7 “Spiritual” Lessons From My Week at Burning Man – Part II: Play and Pilgrimage

Adam Gilad
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Part II: Play and Pilgrimage

(This is Part 2 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.)

2. We Need Ritual: on Pilgrimage and Carnivale

I’m not a fan of organized religion.

And this is from a guy who spent 2/12 years in Jerusalem, several months in Ashrams and Monasteries in India, and has thousands of graduate and teaching hours deep in religious and sacred studies.

There is great and necessary wisdom in all the great religious traditions, but always astride unnecessary dogma, nonsense and murderous tomfoolery. Each of the “great” religions is befouled by long, ugly histories of blood and hatred, human division and demonization of “the other.”

As my favorite comic, Doug Stanhope says, “Here’s a headline you’ll never read: ‘Thousands Die as Agnostics Storm Athiest Stronghold.’”

And it’s sad, really, because there is so much beauty, generosity of spirit and love at the core of the lives of so many millions of good people in all the religious traditions. We are all, whether we like to admit it or not, inheritors of the best of these traditions, as well as the worst. And it feels a shame to throw out the luminous baby with the blood-drenched bathwater.

Especially because the impulse toward transcendent meaning and connection with the cycles of life has not abated in the human heart.

Burning Man is, in many ways, a new path for these perennial aspirations, a spiritual, if not a full-blown religious event.


First, it is a way of connecting with community in a radically generous and heartful way. You become one pulsing connected being.

There is no money exchanged. It is a gift economy. You bring gifts to hand out – food or drinks or poems or artwork or massages or jokes or compliments or songs or, most amusingly, applause for your simple passing by, as a group of lawn-chair sitters offered.

Second, as the Jewish tradition might put it, the culture of Burning Man encourages you to “run to do a mitzvah,” or kindness for another and even for the land. In Islamic cultures, hospitality is often offered as a most sacred virtue. And I’m sure that Jesus fellow had a thing or two to say about kindness and generosity (though I believe it was Woody Allen who wrote in Hannah and Her Sisters, “If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.”)

Jesus definitely would have come to Burning Man. In fact, I think I saw him a few times, tangoing by the art cars.

Third, Burning Man fulfills the ancient impulse for pilgrimage.

I owe this observation to my RV mate, author of Unique Self and The Mystery of Love, Dr. Marc Gafni. He observed that when you read the description of the early Israelite fall harvest pilgrimages to Jerusalem, you get a similar picture: long lines of pilgrims, juggling, drinking, rejoicing, dancing, offerings, cavorting aplenty.

And this a pilgrimage-as-honorific; if you’ve gone once, you’re officially a “burner” – just as a trip to Mecca at the appointed month makes you a “Haji.”

Listen, it’s not easy feat to make the Pilgrimage to Burning Man.

The Playa is an utterly arid, lifeless ancient sea-bed, prey to dust storms, white-outs, freezing rain, searing heat. Everything that’s brought in, must be brought out. “No trace left behind,” is a commandment of the festival – and after the 68,000 revelers vanish, indeed not a single scrap of human crap is left on this hushed and otherworldly plain.

But what makes Burning Man a unique Sacred Pilgrimage is that the sacred space is created by the pilgrimage itself.

No prophet ascended to heaven on horseback here (although some are likely to have ‘shroomed something similar). No one almost sacrificed his son on a rock here. No one overturned moneychangers’ tables. No Holy Face appeared on a potato chip or cried blood tears from a Play-doh sculpture.

Which, in my book, is kind of awesome, and progress for humanity.

It is a step toward what Gafni calls “the democratization of enlightenment.” It dignifies the individual, not an imagined, spectral, otherworldly tyrant or His cast of magical characters.

The thing is, we, as humans, already do create sacred sites for ourselves. Real ones. In our gestures of love, in our memories of where we met our beloved, birthed our children, buried our parents, connected with the Source of Life – we generate places and markers in time that special, that are unlike the rest of this mini-mall plastic-scape, and which make our lives feel more meaningful, rich and connected.

Creating the sacred in our lives represents a deep honoring of the worth of our individual and unique stories, and our part in the unfolding story of love and consciousness in this universe.

I’m all for it.

And, although I’m not sure how “sacred” marriage is anymore in a world that offers Ashley Madison and weddings in Elvis chapels, it is fascinating to note that every year, more and more couples choose to tie the knot on the Playa, here amidst this unique community.

Let’s take this a step deeper…

Burning Man offers something even more interesting when it comes to pilgrimages…

Within the pilgrimage to Burning Man are at least three “mini-pilgrimages”…

The Burning of the Man – this event is the culmination of the week, where the center structure of the sprawling insta-city is set aflame in a magnificent conflagration, umbrella’d under a battery of fireworks and ringed by nearly 70,000 people whooping and cheering. The walk out to the center of the Playa, with the anticipating thousands, in full, wild regalia is as mass and confluent moment as I’ve ever experienced.

When you reach the center, the “Man” is circled by scores of “art cars” like an Old-West circling of the wagons, except these glowing, pulsing, laser-festooned sand-ships blare every kind of music you can imagine – from dub-step to EDM to house to heavy metal to, most charmingly – a giant Victrola float, filling the air with 1920’s crooners! All one great jubilant cacophony, selah.

The collapse of the Man into the fire brings the greatest cheer, which struck me as sad at first, since, as a student of history, I am suspect of burnings – whether they be of live people, books, homes or cities.

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