By Aviva Bannerman
“Stop on by if you want to be appreciated!” I called from the side of the dusty road, as I struggled to keep my sign from blowing away in the wind storm.
“Appreciation Station, Burnin’ Man 2016” was outlined in glitter, announcing my gift to the playa (burner lingo for the dusty desert that houses the annual week-long festival). Since this was my first year heading to Burning Man without a formal camp, I struggled with creating a gift I could offer as a solo burner.
When I came across a post on the Burning Man Facebook page that emphasized the importance of appreciating the gifts that people bring to the playa, I imagined not just physical gifts, but also unique qualities of individuals. I realized I could formalize appreciation into an Appreciation Station. And so I decorated a poster, bought a second camping chair, and headed into the dust, ready to appreciate.
I began to consciously appreciate people three years earlier, when I was approached by a fellow burner, who found me dancing in the middle of the night, stuck a ‘Thank You’ sticker on my jacket, and said, “Thank you for being you.”
I was so overwhelmed by this allowance to be myself that I asked this stranger for extra stickers so that I, too, could gift them. Since that fateful night, I have completed two years of graduate school at Naropa University, studying somatic psychotherapy so that I can not only appreciate people, but also assist them in journeying deeper into themselves, uncovering the subconscious materials that hold them back, and growing into their full potential.
The Appreciation Station was birthed just one month after I had begun my third-year internship as an intern therapist at the Naropa Community Counseling Center, a sliding scale mental health clinic that serves the general Boulder community and Naropa students. I was starting to use the skills I had developed in school to help my clients feel heard, seen, and safe enough to face their vulnerabilities. I was pointing out underlying themes and offering a fresh perspective, noticing body movements that informed people’s stories, and creating exercises that helped clients learn more about their values and desires. I was not just listening for what was said, but I was also listening for what remained unsaid, and I was bringing it to the forefront.
And so I returned to Burning Man, rich with the idea of listening to the spaces between people’s words, pointing out the strengths they never knew they had, and sending them off with the gift of loving themselves just a little bit more.
My first customer was my camp neighbor, a guy I met one day earlier, with whom I had already bonded over matching booty shorts and fake tattoos. He volunteered to be my practice ‘appreciatee’ and showed up wearing a fantastically yellow hat with attached face covering for which he requested my services.
I felt like I had just hit the jackpot: there was so much to appreciate about this hat! I started with looks, as the color was bold, the style fun, and the inside design delightfully surprising. I next went to utility: the brim kept him cool, the face covering blocked the dust, and the buttons allowed for adjustment during sudden change of weather. Finally, I took his request one step further and admired the wearer for his creativity, for his courage to proudly exhibit a garment so silly and useful and fun, and for his willingness to be my first customer. He walked away with an enormous grin, and I found my new calling.
Ready to go ‘pro’, I posted up at a street corner and started talking to the masses. I asked every customer to tell me a bit about the thing or quality that they wanted appreciated; and I listened for the parts they did not yet realize to love about themselves.
There was the young woman who had a new appreciation for her legs, which she had previously judged too fat. They had proven themselves the day before, when she was forced to bike several miles back to her camp, standing the entire way after her bike seat broke in deep playa. I applauded her for her courage to talk about body image issues so candidly, her ability to change her perspective in a body-shaming culture, and, of course, on the strength and beauty of her legs.
There were the two men who announced they were appreciating the festival on behalf of four people, as two of their friends had been deported at customs. I marveled at their amazingly positive outlook when so many would have turned to negativity, and I remarked that I had a lot to learn from them about appreciation.
There was the woman who asked me to appreciate her creative costume, and I not only complimented each item, but I also admired the confidence with which she proudly displayed them.
With each customer, I heard a different story, I witnessed a unique appreciation of oneself, and I offered another layer of love.
There were other customers who came to me with their insecurities, and I was given the opportunity to find the silver lining. One young woman in particular stands out, as she vulnerably shared a lack of confidence in her creativity. She explained that she designs stages and creative spaces before her campmates arrive, and then she watches them fill these areas with spontaneous projects during the festival. I immediately pointed out that this talented woman sets the stage for these lucky burners, offering them a setting that helps stimulate their creative flow. Thus, their creativity is partially owed to her innovations. As she pondered this new viewpoint, I went on to point out that an important job like hers rarely gets recognized, as it is the background, unseen and unappreciated, but unbelievably important. And I thanked her for giving me the opportunity to notice and appreciate it.
As I dutifully continued to staff the Appreciation Station each day, I began to see how my studies and my time working at the Counseling Center had deepened my ability to appreciate. Instead of providing people with a blanket statement of appreciation, as I had done three years earlier, I now witnessed them more deeply, pointed out strengths they didn’t know they had, and reflected their unique qualities.
I returned home from the Burn both exhausted and rejuvenated. I was inundated with a week’s worth of missed schoolwork and a hefty client load at the Naropa Community Counseling Center, but my heart was bursting with renewed appreciation for the personal and professional path I have chosen to follow.
For I need not Burning Man to witness the nuanced layers of individuals.
Every day, my clients share their stories with me. Every day, they trust me with their intimate struggles and intense vulnerabilities. And every day, I have the honor of witnessing their narrative, challenging them to deepen into their potential, and, of course, appreciating them.