Every year, for the past 13 (this will be my 14th), at the end of the summer I have packed up and headed for the desert. I tend to just tell people I’m going on retreat, because that’s what it is for me. I’m off the grid, dealing with extreme weather conditions, in sacred space. Every year, something arises from nothing and then disappears again. You can find whatever you are seeking, but it’s a better experience if you go in without expectation. Most people who go, at some point during the week, have a spiritual crisis, a breakdown, a death of the ego, and they come out stronger for it.
But there’s a reconnection with the spirit of childhood. Remember kindergarten? When you had something really cool, and you just wanted to share it with everyone? When you wore what seemed fun? Where everything could be art? When a sandwich and a nap could fix most things? That.
The something that arises from nothing is, amongst other things, an experiment in temporary community, a city of (now) over 65,000 people that is built and disappears without a trace again in less than a month. Under those conditions, people have the opportunity to experiment with their ideas of community, to conduct themselves differently, to express themselves more authentically. There is little authority, and people have the chance to resolve their difficulties without outside influence. You can, essentially, ask for an adult if you really need one, and there are several law enforcement agencies on site, so there isn’t any true lawlessness.
The entire event takes place on an alkali dry lake bed, essentially a dry, salty clay that eats through your belongings and your skin, stripping away everything, whether you’re ready for it or not. I suspect this contributes to shamanic-death-cum-nervous-breakdown that so many experience. The bullshit, the masks, the safety net – they all get taken by the desert. But it’s magical. I learn something new about myself every year.
There is almost no commerce. There is sharing, what is called a “gifting economy.” You can buy ice , or coffee, or get your RV pumped, but money is prohibited from changing hands in any other circumstance. You’re not even really supposed to barter, although people do. It’s a huge paradigm shift, you can’t really fault people for not being able to fully wrap their heads around it.
The event has brought a term, formerly the purview of wilderness backpacking enthusiasts, into a wider vocabulary – Leave No Trace. You bring what you need, you pack it all back out again. The desert is, by the end of October, returned to its original state. Because of this, you are encouraged to not even let things hit the ground. You pick up anything you see on the ground. You are even asked to spend some time helping clean up communal areas before going home. The idea is to leave it as you found it or better.
What if we approached everything in life that way? What if it was all about sharing what you had and leaving everything better than how you found it? Honestly, I don’t think you need a retreat to start bringing that ethos into your life.
I suppose I am a bit hypocritical, at least in one regard. I don’t really want to share this event with more people. I expend more than a little energy trying to convince people not to go, at least not if they haven’t been before. Part of it is that I don’t think it’s for everyone. There are so many reasons not to go, really. It’s dusty, it’s harsh, it takes a lot of energy, you have to be extremely self-reliant, it’s hard to completely unplug from the world for 4-10 days, and, frankly. It’s expensive. I figure, if you’re really meant to go, you don’t need my encouragement. And forewarned is forearmed.
Anyway, that’s where I am. I’ll be back in September…