Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Joe Omundson

tact

I think people learn better when they are asked questions that make them think, rather than being told what to believe and do. This is obvious with children, but at some point we decide "you're old enough to know better" and instead of teaching gently we fight, argue, dominate, and see people as "other". I want to learn more about being tactful and finding productive ways to interact with people.
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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Joe Omundson

new home

This post is a couple days late, I've had a busy week. I now have a house to live in for free! I will tell you how it happened.

It's funny how things happen through unpredictable series of events. I almost didn't take the side trip to Goldmyer hot spring when I hiked the PCT, but then someone convinced me to go there. So I went to the hot spring and when I was there I met this guy who was super into Vipassana meditation, who had been a monk for 7 years, and I talked to him for several hours. I got the name of his Facebook page when we said goodbye.

Fast forward 9 months and I've finished the trail, spent 7 months in Portland living in my car and making an album, and moved to Moab with a few hundred dollars to my name. I was at the library and I noticed this guy's Facebook page showing his van in red-rock country. I sent him a message, "hey if you're ever in Moab let me know." Turns out he'd been here for over a week already, attending the Syncro Solstice, an annual VW van meetup nearby, and we were actually at the library at the same time that day.

I camped with my friend and his family the next night (he, his partner, and their 3(?)-year-old son live in a Vanagon together). At the Solstice they had made some new friends and I met one of them, a guy from New York who'd been traveling in his van for about 5-6 months. I hung out with this guy in town for a few days after my PCT friend and his family had left. Through him, I met a gal they'd all become friends with at Syncro Solstice who has lived here in town for 12 years. (I also met the new-moon friend I talked about in my mushrooms post when I was at a bar with this guy.) I heard that she needed some help with construction projects and owned a few properties, and I was interested in working with her because of her views on money, community, and ethics. So I sent her a message explaining what my skills were and what I was looking for in return.

So, we started talking about potential opportunities for projects I could work on. I fixed a water line in her van. I started researching solar panels and newer van fridges. I started on a cleanup project at a warehouse she owns. In return she paid me some money for the van repair, gave me access to her guest house for showers and hangout space, and said I could park at the warehouse any time. This was all going quite well.

Then on Monday she said "meet me at the warehouse, I want to show you another project." So I got there, and we walked down the street half a block to a property she'd recently acquired. It's amazing -- it has quiet and private parking, it's got a shop building, a 3-bedroom manufactured home, a few acres of beautiful land, one of the biggest trees in Moab, lots of shady hangout spots, fruit trees, and a pool (once it gets cleaned out). The kitchen appliances work, there's a washer & dryer, and a swamp cooler that blows cold air. All this, and it's just a couple blocks from the center of downtown.

She asked me if I wanted to be in charge of renovating the house & property to make them usable for their next purpose, and live there for free for the next 6 months or so. I said yes!

I think she wants to do something community-oriented with the land like an event space or a kids' community space or maybe something else, and the house will be turned into a rental home, but I think those decisions are still up in the air. So it's kind of fun that my own vision might have some impact on what ends up happening. If it were my property I'd make it a home base for vandwellers :) but I think it's going to be cool regardless of exactly what it turns out to be.

I didn't really know I was looking for this, or needed this, but it's been amazing to have a kitchen, some privacy, a quiet place to park (I still prefer to sleep in my car), and to do some manual labor. It's good to get the exercise and have this break from the internet. And it's nice to feel like I have a way to provide for myself rather than constantly depleting my meager savings. It's the first time I've worked in about 26 months. So this week instead of blogging I've been tearing out old carpet/flooring, cleaning up the house, and getting familiar with the irrigation systems.

It feels like a healing and growth opportunity. An opportunity to make a home, curate the energy in this new space, and find my tribe. I think I loved the PCT because it was such a world apart from everything I knew back in Portland, there were like-minded people, and I got to define for myself what my priorities were and how I wanted to spend my time. Portland is great but when I was there I ended up feeling like I wanted to leave for another PCT-like experience. More self-finding work to do. Except this time I didn't want everything to be constantly moving and changing, I didn't want to hike that far, and I wanted to find a new home base in a smaller town. So, I came to Moab, and the new setup on this property feels like a big step toward my goals. Now I am supported to live my life the way I want here. Even though I won't live at this house forever, home exists in the connections I make with people who live in this town, so that even if I move on to another location someday, there will be friends and opportunities waiting whenever I come back.

It is always interesting to me when someone trusts me with a significant amount of responsibility without knowing me for very long. It's like when I met the owner of a yoga studio about doing a work-study agreement and after 15 minutes she gave me the key combo for the front door. I could have stolen from the shop; I could trash this lady's home and take advantage of the situation. But I'm not like that and I guess people can tell. It feels good when people trust me and I always do my best to demonstrate that they made a good choice in doing so.

I have said before that I believe in going with the flow, yet choosing which flow you get into carefully. I think that's what I did when I moved here. My strategy is to be ultra-flexible and have very low requirements so that I can be patient to find just the right flow. I avoided the conventional wisdom of getting an hourly job in town because then I'd have less ability to make myself available for opportunities that I really wanted, like this one. Somehow... it worked out great. I guess it's about knowing what you really want, giving yourself some time to find the right situation, and once it presents itself and you know it's the right one, jumping into it and doing a good job. And trusting that even if everything fails or takes longer than expected, you're probably not going to die.
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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Joe Omundson

vipassana

I went to a 10 day Vipassana course in Oregon last Thanksgiving. It's a silent meditation retreat that gives participants a chance to dive deep into meditation in an intentional environment, providing food, lodging, and instruction on a donation-only basis.

Most of this blog post is based on an email I wrote to a friend & yoga mentor shortly after returning home. I'm grateful that I wrote about the experience then, because I would never be able to capture all the same thoughts if I were to start writing it now.

We meditated for 10 days, for about 10 hours each day: 4:30am-6:30, 8:00-11:00, 1:00-5:00, 6:00-7:00, and 8:30-9:00, with some short breaks in the longer blocks for going to the bathroom etc. The environment was set up intentionally to minimize distractions; we were forbidden from reading, writing, music, videos, talking, physical contact, exercise (other than walking in a field), intoxicants, and leaving the course boundaries. Basically I had no choice but to get really deep into my head and experience my psyche. All information after the orientation day was conveyed via signs rather than verbal announcements, so as not to disturb our mental space. Everything was efficient and logical -- for example, at mealtimes, they would simply ring a bell when the food was ready, and we'd all walk in to the empty room and serve ourselves buffet style and eat in silence. No drama with waiting for staff members to instruct us or anything like that. The food was actually great, it was very healthy and adequate. I was profoundly grateful for every meal. They didn't serve dinner, except for fruit and tea. I'd never eaten so much fruit before.

The meditation technique started with 3.5 days of Anapana meditation -- devoting complete attention to the awareness of breath, and to all subtle sensations in the nostril area alone. The purpose of this was to settle the mind, and to sharpen the brain's ability to detect sensations in a very small area. We were to notice anything from tickling, tingling, pain, heat, cool, expansion/contraction, pressure, pulsing, heaviness/lightness, basically just any sensation that existed in that area at all. Whenever we noticed a thought enter our heads, we were to dismiss it and return attention to the sensation around the nostrils. At first I could hardly go 5 seconds without thinking about something, and it would be a few minutes before I realized my mind was wandering. But gradually I got faster at gathering my wandering mind, and I was able to go 30 seconds, 2 minutes, 10 minutes just focusing on the sensation without my mind starting to chatter. By the end of the 10 days, it was no problem to sit with my mind at rest for a full hour.

After practicing our awareness using Anapana meditation for a few days, we started turning that same quality of attention that we had placed on the nostrils to all areas of our bodies, scanning from head to feet, feet to head, detecting sensation from part to part. This is Vipassana meditation. After all the practice with putting attention on one small area, roaming the whole body was like exploring a new world.

This is the philosophy in a nutshell: our minds are burdened with these things called "sankaras" which are basically the equivalent of a neural pathway which is heavily used; a habit pattern of mind and body. They are related to cravings and aversions. You might have a craving for something pleasant, and then the mind automatically goes down the path of the sankara to seek out the craving; or you experience an aversion to a situation, and automatically generate feelings of panic and anxiety or try to run away. As you sit and meditate and scan your body, these sankaras present themselves as sensations in your body; muscle tension, discomfort, pleasure, or it could be anything really.

The main goal of Vipassana then is to notice these sensations on all areas of the body, and *remain completely impartial* to them, experiencing them with complete detachment and equanimity, in a purely objective way. The idea is to train your mind not to react with attachment to these cravings and aversions, but rather to maintain full awareness that all sensations are temporary, because everything in life is in a constant state of flux; when we feel great cravings and satisfaction from pleasant sensations, and great pain and aversion to unpleasant sensations, our lives become miserable because then we are at the mercy of the random, impersonal phenomena that surround us and are beyond our control. We feel that our experience of life is determined by our circumstances, when really we are reacting blindly instead of taking control of our own minds. If we can learn to accept the pleasant and the unpleasant with equanimity, with the understanding that nothing lasts forever, we will experience greater peace and true happiness... and ultimately we will come to terms with the fact that life eventually ends, and it's OK.

Overall, I thought this philosophy was pretty sound, and the technique was good. I don't know that a "sankara" is a real thing that exists, but I thought it was at least a good metaphor for the human condition. A lot of the ideas about impermanence, constant change, habit patterns, and the connection between mind and body resonated with what I have come to believe personally through my own experiences. So I felt comfortable with the teaching.

Starting on day 2 or 3 I had some powerful personal revelations.

I gained insight into some of the ways that gender was handled in my childhood, by my family and by society. I realized that I connect more with the idea of feeling beautiful and graceful, than tough or manly. I noticed how uncomfortable certain people were with any feminine aspect I presented when I was growing up, and how I'd learned to repress those parts of me, trying to make myself masculine enough to meet with their approval. Along with this realization, I lost some of my inhibition about the idea of loving men. That was always portrayed as a woman's job, and therefore shameful for a man to do. But love is love, and what does it matter how your lover's body is made? After my time at Vipassana I felt like I was more receptive to the idea of intimate experiences with males. Being in the presence of so many peaceful, authentic, self-aware males was a healing experience.

During my limited free time, I thought much about two women who I loved. One of whom I had dated for about 9 months and had had somewhat of a rocky time with after our explosive start, and another who I had met while hiking the PCT and idolized as my ideal partner. It was interesting to notice how my feelings about them changed during the retreat. I had been telling myself I wasn't interested in dating the first girl anymore after getting to know the second one, but I realized my reality wasn't completely in line with my ideals. Despite whatever pain I felt from our interaction, I still felt a shared passion with the one I had dated, which I didn't feel was quite mutual with the other one. Indeed I later discovered that my PCT friend didn't have feelings for me. At Vipassana I realized how strong of an aversion I had to conflict and criticism, and how unhelpful that was in my life, and how that was really more my problem than anyone else's. This inspired me to give tenderness with my past love another chance.

While I was at the course, my step-mom was in hospice care, dying from cancer. Unable to distract myself from this reality, I spent much time weeping and experiencing intense grief. I thought very deeply about the end of her life and what it would mean. She was such a beautiful and inspiring person. She is probably the one most responsible for awakening in me an interest in bodily awareness, joyful movement, attention to breath, and loving acceptance of others. She was one of the biggest supporters I had throughout all stages of my development and she always advocated for my right to express my individuality. In a sense, this whole blog is dedicated to her because she encouraged my writing like no one else.

I gained a clear picture of just how much I was going to miss her, and resolved to spend as much time with her as I could when I got home. I had not asked anybody to call the retreat if her condition rapidly deteriorated, and by day 8 or so, I realized that this was a mistake. I didn't want to miss the end of her life just because I was meditating an hour away from home. I wanted to go be with her if the end was imminent. I expressed my concern to the staff, and they graciously found a solution, calling home for me to get an update, and her condition was still relatively stable, so I stayed for the remainder of the course. The instructor told me that finishing the Vipassana course would enable me to be more present, supportive, and attentive during the difficult period ahead. He was right about that.

My step-mom died less than a month after I returned from the course, and I got to spend the last week or so at her home, helping with her care, enabling her to experience death in the way she wanted. I didn't allow an aversion to pain to keep me from connecting with her. If I am most grateful for one thing about my Vipassana experience, it's the way it gave me tools for going through her death. Of course it was still very hard and traumatic, and I was depressed for a time afterward, but I have no regrets about the way we parted. We both knew how much we loved each other.

Certainly, I am glad I went. It was a lot of hard work and totally exhausting at times, I cried a lot, went through a lot of ups and downs, but I feel that I made real progress at removing some of my reactive habit patterns. The mental state I entered was really interesting. When I take psychedelic mushrooms, from about 4-8 hours after eating them, when the effects are wearing off, there is a period that just feels wonderful to me -- sanity and realistic perception are restored to the mind but there is a deep feeling of calm, peace, and ease that lingers for a while. During Vipassana I felt that way for days on end. My mind was not constantly wandering, I could sit down to meditate and immediately dive deep into exploration of my body with no distraction. That was really cool.

As a bonus to the mental and emotional benefits, it felt pretty amazing to develop a mind-body connection in such a direct and thorough way. I recognized some deep physical patterns that I had never realized before, and even as I sit here and type this, I can feel how they've been present all along -- bouncy legs, tendency to contract something deep in my left side-body, tension in my neck/collarbone/shoulder area. Doing yoga in the frame of mind provided by this meditation was profound. My body felt better than ever, and my mobility and range of motion were noticeably increased, which was certainly not an expected result from sitting still in the same posture for hours on end.

This supports my hypothesis that yoga, bodywork, dancing, massage, and other activities of that nature are all aimed at increasing a simple conscious awareness of the body. You can practice yoga poses for years but if you never learn to notice your own sensations and put awareness into other parts of your body than just your head, it does very little good. I think I will always love yoga and find personal benefit and meaning from it, but this practice has kind of ruined other kinds of bodywork for me; why pay upwards of $60/hour to have someone show you how to be aware of your body, when you can do a much more thorough job of it yourself, for free?

I really appreciated that the course was run on donations, and in my opinion it lends a lot of credibility to the practice if they are willing to house and feed dozens of people for 11 days for free, trusting that the students will benefit enough to want to give back in a big way. I love that model of doing business. I think it makes the experience richer for the students too, as it removes the expectation that they *have* to get something out of it because they paid good money for it. Receiving it as a gift makes it more of a pure thing.

There were parts that I didn't like, too. They keep males and females entirely separated except for in the meditation hall, which is not a problem for me personally since I am mostly straight and I did not go there to meet women, and for me it was easier not having to face that as a distraction. But I feel it was a very heteronormative way of dealing with things, and does nothing at all to ease the experience of homosexuals who are made to share a room with others that they may be attracted to. I actually have a friend who is a lesbian who went to Vipassana and was assigned a room with another lesbian, and it was a distraction for them. Separating male and female in this way also reinforces a gender binary that some people do not want to subscribe to. I'm not sure what solution would work better, perhaps making it completely co-ed, or maybe finding a way for each person to have their own room. I've heard of some retreats where each student gets their own room.

While I found the meditation technique itself to be completely secular/rational and removed from any kind of religious philosophy, imagery, dogma, or beliefs, the philosophy that was expounded in the evening discourses (75 minutes every day, as recorded by S.N. Goenka in 1991) was distinctly Buddhist. It was interesting to learn more about Buddhism, but I felt it was a bit heavy-handed at times. In the last couple days of the course, I actually became upset with the way it was being handled; though Goenka kept reiterating that the practice was rational, non-sectarian, etc., he often relied on references to specific Buddhist ideas such as karma and reincarnation to make his points. I didn't see how that was necessary for learning a simple meditation technique. I don't see those concepts as very rational or secular.

In Christianity, when someone leaves the faith because it doesn't work for them, it is commonly insisted that "since this person left Christianity, we can know that they were never a true Christian, because if they had experienced Jesus authentically, they never would have wanted to leave." I am here to tell you that that's the biggest load of bullshit ever. I could not possibly have been more sincere in my desire to connect with Jesus and I sought him constantly for years. Yet I never had any sense that any of it was real, that he was present or true, so when I left the faith it was with a very thorough understanding of what I was doing. To say that people like me were never true Christians is a completely invalidating and dismissive attempt to protect the legitimacy of the faith; if people give it a fair trial and reject it, the clear implication is that it *doesn't* work for everyone. But if they can't say that literally *everyone* needs Christ, then the foundation of their belief falls apart.

Goenka tries to avoid this kind of propaganda by saying "evaluate the technique for yourself, and if it provides tangible benefits in your life, for yourself and the people around you, only then should you accept it." This is fair, and yes the technique deserves a fair trial for evaluation. He could have left it at that. Or he could have followed it up with "and if it doesn't work out for you, try to find some other way to gain control of your reactions and free yourself from your suffering".

Instead, he followed the Christian route -- "the technique has been proven to work for many thousands of people around the world, so there can be no question that the technique works; if you try it and it doesn't work for you, you aren't practicing properly, and you need to talk to an instructor to determine what you're doing wrong." Well, maybe, maybe not.

He insists on practicing 1 hour in the morning, and 1 hour in the evening, in order to become established in the technique; otherwise you will never be free of your suffering and your life will be "meaningless". Basically my problem is that he seems to insist that Vipassana is "the way" to "full enlightenment" (whatever that is). As with the gender separation, this is not a personal hindrance for me; I can see right through this kind of petty manipulation and I'm smart enough to know that meditation is nothing more than a tool I can use at my discretion. No big deal if it doesn't work for me, I have other tools like yoga, and backpacking, and marijuana, and maybe I only need to use this technique every once in a while to maintain equilibrium. I'm not about to suffer from the delusion that I *need* to practice this one kind of meditation to have a fulfilling life.

But from the conversations of people around me on the last day, I could tell that many people were getting sucked into the same kind of salvationist mindset that Christianity pushes. That they need to make a big effort to maintain this practice, even if it doesn't work for them, when the truth is that you'll practice it willingly if it works for you. I don't have to force myself to go to yoga, I go joyfully because I love it and it improves my quality of life. They're making it about effort and work just like legalistic Christians. So, I was upset by the fact that Goenka would set people up to get attached to the practice in that kind of way... if the whole goal is to free people of suffering and attachment, why invite them to feel attached to having a consistent practice, feeling like a failure if it doesn't work out?

I do recognize that a lot of people have a much more conventional approach to life than I do, so they are coming to the course (as one guy I talked to) never having taken time off from work in 3 years... and maybe these people like practices that involve discipline and scheduling. Maybe the idea is to encourage them not to return completely to the numbing influences of society, but to keep a persistent practice as a source of liberation and insight, and I suppose I can get behind that. Personally I tend to be less regimented. I think that in my life, I've already removed myself from a lot of the suffering that people experience in terms of desiring nice possessions, trying to hold on tightly to certain circumstances, getting really upset about loss and injury, striving for "success", and those kinds of things. So for me it feels less important that I develop a strong meditation practice as a source of liberation -- I already feel quite free and happy in many ways. Not that I don't have a lot of room to grow in that area. And it did show me some new ways to be free and happy. I definitely see ongoing value, I'm just not super attached to maintaining a schedule. [Now that I am going back through this text, I'm starting to wonder if I was really as happy and liberated as I thought, or if I was just rationalizing a way that I wouldn't have to go against my aversion to discipline and create a regular schedule. Perhaps I would actually benefit from that.]

So I think overall I would definitely recommend a 10-day Vipassana course to nearly anyone. Even if you don't continue the practice afterward, you can still get some good realizations out of the 10 day experience. I would just caution people not to worry too much about how well they maintain the practice, and rather encourage people to keep seeking some kind of meaningful spiritual psychosomatic experience that helps them see themselves more objectively, if this one doesn't work out.
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Saturday, June 18, 2016

Joe Omundson

questions

How much of ourselves do we really know? Each person more familiar with their own mind than anyone else in the world can possibly be, but how much of what we believe about ourselves is deception? Do we truly understand our motivations? Are our choices consciously chosen, or are they complex reactions to external events that have the illusion of choice? To what extent can we gain awareness of these processes?

Are the most enlightened among us still wrapped up in a false reality? How much of our surroundings are we misunderstanding because we are tied to the human form, limited by our sense faculties to perceive narrow windows of all the available stimuli? How would our perception of reality change if a normal "lifetime" was not 80 years, but 80 minutes or 80,000 years? And what things do our senses take in that we never realize we are able to perceive?

In light of the smallness of our perception and our vast unknowing of most of what is real, how do we find the capacity to be arrogant, smug, and dismissive? Why do we think we can make life and death choices for other lifeforms on this planet and know that this is good?

What will our future hold? How are we impacting the course of life and consciousness? What will be the next steps in our evolution?
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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Joe Omundson

structures of awareness

It is commonly perceived that each human being is one distinct, complete, intelligent creature. I believe we are much more, and much less, than that.

Have you seen ants at work? A colony of ants is like a singular entity, a swarm intelligence, more so than it is a collection of individuals. The ants perform a range of tasks in perfect harmony to achieve one unified goal. They communicate chemically to maintain their unity and act efficiently. An ant is not capable of very much on its own, yet the interaction of all of them creates a unified system of interacting with the world around them. It is hard for us to believe that an ant colony could literally have singular, centralized perception, an ego, because we see each ant moving separately, as though it were an individual -- making choices, moving on its own power.

Yet how different is an ant colony from each of our own bodies? We are all composed of many trillions of cells. These cells have specialized functions and they live and die individually. They operate on their own without our direct control, yet produce a unified action that constitutes "our action" in the world. Like with ants, the whole entity does not necessarily suffer when individual units die, yet we seek to preserve some core essence of the entity.

If alien life forms visited earth, is it not possible that they would perceive each human being as trillions of united cellular organisms, rather than singular individuals? Like ant colonies that produce a cohesive action through the cooperation of simple units?

So how does our central sense of intelligence arise? Why do we perceive ourselves as "one person" rather than trillions of individuals? How does this collection of connected, signaling, consuming, excreting, birthing, dying, individual cells create our experience of a singular consciousness?

In general, intelligence seems to be made up of complex interactions between smaller units of limited capacity. We might have "one brain", but that brain is simply a conglomeration of many billions of brain cells which are connected to each other with synapses, signalling chemically and electrically (this is my rough understanding, at least). It's the complexity of the connections between those simple substructures that leads to our ability to think, reason, perceive, and intuit.

An ant can only accomplish so much, but coordinated action between many ants changes the world. Bacteria and fungus are simple cellular organisms, yet they interact in huge numbers to find solutions to complex situations, to the point that their adaptive intelligence rivals our ability to keep up with them with our best science. A tree is slow-moving and seemingly inert, yet forests have adapted and survived for millions of years to all kinds of adverse conditions, and they have their own methods of communication. Flocks of birds, schools of fish, hives of bees, are all examples of individual organisms combining into decision-making entities that are greater than the sum of their parts.

I think we are limiting ourselves if we believe that thought can only happen via a network of neurons inside a brain. A neuron is a simple biological machine which receives inputs and gives outputs to other neurons around it. The "thought", the "awareness" that results, is an abstract, intangible concept. Ideas are invisible and mass-less, and they have no location. There's no reason that a collection of independent organisms, connected with sound, light, scent, electricity, or another means of physical communication, cannot also generate this abstract concept of awareness. They are a brain, in another form.

Intelligence and awareness are all around us, even though we do not perceive them as such. All life forms have evolved into what they are now for millions of years, adapting through all kinds of adverse conditions. Just because they do not think and interact using brain cells to process loads of information from moment to moment like we do, does not mean that they do not have their own kind of wisdom, awareness, and intelligence.

Furthermore, how do we know that we as humans are not merely components of a "human brain" that conceives of itself as one individual? Each human is like a very complicated neuron inside a bigger system. When we form communities and work together we are able to accomplish unimaginable feats. We are finding ways to harness that kind of inter-human brainpower, using the internet for example. Perhaps the internet is already self-aware and is the most powerful brain on the planet.

What if all life units on Earth are connected in a way that is incomprehensible to us, yet truly there is a global consciousness which has been growing itself for billions of years, adapting, changing, evolving, setting up new systems within itself, increasing in complexity? A pan-biological brain that first became aware billions of years ago, and has been refining itself in many different ways up to the present day.

And who is to say that intelligence is limited to living systems? These simple biological machines that create the building blocks of life, awareness, and intelligence, are limited to following the laws of physics. At the core of our brain's functionality is chemical potentials, electrical voltages, physical phenomena which are measurable and react in predictable ways. Yet somehow these laws of physics are causing structures to act in such a way that they do not dissipate into chaos as predicted by the famous 2nd law of thermodynamics; they tend toward increasing complexity. There are non-biological systems that do this too. A galaxy uses the laws of gravity to maintain a patterned structure. An atom uses the strong nuclear force and electrical force to maintain its integrity instead of dissipating into a cloud of quarks. Could these systems not also have some form of intelligence arising from the interactions of basic physical machines?

Indeed we are seeing rapid increases in non-biological awareness through our work with computers and artificial intelligence. A transistor is a simple physical machine, but take a few billion of them, arrange them to interact in flexible ways, and... you get the idea.

This is what I mean by the Self Observing Universe. Like everything that surrounds us, our bodies and minds are made of nothing more than protons, neutrons, and electrons. Everything follows the same laws of physics. We are made of universe. We are the universe. And by evolving into the form of our bodies, the universe has found a way to perceive, measure, test, and experience itself. The universe is self-aware, because we are aware, and it is becoming increasingly complex and intelligent.
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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Joe Omundson

dear friend

Dear friend,

I am so grateful for your life. You have always supported me fully. I know I can tell you anything and you will see me. From continents away, I feel your love and acceptance. Though we only met in person that one day last year, the living words we share connect us. You have given me courage and helped me to realize myself. I find home inside myself when I think of you.

You are constantly growing and changing, and the disequilibrium brings questions and confusion. Do not worry. It's OK. It's even good. You already know the answers to the most important questions; you live a life of love and wonder, connection and beauty. We all have things to figure out but you are completely on the right path. With your sincerity in all the ways you express yourself, your fearless pursuit of truth and honesty, your ferocious appetite for justice, you inspire me to transcend my limitations and climb toward our ideals of unity, harmony, and love.

You are so brave. And strong. I want to know you more and grow with you for years to come. I love you. Everything that truly lives, loves you. I don't see how anything else could be the case.
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Friday, June 10, 2016

Joe Omundson

my circumcision


Warning -- this post is about my penis. If that makes you uncomfortable, you might not want to read it.


I've always thought I had a fairly loose circumcision, because when I'm flaccid, I have folds of skin that rest against my corona, and it seems like there's lots of slack. Great! I'm lucky to have so much skin left! I thought. But I realized that the only reason I have so much slack when flaccid is because my penis is a grower and not a shower; when erect I'm about 5 inches, but when flaccid it's more like 1-3 inches. (For some guys, their length is about the same whether flaccid or erect.) No surprise, when my penis is several inches shorter than its erect length, there's obviously plenty of skin.

Recently I had the idea to trim my pubic hair, which I have only done maybe once or twice before. I took a pair of scissors and cut my hair to about 1cm long. With my long hairs out of the way, I was able to notice that I have hair growing up the base of the penis itself, like 1" of the way up the shaft when erect. What I realized is that I actually have very little loose skin on my penis; that hairy skin should be down by my scrotum rather than on the shaft, but has had to be pulled up onto the shaft because the skin from the glans down is completely tensioned due to my lack of a foreskin. Uncircumcised men (and many who are loosely circumcised) can do a "glide" motion, while erect, where they grab the skin of the shaft and pull it up over the head, which is apparently so pleasurable for them that they can actually orgasm from masturbating that way. For me, the only way that movement can happen (in a very limited fashion) is if the hairy skin at the base of my shaft stretches up when I pull on it; and it doesn't feel very good at all.

I think they actually cut off a lot of skin with my circumcision and because there is no free play around the corona/glans of my penis, and because the head is keratinized and callous from constant exposure rather than the shiny and wet tissue it is supposed to be (like the clitoris protected by its hood), my sensation during sexual activity is nowhere near as sensitive as it could be. In general, sensation in my glans is very vague and half numb. I always have to rely on lubrication when I masturbate because the skin on my shaft doesn't move enough for the glide method. My erect penis is like a rod, with no moving parts, and because my sensitivity is low I have to masturbate with a pretty firm grip, often for longer than I would like to. This is not a very gentle way to experience sexual pleasure. It relies on friction rather than pleasurable sensation.

When I was an adolescent and masturbated more often, it wasn't uncommon for me to develop chafing, or painful cracks that even bled sometimes, from the friction I required in order to feel something. Yet the urge to orgasm was so strong that I would not always give myself adequate time to heal. I would think "oh, it's probably healed enough by now", then halfway through masturbating I would realize it was still painful, but I would somehow trick myself into thinking I could do it gently enough for it not to be a problem (really, I was just horny and didn't want to stop), and then of course the injury would perpetuate. I always blamed myself for this, but I don't think I would have encountered these problems at all with an intact foreskin. It's pretty normal for guys at that age to feel horny a couple times a day.

I've been mad about my circumcision before, but I am just stunned that this is my reality, as opposed to having the body part that nature gave me which would have lubricated and protected my most sensitive bits. Every day when I'm walking around I feel my glans chafing against my shorts and it is uncomfortable. It actually makes me so sad. My parents instructed a doctor to do this to me? Aren't parents and doctors the people we are supposed to trust with our health, especially as children? Yet this happened to me when I was at my most vulnerable?

People say "oh if you're unhappy with your circumcision you must have something wrong, because studies show that there is no difference in sexual experience." As though cutting off 5-10 square inches of my most erogenous tissue has no effect, as though the drying out of my glans does not affect sensitivity, as though the natural movement of the foreskin over the head of the penis is just an evolutionary artifact that medicine and tradition can write off as unnecessary. As though a study which takes the average of some sample of men is guaranteed to apply to my own experience.

They say, "your odds of contracting STDs are 60% lower, you should be grateful!" As though I am too stupid to manage my own STD risk without having my genitals mutilated at birth against my will. They should have removed my toenails too -- don't need 'em, and they might get ugly fungus infections anyway. Tonsils, appendix, gallbladder, these are just problematic body parts so we ought to perform painful surgeries on newborns to reduce hassle later in life. They aren't able to complain about the pain, they'll just forget anyway so no big deal right? Hell, 12% of breasts will get breast cancer, we should remove all breast tissue at adolescence too right? (My understanding is that the lowered risk of STDs is a myth in the first place, or at least quite controversial.)

They say, "you can last longer in bed though since you're less sensitive! Isn't that great?" Yeah, because I really want to have to work extra hard to feel something when I'm having sex. Because I wouldn't have been capable of learning how to gain endurance without an irreversible surgery performed on my infant body. Because my partner likes getting worn out by my thrusting attempts to orgasm, which often fail, leaving me embarrassed and ashamed.

Circumcision is viewed as the accepted medical approach in the USA, to the point that people get angry at the idea of not mutilating the penises of newborn boys. Most men in the world are intact. We hardly ever talk about this. These are real people, these are parts of our bodies, sensitive nerve endings we can never get back.

It wasn't until at least my mid-twenties that it dawned on me: the distinct change in color halfway up my penis is a scar from a surgery I had when I was days old, on my most intimate body part, that I never asked to be done to me. I feel so violated. How dare they modify boys' genitals at birth? It is absolutely not OK. We have no trouble grasping the fact that female genital mutilation is an abomination, even if it were to somehow reduce STDs or make things more hygienic. The same applies to males. Would you let a doctor cut off your newborn daughter's clitoral hood so that she grows up with her clitoris constantly exposed to the outside world, tough and dry, insensitive?

A lot of this stuff is not news to me. I've felt this way about circumcision for a long time. But I hadn't quite realized how much skin I was missing, how tight it is when I'm erect, and how different it is from a natural experience. Many of my sexual difficulties make more sense now that I have this understanding. I had to look up a lot of information online to make this realization; it's completely absent from our education system, and society doesn't talk about it. It makes me sad that I am just now understanding this aspect of myself, at 28 years old.

But, there is good news too. I decided I definitely want to start restoring my foreskin! With daily effort, applying gentle tension, the skin can be prompted to create new cells, permanently growing and lengthening into some semblance of a functional foreskin. My glans can be protected again, and the tough surface can slough off to reveal the shiny, smooth, sensitive membrane that nature intended. I seem to have a lot of inner foreskin left, above my scar, and that's good news because it should help with moisturizing the glans once it's long enough to cover it. It takes a lot of commitment, is slow progress, and can take years to achieve something like a full restoration. But I think it would be amazingly healing, both physically and emotionally, for me to spend the time on myself in that way, and make the most of my body's capacity to change for the better.

So, yesterday I looked up some tugging techniques, and took some photos to document myself, and I am going to figure this thing out and do everything that's in my power to help my body function well. In general in my life these days I am trying to find productive, happy solutions to the things that have kept me feeling powerless and angry. I have deeply held trauma regarding my penis from a lot of different angles: the hostility surrounding sex in Christianity, the cultural shame of having a shorter-than-average penis in our society, my own dissatisfaction with the way it feels when I'm masturbating or having sex, my difficult history with intimacy. It feels like my enemy sometimes. I tend to resent this part of me which feels broken and doesn't work well for me, which lets me down when I want to feel intimate, and also prevents my loved ones from sharing a full experience with me, physically and emotionally. By showing my body some love and helping it to have what it needs, I can start to reverse this painful reality.

I can never get my foreskin back, but I can grow something that will be similar and improve my experience of my body. I can speak out about this tragedy that is still happening to thousands of people every day in our country, and hopefully save some innocent boys from the pain I've gone through. I can learn to be vulnerable, work within my reality, be open about it, and encourage other men to accept their reality, too, with all the anger and bitterness it often entails, opening up a path to restoration and healing.

This is the most vulnerable thing I have ever written and I appreciate your kind understanding. If you want to share your thoughts or your story, you're welcome to do so in the comments below, or write me an email.
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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Joe Omundson

mushrooms

2 days ago, I tripped on psychedelic mushrooms for the first time in about 16 months.

I drove out from Moab to a place in the desert I'd camped before, but it was occupied with a tent, so I drove past it to explore and see what else I could find. I'm glad it worked out that way because I found an incredible campsite not much farther down the road. I parked on an expanse of slickrock, with a whole complex of rock slabs at different levels that were fun to explore; they led down to the edge of a beautiful canyon, with a cliff that dropped maybe 100 feet. It was a stunning view and a great spiritual setting for my trip. I didn't see or hear another person while I was out there.

(Can you spot my car?)


I ate the mushrooms right at 6:00 PM. Well, I ate half of them, and waited another hour to see how I felt about taking the second half, since I knew nothing about this particular batch of mushroom or how many grams of it I had. To occupy myself during the onset phase I reorganized the contents of my car/home and did a bit of cleaning as I listened to music.

About 30 minutes in, as I was just starting to feel enhanced, I did some simple yoga poses and experienced them in my whole body. The texture of the rock gave a better grip under my feet than any yoga mat.

By 7:00 I could see some visual effects and sensed the psychological change, and my stomach started to feel a bit uneasy like it normally does. I wanted to lie down and do nothing. But I felt good overall, and ready for a decent trip, so I ate the second half too.

I have been having some realizations lately about the left side of my body vs. my right, and I noticed something related to a constant tension I have in my left neck, shoulder, and jaw. It's like an inability to truly relax and put weight into that area. I spent some time focusing on that and responding to the sensations with whatever movements they requested, and I feel like I made an adjustment to myself. I think this might be related to a time when I broke my left wrist and was in a cast up to my shoulder for several weeks; I relived the experience of breaking the wrist and painfully waiting for a ride to the hospital. Now that the wrist is healed I don't need to protect it from feeling painful anymore, but it's a hard habit to break.

I had an interesting idea at around this point. As background -- I am very interested in the mind-body connection and how our awareness is truly spread out through our bodies. I have a theory that the layers of fascia, which run throughout our bodies in sheets, encompassing muscles and organs, giving us much of our bodily structure, are in fact a neurological extension to the brain and that is why we associate certain emotional traumas with physical patterns of holding in specific areas of our bodies. Our minds are literally spread out through our whole bodies.

Anyway, I was thinking about how fungus grows... a network of mycelium underneath the soil, with the "fruit" of the fungus probing above ground as mushrooms. These organisms can grow very large and some people think that they have their own kind of complex intelligence. So my idea was this: what if these mushrooms create psilocybin because it is somehow chemically conducive to the kind of intelligence that connects a sheety network of awareness, and this is why when we ingest it, it connects awareness inside our fascia in a similar way?

Mushrooms can be therapeutic in revealing to us parts of ourselves that we normally hide from. And much of the way we hide from our pain is through contractions in our fascia that we are not even aware of. So it makes sense to me that if psilocybin is inherently an agent for connection and awareness, it could lead to the result that so many people experience, of becoming more integrated in mind and body as the whole fascial system learns to relate to itself in a fuller way.

Usually when I eat mushrooms, the onset starting at 45-60 minutes after ingestion feels uncomfortable, and can feel intense for an hour or two after that. Then, as the intensity gradually starts to fade out, the really pleasant part begins, where my mind feels fascinated and opened and clear, my body feels peaceful, my spirit fresh. This trip was no exception, but I noticed that the way I navigated the experience was different.

I've gone through a lot of growing experiences in the last 16 months, and to me, it felt like my mind was more integrated and self-accepting going into this trip. I was able to flow with my own needs and never felt stuck or overly anxious. I had never actually taken mushrooms in 2 doses like that, opting instead to attempt to calculate the exact dose I would need to get the desired effect; I think doing it all at once is actually more stressful, to commit to the plunge like that instead of giving myself a chance to see how I feel and adjusting the dose accordingly.

I spent most of the uncomfortable part of the trip lying on my mattress, just sitting with the feelings. I knew the stomach discomfort was from the mushrooms (... and maybe the pizza buffet). The mental discomfort -- the inability to ignore certain painful thoughts and memories -- was actually not that bad. A couple of times I felt sad about people or situations, but I just cried for a bit and let the feeling flow through; after all the processing I did when I was backpacking, none of this was surprising.

And I think that's the difference -- when I first took mushrooms in my early twenties, there was a lot of stuff I was lying about to myself without realizing it. When the psilocybin would reveal to me the contents of my mind and body, it was very disorienting and it felt like my world was crashing down sometimes. I would grapple with the stats I had used to identify myself, which suddenly seemed alien and hard to remember... where did I go to college, how old was I, what was my religious upbringing.

I think losing track of those kinds of things happens more with a heavier trip, and this one felt on the lighter side. But still, there was a difference because this time I felt like there was no aspect of my mind that surprised me to discover or forget. Even with the things that were painful, it was like "yep, there's that old hurt again. Still hurts a bit. Nothing new to see here." And so it was easier to set it aside once I'd sat with it for a while. It was easier not only to accept the uncomfortable parts, but also the feelings of intimacy and joy.

After a while, maybe a little after 8:00, my stomach settled down and I decided to go for a walk. Interestingly by this point I already seemed to be over the subtle, warping visuals that I have come to expect. I hopped down some of the rock slabs to explore the edge of the canyon, giving the edge a respectable margin. I found one large slab in particular near the edge that felt like the place to be, so I spent some time sitting on it and absorbing the world around me.

(My sitting rock is the one on the right)


It was sunset, it had been a 100 degree day, and these rocks were emitting the heat they'd stored from baking in the sun. I imagined what it would be like to be able to see the infrared spectrum and the literal glow that was shining up all around me. It was actually very pleasant to be in contact with these stone surfaces, which were probably completely sterile from all the UV radiation, and I felt a sense of connection with this section of solid earth that exposes itself to the air. Each day eroding just slightly so new atoms are brushing the atmosphere, yet all connected solidly into the crust of the Earth for millions of years. Ancient and constantly new.

I noticed the sliver of new moon near the sunset. This immediately made me think of a new friend I have recently met, because we had looked up the moon cycle calendar the night before; here was our new moon. She was traveling through the area, we met and hung out and camped for several days, and then I said goodbye to her the same morning as my trip, as she continued on her journey. I reflected on this experience quite a bit, feeling much warmth and gratitude in my heart. Very few times in my life have I met someone whose outlook on life felt so similar to mine and connected so easily. We shared many passions and perspectives, and our conversations were engaging and enriching to me. Her conscious wisdom inspired changes in me. It was beautiful.

I regretted not knowing how to express my gratitude to her in a more meaningful way, yet at the same time I felt like it was perfect and I wouldn't change anything. I wondered if our interaction meant as much to her as it did to me, or if it seemed disproportionately significant to me because of my own particular history, circumstances, and desires; maybe she has these kinds of easy connections on a frequent basis. Whatever the case, her kindness and presence was like a healing ointment seeping into the fissures of my heart, and whatever happens in the future I will always think of her with so much peace and respect.



Back by my car, I did some more movements. I put myself into a plank position and slowly lowered myself to the ground, except instead of imagining myself "lowering", I imagined myself as stationary, and allowing the entire earth to come up towards me. In this way I accepted the earth, embracing it. I felt at peace with this warm, comforting rock. I perceived the entire earth as benevolent and nurturing.

Sunset faded to darkness, and with the new moon below the horizon, no city lights, and not a cloud in the sky, I was privileged to bathe in the light of the milky way. I played music from my car and brought my bedding outside onto the slickrock, where I would eventually fall asleep in the warm breeze. I stayed up until 12:30 or 1:00 taking photos of the night sky. I watched satellites, shooting stars, airplanes, and constellations, I thought about the relative positioning of the axis of our planet with the disk of the milky way, and let my body sink into the ground.



Overall, though it was a relatively mild trip, I felt very interested by it. It was a good check-in. It seems like I am slowly getting to a place where I can let go of fear and worry, and live in connection to the love that I find around me. It's always interesting to notice how my own state of happiness and ease tends to generate positive interactions with other people who seem to feel the same way, even on the street or at the grocery store. In some sense it's kind of a vicious thing... in order to have loving interactions, you have to feel that way on your own, first. At least in our society, we tend to avoid connecting with people who seem down, hurt, angry, afraid, and that feedback loop makes those people feel even more isolated.

I'm not sure what can be done about that, but I know I want to work on myself to become a happier person and experience loving connection on a regular basis, and from that point I will be more able to reach out to those who need it. I'm trying to accept that spending time making myself whole and healthy is actually the best thing I can do for the world around me. It's hard because every day I see examples of abuse, between lovers or between parents and children, and it devastates me. A happy future for everyone seems a long way off. Yet I can only change what I can change, namely myself, so that's what I'll have to keep focusing on.
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Sunday, June 5, 2016

Joe Omundson

goodbyes

I've always had difficulty saying goodbye to circumstances and people that I am attached to. The thought of a good thing not being present in the future can be unbearable.

I went to summer camp every year between kindergarten and my senior year of high school. I usually went alone, and I bonded with the other kids and my counselor. At the end of the week I was very sad to say goodbye to them, to leave this place where I felt part of a community that accepted me and helped me to integrate things like exercise, socialization, and new activities into my lifestyle. I cried every time.

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail was a lesson in goodbyes -- with the people, and within the trail itself.

You meet other hikers every day, and you say goodbye to them every day. Everything is in a constant state of flux, and it is obvious that nothing in the future is guaranteed. When you are hanging out with someone in town, and then you leave to get back on trail, you don't know whether you will see them in an hour or if you will never see them again. Sometimes your paths cross many times, but this is often not the case. So, you learn to say goodbye in a way that will be appropriate in either case: not overbearing or overly attached, but sincere and appreciative.

Many times on the trail, you go over a "pass"; usually a saddle point on a ridge, the lowest and easiest route from one valley to another. At the top of the pass you can see everything that you have been hiking through, perhaps for the last day or two, and you can also see the unknown landscape into which you are about to descend. I sometimes felt an emotional tug when I had to leave the area I had just been living in and experiencing. I was leaving that memory behind. Yet, there was no choice but forward, and I learned to replace the sadness of leaving the old landscape with curiosity about what was to come.

The best thing about goodbyes is that they are closely linked with hellos. Any painful goodbye is evidence that you have said hello at some point in the past and developed something meaningful. Also, saying goodbye to what you know sets you up to experience what is unknown... new places and people, and the lessons they bring. The only way to avoid the pain of saying goodbye would be to never love, never grow, never connect.

I've made friends with two people here in Moab who are fellow van-dwellers, only here for a short stay as part of a longer journey. I just got a text from one of them while I was starting to write this post; he has left town and is almost to Telluride. The other is probably leaving tomorrow. It is hard to connect with people and then watch them leave; but, that's what I've chosen, so I need to embrace it. That's part of what nomadic culture is all about.

We can't hold on to each other forever because we all desire the freedom to go where we please. It's a lesson in setting free that which we love. I can either choose to see it as heartbreaking, or as the start of something exciting: I may never see these people again, but there's no reason we can't stay in touch, and someday in the future when we happen to be near each other (or if we remain close and plan a visit intentionally), it will be all the more exciting to see them again. "Remember how we met so randomly in Moab and how much fun it was?" And I will have an instant sense of home with them, wherever we happen to be.

I think death is scary to me because it is the ultimate goodbye. I don't think it is rational to remain afraid of what is known to be inevitable, so having a lot of practice with endings makes sense to me; meetings and partings are like a constant reminder of the impermanence of our reality. Whether it's a friend you only met for a day, or a lifelong partner, there will always be a goodbye at the end of it, and we never truly know when the last one will come. It's a reminder never to take any person, or place, or time, for granted. To live fully in each day. Because time is limited, and we can only choose to make the most of it while we have it.
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Saturday, June 4, 2016

Joe Omundson

candid

I took some photos of my car without arranging anything first. Here's how it might look on an average day, just arriving at my campsite.







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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Joe Omundson

marijuana part 2

I went 15 days without any cannabis after leaving Portland, and it was a refreshing time. I had more vivid dreams, I never worried about getting caught or people noticing I was high, I spent less money, and actually the constant sobriety was a good reminder of what my baseline personality is like.

But eventually I started to feel like I wanted some again. It wasn't really a physical craving, or a sense that I "needed" it... it was more like I had some emotions coming up that were hard for me to connect with, and I felt like being stoned would knock down the barriers that kept me from experiencing and understanding my feelings, helping me get "unstuck".

I actually considered driving to the nearest town in Colorado that sells pot legally, which probably would have been close to a 4 hour ordeal. In the end I decided to try the rock climbers close to town; I'd walked by them once before and saw/smelled a couple people smoking joints.

I approached a few different groups and asked if they had $20 worth of weed they could sell me. None of them said they had any. One gal seemed very receptive to me and said I should come back if I found some. I drove to a nearby campground and walked through it. At the far end was a group of 4 guys in their 20s, and while they didn't overtly look like stoners, they didn't seem like they'd be offended if I asked, either. They were able to sell me $10 worth from their small stash. Success! It seemed like about a gram or maybe a little less.

Like I was talking about in my last post on this topic, it's interesting how legalization changes your perception of marijuana. Even though I had no idea what strain this was, how potent it was, or where it came from, I was stoked just to have any at all. I drove past the climbers again on my way back to town, but decided not to stop and share with the friendly girl and her group. I didn't want to smoke it then and be social and then have to drive back stoned. I wanted to save it for a place and time when I could unwind and have some space to process.

I used all of it over the next 4 nights as I camped out at various places, and I thoroughly enjoyed each time. It was great to feel the effect as a significant alteration again, and not to have to smoke very much to feel it. In Portland I might have rolled all that weed into one joint and it would have been gone in 10 minutes. But I got 4 full highs out of the deal. That's good because I'm on a tight budget.

Now I've run out again and that's OK. I'm not in a rush to get more. I had the experience I wanted and I feel somewhat better adjusted for it. Coincidentally I also had the most social 3 days I've had since I got here, as a guy I know happened to be in Moab with his family and I camped with them and was introduced to a couple other friends they've made recently. So, it is a little hard to say if I feel better because of my experiences while I was high, or if it's because I had social interaction again -- probably mostly the latter. But I think both helped.

I think this is a sustainable pattern for the future: when I feel like it would be really great to have some ganja, I will have to be social and interact with people in order to obtain it. And what little I get, I will cherish, and use intentionally, until it is gone, and then I won't have a stash in my car at all times that I need to worry about if I get pulled over. At this point it's actually better for me than being able to drop by a dispensary and buy whatever I want, because I desire the stability of sobriety. I need to not feel any more anxious about social interaction every day than I already do. I don't want to constantly choose to be isolated so that I can feel OK getting high. Yet I have it as a tool in my belt for the times when I know it will be really useful or fun. I found a similar balance with alcohol long ago, so it is nice to feel like I'm finding it with cannabis too.
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