Of “Burning Man” and Transformation

The crowning moment of the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert is the setting afire of a huge wooden sculpture shaped as a man. What many “Burners” may not realize is that the image of a man (or woman) being burned by fire has a long spiritual history. For instance, it is a common image in alchemy where it is used to symbolize the calcinatio process.

Fire is an age-old symbol of transformation and purification. The heat of fire cooks food, heats homes, and helps chemicals combine to form new substances. It can also be used to sterilize medical instruments or water and to separate lead from gold. But, in order for fire to do effective work, its heat must be contained. If you want to cook food or boil water, you must place them in a pot or oven.  Chemicals are put in a crucible or beaker. For heating, fire must be kept in a woodstove, fireplace, or furnace.

These same principles apply to the fire of your own emotions and passions. Your emotions must be contained if they are to become the fuel of change within your personality. Anger, frustration, fear, lust, etc. must have limits or they take on a life of their own, overflowing where they may, often in unhelpful ways. On the other hand, when properly contained, your emotions become the fuel of a more mature and conscious life path. For example, frustration with your work supervisor can be expressed in a sarcastic comment or lack of effort that merely harms your reputation. Or, it can be contained and help you become more self-controlled and less self-destructive in completing your work. In time you may even see some value in your supervisor’s requests.

It is ironic that the image of a burning man has become the central symbol of a festival that is noted for its relative lack of containment. Rules regarding sex and drug use, for example, tend to be suspended at Burning Man. Of course, this is part of its attraction for many people. Burning Man is a place to let go and get wild. The fires of Burning Man burn hot, dramatic, and largely uncontained. The dark side of this is that they can also consume without purification and heat without transformation. Worse yet, they promote a state of spiritual inflation rather than spiritual growth in many participants. The flames of the Burning Man disappear into the night sky, and the Burners return home muddy and high.

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