Soul Crafting, Transforming Trauma & the Burning Man Experience
“One must have chaos within one’s self in order to give birth to a dancing star.”
– Freiderich Neitche
From and early age, children are taught to move forward in life as if everything is “normal.” As soon as we can participate, we are acculturated to the ordinary. The value of normalcy is, after all, a core survival strategy for the developing ego and the ordered society. But, these are no ordinary times in which we live. These are times of extraordinary chaos, change and newness for our human race. They are non-ordinary times.
Could a wise response to non-ordinary times be for ordinary people to cultivate practices and presence around the non-ordinary? Could it be that we are now called to be non-ordinary people, or a super-ordinary people? The dancing star has answers: the one who can hold chaos within herself knows how to transform trauma. She knows how to midwife herself and others through the fire of difficulty, and to birth a more radiant, soulful existence. What allows an individual to hold a fruitful chaos within the self that may give birth to a new star of wisdom in the collective? And, what kind of a collective gives birth to such a dancing star?
I love these questions passionately. And, I recognize myself and my life path as an unfolding fractal of the answers. Almost since birth, I have been preparing for these times. I was born in 1972, and remember, from as early as three, an acute awareness of global nuclear threat, immanent environmental catastrophe, and the impossibility of endless expansion on a finite planet. I sensed intuitively that these times are like no other as the “end times” of a present way of being for the human race. I remember contemplating the possible destruction of the planet, with both terror and fascination. I knew that I and WE could simply be wiped out – within my lifetime – through our own arrogance, greed and habit. I grew up with this as the emotional underground of my developing consciousness. This “trauma” led me into phases of acute depression, as well as long periods of creativity and activism.
Also significant: I came into this life after the birth of truly global consciousness. The first outer space picture of the planet was taken in over ten years before my birth. The image and its implications were well imbedded in collective consciousness by the time I came around. I have always imagined myself as a part of a global society and an evolving whole planet. Thus, my self-identity naturally reflects a co-creative impulse that includes my family, community and culture, as well as the totality of the World Soul and Gaia herself. My perspective and experience has been shaped by a sense of “membership” in an emerging planetary culture. These two factors combined: the awareness of immanent chaos and felt sense of the planetary collective, have led me to believe that our choices, our resiliency and our willingness will define the future (or non-future) of our race and our collective spirit.
When I made the decision to join in the Trauma Mentoring program at Wisdom University, I was moving from an inner knowing that has been a core operating principle of my life. The call to be a trauma mentor is the call to be a responder, a leader, a healer and a wisdom beacon in an increasingly chaotic world. It is a call midwife the dancing star in the lila of cacophony. Trauma happens. It has always been a part of the initiatory path of a human life, but this moment in earth’s history is unparalleled in the potential it holds for mass scale upheavals precipitated by super-weather, epidemics, drought, war, famine, rising seas, terrorism, economic collapse, unemployment, and failed social systems. Thus, trauma could become, and is becoming, systemic, endemic and unavoidable. How do we respond? Are we ready to be “response – able?”
Dancing stars – we must resist the temptation to shy away from trauma. We have to stop pushing the dirt under the rug. Rather than hiding from difficulty, or sitting helpless in front of the TV, we must participate. And, we must learn to stay present with what is. In all this chaos, we as a race have a great spiritual and evolutionary opportunity to break down and break through calcified habits of the ordinary. Can we approach trauma and bring the skills and mindset of trauma mentoring to bear at this time in such a way as to help precipitate a radical evolutionary leap? Could a small segment of the population show up as soul-centered “first responders,” and thereby significantly affect the whole? Could trauma mentoring be a significant line of development within the current spiral of consciousness development?
Let’s imaging that “we” – the entire human population- have now reached the pointed edge of a bottomless drop-off. There is no choice but to jump. To the right, there is awareness, brilliance, response-ability and wisdom. To the left, there is stasis, fear and terror. Which do we choose?
We are at a potential point of punctuated equilibrium in our human consciousness journey whereby individuals, communities, cultures and an entire planet can take a new step towards awakening through the initiatory gateways of difficulty. This is the invitation of trauma mentoring – to choose awareness, and lean to dance as we fall.
How to Birth the Dancing Star?
“It’s the end of the world as we know it. And, I feel fine.” -R.E.M.
Where in the world are soul crafters and trauma mentors birthed? Obviously, they are trained at Wisdom University. But, with all honor and respect, the existence of this program is not a “new” thing, rather it is pointing to and co-generative with a much larger line of development in emerging wisdom culture: the line of soul crafting, trauma mentoring and soul stewardship. This line is represented by the voices of Bill Plotkin, Krakaur, James Hillman, David Whyte, and many others who are re-birthing and defining the process of soul centered transformation. But, it is also a voice emerging from the crevices of individual experience – the experience of my generation (and those younger than myself) who are choosing an essentially creative, generative and life affirming response to all the chaos in the house. We are choosing a coherent, transformative response-ability in the face of trauma. On the edges of popular culture and on the cutting edge of the main stream is a rising tide of intelligence that meets the flux of life with spirit, creativity, levity and love. These individuals are teaching themselves and each other how to hold chaos within themselves and how to mid-wife a new earth. They create fertile training grounds for themselves: festivals, gatherings, workshops, events and social/political actions, where they get to practice and deepen their mastery. The people, events and ways of knowing that are the unsung contributors to this tide of soul are the subject of this paper, specifically the training ground that is the Burning Man Experience. Through this microcosm, I am exploring the holon of the dancing star and the culture(s) that co-generates her.
Willfully Arriving In Chaos
Literally days after finishing our class, I found myself at what is probably the most non-ordinary gathering of the summer season – Burning Man. Every year, over 40,000 people from every sector of society converge in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada for a weeklong festival over the Labor Day Holiday. They come from all over the world, from every walk of life, to birth a temporary living city in one of the most arid, inhospitable and starkly beautiful places on the planet: an ancient dry lake bed surrounded by rugged red and black mountains. In the space of a few days, an entire city appears, almost as though it has built itself on the white flatness of the once empty playa. The fine, alkaline dust creates a film on everything, permeating every crack and cranny. The sky is unceasingly bright. Days boil. Nights plunge to near freezing. There is no water, no pant life, and no break from the wind and sun. Pitiless 40 to 70mph winds can carry away any unsecured object. A human without shade and water will quickly succumb to overexposure. In an environment like this, a neighbor is a valuable thing. You do not take your fellow humans, your water, your food, your shelter or the elements for granted. They are the webs of your survival, and you know it. Those who choose to come, choose to consciously participate in a collective ritual, a vast creative outpouring that simultaneously takes one to the edge of survival. It is a unique choice that highlights the fragility and majesty of life, and power of choice itself.
The playa begs you to co-create with her exquisite emptiness. She strips you of all of your daily norms, and dares you to approach her with infinite respect, as an empty canvas whose features can change at any moment. On still days, colors and images pop against the landscape. People, wearing goggles and dust masks, appear as ants in the vast openness. The city rises as they scramble around raising tents, domes, yurts, tipi’s, and every kind of sculpture imaginable. Within a few days, streets are defined, addresses established, neighbors get to know one another. Soon, there is an ordered flow of traffic: pedestrians, bikers and art vehicles. And, all of this functions as an entirely GIFT economy. There is no exchange of money here, only the exchange of energy. The level of creative genesis boggles the mind: survival and harmony; porto-potties and sensual beauty; juxtaposition in form and meaning. The white vastness holds it all – the playa is simultaneously changed and unmoved. It makes a person feel small and insignificant and like an amazing super-hero at the same time.
In this paradoxical place, multiple energy patterns, ideologies and memes collide, are embraced with a creative spirit, and find synergy. A convergent, holographic intelligence emerges that supports a collective capacity to hospice an old way of being and to midwife a new phase in human behavior, evolution and society. Numerous soul crafting factors are present in this unique social space that combine to create something entirely new, different and “next level.” These include, intense elements, the rapidity of growth and decay, the assumption of risk (physical, emotional, mental and spiritual), the weaving of group field, massive and individual ritual and ceremony, altered states combined with personal and group practice, racial, ethnic, spiritual and socio-economic diversity, the collision/inclusion of multiple memes within a single society, and an emphasis on embodiment. These and other factors inform and actually generate a culture – a holon – that has the capacity to craft the soul and to transform trauma. People literally meet challenge, change, pain and difficulty differently in this environment than they do in most other environments. What makes this society different?
The Collective Intentional Field
Burning Man is a Soul Craft crucible. 40,000 people do a crazy, wild, shamanic thing: they willingly and knowingly bring themselves into contact with the very edge of the world to partner with the elements and a massive, uncontrollable expression of creativity and destruction. They prepare for the worst and expect magic. All week long, people unleash the totality of their humanity through dance, elaborate rites of passage, and rituals of beauty, while living and relating in one of the harshest environments on the planet. People come with radical intentions of transformation and transmutation, shape shifting, edge playing, creating dreams, re-weaving core stories of self, embodying fantasy, and letting go of habitual patterns. Most have spent months or weeks preparing. Many bring intentionally focused art projects, archetypal costuming and performance art or artifacts. They come alone or with friends and join an entire city whose primary purpose is to hold and reflect the great chaos of the collective human creative spirit and to offer it up into the flames of the mystery. They bring every aspect of themselves, and all these parts converge. The collective empathic field begs for participation and non-fixity of consciousness. Soul level confrontation with the self is immanent. Thus, “Visionary experience springs from dichotomies that at first seem irrevocable. There is desire and despair – the desire to commune with the soul, the despair born of soul estrangement. There is attraction and repulsion – attraction to the rich realms of the dark, repulsion from its monsters and demons… If we sink deep enough into these dichotomies, they shift into paradoxes – not either/or but both/and. The soul embraces the poles.” (Plotkin, 2003, 218) Ecstasy is born of despair, recognition out of the deepest feelings of loss.
The archetypal wanderer appears in the dust. There is a willingness to be lost, to not know, to live and explore at the edge of what is rationally tolerable – to see what will happen. One becomes a sojourner, and thereby opens to a larger perspective of the possible expressions of one’s life. “By trusting your unknowing… you become eligible to choose new, larger standards… that come from… the depths of your soul. The art of being lost is not a matter of merely getting lost, but rather being lost and enthusiastically surrendering to the unlimiting potential of it.” (Plotkin, 2003, 249) A place in the heart and the psyche open up no only to tolerate chaos, but to assimilate it as a reflective opportunity for the soul. The gift is a widening and a deepening of the capacity to dance as a star, and to dance with others, in their cacophony of color and chiaroscuro of light and shadow.
Unity in Diversity: Holon of the Outer Community
Once the city is built, it hosts one of the largest ongoing parties in the world with everyone in the city as guest, participant and creator: 40,000 dancing stars in birth, death, free-fall and free-for-all. People, ideas and expressions careen and collide in every possible direction. Within the greater holon of the city, individuals and camps create their participation from every lock or meme of social development. (Beck and Cowan, 2002) In the Red meme, “Death Guild” hosts the “Thunder Dome” where people sign up to for gladiator style fighting. Their mission: “Bringing senseless violence to the playa since 1999: Dome fights | Fire Garden | Mayhem.” (Theme Camp Archives, 2007) Huge crowds gather and swarm up and around their steel dome, cheering and jeering as heavy metal music blasts. Though the bats and bludgeons are foam covered, injuries are frequent. Primal, red energy is given a sanctioned space for expression and release. The whole “Death Guild” crew holds space for this as darkly spiritual warriors. Across the street, literally 100 yards away, in the high Yellow/Turquoise Meme, Entheon Village hosts the Pantheogenesis, – a modern mystery school with seven interconnected temples holding a progression of consciousness towards oneness. Classes, ceremonies, panel discussions, sound healing and meditation are ongoing. Each temple space is a different sanctuary, learning and practice environment. People congregate to learn about and discuss emerging consciousness, to meditate, or simply receive a “frequency blast” from the incredible crystal grids. People wander in between these two camps in seconds.
There are thousands of such “Theme Camps” with occupations (pre-occupations!?!) as diverse as the human imagination. Each function as a smaller holon of consciousness within the city. The “HebeeGeebie Healers” lead yoga, chi kung, relationship counseling, Reiki and other healing workshops (Yellow). Half a block over, “Barbie Death Camp” showcases an entirely pink exhibit of Barbie Dolls within a miniature chain link enclosure: a parody of “the American Dream.” (cynical Green Meme). The “Official Evil Empire of Burning Man” boasts: “Our Official Goals: To take over Burning Man completely and force people to do what they want! In the meantime, to explore the duality of the Visceral vs. the Metaphysical through Meditation and FIRE!!! LOTS OF FIRE!!!” (Blue Meme meets Green). In and archetypal expression of the deep Purple Meme, “Magic Forest” proclaims: “Come romp, play and pose amongst our old growth tree spirits, mystical magical mushroom, green man and lady of the woods. The Giant Puppets will come alive, strolling, romping and playing on the playa. Volunteers welcome. Play the wheel of Karma Game. Get a free florescent, artistically designed, bike identification tag. What gifts are hidden in the mysterious knot-holes of our gifting tree? Our Forest is inhabited by a colony of misfit monkeys. Play their games. Adopt a gorilla gram.”
As a citizen of Black Rock City, you slip stream between memes constantly (all the while held by the random whims of the Playa herself). You never know where you’ll end up. In both the social and the nature realms, you have traveled “into the wild” of what is imaginally, emotionally and sometimes physically tolerable. You have cultivated and co-created this non-ordinary reality by choice. Because of your choice, you taste your power within the chaos. This embrace of wild diversity invites an inner fluidity and skillfulness of navigation between various memes, selves, and emerging expressions of chaos in the world. You are becoming a non-ordinary person – one who can hold chaos within one’s self – a soul centered activator in life.
Strategies of the Soul Centered Wanderer
“Think of chaos as dancing raspberries.” – Mary Oliver, after 9/11
So, what does an individual’s experience look like – as a single holon within the larger holons of Theme Camps and the City. For any given individual, a day’s activities range from your basic “Frat” kind of drinking party, to sex-parties, to sex-education parties, to conscious dance and yoga classes, to sacred tea ceremony and traditional Native American sweat lodge, to curling up in a stranger’s bed for a nap, to cooking dinner for 200 people. You might take a magical ride on a glowing “duck” art car, followed by a light body activation workshop, followed by an art viewing walk, followed by a show with “Black Rock City Ballet,” followed by an all night dance party. You are free to choose and seek the “best” possible experience within the social marketplace of opportunities (Orange). Or, you might navigate this radical field of choice through pure synchronicity (Purple). Bathing, foot care and fundamental survival probably figure highly in your awareness (Beige). And, dust storms or intense rain can happen at any time, creating zero visibility or foot deep grey clay mud, reducing everyone to a base state of survival (Beige).
Everyone is in it together. Anything can happen at any time. Everything is happening all the time. How you choose to relate to all this defines the quality of your experience, and you know it. Just by showing up, you are guaranteed a crash course in the roles that disciplined intention, constancy of practice and high levels of consciousness play in creating a powerful experience (Turquoise Meme, integrating Purple). Continuously exercising conscious choice while meeting and surrendering to the unknown as a reflection of soul and spirit is a key strategy. The soul centered wanderer lives with a Meta awareness shifting realities, reflections and expressions (memes), and sees all of these as sacred opportunities. This in turn generates an ability to embody and relate as a force for unity in diversity, embracing chaos as a generator for awareness, rather than trying to control an uncontrollable environment. As one internalizes and becomes skilled at the practice of navigation and embrace, one becomes able to experience the whole from a holonic, intuitive and spiritually integral perspective. In other words, if you (as an individual holon) can hold all the parts simultaneously in your heart and mind (meet the layered holons of your own experiences, other individuals, Theme Camps and the City as a whole), you enter into Turquoise consciousness (holy holons!).
Inner Unity in Diversity: Aware Ego
Within this Turquoise consciousness, one enters into a new kind of relationship with one’s inner world. The outer pantheon of expressions and archetypes becomes a reflection of the inner community. On the playa, outer reflections change with an intensity and frequency unparalleled in any other social environment, thus striping one of normal coping strategies. Vulnerable selves are forced to participate and controlling selves to relax. This midwives an “aware ego.” (Stone and Stone, 1989) Protector controllers, pushers and critics find that their controlling or limiting strategies do not work so well in an environment in which spontaneity and child-like wonder is both a survival skill and a social value. They need to let go for the person to find playful participation and relaxation in the chaos. At the same time, these sub selves find their positive strengths in creating safety, comfort, clear communication, influence, grounding and order.
The environment partners with disowned instinctual energies. “Appropriateness” varies according to the moment and endlessly shifting context, unhinging carefully locked boxes of repression. The inner child, rebel, vixen, warrior, healer, visionary, dreamer, destroyer, devil, animal, show off and clown all come out to play. The borders between the sacred and the profane, the safe and the unsafe, the normal, sub-normal and super-normal, are stretched, blurred and re-defined. All of this creates a powerful reflective space for the cultivation of a harmonic discourse within the inner community.
“Overload” is a symptom that there is not harmony, or at least some conscious interface, between various aspects of the inner community. Without some conscious discourse, disorientation and crisis often emerge. Fortunately, there are literally hundreds of grounded service camps where you can go for counsel, reflection, and actual therapy. More often than not, such an individual in crisis is met with compassion, listening, non-judgment and an invitation to release fear. Through this mentoring, many arrive at a more accepting mediating consciousness for all aspects of self – a greater sense of inner unity within a broader spectrum of inner diversity.
Aware Ego and the Sub-Personalities of the Dancing Star
Though people come to the playa with all kinds of agendas, from every Meme of consciousness, a sizeable minority comes as dancing stars ready to mentor and midwife other dancing stars. They are not “birthed” of the playa, but they are honed by it, drawn out, and invited to play. They are the progeny of a far larger and greater spiritual/creative culture that speaks the language of soul craft. The come with the intent to co-create a field of awakening. Their archetypal names include: the Jedi, the Rainbow Warrior, the Priest/Priestess, the Therapist, the Coach, the “first Responder, the Ranger, and the light worker. These archetypes function as sub personalities within the aware ego of a dancing star. They define themselves primarily in terms of the response-able roles they play in soul crafting and trauma mentoring. They are able to respond on a soul level to the needs of individuals and the collective. Of course, these sub personalities do not arise singularly on the playa. They are cultivated through the collected life choices of the creative responder. But, they are deeply called for and well exercised on the playa. Skillfulness with energies, emotions, self, other and the chaotic world is one of the most valued commodities within the gift economy of the city. It is a value. These dancing stars are ready to nurse the latent seed of soul within – the seed that is watered by every day’s wild, raw experience. They know how to empower others by using the skills of the trauma mentor. They are the “wise ones,” already living in high Yellow and Turquoise consciousness, who bring keys for the unlocking and upwards spiraling of the consciousness of the whole.
Dance Steps: Practicing the Skill Set of the Trauma Mentor
How do they do it? How do we do it? The answers are ancient and contemporary, and ever more current – both at Burning Man and in the world. They include the following tools brought forward by Will and Judith in class:
– Reduction of fear
– Surrender to and relationship with elements, animals, devas and the entire Circle of Being
– Altered States combined with practice
– Creation of ritual, quest and vision space
– Knowing the difference between pain and suffering
– Seeing the little story in the context of the Big Picture
Embrace of the non-ordinary is an exquisite dance. Jumping off an edge, with a large number of people, and learning grace in the free fall, is no simple matter. I have been thinking about trauma mentoring as a line of development not only for individual mentors, but also within the broader culture. From this perspective, another set of skills is highlighted. The list below include skills that mediate and harmonize chaos in social situations – situations like burning man, or war zones, or disaster zones, where the response to chaos and/or trauma is being called for by entire groups. They include:
– Active creative response
– Radical, coherent membership
– Gratitude, Praise and Feeling Prayer
– Recognizing that anyone or anything is or can be “the teacher”
– An aura of hope / positive psychology of and feeling for the future
– Willing assumption of risk and accepting the immanence of death
What I mean by “active creative response” is the habit of responding to the world in a generative, expressive way, – not getting frozen. Whether that response-ability comes be through dancing, writing, painting, singing, costuming, creating an event, a theme camp, a meal, a sacred conversation or a private ritual is not important. It is the spirit of response connected to the energy of beauty that matters.
What I mean by “radical coherent membership” is the habit of inclusion – welcoming all parts in participation and expressions as equal within a diverse social map. The sense of belonging is a societal expression of trust, a foundational pillar for both individual and collective transformation. It is a crucial key in crafting a WE. It gifts an immense strength in diverse togetherness and shared action regardless of ideology, race, age, creed, heritage or class.
Gratitude, praise and feeling payer are all tools for shifting personal and group attention, intention and collective frequency. They touch our sense of unity with the divine, and bridge our knowing that we are of this unity together. Opening to all as the Dharma, or the teacher in all, has a similar effect. It leads us into leading ourselves through love.
Working with an aura of hope, or a positive psychology of the future, acknowledges that it is not really the past that creates the present, but the future that creates the present. In other words, we live into the intent and image of what we place before us in a projected future. We tend to travel where we already think we are going. So, shifting towards a positive image, feeling and knowing of our future is a key to creating a more vibrant, wise and soulful present. Without a feeling for a positive future, how could anyone ever really want to make shift? How could it be possible to hold on to shifts that feel wonderful in the present, but are already being quashed by a projected catastrophe in the future?
The last skill I have listed, willing assumption of Risk and accepting the immanence of death, is really a huge category. But, there is certain elegance to it. If we can truly accept and embrace that life is ephemeral and death immanent, we can meet any challenge with much greater grace, real-ness and connection. It is our fear of dying that creates so much dissociation and trauma in the first place. Simple subsets of this category include: constant practice of lightness, levity and humor in the face of adversity; knowing the bio-mechanics of trauma and embracing the freeze response; the practice of loving what is; and the practice of trust in one’s self and others (working with trust as a practice). If we can cultivate a willingness to embrace death, we stop glossing over the experience that is actually happen. We end the cycles of dissociation and denial and move towards our natural, wise responses in challenge filled scenarios.
Bringing It Home/Hard Practice
What ultimately creates phase shift? When states become traits, and traits become embedded in collective consciousness. When skills become a way of life, synergizing with emerging conditions. When archetypal, trauma mentoring, sub personalities become regular, harmonic members of the inner realities of every-day people. It’s all got to integrate. The consciousness has to “come home.” Returning to “the ordinary” world after Burning Man is a great case study of re-integrating the non-ordinary into life. After one has washed the final “magic dust” from cars, clothes and crevices, the “hard practice” begins. In BM lingo, this period is called Decompression, and can involve a significant sense of loss, lost-ness, disorientation, isolation and even depression. It can also involve immense elation, creative activity, community involvement, and heightened states of continuous bliss, oneness, unity and connection.
This is where the real practice begins: on the bridge where daily life kicks in, inviting us to forget or to assimilate these ephemeral experiences. Do we choose to live as dancing stars, or suppress the ability to hold chaos because we would rather be ordinary? At the end of the day, the training ground that is Burning Man (or any other festival, event, or action) needs to be integrated into the inner self and into living practice, or it is just a states experience. We bring the soul’s knowing into immamanece through action over time. What makes the Burning Man experience significant is that so many people DO choose, in the majesty of the soul’s knowing, to carry integrated wisdom forward as gifts to the world. And, that so many people do this together, in co-operative partnership with the land, each other and a vision of freedom that affirms the essential brilliance of spirit. Thus, the dancing stars – the wild alive soul within, and collective soul – the dancing, vibrant, birthing soul of our culture – continue to birth themselves. As we spiral upwards through the dance of chaos, we co-create exquisite new possibilities for personal and collective response and imagination.
This paper was originally written in the Summer of ’08 towards a Trauma Mentoring Certificate I’m doing with Wisdom University. It feels just as relevant and powerful today as ever.
Love, Love! ~ss