1/10/2014

Burning Man as Pilgrimage

burning man playa during dust storm

While people from all over the world attend the event every year Burning Man is, mostly, an American event. The US is a rather young nation. That young age, along with its location, disconnects it from a lot of the history and cultural practices of much of the world. One of the things that is mostly absent from US culture is the concept of pilgrimage.

Pilgrimage has been described many ways but the most apt description is probably this: a journey away from home in search of spiritual well being.

The act, and concept, of pilgrimage has been a part of every major faith and many cultures. Today it is not limited to the faithful, with many non-religious engaging in the act. Its history goes back thousands of years and while in some cultures its popularity has waned it seems that in some way it might be a part of what people are doing when attending Burning Man.

In medieval Britain people were told that journeys of endurance, sacrifice, and suffering to holy places would give them an easier path towards Heaven. It became an integral part of some peoples lives. While the Black Rock Desert is not explicitly a religious site, or holy place (for some), the fact that many of its attendees rarely ever experience the desolation of an open wilderness has caused many to feel a certain something when visiting. Even with the comfort of an RV a week-long trip to the middle of the desert can be a bit of a sacrifice for a common urbanite, which is by-and-large the regular attendee of Burning Man these days.

Rev. Graham Booth, who lives on the English "Holy Island" of Lindisfarne, a place deemed holy by pilgrims for 1500 years, spoke about pilgrimage, saying:
There's a clear sense that the exterior, the landscape, is something that helps us begin to identify what our inner landscape is actually like, and what it tells us. To go and stand in that [landscape] and pray takes a level of devotion most don't have, and that becomes something that people look up to.
People still make pilgrimage to the island, perhaps mostly as a tourist destination these days, but even in the past pilgrimage wasn't an act limited solely to the faithful.

Those who attend Burning Man go for many reasons. Some call it just a camping trip in the desert. Many people, often newcomers, but veterans as well, say it is a place where they can find a new outlook on life, and where they may find themselves. The official PR from the organizers themselves is vague on what it is, or why to attend, but there is some hinting towards the reasons people of the past, and the present, have embarked on a journey of pilgrimage, within their official website:
Even considering going to Burning Man for the first time can be daunting. And while it's true that Burning Man is not for the faint of heart, with some research, preparation, and planning, an experience -- and opportunity -- beyond your wildest dreams awaits you.
In the past people had many reasons to go on pilgrimage, some early Christians went as a form of penance, some people went on journeys to try and find a better life, some people went for healing, and some for the sheer adventure of going on a journey where one might see beautiful things and experience the new. Whether religious or not the act of pilgrimage has been, for thousands of years, perhaps the only time some people would have an opportunity to see the world outside of their village or hometown. A lot of people traveling to the US to attend Burning Man are seeing the US for the first time, or perhaps their only time. A lot of people attending the event never camp outside of the event itself. For lots of people it is their opportunity to experience something that is different than a typical trip to a resort town or a big foreign city.

Perhaps one of the things that makes Burning Man feel less like a pilgrimage is the way we get there: cars and planes. While some folks do ride bicycles to the event that is quite rare. Nonetheless, something in the speed of our arrival may take away some of the experience of getting there, which is, for many, the heart of pilgrimage. The time it took to walk, or to journey long distances, was an opportunity to reflect on the destination, on life itself, on our inner-selves. Some people from the eastern US have done the journey to Burning Man via train, this roughly 3 day ride gives one ample opportunity to reflect. While not the same as a journey done on foot people have reported that riding a train added something to the experience that was lost on a 5 hour plane ride.

While it might be a quick two or three hour drive from Reno there is quite a separation between the lives of the city and the Black Rock Desert. That separation is only unnoticed by a few. Being 2 hours from the nearest hospital, in modern times, has big implications, even in the age of helicopters. 

In a world where we are so connected to each-other, and have been for over 100 years, with news, telegraphs, radio, and the internet perhaps the concept of going on a pilgrimage has fallen behind us. For some the idea of a pilgrim in the modern world is relegated to the concept of religion, as those who make pilgrimage for Hajj. But, might burners be making an act of pilgrimage but not really understanding that they are?

When people go to holy sites, or sites of pilgrimage, it is often not the real final destination. For many the act of making a pilgrimage is perhaps the starting point in the larger story of living life itself, of understanding ones place in it all. 

It while to some it is just a vacation, or a camping trip, Burning Man may fill a gap in our culture that isn't being met in our day-to-day lives. While many people shun the spirituality that a lot of people attach to Burning Man there is something about it that keeps people coming back and that caught their interest in the first place. Perhaps it was the party, or the art, or the music, or the landscape, perhaps it was an intentional act of pilgrimage, perhaps none of that. 

The one thing that seems certain is that consensus has not been reached as to what Burning Man is and why one should go. In some ways this nebulous understanding of the act of going to Burning Man reflects back on the history of pilgrims.

People go looking for purpose and meaning in their life. Some people find that there is more and once seeing it realize that things may not be as easily understood as they thought. Perhaps Burning Man is not seen explicitly as an act of pilgrimage, but, maybe if it was it could be a concept that is easier to spread around, one that could get more people involved, one that would change its image. 

Maybe Burning Man as a pilgrimage is what it needs as a way to transition in to something more than just a party, or camping trip. Maybe a pilgrimage to Burning Man is what people really are looking for.