Thursday, September 8, 2016

A Culture of Compensation: Beyond Burning Man

What are the non-negotiable needs of human beings? Beyond the obvious of food, clothing, shelter, we bi-ped opposable-thumbed creatures need exercise to keep the muscles toned, the heart pumping, the brain oxygenated. We need to feel a part of something larger than ourselves, both in cosmic and community ways. We need music to make us happy, tune the spirit, touch the soul and we like it best in company with others. We need to feel like we belong somewhere, that we have a clear identity. Human culture at its best is organized to meet these needs in natural and organic ways.

But what happens when the surrounding culture is built upon something contrary to those needs? Then we create a counter-culture of compensation, a way to fulfill them that is contrived, costs money, becomes a “thing” or a fad or “the latest and greatest.” Things start to get a little weird. A few examples:

• We walk around all day with our heads down buried in our phones and then take classes in mindfulness.

• We don’t do any physical labor or walk or bike to our workplace and then drive our car to the gym.

• We don’t talk to our neighbors and go to online chat rooms to cure our loneliness.

• We have no music in our community so we sign up for the Drum Circle—or Orff workshop!

• We genetically modify and fill our food with chemicals and then create a category called “organic” that are grandparents called “food.”

• We give our kids addictive machines to entertain themselves and keep them out of our hair and then diagnose them as ADHD and drug them to make them manageable.

• We don’t have many vibrant festivals so we pay lots of money to go to Burning Man—and then have to spend $120 for the Post-Burning Man Car Wash.

This last is what sparked this reflection as a fellow musician/teacher Aaron Kierbel contrasted his experience visiting Ghana with the Burning Man phenomena. He is feeling the same thing I did in Ghana this summer, that we have so much to learn from Ghanaian culture about how to meet our most basic needs by organizing our cultural choices around them. Ghanaians work hard physically and dance for hours on end in a real community—no need to go alone to the gym and sit on an exercise bicycle listening to an i-Pod or watching a movie. Drumming is everyone’s birthright and no one needs to take a class. The kids are included in everything and constantly play games with each other. And so on. Here’s Aaron:

“I went to Burning Man years ago and had a fun time. It wasn't life changing though and I never felt the urge to go back. After attending Burning Man related events over the years, I somehow never made any real connections in the way it seemed other people were having. Also, I couldn't get into the music and would always come away feeling like I wasn’t weird/pierced/spiritually attuned/fuzzy enough to be welcomed into the radically inclusive family.
 I was reflecting on this phenomena after attending a street festival in Cape Coast, Ghana a few nights ago. I had an overwhelmingly fun, life-affirming time there, and upon reflection on a 4 hour tro-tro ride back, I had some thoughts on why I prefer it to being on the playa with 70,000 people and Mark Zuckerberg :
 • There were probably just as many djembe drums as on the playa...but people could actually play them well here.
 • EVERYONE acknowledged me in some fashion—a hello, a wave, handshake, high five. A woman cooking food on the street ran out from behind her stand and danced with me until we erupted into laughter. Guys stopped me in the street to chat, so curious about my life back home and within minutes they wanted my phone number to hang as buddies. In my experience at Burning Man events I always have the sense that people are too busy expressing themselves and being eccentric to stop and have a refreshingly simple, kind and genuine interaction.
 • While Burning Man claims to be inclusive, its participants are almost 90% white and only 1% black, and the ticket prices alone exclude so many people. Whether or not working class and people of color actually want to attend is beside the point for me--I just know I have more fun with and prefer to be in more inclusive environments. The street fest was totally free, full of color and everyone in the community was there, especially  families, tons of little kids playing around as well as elderly folks gossiping, goats and chickens getting down too, all till late into the night.
• I know there’s good music at Burning Man (Adam Theis) but you have to machete your way through glowsticks and pacifiers to get to it, ingesting miles of dust in the process. At the street fest there was bangin’ music blaring from tall speakers from every street corner--highlife, hiplife, reggae and stuff I'd never heard before. And no goggles or gasmask were needed to enjoy.
• Burning Man is all about radical self reliance, which is cool, but my experience at the fest was completely made possible by relying on the generosity of total strangers I had just met who wanted to show their culture and streets to me. If I had to choose, I’d take radical communal reliance.
Radical communal reliance. Well-spoken, Aaron! I am weary of the way things like Mindfulness, Yoga, Slow-food Movement and yes, even Orff, becomes a kind of cultish cool thing to do and distracts us from the greater task of realigning our entire cultural thrust. Of course, I’m happy that people are compensating, are exercising instead of sinking deeper into Screen-trance on the couch, are coming back into their bodies through yoga, are paying attention to quality food. And I’m very happy that people keep coming to my Orff workshops!

At the same time, I’m painfully aware of the general contradiction with the way our mainstream lives are led and just wondering how we can return to the Ghanaian model— just be welcoming and friendly without having to join the “Up with People” club, just sing and dance and play with each other and our children instead of going to the Kindermusik Classes, just gather in joyful celebration without having to drive to the desert. How to move from a Culture of Compensation to a Culture of Communal Connection.

Call me if you’ve figured it out. After you return from Burning Man, of course.

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