Burning Man is home to intricate art, elaborate costumes, and even an Orgy Dome, but it’s also a site where some people go to connect with their spirituality. According to the nonprofit the Burning Man Project, almost half of the Burning Man community — 45.4% — identify as spiritual, but not religious. An additional 5.4% identify as religious, with various Christian denominations, Judaism, and Buddhism being the most common faiths.
The Ten Principles of Burning Man include “radical inclusion” and “radical self-expression,” which allow for many types of spiritual experiences. Every year since 1986, thousands of people gather together and form the temporary Black Rock City, where they live, create art, and form a community. After nine days, they burn a large wooden "Man," as well as many other pieces of temporary art, dismantle their camps, and go, leaving no trace.
While some people go to Burning Man to seek out a spiritual experience, others are surprised by what they find there. One attendee, Daniel Saynt, tells Refinery29 that Burners "are an amazing representation of the values of love and acceptance, so I'd imagine it difficult for someone to go there and not have a spiritual experience."
Daniel Saynt, 36, New York, NY, Founder of the New Society For Wellness (NSFW); attended Burning Man in 2014, 2015, and 2017
“When I first went to Burning Man, I had just come out as bisexual. For years, I had to deal with my sexuality being demonized by women and men in my life. The idea that someone like me couldn't exist led to a lot of self-hate and destructive behaviors such as cigarette and alcohol addiction, as well as general anxiety over how others might view my mannerisms or actions. Burning Man was a place where I could just be myself. There was no judgement, and that feeling was spiritual for me.
“Being a POC, I don't think I ever really knew anything about Burning Man. The scene there is predominantly white. I had a friend who convinced me to go, and I was honestly worried about fitting in not only because of my sexuality, but also because of my race. Nothing could have prepared me for the transformational experience I enjoyed there. I had no idea how spiritual, inviting, and accepting this subculture of mostly white people was until I went. So much in America has changed, but the citizens of Black Rock City remain the same. They are an amazing representation of the values of love and acceptance, so I'd imagine it difficult for someone to go there and not have a spiritual experience.
“There are many elements of [the sexual wellness and cannabis club I founded] New Society For Wellness that come from what I learned at Burning Man. Before you arrive on the playa, you're given a guidebook. So much of the education there was focused on sex, sexual identity, relationships and providing support for LGBTQ+ voices. Burning Man truly taught me to appreciate the inquisitive nature of humans and their interest in being better people, better lovers, and better communicators. My faith is strongly based on the importance of teaching others how to love and be loved in return, and I believe that Burning Man truly captures that.
“My upbringing as a Jehovah's Witness trained me to view all sex or sexual expression as sin. The repressive nature of nearly two decades of trained doctrine caused me to fear sex and feel shame for my own natural desires. The amount of times I cried begging God to cure me, the constant feelings of thinking I was evil for what I felt — all of that was in me before I went to Burning Man. It was a weight I couldn't quite shake, a cement block on my chest at night, a shame that kept me depressed and at times suicidal.
"I'm still a Christian today, but now my spirituality is greatly tied to my belief that if Jesus were alive today, he'd go to Burning Man every year. There's no greater appreciation for his two main commandments — love God, and love others as you love yourself — than a festival that teaches radical self-love, gratitude for others, and appreciation for nature. We all know Jesus was a hippie.”
Stephanie Thoma, 28, San Francisco, CA; attended Burning Man in 2017
“I attended the 2017 Burn, and I had a spiritual experience while in the Temple. The Temple is where people go to mourn. I laid down with a few friends to gaze up through the skylight in the Temple's center into the night sky. A woman crouched down near my head and nonverbally motioned a question: ‘Is it okay?’ I nodded my head ‘Yes,’ and that moment, she closed her eyes and placed her hands on my head. I felt a warm surge of energy course through my head and body. When I closed my eyes, I saw a green shade. It felt confusing and unique yet pleasant, and I would later learn the name for this is reiki healing.
“After the surge of energy, I wasn't sure if there was a long-term effect or not. I was curious to experience more of it, but not urgently so. I went back to my life as usual, and it wasn't until a year later when I met a reiki master at a women's circle. I revisit the practice regularly with her as an extension of personal development. When you've read every self-help book and intellectually and emotionally worked through what could be holding you back in life, the next natural step for me has been diving into spirituality. The reiki experience at Burning Man was a catalyst for being open to such a practice.”
Shyna, 26, Santa Cruz, CA; attended Burning Man in 2017 and 2018, and attending in 2019
"My first year, I went in with a totally open mind and no expectations (as you should every year). I can honestly say that the entire thing is one large way of connecting spiritually with others who are open to it. The intensity and amount of authentic connection I was able to make really blew my mind. I wouldn’t say it was unexpected, because I set my intention to allow myself to be emotionally vulnerable and open to new experiences.
"It feels like your heart is open (and opening bigger by the second) as you are taking in someone who is presenting themselves to you in a raw and vulnerable form. It's true human intimacy at its core, without social norms and expectations, aside from consent."
Sarah Enni, 34, Los Angeles, CA; host of the podcast First Draft with Sarah Enni and author of the YA novel Tell Me Everything; attended Burning Man in 2016, 2017, 2018, and attending in 2019
"The first time I went to Burning Man, I had a spiritual experience at the Temple, which is where people come together and share pictures or mementos of loved ones they've lost or things they want to leave behind. You're reminded that every single human being is suffering and has experienced loss. My spirituality comes from a sense of human connection. When we let our guards down and work together, we can create something that’s more beautiful than you could ever achieve alone.
"Since my second year at Burning Man, I’ve also been co-running a theme camp with fellow YA author, Kirsten Hubbard. Our theme is that we’re a cult. We were watching Wild Wild Country and thinking about the anniversary of the Manson murders, swept up in this zeitgeist-y fascination with cults. We were interested in the language of spiritual movements, how they visually present themselves, and what makes someone so charismatic that you would want to believe anything they told you, even if all your senses pointed you in another direction.
"The moment when the cult shifted from being a funny idea to being something a little more profound was when we held our first initiation ceremony. Kirsten and I were standing next to each other in front of 40 strangers, surrounded by all of our camp members wearing robes. We were doing a chant and repeat with people, and not a single one of these strangers bothered to ask what was in the alcoholic beverage we gave them or to think twice about the words they were repeating. They were there to go along with us on this experience. Kirsten and I turned to each other like, This was just a funny joke until just now, now it’s real.
"What I appreciate about Burning Man is it asks you to do the hard work of finding what you need within yourself. I have found a more genuine, earnest hard-fought sense of spirituality at Burning Man than anywhere else in my adult life."
Sabrina, 29, Brooklyn, NY; attended Burning Man in 2018
"I’m from the Bay Area, so I thought I knew all about Burning Man: rich white people going to the desert and partying for a whole week. Then I moved to New York and made a bunch of friends that convinced my skeptical self otherwise. I went last year in 2018 after deeply resonating with the Ten Principles and deciding I need this for my 29th birthday.
"People use the phrase 'playa magic,' and although I was skeptical, I’m now a believer. A campmate joked about running into a woman who brought her cat’s ashes to the playa, so imagine my delight the next day to meet a woman who… brought her cat’s ashes so the deceased cat could enjoy the burn, too. Or when I mysteriously ran into friends at some early morning hour just as the sun broke over the playa. This is a vast city of 80,000 people with zero cell reception, a place so massive that you absolutely need a bike to get around, so happening upon friends who aren't in your camp is an enormous deal.
"Although living actual magic realism in all its connected, coincidental glory was an experience itself, I’d say the most divine was on the last night. I’ve never had a good relationship with my mother, and we had our worst fight, a fight so horrible that I disassociated a few times just to escape that present emotional anguish, the day before I left for the burn. I vividly remember sitting under my favorite installation, Paraluna. I cried because I wished that she, too, could also experience this unabashedly simple joy: an oversized, kaleidoscopic, LED-lit parasol that gently twirled and lowered to chipper classical music.
"After depositing my note at the Temple (literally moments before it closed to visitors in preparation for its burn), I ran into the creators of the Paraluna as they were dismantling it. I told them how much Paraluna meant to me, and in return, they gave me uplifting, cherished advice about handling parental trauma.
"There’s something so uniquely pure about the abundant joy found on the playa. Everyone has such altitudinous cheer that it’s infectious. I came out of it revitalized, because the positive energy and creativity was enough to blaze a new fire within me.
"Social media makes Burning Man out to a glamorous party in the desert with glitter and feathers, but it’s so much more than that. It’s 80,000 people reveling in as much freedom as the federal government allows, a giant carnival playground of art, workshops, music, and all sorts of colorful characters. It’s definitely for able-bodied folks who can easily withstand several miles of daily biking in an arid desert environment, as well as people that can afford taking time off work and spending money for this week. Although Burning Man is predominantly white, I’m tight with an organization, the NAACBurners, trying to dismantle that and make Burning Man accessible for everyone."