Burning Man is a temporary autonomous zone created by 30,000 people in the Nevada desert. Some call it an arts festival, and there certainly is a lot of art -- sculpture, music, interactive and video projects, you name it. Other people call it a party, and there is a lot of celebration and bacchanal that goes on. But Burning Man reduces to neither of these things; it is an entire city, complete with post offices and geodesic domes, airplane pilots and ravers, families and yogis, and an ambiguous ritual at the climax of the week featuring the burning of a fifty foot tall effigy of a human being, a signifier whose significance is left deliberately indeterminate. All of it is created and destroyed, leaving no trace, within two weeks.
My burn earlier this year was, in many ways, paradise. I had wonderful artistic experiences, beautiful and perfect sex, and was fortunate to meditate and learn Kabbalah with sincere and spiritually aware people. Probably the highlight of the week was late on the night of the burn, when I wandered out to Leviathan, an enormous art installation with massive light beams shining into the sky, ethereal ambient music, and several sculptural elements. Standing in the green and black light-cone shining out onto the open desert, I saw in my shadow the arhat, the contemplative, that I want myself to be – and that, on seeing this vision, knew myself to be. As I sat, and as my robes and an electrical apparatus inside by kippa rendered my shape exactly like that of some traditional images of the Buddha, I knew that this was my path -- not as a proposition I was convinced of, but as a fundamental truth that I knew at the core of my soul. Like a square having four sides, or a circle being round. Seeing myself as the Buddha may sound like an exercise in egotism, but it was actually the precise opposite. There was no "me" sitting in the light; there was only God manifesting Itself, awareness rising in creation.
Questions of limit presume that there is a reality at a center, a limit drawn around that central point, and an entity that "goes as far as possible" from that place of origin. But when the limit, the center, and the wanderer are all seen to be transitory manifestations of Being, and unreal in and of themselves, what is left of this diagram of human existence?
The allure of the edge, when one's center is conditioned or constrained, is that it holds the potential for greater self-actualization. There is more to you than your "box" allows. There is a buzz to exoticism, as the Beats felt in Harlem or Hemingway felt in Africa. It's cool to be extreme, essential to explore the world beyond conventional limits, to learn that all such limits are non-necessary.
Yet when all is really understood to be possible, the Romance of wandering is replaced by a confidence of silence. Going as far as possible ceases to be the purpose of life, because once you've effaced the idol of the self, you never really go anywhere, and there is no one to do the going. Leaving the box remains a step along the path, maybe even an essential one. It may be that the quest is, after all, absolutely necessary stage in seeing that there is no ‘there' there, or here, or anywhere. Yet ultimately both the box and the path are seen to be empty of substance. There is no identity that will be lost; every man we believe ourselves to be ultimately will be burnt.
And the miracle that arhats find, in this place, is that (to paraphrase Shelley) silence and solitude is not vacancy. Miraculously, Being radiates not Nothing but compassion -- a serene guidance that can be applied to whatever situations arise and call for decision. This is the secret of ethical monotheism -- that Being Loves, or put more traditionally, that our morality matters to God. And it is the source of the compassion that characterizes the bodhisattva.
Gide is right that there are anarchic elements, "Satanic" in the Miltonian sense of the word, whenever one strays from safe harbor. If I question everything, authority, tragedy, there are no guideposts. If I accept everything, there is no life. But my answer ought not be an Aristotelian mean where things are out-there enough but not too much. Rather than a place of centers and edges, I want to exist in a wide plain of being, with only horizons instead of boundaries, and the confidence to go as far as possible, or be as still as possible, or exist anywhere on the matrix of possibility.
Tips and advice from my first gay year
Summer days, summer nights are gone...
Why is it easier to see God in nature than in the city?
Being at one with Being
New York, full of life, a cure for loneliness.
If the desert feeds the spirit, and Paris delights the senses, what does
Am I an environmentalist for the same reasons I don't like to spend money?
With stories today about space aliens and the power of prayer, what are
the limits of your enlightened skepticism?
Remembering a car accident one year later. Does anything matter?
A guy at a concert shouts "Whoo hoo!" at the wrong time. What can he tell
us about life well lived?
If crass capitalism stops us from killing each other, is it such a bad thing after all?