Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
My first morning at Burning Man was emotional. I felt out of place and wondered if I’d made a mistake going to the playa. Behind my fancy, new sunglasses, I cried a hundred tears, and then sped across the desert on my electric bike to find the only person I wanted to see in that moment. He wasn’t there.
With a perplexed and heavy heart, I raced out into the middle of nowhere, zooming past art installations and heading far beyond the crowds. It was there that my bike fell apart and more tears streamed down my face. I allowed myself the sadness in the sweltering heat, and then a voice inside calmly whispered: “Lauren, it’s broken. It’s perfect. We are all broken and perfect. Just walk home.” My mood changed immediately and I laughed at the whole situation, at the truth reflected back to me in my busted, bike.
About 20 minutes into my deep desert stroll, the man I wanted to see showed up with his dad. He told me he was thinking of me too, looking for me—and then out of the dust, he was there. We hugged, and the two of them tried to repair my ride, but to no avail. Fortunately, they were able to take me, and my wheels home.
This serendipitous moment represents the wonder of Burning Man. The chances of this encounter were so slim in a sea of 70,000 people, and yet out there, it made all the sense in the world. We get what we need right when we need it.
It’s hard to put the experience into words. Burning Man is something unique to each person, and for me, it was a place of rich lessons that I’m still integrating.
Burning Man, for the uninitiated, is an annual weeklong arts festival that takes place in the Nevada desert. Burning Man operates on 10 philosophical principles, one of which is “leaving no trace” — which means that once Burning Man is over, all physical remnants of its inhabitants are gone. There are other major features, such as its gifting economy, radical self-reliance, and the most visually obvious of the 10 principles — “radical self-expression.”
Because Black Rock City only exists for a short amount of time each year, it lacks basic infrastructure like indoor plumbing, cellular phone service, paved roads and electricity. Temperatures are steamy during the day and frigid at night. These conditions create challenges for those who choose to adventure in the dust, but for me, the obstacles were a critical part of the experience.
10 Lessons I Learned at Burning Man
1. You already have everything you need.
I felt overwhelmed preparing for my first Burning Man, so I spoke to everyone I knew who had been. I asked for detailed lists of what to pack and ordered nearly 20 packages from Amazon and Etsy. I went to every local Burner sale in the Venice/Santa Monica neighborhoods, and I brought well more than I could have possibly worn—from stylish and hip to downright ridiculous. I have star and rainbow pasties that I never used, along with a plastic shell bra and a hat made from a deck of cards. What was I thinking? In the end, I learned that, yes, you need goggles, a face mask, a water bottle, and lights for the night, but you don’t need a whole lot else. I ended up wearing the clothes that made me feel like me because my intention there was simply to be who I am. I learned that I already have everything I need, and that if there is a gap, it gets filled. Bring less than you need—everywhere.
2. Everybody is the same.
Throughout the week, I also discovered that everybody—even the most fabulous looking ones among us—feels anxious, afraid, and out of place at times. Conversations on the playa swirl around who we are versus what we do so my new friends comfortably opened up about what was really going on inside. From celebrated, Hollywood actors to billionaire entrepreneurs and un-showered, overweight hippies, I heard—and really heard—that everybody feels the same. Not new information, of course, but it hit home there and has stayed with me. Everybody feels all the feelings. Look past the façade and have compassion.
3. Everybody is different.
One of the principles of Burning Man is radical self-expression, and it’s a place where anything goes. Some of it, I judged and balked at, but I reveled in most of it. I watched many performances that stole my breath, and I listened to talks that inspired me. I had moments of doubting my personal gifts. What do I bring to the table? But I quickly arrested those thoughts and remembered in a real way, that everybody has a unique offering that adds to the whole. Me too. It’s a disservice to question your gifts, and it’s an obligation for each of us to share them.
See also Embrace the Unexpected
4. Obstacles are your best teachers.
Burning Man is not an easy place to be, even if you’re staying at an expensive, “plug-and-play” camp. It’s hard because you’re going to come into situations that test your ego and your patience (like my broken bike). You’re probably going to breakdown and cry. I did daily, but the challenges will lead you into your own problem-solving skills. You will learn about yourself and grow stronger as a result.
5. You get what you need.
They say that you get “The Burn” that you need, not the one that you want. I wanted a lot of things that I didn’t get on the playa. I wanted more time with a man. I wanted a photo shoot that never happened. I imagined that I would go to more parties and “rage” more, but I didn’t. I actually got a fair amount of rest. I spent a lot of time with myself, exploring on my own and meeting people along the way. I left the playa with a whole lot more of me, which is exactly what I wanted the whole time. Trust that your journey is unfolding perfectly.
6. Unplugging allows for more space and creativity.
I’m much more attached to my technology than I care to admit, and I do really well without it. The trouble is I always have a signal in the real world. Being without it for a week was such a relief. I had so much more space to think and to feel. I was more fully present and I need more of that presence. I’m grateful that Burning Man reminded me how powerful it is to be off the grid. Spend less time on your phone.
7. Magic is real.
Serendipitous moments happen all over the playa all the time, and it’s just no surprise after a while that they do. For me, it was a matter of running into the ones that I love in the moments I called them into my heart—so many times—and in a sea of 70,000 people, the odds aren’t great, especially when I wasn’t staying anywhere near them. In these moments, they would pause, take off their sunglasses to look me in the eyes, and hold me in their arms for extra-long hugs. It was perfect. There were magical moments of prayer and connection as well. My camp is known for our Shabbat dinner, and in the middle of the desert, we served nearly 1,500 people a beautiful, full meal. We offered this gift to everyone who wanted it, and we served this experience gracefully. It was a miracle to me to see the kaleidoscope of rituals merging together there. Stay open to the wonder in the world—and in you, because there’s so much of it.
8. I create my experience.
I went to Burning Man on my own, and being alone gave me the opportunity to really listen to myself. Throughout the week, I would ask myself, “Do I want to go to this party? Am I having fun here? Is it time to rest? Do I want to be alone? Do I want to talk to this person, or do I want to get up and go somewhere else?” Honoring the answers felt so empowering. Doing so without fear of missing out made me stronger than I was before I left, and for me, my week wasn’t one long party. It was full of writing, exploration, new friends, and believe it or not, rest. I learned that we all have more freedom than we realize to create the life we dream to live. Just make and trust your own choices.
9. Attachments will strangle you.
I watched myself latching onto certain expectations, people, and ideas. I watched myself wanting, and every time, it hurt me. I felt that I couldn’t breathe as well, so I practiced letting go and being in the moment. My breath would come back, and I would immediately find relief. Burning Man kept asking me to take life as it is, and I was rewarded each time I let go. Be where you are.
10. Gifts often come from unexpected places.
The attachments were a bummer, but I kept my heart open to the journey and fell into so many surprises and friendships along the way. The reward of openness happened before I even left my home in L.A. Initially, I was meant to travel with a girlfriend who for reasons that I understood and supported, decided not to go. She was supposed to drive my RV so I knew I needed to find someone else. Through twists and turns, a man named Will surfaced. Naturally, I was nervous to turn over the keys to a stranger, so we met and we spoke and we became fast friends. Will is one of the best gifts from my Burn. He’s someone I now consider a close friend, and he’s someone I totally trust. I wouldn’t have met him had things gone according to plan, so stay open.