Thursday 4 July 2013

Midnight Sun, Returning to Earth Customs and Applying Compassion to Directness and Honesty

What a fascinating two weeks it has been for me and for a lot there is for me to write about this week, after taking some time to get used to customs on Planet Earth again after feeling like I had come back from Grand Tour of the Solar System trekking through Iceland's Laugavegur region. Coming back home, I attended a retreat and Dhamma talk by respected Tibetan teacher Chamtrul Ringboche on Inner Peace and Compassion.

Beautiful colours in Iceland's Laugavegur region
Those who have heard me speak or who are well versed in Asperger literature will likely be familiar with the extra-terrestrial theme in imagining you have landed on another planet and you don't know the customs or social conventions of its inhabitants, rather like how Mr Spock has difficulty understanding human courtship. This is how it may feel like to be a person with Asperger's Syndrome. but as a person with Asperger's Syndrome, I felt I experienced this coming back home after being away more so than having been in an environment outside my comfort zone! Not only was the landscape so other-worldly, but I also experienced a week without darkness with the Midnight Sun!

Geysers and lava flows

The smoking geysers in the sulphur hills could give a clue to what Enceladus may be like. What is the most surprising feature to many visitors to Iceland though is its desert landscapes, something one wouldn't expect to find in a land close to the Arctic Circle. The deserts, which are caused by soil erosion resulting from glaciers melting courtesy of volcanic activity, including from Ejafjallajokull, which famous halted all air traffic for a while in 2010, reminded me very much of the surface of Mars. Trekking into an area of forestry towards the end of the route though felt like coming back home to Earth!

Taking on Iceland's Laugavegur trekking route was my second serious bit of practice in my bid to summit Africa's highest peak in October. Though not a high-altitude trek, it was both a demanding and thrilling experience in its own right, especially covering 24km on the first day crossing snow, ice fields, lava fields and volcano ash not to mention fast-flowing rivers! As well as trekking across different surfaces, what made the trek particularly exciting for me was the huge contrast in colours present in the landscapes created by a combination of glacial and geothermal activity and different micro-climates from bright sun, strong winds to heavy rain. coping with such change is a challenge to anyone, especially for people with Asperger's Syndrome, but what was a much bigger step outside my comfort zone was sleeping under a sky where the sun didn't set! Fortunately, there was plenty of rain during the evenings, the sound of which on the tent roof somehow aided my sleeping patterns.

Other-worldly desert landscape
After completing the Laugavegur trek, a total of 60km in four days, I felt like I had done a grand tour of the Solar System, seeing similarities in the landscape to images captured by space probes visiting distant worlds, with craters and lava flows being similar to Io, one of Jupiter's four largest moons with many active volcanoes, the glaciers similar to the ice surface on another of Jupiter's moons Europa while the flood plains reminded me of the images of the surface of Titan, Saturn's largest moon, captured by the Huygens probe dropped by Cassini onto the surface of Titan in 2005. On its mission to Saturn, Cassini also spotted geysers erupting on Enceladus, another of Saturn's moons.

Kulusuk, Greenland
Though Laugavegur obviously doesn't match Kilimanjaro altitude-wise, what was good practice on this trek for Kilimanjaro was crossing different surfaces, including volcano ash, of which part of the Lemosho Glades route covers, including walking on an angle with the feet often sinking into the ash. While in Iceland, I was also fortunate enough to visit Greenland, where I saw yet another contrast, this time in lifestyle. we have a tendency to become very used to home comforts often relating to what we may expect from our living standards, that we may forget that there are places where such standards may be very different, and often much harder. This was very visible in Kulusuk, the village in Greenland I visited, where nothing other than moss can grow and where employment opportunities are very limited. Like the Sherpas and Tibetans, many native Greenlanders don't expect to live very long lives, so despite such harsh conditions, they become accustomed to living in the moment, including making as best use of the present that they can and by being happy in the moment.

Respected Tibetan teacher Lama Chamtrul Ringboche gave some helpful guidance on happiness during his public talk in Bellingham, Northumberland. Describing happiness as the essence of humanity, Chamtrul also said that a good foundation for happiness was compassion. I have spoken of how compassion can enable understanding Asperger's Syndrome, but when listening to Chamtrul's talk, it also occured to me that compassion can enable people diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome to understand each other. What is still sometimes confusing with Asperger's Syndrome to me is an aspect that is often considered a strength is the directness and honesty. Because people with Asperger's Syndrome have a tendency to tell it like it is, it can sometimes falsely come across as bitter and twisted or even cold hearted, especially in one channel communication such as E-mail or when posting on social media. This is where applying compassion to both communicating and listening can help overcome such confusion, to help save someone's feelings as well as to understand that no harm is intended through directness and honesty. Stay tuned to Adventures with Autism Works for more on this theme and others related to it.

Donations can still be made towards my Kilimanjaro challenge in aid of the Daisy Chain project, supporting families affected by autism. To find out more, you can visit my sponsorship page at 

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