Six life lessons I learnt in the depths of the desert - Burning Man 2017 || Words and film photos by Birralee Hassen

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Six life lessons I learnt in the depths of the desert.


The mind can be a scary place, but I am not my thoughts.


I took half an acid trip one evening. A green mint, bitten in half and shared with my friend. Harmless, right? Usually yes, but for me, this particular experience silently screamed no so loud, that I thought the hurricane inside my head would never subside.


This was my life now. I couldn’t go back. How could I ever be what I was before? Had I tried too hard to unravel the unknowns of my earlier years of existence? Was my whole life built on top a jenga tower made of lies? I was one trembling block away from crashing to the ground in a defeated heap. I felt angry with myself for pushing my mind to the point that I did. I felt scared at the prospect of regaining course in the direction of my dreams.


It was scary, it was hard, and all I could do the next twenty-four hours was huddle in my tent, wishing to sleep but knowing that without assistance of a sleeping tablet, that thoughtless luxury would elude me. The trip wore off, but the usually locked door to my newly exposed thoughts had been flung wide open, and they were still running rampant. Focus on the now, was all I could think to myself. I sat in the dust, with a box of paints and some cardboard, and watched as the colour left the brush.  


A month on, and I am still coming to terms with what happened inside my mind that evening. It’s been hard to write, it’s been hard to be, because what do you do when you feel like you have lost your joy? I learnt that feeling is healing, so I am acknowledging the thoughts as they come up, and acknowledging the emotions attached to those thoughts. An observation of how these thoughts and emotions make me feel puts some space between, and lessons the severity of thinking that this is ME.


I am not my thoughts, and I am not my emotions. I am I. The mind can be a wondrous and wicked place, and everything in between. However, no mental state is permanent, we are all in a process of living and learning, and the hardest times teach the greatest lessons.


Awareness and acknowledgment makes for far easier mental navigation than oblivion and denial.




Change; uncomfortable but inevitable.


Rewind to Burning Man two years ago. Dancing on top of speakers, Molotov cocktails of myriad drugs and alcohol, extravagant, attention demanding, my experience was a wondrous week of whirlwinds. Backtrack another two years, and I highly doubt that there was a night where I came back to camp before the sun rose.


So this year I really felt the change in my approach. My priorities were not associated with holding down chunks of magic mushroom that wanted to make their way back from my belly and out of my mouth. I didn’t want to take gummy bears and insert them into various bodily orifices. As fun as it was, I didn’t want to rocket launch my brain into outer space while my body flailed helplessly behind.


Don’t get me wrong, Burning Man provides a platform for possibly the greatest party scene in the world. I have nothing against it; in fact I’m usually all for it! I’ve just done it that way before, and I wanted to experience this year differently. I wanted to be by myself. I wanted to dig deeper, to army crawl through the man made mind maze that was building itself up in front of me.


It was interesting to note the changes in myself. Perhaps my hermit like characteristics were amplified by the three weeks of solo time my bicycle trip had provided. I initially felt the pressure to live up to past stories that were circulating.


Then I realised, change is inevitable. Sometimes it can be uncomfortable to recognise that you are different to an earlier version of yourself that everyone loved. But I would hope that in two years I have changed. I would hope that in two years I have grown. It would be a shame to stay stagnant, to keep the same priorities, to think and act the same as an earlier version of myself.


Keep learning, keep growing, and keep CHANGING. It’s on the other side of the scariest change that exhilarating greatness happens.



Consent is paramount.


“Let’s do a body paint workshop!” My friend Kat and I nervously yet excitedly entered a dome, filled with about twenty-five people. We split in to groups of four, performed a sacred undressing ritual, consisting of each item of clothing removed representing a fear, and picked up our brushes. “Do not paint any part of any of your partners bodies without first asking for consent”, was our one rule.


In a world like Burning Man, consent is imperative. Albeit, consent is imperative wherever you are on this planet, but when more than the normal amount of nakedness and sexual exploration surrounds you, it becomes paramount.


One of the guys in our group, as he removed his t-shirt, expressed his fear that he would move through the whole week without making true connections or friendships. Post workshop, he asked me if I wanted to go for an explore with him. “Sure!” I agreed as I jumped on my bike, silently noting the odd sensation of doing such an everyday experience without the normalcy of clothing. 


Riding out in to the desert, we stopped to take photos. “Can you take a photo of my bum?” I asked him. He had earlier in the workshop asked before brushing over both my butt cheeks. “Of course” he agreed. I faced away and watched his shadow as he took a few photos on my phone. I saw his other hand, the hand that was holding his own phone; lift once as he snapped a picture before going back to the hand that held my phone.


My mood instantly dropped, and I walked silently back to my bike. “You know I would have said yes if you had just asked me to take a photo with your own phone”, I stated. “I didn’t take a photo of you” he denied, as way of return. Angry, confused, do I trust his word or do I trust my instincts, I got on my bike and started riding towards the sun.


He followed; I kept riding until the silhouette of a female naked body, two stories high, appeared in front of us. I love how the art installations appear from nowhere in the middle of the desert, and in true Burning Man style this artwork found its way to us exactly at the right moment.


I stayed silent, in this moment this man no longer my friend. Sure it was “just a photo” and I don’t actually mind who has a photo of my bum. I’m sure there is more than one out there on the world wide web. That wasn’t the point. The point is that we had just done a workshop which built trust, we had just spoken as a group about the importance of consent. To try and sneak a photo without my knowing betrayed my trust, when he could have easily just asked, and I would have readily said yes.


He apologised, asking for forgiveness for his behaviour and admitting that was not the right way to go about creating a new friendship. I thought about it for a moment, accepted his apology and put it in the past. “Let’s go take photos of our bums with this giant bum”.


It was a small, and some may even deem it, an insignificant issue. But it was the first time that I ever pulled someone up on doing something without my consent. I trusted my instincts, even when he initially denied the action. It felt good to be respectful to my own body and intuition. I learnt a big lesson that day, and I hope that my new friend did too.


Labels Suck. 

I camped in Priscilla - Queen of the Doof, camp. It was filled with the most wonderful humans. Everyone has varying levels of masculine and feminine within them, why give a fuck if the scales tip more to one side than the other. What genitals someone is born with shouldn’t dictate their identity. 


Personal sexual identification or sexual preferences are a non-issue at Burning Man, the way it should be. I don’t like when people make a massive deal about how ‘fine’ they are with labeled identity, or highlight how accepting they are of ‘feminists/lesbians/gays/trans/whatever'. If it weren’t an issue, it shouldn’t even be mentioned in the first place. We are humans. If two (or more) humans want to love each other, what gender they identify with should be irrelevant. 


If you want to do something, do it now.

Burning Man is the third largest city in Nevada for the week that it runs. Sixty five thousand people in a swirling whirlwind of desert dust and new experiences. You want to stop to ride the bucking duck? You want to stop to take a photo of the Boeing 747 aeroplane or the front yard full of flamingos? Do it now, or it wont happen.


“I’ll come back,” or “I’ll do it later”, doesn’t fly. You may think you will, but you wont. If you want to experience that thing that enticed your curiosity, you do it then, or not at all. There is no way you will remember where the pussy day spa is located that you passed on your way back from the toilet block. There is no way that you will actually go back to the giant swing that spins 360 degrees, because even if you tried, you will get distracted by the people that call out to you and start feeding you pickles accompanied by a condensed milk and vodka snow cone… and yes my stomach just recoiled and curdled at the memory.


I missed out a few things this year, by falling in to the trap of “I’ll do it later”.  This lesson can be applied to life outside of the desert too. Getting anything done necessitates a good awareness of how we use our time. If you wait until you feel ready, you’ll never do anything.



Ritual is imperative to a happy existence.

The theme for this years Burning Man was radical ritual. What does ritual mean to me? For me, it’s a bit of stillness in the morning, cross-legged and straight spined. It’s three pages of writing whatever is on my mind, even if I don’t feel like writing when I first wake up. It’s the ritual of eating lightly, breathing deeply, moving freely and gazing raptly.


Rituals provide the framework for a life lived with purpose and direction. Practicing a ritual, whatever it may be, helps with self-awareness, self-discipline, and ultimately self-improvement. What does ritual mean to you? 

Birralee Hassen