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.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Comparison and Separation-- Guest post by Lisa Wells

 Today's guest post is by yogi and role model Lisa Wells of Live Well Studio, Corvallis.  There's a lot of wisdom in here, even if you don't know a downward dog from a hotdog.  Please enjoy!

Comparison and Separation:  Can You Embrace Your Humble Pigeon Pose?

I’ve been practicing yoga for more than 2 decades.  My pigeon pose has probably reached its full expression.  There just isn’t much more opening to be found in these old hips.  My Pigeon Pose is a humble Pigeon Pose.

 I often find myself surrounded by yogis with extraordinarily beautiful Pigeon Poses.  Yogis who can bring their shin perpendicular to their spine and then lie their chest right down on it.  Or yogis who come into full upright Pigeon, bend their back knee and balance perfectly in Mermaid Pose.  Or the few who can reach overhead and hold the foot of their back leg lightly in their hands as they gaze upward into the eyes of the divine.  Can you hear my jealousy?

I’ve envied me many a Pigeon.  With no other option on the table, I humbly proceeded to work at Pigeon Pose at my bodies pace.  I practice Pigeon Pose nearly every day not for its beauty, but because my body feels better when I do.  Pigeon Pose feels delicious regardless of what it looks like.

The other day, I found myself once again noticing everyone else’s achievements in Pigeon Pose.  I was comparing my Pigeon with other yogi’s Pigeons.  I can tell you exactly who was deeper in their Pigeon than I was.  I can tell you exactly who has tighter hips than I do.  As I was cataloguing all the Pigeon Pose’s in the classroom I had an ‘aha’ moment: the process of comparison was keeping me separated from others.  My internal dialogued, simplified, was: “He’s better than me.”  “She’s tighter than me.”

This internal dialogue enhanced my sense of isolation and specialness.  It fed my ego, the good and bad of my ego, and it kept me alone.  This sense of loneliness through comparison is an old familiar feeling.
I’ve recently been chanting a simple mantra during my meditation: “not-separate.”  Softening into ‘not-separate’ has changed my perspective on the world. I’m more connected with people.  I smile more easily.  I’m less attached to who I think I am. I am more able to give fully of myself.  I am less afraid to be my true self.

Gradually, I find myself letting go of my need to compare myself to others.  I find myself able to practice Mudita, empathic joy. Not just in theory, but really enjoying the accomplishments of others. If I am not separate, then their accomplishment is also my accomplishment. Mudita is a delicious way to expand my experience of life.

So when your yoga teacher reminds you not to compare yourself with others, it’s for real and for realization. It’s to help protect you from injuring yourself.  It’s to help you practice Mudita and ‘Not Separate.  As this deepening occurs, the world might just open up and swallow you whole.  You might step right into Krishna’s mouth and experience the glory of all that is.   You might wake up.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

S.A.D.? Lighten Up!

It's dark out there.  Costco has lightboxes on sale.  Must be time for the annual Seasonal Affective Disorder rerun.  And check out Dr. Jim Phelps' exceptionally thorough discussion on research and information on light and depression.

 The days are darkening here in Corvallis, andwhat little slanty sun could shine is 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, including the Oregon State Malady:  Seasonal Affective Disorder.

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 or moving exposure from am to afternoon  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!The average American is getting LESS than the 20 minutes of sun a day needed by the body to manufacture adequate vitamin D-- that's on a summer day.  In Corvallis, you'd need to be outside during 24 daylight hours to get that daily dose.  The USDA just doubled the RDA; if you are supplementing, they say go for D3 and 800 mg.  Harvard Health suggests 1000 and tells more about the importance of this vitamin, ways to get it, and effects for different populations in their newsletter here.


The Office of Dietary Supplements/National Institute of Health FACT SHEET on D.   There's a chart on getting vitamin D from diet.  Trust me, if you aren't taking cod liver oil or drinking a half-gallon of milk a day, you probably won't get it there.

Corvallis's own Linus Pauling Research Center is doing lots of research on D and are big proponents.  Find out what they are on about HERE.

Boston University reseacher and professor Dr. Michael Holick is considered one of the foremost researchers on D; he alerted a nation to links between D deficiency and increased autoimmune diseases and cancer.  He worries our obsession with sunlight protection in the form of sunblocks and clothing is causing a national deficiency.  Remember, no need to tan-- 20 minutes on hands and face in summer is plenty to produce all the D you need.

Quote of the day:  Albert Camus
To correct a natural indifference I was placed half-way between misery and the sun. Misery kept me from believing that all was well under the sun, and the sun taught me that history wasn't everything.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Science of Forgetting

We are what we remember.  When we remember the awful, we are awfully burdened.  When we remember the transcendent, we are lifted.

What do we do when the awful transcends into the everyday?

Two recent articles offer clues.  Researchers in cognitive behavioral therapy, neuroscience, and pharmacology are interested in how we might learn to be less bent under the weight of horrific, or even just negative, reminiscence.  In this article from neuroscience news, scientists identify two completely different neural pathways used in pruning out the thornier aspects of our pasts:   http://neurosciencenews.com/discovery-of-two-opposite-ways-humans-voluntarily-forget-unwanted-memories-prefrontal-cortex/.
One method shuts down the path to the memory, and the other substitutes alternate, pleasant memories for the troublesome recollections.  Think of the latter as the use of Febreze on a smoky outfit.  The first method requires suppression, perhaps more arduous found to be but equally effective.

And then there is chemical magic: 
Scientists have been working on finding a medication that will block recurring, unproductive recollections without wiping out the rest of the data base.  The implications for sufferers of PTSD are heartening.  (PTSD short story:  when the brain has diligently cataloged every aspect of a real or perceived life-threatening event and vomits these back into activating panic at the most inopportune times.  For more about Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, check out this post: /stuck-in-bad-story-ptsd.html )

Ideally, we want to learn to sit compassionately with all our feelings:  the positive, the frightening, the heartbreaking.  We want to give them the space to feel heard and validated.  We want to eventually find some gratitude, or at least understanding of how to integrate our feelings and what has happened in our lives into a more peaceful place. But we're only human.  We can only bear so much.  And there is sometimes so much that wants to be borne.
allow in comfort.  photo s banese 2012

During the worst of times, it's best just to breath, to sleep, to be in nature, to be, when we can bear it, with others who know the story and love us in all our manifestations. Sometimes being with those who really, truly get it-- have been there too-- provides access to new tools to reach that elusive goal of gratitude and integration.  Mind you, the gratitude is not about the loss, or even the pain (but if you can get there, more power to you).  It's about what you leaned through the relationship or situation that has now ended, and what you will take into the future and into your heart.

Grief comes in wide and periodic waves of unimaginable intensity.  We don't think we can bear them, we don't want to bear them-- and yet, despite our protests, we come out the other side for times.  On bad days we may want to leave the  house.  On bad days we can hardly breathe.  And then there are those brief respites where we are in gratitude, denial, what have you-- and are pulled up by our short hairs as friends say, "It's weird you seem so happy".  All of these peaks and valleys and boulder-strewn trails are real.  All they mean is:  this is the way of grief for you now.

s. banese 2012
Yet there are some assists.  Using Cognitive Behavioral techniques, one can conscientiously (and mostly metaphorically) lock grief away for more intentional inspection during a prescribed time.  You can choose to journal, meditate or pray at a particular time of day to focus on feeling your feelings.  When they arise at less convenient times, treat them with firm loving compassion a la Dr. Spock:  acknowledge them, and remind them you've not forgotten and will be getting together with them soon.  If you choose not to wait when negative recollections intrude, at least take action: draw, write a letter to your pain or loved one or your fear from the perspective of a wiser future self.  Try not to engage in less healthy distractions such as overindulging in TV, alcohol, drugs, junk food.    Respect your reasonable desire to be away from pain, but refrain from the negative behavior.

If head-on looking at the pain isn't working, try the old "happy spot" trick:  for every unbearable sad memory that arises, substitute a happy one.  Start with real ones, but fantasies work too as long as you keep perspective. 

If nothing's working, go for a cleaner,unrelated distraction. Do a jigsaw, dance wildly, engage in some critical analysis.   Alphabetize or color code your spice cabinet.  The point here is to shift energy from the emotional brain into the critical thinking/logical parts of your brain. 

Medication is a option.  I'd opted for trying the others first, for obvious reasons:  costs, side effects, hassle.
But I wouldn't hesitate to recommend a consult if the others aren't working, or if you've lost sight of why you should bother after all.  In that case, get thee to a physician and see what might be helpful to get you back to functioning level. 

Here's a couple other resources to consider.  Benton County (or your local) Hospice program offers educational classes and support group for bereavement.  The first is more curriculum based and good if you who are still in the "it's too private to talk about" stage.  You'll get good information in a safe environment.  The support group is less formal and filled with people in similar situations.  You may find a wealth of knowledge about what to avoid, expect, and what can help.

There is no life well-lived that won't face suffering. You are in tribal company here.  Let your tribe support you the best they are able.  Ask for what you need.  Be kind to your body, which will release its suffering in its own fashion.  

The big message:  Take Care.  You don't have to do this alone.

A good listen on memory can be found at radiolab.org by clicking here.
Song of the Day: God Bless the Potholes Down On Memory Lane, by Randy Newman

Friday, October 5, 2012


It's been a month or more since I last posted.  There are five draft posts, half-started, waiting for some nudge from the muse.  There are a dozen more I wrote in my head to the point they felt completed, and thus will never see print.  That's a bad habit that also applies to letters to friends (ask my poor penpals).  I thought to try to sum all of it up.  A trap, that-- trying to capture these ephemeral moments of grace and crystallize them into something to hold.

I can tell you these things.  Fall has come, strong on.  The wind blows, the trees undulate, and the little elm leaves make tiny yellow tornadoes on my driveway.  There is a pumpkin and two squash soberly decorating my concrete porch.  The students are back in my sleepy town, and suddenly the streets are filled with cars and people and bikes on the sidewalk and discarded beer cars and noise.  It's been sunny and dry for days, and I long for rain, or at least enough humidity to smile without my lips cracking.

Beside me, as I write, is a bowl filled with bits of windfall I found walking home from work tonight.  A hazelnut, still in its paper tutu.  Two walnuts, one in a green casing, another bared to its gold shell.  A small fig that will never ripen.  Two sweetgum ballsl one green and the other dried small, prickly and brown.  A horse chestnut, shiny and brown.  They are an alter to transience and season.

Here are the blogs I almost wrote.  Maybe soon.
Been through hell?  Try not to move in.
The messy and the real
Offerings for the Shadow
That magic (radicalizing) moment
The sting of things; the lure of the numb

 Two years ago, a first of a series of sad and tragic events unfolded in my inner circle.  They weren't all things that happened to me, but they were close enough to have profoundly shaken me. There is something in humans that seeks and responds to pattern, and fall brought with it emotions of these events and hopes that the cycle might now slow.  It didn't, for a time-- the same themes of love, loss, death, transition recurred and were amplified by the anniversaries of the original losses.

I'm human.  My heart wanted to shrink in response to the enormity and sadness of these events.   Especially this last week, I longed for a retreat somewhere remote, where I could sit in silence alone.

It didn't happen that way.  And in spite of myself. I had an epiphany against my own will, all because I Just Showed Up.

rubber band on the counter
More about that later, perhaps.  For now, I know at least,
these things are true:
Life is full of unbearable, undeserved suffering. Life is full of incredible, miraculous beauty.    There is too much that needs doing.  Doing anything is better than doing nothing.  We all can be jerks and misunderstand each other too easily.  And we are deep wells of creativity, hope and  love.

Love is everywhere, waiting for eyes to see it.

More to tell, but for now-- sleep.