(Psyche theme brings dreamwork to Burning Man)
By Steve Mobia

History | The "Psyche" theme | Dreamshare Camp | Arrival | Daily Events | Mistakes | Conclusions

Dreamer asleep during the day (photo: Jim Gasperini -


It is night. A huge pile of glowing pillow-like pods engulfs me. Everywhere I look, there are more pods, each about the size of a sofa. A friendly green bunny leads me to a tunnel opening in the pile and I finally get out. But once outside the bunny has vanished and I only see a man covered in mirror fragments. I follow him to a noisy robotic zebra that seems to communicate with a tiny hovercraft a few feet away. In the distance, shoots of flame blister the night sky. While this might well be a dream report, it is actually just a few minutes wide awake at the Burning Man Festival in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. Strange visions and occurrences that I've witnessed over the years at Burning Man, made the event feel more like a dream than most any waking world memory. For years I felt that a natural extension would be a place at the festival where dreams themselves would be explored.


For those unfamiliar with Burning Man, here's a capsule history. Back in 1986 Larry Harvey and his friend Jerry James built a wooden figure of a man to burn on San Francisco's Baker beach during Summer solstice. The burning attracted many wanderers on the beach, drawn by the human figure and naturally the fire. Larry and Jerry agreed to do it again the next year and so it went. Like the crowd, the Man grew bigger every year until in 1990 he was 40 feet tall. That year the police forbade the huge crowd from torching the Man. At this point of uncertainty several members of San Francisco's Cacophony Society came to the rescue. A few Cacophonists had been to Nevada's Black Rock desert and suggested to Larry that the Man be transported to the vast expense and burned where no one would stop them. The next big holiday weekend in which everyone was available and would afford a 6 hour ride to Black Rock was Labor Day.

It was at this point that I joined the Burning Man experience. I had been involved with the Cacophony Society and a camp-out in the desert with a symbolic ritual excited me. There were about one hundred people who attended the first desert Burning Man. The crowd today has grown to over 36,000.

Burning Man in the desert was a unique mix of influences. Larry and his friends brought the Man and the fire ritual from their Baker Beach days. The Cacophony Society brought a sense of the absurd and an abundance of other activities to enrich the experience. I often felt the world of Burning Man was a fun house mirror reflection of our crazy culture. Our unconscious selves ran rampant and the most bizarre sights, sounds and encounters kept the event unpredictable. Added to this were the sometimes extreme weather conditions of the desert; it's blinding dust storms, torrential rains, hail, lightning, sudden winds, blistering heat and freezing nights made each day a special if not easy awareness of nature.

The overall meaning of the gathering and burning of the Man, has been left open for interpretation. There is no official explanation though Larry Harvey has discussed its effect on people and would like the generous creative spirit of the event to infuse mainstream society in a positive way. In recent years smaller gatherings around the country have sprung up, influenced by the combined elements of art, ritual and party that characterize Burning Man.

My most personal involvement with the festival was in starting the Lamplighters in 1994. Larry designed some impressive wooden spires to hang kerosene lanterns on and I came up with a ceremonial way to place the lanterns up there (with great assistance from my friend Kimric Smythe). Every year the number of lanterns and spires grew until reaching over 500 the year I resigned the post of Head Lamplighter in 1999. The lantern lined streets and pathway to the Man became important navigation markers on dark desert nights.

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In the distant 1970s I had led dream exploration groups with some of those who later formed the Cacophony Society. Those past groups were spurred by the notion that a dream group should be dreamlike -- not necessarily predictable and secure. We met in caves, abandoned buildings, swamps and in cages at the local zoo at night. I often had friends "haunt" the group by making noises or leaving things for us to find -- anything to give our session a numinous charge. These groups were either very successful or people would bolt the first time we encountered barbed wire, swamp water or guard dogs. My techniques for dream exploration often involved theatrics, dance and pantomime rather than immediately launching into verbal discourse. We did get around to dream interpretation but by using movement techniques first, we were able to share the "feeling tone" of the dreamscape before knowing the specific images.

After leaving the Lamplighters I was aching to do something to continue my early interest in dreams. Even after years at Burning Man I had yet to see real dreamwork being done at the event. I began to pester Larry to do a theme based on dreams. Every year Burning Man has an encompassing "theme" which is intended to provoke creative experiment. Also, many of the funded artworks are those that comment on the theme in an interesting way. I envisioned an art installation called "The Sandman's Castle" which would resemble a sandcastle (with real sand on the walls). The inside of the main room would largely be taken up with a huge head with closed eyes appearing to be emerging from the floor. The other rooms in the castle would provide art materials so that those who entered could recreate their own dreams either in drawings, written prose, poetry or sand tray work. The dreams would then be placed into the large head to be burned on the final night. Oh yes, in case you haven't heard, many of the artworks at Burning Man are torched during the festival. I envisioned the head's eyes finally opening as it went up in flames, the dreams transformed into heat and smoke while the castle disintegrated around it.

Well, Larry listened to this and finally in 2005, he devised a theme that could accommodate it: Psyche. The whole castle construction was too elaborate and expensive however and Larry decided to go with just the head -- but a larger head that could house dream groups. I suggested the Argentinean artist Pepe Ozan to build the head. Pepe in previous years had done monumental operatic productions at Burning Man using flaming stages mounted on tall towers covered in dried cracked desert mud.

Pepe Ozan; builder of the Dreamer (photo by Steve Mobia)

At first the head was to also be covered in mud from the desert surface (which forms a hard clay after drying). Pepe however wanted to build the head in San Francisco, take it apart and reassemble it at Black Rock. He went with Hydrocal cement on steel stucco mesh for the outside surface and calculated a way to divide the head into 22 separate slices held up at the center by a chimney. The internal chimney would indeed be covered in cracked clay like Ozan's opera towers of the past and would be guarded by a coiled steel serpent at its base, surrounding the fire pit. This intentionally suggested the Kundalini serpant of Tantric Yoga with the heat from the flames traveling up through the crown chakra. The interior decoration of the head was improvised with found objects after assembly in the desert and made to resemble both nightmarish creatures and an allegory to the nervous system.

Titled "The Dreamer," the resulting sculpture was positioned in a prominent place along a lantern lit promenade that extended from center camp to the Man and beyond. As people followed the path, they saw the huge purple head half buried in the ground before them. It was my notion that it would be ambiguous whether the head was sinking into the desert surface or rising from it. Most important was that it indicated a subterranean dimension. The eyes on the head were closed during the day and opened and glowing at night. When the eyes opened at dusk, a fire was kindled inside. The eye opening and fire lighting ceremony was called the Awakening. Entry to the interior was through an egg shaped opening at the back.

Photo by Jim Gasperini

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My task was to organize daily dream related activities within the head. Fortunately, the 2005 IASD conference (International Association for the Study of Dreams) was to take place close by in Berkeley. I convinced Larry that enabling dreamworkers easy access to the festival might spur their interest. He suggested giving them free admission. However the number of free tickets was limited to 10.

To my delight, more than 40 interested attendees of the IASD conference signed the Burning Man mailing list. After the conference, I sent out a questionnaire to all interested, requesting summaries of their dream group techniques along with questions about how many days they would be at the festival. Of particular importance was whether they would be willing to camp together and form a "Dreamshare Camp."

After reading the responses to my questionnaire, I picked 10 dreamworkers to receive free admission to Burning Man. The dreamworkers were partly chosen on their varied approaches to dreams. Fred Olsen M. Div., has developed a form of dream re-entry he calls "soultracking." Jean John Ph.D. does a ritualistic form of dance theater using music, aromas, chanting and movement. From JFK University; Jason Norris M.A., Tomoko Murakami, Vivian Ttriantafillou and Emily Anderson M.A., utilize theater, drumming and drawing methods influenced by the teachings of Fariba Bogzaran. Monique Aguerre, a graduate student from Sonoma State University and Jeffrey Leifer use Montague Ullman's projective techniques and are strongly influenced by Jeremy Taylor. Dierdre Barrett, Ph.D. and dream book author also uses the projective approach along with some re-entry and incubation suggestions. Ron Malashock Ph.D. is a Jungian analyst.

In planning the upcoming event, I worked closely with Fred Olsen, a dreamworker I had met in the 1980s and who had helped me with dream groups at Burning Man the year before. Fred and I planned two meetings of local dreamworkers and one meeting with performer Elonifer Skyhawk who was organizing an adjacent "Dream Camp" and helped with the nightly Awakening.

The yurt was used for overflow groups and daily meetings of group leaders

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The dreamworkers who camped together included: Fred Olsen, Monique Aguerre, Jason Norris, Jean John and Tomoko Murakami. An artist Tatyana Koenig helped Fred with organizing the groups while ex-lamplighter and friend Chris Maila assisted in camp construction. Other dreamworkers who camped elsewhere but had sessions in the Dreamer head were: Dierdre Barrett, Emily Anderson, Vivian Triantafillou, Ron Malashock and Jeffrey Leifer.

The Black Rock desert is the dried remains of an ancient lake bed (called a "playa") and is covered with a fine alkali powder. Vehicles that drive on its surface break up the solid crust and winds can easily blow the powder around. Our first day at Black Rock was hampered by high winds and a persistent dust storm that created "white out" conditions for most of the day. We had the good fortune of borrowing a 16' diameter yurt with the help of Jim Gasperini, a friend of Pepe Ozan. Though we got the frame together and side wall, the wind and dust flare ups prevented us from finishing the project until the next morning. The yurt became the meeting area for additional dream groups. No dreamsharing groups occurred out in the head that first dusty day.

The second day had beautiful weather and was filled with activity. At every two hour interval, I would don my Sandman suit, which consisted of a sand covered robe, sleeping cap and mask, and ride my bike out to the big purple head. My position was one of gatekeeper who greeted those entering the head before the sessions began. After the group began, I placed a chain across the entrance and positioned a white board giving the time for the next dream group. Fred Olsen handled the early sessions that day with Monique, Jason and Tomoko in subsequent two hour time slots.

Photo by Tristan Savatier

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Our daily schedule went like this: From seven in the morning until five in the afternoon we held sessions two hours long in the Dreamer. Concurrently, we had additional sessions back at Dreamshare Camp. At five in the afternoon the group leaders all met back at camp to discuss how the day's groups went and to plan the next day's schedule. Fred Olsen suggested that the Awakening ceremony be different every evening and based on the dreams shared within the head that day. He and interested group leaders devised a short skit every evening based on either one strong dream or several interlocked dreams. This was performed every dusk in front of the Dreamer head just before it's eyes were opened.

The Awakening ritual utilized a long blindfold placed around the Dreamer's head. I as the Sandman invited a few members of the assembled crowd to be put to sleep (theatrically with magic sand). The dream group leaders and others would then enact their dream drama. At a predetermined part of the drama, we would get the crowd to shout "wake up!" to the Dreamer. I would pull the blindfold off the head and its eyes were then open and crackling with light.

Monique dances at "The Awakening" (Photo by Jim Gasperini)

As an example of the dream drama content, Fred Olsen describes the second Awakening:

"The second performance combined an image arising from a dream of a man laying on the ground with a military boot pressed on his chest, another image of someone carving symbols in his/her arm with a knife and the recurring anxiety dreams of a photographer whose camera malfunctioned or the light was wrong. Jason played the dream ego walking confidently into the dream. I played the shadowing attacker with a black veil stretched out over my head and with a butcher knife in hand. Tomoko played a frustrated photographer with her video camera on a tripod set up in front of the crowd, pretending to photograph the action.

Tomoko put up a pretty good distraction with her malfunctioning camera and Jason entered the field of the dream. I followed, closing in on Jason while stilt walkers appeared in the background amplifying the threatening image of the shadowy attacker. As I approached, Jason became more fearful and I attacked, knocking Jason down and placing my foot on his chest. I then started stabbing myself while subduing the dream ego as the camera operator was fighting with her camera.

Jason then pulled a flashlight out, dropped it and flailed around with his hand trying to retrieve the flashlight on the ground. He got hold of the light and flashed it at the photographer who then came into alignment with her camera and   registered joy of accomplishment. Jason then turned the light on my face. I melted into compassion and reached down, drawing Jason up beside me. The photographer stepped out from behind the camera and we three embraced - a signal to awaken the "Dreamer."

Jason Norris, Tomoko Murakami, Emily Anderson, Jean John and Monique Aguerre, had experience using dreams theatrically and, considering the lack of rehearsal time, performed well. Elonifer Skyhawk with other colorful performers would often join in, creating background interest or vocal accompaniment. Activities at night within the Dreamer after the Awakening were unscheduled and included improvised music, poetry and meditation. Late at night some, drawn to the warm fire, would fall asleep in the head and continue sleeping through the early morning meetings.

During our week at Black Rock, some of the shared dreams directly involved Burning Man or with feelings welled up in association with the event. Emily Anderson described a particularly cathartic experience during an early morning session within the Dreamer head:

"As we wound into our work, one fellow's experience took center stage. He began to share - with much emotion - that this was his first year to return to Burning Man after many years of not attending. He shared that his previous experiences had stirred so many deep emotions - particularly anger - that he could not handle coming back as he was afraid he couldn't handle it. He had since entered therapy to work on this. He then shared that since then he had had a recurring dream of a snake in his closet which conjured up the very same uncontrollable anger as well as fear that he experienced as a result of being at Burning Man. Together, the group worked more deeply into these recurring nightmares. We explored the dimensions of the fear that the snake had provoked.

At the point when he allowed himself to face these fears - with a very loving group of people sitting with him - he let himself cry. He shared how helpless he felt, feeling that there was nothing that could help him. He felt ashamed for his anger and so very afraid of it in himself. He suddenly looked up and realized that he was sitting directly in front of the coiled snake's head that made up the fire pit which we were sitting around. As they say, this was his "a-ha" moment, full of synchronicity that as he shared his fears in dreaming, he sat directly in front of them in waking and further, that he was doing so at the very event that had stirred them to the surface."

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While I was pleased with how the dreamsharing groups enriched the event, there were some mistakes on my part that I didn't quite anticipate. As the week went along, our group of dreamworkers began to adapt to the surprising and varied conditions of the festival. Though a week in the desert might seem too long, for some of us it was over too fast. Here are some of the difficulties we encountered:

Though festival director Larry Harvey had helped us tremendously by distributing a handout at the entrance describing the dreamsharing groups and their starting times, only a tiny percentage of those at the event wear watches! Most of the dream groups were formed by those who just happened to be out at the head when a new group was starting. Any who arrived late were met by a chain that closed the entrance. Pepe Ozan, the sculptor, expressed his displeasure about this at one of our meetings later in the week. After discussion we agreed to only block the entrance for a limited time in the mornings. From eleven o'clock on, the head would be open with a sign outside reading: "Ask about your dreams, dreamworker inside." The result seemed to please most dreamworkers and created a less pressured environment; people could stay as long as they'd like and leave if they'd like. Often more than one dreamworker would be inside as groups would grow, dissipate and new ones form in an organic way. The Dreamer head was a public space and closing it off wasn't the right thing to do, particularly later in the week when attendance swelled.

I should have located our Dreamshare Camp in a quiet and easy to find location. We ended up being situated near several dance camps of amplified music that interfered with dreamsharing groups and other activities I had planned (including masked dream theater and a showing of surreal films at night). My uncertainty about whether a Dreamshare Camp would actually form kept me from pursuing a more appropriate location. It was a challenge to construct a camp by emailing people who had never met. On the other hand, it became immensely rewarding to watch strangers get to know each other and form a small community.

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Burning Man is a swarm of activity, a hive of ambition. To some, it is a great uninhibited party, to others it's an opportunity to create and exhibit radical artworks that could not be displayed well in an urban environment. For still others, the interest is in community building and new ways of social interaction. My sense is that most consider Burning Man a combination of all these elements. Remove any of the elements and the event would be quite different and probably not as compelling.

It is a real challenge to hold intimate and internal groups within this swirl of novel distraction. Even so, those who joined the dreamsharing groups stayed for the full two hours and I heard no complaints. The consensus of all who facilitated the groups was universally positive. For instance, Jason Norris said: "I was able to experiment with several approaches while maintaining a safe and comfortable atmosphere, giving me and my co-facilitators great hands-on experience in professional development, as well as personal growth." Jean John commented: "The surreal environment and absence of time, lent itself to the emersion into dreamtime. I believe it is an ideal place to do dreamwork." Emily Anderson reported: "I am so FULL from the experience. Doing the dreamwork was the highlight for me - and has really shifted some major things in my life. " Monique Aguerre even presented her experience at Burning Man as part of a lecture entitled "Myth, Dream and Symbol" at Sonoma State University.

Our goal was to stimulate the larger public to acknowledge and examine their dreams within an environment conducive to free expression. We were also interested in an internal experience to contrast the extraversion of the festival and one that might intimately transform the individuals who participated. Burning Man could well become a training ground for adventurous dream workers who would like to interact with a willing public in a highly dreamlike atmosphere.


© Steve Mobia, 2005 (article from Dream Time magazine, official publication of IASD, The International Association for the Study of Dreams)

The Dreamer with open eyes (photo by Steven Fritz)

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