After my interlude in the U.K, I found myself once again in North America, primarily for rock climbing except for one special event. The previous year, I was in Yosemite national park eating a can of beans with a block of cheese when two friends were telling their ‘Stories from the Playa’, at some mega celebration of life in Nevada. There was something in the air that night stirred in me an unspeakable drive to go. I’m going. No two ways about it.
I had no idea at the time that I would meet the Serpent of transmutation that marked the beginning of the end for my perceived egoic identity.
During the last days of August, there was a tepee. A circular space large enough for about 20 people to enter and sit inside. Surrounding it were structures just like it, brimming with hundreds of people coming in from all directions and flying away on their merry way. You see, this bustling encampment was just one ‘block’ inside of many others, all with a different purpose or theme and if you float into the sky and look down from a bird’s eye view, you’ll see an enormous sundial forming 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock.
The center point is a circle called ‘The Playa’, maybe a mile in diameter. Branching out from ‘The Playa’, the ‘blocks’ go about 13 deep (using letters) and sweep across the curvature of the sundial. Somewhere in this iridescent metropolis, our little tepee stood amongst kindred clusters known collectively as the Shaman Dome.
Yes, we’re at Burning Man.
The scorched earth surrounding us is located deep inside the Salt Flats of northern Nevada, known as Black Rock Desert. At its height, 68,000 people gathered here in 2013 for the ongoing experiment of ‘radical self expression and reliance’. A temporary city. Nothing here grows naturally from the ground. Only Sun, Moon, Earth and us to create and reinvent.
Inside the tepee, its late morning and the baking oven is gently wafting hot air under the tarpaulin into the calm space of gathered seekers and veteran practitioners. To my left is Kyla from Canada. A real gem. We crossed paths rock climbing in Utah during the winter of 2012 and has been a good friend ever since. At the time of our meeting, the tendrils of winter began to spread its frost over the valley bottom of Indian Creek, Moab and an exodus for warmer temps began. When the time eventually came to grab contact details, she mentioned her Facebook was named after her shamanic power animal, the Eagle. A spark of curiosity came into being right there and 6 months later, I’m looking for one myself.
The shaman starts by blessing us all with incense. Feathers and animal bones are placed in the centre. He explains that a drum will beat in a consistent bum-bam-bum, bum-bam-bum for 10 minutes, followed by a short breather, then another 10 minutes. Sit up in the classic meditation pose, eyes closed.
He begins by asking you to think of somewhere you went as a child that was a place of trust and safety. I remembered the woods above my mother’s house. The lush countryside of Britain. Memories of walking our family dog, climbing trees, crawling through the undergrowth, the rich palette of flowers in bloom during the spring. The inner sanctum. “Look for a door” he says. A muddy hole under my favourite oak tree appears and a staircase leading down into the void. Your subconscious?
I can’t tell if it’s imagination that will appear and I’ll have to try to make sense of an endless flow of shapes and symbols swimming through me like a river or if I’ll see something real. All I know is to relax and be open. The one question radiating; “Are you out there?”
Ten minutes are up with nothing We listen to people’s parables of what they experienced during this time. Some of them are vivid and I marvel at what they claim to have seen and felt. Some say they also didn’t find anything.
The drum starts again. Time to give it another try. Sanctuary, calm, open. I fight the thoughts of frustration and stay relaxed. The subsequent minute or so was the most mind bending thing I’ve ever witnessed. How can I put it? Think of the geometric framework that we as humans have created in terms of mapping an environment, structure, anything really. From right to left, an image appears in the void of my closed eye lids. An Eagle swooping down to land exactly where Kyla was sitting. On my left.
This released whatever shreds of doubt I was harbouring. It’s real. Subsequently, scales begin to materialise, ebb and flow like a reptile is draped across my eyes. Upon notice, the scales move away with fluidity in an arc and come around to face me. The Snake. It’s face shimmering with energy across its perfect geometrical form. We acknowledge each other but I don’t do anything, I don’t want to. I’m in awe. It opens its jaws slowly and purposefully before swallowing me whole.
The session ends with smooth synchronicity but I’m a little lost for words…stunned actually. It didn’t feel hostile at all…but what did that mean? The shaman explains that it was a good sign. A message of welcome and total embrace. I wanted to reciprocate fully. The two of us together, united in essence. In what way I wonder.
The next day, at ‘Sacred Spaces’ I was admiring some art work on consciousness inspired by the brilliant artist Alex Grey. (www.alexgrey.com). Under the multi coloured awning of the atrium, a group was congregating next to a sign posted ‘Discover your Inner Being’. Naturally I was drawn to participate. It ended up being pretty simple. Again, a circle was formed. “Do any of you guys know each other?” The lovely woman leading the session asked. Two women smiled toward each other, one fully ordained in silver head garments that reminded me of a Buddhist deity with glitter sparkling up along her royal cheekbones and a mane of brown hair beautiful and long. Her friend was blond and fair with wooden bracelets, dream catchers, feathers and shimmering blue eyes. Both had kind faces and carried an air of a clairvoyance. They knew each other. No one else seemed to though.
So, we were instructed to take turns, one at a time, to sit in the middle for others to say what they see in that person’s face using brief adjectives. Various individuals eagerly take turns to convey their insights. Words like “playful” “nurturing” “sexual” and “introverted” start to fly around.
It’s been a fun hour. Our guide has shown or reminded us rather, that we can make astute observations of each other if we can look past quick judgements based on our concepts of identity and the resulting prejudices. The ego and it’s projections. Expressing ourselves from the heart whilst welcoming from the heart. The key, I suppose, is observing these initial impressions before letting it guide your subsequent thoughts, letting your sunshine burn through the gloomy cloud of cynicism. Of course, there will always be an infinite amount of scenarios that say something different but it should be something encouraged nevertheless.
During the last 60 minutes I’ve been a little distracted though. Still smiling and participating yet retaining a minute here, a minute there to ponder and churn the events of the Shaman Dome over in my head. The water was still muddy from the disturbance and would take time to settle. Turning around, we notice the next group filtering in and the vibe says our session is coming to a close. I didn’t go but hey that’s OK…
“Yo, what about Toby? We haven’t seen him yet”. Spinning back to the group, the clairvoyant duo’s eyes beam over in my direction with an inquisitive smile. Being the only one left from the group our guide ushers me into the middle. Plodding myself in the centre, in nothing but my jean shorts and scarf, i look around at the beautiful people we’ve been talking with this past hour. A searching look over my companions saying So, what do we have here? followed by a bashful glance at my hands. The calloused scars of rock climbing in Canada still fresh and embedded in Playa dust like talcum powder. Again, the observations were astonishing. The preliminary comments like “thrill seeker”, “playful”, “sexual”, “deep thinker”, “nomad not yet settled” and “self disciplined” were all kind and surprising especially when I heard “cute”. Yet the home run came from the oracles in the front.
“I can see wisdom from past lives” the woman with earth tones said. Interesting. “Hmm” continued the sparkling brunette “I can also see transmutation occurring in him, hmm yup, like a snake” We lock eyes and she smiles at the acknowledgement. How? This happened yesterday?!
Stepping back out onto the Playa with yet another dose of wonder, the sun begins to set. Gentle gusts of wind send clouds of dust into the expanse above, turning the sun into a tangerine orb. Thousands of people on their multi coloured glowing bicycles are roaming in all directions. Trance and techno beats gently initiate their nocturnal ritual. The sun eventually dips behind the horizon and is met with hooting and hollering from the night owls. I think about this confirmed transmutation. Maybe I’m getting ready to settle in the United States? I miss Diana with a pang. I wish i could share this with you, and start to think about what life would be like in the future with her, rope access work and climbing on the road. A dream for an idealist like me.
It didn’t occur to me that knowing the path and walking the path is something different entirely.
The man burns in 3 days.