Thursday, February 16, 2017

Joe Omundson

5g mushroom trip



At 10 AM I left town for the 25 mile drive into the desert. I traveled down gravel and dirt roads to a favorite campsite, one which doesn't see much traffic, on the edge of a beautiful canyon, dotted with scrubby juniper and big boulders, a playground for giants -- the same place I camped for my LSD trip. I spread crunchy peanut butter over a bagel and placed five grams of psilocybin mushrooms on top. I finished eating it by 11:15.


I did the usual things I do when I'm waiting for a trip to come on: organized my car camper, walked around, did some stretches and meditation. The most I'd taken before was 3.5 grams, and that was pretty intense, so I was prepared to get my world rocked. I had been preparing myself ever since I bought the mushrooms.

That purchase has an interesting story. It started by hitchhiking from Utah to Oregon and attending a music festival last summer. While I was there, at 3 in the morning I was resting in the "Snake Temple" and a young woman lay down next to me, and we held each other and talked for a while. That was pretty much our whole interaction, but we became Facebook friends, and 5 months later when I was traveling in California I visited her house which she shares with a community of ecstatic dancers. She and her partner sold me the mushrooms before I left, and I brought them back to Utah.

On a more abstract level, I arrived at this trip through the experiences of 20+ previous trips, my PCT hike, my move to Moab, and all the lessons I'd been learning in recent weeks. I probably felt a deeper level of self-acceptance and peace going into this trip than any other. I was mentally prepared, and I was in a beautiful place alone. I was confident that I would have a good experience even if things got intense.

The day was overcast, breezy, and a bit chilly, so I went into my car as the trip was starting and spent some time under my blankets. This was the period of self-calming through a maze of intense thoughts, some sad, some hilarious. I changed positions often, noticing discomforts and dwelling on them. I listened to music, halfway enjoying it. Eventually I slid onto my side and let go of what bothered me, melting into laughter and coziness. From there the trip got easier. I started addressing my needs and felt more positive, more able to venture out from my car and use my body.


Overall, I was a little surprised to find that my brain didn't melt any more than when I've taken 3 grams in the past. In fact, the most intense trip I'd had before was much crazier -- I'd thought I was living in a dream, that my body was somewhere else, and maybe that I had died and entered some kind of purgatory from which I would never escape. That was a difficult one, in a more chaotic setting. So although I was prepared to completely part with reality it never got to that point.

I opened the rear hatch and put on a really funky, dancy album by Opiuo, which sounded absolutely incredible, and I felt so happy walking around and dancing. I also listened to an ambient album by Secede which sounded magically intricate. I ventured farther from my car and entered a state of complete awe at my surroundings. In the hazy sunlight, the slickrock took on a pinkish hue, and was covered with colorful patches of lichen. I felt like I could stay there for a year and be happy. I wandered around slowly as though exploring a dream world, completely at peace, wondering at the beauty of all that my eyes took in.


The special thing about this trip was not a heightened intensity from taking a large dose, but the overwhelming sense of peace, wonder, and humility it provided. It was a highly spiritual experience, which was provided to me by another life form, a fungus, which has learned to create this chemical that has the ability to integrate my spirit with all of nature.

I began to consider the implications of this. I thought of how some fungi can infect ants and influence their actions so that they climb to a high point, where the fungus kills them and spreads its spores. I thought about how recent studies show that the microbiomes that permeate our bodies have direct links to neural inputs and play a large role in our health and happiness. I thought about how a network of mycelium permeates most of the soil on Earth, connecting plants, distributing nutrients; and how this is like a world-wide biological internet, a complex network, like a brain. In light of this I felt extremely humbled to be a mere human being.

Could it be that the greatest intelligence on Earth actually lies in the soil, in these vast networks of microbes? What if the mushrooms that create psilocybin are doing so intentionally with the knowledge that it will affect our thinking, much in the same way they can affect ants? The very fact that I was having these thoughts and developing a deep reverence for fungus after eating magic mushrooms seemed to validate the idea.

I don't necessarily believe the ideas that are about to follow, but I found them fascinating to consider. What if the development of human intelligence and spirituality has been an ongoing project of the fungus kingdom for thousands of years? What if they're intentionally raising us up from our meat-brained mammalian inferiority to be partners with them, so that one day we can build AI that is able to interface with them directly, or develop space travel that will allow all Earthly kingdoms of life to spread to other worlds? As a side effect, or perhaps as an integral part of the process, eating mushrooms helps us work through our personal anxiety, develop empathy for all living things, and live lives of greater connection, flexibility, and peace. As we come to respect and honor these creatures, it helps to ensure their survival and ours.

I also had a lot of thoughts about religion. I started to feel as though the consumption of psychedelic mushrooms might have been a contributing factor to the formation of most world religions. I thought of the story of the garden of Eden: God has created humans, and they are safe in the garden, but they don't know anything about good and evil, they only know they should obey without question. They are almost like robots or prisoners. Then here comes Satan, saying "don't you want to know for yourself? Here, eat this forbidden fruit and have your eyes opened." And maybe that fruit was mushrooms, expanding the minds of primitive creation.

And the funny thing is, I feel like Jesus has more in common with Satan than he does God. God so vehemently hated the rebellion and sinfulness of his creation, chose just one tribe to be "his" people and sent them to kill many others, destroyed the whole world in a flood, sent his people into slavery, allowed great suffering and set up rigid, barbaric rules for people to follow if they wanted to please him. The God of the Old Testament is just about the most misanthropic tyrant to exist in all of fiction. Then here comes Jesus, showing great compassion for the most sinful people, defying the traditions of the religious rulers, spreading ideas that made people question their previous beliefs, causing a major diversion from the Judaism that God had set up. Jesus seems more like an adversary of the Old Testament God rather than his son. Like Satan, he is not a "deceiver" but a revealer of truth to humankind, in protest of a vengeful and cruel God. They are both advocates of psychedelic thought.

Jesus's compassionate teachings seem to be in line with what mushrooms teach experientially. Eating this fungal "fruit of the Spirit" can help people grow in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. As a result of the times I've taken mushrooms in my life I feel much more empathetic, gentle, peaceful, and open-minded. Jesus lived an alternative lifestyle if ever there was one, going out into the desert for 40 days at a time, wandering around at the charity of other people, teaching his own beliefs in spite of the establishment and shaking up people's conceptions of the world. As I thought about these things I wondered if his story was inspired by eating mushrooms -- whether he existed as a historical figure or not.

All of this might seem like the talk of a crazy person, some real Terence McKenna shit that most people would reject as laughable. But that's exactly my point. By simply ingesting a certain biological entity, our minds can be made to see the world differently. Fungus is a powerful thing! This scares a lot of people and prevents them from trying it. "Sure Joe, you think mushrooms are so great because you took them and they messed with your mind, how can anyone trust what you're saying to be reliable? Maybe you're just crazy." That's a fair point because maybe a meth head thinks meth is great too. I guess you can only judge by the results you see in someone's life. What results do you see in the life of a meth user, in their spirit, versus mine? The result of taking psychedelics has encouraged me to find a place of greater peace and to pursue my individual goals. Even this may not be good evidence for the average person, since the trend in my life has been to distance myself from typical pursuits of career and security; but sometimes we need to let go of what society values in order to find what's healthy for us.


Am I making myself crazy? I don't think so, but I'm not very afraid of that anymore. Drugs aren't the only things that affect our brains. Before I tried mushrooms I expressed my fear of having my mind altered permanently to a friend; he said, "everything alters your mind. Even the words I am saying now." And it was true, because I never forgot those words.

Everything we encounter has a permanent effect on us, and we all live with neuroses and believe in some kind of insanity. Even if you try to keep everything in your life sterile and predictable and sane, you might develop dementia from having your brain locked into a routine! So, choose your poison. For my life, the benefits seem to far outweigh the risks. The emotional healing, fascinating insights, and vivid experiences are exactly what I'm passionate about in life, so for my goals it absolutely makes sense to take psychedelics. I will always be careful to treat them respectfully and not go too far overboard. So far, I feel like it has actually reduced my neuroses in lasting ways, rather than increased them.

I had two items which I kept outside of my car: a camp chair, and a gallon of water. My interaction with these things taught me a lesson. It was windy, so at first I set the gallon of water on the chair to keep it from falling over. But then a big gust came and blew it over anyway, knocking the chair into a puddle, sending the gallon crashing to the ground. Later, as I was sitting on the chair with the gallon on the ground next to me, I realized that keeping the water on the chair was symbolic: sometimes in life we perceive certain things to be valuable and stable, so we use them to hold down what we're afraid might topple. Yet this top-heavy arrangement can end in disaster when the unstable thing propping up the important thing succumbs to natural laws and collapses. And it's based in fear, in some assumption about the future that isn't necessarily true: I need to keep my chair and my water out here in the wind because I'm going to want to sit in it, so I better make sure it will be stable.

If I instead make the arrangement based on the present moment, when I am actually sitting in the chair, it leads to a more stable arrangement. The chair can't be prevented from falling over once I leave it, so I might as well leave the gallon of water on the ground and allow the chair to blow over. It will fall over harmlessly and my valuable water will be safe on the ground. Maybe an analogy of this is relationships: sometimes we are afraid to be alone, we love someone and we hope that in the future they will love us back and provide what we need. So we arrange our lives around that fear and that hope for the future, keeping ourselves available for them, trying to make plans that will lead to closeness. Yet by doing this we miss out on the organic energy that flows around the present day when we are not trying to push toward a future result, and this in fact prevents that desired future result from coming to pass, as we find that we are sacrificing self-care and pursuit of personal interests and this makes us less happy and attractive.

Toward evening, the sky cleared up partially, enough to allow a beautiful sunset. Though movement was nice, I chose to sit by a pothole full of water and meditate, letting action dissolve into rest. I looked into the water and saw a .22 shell casing, reached in and picked it up. I saw several more and thought to gather them, but wondered whether my hand's contact with the fragile ecosystem had more potential to cause harm than the empty casings remaining there. So I held the single casing in my open palm as I sat restfully, acknowledging it, making it an offering. What has been done cannot be undone, and to fixate anxiously on it only makes it worse. The direction is peace and acceptance, humility and love.


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Friday, February 10, 2017

Joe Omundson

Love by itself


So often for me, the experience of love has been tied to other people and other emotions. I feel love when I think of a person I feel affectionately toward, and maybe it's connected to happiness because they love me the same way, or maybe longing because my desire isn't mutual. Love tends to be accompanied by other thoughts and feelings like that.

Today in yoga class I was in a child's pose position and I thought of someone, felt love, and immediately felt my face tighten as I connected it with longing. And I wondered, what would the experience of love feel like if it weren't tied to those other things, if I could let go and feel it as an independent emotion? So I dropped what I was doing with my face and just paid attention to the feeling of love. This is something I'm just beginning to explore. Right now, the way I experience it is as a comfortable warmth in my chest. It requires gentle relaxation, which isn't always easy because it can feel scary to let go of the tension I hold and let love be present. It requires acceptance and fondness of self, which are hard to conjure in the presence of fear, guilt, and self-blame. I learned that you have to have compassion even for the part of yourself that feels afraid and guilty before the fear and guilt will start to recede.

I'm playing with the idea that self-love feels just like interpersonal love, but with practice it can be felt at any time regardless of circumstance. This is somewhat of a novel idea because I've always assumed that I have to be in contact with another to feel that kind of love. Or, I can feel it while I daydream about being in a relationship, but then it comes with that sense of lack and envy. How much more stable will I be if I can meet my own need for feeling loved? If I nurture that into a strong constant force, how will it change my ability to pour into other people without a need to get something out of them? How will it change my habits and coping mechanisms? I can imagine it affecting my life in numerous ways.

It's extra challenging for me because of my heart surgery. I have long held tension in my chest and shoulders, perhaps in an effort to protect my seemingly fragile heart area. The physical and emotional are always related so it is no easy task to let that part of my body melt into warm openness. It's only through many hours of meditation that I have started to be able to feel sensation there again and consider the possibility of filling it with warmth.

Maybe the best thing about falling in love with other people is when it teaches us how to love ourselves. If we realize that the people we love most share a lot of our own qualities, and we know that we perceive them as fully adequate, maybe we can start to see that we deserve to feel fully adequate as well. The nice thing about this attitude is that we can fall in love with all kinds of people and enjoy that experience regardless of whether or not a relationship is feasible. It turns "unrequited love" into a meaningless phrase because the love for that other person is a reflection of the love you've found for yourself, and there's nothing to be sad about if they don't act a certain way. You can simply feel warm thinking about them and be happy about that feeling.

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Thursday, February 2, 2017

Joe Omundson

Reflections on the PCT


Every 10 weeks or so I have the opportunity to submit a guest column to the Moab Sun. Here's my submission this time around.



I quit my job in April 2014 to hike from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail. At 26, I'd spent three years in the engineering career I went to school for. I traded my salary for a backpack, the roof over my head for two hundred nights in the wilderness. I went alone. After a six-year marriage I was eager to explore life on my own terms for the first time.

My experiences were strung along a 2,650-mile ribbon of trail along with hundreds of like-minded souls. When we met each other slogging 20 miles through scorching heat to find the next water, we knew we were in it together. We hid from the sun like reptiles during the heat of the day and fully embraced our strategic laziness.

Crusted with dirt and sweat, we'd hitch into that chaos of order called town to find food, rest, and supplies; but town was never quite comfortable. We had places to go. Home was what we felt when we got far enough down the trail again to be out of sight and sound of civilization. Home was sprawling out in the sand, making our beds in the open air and trusting the weather to hold, laughing like kids at a slumber party.

We were artists, scientists, drag queens, musicians, doctors, rangers, photographers, lumberjacks, entrepreneurs, professional hobos, and retirees. Some of us were in our 80s, some as young as six. We were straight, gay, trans, rich and poor, urban and rural. We hiked with knee replacements, with kidney failures, with AIDS. We came from the USA, Germany, Israel, Japan, Australia. There was one attribute we shared: Of all the people who dreamt of hiking a long trail, we were the ones crazy enough to make it happen.

We met each other unexpectedly and broke apart just as abruptly. Sometimes our paths would cross again in a few hours, a few days, or a few months. We learned to say goodbye in ways that were appropriate for any length of separation. Reunions were cause for great celebration.

Halfway through my hike I met a woman at a music festival, and we dove into a whirlwind of a relationship which set me on a different kind of journey. We lived in cars and drove around the country for four months that winter. Our love was as confusing as it was mesmerizing. I resumed my hike the following May.

Sometimes I felt hungry, cold, exhausted, bored. I spent miserable weeks hiking alone when I started the second half, agonized by the mess of emotions I felt for the gal I'd roadtripped with. I hiked through thunderstorms, sunburns, and dehydration. My Achilles tendons were constantly inflamed. I saw cougar eyes reflecting in my headlamp and walked right through where I'd seen them. Often I was alone without cell service 40 miles from the nearest town, out of reach of help should something happen to me.

In the end, these hardships were more than outweighed by joys. I met people who showed me that age is meaningless. I befriended people with dissimilar personalities and recognized their value. I hiked with someone who made me realize I might want to have kids someday. Strangers surprised us with trailside hamburgers and coolers of beer, stashed water jugs for us in dry sections, and hosted us at their homes when we needed rest. In our community excesses were given freely to those in need, and I learned that resource distribution doesn't always have to depend on money.

Plants and animals were teachers too. I saw how fantastically diverse the strategies of life can be -- no two species make their living the same way, yet all survive, and all depend on each other. Wild creatures accept the world as it is instead of inventing fictions. They don't waste time complaining, accumulating possessions, or fearing death. They understand that life only happens in the present moment.

My hike lasted a lifetime. These days it's hard to immerse myself in the memories of those months; not because they are difficult to access, but because once remembered they are too sacred to put down without tearing out some piece of my heart. It's a longing that feels like regret because what was once cannot be again.

It is said that thru-hiking will ruin your life in the best possible way. Having thrived living from a backpack, I cannot be convinced to sacrifice the hours of my life working to pay rent and buy junk. After surviving the tests of hundreds of crazy situations, I don't strive for the illusion of security. Now that I've lived this dream as my waking life and discovered that my future has no limits, I'm dissatisfied with mundane ambitions. I am glad for this kind of ruination. I wouldn't have it any other way.




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