September 8, 2010

The Ecstatic Experience

Posted in Experiences tagged , at 10:09 pm by tiffanyannbrown


In the words of Emily Dickinson, “The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.”

Everywhere I looked this past week I saw “Burning Man” and frankly, the beckoning has become a bit tiresome. For those of you who don’t know what Burning Man is, read on.

If it wasn’t for seeing a constant stream of well-decorated RVs and dust-covered vehicles adorned with bicycles passing through Reno, it was being parked next to one while filling up my tank at the gas station. If it wasn’t running across old “Burning Man” email exchanges pondering the cultural significance of the event with my favorite professor in college, it was running into the story “Burn Baby Burn” by Charlie Johnston while flipping through this month’s issue of Nevada Magazine. If it wasn’t hearing about the general care practitioner who rescued me from excruciating pain at a gymnastics class after dislocating my elbow in 2008 that got married at Burning Man last week (who also happens to be an acrobat that used to perform with Controlled Burn), it was having Burning Man photo essays bombard my desktop while filtering through the daily Reno Gazette Journal business headlines. It was noticing that certain people from my office were visibly missing in order to take part in the festivities, again. It was my 50-something-year-old daycare provider telling me she had just returned from the ‘vacation of a lifetime.’ It was seeing the memorizing pictures pour in throughout the week on my friends’ Facebook accounts, capturing their unique and individual experiences.

So what is Burning Man? According to one of my favorite professors, it is “as convincing a demonstration of the power of ecstatic experience as the world has ever seen.” In a 2008 he sent me an email describing the event and why he thought I needed to attend it. He wrote:

With about 50,000 people expected this year, the event has basically doubled in size just since I started going in 2002.  Preparations are taking some hours each week already.  For others, the building of art cars and palatial camps is well underway in warehouses and garages across the country.  It is as convincing a demonstration of the power of ecstatic experience as the world has ever seen, I think.  All of the preparation tells us that it is not about a formless or purely entropic ecstasy.  There is obviously direction and intent in this, so the ecstasies are in a sense structured.  This is a bit paradoxical, but poetry is like that also … Burning Man is obviously contrived, but it really propels you some distance.

After reading this I wondered more about ecstatic experience. According to the book “The Mystic Experience: a Descriptive and Comparative Analysis” by Jordan D. Paper:

The ecstatic experience of self-loss, the mystic experience, is often understood as a union of experience as well as an experience of nothingness. Far more frequent are unitive experiences without the loss of self. In other words, we experience a union with God or the cosmos or a merging with a larger entity, but we remain aware of ourselves being so conjoined; that is, the union is not total, for we still exist, in some sense, and remain cognizant of the union …

What causes these experiences? From the reports, there seem to be many so-called triggers. These would include near-death experiences, the effects of meditation, the experience of childbirth, the effects of intense prayer or meditation, the use of psychotropic substances. An intense aesthetic experience, often of nature—a sunset, a beautiful scene, flowers, music, a painting, and so forth—may lead to a unitive experience or simply an experience so intense that it is, in itself, ecstatic. For those theologically inclined, ecstatic religious experiences are due to the grace of God.

Clearly, the ecstatic experience that is Burning Man lies at the core of what makes the event so special to the thousands of people who attend the event each year from all walks of life. (From a Northern Nevada Business Weekly article entitled “For a week, Gerlach joins Las Vegas, LAX as busy air destination,” a spokesman for the airport said carriers would bring an estimated 15,000 air travelers from 34 nations to Reno for Burning Man.)  It’s why those who attend the festival return to everyday life devoid of the language necessary to capture the essence of the experience. It’s why you hear about how the event “blew their mind” or “changed the way they now see the world” and why they will most certainly return again the following year. In the words of my professor:

The irony is that I now think of Burning Man as my most reliable week of sanity each year. In my case, it was not an acquired taste; the moment the greeter at the gate uttered the ritualistic ‘welcome home’ I knew right where I was … sooner or later the participation in anything worthwhile means letting go of the already and diving into the not yet, getting into the swing of it on one’s own.

In closing and on a much lighter note, click here for a 2 minute clip from Comedy Central’s Reno 911 poking a little fun at Burning Man.

Or, you can click here for a link to a video attempting to describe one individual’s experience on YouTube.

No matter which way you look at it, Burning Man is certainly an event of cultural significance worth exploring, assuming you can see past all of the fanfare and distractions through to the essence of what it truly is.

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