Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Joe Omundson


I was curious about the origin of the word "travel". It comes from "travailen", an old English word which comes from the old French "travail" which means "work, labor, toil, suffering or painful effort, trouble; arduous journey". It can be traced farther back to Latin roots, including the word "tripaliare" which means "to torture" (!).

Somehow, the grim history of the word is not a surprise to me. I think the painful & tedious element of traveling is actually what makes it worthwhile. Spending time in an uncertain, unpredictable, constantly changing state.

A more modern definition of travel is "to move or go from one place to another".

I wonder if the reason so many people complain about traveling via airplane is that it's actually too *easy*. Walk onto a plane, sit down for several hours, and you're partway across the world. It's virtually instant. You experience your home and your destination, but it removes the entire context of what lies between that place and your home, and you're robbed of the experience of seeing the gradual changes that connect your journey's beginning and end.

If "traveling" is the act of being in motion between locations, taking a plane basically reduces that act to the most sterile, safe, fast, easy, and predictable method possible. We travel thousands of miles just by sitting in a seat -- flying hundreds of miles per hour, thousands of feet in the air -- and still we complain about the other passengers and the frequency of the drink service!

This isn't to say that air travel is bad, but personally I think there's more to be gained from slower journeys that involve time and effort. Imagine how much more is experienced by turning a cross-country flight into a 2-week road trip, or riding a boat across the ocean rather than flying above it?

Maybe we are too destination-driven and have forgotten that the best part is the journey, when traveling and also with the way we live our lives in general. Are we all just trying to get to “the good part” that's coming in the future, seeing the present day as a means to get there, something to be endured, numbing ourselves to the annoyance of it? Today is all we ever have and if we don't learn to fully enjoy today, we will never be happy.
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Saturday, April 23, 2016

Joe Omundson


Half of communication happens inside another person’s head. Sometimes we express ourselves accurately, yet the other person perceives it to mean something entirely different. Other times, our listeners understand our words better than we do.
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Sunday, April 17, 2016

Joe Omundson


One time, I was trading Facebook messages with an acquaintance who was asking me about my through-hiking experience. I think he asked my opinion about the best way to prepare, and it seemed to surprise him when my main recommendation was to join his wife in going to gentle yoga classes. He wanted to know why yoga would be helpful for hiking in particular. I wasn't sure how to answer that, and it was at least a year later when I finally wrote back and explained my suggestion. This is what I told him.

Yoga, in itself, is not magic, and it is not the "only" way to go. But, it is a great tool for increasing your bodily awareness. Connection between mind and body might be the single most important factor in being a successful human being -- "successful" defined as happy, healthy, and confident, not necessarily as completing your life exactly as planned. This applies to the journey of thru-hiking as well. So I recommended yoga, and would still recommend it, but I also think that a 10-day Vipassana meditation course would be an excellent way to prepare for a thru-hike, or perhaps a martial art, Feldenkrais classes, dancing, or really anything that draws your awareness into different areas of your body and helps you find acceptance there.

When we are not aware of our bodies, we miss out on some very important information. To a large extent, we store our subconscious emotions in various parts of our bodies, and we have tendencies of aversion and craving toward these sensations that result in patterns of tension, constriction, restlessness, or any variety of things. If we want to navigate life in a truly skillful way, we need a direct connection of mind and body, so that we are aware of our deepest intuition and wisdom when we are presented with decisions. A wise thru hiker is always aware of their bodily and emotional needs, and does not hesitate to deviate from the "expected" action in order to meet the needs that are so particular to the individual.

If this reasoning seems too metaphysical for you, consider it this way: you are going to take millions of steps between Mexico and Canada, using your body for every one of those steps. You want to know how to use your body efficiently, to conserve energy, and also to protect your joints from wear and tear due to improper use. To do this, you will need to have an adequate range of motion in your joints so that you can perform these motions in the way that is most mechanically sound. Say, for example, the muscles and fascia in your quads and hamstrings are habitually contracted, as they are for most men in our society. This will the limit the ability of the strong muscles in your hips and pelvis to do their job, and you will have to compensate with the use of other stabilizing muscles like your calves, leading to fatigue and overuse injuries. Furthermore your pelvis will likely have an anterior tilt, creating tension and pain in your low back. Using a practice like yoga or meditation, you can re-pattern your experience to relax those tense areas and experience more ease, balance, and agility in your movements, leading to a healthier body and ultimately a more balanced mind.

Hiking itself can prepare you for hiking, to a certain extent, but a preparation involving hard work and repetition is incomplete without developing careful attention to sensations throughout the body. We exist in our entire bodies -- not just inside our heads.
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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Joe Omundson


Sometimes I feel a weight of sadness that seems to come from nowhere. Despite all the beauty and mystery in my life, there are times when I set aside my distractions and a feeling of sorrow continues to resonate long after the other sensations have faded. It is longing for a love which I have not yet known, and grief over painful memories. It's concern for people who are hurting and bitterness toward unjust social structures. It's the awareness that life is short and uncertain. It's hopelessness that our species will take responsibility for its ecological disaster. It's rage toward the systems of insidious brainwashing that influence so many of our perceptions of life.

I learned long ago that these depressions are inevitable, at least for me. I can attempt to deny them, cover them up, and bypass them. But avoiding them forever is not sustainable, because reality is simply unpleasant sometimes, and if I want to live in the real world and learn the true laws of nature I have to become comfortable with discomfort. The trick is to have good coping mechanisms. As someone who feels a need to accept and integrate everything that I perceive as real, my best tools for dealing with sadness are the ones that help me accept those emotions rather than try to push them away.

You know what has helped me cope with life more than just about anything? It's something that has reflected, verified, and validated my feelings of sorrow and anger. It has shown me that other people feel the same way I do, and they feel it so strongly that they will invest a lot of energy into a form of expression that is not appreciated by most people but resonates with a few. It has given me a practical way to experience my anger in a cathartic way, which then allows it to subside. It transforms my hopelessness into a creative flow. The thing I am talking about is metal music. I first got into death metal when I was 15, in the months after my open heart surgery, when I'd gone through something lifechanging and felt like nobody could relate. Listening to death, black, and doom metal gave me permission to start down the path of accepting my own experiences. I have come to enjoy other kinds of music just as much as metal but it has always held a special place in my life.

Today has been one of those melancholic kind of days. I have some stuff on my mind, feelings of sadness and desire, loss. Overall it was actually a good day. The weather was beautiful and I spent most of the day at the park, and I've just been relaxing and listening to music and having a couple beers and getting high, going for walks and eating food, and generally doing whatever I pleased. But it was all sort of done as a conscious meditation in awareness of the weight in my heart. I was thinking about doing some writing and I couldn't seem to focus, and then this song came up on shuffle:

Dead Congregation - Only Ashes Remain

I encourage you to give it a listen. If you are not familiar with this type of music, check out how intricate, precise, and powerful the drumming is. Feel the discordance in the guitars and don't worry about understanding the lyrics, because the texture of the vocals is what's important.
As soon as that blastbeat started playing, and the roiling guitar hit my ears, I felt an equalization of pressure. Finally -- I was hearing something outside my ears that matched what was inside. This seemed like it unlocked me, and I started writing this entry right away.

Metal says, "yep, life's crazy. It's THIS intense. This is what violence feels like, and it's everywhere. We don't have answers to the important questions, and death is the only certainty. Everything will eventually be destroyed one way or another. There is no god to save you. Hopelessness is not altogether unreasonable." If you are someone who feels uncomforable with those thoughts then you will probably not like extreme metal. But those thoughts are a part of my complete breakfast. I am reminded to embrace all aspects of what I know to be true.
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Monday, April 11, 2016

Joe Omundson

bimodal distribution

Recently one of my friends shared a video on facebook which pointed out the way society thinks of gender as binary -- there is only Male, or Female, and everybody must fit into exactly one of those categories. Yet any reduction of the infinite variability of our world into two categories is always a flawed representation of reality. The video encouraged people to expand their thinking beyond dualisms and dichotomies, and instead learn to experience the complex textures of reality.

Someone replied with this comment: "This is ridiculous. You should be free to do what you want but denying the gender binary is foolish. Men and women are inherently different and this fact has served humanity well."

I think of it like this: there is indeed a reason why we perceive a male/female split rather than a smooth spectrum of gender/sexuality -- most people have either XX or XY chromosomes which usually lead to certain distinctive traits. Most people might fall close enough to "typical cis male" and "typical cis female" to identify as fully male or female. But, it's far from a black-and-white binary.

There are some people with different chromosomal arrangements like XXY, XYY, or XXX. All fetuses begin with the same proto-genitals, and they only develop into the "typical" male/female anatomy depending on which hormones are present. There are people who have XY chromosomes but whose cells are insensitive to male hormones, and their bodies appear completely "female". Perhaps more importantly, there are very many people who have a body that fits one archetype and a mind that fits another, or who do not feel that they fit into either the male or female category. There are many other kinds of possible variations.

Society conditions us to think of of gender like this:

I think the shape of the gender spectrum is better represented as a bimodal distribution:

Our brains like to find patterns in messy data. It's no surprise that we look at the above graph and say "two groups of people". This thinking has been reinforced for many years.

Of course, even this graph is overly simplistic, and it implies that gender distribution lies along a single axis; a mix of only 2 ingredients. You're either blue, pink, or a combination of those two. I think an accurate graph of sexuality and gender (if such a thing could be made) would be three dimensional and multicolored. You can be a different type of gender completely, or you can be none at all.

The video raises an important point. The whole world is a very complex place with a lot of things going on. There are always very many options and variations. Any time we try to shoehorn reality into a dichotomy, there's a lot of mental gymnastics that has to go on to convince ourselves that the binary is accurate. As part of that, some of us invalidate the personal experiences of other people who are actually living a transgender or gender variant life, because if we believe they're doing something wrong it makes it easier for us to believe that the system we live in is fair.
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Friday, April 8, 2016

Joe Omundson

needle exchange

A couple of times recently I've helped volunteer at a needle exchange outreach program. Two of my friends who are involved invited me to join them. The goal is to build relationships with members of the drug using community and reduce the harm of their habits. They collect any dirty needles that people bring in, and they distribute 100 new needles per person, all kinds of necessary supplies for injecting, meth pipes, narcan, and other things like free condoms, food, coffee, information, and a hangout space. It takes place in this community space that is like a punk/anarchist/DIY kind of vibe.

On my first visit, about 55 people came in for supplies in a 3 hour period. I thought it was fascinating. Most of the other volunteers were past hard drug users and they were sooo kind, compassionate, and understanding. It was beautiful. They do this every Saturday, and on Fridays they bring a mobile version of the outreach on bikes to various homeless camps around the city. The idea is not to offer any judgment at all but to build trust with this community which is basically completely shunned from society, and disconnected from love and resources. It seems like it actually works, people seemed comfortable coming in and knew they would be welcome.  I never felt unsafe or uncomfortable. One guy brought his dog and his dad(?) and hung out for a few hours, he was actually really funny. When he left he was like “bye guys, I’m going to go do some heroine!” and the volunteer was just like “all right man sounds like a good plan, see ya later!”. There was so much acceptance and love in that place. They were very kind to me and patiently answered my naive questions about drug experiences and how everything worked. It was like therapy for me just to hang out with them.

Anyway, I thought this was a really profound experience. For me it greatly humanized the drug using community. I wouldn't normally know what kind of person might be using heroine or meth. Some of the people who walked in looked like "typical" drug users, but others I never would have guessed.

I'm definitely swinging toward supporting the idea that all drugs should simply be legalized. I think much of the harm of these drugs is actually caused by the fact that they are illegal -- the risks involved in obtaining drugs, the unregulated production process and the harmful substances the drugs are often cut with, the risks of sharing needles, the paranoia of being caught by police or judged by society. I think addiction is not so much an inherent result of trying drugs, and has more to do with underlying psychological and genetic factors. For the same reasons that prohibition has not been able to curb the numbers of illegal drug users, legalization would not be likely to recruit large numbers of new addicts; but it would allow us to treat drug addiction as a medical problem rather than a criminal one, ensure that users are protected from harmful additives, and make it easier to to access safe supplies. I think if we did that, we would be better able to address the problems associated with drug use.

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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Joe Omundson

strengths and weaknesses part 2

See part 1 for context.

If we accept that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, it activates a new dimension of reflection and growth.

We can look back on our own childhoods with the understanding that our parents were completely human. This has the dual effect of being maddening because we realize that some of our shitty experiences were directly their fault; it’s also freeing because we realize that all those standards that were normal in our childhood universe are not necessarily inherent to the way the world works, and we have the freedom to choose new paradigms for ourselves. We start to see how our own perspectives are just a small slice of reality, and how everyone has a different slice.

As we make progress with self-acceptance, it becomes easier to remember that people’s actions are shaped by experiences which were beyond their control. Instead of a fearful reaction to our differences, compassion becomes a more readily available response. We learn to see through people’s actions and see a bit of their background, and from there we get an idea of what’s keeping them from acting in a healthy way; or, it gives us a chance to understand that their difference is actually not a problem, and maybe our own perspective is skewed

When someone is "acting out", it might actually be an improvement from how they handled things in the past. For example, maybe you know someone who takes things too personally and becomes aggressive when they feel wronged. Imagine for a moment that this person lived a life where they were constantly undervalued and berated for speaking up as a child, and the only coping mechanism that worked was to bury their own needs and always be “nice” to the people who were oppressing them. They learned that they didn’t have the right to protect themselves. Maybe as a young adult this pattern continued, and they got into relationships where they gave up all their autonomy, living to please someone else and thinking this was normal; and maybe it led to an eating disorder, sexual trauma, or self neglect. Maybe in time, this person made the connection that always being submissive is what led them down a destructive path, and out of a very real place of self compassion and desire to become healthier, they decided not to take shit from anybody anymore. The tendency toward submission is replaced with anger, as a tool to get them out of the place of feeling crushed. It might happen often as they are breaking free of their universe in which they perceive everyone as a potential oppressor. Anger may not be the most ideal way to react, but for this person, it's the best choice they have access to; it's like someone who starts smoking cigarettes in order to stop drinking alcohol. We are all working toward self improvement, but it's an incremental process, and we make trade-offs that are specific to our own needs. So for one person, expressing anger is a healthful action, and for someone else it might be healthier to give up control and listen to other people's needs.

Some people's weaknesses are easy for us to handle. We have corresponding strengths, or can relate to the weakness in a way that doesn't feel threatening. Other times, someone's particular weakness may be too devastating for us to interact with and we have to get space from them. This is all unique from person to person and it's why we can form good friendships with some people but not others, even though everyone is lovable. When you are finding friends and partners it is important to find people whose strengths and weaknesses play well with your own. You will never find someone who has no weaknesses, but you can find people whose weaknesses don’t feel threatening to your own security as a person. In our closest relationships I believe it is actually more important to have weaknesses that interact well together than it is to have things be magic and sparkly all the time.

Our reactions to other people’s weaknesses often reveal how we feel about our own. If we think someone is bad for not overcoming their dysfunction, we probably judge ourselves for the same thing. If in fact we have already worked to overcome our own weakness, then we know how hard it is, and we understand what it’s like to still be struggling with it, and we hope that someone who is struggling can become healthier, not more punished.

To some extent, we need to trust that everyone is doing the best they can. Even if their best looks different than our best. I think most of our dysfunction centers around a lack of human connection, so being loving and accepting is almost always the best way to affect the root cause of the behavior. Sometimes, though, that has to be firm, and sometimes protecting people from negative behavior is a higher priority than helping the person who is doing that behavior. Ideally, we can do both.

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Saturday, April 2, 2016

Joe Omundson


In my experience, the more simple and unstructured my life is, the more complex it becomes. This was a strange paradox I noticed on the PCT. Not much to do most days except walk, eat, and find a place to take a shit. Yet my mind was completely free to wander wherever it liked, and I had a lot of choice in how I wanted to structure my time.

Without detailed planning I am often faced with the question “what do I want to do next?”. I constantly evaluate what I am choosing to do and why. This helps me learn to be aware of my true desires. If my life is full of plans, structures, activities, so that every moment of my day is planned out, that actually simplifies the decision making process greatly as I go through the day. I just go along with the schedule like a treadmill and it’s predictable. This is not a bad thing, and I think planning is very useful for accomplishing specific goals. But sometimes I find it helpful to allow myself large chunks of time that are completely unscheduled.

I also realized that if I live my whole life according to plans that I've made for myself... at any given point in time, I will be doing what a previous version of myself thought was best. It doesn't leave much flexibility to say "right now, I need to do this thing that I just realized I need." When I leave open spaces in my schedule I'm giving my future self an opportunity to act on the wisdom of the present moment.
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