Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Book of Everyday Spells

Cause & Effect and How to Transcend It
Many philosophers and neuroscientists argue that free will is an illusion -- that since we are composed of the same stuff as inanimate matter, we’re subject to the same laws of c

Okay, fuck that! I was going to explore the concept of free will, but luckily, Joycebird’s pen ran out of ink before I lost myself in abstraction. Time to tell…

A More Intimate Story

They say nothing returns from the Black Rock Desert unchanged -- including us. They also say you don’t find yourself until you stop seeking. I guess they say a lot of shit, but those two things I’m inclined to to agree with...though I hasten to add that you can’t stop seeking until you’ve started seeking.

Like many (most?) people here, I came to Burning Man seeking something. I thought it was transcendence from oppressive social norms -- burning the Man always symbolized to me the kind of “breaking our bonds with society” that the 19th century transcendentalists spoke of, best expressed in the works of Emerson & Thoreau. In “Self Reliance,” Emerson’s (arguably) most famous essay, he says to “Rely on yourself. Never imitate. To believe that what is true in your own private heart is true for all men, that is genius.” Yeah, the 19th century romantics were big drama queens, but they were on to something. They were part of a larger movement -- one that celebrated individualism and personal freedom. I have a feeling, if they were alive today, Emerson and Thoreau would have approved of our little community. Maybe they would have even joined us?

Ahhh...there I go again! I keep losing myself in abstraction. I guess that’s easier than being vulnerable. Let’s try again…

Mirrors have always both fascinated and terrified me. I would gaze into them as a child and wonder why I am me...who was beneath these green eyes? And they terrified me because I’ve always hated the way I look. Covered in freckles as a boy, my spotted face was a source of embarrassment and social alienation. Even though they faded as I grew older, the sneaking suspicion that I harbored a hideous face never left me. Even though I look back and realize my mom was right -- I was a cute little kid -- there was always, and there remains today, a feeling of perpetually being on the outside, looking in on the world...awkward, out of step with everyone else. I imagine many burners share that feeling, and they come to the desert to celebrate their strange, out-of-sync selves.

That’s the theory, at least, but in a community this vast, there are countless interpretations of what it means to be a burner, and what it means to burn the man. As with any community, people develop in group biases, and we can quickly forget the principle of radical inclusion.

I found myself out in deep Playa Tuesday morning, and I climbed inside a gold geometric structure to watch the sunrise. Some raver kids who had been up all night were also watching the sun rise, but we were in two different worlds. We tried to connect, but that wall that separates us from one another out in the real world was alive and well in that moment. I was “other” once again, which was a sharp contrast to the feeling I had when I met my neighbors in Hushville less than 24 hours earlier.

The altitude was bothering me all day, my bike was breaking down, my cambelback was leaking, and I forgot one thing after another --- leaving my car window cracked during a dust storm, stepping out of camp without the right equipment. Everything was unraveling.

That evening, I wandered into the Playa and discovered an art installation full of mirrors that reverse your reflection by pointing two mirrors at each other at a 90 degree angle, lining up perfectly such that we see ourselves as others see us. I’d read about these mirrors and they terrified me. I’d promised myself I’d never look into one because I’m already prone to body dysmorphia, exaggerating every flaw on my face, at times gazing into the bathroom mirror for an hour or more, wondering if the rest of the world saw me the way I see myself. And I knew that this mirror, which reversed a reversed image to make your mirror image align with what everyone else sees, would exaggerate my already exaggerated flaws.

My nose is slightly crooked, and when I look into an ordinary mirror, it points to the left. Most people don’t notice it, and I didn’t notice it until someone pointed it out to me -- at which point my brain locked onto it, fueling an obsession that bordered on pathological. When people look into the “true self” mirror, they often hate what they see because every asymmetry becomes twice the asymmetry. Our brains adapt to what we see, so we don’t notice that 1% asymmetry when we look in a mirror -- just as others don’t notice them -- but when we see our reflection inverted, the asymmetry doubles in our mind’s eye. That 1% lean to the left becomes a 2% lean to the right.

For a reasonably confident person, this might be slightly discomforting. To someone with body dysmorphia, this prospect is horrifying.

And yet...I couldn’t help myself. I’d read about how the “true self” mirror messes with your head, but I had to look. And as I suspected, what I saw broke me. Shaken, I left the installation and sat in the middle of the deep Playa, gazing at the Man and trying to convince myself that I wasn’t the monster I saw in the mirror.

A deeper voice within me repeated the words: “Let go!” But I couldn’t let go. Not then.

A couple of Black Rock Rangers came by and asked if I was okay. I asked one of them if he could help with an existential crisis, but I guess that’s not part of their training.

Broken, I made my way to the man in the middle of a dust storm. Someone asked if I wanted to play strip ski ball, but I declined.

The dust storm picked up as I left the Man, and it wasn’t long before I was lost, literally, on the the middle of a white out with no reference point. It took me hours to make my way back to camp, and when I finally did, I collapsed into a deep sleep.

I’m completing this story on Sunday morning, the day after the Man burned. The past week has been the most transformative week of my life, and the burning of the man symbolized, to me, the destruction of the ego -- both in the eastern sense (the concept of self tied to my identity, and a public persona) and in the Western sense (the part of me that craves money, success, and cultural capital).

The day after everything fell apart in the desert that night, I awoke with an open heart, and I surrendered to what is. I accepted that I’m turning to dust. I embraced myself, and that wall separating me from my fellow burners crumbled. People began to respond to me differently. I danced, I hugged strangers, and I let my pure, child-like self shine through. I realized, in the end, that I have no control over how others perceive my physical form, but i do know that when I look into a mirror, I see my least confident, most terrified self looking back -- which is never my most attractive self.

This revelation struck me when I was riding my bike in the middle of the Playa and stumbled across what I thought was a mirror -- a huge, standalone mirror with an ornate, white frame. What I didn’t realize was that the “mirror” was actually a window, and it just so happened that someone else, riding a bike and wearing a headlamp and a blinky necklace very much like mine, pulled up to the opposite side of the installation just as I did. Since I thought it was a mirror, I judged the other person harshly, thinking he was me. I thought to myself, “Fuck, I look like a dork!” I stood there in the darkness for a few seconds, and then watched my “mirror image” ride away into the night. That’s when I realized that I would never judge another human being as harshly as I judge myself. I also realized that everyone I met in Black Rock City -- Joycebird, Tia, Luna, Eliot, Jason -- they were all reflections of me. I turned to my right and saw a giant heart in the middle of the desert, lighting up the darkness with a neon glow, and I realized that opening my heart was the key to destroying the illusion of separation. When we let go of the ego, and the fear it creates, we radiate a glow that can light up a wasteland in the middle of a vast, cold, empty desert night.

-Matthew MacIntosh

Along a country road walks
A boy no more than seventeen
His life has always been quite good
As good as it could be

Yet his hands are in his pockets
His head is hanging low
His mind is heavy with distress
As he wanders down the road

He kicks a rock and sees it bounce
Though it does not shake his frown
“Hello, my boy!” A cracked voice calls
“Yer lookin’ awfully down!”

Sitting on a porch he sees
A man no more than seventy
His life hasn’t always been good
But good it has been

“Yer seemin’ mighty troubled
That much I can tell
If you don’t mind and got the time
Come on by and set a spell”

Although he was reluctant
He moved from where he stood
Perhaps sharing his concerns
Might do a bit of good

“My name is Andy Sawyer
I just turned seventeen
And life has always been quite good
As good as it could be

“But my parents have supported me
My friends were by my side
I never felt alone
With anything I tried

“I’m scared to leave home
It’s all I’ve ever known--”
“Oh but life is so much more
Than what you have been shown

“The world is full of people
You’ve only known a few
There’ll be many other folks
Who wanna help ya too

“As long as you are selfless
Always givin’ always kind
I reckon love and support
Is what you’re gonna find.”

“But what if I don’t choose
The path I’m meant to take?
What if I just fail
At every choice I ever make?

“I feel so very lost
Like a wish without a well
I’m a flag without a breeze
A witch without a spell

“After all the time I’ve had
I don’t know my purpose still”
“Heck, I dunno my purpose
Don’ think I ever will!”

“Whatever you go try in life
Jus’ give it yer heart n’ soul
Some things’ll make us happy
Some things we can’t control

“Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
How else ya gonna learn?
An’ sometimes we find a nicer place
By takin’ a wrong turn

“You run along home now
An’ just’ enjoy the day
Trust you know what’s best for you
Yer heart’ll lead the way”

Andy thanked the elderly man
And as he waved goodbye
He saw the rock from before
Gave it a kick and watched it fly

A smile stretched across his face
And wiped away his misery
Life is gonna be so good
As good as it can be.

--Tia Mueller