“Death is only an incident, and not the most important which happens to us in this state of being.”
It was handwritten neatly on a rectangular cardboard sign, surrounded by a sea of photographs of those who’ve passed away and messages written by the people who loved them. I was standing in the Temple at Burning Man, designed this year like a pagoda, ritually burned on the final day of the festival and the holiest day of the Christian week, Sunday.
The gathering, if you take a step back from the endless parties and splendid costumes, is at its core a spiritual event, an annual pilgrimage for the those who make the trek to the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert in the last week of sun-scorched August, braving dust storms that white out your vision like Moses’ locusts, in an earnest effort to connect with that part of the soul that struggles to be heard in civilization.
At least, that’s what it felt like for me this year on my second voyage to the playa. I saw that quote—originally from Churchill—on my first day there, a Wednesday.
My family is Catholic, and growing up I was made to go to church by my parents. I’ve been through countless prayer sessions and masses, but they never gave me a feeling of spirituality or the sense that someone was listening to my prayers. This makes me part of the norm at Burning Man—according to its 2015 Census, 71 percent did not belong to a religion.
I’ve also seen some of the most historic religious sites in the world, from La Sagrada Familia in Spain to Gurudwara Bangla Sahib in India. But never before have I experienced the palpable emotion that welled up in the back of my throat every time I entered the Temple at Burning Man, with its ocean of memorials. It’s a sacred place; you can hear it in the silence. As with any house of worship, people instinctively knew to turn down the volume. They spoke in hushed tones or sat silently, praying, writing, reflecting.
A dust storm hit right as I was standing outside the temple, limiting my vision to a few feet. I stood with my eyes closed, waiting for it to pass. I heard someone walk up and ask, “Are you okay?”
“Yes, I’m fine.”
“Let me give you a hug.”
We hugged and he walked off. I never made out who it was.
The next day, Thursday, two of my friends, venture capitalist and former child actor Brock Pierce and tech entrepreneur Crystal Rose, got married at Red Lightning, a camp marked by a stunning crimson canopy. Avid Burners, they’d gotten engaged at last year’s Temple. The official wedding attire was “formal unicorn.”
I asked Crystal why she chose the middle of the desert, a wedding planner’s worst nightmare. “Brock and I are citizens of the world who choose to live under our own rules and are governed by many different jurisdictions, much like Black Rock City,” she replied. “Our religion is love and Burning Man is the perfect place to celebrate a union of souls in pure form.”
It was a decadent ceremony, fueled by 100 bottles of rosé and amazing Indian food, and afterward we biked over to the 747—an actual Boeing airplane reconstructed into an interactive stage.
Only the top portion of it was there, but next year when the entire plane is ready, it will be the biggest art car on the playa. I’d worked on it for a day in July in the Mojave, along with rotating shifts of many volunteers doing whatever Ken Feldman, CEO of the Big Imagination Foundation, needed done.
The devotion of the 747 supporters is reflective of the tribe mentality at Burning Man. One that was noticeably missing this year was Sacred Spaces, a camp founded in 2008, voted one of the best theme camps in an international poll of Burners.
“There were many different visions as to what Sacred Spaces is about,” said Kennedy Carr, its content curator and producer for the past 6 years. It highlights the challenges in maintaining a camp of that magnitude—250 campers plus thousands more visitors—while upholding its original culture as an interfaith healing-oriented space, which explains much of its popularity. Camps at Burning Man are run on a volunteer basis, including Cyberia, where I stayed, so members are not guaranteed that their chosen circle will exist the next year.
A widely shared incident this year was the vandalism of the camp White Ocean, known for one of the biggest sound systems and its reputation as a luxury camp for the rich. The exclusionary actions at some of these camps, like blocking off parts of their areas to non-campers, doesn’t exactly jibe with the Burner ethos. Having worked with one of those camps my first year, I personally hate that part of it. But I didn’t find that the presence of their rumored half million-dollar stage—their gift to the playa—played any part in the spiritual side of things. In fact, it’s a fun place to take MDMA and roll with it.
In any case, Kennedy, also the executive producer of spiritual entertainment company Sarva Dharma Productions, which means “great truths,“ says Sacred Spaces will return, especially in this time when people are seeking new religious alternatives.
“Originally all great truths were like the star of David, the symbols of all the great religions, but nowadays you have the Rasta movement, the yoga movement, the New Age movement—it’s kind of like a new evolution of religion,” he said. “With the insanity of politics and religious institutions, people are waking up to the bullshit. We are forming our own tribes.”
On Saturday, I went out in search of an experience I’ve been wanting since my first year: an airy, safe enclosure where men and women strip butt naked, dance and get sprayed by gorilla mask-wearing attendants from above with foam and water in an epic mass jungle party shower.
I got there at the tail end, as they were moving the final line of people through. My heart sank at the thought I’d missed it again, but a young couple appeared out of nowhere and pulled me aside.
“Do you want to go in to the foam shower?”
“Here, we are gifting you this token.” The girl handed me a brightly painted bottle top. “You can use this to get in—and today, you’re a vegetarian.”
Then they left. And with the token, I could follow that last group of people in. Because I was, for the moment, vegetarian, I didn’t have to go inside a steel cage where the very anti-meat organizers made the carnivores of the group wait. Once inside, I can only say it is the most amazing experience, and it actually doesn’t feel weird at all to be dancing and showering with other naked people. For sure, a big part of it had to do with the happy drugs that some of us were on, lowering our inhibitions, which makes me wonder how much of this experience could be replicated off the playa. You have to take your highest—and lowest—experiences here with a grain of salt because of the pervasive substance consumption.
On Saturday night they burned the Man, the giant namesake in the center of the gathering. I did not go.
“It’s very crowded,” said Johnny Nightlife, a 12-time Burner and member of major music camp Robot Heart. Johnny was also my ticket fairy, who offered me a sold-out entry pass a few weeks before, when I was debating whether I should even go in light of many logistical challenges. So it was fitting I saw him on my favorite and final day, when the Temple burned.
The ceremony began with a closed-off procession into the Temple with David Best, the artist who designed it.
Love Divine, a woman I met two years ago when she and her boyfriend Tom Sawyer drove me around during one of my very first trips around the playa, was in the procession and among those who had the honor of lighting fire to the Temple. Tom died of cancer a few months ago.
“David was a good friend of Tom, so he invited myself and some of Tom’s family into the inner circle to light the torches,” she said. “It was a very special opportunity and the pinnacle of my experience. We sprinkled Tom’s ashes, then someone did a live performance of ‘Purple Rain.’ That and the fact that David Bowie’s ashes were also in the Temple, it was so incredibly surreal. I felt a sense of Tom’s spirit being free.”
Watching the dust and the ashes rise up in the air as the Temple burned into oblivion, I also felt a sense of freedom. I’d written my own message in Sharpie earlier, something to memorialize my past year of broken relationships. It was a strange feeling, sitting in the dust with thousands of others in total silence as we all thought about our losses and fortunes. It was the closest I’ve felt to a spiritual catharsis and a connectedness with a larger entity, the connectedness that I always felt was missing as a child going to church. For the record, in this very moment, I was totally sober. Not even a glass of wine.
There is a Burner saying—“In dust we trust”—that says a lot about why this gathering has been turning into a spiritual mecca. As Crystal and Kennedy said, and as the census showed, traditional religions are no longer enough or believable for many people. At Burning Man, there is a degree of trust that there is truly someone or something out there listening and providing—though in this case that someone is not God but whoever or whatever you interpret it to be. That’s not to say this is a perfect spirituality. The fact that it happens only once a year is a major issue for those seeking to integrate it back home, year-round. I’m already struggling with this a week later. The sacred Temple is accessible for only seven days, the selfless gifting system hard to keep up in a capitalist society.
It is, however, the beginning of a new alternative for people who are seeking something other than what is already out there. Figuring it out is the next phase of the journey.
Yoonj Kim is a correspondent and producer at Playboy and the host of its documentary series Journalista.