In the past ten years, I have had dreams where I know that I am at the Burning Man festival, or at a winter retreat at the Tassajara Zen monastery. The thing of it is, in these dreams, the location is often not in the actual location of Burning Man or Tassajara; that is to say, the location is not literally a city of tents and art structures in middle of the Black Rock desert of Nevada, or a Japanese-style meditation center nestled in a wilderness valley in the Ventana Wilderness of Monterrey County. The physical spaces in these dreams have instead been, for example, a huge concrete institutional government building, a snowy Scandinavian ski chalet, or the swampy marshlands from the Lord Of The Rings movies. It is as if, in my subconscious, both Tassajara and Burning Man are not just actual places, but they are internal states of being, liberation, and permission – they are psychic-spaces, mind states as well as external places, and I can “be there” on the inside when not actually “being there” in geographical space.
Thinking about the similarities of these dream states got me thinking about the various other similarities and differences of going to the Tassajara monastery to meditate, and going to Burning Man. Among the similarities:
- Both take a lot of time, effort, planning, money, shopping, and general intentionality to get yourself to.
- Both are held out in nature, remote and far away from strip malls, newspapers, and the government. We’re off the grid. Both have a vibe opposed to commercialism and capitalism . There are rules for protecting the environment.
- People are generally on their best behavior at both. You can mostly leave your tent/cabin door unlocked. If you forgot to bring something, someone very well may help you out and give you one.
- Both have their more hard-core committed lifer types, and their more checking-it-out one-time-ers.
- People wear funny outfits at both (for example, Japanese monks’ robes and furry animal costumes).
- People take on new names, to symbolize their break with normal life (names like Thunder Child, Desert Tiger, Ryoshin, and Tenshin).
- People usually sleep less than eight hours a night, but somehow it is fine – the openness of the experience gives you extra energy, you’re not tired like you would be in normal life on five-and-a-half hours sleep a night.
- My feet and nostrils get dried out. My clothes get dirtier than usual. I eat less. I have to remind myself to drink enough water.
- Both of em are roller coaster rides – intensely blissful one moment, then an hour later dropped down into the depths of the pit, and then all blissful and clear again five minutes later.
- Neither are self supporting – both require food, fuel, and supplies brought in from the outside.
- In both places, people grow and expand, and have deep, meaningful, opening, liberating, life-changing experiences. We have actual new experiences and think actual new thoughts. Things sometimes feel sparkly and new. We get under the hood and tinker with our mind’s engineering, and emerge with a reward of a deepened sense of possibility, vitality, love, openness, and insight.
- I am unusually in the moment at both places. In my normal life, if someone asks me how the past week has been, I usually have an immediate answer for them. But, at BM or in the monastery, I do not have such a meta-narrative about how the last week has been. I mean, I could say, “it’s been superamazing” and it would be true, but more what I find is there is for me to say is a recollection of a number of intense experiences, each one a new now, with no simple story to tie them all together.
- The first time I visited each of em (95 for BM, 99 for the monastery), I did not really choose much about my experience, it was more like holding on for dear life as the deep and transformative psychological space of the place took me over, overwhelmed me, and took me on its ride; whether I was ready for it or not, both places blew me more open, larger, deeper, and more alive in ways I hadn’t even known were possible. Having attended both BM and ninety-day retreats at Tassajara a number of times now, though, neither brings the same easy rush – the experiences by themselves don’t do it for me as much anymore. For both of em, now, getting the most out of it is more of a case of me being intentional and generating my own experience: deciding what my context is for being there (“why am I choosing to come here again?”, “what do I want to get out of being here?”, “who am I going to be while here?”), and what practices am I going to take on so as to create the experience I want for myself (for example, daily meditation at BM, daily yoga and being committed to be on time for things at the monastery).
There are some complete differences between the two places, though :
- Burning Man is all about hanging out, and doing whatever moves you or brings you pleasure. Everywhere you travel, there is a kaleidoscope of music, mind altering substances, bright colors, and sexiness. At Tassajara, on the other hand, it is all about giving up our egofull selves by following the the monastic schedule and monastic rules as exactly as we can. And most people go the full ninety days of a retreat without any mind altering substances, sexy, music, or even many bright colors.
- At BM, you have many radically new experiences every day. At Tassajara, many of the days are as much like the last one as is humanly possible.
- At Tassajara, there is an endless list of rules enforced by religious authorities looking over your shoulder with everything that you do. Burning Man has less of that going on.
- A retreat in Tassajara is a lot about how much discomfort and pain you can open up to and be with – how much space you can create for the experience of discomfort to happen, without your system overloading. BM is a lot about how much pleasure you can open up to and be with – how much space you can create for the experience of pleasure to happen, without your system overloading (and, also, how much pleasure you feel like you deserve).
- Many, or most, people I meet at Burning Man are friendly, smiling, joking, and open to playing with humor, silliness, and social quickness right off the bat (even if the joy is somewhat superficial). It always seems easy to find someone to have a real talk about what is going on, even if you just met them. Many people at the monastery, however, are sensitive and introspective, and it might take months to get to know them before they are comfortable with joking around and silliness, or with having an honest, real, and authentic conversation about inner life.
- At Tassajara, you get to take a wonderful long resort-quality hot-tub soak and shower every day. At BM, not so much.
- At BM, I eat potato chips all day. At Tassajara, I eat brown rice and salad. At BM, I drink a fair amount of vodka. At Tassajara, I drink mountain spring water and different varieties of herbal tea. At BM, pretty much every night, I climb into my sleeping bag for the night at around quarter of four. At Tassajara, pretty much every morning, I climb out of my sleeping bag for the day at quarter to four. At BM, I sprawl out slump-ily in camping chairs and hammocks. At Tassajara, I sit up perfectly straight on a meditation cushion.
- A practice retreat at Tassajara is usually thirty five to ninety people. Burning Man is five hundred to a thousand times bigger.
- The biggest transgression anyone does at Tassajara is usually something like someone sneaking a snack of some unauthorized extra dried fruit from the storeroom. Some bad eggs however violate the community-trust vibe of Burning Man big time – passing out drunk on a dance floor, stealing a bike, and, occasionally, something (feloniously) much worse. Similarly – every year, someone dies or gets seriously injured at BM doing something reckless or intentionally self-destructive, but I’ve never heard of that occurring at Tassajara.
- At the monastery, everything that can be recycled or composted is, and trash output is minimized. Burning Man ends with everything a big mess, with immense mountains of recyclables and decomposing food as part of the ocean of plastic trash bags.
- As they leave Tassajara, I often feel clean and focused, calm and centered, ready to take on the challenges of my life, but a little cold and formally distant from my fellow human. As we leave Burning Man, I often feel happy, connected, heart-opened, and full, but lazy about the challenges of my life.
- Some people do the Tassajara lifestyle for months and years on end, going deeper and deeper into Buddhist practice. But one week of full-on Burning Man is probably about all anyone can take.