Friday, November 17, 2017

Joe Omundson

Healing from pain: the mind-body connection


I sit down under the rock arch at the end of my hike and remove my shoes, placing them near my groin, under my ankles as padding while I sit on the downward sloping slickrock. The lowering sun shines on me and counteracts the cool air. Starting a 31 minute timer, adjusting my seat, I do my best to clear my head and settle in to my meditation practice. 

I begin by focusing all attention on my breath, trying my best to notice any encroaching thoughts and drop them. It has been a busy-minded day and this effort is not very successful. I move on to scanning my body (Vipassana), beginning at the top of my head, bringing my awareness to any sensations that are present; spreading this awareness down the sides and back of my scalp, down my forehead, the edge of my hairline, through my eyes and nose and mouth and cheeks and jaw and chin and down my neck.

The technique says not to react to any sensations, but rather to accept them impartially, equanimously. My only job is to sit still and scan my awareness through all parts of my body and notice what I find. But today I simply cannot resist the urge to squirm when I experience the constricting tension in my neck, shoulders, and upper torso. It is easier for me to explore the tightness by moving, playing, stretching, somehow addressing the problem rather than sitting still and experiencing it. I want to stretch it out until it's gone, once and for all. 

I know that this is counterproductive to the method I am using. There is a time and place for that kind of exploration in yoga and dance but it doesn't mesh well with Vipassana. My most helpful meditation sessions are the ones where I truly stop caring about whether my sensations are pleasant or not, and allow them to arise as they are. It is in these times I see myself for how I am, when I connect different aspects of my experience and accept my current state.

After a couple minutes of side bends, neck circles, heart openers, I try to remember where I left off and continue my scan down my body. Down the front and back hemispheres of my torso and through my pelvis. My legs are hard to sense in detail. There is a contraction of hips and thighs I believe I need to maintain in order to remain sitting upright; it feels as though I will fall backward if I release it, but this is not the case if I can also release the tension in my low back to allow my spine to float to vertical. My calves threaten to cramp into charlie horse if I notice and release them fully, so I move through that area quickly to avoid the pain.

My upper torso is still crying out to me and my attention jumps back up there. I stretch my arms out to my side as wide as they will go, while also trying to release my shoulders downward and shine my chest forward, like Christ on the cross. As I do this, pain and tingling shoots down my left bicep area from shoulder to elbow. The muscles, ligaments, fascia, something in this area is so accustomed to being drawn in to protect my heart that it literally doesn't know how to relax for a second. The tension tugs at my attached body parts, I feel it in my neck, my shoulderblade, my chest.

I try to return my attention to my feet, to where I'd stopped the methodical scan of my body, but ultimately I surrender to the screaming tension surrounding my heart. It is nothing new for me. It has been there for years, decades, but damn I am getting so tired of being captive to this restriction. I try to remain impartial to the pain as I attempt to release as much as I can. Maybe the pain isn't there to protect me, maybe I'm not at risk of self injury if I allow it to become excruciating, maybe I have to pass through that to let myself release.

Though I surrender to the agony I can not release.

Suddenly, the experience becomes emotional. "Why am I still so trapped by this? Why do I carry this pain? What have I done to deserve it? When will I ever be free from this? How can I get past it?" I am nearly in tears and I feel a deep sadness for myself, for the child who still lives in me who has known this pain for so long. I know that not everyone carries this burden. I see the freedom in the posture of some of the more well-adjusted souls around me. They do not have the weight of the world on their backs. Their hearts are not so fragile as to need protection from their shoulders. Their chests are proud in full acceptance of their place in the world, their value and goodness. They are strong in themselves and they have something to offer. Why can't I be like that too?

My timer ends, and I quietly put my shoes on and begin to walk the sandy trails and paint-marked slickrock back to my van.  I've left behind some of my anxiety and restlessness at the arch but take with me a new sadness and compassion for myself.



I understand some of why I carry this pain. Multiple people who deal with body therapy have noticed the same constriction in my ribcage in the heart area and pointed it out to me. I've worked with it over the years, I've reflected on why it's there and what it means for me.

A major part of it is my birth with a congenital heart defect, and the corresponding open heart surgery at age 15. My chest cavity was opened — of course this affected my body and as I healed I could never return to exactly the way I was before. I had a sense of needing to protect my wound which became ingrained in my consciousness and in my body's patterns of holding. To this day I am sensitive to being contacted where my scar is, and if it is tapped or impacted with any force (even by myself) I feel an immediate fear and pain. My mind may have been anesthetized to oblivion while the buzzsaw bisected my sternum and while my ribs were pried apart, but I wonder how much of that experience my body still remembers vividly.

But it's more than the physical trauma of my heart organ. It's an emotional thing; it's my question of self worth, my wavering sense of deservingness. It's the first two decades of my life that I spent listening to people who told me that I was inherently sinful, that I was wicked and needed saving, that all humans were this way. That my only hope of worthiness was through the replacement of my own identity with that of Jesus Christ. That nothing I could do on my own would ever be good enough without this phantom figment of a God doing it through me. It's been almost a decade since I rejected this soul crushing, abusive philosophy, but still the effects of it hide themselves away deep within me.

It's more than that, too. Because of certain dynamics in the ways I was raised, I learned to view myself and my achievements through the lens of someone else's opinions, I learned to make someone else happy regardless of how it affects my own health, goals, and individuality. I grew up thinking I must learn to match a certain worldview and style of interaction which was contrary to my own nature. I was shown that I should despise, or at least ignore, my own body and treat physical contact and sexuality with disdain. I have far more memories of intimate embraces shared with my pillow than anyone in my family. I was terrified of being seen for who I really was, though I also craved that deeply.

I'm one of the lucky ones. My parents had me on purpose and I grew up relatively secure. No one ever bullied me at school. I was never molested. I had the privilege of being male, white, financially secure, and healthy other than my heart problem. I've never really been discriminated against because of any demographic which I have not chosen. My parents taught me a lot of functional and healthy habits. I've had a good education, I have a useful degree. I don't live in fear.

Since entering adulthood I've been able to dissect a lot of the things in my past that have hurt me and I've pushed hard in the direction of healing, growth, peace, self acceptance, and understanding. I've been privileged to encounter some amazing life experiences that many people will never have the chance to know. I have even found meaning in my trauma. I've turned my ongoing heart complications into a motivation and a learning experience, I've turned my distasteful experience with religion into a way to help and love other people who have been through the same thing.

And yet, I can tell you that life feels shitty sometimes. This emotional and physical pain surrounding my heart is very tangible. It still affects me. Everyone goes through something like this whether they know it or not; for many people the pain makes their life pure misery. Many people don't know where it's coming from. Many people think it's an inevitable part of life and they conclude that death would be better. When pain is someone's whole reality I can't say they're wrong.

But I believe healing is possible for myself. I know that trauma can be worked through, I have made progress in the past, and I will continue to grow in the future. My experience under the arch that day broke me down into sadness but it also lit a fire in my heart to take better care of myself.


As I walked down to my van and drove back to town I knew that I could not hide from my pain any longer, I could not continue to numb it or cover it up.

The first step of healing from trauma is simply to know that it exists. I realized this day that I need to validate the impact of my trauma and not dismiss it. I must bring it into the light and expose it publicly.

The second step is to begin making visits into the experience of that trauma from a place of security where the pain will not be too overwhelming; slowly, carefully, briefly at first. To climb down into that murky well and scoop some of the mud from the bottom while not going so deep that you get stuck.

I decided that the best way for me to do this would be to focus intensively on yoga for a time, while also improving my diet and sleep habits. Yoga takes my body to places that I would not otherwise know. It breaks up the stagnation. It provides a safe place to test my pain, to calmly explore the topography of my limitations and break new ground as I'm ready, intentionally and in a safe place. It lets me practice strong, functional new patterns of openness rather than settling into the habit of recoiling from what is uncomfortable.

I used some of my tip money to buy a month-long unlimited yoga pass and started going to classes every day. It's been 11 days. Every single class has had at least a few poses or themes that relate to the opening of my wounds and I've been grateful for the chance to embrace that painful place. I can feel changes starting to unwind inside me already, more sensitivity in the painful area, more discrete control of movable parts, greater range of motion. More ability to let go of the tension while also allowing strength to flow through. More ability to expand my chest and fill it with breath. Less need to draw my shoulders forward and hunch my neck before I do anything else.

And as tends to be the case, emotional healing happens simultaneously with physical healing. I'm already feeling more confident and more solid as a person. I feel like my days are more full, like I'm doing better at spending my time on fulfilling things and not getting stuck in self-doubt and misery. I've had more energy for helping people and for community projects I care about. I feel less intimidated by the idea of other people seeing my good and attractive qualities for what they are. I've actually looked at my reflection and caught myself unironically thinking "damn I am sexy today". I'm laughing and smiling more and overall feeling better.

The third step of healing from trauma is to get so familiar with that trauma that it loses its power. There's a desensitization, an extinction of the trigger that turns the pain into suffering. It becomes a place you can go like any other place, nothing special, nothing to fear. It's an integration into your whole self of that hurt which you have kept isolated. You accept it as part of your shape and the pain fades away. I'm working toward this step now. There are places inside me that I am restricted from experiencing without pain and suffering, but I'm teasing them out. I may be here for a long time. 

The fourth step is to embrace the ways that this trauma has made you unique. What did the pain and the healing process teach you? Can you see others going through the same thing, can you help them along? What power does this empathy give you? Maybe someday, my recovery from self-doubt and the pain that came from struggling to embrace my own goodness will actually become my strength, like a broken bone that heals to become stronger than it was before. Maybe someday I'll know exactly what it is I have to offer and exactly how I can implement that. Maybe someday I'll know how to teach others to become strong in their own worth.

In one aspect or another, I am in all stages of healing at all times. As Moshe Feldenkrais said, "our goal is to make the impossible possible, the possible easy, and the easy elegant." Different hurts are in different stages along that process. Eventually we can learn to do impossible things elegantly. Our greatest weaknesses can become our greatest strengths.

Today I know that I am alive. I am learning to love the whole process of growth including the pain and confusion along with the triumphs. Life changes. That's fascinating. We get to watch it, to experience it. We just need to be open to experimentation, willing to learn, patient with what's hard, and hold on to the truths we have struggled so hard to find.



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Saturday, November 11, 2017

Joe Omundson

deconverter.com: stories of changing beliefs

I'm happy to announce the start of a new project that I've had in mind for some time.

deconverter.com is a platform for people to share stories about leaving behind their previous belief systems. The focus is on ex-Christians who have adopted a relatively atheistic worldview like myself, since that is what I know best, but I accept stories from any religion of origin and any resulting belief system.

My goal with this is threefold:

1) To encourage people who have left their faith to go through the therapeutic process of writing the story down and sharing it publicly,

2) To help those who have deconverted to know that they are not alone and provide them with community resources and connections to other ex-believers,

3) To create a collection of stories for those who are interested in the experiences of former believers, the process of deconverting, or who may be questioning their own faith and want to know if other people have asked the same questions and where it led them.

I want people to know that change is possible, and though it might be scary and traumatic at first, it can be worked through and the results can be wonderful.

Those are the altruistic reasons I wanted to create this site. Selfishly, I figure that this is a topic that has quite a large base of people who are personally involved, and as society becomes less religious that group will only be growing, so there's potential for the project to receive sustained interest and growth and exposure. Since I don't have to write the content myself, but rather curate the space and collect stories, it's not as labor-intensive on my part, which should also contribute to the sustainability of the project.

Head on over to read some stories, or if this is a process that you have been through yourself, I would love it if you wrote an essay about your experience and submitted it for publication -- just check out the contact page for instructions. :) Thank you!
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Friday, November 3, 2017

Joe Omundson

An experiment with estrogen



A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to explore something fascinating. The story begins on Tinder: I matched with someone and we met up for coffee after exchanging a few messages. We talked about a variety of things that day, including her transition from male to female, and I mentioned that I'd always felt I had a feminine side but hadn't explored it very much.

Her response to my statement took me by surprise: "Do you want to try some of my hormone replacement pills?" I had never considered trying such a thing. She told me you can take them for a few days and notice psychological changes without any of the permanent physical changes that might begin after taking the pills for 2+ weeks. I had never known that was possible! I was intrigued but wanted to think about it more before deciding.

The next day -- I didn't have to think long -- I messaged her and said I wanted to take her up on the offer. I was simply way too curious to say no. I'd never heard of anyone doing this as a trial experiment, and now that I knew it was possible, I wondered why more people didn't try it. Nearly all of my friends have taken psychedelic substances that temporarily alter their perception of reality in order to gain insight and new perspectives. Why not try altering my hormones for a few days and see what I can learn from that? Hormones are such a basic influence on our minds and bodies, and changing their levels for a while is safer than taking drugs. These hormones already exist naturally in our bodies. This seemed like a good way to gain an understanding of some of the differences between the male/female experience and what hormone swings feel like.

My four-day experiment required me to take pills in the morning and evening. The first two days, I only took a testosterone blocker, and the last two days I continued the testosterone blocker and also took estrogen. This was done so that I could differentiate between the lack of testosterone and the addition of estrogen.

It's hard to say with certainty how much of my experience was placebo and how much was truly the effect of the hormones. It's quite possible that my preconceived ideas about gender stereotypes and the differences between women and men had a large influence on how I expected to feel, and therefore on how I felt. The experience might be different for someone else. I will simply report what I experienced; it's up to the reader to question which parts of my experience might have been placebo, because your guess is as good as mine.

The first thing I noticed from the testosterone blocker (spironolactone) was its diuretic effect. I had to pee a lot. It also lowers blood pressure, and I remember feeling unusually lightheaded one time and needed to drink some water. Mentally, I felt like I was in a slight brain fog, like my usual clarity and focus had become a bit muddy. Normally when I feel that way it's accompanied with (or caused by?) some anxiety or frustration about the way I feel, but that was absent now. I was a little bit unfocused but I also felt peaceful about that fact. It seemed as though the calculating, dominating, urgent male ego was diminished somewhat. Some of the brain fog could also have been explained by the difficulty I had falling asleep the first night.

Next I introduced the estrogen pills (estradiol). During this phase of the experiment, I seemed to have a more immediate, more vibrant experience of my emotions. I often feel relatively calm and peaceful, but now that emotional state was like a physical sensation that was coursing through my body. Normally in my interpersonal interactions I can remain patient and understanding, but it takes some energy; it's an effort I have to expend to stay in that place. Now, my patience was more natural, and there was an easy peace while waiting for something or listening to someone talk. It seemed like I had more curiosity and empathy. My libido was cut in half but overall I felt sexy. I noticed a different kind of softness looking back from the mirror one time and was fascinated by that.

I unexpectedly had the opportunity to smoke some cannabis the last night of the experiment, and I did so, and then I drove up into the mountains to camp. Where I would normally not even consider the idea of using my campstove outside on a cold night, this time it seemed like no big deal to bundle up, tediously unpack everything I'd need, and chop up and cook my vegetables and rice to create a nice meal for myself. The combination of THC and estrogen felt very warm and self-accepting. It was lovely, actually.

Going into the experiment, I was nervous that I might become so emotional that it would be difficult to focus at my job, but it was no problem and in fact I think the added patience made it easier to work efficiently and not be distracted by things. Being on estrogen did not make me unreasonably emotional. It also didn't make me feel more attracted to men or less attracted to women.

All in all, my time with estrogen was a positive experience. I felt pretty good when I was taking it. From what I read online, a lot of people who do hormone trials are strongly considering transitioning to another gender. I was never seriously considering that as something I wanted to do, but it did cause me to ask some other questions about myself and my relationship to gender.

None of the things I experienced were highly novel to me -- I had felt strongly emotional before, I had felt peaceful and patient before. But it reminded me of certain times in my life when I'd felt what I thought of as a feminine energy: gentle, graceful, sexy, loving, accepting. I realized that the hormones might take me to that place more immediately, but it's still an energy that I can access without needing to take hormones. I figured that if I give myself more permission to include those attributes in my life, I can learn to embody the "feminine" qualities that I resonate with.

In writing this report I am forced to ask the question: what is truly feminine, what is masculine, and what do those things mean? Furthermore -- what IS gender? Biological sex is one thing, but the concept of feeling like or being perceived as a man or a woman is more abstract than people like to think. Is gender just a code of behavior assigned based on how you're sorted into one of two groups? Is it like a mental/emotional/personality lens through which you view the world? It's something I still need to study more, but from the small amount of reading I've done it seems like both of these are possible descriptions of gender. I learned that gender was first distinguised from sex in 1955. (It's actually kind of amazing how much our collective understanding of gender and sexuality has evolved in 60 years.)

Opinions vary widely as to how much of our gender stereotypes are rooted in biological difference vs. socialization and culture. I have friends who heavily favor one of those perspectives or the other. Like most things in life I think it's somewhere in the middle: hormones and biology play a role in making a distinction between male and female brains and behavior patterns, but culture also imparts a lot of expectations that wouldn't be there otherwise, as can be readily observed by the fact that different cultures in different locations and time periods have had widely varying attitudes about how men and women should interact.

We might associate traits like empathy, gentleness, and nurturance with femininity, but why? What if men can naturally be just as in tune with these attributes, but our society trains them to be more dominant and stoic? How did these stereotypes arise? Why are they different here than they are in Africa or Asia?

Most importantly to me -- how do I want to define my own masculinity?

I've never felt proud to be male. As a Christian, I did my best to fulfill the masculine expectations, as the church is highly focused on gender roles and what it means to "be a man" and "be a woman", and I took that to heart along with everything else. But it always felt forced, and after I deconverted there was not as much pressure to be "manly". Maybe you've heard someone make a joke like "you're going to get your man card revoked for ordering that fruity drink!", as though manhood is a club and you can lose your membership by breaking the code of conduct. I have zero interest in belonging to that club. Most of the things popularly associated with being a man are either repulsive to me or have little relavance to my interests. At times growing up I was disgusted by certain important male influences in my life, the way they treated women, the way they used their male privilege to take what was not theirs, and the damage that these actions inflicted on me and my loved ones. Women have never hurt me or my family like men did. As a result of all this, I am generally more skeptical of men than women. I've always had a clear picture of the kind of man I don't want to be, but I've never formed a clear picture of what kind of man I do want to be.

What is the difference between asking "what kind of man do I want to be" and "what kind of person do I want to be"? The second question seems much easier for me to answer than the first. Why restrict what I can be to stay within the boundaries of manhood?

I think any time you ask a question like "what kind of man do you want to be" it automatically implies a division of men and women, and you're asking how you want to act in contrast with how women act; how you will act in groups of all men, and how you will interact with women (the "other"). If it is assumed that we all agree on what masculinity looks like, then "how will you be a man" is kind of a self answering question, isn't it? If "being a man" is a thing, then it must look a certain way, so it's already decided what it means to be a man and there's not much flexibility in answering the question. If being a man can look like anything, and being a woman can look like anything, then gender is not an important part of the equation and you'd just ask "what kind of person do you want to be?". Right? I mean I think that makes sense to me. I don't go around asking myself, "what kind of right-handed person do I want to become?" or "what kind of non-attached-earlobes person do I want to become?" My physical, genetic characteristics do not play that big of a role in determining how I want to treat people, what I want my lifestyle to be, how I want to impact the world, what things I enjoy, or what things I find rewarding and meaningful. The fact that I have a penis doesn't determine the way I want to live.

Maybe the real aim of the question is to ask: "Do you want to be a man?", and the implication of that question is: "Do you want to be the kind of man that society expects you to be?" Or maybe it's "how do you want to choose to apply the stereotypically masculine energy which I assume you possess?". Or, maybe there are multiple "masculine" archetypes that males are allowed to choose from, and the same for females. So the question is literally asking "which masculine role do you like?" Do you want to be strong and silent? Loud and dominating? Adventurous and wild? But if the roles of a man can vary significantly enough for the question "what kind of man" to be at all interesting, wouldn't there be a large overlap with the roles women play, making gender again irrelevant?

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this hormone experiment was that my gender identity is really up to me to decide. It's mine to question. If being a man is really that terrible for me, if I think I'm more like a woman deep down, the option to transition is there. If I don't want to do that, I can still choose to identify as a non-binary gender or consider myself genderless. Or I can claim masculinity but choose to act however I please. I'm still not sure how I feel about it. My gender identity hasn't seemed very important to me and I don't feel strongly one way or another.

But the train of thought that I've been riding lately is: what would it look like if I embraced my own masculinity, despite the distorted cultural ideas surrounding what it means to be masculine? Can I find my own version of being a man that doesn't have any connection to the normal stereotypes but rather is defined only by what I make of it? Can I be peaceful, gentle, graceful, beautiful, empathetic, loving, fair, cooperative, nurturing, quiet, and masculine all at the same time? If so, what's the point of describing it as masculine? Can I be a man without using male privilege for personal gain at the expense of others? Does it actually help me in any way if I make peace with the idea of being masculine or should I just forget about it and pursue the qualities that I want to embody individually? If I want to help change the world so that patriarchal cultural norms lose their power and life is more fair for everyone, is it more powerful for me to identify as a man and show by example that we can act better than the stereotypes would have people believe, or is it more powerful to be someone who has the option to identify as a man but instead of accepting that privilege chooses to be distant from it? And ultimately, if both options are equally viable... which do I prefer?

When it comes down to it, I can't see the social construct of "masculine" as something that's not imaginary. So that makes it hard for me to be like YEAH I'M TOTALLY A DUDE. The trend in my life has usually been to discard systems of thought based around imaginary things, so I'm tempted to go that route again and say "I'm not a man and nobody really is because that's only a concept and not a real property of existence." Just like I don't call myself "a liberal" or "a metalhead" or "a hippie" because it doesn't make sense to constrain myself to any particular label.

As you can see, I may have come out of this trial with more questions than when I began. One certain result is that it encouraged me to embrace the attributes in myself that I have been trained to repress because they are too "feminine". And that's something helpful I can do for myself immediately, regardless of how I end up thinking about my gender. I want to be fully myself without fear of how my actions might be perceived as gendered, or what people will think if my behavior doesn't line up with what's expected of a man. I carry a lot of that subconsciously from my childhood but I want to break free and find the courage to explore my individual expression.

I can see now the utility of a word like "genderqueer". It's quite a wide umbrella term applying to anyone who doesn't identify with the gender that "matches" their biological sex: perhaps feeling like the opposite binary gender, or as a distinct non-binary gender, or as no gender, or shifting between genders, or any other non-traditional gender role. What am I exactly? I don't know, but I can say pretty confidently that I'm not comfortable playing the traditional masculine role. I don't seem to share many of the urges and inclinations of most of the males I interact with. So I could say I'm genderqueer. But what if I'm just misinterpreting the men around me, what if I'm projecting my painful impressions of masculinity onto them, what if the ugly traits of masculinity they display are actually only because they are pressured to adopt certain things and deep down they don't like it either? In that case I'm not unusual at all for a biological man, and the cultural stereotypes of masculinity are simply not well suited to the human experience.

Yeah, I think I feel comfortable enough with male pronouns, my male appearance, deepish voice, facial hair, broad shoulders etc. -- my body is pretty good, I like it well enough. I don't feel like it needs to be more female. Male is my sex, for sure, I have a penis, I have testes, I am fertile. Whatever. I might feel like female stereotypes align better with my worldview and personality and therefore wish I could be female gendered. But overall I don't want to honor the misguided constructs in any way. That's like saying, I've come to the conclusion that Christianity is wrong and religion is bullshit! Therefore I'm going to become a Hindu because I like their values better. That's a fair choice and plenty of people approach religion that way, but for me personally, it makes sense to just be an agnostic/atheist if you believe that religion is bullshit. And with gender I'm less mad about the specifics of male and female expectations, and more upset with the way that these expectations are seen as being of such fundamental importance, the way they are used to maintain power imbalances, the way they limit how people think of themselves and each other. It's the system that's the problem rather than the specific rules of the game.

I think gender is very fluid, gender being a very heavily loaded word representing ... your internal experience of your emotions interacting with the world and other people and how that drives you to live your life and express yourself? I guess? I'm really not sure what it represents. Maybe I'm kind of a gender atheist, it doesn't really exist as a thing that can be pointed at directly but rather we all have such widely varying attributes that trying to group personalities based on biological sex is a poor approximation of reality. In truth, everyone is genderqueer. Everyone is their own gender, because everyone has different experiences and emotions and interactions. Men don't all feel the same way about life and neither do women. Someone might happen to naturally fit the specific cultural notion of what a man or a woman should be, but that doesn't make them "normal" and everyone else "queer"; it just means that a broken clock is still right twice a day.

Maybe the solution isn't to identify myself as queer or abnormal. Maybe I'm profoundly normal in my individuality, and the point I want to make is: yeah I'm male physically but don't expect me to act "masculine" because that's such a narrow expectation, and why should I or anyone else be that way? It's a flawed construct and I don't like to imply that it is "normal" by calling myself "queer".

Someone will point out the part I said about how biological differences do have some effect. And I can agree that probably on average there is some difference in personality and action and preference between biological men and women. But I feel like it's a Venn diagram where the circles are 90% overlapping. You could take the extremes of each and say "there's the difference, there's what it means to be male and female!" but to imply that all members of a gender bear those attributes, or that an individual of one gender is significantly more likely than the other to bear those attributes, seems like a very poor prediction to the point that it's not useful or interesting anymore. To make such an assumption is to be unobservant of how complex people are, and to impose those differences on children can be harmful. Pretty much the only time it's useful is when collectively analyzing the behavior of large groups of men and women and looking for subtle differences in how they handle specific things. That's not a type of analysis that is often relevant to daily life.

OK -- I'll end this here. I have a lot of questions to think about, and I need to do some more thinking in order to unearth some of the questions which I will then need to think about more. So I don't have many answers at this point, but I thought I'd share my process. I'm very curious what other people think about this topic and what reactions you've had to my ideas, so please leave a comment or send me an email if you'd like to talk about this further.
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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Joe Omundson

Cause and effects



Sometimes a cause has multiple effects which are not obviously related to each other, yet one effect can be used to predict another.

For example, in town I tell my friends "I am going camping at the usual place, you are welcome to join me tonight." They say "OK, we're not sure but maybe we will see you there later."
So I drive to my campsite, I am relaxing, thinking about life and processing whatever comes up. Hours go by, the sun sets and I think: I could build a fire, that might be nice, but hmmm it sounds like a lot of work.

Another thought comes to mind: if I build a fire, my friends will come. If I don't, they won't.

Seems irrational. But, if I find the energy to build a fire, it might indicate a mental and emotional state of positive willingness to make things nice. If I was in that state when I invited my friends, then they probably picked up on that, and would likely be more attracted by my offer to hang out in the wilderness. Alternatively, if I've not found enough enthusiasm to build myself a fire, then maybe I was also in a low-energy state when I invited my friends, and they'll be thinking "an evening with that guy? Probably not tonight."

So it is not that my fire is a magic summoner. There's no way for them to know whether I have built a fire or not. It's just that the two decisions depend on the same variable to some extent, almost as though they were decided in the same moment, long before sundown.

I didn't build the fire. My friends didn't come.

Of course, this is a simplification, and there are other variables at play. It's possible that I had positive energy when I invited them, but in the following hours I became tired. Also, my friends' plans were influenced by personal circumstances unrelated to my invitation.

When one cause has multiple effects, the effects are related in a way that might not be obvious at first. If you can learn to see these connections in other people's lives you could seem to have psychic powers or great insight. And if you can learn to see them in your own life, you could seem to make great leaps of personal progress as you simultaneously solve multiple problems by addressing one root issue.

What if I'd meditated that morning, and it improved my mood for the day? My invitation might have been more joyous and sincere. Maybe I would have been more intentional about planning to make a fire and my friends would have felt more drawn to join me.


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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Joe Omundson

Good and evil, eternity and NOW


Are people good or evil?

No!

We associate good and evil with certain qualities we have assigned to other words. Generosity; kindness; provision; pleasure; safety; health; growth; strength. Destruction; violence; negation; death; neglect; pain; suffering; terror. All of these things are contained in the natural world, simultaneously and overlapping, without distinction.

Some animals survive in good health and abundance while others starve. Some animals eat, others are eaten. There are no rules. Parasites drain life from their hosts and this is OK. Dead bodies nourish the living. Some species can only come to life after a devastating fire, or they lay their eggs inside another animal and poison that animal to death so their young may feed. Mass extinctions happen. Some animals kill their mates immediately after mating. Animals rape and fight and kill. And yet they are innocent, all of it is natural.

Nothing lasts, even the rocks crumble and turn into dust. Rivers dry out, continents are submerged, frozen, desertified. A water molecule can flow beautifully from a rain shower to a creek and a waterfall and a river and an ocean, or it can be frozen in a polar ice cap for 500,000 years. Mountaintops are eventually subducted and melted into magma once more.

Stars are born and they die. They go supernova, collapsing into neutron stars and black holes. They destroy their planets. They smash into each other, they feed off each other like parasites. Entire galaxies collide in chaos. In the end of time all will be dark.

Is all of this good, or is it evil? What an impossible question. The universe is neither tragic nor magical, and it's both. It works itself out as it can, as it must, as it will be.

And people are the same. Nothing anyone does is really surprising. It is a reaction of what they are, to what they are around. Some people demonstrate behavior that we associate with good, others with evil, but everyone is a wide enough spectrum to contain some of both. Some people think only of themselves and are rewarded with health and money. Others care immensely for others and they die in a damn fire. Some are born to loving parents, others to neglectful and fearful ones; some know only abundance, some starve to death as children. And some come to see life as good while others see it as evil. Each of us is a small piece of the mosaic, and each of us is a mosaic of our own.

What does any of this mean? Who knows. But it seems wiser to acknowledge and accept the full contradictory complexity of our situation, rather than cling desperately to one selective interpretation or another. We can comfortably blind ourselves to the parts we don't like but it only leads to pain and confusion when our illusions are shattered. The only guarantee is change and impermanence, uncertainty and lack of control. The way to find true peace as a part of this system is to develop a healthy, practical, accepting relationship with the transient nature itself of life and the universe. To give up on illusions of control and importance, superiority and morality, eternal life and knowledge beyond human limitations. To instead experience the eternity that is contained in each passing moment.

THIS IS IT. Life is now! This moment is what you have. Can you accept it? Can you appreciate the fact that you are sitting here aware of yourself right now? You, made out of all the same kinds of things as everything else in the universe. Do you know that someday THIS MOMENT that you are in will be your last? When you are in that last moment, will you think back to this moment? To yesterday, tomorrow? What will you wish that you could tell yourself now? If your deathbed self could go back to who you are right now, what would you do? How would you cherish the fact that this is not your last day and not your last breath? Would you go outside and look at the sky and breathe deeply and be still? Would you hug someone and say that you love them? Would you value your curiosity and explore everything you ever wished you could? Would you forgive, love, encourage? Would you laugh outrageously?

Think about it! Your life is nothing but a collection of NOW moments. If you never learn to embrace the craziness of NOW, how will the overall picture of your life ever add up to something you want to experience? The past is worth remembering, and the future is worth preparing for, but these cannot replace the importance of what is happening NOW. Sit with now. Accept now. Enjoy now. Value now. Everything else in life is secondary.

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Friday, May 5, 2017

Joe Omundson

Appetite vs. hunger


I enjoy experiencing extremes so that I better understand the spectrum of what's possible and what my options are. For example, one time I hiked alone for 6 weeks and I realized how much I needed human interaction. As an introvert, it was the first time I ever felt desperate to talk to someone. Going to that opposite extreme allowed me see myself from another angle, and appreciate friendship more.

More recently I've been playing with extremes of food access. Most of my life I've had enough money to buy whatever food I want, whenever I want, with full ability to cook it and keep it fresh. When I was in Moab I chose not to have much money, and food acquisition was less certain. I got food from the food bank, fruit trees, or looked for great deals at the store.

To be clear, I've gone nowhere near the true extreme of food depravation. I've never been at risk of starvation, never felt forced to dumpster dive or go hungry for days at a time. Still, the lifestyle change was enough to shift my attitude: eating went from being a fun thing that I would do when I was bored, to something that I did out of necessity. My food reserves were now a resource that I needed to manage carefully.

There were weeks when I mostly ate rice, potatoes, and onions. I ate a reasonable amount to fuel myself for the day, but I didn't usually sit around and pack my stomach full of junk just for fun. I couldn't afford the kinds of food I typically overeat (buffets, pizza, ice cream), so maybe a bag of chips was my occasional treat. The exception to this was when I got a haul from the food bank. I couldn't resist indulging in the sudden excess.

Now that I'm back in Portland, surrounded by relatively cheap, delicious food, and since my dad gave me some money so I can afford more comforts while I'm undergoing treatment, it's been very interesting to notice how my approach to food changes. I go grocery shopping and I buy lots of produce so I can make stir-fries and other nutritious meals -- which is an amazing privilege. Then, even with my fridge full of these healthy goodies, I go out to eat. I'm getting pizza, burritos, spending as much money on one meal as I could spend on 3 days worth of food if I were careful. "Why not?", says my stomach. I can afford it today, it's easy, it's tasty, it's fun, it's variety.

Appetite is tied to mental and emotional states, and it's actually a very different sensation than hunger. This is a well known phenomenon but I hadn't fully understood it on a personal level. In my extreme-frugality months I generally waited until I was truly hungry to eat a meal, so my stomach shrank and I didn't need as much food to be satisfied. Hunger was a common experience and it didn't have a negative association. Now, I feel the effects of appetite again, and I notice how it's a different kind of craving. When I'm lounging around in the evening and I'm stoned and I already had dinner and I still crave a pizza, I know that's my appetite talking... I'm looking for food excitement. If I choose to eat, I'm packing more food into a full stomach. I'm not eating to relieve the ache of an empty stomach.

Two days ago was a food-craving day. I wanted to eat a lot and not care about money. First I went to an Asian buffet around lunchtime and ate as much as I could. By evening I was still completely full, but I went and got two huge slices of pizza and a beer. On the way home I got a pint of Ben & Jerry's and ate that too. I recognized what I was doing and decided to just go crazy that day and enjoy it. I wanted to experience the excess in order to get it out of my system. So I overate for fun and not because I was hungry. I notice the difference now.

Though I enjoyed gorging myself that day, I knew I'd be making a change the day after. Being overly full just doesn't feel as satisfying to me anymore. It's kind of fun, but I can't ignore how irrational it is, and how it makes me gain excess weight. It's not something I want to make a habit of. So I've been moving again toward relying on my hunger to tell me when to eat, and making sure I get through the perishable foods I already have instead of eating out too much.

Maybe tomorrow I'll want to eat an entire Little Caesar's pizza, and I'll probably do it. I'm less worried about having strict control over myself at all times, and more interested in general trends -- overall, is my overeating obsessive? Or is it something I can enjoy in moderation, as a contrast to a healthy baseline? As I wrestle with finding the right balance, can I see that overall I'm getting where I want to go? Yes? Good enough!
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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Joe Omundson

Be the pixel you wish to see


Many people have ideas about how society should be, but they don't always consider their own lives to be part of the equation.

Let's imagine that generally, most people wish that everyone in their community could have a happy life. Let's say it's a universal human goal for as many people to be as happy as possible.

Now imagine that we are all pixels on a computer screen. Our color indicates the experiential quality of our life: red is very unhappy, yellow is mediocre, green is very happy, and there are all shades in between. (Forgive my simplistic use of red = bad, green = good!)

Then our goal is for the light shining from the screen to be as green as possible.

I find that some people get so hung up on the other red pixels they see, that their own lives degrade into a red state. They see all the red and decide that their own life can't be green until there is more green around them. And yet, the only pixel you can directly control is your own; to get a fully green screen, every pixel has to decide to be green! We all make up the screen. A happy world means not only that everyone else be happy, but YOU, too. Your life is a part of this thing, we are all the universe. (It's along the lines of "be the change you wish to see".)

One question is: can a pixel create a net greenward trend while remaining red?

Is it possible to sacrifice your own life, your own well being, for the sake of the greater good around you? Or in neglecting your own happiness and living a miserable life, is that negative energy all you can radiate into the world?

I saw a quote that said something along the lines of: "The only thing you ever have to offer someone else is your present state of being." I thought this was profound, because so much of the time we try to cover up our own feelings for the sake of someone else. I don't really feel like spending time with my friends tonight, but I told them I would, so for their sake I'll put on a happy mask and endure it. But does this ever fool anyone? If your own state of being is that you are feeling reclusive, and out of energy for other people, you're probably not really sharing something positive like you hope -- if you want to be alone, better to do that.

What about the stereotypical family with a dad who labors arduously to provide for his wife and kids? Some people do thrive on constant hard work, but others don't love it so much. If you're working 60+ hours a week, never home for your family, stressed out and exhausted whenever you're with them, and miserable with yourself, is this really better than cutting back on the hours and finding more frugal ways to live, so that you can be more relaxed and present with your loved ones? I think we have this idea that self-sacrifice is noble but I suspect it does more harm than good.

Personally I think that some people can manage to help others turn green even though their lives are red. Maybe a crazy inventor lives in lifelong isolation yet provides helpful technologies to the world. Maybe a workaholic earns a lot of money and donates 80% of it to really great causes. Maybe someone who is familiar with a destructive system can cripple that system at the cost of their own life or freedom.

But I suspect that this is overall a less effective route than the alternative: being as brightly green as you can, and letting that be contagious to those around you. A green life has more attentiveness to its own needs, and therefore provides itself a stronger foundation for reaching out and helping others. More fundamentally, it involves a recognition that a happy society means a happy YOU. Because your happiness is worth just as much as anyone else's.

So don't be afraid to be happy, or feel guilty about it.

A fair question might be -- "if turning your own life green means thoughtlessly enjoying every privilege that comes your way, and benefiting from economic and social systems that perpetuate poverty and disease for others, isn't your greenness at the expense of someone else's redness?" Yes! But I also think that seeking to find a happy life based on material possession, privilege over others, and perpetual injustice is a dead end. These lives are perceived as green but the people who live them don't tend to feel very good. Seeking a truly green life is more likely to involve minimizing, simplifying, gaining humility and compassion. (Says the houseless guy. Obvious bias here!)

So it's always important to think about how your choices are impacting others, whether you're happy or unhappy, but as far as your own choice to feel green or red inside your own head -- why not choose green?

Of course it isn't that simple for everyone, myself included, and those who suffer from depression will be laughing at me. I don't mean to minimize the difficulty of finding real peace, joy, and meaning. I just don't think we should arbitrarily choose to suffer when other options are easily within reach, thinking that choosing pain for ourselves will somehow be good for others.
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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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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Joe Omundson

interview

I had the pleasure of being interviewed for Al Christensen's series "Nomad Origin Stories". See his blog at http://rollingsteeltent.blogspot.com


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Saturday, January 21, 2017

Joe Omundson

Life is music



I was thinking about life and the passing of time as I drove south to Quartzsite.

There's a song that has a sample of Alan Watts speaking. This is what he says:
...we’ve simply cheated ourselves the whole way down the line. We thought of life by analogy with a journey – with a pilgrimage. Which had a serious purpose at the end and the thing was to get to that end; success or whatever it is or maybe heaven after you’re dead. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing or dance while the music was being played.
I think this is an excellent point. Life is really like music. It's not a solid, constant object; it is changing from moment to moment. It's fleeting, transient. It's not something you enjoy by locking it down, you can't preserve it by worrying or by putting it in a safe. It lasts as long as it does, and then it's over. It's an experience. It's a story. It flows and fades.

Like music... you'll miss the point if think too much about the past or the future. You won't enjoy music if you're constantly plugging your ears and wishing you were at some other point in the song. Even though you only hear a tiny fraction of the song at one time, the perception of the whole as it changes over time is interconnected, and this happens naturally as you focus on the present moment. What is happening now is shaped by what has come before, and has an impact on the future.

Even though a song ends, it's still worth listening to. The value of it is in the present moment. While it lasts.

Too many of us miss out on life. We never learn how to fully experience the present moment, to enjoy it for what it is, accepting the pain and absurdity and pleasure and surprise and hilarity that happen every day. We continually distract and postpone. Enjoyment is for the future, next weekend, next year, after retirement. Or, enjoyment was for the past, in the good old days, and now it's gone. Yet life is always only lived in the present, in the "now" moments. If we don't get good at enjoying now, how will we enjoy our lives?

We're at the concert right now and it only happens once. Do you want to stand in the lobby all night worrying about how you look, or get in there and enjoy the show?
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