Fall, damn it. Before the desert heat dries you up. Fall! What I do notice is that I am present to every share and every nuanced breath. I want to pass out. I stand. I want to sleep. I stand.
I’ve always held anger at a distance. “Anger is like drinking poison and hoping that the other person dies.” Buddha. I was an angry child. Very angry. My parents would give me plate of food, and I’d growl and throw it across the room. I was always fighting with other kids, and setting booby traps made of thorns for unsuspecting pedestrians.
Later, I began to learn to contain this anger. It felt so much more alive to dance in more positive states of mind. Is righteous anger healing? Yes. Being fully alive means feeling the full spectrum of emotions. However, when I look back on my life, on the experiences that changed me the most, they were not the angry experiences. Those were often tinged with regret and heartache. My most cherished memories were those of love.
And to allow love to flood into our experience, we need to bring ourselves into the present moment and free ourselves from the past. Like any experience, we need to feel the anger viscerally, deeply, and let it pass. Breathe into the luminous clearing on the other side.
Anger can be a destructive process. It can also be deeply healing. I am deeply grateful for this sacred space at Burning Man, creating a safe container for it.
At the end, we went around in a circle and faced each individual one on one. I expressed gratitude for all of the women for sharing. They each cried.
“It felt necessary to stand and receive,” I whispered, when one woman asked me what I was thinking. “I’ve spent most of my life running away. No more running away.” She sobbed, clutched me and repeated “No more running away.”
At the end, I faced my partner, and saw into the depths of her soul. I didn’t touch her. I knew she needed space. She thanked me for that. We cried, and fell into each other. I wanted her to know that “I saw everything you could muster, and I am not afraid.” I said it with my eyes.
What I wanted to speak to every woman was “I know the system is fucked up, but it isn’t me. I’m different I swear. I love and respect you.”
It was a lie. I could see that.
I am a microcosm of the system. I exist in it and it exists in me. What have I done to breathe life into the flawed system? What have I done to construct a new paradigm?
Later that afternoon, massive winds kicked up the dust. Black hair was white with a fine, pale dust. My chest hairs were frosted with it.
We dance on a dance floor outside, to pop music, with the sunset and a crescent moon illuminating our steps. I learn to loosen up parts I hadn’t felt before; my neck and my lower back. I dance without ego. I hadn’t danced since I danced drunk on dance floors in clubs years earlier. I’d forgotten that I loved to dance! I look into her eyes, burning into me, and fall in love again.
“Close your eyes and do it,” she whispered. Instead of saying ‘let me dance my way,’ I tried out her suggestion. It was beautiful. I could feel the lure of the full moon, and feel every vertebrae twisting with the music, and I could hear and feel other feet thumping on the makeshift dance floor.
Each night, a massive artifact on the Playa was burned ceremoniously. This was the first one we decided to stay up for, because we realized late that there were more burnings than just the temple and the Man. The dust storm delayed the burn.
I confess, I was done. Just done. I’d reached my threshold of fully feeling for the moment.
“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. Yet that will be the beginning.” – Louis L’Amour
We wear no lights. We didn’t prepare so extensively. But everyone around us and their vehicles are lit up with elaborate LED displays. We sat in our little patch of darkness and waited for a flame. She was nestled on my lap. I could smell her neck. Her hair tickled my face. She kept alternating sides as my legs fell asleep.
After an explosive firework demonstration, the creation finally goes up in fire. Old ways of being went up in smoke. I finally understood this Burning Man experience.
About love, I understood nothing. I just sat there, in the golden glow of this spectacle, with her. And nothing was lacking.
“A woman is meant to be loved, not understood.” Osho.
That’s the only line the seems to make any sense when I’m mired in confusion. Because I could feel her wellspring of love for me, and also the seething ocean of anger beneath it, raging for every man that had ever wronged her, and the ancestors that wronged her ancestors.
“I think I wouldn’t mind if we went home in the morning,” she whispers. “I think I’ve seen enough.”
A rush of sensations flows through me. Her and I are mirrors of one another. We speak each other’s minds and hearts by accident.
“Me too,” I reply. “Me too.”
What I meant to say was:
I want to go sleep for days with you in my arms and feel your breath on my neck and the tickle of your hair in my nostrils. I want to love you in a completely new way, born of freedom. A melody is running through my head for a song that I want to write for you. And I want to sing it to you from a rooftop. I want to love you as madly, deeply, truly as I always have; as we did in our first weeks and months together. I want to cry tears that heal us both. I want to make love completely, for the first time in my life, and shed all artifice. Just feel the threads of love flowing through us.
It really is the perennial mystery; love. Well, there’s nothing overly mysterious about divine love, until two human beings begin to embody it. Then, the maelstrom of confusion sets in.
How many times must one be rendered into ashes before viscerally understanding the ephemeral nature of it all?
And who says ashes love any less than fire?
Photo: lightmatter / flickr