Burning Man happened months ago, but I have still yet to make sense of it all. The ten or so days bleed together into one amorphous space of time, like a muddle of watercolors that have yet to dry.
But certain events bob up to the surface of my consciousness, events that won't let themselves be forgotten.
One afternoon in the middle of the week, my friend Kevin May, a poet and rapper also known as Phil Opsophical, gave a workshop at the central dome in our camp, Fractal Planet. His talk focused on building a new world, one rooted in compassion, community, vulnerability, and love rather than in fear, greed, and selfishness -- the base motives that cause much of the suffering in the world as we know it. His talk was inspirational and compelling not only because of the words and wisdom he imparted but because of his wide open heart; his rare gentle disposition that reminds me of Gandhi in its radical departure from the aggressive posture that our society seems to champion, even if in subversive ways.
But what I most remember about the talk was one exercise he made us do. I'm usually reluctant to do these kinds of participatory exercises because they feel forced and uncomfortable, and you can't take yourself too seriously, which I do, to a fault. I was sprawled on a dusty tarp, sombrero and Camelbak beside me, not wanting to move in this dry and languor-inducing heat, but because I knew Kevin personally, I felt obligated to participate. The spirit of Burning Man is also one that mysteriously induces both the boldness and silliness that seems impossible to muster in the structures of ordinary life.
Kevin told us to find a stranger in the room and sit across from them, face-to-face. It's that familiar moment that we all dread, when you're at some meet-and-greet and scramble to occupy yourself with someone else's attention, so unconsciously fearful of being that one single soul who will surely drown in momentary loneliness. In those moments, your eyes become instinctive predators, moving swiftly to lock down another's, and it was to my God-given relief that my pair did seek and find, a wiry young man with thin hairy legs and big floppy sandals. He had dark brown buzzed hair and wore a white t-shirt, which appealed to me as did all rare signs of ordinary comfort at Burning Man. His name was Eric, which I saw first scrawled in sharpie on his water bottle but pretended I didn't see when we introduced ourselves to each other. He was from Oakland, and he had come to Burning Man alone.
After a few minutes of perfunctory introductions, Kevin told us that for the next five minutes, we would be doing something so ordinary yet rare--and difficult, and daunting. We would be staring into each other's eyes. It's interesting that we say "staring into" and not "staring at." "Staring at," or "making eye contact" are sterile phrases, but "staring into" implies seeing beyond the surface, as if opening or discovering, or looking deeper, looking past. How often do we stare into someone's eyes? How often do we lock ourselves into a gaze with another, a gaze with a stranger? Even conversations with our friends do not promise prolonged eye contact. It's easier to look away or dart glances around the room, scope out what's going in every crevice outside of the actual person in front of you. On the street, mistaken eye contact with a stranger is a burn--at least it is for me. It terrifies and embarrasses me when my gaze scrapes the surface of a stranger's eyes. So how could I do this for five minutes?
When the clock started, our eyes met; they met despite the distance of space. Mine blinked furiously trying to make sense of this strange act I was participating in, this counter-act to avoidance, this self-coercion of staying, of not running away. Though I was sitting still, surely my eyes projected the bewilderment that churned inside of me, this unnatural act! I searched for a way to put myself at ease; if only I could abstract this man into a surface, a two-dimensional veneer of this greater, more terrifying thing in front of me: this person, this soul, this body connected to me by such remarkably little will. A tiny moment in a vast expanse of time, yet this gaze required consciousness and unwavering persistence through immense discomfort.
Something happened though, and I'm not quite sure how to explain it. I don't know how the tension suddenly dissipated, how the fear mysteriously evaporated. How mere looking became actually seeing, how lovely and laughable it was that I could only think to myself that I was, in every cliched way, swimming in the blue pools of his eyes (such a remarkable moment, and so inadequately trite a description), which were not merely one shade of blue, but many pigments, with orange and amber stippling that glistened and changed the longer I stared back. Like some strange tidal wave suddenly brought on by mysterious lunar pulls, love for this man suddenly overwhelmed me; this irresistible love, like how could I not love this person whose eyes I am sinking deeper into? I knew nothing about this man; in fact, I was scared at even looking at him, and now this, this awe that sprang into me; this wisdom to know and love humanity if only I were willing; if only I acknowledged God's creation as one of His, incredibly made in His divine image.
We think we need to know to love, and yet the most divine, selfless love falls outside the realm of human ability. There are moments when broken spirit meets broken spirit, in conscious acknowledgment of the other, when we're not dodging the world and the people in it, when we let ourselves be fully in the world for a present moment, and we can finally see, like truly see, another human being for the first time. Like looking up in a darkened elevator and saying hello, how are you, I am not going to just be in this space with you pretending you're not there, I am going to be here with you because we're both human, and we're meant to connect with each other.