You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll philosophize. Stuart and Andie take a wild ride with Caveat Magister. They discuss how to transform daily life with psychomagical experiences. They illustrate the power of art, ritual and play, and the magic of love. They reveal the secret sauce of Black Rock City, and the triumphs and failures of experience design. They explain engineered disperfection, miracles without religion, and nightlife as a spiritual pursuit. And everything else. For a dozen years Caveat studied Burning Man culture, then wrote a book about it. His new book is a deeper cut on the phenomenon: “Turn Your Life Into Art: Lessons in Psychomagic from the San Francisco Underground.”
You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll philosophize.
Stuart and Andie take a wild ride with Caveat Magister.
They discuss how to transform daily life with psychomagical experiences. They illustrate the power of art, ritual and play, and the magic of love. They reveal the secret sauce of Black Rock City, and the triumphs and failures of experience design. They explain engineered disperfection, miracles without religion, and nightlife as a spiritual pursuit. And everything else.
Caveat is one of the few who comprise the Philosophical Center of Burning Man Project. For a dozen years he has been a people-person at BRC’s Media Mecca, then the lead writer for Burning Man’s education program, then the author of a book about Burning Man culture.
His new book is a deeper cut on the phenomenon: “Turn Your Life Into Art: Lessons in Psychomagic from the San Francisco Underground.”
The Scene That Became Cities: What Burning Man Philosophy Can Teach Us About Building Better Communities
STUART: Hey. Hey everybody. Welcome back to another awesome sauce episode of Burning Man Live. I'm Stuart Mangrum.
ANDIE: I think I'm still Andie Grace.
STUART: And she's Andie Grace. And we're here with one of our favorite people in the world today. The author that - his fame precedes him.
ANDIE: This is our friend Benjamin Wachs also known as Caveat Magister.
STUART: Where might one have encountered his work in the past?
ANDIE: Well, gosh. So Caveat and I met many years back, but notably he has written for the Burning Man Journal.
He has worked with the Burning Man Information Radio team and with the media team. And there was a war with the census this one time. And he wrote a book called The Scene That Became Cities, which is specifically about Burning Man. And he's written this other book that we're also very fond of. And we're here to talk about his upcoming book: Turn Your Life Into Art.
CAVEAT: Hi Stuart, Andie. Hello.
STUART: Hey Caveat.
CAVEAT: What do you want to talk about?
STUART: Thank you so much for joining us to flog your next book.
CAVEAT: Ah, we're commodifying it last, are we?
STUART: It's not a commodity. If it's a culture-bearing object, that happens to surf the waves of commerce, is that commodification?
CAVEAT: Okay. I want to push back on this.
CAVEAT: Yeah, because the point of decommodification has never been commerce bad, per se. It has been that when commerce is mediating human interactions, it changes the nature of those interactions. And there are kinds of interactions and kinds of social trust that are harder to have.
Now. I agree that the book I have written this time, Turn Your Life Into Art, is culture bearing for Burning Man as was The Scene that Became Cities, which was about Burning Man philosophy. However, Just because I'm talking about those things doesn't necessarily mean that it is de-commodified. In this context, the question is, do people have confidence that I am not having this conversation simply to flog my work?
Because once they think, oh, well, he's just talking about this because he has a book, it's over, the social trust that we need to have a decommodified atmosphere. Is not guaranteed just because something is relevant.
STUART: So you're saying you're not just riding the Burning Man gravy train; this actually means something to you and to the world. Is that what I'm hearing?
ANDIE: There's a gravy train? I missed it.
CAVEAT: Yeah. First of all, of everyone here I'm the one who isn't on the payroll right now. So come on. But, secondly, yeah, I think that it does matter, that the kinds of conversations that I have, particularly in Burning Man spaces.
I mean, look, if I'm just in a bookstore and the reason people are coming is because, oh, we want to see Caveat and his book and it's a commercial venue, then sure. That's not a decommodified space in the first place. But if we were in a Burning Man context and people started to get the impression, oh, the only reason he's talking about this is because he's got a product to sell, then we have a real problem.
It really matters actually that when I talk about these things in Burning Man spaces, that I have something to say beyond “Buy my product,” that the whole encounter is relevant in a way that doesn't have to involve...
STUART: Well, I would argue that when you talk about it in a commodified space, that you are actually pushing the bubble of decommodification out into that world as well.
If the content itself carries the culture and carries a message and affects people, isn't that right? Also doing the work that we are intending to do here.
CAVEAT: I think that it can, but we shouldn't assume that it does. I think there are ways in which the medium is the message - to quote Marshall McLuhan.
Yes, it is possible that if I am talking about decommodified cultures and commodified spaces that I can be spreading, you can modify culture.
On the other hand, I could be getting appropriated because that's how they get ya.
ANDIE: Well, and you talk about nightlife as a spiritual pursuit; there's money moving around when people go out at night, but there's also magic happening. And that doesn't mean that those spaces are commodified by their nature. They can be places where magic...
CAVEAT: Yeah, absolutely. And let’s pin that reference down. Nightlife as a spiritual pursuit is something that I actually talk about in this book that I think one of the reasons why we go out and try to have nightlife is precisely because there is a kind of a spiritual yearning that we have for connection for novelty, for adventure, for experiences.
And that's one of the ways in which we try to fill that. You're absolutely right. Again, the problem isn't money, bad commerce, bad per se, but, I'm also sensitive and I think legitimately, so it, again, the mechanisms of appropriation are precisely that, oh, well, don't worry about that.
Just, adding more commercial elements, isn't going to change anything because you're honest and you're good and you really mean it. And I think that's something that we need to be very sensitive to.. It is entirely possible to have. Do you commodify experiences and commodified spaces? It is entirely possible to create magic in spaces that are not open to that is doable.
That is a thing that in fact, many of the artists and pranksters that I talk about in this book and San Francisco's aren't under the ground history have done and done exquisitely well, but the point is that they're doing it on purpose. They're not just assuming that it's going to happen.
I think that that attitude is dangerous for us here.
STUART: Let's talk about the book a little bit. What is psychomagic and have I ever experienced it?
CAVEAT: You Stuart, oh, you, come on. We got a little humble here.
STUART: Define terms. What do you mean when you say psychomagic?
CAVEAT: Right. So, the kinds of experiences that I'm talking about, which have been present, across world history and different cultures, but I think the San Francisco art underground was really taking in new directions and new Heights and doing something remarkable with the way I've chosen to describe that.
I mean, often we call them transformative experiences. I've used breakthrough experiences in the past, but the term that I've mostly settled on is psychomagical experiences. And that term, as far as I know, comes from Alejandro Jodorowsky in his. Thinking about it, not sticking to his definition precisely, but riffing on it.
The point is that the things that really reach us, reach us, not so much in the conscious mind, but in the unconscious mind, the subconscious mind, the regions of us that are below our conscious awareness, but still really move us and shake us and engage us and motivate us in ways that we don't understand.
Right. And those parts of our psyches do not speak our everyday language. They don't speak the kind of language that we are talking now, and they don't speak logical deduction and reason they speak. And they hear in symbol and poetics, inaction in things that you do. His notion is that you can communicate with these parts of the psyche by engaging in.
In symbolic acts that are going to reach you deep down in your unconscious. And suddenly if you do something that is symbolically potent enough, that seems poetic and magical enough that part of your psyche will perk up and take notice and go, oh, something's interesting happening here and we'll pay attention and we'll be listening and engaged in a way that is not in ordinary life.
ANDIE: Okay, but how does that happen?
CAVEAT: Well, that's what this book is about. I don't want to say that this is the only way to engage in psychomagic or design the psychomagical experiences. But I think that, over about a period of 30 years, in San Francisco's art underground, a series of practices were developed. Not a common vocabulary, no one was ever talking about this in a way that everybody else was. There wasn't a common vocabulary. There weren't unfortunately really common texts and references - although some made the rounds more than others.
But there were a series of practices and approaches that people had. And that's what I'm offering in this book. That's sort of a How To based on what people in this scene discovered over time.
STUART: One term that I've heard used to describe this, Larry Harvey used to talk dismissively about the secret sauce. People are always asking me what it is that makes Burning Man a transformative space. They want the recipe for the secret sauce, right? And there is no secret sauce, right?
STUART: Was he wrong? Is there in fact a secret sauce?
CAVEAT: Well, Larry didn't like the idea of there being a secret sauce, but Larry also understood that he was setting conditions at Burning Man, that it wasn't a tabula rasa and just sort of a temporary autonomous zone. What? Oh, sure. We just go and just let things happen.
No, no, no. It's designed, the addition of roads and camp addresses, for example, created different conditions for people to interact. That’s not coincidence. That's not happenstance. Black Rock City is a very designed environment, in that sense. That it's designed to let people be more creative and spontaneous and engage themselves.
But it's not just, there's nothing happening. On the contrary. There's a lot of thought going into it. This is one of the things that I talk about in the book that in many ways you are trying to design an infinite garden, an infinite magical garden, rather than a finite robot. You are not trying to create something mechanistic where every, all the parts fit into place and everything works in sequence, and it takes you smoothly from A to Z. You were trying to create an environment that is going to set conditions where. Weirdly symbolic and even magical things can happen where psychological potent events are going to become more common. And that means giving up a lot of control.
The thing that people want in the secret sauce is “Just tell me to do A, B and C, and then it'll happen, right?” That's not how it works. Instead, you're creating the conditions under which people can be inspired, under which people can make meaningful choices, under which people can take actions that might not make a lot of sense, or even be unsafe either psychologically or physically.
When you create conditions in which people can do this, in which they can engage in spontaneous acts of art and play and ritual, and make meaningful choices and be brutally honest, then things really start to happen and start to engage in, in different ways. And it's not a secret sauce as in a recipe, like, okay, I add a dash of this and a dash of this, and then we're done, but it is considered, it is thought through.
It is something that has a technique to it and approaches that actually do matter.
ANDIE: But if somebody doesn't live in the fertile ground of San Francisco, which you write about extensively in the book and you, yourself, if I may, have moved there for a reason and existed there for so long,
CAVEAT: I moved here for a girl. I stayed here for the psychomagic.
ANDIE: So many stories go like that, don't they? I chased a girl here too. I'll be honest with you. But, if somebody doesn't exist in a place like that, and they're going to read this book and read a lot about San Francisco, are there some conditions that you can describe that make psychomagic more possible in a place? No matter where it is.
CAVEAT: Yeah, absolutely. And this actually - to stick with Burning Man for a moment - is one of the things that I think is really important about Burning Man as an environment, as I write in The Scene that Became Cities, one of the key differences between Burning Man and a festival like Coachella or Bumbershoot or South by Southwest, or whatever, is that when you are asking yourself, what's the message that these festivals are telling you, it basically comes down to “This amazing thing happened and you had to be here to experience it!”
Whereas in Burning Man, as an event, as a culture, the underlying message is: “Oh, I can do that too.” And you don't actually have to go there. You can do this where you are. This is I think even more true of the kind of psychomagical experiences that Burning Man is still associated with. But that came out of, in many ways, the San Francisco art underground, the whole point is that you don't have to be there.
That said, it is very difficult to understand what we're talking about. If you haven't experienced it. If you haven't had an experience like, “oh, wait a minute, this is possible,” then it is difficult to get it in verbal terms.
You can transform daily life with this. You can turn the things that you would normally be doing in ordinary life, into these kinds of psychomagical moments. And, you can bring it out into the world wherever you are. Burning. Man is an extraordinary environment for it.
It's so much easier in the environmental Burning Man for all kinds of reasons. It can happen anywhere. And that's always been what's truly exciting for me is, not just, Hey, we're doing it in Black Rock City, but when I discovered that I could do these things anywhere I went.
But some of the things that I talk about at length, one of them is to create moments of engineered disperfection, which are events in which there is no way that you can win; in which someone can gain their way out and make a choice that is clearly going to be the right choice.
If you are creating conditions under which the very idea of a correct choice is somehow broken, then people start to get creative and weird and interesting.
STUART: What's an example of that?
ANDIE: I was gonna say: Tell me a story.
STUART: Disperfection sounds like my life, but, give us an example of how that might lead to somebody having some kind of a breakthrough variance.
CAVEAT: Here's a very simple example that happened to me. We're in a restaurant. And they're calling out periodically the names of the people to come up to the table, and they come to the next name and someone goes, “Oh, Abraham Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln?”
Because someone has given the name Abraham Lincoln for the table. Okay, you know, whatever. Except that then a guy dressed in a full Abraham Lincoln suit with a beard walks up and says, “Yes, that's my table.” And then another guy dressed in a full Abraham Lincoln suit complete with the beard, walks up and goes, “No, that's my table!”
And they start to get into an argument about it. Now you're the person you're, the host, the hostess. What do you do? How do you make this decision? There isn't a right way to do it. There isn't an obvious, oh, well, I'm supposed to do this.
ANDIE: It’s not in the employee manual.
CAVEAT: Right, exactly. Instead, you are going to have a very weird decision-making moment and whatever you do is going to change the outcome of this whole thing.
And there's no guide for it. You have to fall back on a sense of intuition, maybe play, just have to wing it.
That's a very basic example, but it hits the point. There's no winning here. There's no clear way to just logic this out.
Another element of this, which is so relevant and one of the things that people often really miss when they're trying to create this is to encourage people to make meaningful choices.
A lot of people mistake psychomagical experiences for pomp and circumstance, right? You got your costumes. You got your backdrops, you got your big sculptures. You got your lasers. You got your music and your DJs and everything's going, but in the absence of people making a meaningful choice, then suddenly it's not going to hit you in that sense.
It's when you get to make a decision that actually affects the outcomes, effects how you do things, how people think about things, what this is going to be, when the circumstances in which people can make meaningful choices, then suddenly the potential for psychomagical action comes out very significantly.
Whereas, when there isn't that, when they're just sort of going through the motions, you have a machine, you have a finite machine. When people are making meaningful choices, suddenly you have a much more organic situation developing, and weird possibilities start to happen.
STUART: Is it possible that those weird possibilities were always there, and we just didn't notice them because we were going through life in machine mode? I'm thinking back to a lot of the pranks and stunts and fun things we used to do with the Cacophony Society and billboard liberation front a lot.
It was just getting people to have that wake-up moment to snap out of their macro. Right. And realize that they were in a situation that they didn't have a program for.
Related to that, is it possible to over prep somebody? I mean, I think one of the keys to the success of Burning Man is 30 years of not telling people what kind of an experience to expect or what kind of an experience to have.
You should have asked, Stuart, is it just that we don't see these moments, that these moments are all around us and we're just not perceiving them? I think that's often very true.
STUART: That's my take on things. People talk all the time, “Playa magic,” right? Like I ran into my sixth grade girlfriend and I hadn't seen her since sixth grade.
And I always think like, well, she might've been sitting on the commuter train, two seats over from you, but you never look up from your goddamn phone or you would have seen her. So is it possible that it's just a matter of awareness and consciousness or stepping out of our program makes us open to these possibilities?
ANDIE: Do you believe in magic or not!?!
STUART: Fair question.
CAVEAT: I wanna hear Stuart answer that…
STUART: No. Answer my question first. Come on.
CAVEAT: All right. So well, let's do it. I was always the non materialist in the Philosophical Center. You know that. I was always the one who believed in something, in the spiritual, in a more concrete sense. I think that you were partially right. I think that there is a degree to which yes, this sort of thing is happening all around us and we just have to wake up and notice it.
There's a part of the book that's called The Lazy Man's Guide to Starting a Cult. And it basically says, Look, if you take people to a place of scenic, natural beauty, everything they do is going to seem more significant and more engaged. And it's a really lazy approach, but it works.
CAVEAT: That's the thing. You change the context and suddenly all the normal things start to get this numion sheen.
ANDIE: Ouch. Lazy?
STUART: I’m visualizing Esalen here. How many cults have started at Esalen?
CAVEAT: Quite. I think there is also a way in which, especially in environments where people do have their heads down constantly, you do have to create the conditions under which these things are more likely to come.
You are creating a magical garden and hoping that fairies will sprout, up out of it, and dryads will arrive and you're not in control, but if you are creating the conditions under which these kinds of things can happen, if you are creating moments of engineered this perfection, if you weren't encouraging meaningful choices and allowing people to do things that are not safe and making them potentially irreputable, then suddenly, yeah, you are not just noticing these things when they happen, but you are creating the conditions under which they are more likely to happen.
STUART: Okay. I'll answer your question. I believe...
ANDIE: Do you believe in magic?
STUART: I believe there is magic in the world that can, that can bend reality to its will. That can alter the laws of physics. It's just love. Love is the closest thing we have to magic in this world.
Yeah. But that's just me. Other than that, I'm a hard-headed materialist.
CAVEAT: You really turned that around. Sappiness.
STUART: No it’s not sappiness. Love. Love is a dangerous, powerful force in the world that can, it can wreak havoc. It has the power to change everything around it.
ANDIE: Or to drag you to new cities that you didn't think you were going to move to and then found infinite magical gardens there.
CAVEAT: There it is. It's absolutely true. Love is perhaps one of the ultimate psychomagical experiences. All the flash and costumery and special effects in the world are never going to have as potent an impact as someone who you have feelings for asking, “Do you want to kiss me?”
Whether you do or not. That's a potent moment. Whatever happens next.
ANDIE: Well said.
CAVEAT: Thank you.
STUART: What do you mean by psychomagical experience? Give me an example of something that might've happened in your life that we could use to define this concept.
CAVEAT: Sure. Okay. So something that I just did very recently. I threw a party, an outdoor garden party.
And it was centered around a ritual to take us out of plague, time to take us out of that sense that nothing ever changes and nothing happens. And all our lives are sort of stuck here with this. The way it worked was this: Everybody aligned up and faced the side and one person would go down the entire line.
And as they came to each person in line. They'd say, tell me what you missed and that person would tell them something that they had really missed during the pandemic. It could be as simple as I missed hugging people, it could be as profound as I missed being sung to by someone. It could be, I'm giving out baked goods to my coworkers.
I miss taking selfies with my friends. I'm just going on adventures, but they said something that they really missed. And then the person in line who missed the thing, had to offer the person who had asked some symbolic version of that thing. Right. So in the case of a hug, I've really missed giving people hugs.
Would you give me a hug?
I really missed being sung to by this person. Would you send me something
I really missed giving up baking for friends. Here, cookies. We did like a cookie
I really missed taking selfies with people. Would you take a selfie with me right now?
And the person could say yes or no. They would go down the entire line that way. And with each person, they would hear something that that person had really missed and probably haven't extort experience that represented that in a concrete way. And then eventually they would get to the end of the line and then there would be a hand washing station or they'd wash their hands and there'd be a sacred cup. And then they would drink out of the sacred cup. And then they would call out “None of us are free until all of us are free.”
Then they would take their place in the line, and the next person would go through the whole same experience.
Just for fun, we also had an industrial Frank bubble machine hidden there. And so every time someone washed their hands, you know, the place was filled with bubbles.
So the point is that everyone went through this line, offered and received versions of things that they had really missed during the pandemic, and then come and wash their hands, drank from the sacred cup shouted, “None of us are free until all of us are free.” And by the time we had all done it, we were out of plague. We had gone through something together.
That is an example of a psychomagical ritual that was designed to create a specific kind of experience. You know, I had no idea what people were going to say. I had no idea what they were going to ask. It wasn't designed ahead of time. A lot of the experiences were silly and some of them were really moving and profound and some people laughed a lot and some people wept. It was a very human and beautiful and moving experience. And, some people really did tell me, “Yeah, the experience of time in my life changed after that.”
The stakes were real in this case. That's what really transformed it.
Another principle that I talk about in the book is that magical gardens aren't safe, that there is a way in which you are taking at the very least real psychological risks. If you're making meaningful choices, then you are taking genuine risks. This is entirely possible to do all around us all the time.
That’s an example of a psychomagical experience. Then there are very spontaneous ones. A brilliant psychomagical artist friend of mine Robin Zirro was once asking me; we were at her warehouse space and she was asking me, “Okay, what is it with assholes? I don't understand why some people are assholes.”
And so we had this conversation. I developed a taxonomy of assholes for her.
And she said, “You know what, that first kind of asshole you were talking about, the person who doesn't mean to be an asshole, but they're so passionate about something that they accidentally run rough shot over other people, I need to be that in my life. How can we make me that kind of asshole?”
And so I said, “Okay, what do you got? Here's what we're going to do. All right, you've got these oranges. We're taking these oranges and I want you to throw these oranges one at a time at the wall over there. And each time you throw one, I want you to think of somebody who once did something that you thought was an asshole move, but you were kind of jealous of because they could do it. You understand?”
She said, “Okay.” And so she thought of that and threw an orange, she picked up another one and she thought of another one, she threw it. So we went through all the oranges and I said, “Okay. Now, in order to become an asshole, you take this dessert fork, and you stab me in the arm with it.”
She said, “Really?”
And I said, “Yes, that's what you have to do. And when you do that, holding all these thoughts in your head, you are going to become that kind of asshole.”
And so she stabbed me with a dessert fork and she said, “Great. Yeah, this has totally worked. Okay, how long is this going to last?”
And I said, “Two days.”
She said, “Okay, great.”
The next day she went into work and led a walk out and brought her employment to a standstill, and corporate out in another state had to send a representative to address work grievances.
And two days later she calls me on the phone and says, “I need an extension because I can't not be that kind of asshole in the middle of this.”
And I said, “Okay, we can do this. We can give you an extension.”
That is an example of spontaneous psychomagic in which I created something for her on the fly to get a particular effect. And it worked. The point isn't, “Well, why oranges? Why dessert fork? Why’d you have to get stabbed?”
The point is that the actions, the effort, everything spoke to her, reached her unconscious, made that trigger happen. And It did what it was supposed to do. And it was a very important experience for both of us. That's psychomagic.
STUART: How's your arm doing?
CAVEAT: Fortunately, she's not that lethal a person and it was a dessert for, okay.
ANDIE: You've had your tetanus shot.
CAVEAT: Oh damn. It was, that was years ago. I’m stuck now, but that would have been a good idea.
STUART: Notes. Notes for next time. A lot of this speaks to play. A lot of this really is some very elaborately structured play environments for people. And, you talk about how it's possible to have play with no structure and no rules.
How does that work?
Cause I don't remember. I think I remember when I was like three, how to do that, but how does that work? And is that conducive to psychomagic, or is it too crazy?
CAVEAT: No, you make it up as you go along and, you see what, what comes and if in the process of making it up, as you go along, you become even more playful and even more honest then yeah, it can definitely turn into psychomagic.
Two thoughts come to mind about this. An art experiment by a San Francisco artist named Richie Rhombus. To give you the short version, a bunch of us we're in an art space and we're told, “Okay, engage in play, which has no rules and no structure. Make it up as you go along.”
And so we started thinking about what we could do. Then we started playing a game. We're like, “Okay, so you ask a question, you have a real issue that you're struggling with in your life, right? Okay. What is it?”
And the person said, okay, well, I don't remember what it was. Maybe, “I'm deciding if I need to move.”
“Okay, great. You are the angels standing over this person's shoulder and you were the devil standing over this person. And so you debate for them and then they'll make the decision.”
And so they got into this weird sort of short debate about that and like, “Okay, that was a lot of fun.”
And so we grabbed another person, like, “Okay, what's a real issue that you're struggling with?” They said, “Okay, we have changed my job. Should I quit my job?”
“Okay, great. And now the person who was the angel before is now, the devil and, the person who was asking the question before is now the angel, and go!”
That was happening with a lot of fun and weird and got some pretty good advice out of it. And then somebody else came over and said, “Hey, can I play?”
And I'm like, “Oh geez, what do we do now?” Because, we already got an angel and devil and we thought, oh, but we're in an art space, so there's a costume area. So we ran and we grabbed a hat and it was a zebra head and said, we could put this on.
“Okay. Now you ask a question about your life. And you will hear from your inner angel and your inner devil and your inner zebra.”
Now we had the three people having a debate about what they should do. And the zebra was all, “All about the wind plus sweat plains of the Savannah beckon!” It was hilarious and fun. And then somebody else wanted to come and do it. So we grabbed another hat.
Now we had a zebra and an armadillo, and an angel and a devil, all offering their things. That's what emerged out of completely free play structure.
Funny as it is in the moment, it was incandescent at the time as we were doing this and throwing new elements in and going, “Oh my God, this is working” and, “This thing is really funny” and, “Oh, that's actually a really good piece of advice” and this really matters to this person.
They're listening to something that's really important to them, that had all the elements and something really incandescent appeared out of that. It was really quite extraordinary.
The other thing that this makes me think of, in the book I refer to art, ritual and play as the holy Trinity.
Art, ritual and play.
And there is a way in which they are all sort of forms of the same thing.
Play that goes on long enough can turn into art and can turn into ritual. And art can be playful and ritualistic. And ritual can involve play and art. And there are all sorts of versions of the same thing at some level, if you take them far enough.
When you are mixing those boundaries, when you are engaging in play that becomes ritual, or engaging in art that becomes play, then you are indeed unleashing really potent psychomagical forces. Some sort of alchemy is happening, especially if you are being very personally honest about it. This is thing too. This is an element of it. In a lot of ways, what you want to aim for is nonfiction, not fiction.
Yes, there's this playful quality of, “Okay, well, you're wearing the zebra hat, so you're a zebra now.” On the other hand, we weren't doing bullshit advice. People were coming with their real issues. They were genuinely talking about, Do I move out of San Francisco?, Do I quit my job?, Do I break up with somebody? And as soon as that one started, I actually went like, “Oh, Nope, I'm out. I can't actually do this, can't leave my relationship to this.”
They were real issues. There was something really honest happening here.
And while of a veneer of playful fiction and can often be fun and engaging, the more honest people are being, the more of a nonfictional things happening, the more potent this is going to be. When you are engaging in not make believe, but real stakes, real meaningful choices, really honest moments, that really gets you into psychomagical territory very quickly.
One of the last pieces of advice that I give people for how to do this is: be more honest.
If something isn't working, be more honest about where you are and what you're dealing with and how you're feeling. It really makes a difference.
It's also not coincidental that one of the things I talked about about Burning Man philosophy and The Scene that Became Cities is that it always starts with the question “What's going on now? What's actually happening around me? What am I experiencing?” You start there. You start with, “What am I experiencing?”
ANDIE: Yeah. You just described a holy Trinity of circumstances. Do you feel there's something sacred in that brutal honesty?
Brutal honesty, weird way to phrase it, but
CAVEAT: No, no, it can be it. It really can be. The answer is YES AND. I think that there is a real connection. Earlier on you referenced nightlife as a spiritual pursuit, which is something that I believe.
So, yeah. I really do think that the same urges that move us towards the spiritual are what we are engaging here, that there is absolutely a connection between psychomagical experiences and spiritual practice. Jodorowsky actually makes that connection very explicit in his work on this.
However, I also think that when we ask psychomagical practice to do the work of religion, we are asking it to do a task that it is not particularly suited for. I suppose I would consider this in some ways to be “miracles without religion” - that we are creating miracles here, but the more we try to make it serve a lot of the functions of religion, the more we try to make it a substitute for it, the further out of its zone of competence we go.
And it's a complicated thing because in a lot of ways - especially at the height of the scene in San Francisco - people created rituals for each other as part of their lives, in a way that really could be seen as a religious community, right? We created weird psychomagical experiences to celebrate birthdays and engagements and for weddings. We were in many ways a kind of a religious community in which every occasion had to be celebrated with a ritual and no ritual could ever be repeated.
There is a kind of profundity to that. And yet at the same time, I think that trying to turn this into a religious system actually starts quickly moving it out of its area of competence and making it less rather than more.
STUART: My take is that a lot of people, when they have a transformative experience, they may refer to it as a religious experience because they've heard that phrase and they've never had anything that fell into that niche, right? Never had anything that been bordered on that.
ANDIE: Or a spiritual experience.
CAVEAT: Yeah. There's overlap, Also the boundaries of psychomagic are porous. They don't fit well in boxes. It's a mistake to think, “Okay, we can base our religion on this. This is a religion substitute.”
ANDIE: When people experienced magic, they talk about the chills that they get, and sometimes it crosses over with the beyond and the things they don't understand, no matter what their religious background might be. They experienced magic in a different way that has some of the same trappings, but isn't the same thing.
STUART: Yeah. I like “miracles without religion.” That is actually a great phrase.
It takes me back to what Larry always used to like to say about whether Burning Man was a religion or not. “It is exactly like a religion, but without a higher power.”
ANDIE: No dogma.
STUART: Serves a lot of the same purposes that a religion would.
STUART: And there is certainly still that yearning in the human psyche, right? for something. I always love to quote Raoul Vaneigem, the situationist, who said that God has been abolished, but the pillars that once held him aloft still rise to an empty sky. So is this a way of filling people's emptiness in modern existence?
CAVEAT: It’s a part of that. I actually talk about this in the last section of the book, Psychometric and Society. It has for me, let me be as blunt as to say that. Doing this, being a part of this, creating these experiences for people, having them create it for me, has changed my life, has in many ways, addressed many of these yearnings, or made me more able to address them in my own life.
It's perhaps less that they have solved these problems as they have made me a person who is better able to address these yearnings and these needs.
At the same time, I really feel like an attempt to say, “Okay, you know, we've got psychomagic so we can solve people's problems. We can address this.” It doesn't work that way. You're putting so much responsibility on a bunch of artistic misfits. You know, I mean, have you met us? We're not gonna, we're not going to solve these problems.
ANDIE: Plus, you’re trying to grab electricity and hold onto it. It's magic for a reason.
CAVEAT: Yeah. It's something in many ways that you do for its own sake or it doesn't work. The more you try to put a big, important purpose on it, the less effective it is going to be. Trying to say, “Okay, we're going to do this in order to solve a social problem” actually gets counterproductive in terms of the creation of psychomagic.
STUART: So if Burning Man is a faux religion built around psychomagic, what about businesses built around psychomagic? To go back to decommodification, there are people who have attempted to turn this sort of experience creation into a business model. How's that working out for them?
CAVEAT: Well, it depends on what they're trying to achieve. The kinds of techniques that I talked about, anyone can use. And that absolutely includes entrepreneurs and corporate experience designers.
There's no reason why people can't do things like that. Try to create an infinite magical garden rather than a mechanistic experiencing, engineered disrespect, and encourage meaningful choices, allow for risks, create things that can't happen twice, and engage the holy trinity, look for brutal honesty.
Those are all things that anybody can do. But it doesn't work out nearly so well in the context of corporate branding and experience design and commodification, precisely because it isn't honest. Because you're not actually looking for people to have their own real experience out of it. I mean, okay, this, this is the thing, right?
In all of the kinds of experiences that are talked about in the book, the really effective ones, people make meaningful choices, and they engage in it and discover something about themselves. And it may not be anything that you are bringing to it as they experience creator. And if you want it to be effective, then you have to let them go where they are going to go.
But if your interest as an experience creator is, “Our brand is going to look good. You are going to experience the five pillars of our brand,” then you can't really let people have the experiences that they are actually having. You can't let them be honest in the same way that you can if you're just an artist offering someone a psychomagical experience.
You can't let it get out of control. You have to have more control to make sure that your brand doesn't go haywire in this infinite magical garden you've created. And eventually you're like, “Maybe we shouldn't be creating a magical garden. Maybe we should just be giving people a great show.”
There's nothing wrong with that, but at that point, the need for commodification, the need for it to serve a business rationale absolutely does get in the way.
Imagine DisneyWorld, right? Imagine Disneyland. You have a company with a near infinite budget, for practical purposes. They can throw as much money at this as they want. They have people with amazing talent. Let's not kid ourselves, their Imagineers, many of them are geniuses Okay. They can take all that and create an experience built by geniuses with near infinite resources, and it's going to be really something.
But there is no experience they can create, that for sheer potency in your life, is going to beat the thrill of breaking into Disneyland.
Breaking into Disneyland will always have a potency that going on the ride in Disneyland never will.
STUART: I thought that record was sealed. How did you know about that?
ANDIE: Nothing officer.
CAVEAT: And that is the point with this sort of thing and commodification. The need to commodify absolutely gets in the way. The techniques still work, but you will never be as good at it as people who are able to just say, “Let's see where this goes.”
STUART: Well, a brand is, by its nature, a fiction. And you talked earlier about creating opportunities for non-fiction to arrive.
STUART: And people making their own choices is the other thing. You can't really force a choice on somebody. There's one line in here though, that I gotta… that I may take issue with.
STUART: “While Burning Man is filled with meaningful choices, almost everything you do is a meaningful choice.” My experience of being a Black Rock City is that most of the choices I make are pretty meaningless, and that that's a very freeing experience. What do you mean by “meaningful choices”? Like, whether I go to see this band or that band, or whether I stay in camp or leave camp, how is that meaningful?
CAVEAT: If you have an argument with that, then you really sort of argued with me about it in the last book, because that's where I really talked about Burning Man a lot more. That's a Scene That Became Cities argument. But the sources are meaningful in a Burning Man context, particularly because, as I described in The Scene that Became Cities, you have an environment of what I call “applied existentialism” in which there isn't really a way to win. We've taken all of the main social markers, right? You know, money, power, climbing the success ladder - they don't really apply here. And you are in this environment where you have to make a decision about how, “Okay. Given that there's no clear way to win Burning Man, no way to rack up points, or get a high score, what do I actually want to do? What do I want to do?”
And in that kind of environment, even the trivial decisions are actually pretty meaningful because you're not going through the motions. You are making a conscious decision of, “Okay, well, I guess, if I can do anything, except for when somehow this is what I want to do, that is a profoundly meaningful experience, actually. That's hyper saturated with meaning.
STUART: All right. Well, I'm not going to sit here and argue with you all day. It’s not my job.
ANDIE: Not helping.
STUART: Yes, I hear you. I hear you. Just perhaps making decisions about your own life and your own interests rather than what you're expected to do, that is a huge sea change for so many people, right?
STUART: We talk about Burning Man as a permission engine. It's really, I think it's even simpler than that. It's just the notion of being. Yeah, it is kind of a… I will accept the permission engine trope at that point, right? If it's permission to be yourself and to not necessarily do what everybody your whole life has been telling you to do. That's a huge and heavy thing.
CAVEAT: Yeah. If you go to a festival, what you're supposed to do is very obvious. You go from stage to stage and you listen to the concerts and that's what you're supposed to do. If you go to a political convention, it's very obvious what you're supposed to do, go to the floor and hear the speeches and share your candidates. And if you go to a food and wine festival, okay, you'll go around and you sample the food and the wine. You're at Burning Man, you can do just about anything. And none of it is the track that you're supposed to go on, unless you have specifically chosen it. That's completely different. That's applied existentialism.
STUART: The Scene that Became Cities. It's actually a great book too. Uh, everybody...
CAVEAT: Thank you.
ANDIE: You can read about him on fascinatingstranger.com.
STUART: Now that we are coming out of the dark forest of quarantine, assuming that there are still a few independent bookstores left, do you see yourself actually doing personal appearances with persons in the same room, and doing some readings?
CAVEAT: Yeah. I'm psyched to. I have an absolute compulsion to be around people right now and to do these things and to show up, I am really enthusiastic about going out and talking to people and having experiences, part of all this.
And creating weird events around it.
I'll tell you the truth. The thing that I really loved about being on a book tour for The Scene that Became Cities was that the vast majority of people who showed up to those readings were themselves burners, and therefore had a lot of context, and therefore I didn't have to go into the whole “Okay. Let me explain what Burning Man is to you” thing. And instead I could just get on the stage with all the people around me and go, “Okay, most of you are burners. What do you want to talk about?” We would have these free flowing conversations. When the book was relevant, I would refer to it. And when it wasn't we just go off and do it.
Every one was completely different that way, and it was marvelous. I really want to recapture that for Turn Your Life Into Art. I want to have an experience that could only happen with this group of people in this time, in this place.
It can be inspired by the book. That's great. But yeah, I don't know, just sit up there and read. I want to have experiences with these people and do stuff that they are going to remember, and then they're going to think, “Okay, this was relevant somehow. Something happened here.
STUART: Great. Have you talked to your publisher about this?
ANDIE: Shhh. That’s us.
STUART: Full disclosure.
CAVEAT: Now you know. Yes.
ANDIE: I mean: That's you, you better get busy.
STUART: No, wait a minute. You just stepped in and said that first before I could say that to you. That’s you, Andie Grace.
ANDIE: Talk to you tomorrow, Caveat.
STUART: Actually, thank you so much for your trust in us, allowing us to publish this title, Caveat.
I'm really excited about bringing it out, and I would love to share some of those experiences with you in old fashioned, book-smelling bookstores, with real, stinky humans in them, and real interesting questions. I can't wait.
CAVEAT: Let's do it.
STUART: Alright. The book is Turn Your Life Into Art: Lessons in Psychomagic from the San Francisco Underground by Caveat Magister. It will be available in all of the places that you might buy a book in either digital or paper dead tree form, sometime... Let's say certainly before The not-Man does not burn in the Black Rock Desert.
Thanks so much for being on the show, Caveat.
CAVEAT: Great fun.
STUART: Love you, man.
CAVEAT: Love you guys too?
STUART: Alright. Is that a show, Vav? Did we get a show in there?
Vav: Sounds good. I can't wait to put a laugh track on this philosophical, psychological conversation.
ANDIE: Just insert me snorting over and over again.
Vav: No. I would cut that out. You don’t need that in the world.
STUART: It's an honest laugh.
CAVEAT: It’s good. It’s good.
Vav: I will have a question about whether you guys were making an inside joke, or whether the joke will play.
Vav: Sometimes I’m not sure.
CAVEAT: Sometimes we're not sure.
ANDIE: Unfortunately, that's all the time we have for today, which is very sad because I could talk to Caveat for a very long time. But we hope that you, our listeners, will give his book a look.
Thank you, Caveat, for entrusting us with publishing your next one.
We look forward to hearing what you think out there, Burning Man Live listeners.
Burning Man Live is a production of the Philosophical Center of Burning Man Project. It's made possible by listeners like you. And if you'd like to learn more about us, you can check out live.burningman.org. And if you'd like to contribute, donate.burningman.org.
Thanks very much for listening.
Our producers are Michael Vav, Stuart Mangrum and yours truly, Andie Grace.
Talk to you next time.