Now that the dust has settled, I’m excited to share the experience of installing Varanasi Sage at Burning Man. From concept to installation, the entire project took one year, and what a year!
I went through my own metamorphoses during this experience. Doing everything for the first time, the processes of building, funding, and installing taught me like no other teacher. I found great rewards in the process: I felt supported in my art, I felt my art was received, I connected with people in new ways, and continually encountered the best of humanity.
A hidden gift in the process was creating the Varanasi Sage companion booklet, which I didn’t know was going to manifest until a few months before the installation was complete. This booklet is a culmination of my writing over the past several years, and something I desired for a long time, but needed the framework of the Varanasi Sage installation to create. I will offer the companion booklet as an e-book and audio book soon! Stay tuned!
I recently purchased Hank Meal’s, The River, a local’s guide to hiking trails surrounding the Yuba River. On a rainy afternoon, my friend, Kitten, and I got cabin fever; we opened Hank’s book and chose the Rock Creek Nature Trail (located in the Tahoe National Forest) as our tonic. Once the site of a lumber mill, Hank described this one-mile loop as an easy and accessible trail that meanders beneath 11 varieties of trees and alongside Rock Creek.
“Looks like we have the place to ourselves,” I beamed when we pulled into the empty parking lot.
The ground was completely saturated — water pooled around our every footstep. Light rain floated to earth, accompanied by large, sporadic drops falling from tree branches, tapping an intricate percussion on land and water. The creek rushed past us, beckoning us onwards.
“Look at all this debris,” Kitten said. “These recent storms have been brutal!”
“The other day, I saw a group prayer going around Facebook asking for the storms to be gentle on the forests, and I don’t know how I feel about that.”
“California needs water. I’m not eager to pray the rain stops.”
A stream carved its way down the hillside and onto the path, turning the path into a waterway and making us walk along its edge. Branches, leaves, and pine needles littered the area, and the Rock Creek Trail felt less like a nature walk and more like a rugged adventure, like we were the first explorers. At one point, we had to climb over a large, fallen tree.
“All this damage is from the drought,” Kitten said. “Tree roots retract closer to the trunk and become less dense. And the branches die. So when a big storm hits, it uproots trees and branches fall.”
“Now I bet this will be a tinderbox in summer — this and every other forest in California.”
“Let’s hope not! If we get enough rain, the dead stuff will get mushy and become fertile. With fewer trees and branches blocking out the sun, new life will grow. Regeneration is one of the most incredible aspects of nature, in my opinion. Didn’t the guidebook say this land was harvested for timber not long ago? I wonder what that looked like!”
“I hope we get the rain, too, of course. Shame if it burns. I’d rather see the land heal.”
“Did you know illegal campfires start a lot, if not most, of California’s forest fires? The drought makes everything dry, but it’s singular humans messing up on top of that.”
“Hitting Nature from both sides: the macro and the micro.”
We passed what Hank described as a relaxing welcome bench, knocked out of the ground and thrown on its back.
“I’m ready for all humans to live in harmony with Nature.”
“Now that’s a good prayer.”
We stopped to inspect a fallen tree. It made a sturdy bridge over the creek and it’s roots were exposed in an unchanged unit, still holding rocks they had grown around.
“This makes me think of my inner work,” I said, ducking beneath a branch.
“What do you mean?” Kitten asked.
“Self-reflection can sometimes hurt. After a long period of unconsciousness or trauma, like a drought, the medicine of awareness can feel destructive — it’s painful to look on all aspects of myself — lessons can be hard, truth can hurt. Guilt, disappointment, shame, and anger surface. And when that happens, it feels like I’m being destroyed. Like my guts are being ripped out or my heart torn apart.”
Water cascaded down the creek bed over rocks and debris, navigating curves, eddies and pools.
“I think the commitment,” I continued, “is to give myself sustained compassion, like rain, so that which has been knocked over can become the fertile grounds for new life — or a bridge to enlightenment. To continually give myself compassionate attention and embrace myself instead of pushing myself away — that is the way.”
“I see. If you have the painful, seemingly-destructive insight and you don’t follow it up with compassion, it’ll catch on fire and consume you when someone starts an illegal fire,” Kitten said.
We crossed a wooden bridge before we completed the loop. Birds sang from the moss-covered trees, while a soft and steady drizzle, almost a mist, enveloped the forest.
“We made it!” I gasped when the first hints of light created deep blue swaths of color on the dark sky.
Music pumped from the Mayan Warrior’s sound system while its lasers sparkled and shot into the sky as if they sought to reach the stars. The DJ danced to his music in the center of the bus with his entourage around him. The crowd, enthralled by the music and the light show, moved rhythmically to the driving beat with their backs to the rising sun.
“Shall we?” my sweetheart asked.
“Oh yes, it’s time,” I said. I turned to our new friend Gregg and touched his arm with my gloved hand, “we’re going to celebrate the dawn with a bottle of champagne. Would you care to join us?”
His face brightened with surprise: “sounds great.”
We stepped from the crowd towards sunrise. Lasers continued piercing the darkness with criss-crossing patterns, but each beam of light lost its length as the darkness faded. Yellow and orange streaks appeared at the horizon. Some may say the heavy cloud cover blocked out a beautiful sunrise, but I think it created an intricate canvas for the growing light to paint upon.
“This is the real light show,” I said as a pink tints made their debut. “Even the most next level lasers can’t compare with Creation.”
The playa became white again and the mountains surrounding the flat lake bed appeared out of the darkness. We stopped far enough away that we could still hear the music, but not be distracted from the dawn. My sweetheart gave me the bottle of Champagne. I popped the cork and offered the first drink to Gregg. I took a deep breath as if to inhale the scenery and watched as the strip of sky between the earth and clouds became vibrantly yellow, orange and pink.
We drank our Champagne and soon the men began talking shop — both in the field of sound and music, they spoke in a language that I couldn’t understand. That’s when I unsheathed a pair of rainbow silk fans my friend and somatic healer, Muse, gave me in Spring.
As I touched the silk, her voice echoed in my mind: “These fans are medicine,” she said upon presenting me with the gift. “They will open your heart and give you more confidence; they will allow you to integrate more of your body into your dance; they will help you take up more space.” I didn’t understand what she meant. Why should I take up more space? For months they sat on a shelf.
Until that dawn.
I unwound the silk from the bamboo ribs. Wind immediately danced with the silk flagrantly showing off her natural talent. I hesitated for a moment, positioning my body so the silk could move and bend unobstructed through the air. Every color of the rainbow glowed in the morning light. Spreading the bamboo wide, the silk followed and softly, gently caressed the space around me. I lifted my arms and watched as the silk mirrored my movements, large rainbows flowing from my hands.
I moved my arms in large arcs and my hands in flicks to create waves of color — the wind danced with me. Together, we celebrated the morning star; together, we paid homage to the Creator of All. As I danced, I felt beautiful, free, and connected with Nature in a new way.
Vibrantly opulent colors at the horizon continued to announce the morning star, but to the west, clouds softened every hue.
Suddenly, it hit me: I understood what Muse meant. The fans helped me move in new ways extend my body in all directions, I was dancing without the constriction and confines that I wanted to break, and in opening my arms I was opening and stretching my chest and shoulders — I felt confident and effervescent — a far cry from the way I normally danced. Like a flower, my soul bloomed with the rising sun. Joy coursed through me as the sun first peeked over the horizon; I had to share my newfound expression of Love.
I saw a couple embracing not too far from where I swirled and played with the wind. They, too, appeared to me as a perfect reflection of Love. Approaching the strangers, I did not feel one iota of doubt or self-consciousness. I let the fans lead the way, guided by the wind’s breath and the slow movements of my arms.
As I came close to the couple, they turned and looked at me with smiles on their faces.
“Do you mind if I celebrate you for just a moment?” I said raising the rainbows into the air.
I danced around them, extending the expression of my love and devotion to meet theirs and converge in reverence to the day.
“What’s your name?”
“Whisper,” I said, introducing myself with my playa name. “What is yours?”
“Out here, I’m Radical, and this is Kam.”
“It’s lovely to see you here,” I said. “Can I give you a hug?”
“Yes,” Radical extended his arms.
Kam opened his arms next, “thank you for the celebration.”
“I couldn’t help myself, you two are so beautiful — I was drawn to you.”
They both smiled at me and then at each other.
“Recently,” Radical said to me, “I’ve become interested in signs and symbols — as a way to communicate with — you know — Creator, Universe, One, Source, whatever you want to call it.”
“I understand you, whichever term you want to use,” I said.
“Ok, so, I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but in the story of Noah, the rainbow appears at the end of the flood, communicating divine mercy — it’s an act of compassion, kindness, and love. It shows divine favor. And recently I’ve been thinking, the most compassionate and loving thing we can do for ourselves and others is to forgive,” despite his smile, tears sparkled in his eyes reflecting the sunlight. “I’m overwhelmed with the beauty of this moment. I feel so loved — seen — by the Divine. I’ve been feeling this gentle nudging in my heart and spirit to forgive, but my ego gets in the way. Now I’m seeing my true path — it’s one of forgiveness, love, compassion, mercy — for myself and everyone around me. The deepest desires of my heart and spirit — this force of Love that’s greater than us — it sees me, it knows my desires and it’s telling me I’m supported.”
I put my hand to my heart acknowledging the power of his statement. “I have been feeling the same way. I never considered that rainbows are a symbol of love, but that’s what I’ve been feeling, too. I brought them out to celebrate and appreciate the dawn. And your movement towards forgiveness, I can relate so well to your experience. I have also been wanting — needing to practice what I consider ‘radical forgiveness’ for myself, for the people I love, for strangers. And like you, my ego is the one that holds me back. But you’re right, that’s what Spirit wants from us. Even deeper, this moment, you — you’re also showing me that Spirit sees and hears my deepest desires. I wrote a list of intentions before I came to Burning Man. And our interactions right now are fulfilling, well, pretty much all of them!”
Kam raised his eyebrows and looked at Radical with a knowing smile: “I told you that you’d meet your mirrors on the playa.”
Radical beamed, “we are reflections for each other!”
When Gregg and my sweetheart joined us I introduced my new friends. Together, we rode past the lighthouses, through the speed-of-sound hoops and to the BAAAHS (an art car resembling a sheep). We danced, we took a slide through the sheep, we climbed to the second story and we talked about our lives, our experiences and our dreams. We even ate freshly baked chocolate chip cookies! Someone had the foresight to bring a portable oven and we were lucky enough to find them.
The sun lifted higher into the sky, the BAAAHS pulled away and we knew it was time to get back to our respective camps. On our way, we rode to the temple, which had yet to open.
“It’s incredible the amount of manpower and care this construction requires,” Radical said. “And then for it to burn.”
I marveled at the stacked boards that created an airy, ornate pagoda. “Last year, watching all the art burn helped me learn to let go. We work hard, we want to create something with our time on earth, and ultimately we die. But it’s glorious. Our lives can be a work of art, created just for creation’s sake. And to make an impact on all those who witness it, however brief we exist and however many people we encounter.” I thought of the fans and Muse’s message to me. How could I have known the medicine she spoke of would connect me to others, spread Divine insight, and help me manifest my soul’s desires.
“Maybe that’s part of the lesson of forgiveness. Maybe it’s an art. I know it’s a process of letting go, but it can also be the way we have an impact on others. Forgiveness is Love. Shouldn’t we give that to ourselves and others freely? We will burn away at the end of our lives, I think the question we have to ask ourselves, is how can we make our lives something beautiful? Even if it houses pain, like the temple. It can still be beautiful and an expression of Love.” Radical took off his backpack and began rummaging through it. “I want you to have this,” he held out a glass figurine.
An angel, with large wings and folded hands, looked up at me.
“I put this in my backpack last night,” Radical continued with a soft voice. “I believed I would meet an angel — I needed, wanted an angel. It’s you. You saved me spiritually this morning. You restored my faith. The Divine spoke to me through you.”
“What an incredible gift. I humbly accept it, but I wonder much I deserve it since the fans did most of it.” I held the gift in the palms of my hands and thought of Muse and the ripple she started. “I can’t tell you how much this means to me. Our entire experience has been an incredible alignment. I feel like it was destiny. Like I was in the right place at the right time, and that I followed the soft voice that told me to celebrate you. And as we are mirrors, you are my angel, too. Meeting you and having this connection is exactly what I wanted coming to the Burn.”
“Please come to our camp,” I told him. “This evening we’re having a party and I would love to give you a gift so that you have something to remember me by.”
Radical agreed, but we knew the challenge of meeting again on the playa — forgetting an address, losing track of time, or getting swept away in some other moment. We all said our goodbyes, thanking our lucky fortune for meeting each other.
As our bike paths diverted, I held the angel in my hand with gratitude and asked her to bring them to our camp that night.
All photos and videos courtesy of Radical and Kam.