Welcome to the middle path

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Sporadic photos and notes from a Psyche-midwife, cheerleader, anthropologist--aka clinical social worker in therapy practice. Photos are usually mine except for those of historical events/famous people. Music relevant to the daily topic is often included in a web video embedded below the blog. Click on highlighted links in the copy to get to source or supplemental material. For contact information, see my website @ janasvoboda.com or click on the button to the right below. Join in the conversation.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Welcome 2009

As we ready to put 2008 to bed, spend a bit of time figuring out what you're ready to release, and what you want to invite in to your life in 2009. Each day we have the opportunity to fine-tune our lives. May this new year bring you many blessings in love and growth.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Let It Snow, Let It Slow

Mother Nature threw me an unexpected gift this week: an enforced slowdown. The Wintry Mix that has coated the roads kept me out of the car the past three days. After 15 years in the temperate valley (and near a decade in SE Texas before that), I no longer trust my ice maneuvering.Walking was no easy feat either. I opted for the grass when possible, avoiding the glazed sidewalks. Still, it was a very slow and careful stroll . I had to look at the ground, I had to go slow, I had to shut up the Chattering Monkey and concentrate on one foot in front of the other. I noticed things I never would have seen at my usual break-neck pace: rabbit tracks in the snow, the colors in the ice. I arrived each day relaxed and happy, grateful for things I ordinarily don't think about: heat in my office. Gloves. Making it across Monroe street without falling down. My 20 year old boots, still waterproofed after all.There's lots going on in the world right now to scare us. I've stopped using my clock radio to wake up, tired of the daily litany of economic horror stories. I don't deny the very real hardships, but I find that slowing down and being grateful for what ISN'T broken keeps the fear weasel from the door, and increases happiness. Research supports that. What we feed, grows. A replicated study found that people who kept a daily gratitude journal for 6 weeks not only were happier at the end of that period than the control group, but remained so six months later-- even when they were no longer keeping the journal. It's a simple but profound notion: we find what we look for in the world.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Worth Watching: Rachel Getting Married

In the early 90's, I taught social work teacher in a small Texas college. I tried to prepare students to get personal with clients by giving them first hand experience in having their psychological closets scrutinized. Seniors were required to do a family genogram (psychological map) of three generations in their family. Each semester before the papers were due, a parade of nervous students came to my office, afraid I would think their family crazy. Leo Tolstoy wrote that all happy families are happy in the same way, whereas unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way. I'm not sure I agree. To nearly a one, families deal with disease, dysfunction or one of a hundred kinds of very real suffering that is part of the human experience.
The award winning Rachel Getting Married is a realistic look at one family's suffering and subsequent (though imperfect) redemption. The haunted and luminous Anne Hathaway plays a junkie home from rehab to see her sister married off. As she jockies to resume her position as the family screw-up, she illustrates how one can be 9 months drug-free and yet far from recovered.
There's no dearth of family-dysfunction pics to be had. What I appreciated about this film was the authentic portrayal of damaged, suffering people doing the best they can, and doing better as they come to consciousness. Unlike typical Hollywood films, the characters here are not good guys or bad guys, but three dimensional beings acting out of their limitations with as much grace as they can muster. Sometimes, like all of us at our worst, not much grace is evident at all.
My theoretical foundation for understanding human behavior is summed up in three words: People are messy. We all hold the capacity for loving and being loved, as well as for wounding and being wounded. When we are acting out, it is usually subconscious and not necessarily related to whoever happened to be nearby at the time. We walk around with our sore spots not even knowing some are there until someone bumps into one or reminds us they exist. That's what therapy is all about-- figuring out why we are stuck repeating our history by understanding it better. We learn to forgive others, and ourselves, for being imperfect and semi-conscious. And as we wake up and learn to tolerate the discomfort we have been running around trying to avoid, we increase our capacity for love.
Rachel Getting Married is now playing at the Darkside in Corvallis. While you are there, grab another dose of wisdom by picking up a copy of owner Paul Turner's fantastic collection of tales and truths, "Prancing Lavender Bunnies".

Thursday, November 13, 2008


2008, a coffeeshop blog--
I'm having a cuppa and enjoying the wifi at a little cafe' in Topeka, Kansas, in between a couple of workshops I'm doing on communication and diversity. The topic is timely: on the heels of a historic election, after a particularly mean-spirited political season, during a period of national anxiety. Americans have been drawing lines vigorously. On both the personal and political levels, we tend to batten down when we're scared, and we get scared when we think our piece of the pie is possibly up for grabs. And when we're scared, we often act direct from our reptilian (read: fight of flight) brains. It's not pretty, but it's pretty common.

When my sister drove me into Topeka from the airport, we made an immediate pilgrimage to the Brown vs. the Board of Education historic site. It’s the only national park site named after a court case. Here in 1954, in the heart of the heartland, the legal segregation of schools by race was ended. I wasn't even born when 7 year old Linda Brown's father sought permission to let his daughter attend her all white neighborhood school, rather than make the mile-long trek across dangerous railroad tracks to the black school. The decision was made in the mid-50's, but years of dissent, marches and bravery were needed before integrated school were mostly a reality. Mostly, because racism persists in subtle and not-so-subtle ways in institutions and in community.

Four months ago I had the privilege of a viewing an exhibition of Civil Rights memorabilia at the High Museum in Atlanta. I was disturbed and deeply moved by the photographs of Rosa Parks’ arrest, nonviolent protesters being hosed and beaten by police, and the little girl walking through a path of angry, threatening grown men scared because she wanted to go to a white school. I was astounded by the courage of so many with so little, and how they changed history.

How do we mend our separations? At the workshop I gave today on diversity, I talked about how we are all viewing the world through our tiny lens, thinking we are seeing the truth. A participant asked how one could enlarge the view. My immediate answer-- stretch your vision. We're scared of what we don't know. And when we align ourselves with like minds, we reinforce our belief that we are the norm. Research on dealing with fear tells us the best way to reduce it through exposure. The philosopher Kierkegaard said it as well-- to grow, move toward what makes you anxious. Expand, don't contract.

We may not all have the same experiences, but we experience the same primal events, of love, fear, suffering. There is much more that unites us than separates us. Jung teaches us that there is nothing we can perceive we have not experienced on some level, so even that we reject has somehow, sometime, been a part of us. When we open up to new ideas and experiences, and seek to understand, we can't help but grow.

Although the exhibit at the High has closed, you can read about it here

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Lighten Up

The days are darkening here in Corvallis, and it won't be long until what little slanty sun could shine will be thwarted by rain clouds. If you notice yourself getting sleepy, lethargic, or gloomy, you're in good company. Seasonal changes in light have a very real and physiologic effect on mood and energy. Our brains and bodies are set up by evolution to react to long light days with increased energy (work those fields! harvest!) and to cooler, dark days by slowing the system down (sleep! now sleep some more!). Our bodies would be perfectly happy going to bed not long after the sun sets. That probably worked well in days before widespread use of artificial light and 24/7 availability of food and things to do-- but it's unrealistic for most of us now. The result in the split between rapid societal evolution and much slower physiologic evolution can be sleep, energy and mood disorders.

A light box can address both typical and more drastic results of the effects of waning light on the brain and body. Light boxes produce effects similar to sun exposure and can be used in the morning to assist in wakefulness and mood regulation and in the afternoon to increase energy. Exposure is typically between 15-30 minutes at a regular time each a.m. or early afternoon. To be effective, the light source should be at or above face level, with eyes open (although it is not necessary or recommended to look directly at the light)and within 15-30 inches of the light source. Specific instructions vary according to model. There is a great deal of evidence of effectiveness in the use of light boxes to treat seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression linked to low winter light.

Because they have a real--and sometimes profound-- effect, they are best used according to specific directives based on the particular mood or sleep issues one is experiencing. In some cases, use can increase hypomania (agitation, excess energy, and insomnia among other symptoms). Usually a reduction in the exposure time is enough to remedy that. However, I encourage persons considering light therapy to consult their physician or mental health practitioner and have some sort of system in place to track results. Because it isn't completely clear that such intense light exposure is safe over long periods for eyes, light therapy isn't for everyone and the risks as well as benefits should be explored.

I'm a chronically terrible sleeper, and an even worse waker. I noticed that the best sleep I have is when I am camping and rise and go to sleep with the summer sun. Since that time frame is typically also when I rise and wake in the winter, I have found great benefit in the use of a dusk/dawn simulator. The device I use attaches to my bedside lamp and is programmed to turn the (100 watt full spectrum) light down very gradually in the evening and then up again gradually in the morning. I use it from October to May and find I don't even need an alarm clock, as the dawning light creates a gentle alertness over time. I wake up refreshed instead of startled. Research suggests that gradual lightening stimulates a chemical cue to awakening, just as gradual darkness stimulates a chemical cue to drowsiness. I rarely use a light box since I've bought my dawn simulator. They aren't cheap-- mine was $150-- but I find it a bargain for the help it's provided me with sleep and waking.

Meanwhile, if it's a nice day, get out there! I recently read that the average American is getting LESS than the 20 minutes of sun a day needed by the body to manufacture adequate vitamin D. My MD tells me northwesters are often deficient, and the government just doubled the recommended RDA.

For more information on light and mood, see the wonderful website of Dr. James Phelps at www.psycheducation.org. Dr. Phelps is a psychiatrist who has done extensive literature review on the subject of mood disorders and light therapy.