My first visit to Burning Man was at the request of Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). Rick had invited me out to serve as a counselor or sitter at Sanctuary in the past, but I had always demurred, thinking that the conditions (arid, 100ºF temperatures, dust storms, minimal services) would be too uncomfortable and that the 24-hour party atmosphere was not my default preference. After a few years of requests, I felt an obligation to support my now good friend Rick and his work, so I agreed to work at Sanctuary. The night before my trip to Burning Man, I was up very late packing all my gear and a little nervous as to what I’d encounter, slept very little. On arrival, my sleeping arrangements in an RV had been muffed, so I had only used, dusty sheets, and found that we were camped next to a huge, all-night dance installation with driving, ear-splitting, diaphragm-throbbing bass music starting at 4PM and continuing without stop until 10AM. Although I did have earplugs, and they worked, they did nothing to stop the throb, throb, throbbing of the music through my body all night – I felt like a snare drum vibrating without being struck. Of course, I didn’t sleep that night either. I woke up despairing of my ability to last a week under those circumstances. How could I last a week without any sleep? Would I have to give up and slink away with my tail between my legs, when so many people were successfully navigating the demands of the desert – and seemed to be having a great time doing it?
That morning was the orientation meeting for Sanctuary workers. I walked to the session through the dust, dirty and miserable, wondering how and why I had gotten myself into this mess.1 I was alone, sleep deprived, and dirty – the shower in the RV was broken, the toilet was already unusable, and the showers at my campground – Entheon Village, run by MAPS and CoSM (artist Alex Grey’s Chapel of Sacred Mirrors) weren’t set up yet. I trudged along to the orientation, feeling miserable – and then I ran into a collection of the most beautiful, loving, warm, helpful, compassionate people I’d ever met. This was a tent full of angels – people with smiles on their faces, sitting, munching, drinking water, smoking cannabis, all the while welcoming me, inquiring about my story, sharing their own – preparing for the heart-filling opportunity to help others. I felt as if for the first time in my adult life, I was with people who felt, thought, and acted like me, with the same values and sweet tendencies to help and learn; I felt as if I’d met my people, as if I’d found home. I’d been oriented and attended a training session in New York in the week’s prior to arrival at Burning Man, but this orientation was necessary too and extremely helpful (e.g.: “This work is about creating a safe container – a nest – for people who’ve had too much psychedelics, or just too much Burning Man to act out (as long as they aren’t a danger to self or others) in a way that would get them kicked out of Burning Man, were they to do it out on the Playa.2 – is the word Burners use to refer to the yellow-dust desert on which the Burning Man community is built.] It isn’t about doing psychedelic therapy.”)
As I left that meeting, I had one of the most unusual experiences of my life. Feeling elated by my sense of finding a community of angels to nest among, yet being stung by the dry, hot dust of yet another gritty wind storm, I walked back to my campground with tears streaming out of my eyes and a broad, ear-to-ear smile covering my face – laughing and crying at the same time! That phenomenology nicely sums up the Burning Man experience: one is broken down and risen up – and prepared me in an odd way for the facilitated psychedelic experience I had the day of the Burn, the only transformative psychedelic experience I’ve ever had.
Burning Man is a “time out of time;” despite the federal, state, local, and Bureau of Land Management (the festival is held on federal land) officers making their presence known, they generally do not intrude on the activities.3 In this free-wheeling contact, it is predictable that in addition to Sanctuary workers who help those having a difficult experience with psychedelics at Burning Man, there are also those who choose to help those who intentionally decide they want guidance for a planned psychedelic session. Being a one-shot experience, this is not psychedelic therapy, but as a planned growth experience, this kind of assistance is more than simply sitting with the tripper – it’s meant to be an active, often difficult, and hopefully rewarding, perhaps even transformative experience. So it was no surprise to me when I was approached by a colleague and asked if I would be interested in acting as such a guide. After only a moment’s thought, I responded that while I would like to be helpful, I felt unqualified to do so in this capacity.4 On the other hand, I was eager to be on the receiving end of this offer, i.e. to have a guided experience, in the safety of others who regularly, selflessly did this sort of thing for others. It was arranged that on the day of the Burn, Saturday, that I would have a psychedelic session with a former underground therapist I had known and trusted for fifteen years and a Canadian clinical psychiatrist who studied these substances, who I met and trusted immediately.
As the day approached, I wondered what would emerge from the experience. I continued my “safe container” work at the Sanctuary, also MC’ing the psychedelic speakers program at Entheon Village that I had curated with Rick Doblin, but when I wasn’t working, my mind was focused on the facilitated experience, speculating on just what I had signed up for and what I might see.
On the day of the session, I came to the appointed location: a round, tall tent, some twenty-five feet across, with overlapping carpets spread everywhere. I settled in with my notebook, blanket, and water. I took a somewhat larger amount of mushrooms than usual and began to chat with my therapist-guides about what we wanted to focus on and what our expectations were. I began to tell them about how I tripped, about the roots of my psychology recoiling from my picking and analysis, and about bypassing my psychological issues at the beginning of a trip, until I’d touched that throbbing orb at the ground of my being, when everything would be accepted and my problems would be transformed into poignant developmental challenges. I concluded that I would need some time at the beginning to get to that place, and so I was going to go inside now and would come back up to work with them on those challenges in about an hour. They looked at each other with bemused astonishment and said, “Go there now.” I replied that they didn’t under- stand and explained again about the roots, the glowing orb, the ground of my being . . . and they responded, “Go there now.” I began to get frustrated and irritated—disillusioned by their inability to understand the beauty, and effectiveness, of what I was trying to do. They asked how I was feeling, and I told them that I was disappointed at having to teach them—the experts—such a simple thing. I could see that they were becoming frustrated with me, with my arrogance and my resistance; they even told I was beginning to waste their time.
At this point I knew that I was making my psychedelic psychotherapists mad at me—not a good idea when you’re coming on to a psychedelic state (and at this point, I was feeling the mushrooms quite strongly). So I gave in and said, “OK. What do you want me to do?” They said, “Go there now.” Frustrated still but resigned to place myself in their hands, I closed my eyes to go inside and find the psychospiritual issues that were keeping me from a relaxed peace of mind and full happiness in life. I immediately opened my eyes again, saying, “But you don’t understand . . .” “Go there now!” was their response. “OK, OK,” I said. “I’ll go.” I shut my eyes. I immediately opened them yet again. “Let me explain it to you this way,” I said. “It’s like a black hole. Each black hole has an event horizon, the boundary between the area of space where you can still move away from the black hole and the area of space just inside the event horizon, from which escape is impossible, where inevitably, inexorably, eventually you will be sucked down into the black hole itself. I’ve been to the event horizon of my pain many, many times. It has to do with my mother favor- ing my older brother and my brother totally rejecting me. I was second best to her, and my brother was no brother to me at all. I’ve seen that issue many times, from above, and I can tell you about it in great detail. I don’t need to go down into the black hole to describe the pain to you. I can tell you all about it.” They replied, “Go there now!”
So I went there, spiraling down behind closed eyes, down to the primal experience of being second best to my mother. Immediately, I felt that pain as I had never felt it since the first time I did as a baby, as strongly and as fully as I had originally. I began to cry, feeling wracked by the pain of feeling unloved, unlovable. I opened my eyes, reemerg- ing into the present moment, glaring at my helpers. Through my tears, I cried out: “What do I do with the pain? I told you it would hurt; I told you I could tell you about it! Why did you make me go there and feel this pain? What do I do with the pain?” The Canadian psychiatrist said, “Let me ask you a question: Did you die?”
That moment and that question transformed my life. It was a point I had made to my clients many times: when we are babies, lack of full, grounded, balanced, mature parental love is not only painful, but also scary. We are dependant on our parents for our very lives and if we don’t get good parenting, it’s not only sad, but also existentially dan- gerous; we could die of neglect or abuse. Yet as an adult, if we were to be lucky enough to re-experience that lack of healthy, unconditional parental love, it would still be painful—witness my pain when I “went there now”—but . . . it would no longer be dangerous: we can now care for ourselves, even if our parents didn’t. That realization is transformative because while pain is awful, it is bearable; we can live through pain, but existential fear cannot be accommodated. As animals, we can never accept or adjust to a fear of death, so we bury and avoid, sometimes for our entire lives, that early, fearful experience. Once we open up the basement door (or have it opened by psychedelics) in a safe and loving therapeutic or sacramental environment, we come to see that while the pain is still there—as strong and as real as the first time we experienced it as a child—the old, locked-in fear is now completely unnecessary, because we can care for ourselves—reparent ourselves now, as adults. With this realization in my heart and mind, I immediately took responsibility for my childhood (for my inner child).
Later that day, before the Burn, I went out to a remarkable structure on the Playa called the Temple of Forgiveness. At the beginning of the week, someone said, “Have you been to the Temple of Forgiveness? I cried so much . . .” I thought, “That’s pretty emotional, no?” A couple of days later, another person made the same comment: “Have you been to the Temple of Forgiveness yet? I cried . . . ” I thought, “Hmm. I wonder what’s up with that?” When a third person later made the same comment, I knew I had to visit the temple and that I would cry too.
The Temple of Forgiveness was a three-story wooden structure, and at the Playa level, every square inch was covered with notes, photo- graphs, and penned graffiti, all referring to the deepest relationship and personal concerns, and all expressing or requesting forgiveness. So you might see a piece of paper with the words, “Dad, You abused me when I was defenseless. I forgive you — Joe,” or a photograph of a small child with the inscription “Peter, 2/3/2001–9/5/2006. We love you.” The entire first floor—every available space in the temple—was completely filled with heartfelt, gut-wrenching, soul-awakening communications to others who weren’t there.
After my guided experience, I, too, had some forgiving to do. I went out to the temple, walking slowly and reading. I cried freely behind my ever-present dust goggles and facemask as I felt the pain and empathy on the walls. I didn’t feel ready to write my words yet, so after an hour or so, I left, freshened up, and went out to see the Burning of the Man. The actual Burn is a spectacular event, wildly explosive, with flames, fire- works, jet fuel, and sparks, all witnessed by a writhing crowd of glow-stick and Day-Glo-lit revelers, bodies be-costumed, eyes agog and mouths agape, being blown away—sometimes quite literally if they stand too close— by the experience. It’s a cross between Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and the rave scene in the final film in the Matrix trilogy (Matrix: Revolutions). The experience was unlike anything I’d ever experienced in my life—it certainly took my mind off my childhood! After falling asleep (or some facsimile of sleep) relatively early, I awoke Sunday morning filled with the feelings from my facilitated psychedelic experience. As I stepped out of the RV, my roommate asked how it had gone, and I just hugged him and began to cry tears of release for all the years I’d held on to resentment and hurt. I cried for a long time. Finally, I had released enough for then, and after helping to break down our campsite, went back to the temple.
Immediately I found one of the rare blank spots on the wall and wrote: “I forgive you…” to my brother. My experience with my mother and his un-brotherly treatment of me were not his fault. He was only four when I was born. I next wrote “I forgive you, Dad” to my father, who I also didn’t blame for my experience with my mother. Then I sat there for quite some time, staring at that wall, crying again, trying to find the forgiveness for my mother. Somehow, I couldn’t completely let my pain and resentment go. Finally, I wrote: “I can forgive you, Mom.” Can forgive indicated that she was theoretically forgivable, but not yet totally forgiven. I left the temple and went to my final shift at Sanctuary. While I was working, the temple, as is tradition, was burned to the ground, and with it, all the resentments and pain inside.
This article was excerpted with permission from the author from the book: Psychedelic Healing: The Promise of Entheogens for Psychotherapy and Spiritual Development (Inner Traditions, 2011), by Neal M. Goldsmith, Ph.D.
- The dust storms at Burning Man are legendary. Dust pervades everything, with our without a storm. In one’s shoes, under one’s nails, regardless of how frequently one might want to clean or sweep, the dust covers every surface of every tent, RV, or service area, and as you might expect, finds its way into every human orifice, every crack, in one’s ears, everywhere. Advice to bring face masks and hand creams are essential, and essentially useless against the onslaught. ↩
- “Playa” – “A dry lake bed at the bottom of a desert basin, sometimes temporarily covered with water. Playas have no vegetation and are among the flattest geographical features in the world.” [The American Heritage® Science Dictionary. NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. ↩
- For example, if an officer smells marijuana coming from a tent off the main path, they will generally not intervene. If an attendee walks up to an officer asking for a light, the officer will then issue what they themselves refer to as a “Stupid Tax” – a fine for being in possession of a controlled substance. The same is true of dangerous behavior on the Playa. Unless a felony is being committed, the law enforcement authorities will generally look for a “Ranger” – Burning Man’s own trained and universally-accepted “hall monitors” – to intercede. Rangers are trained to take a laissez faire approach to just about everything short of potentially fatal behavior – and even that is not actively prevented, if it is only the actor who will die and others’ lives are not threatened by the dangerous behavior. The theme of Burning Man is always “radical self-reliance” – no food, water, or shelter are provided – and that generally applies to policing attendees’ behavior as well. ↩
- Due to the laws against it, I have never been trained to conduct a psychedelic session – no one has, as there are currently no training programs for psychedelic therapists. So, as I tell the many people who contact me for such services, I cannot ethically provide psychedelic therapy. ↩