The following excerpt from The Electric Jesus: The Healing Journey of a Contemporary Gnostic takes place during the annual Burning Man Festival in Black Rock City, Nevada. The book is now available from EVOLVER EDITIONS/North Atlantic Books.
That evening, Jade described the extraordinary two-story-tall sunflower she had seen the night before and insisted on taking me to find it. After the sun sank behind the dark mountains in the west, the temperature dropped by forty degrees, and it became necessary to change into winter clothing. I put on black vinyl pants, a tan suede coat lined with faux-Holstein hide, and my cowboy hat with blinking flames. It was my cowboy pimp look. Jade wore a fuzzy white hat and her ugly green sleeping-bag coat.
As we left the Heebeegeebee camp and entered the high-voltage flow of the crowds on the Esplanade, Black Rock Citys main street, Jade handed me some special chocolate treatsto make things sparkly she suggested with a smile. Burning Man was a true trippers paradise, and we giggled at a school of luminescent goldfish swimming by on art bikes, Lego Man dancing in front of a pixelated LED screen, and a guy driving a mushroom-shaped scooter with his camouflaged-brown body serving as the stem.
Black Rock Citys thirty-five thousand inhabitants were arranged along a series of semi-circular boulevards, which were numbered like a clock from 2:00 to 10:00 with the alien-headed Man positioned at noon or midnight, depending on how you looked at it. We started at 9:00 and walked the crowded curved Esplanade all the way through the yellow and green flags of Center Camp at 6:00 until reaching 3:00 far on the other side a journey that took hours in our state of heightened curiosity for all things shiny, funny, and blinkie. All that time, Jade was convinced that the giant metal sunflower was only a few paces away. Finally, she snickered, Jonny, you know that sculpture were looking for? Well, I think it might be mobile. We broke out laughing. The probability of running into a particular art piece on wheels among several thousand acres of hyperspace distractions was less than zero.
We gave up on the sunflower and headed into the shadows past 2:00, where the city streets end and the loudest dance parties begin. From a distance, we caught the distinctive grinding beats and industrial saw-like riffs of DJ Lorin (a.k.a. Bass nectar), who we had heard was spinning that night. We walked toward the music, climbing through a maze of parked bikes into a surging crowd that jumped with arms raised in time with DJ Lorin and his bouncing waist-long black hair. He had on the same blood-red T-shirt and black eyeliner that he wore at the Brooklyn warehouse party on the night I started seeing auras.
Jade threw off her sleeping-bag coat, revealing a frilly pink silk teddy that was worth waiting to see. She grabbed me from behind and showed me her best R. Kelly bump and grind, as she put it. At first, I gave her the awkward white-guy moves, but then I tried to match the serpentine passes of her hips, following their curvaceous patterns and natural rhythms. Jade had always complained that I danced with my shoulders and head, flailing as if about to fly out of my body, but here I was enjoying the grounded pleasure of getting dirty on the dance floor.
Jonny, look! Jade pointed at a massive sunflower that was being hoisted over the side of the dance floor by a large green crane, its mechanical stem. Thats what we were looking for all night.
And it just happens to be lurking over Bassnectars set, I laughed.
Another one of those Burning Man synchronicities, she smiled.
I had ingested only a dash of Jades chocolate treats and felt a light, pleasant buzz. Usually, I had to be pretty blasted before my self-proclaimed guides would show up. But now, under the glow of the towering sunflower, they announced themselves, giggling in my ear, humming tunes that suggested hexagonal patterns in my minds eye in sync with Bassnectars low metallic pulses. I welcomed them. They asked me to close my eyes while I traced Jades dance moves. She knows how to follow the energy, they told me. Youre learning.
Behind my eyelids, I saw a computer-animated scene of earth back in its boiling volcanic days three to four billion years ago, when a single-celled creature magically appeared on the planets harsh surface. In fast-forward, I watched this cell multiply and spread, mastering the art of photosynthesis before dividing into more geometrically complex eukaryotes, then into early sponge-like animals, stretching out into the segmented skeletons of fish, crawling and gasping as rubbery amphibians onto land, morphing into lumbering dinosaurs, dissolving into furry mammalian rodents that would grow and shape-shift into apes and chimps, finally straightening their backs as Homosapiens, who could raise up the electric antennae in their spines through their crown chakra to receive the higher frequencies of the cosmos.
While viewing this Cliffs Notes version of evolution, I continued to swerve along with Jades sinuous hips, concentrating on connecting the energy flow from my heart to my second chakra. I realized how much I fought being present and became aware of this planets difficult and dense three-dimensional vibrations.
Cowboy, you know the great thing about grounding yourself and unifying your heart with the lower chakras? my guides whispered in my ear.
Whats that? I asked.
Its really fun! they cheered.
With those words, I got beamed from above with a purple tubular light. The effect was so powerful, I looked up to see if a flying disk hovered above the dance floor, but I saw nothing except the starry night and a tiny moon sliver. The beam stayed with me as I stepped away from Jade, and my crown and root chakras filled with white light. The energy poured into my electro-spiritual system from above and below, circulating through my heart chakra. Immediately, my back straightened as if tugged by a puppeteer, allowing the pneuma to follow its natural course, activating my chest area.
With my heart center suddenly glowing brightly, a gray energetic curtain began to lift from my eyes to reveal a beautiful, luminous latticework of electrified prana stretching across the dance floor, out to the deep playa, and into infinity. I saw a complicated grid-work of white light connecting us all in the deliciously high vibrations of love. Not a hippy, naïve love, this was rigorous and mathematical, full of intricate geometrical relationships that swirled the energy in immaculately constructed designs. At that moment, I remembered a passage from the Gospel of Thomas, The Fathers kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people dont see it. (ii.2:113)
The veil had been temporarily removed from my eyes, and I could see the interconnected white patterns pulsing through Jade, the DJ, the dancers, and myself, as we participated in this cosmic drama in our physical manifestations. With the illusion stripped away, I could see that we were part of an ocean of light. We are light flowing, moving, and transmuting shape similarly to the way that water morphs into steam and ice and snow. I understood Jesuss line about loving your enemies. From this perspective, we were all divine Shakespeares, creating and playing the roles of muscled heroes and conniving villains, pious saints and debauched sinners, corrupt CEOs and disinterested temp workers. Watching this immeasurable light, as the Gnostics called it, I suddenly realized that I had one man to thank for my journey into this sudden mystical awareness: none other than President George W. Bush. I sent him a prayer of thanks, wishing him well in finding his way to the light.
Jonny, are you going to stand there or dance? Jade bumped me from behind.
Dance, I said.
I spun her around, placed my knee between her legs, and pulled her into a low and sweaty grind, kissing and stroking her face, dipping her backwards and then pulling her up into me. Dancing with Jade in the whirling white latticework, I saw that it didnt matter where she and I came fromwhether we represented different galactic lineages, as the familiar voices suggested, or simply hailed from white-trash Colorado stock and neurotic Northeastern roots. These were merely conceptual differences, imaginary constructions of divine light, wanting to know itself in new forms.
After Bassnectars set, Jade put on her sleeping-bag coat, and we plowed through a mild dust storm to grab vanilla lattes at Center Camp. Jade complained that the dust would give her throat cancer, and I clenched up at her bizarre hypochondria. I heard my guides giggle that I should lighten up and play morebeing judgmental was a blockage I needed to overcome. The purple beam shut off, and the white grid was gone, but their presence lingered. My heart felt the easiest it had been since nearly a year before when Bush took the election. That was an unexpected realization. As we stood in line and I surveyed the costumed, bead-wearing, face-painted horde wandering through the Center Camp café, I was struck by just how heavily the political defeat had weighed on me. I also contemplated that my giggly guides seemed to be suggesting that to be an effective political reveler, I needed first to connect to my heart and then perhaps to help build a movement with other freaky visionaries, like those around me. What good is a revolution anyway if it isnt joyful?
At the roaring burn barrel outside Center Camp, we ran into two friends of Jades, Don and Sarah. Sarah crouched on her knees wearing an Uncle Sam hat, attaching pads to the end of her fire poi chains in preparation for a fire dance. She looked up at us and cheered, Jonny America, every time I see you, it brings out my shaman side! In that second, her smile flickered into a sideways slit, her head transformed into a giant gray scalp, her eyes stretched diagonally into wide black alien eyes, and her nose shrank to two narrow pinpoints. Sarah had just revealed herself to be one of the gray aliens I had read so many negative things about while researching the Draco reptilians. Instead of being freaked out, however, I took it all in without a pauseone more piece of initiatory information on the wild side I was now walking. It didnt hurt that she looked friendly and, frankly, kind of feminine.
Look whos talking, I said back to her.
Don gave Jade a warm hug, and she nuzzled close to him. I always felt a tinge of jealousy about their friendship, even though Don and Sarah were married. Don had a lot of the qualities that Jade admired, including frat-boy humor and a slightly macho attitude. He had co-founded an online advertising company worth $850 million, owned his own brownstone in Park Slope, and although slightly balding, he was tall, muscular, and Jewish, which would make her family happy. Don didnt appear to be wearing a playa costume. He didnt need to. He made enough of a presence in his simple tan coat and blue jeans.
I returned my gaze to Sarah and heard the familiar voices giggle, See, not all aliens are ugly. I giggled too. Don caught this, and he turned his gaze up to the stars and then back on me. He leaned in so close I could feel his breath. Youre up there, arent you? he grinned. I can tell, but dont worry youll ground when the sun comes up.
How do you know? I asked.
Sarah and I have our own ET connections. When we first met at Burning Man a couple years ago, we ate some fungi on a golden, vibrating art pyramid, and she literally took off her face and showed me the sexy gray alien she is underneath. Should I reveal to Don what I had just seen? I decided not to.
Thats incredible. But arent the grays bad? I asked.
Most, but not all. Aliens are like people. Every one is different, and you cant judge solely by race. Hell, even some of the Lizzies are helping out these days.
Sarah lit up her poi and began spinning the chains. She was new at fire spinning and struggled at it. Uninterested in our conversation, Jade walked over to hold a fireproof safety blanket for her.
How do you know about the Lizzies? I asked Don. I was surprised he knew the Pleiadian nickname for the reptilian aliens. I was also amazed that Jade and I just happened to bump into her two friends who claimed to have ET connections. Was it chance, or one of those playa synchronicities?
While in bed after that first date with Sarah, my spirit was taken up to a mother ship with huge windows overlooking the earth, Don told me. I saw thousands of saucers beaming down indigo lights of intention to help the planet ascend, but there were a few ships, some reptilian, I was told, that beamed down negative energies. My ship was full of bizarre and entertaining creaturesa carnivalesque federation of sorts. They told me they had brought me here because I could handle it. Don made quotation marks with his fingers in the air.
You know, its funny, he said. People have this tinfoil-spacesuit, 1950s idea of aliens, but the beings I saw were galactic bohemians, David Bowielike art stars, flamboyantly androgynous healers, and outrageous alchemists. A lot of them had really cool tattoos. They come from advanced societies that have synthesized art and science, so they know how to have a good time. I think of Burning Man as the first extraterrestrial city on earth. It completely integrates technology and visionary art with neotribal ritual. I figure most people attending came from other planets originally. They just dont realize ityet. The playa is a portal, preparing us for the cosmic dance party everyones waiting for.
At that moment, a man wearing a black duster and a fedora stepped up next to us at the burn barrel. He seemed upset. Head drooped, he took off his leather gloves to warm his hands.
Are you okay? I asked him.
He lifted the brim of the fedora, revealing cracked red skin around his eyes. He was in his mid-twenties, with a thick Greek-looking unibrow, round chipmunk cheeks, and dark stubble on his chin.
New Orleans is gone, man, he said with a southern drawl, his eyes on the flames. My house was wiped out. Katrina took down the whole city. People are dying in the streets, mostly blacks. Bush wont do a damn thing. Thousands are holed up in the Superdome and abandoned in flooded prisons right now, left to rot. Its totally third world. I cant believe this is America.
Im so sorry, I said. He tried to hold back tears. I put my arm around him for several minutes, then he tipped his hat, said Thanks, and walked away.
I couldnt tell what was more surrealmy alien introductions or the fact that the birthplace of jazz was under water. It all felt like pieces of the new normal. I reported the news to Sarah, Don, and Jade. Isolated in the never-never land of Burning Manwhere cell phones dont work and there is no emailwe hadnt heard what was happening off the playa in the default world.
This is only the beginning, Don said. America is broke $12 trillion in debt. Saving New Orleans would cost too much, unless we radically switched priorities from armaments to people. With each coming catastrophe from global warming, corporate entities are going to use the Shock Doctrine to take control of traumatized populations. Get ready, he said. The fight for the planet is on.
Walking back to the Heebee camp that morning with Jade, the suns rays grounding me for the coming day, we passed by an eight-foot-high café counter serving coffee to a stilt-walking ringmaster and a stilt-walking giraffe, two muffin art cars (one chocolate, one blueberry) racing each other down the nearly empty Esplanade, and a dirty-talking remote-controlled robot that hit on Jade. Our stroll brought back memories of a lunch-hour walk near The September 11th Funds midtown headquarters. I remember noting each office, bar, bank, restaurant, shop, and apartment building and seeing for the first time that our entire culture is constructed of places where we work to make money to buy things, and places where we recover before going back to work so we earn money to buy more things. At the time, I couldnt imagine a society other than this depressing, monochromatic hamster wheel.
But Burning Man offers something different. The festival does without the arbitrary laws and regulations that draw lines between people, isolating them from one another, boxing them in to consume more and more stuff. The society of the Burn follows guidelines that encourage participatory culture and community engagement. If a windstorm strikes down a party tent or light sculpture, volunteers quickly rush to put it back up. If you need a coat or a hug, people offer it to you, living in the spirit of the gift. Helpful Rangers in khaki cargo pants patrol the grounds, acting more like Boy Scouts than like body-armored cops with guns. There is a general trust for each other that enables people to feel safe to embody the festivals mantra of radical self expression, which explodes in a circus-like spectrum of creativity and playfulness.
In Black Rock City, the clashing viewpoints of rugged individualism and collectivism meld into a dynamic social sculpture where the flame-throwing barbarians and leather-clad Thunderdome gladiators pitch in together to set up camp, or collect ice from Arctica (the ice store), or fill in a kitchen shift. These simple agreements lead to rampant synchronicities, as all of us have our hearts opened by resonating with the higher frequencies around us.
Perhaps Don was right: maybe Burning Man is the first outcropping of a new galactic culture on earth. But as I saw it, there was still one big problem with Black Rock Cityit lasts only one week a year.
Image: Burning Man 2010 by Tanais Fox on Flicrk courtesy of Creative Commons Licensing.