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Look at the sand. Look at these lines. They look like waves, don’t they? Except sand doesn’t really do waves, does it? We know, when we look at this, that the sand has been shaped by some other force. We know that that force was water. Well, not really water, although water was involved. It’s been shaped by the forces which shaped the water.

Water often looks like this. Whether it’s the surface of a pond, a lake, or an ocean, the surface of the water breaks into long peaks and troughs which we call waves.

Nothing remarkable there?

Well, actually, it is. Because those waves in the water are movements of energy. You can’t capture a wave and examine it under a microscope.

A wave is more a verb, than a noun.

A wave is more a process, than an object.

The forces which create the wave are invisible to us. The shapes they make in the water are not.

So, when we look at the sand and see a pattern like this, we are seeing a kind of symmetry. We are looking at sand, fashioned into similar shapes to the water. But underlying both the sand and the water are these invisible forces which are doing the shaping.

Or, rather, the invisible forces are doing the shaping by interacting with the water and the sand. It’s a sort of collaboration.

I often wonder about the invisible forces which interact with the material world to produce the patterns, shapes and forms which we see around us.

I wonder about the invisible forces which interact with each of us to shape our experiences and our lives.

There is one particular quality in this kind of pattern which really captures my attention and imagination – transmission. When we see a wave move across the surface of a body of water, or we see how the sand has been shaped, then we realise we are witnessing something moving, something dynamic, something which is carrying particles, energy and information from one place to another.

That’s how I see the world now. A myriad of transient forms produced by continuous flows of materials, energies and information. Nothing exists in isolation. Nothing is fixed. Everything exerts influences which spread far and beyond the here and the now.

Everything, and everyone.

The night walker

This is a photo I took many years ago, just using my phone. It’s taken in Edinburgh at night. The purple light of the underside of the bridge caught my attention. It was only once I’d uploaded the shot to my computer that I noticed the person walking along the pavement. At that moment I realised the scene was greatly enhanced by the human presence. It became a much, much more interesting image.

I believe this is a fundamental principle and value which I have. I don’t share the views of some people who think the human species is bad. I believe that we humans are not separate from Nature, we are a part of Nature. We are, in fact, an inextricable part of Nature. I can’t understand a human being without knowing them within their webs of connections, without exploring the flows of materials, energy and information through those networks, without considering them within their contexts and multiple environments, physical, social and cultural.

Yes, we humans have done, are doing, and will do, a wide range of harms to each other, to other creatures, and the one, small, blue marble, planet which we share with all other forms of life, and we need to learn how to live in greater harmony with each other and within this Nature that we are part of. But in four decades of face to face, person by person, patient by individual patient, work as a doctor, I never met a single human being I didn’t value.

I’ve found that as I get older, and in particular, since I retired and moved to live in the French countryside, that I value the rest of Nature, more and more. As I opened the shutters the other morning I looked out and saw two birds…..a Hoopoe drilling down into the grass for some breakfast, and Little Owl, sitting up on the highest point of the wall, spinning his head around surveying his territory. And I thought, well, how amazing is this? I’m more aware of the phases of the moon now, and the rhythm of the seasons. I’m more aware of sprouting seeds, the rate of growth of pumpkins, the cycles of leaves, flowers and fruits. As I garden, I feel in touch with a bond of care, attention and nurture, in this phenomenon we call Nature. But I sure wouldn’t want a world without human beings in it.

There’s something else this image does for me. It sparks the creative, story-telling part of me. Here’s something else which is uniquely human. The ability to perceive, interpret and invent. The ability to make sense of, to apply values to, and to create narratives from, our daily experiences. We are a creative species. We have a driving need to make sense of our lives. I can’t help but wonder about this solitary person, making their way through the streets of Edinburgh at night.

Maybe we just need to learn to shift the balance of our actions and efforts, away from harm, consumption and destruction, towards more harmony, more humanity, and more life-enhancing care. Maybe this pandemic has given us an opportunity to hit the reset button, and do just that.

Symbolic objects

I’m fascinated by carved objects on buildings. Often they are above a door or a window. Other times they are under a roof overhang, or somewhere in a garden or building. Certain buildings, like churches, are often highly embellished with these works of art. This owl is on a church wall. I know most of the carvings on churches relate to saints and important people in the Christian faith, but many of them are really not so directly related (think of all the gargoyles!). Who chose them, and why?

When I’ve traveled around Japan I’ve seen lots and lots of statues and statuettes….particularly buddhas.

However, it’s not at all uncommon to find figures like this for sale in Garden Centres here in France and I’ve noticed them a lot in French people’s gardens and houses.

There’s also quite a controversy raging just now about statues, with calls for the removal of statues of famous people whose actions and values communities no longer wish to celebrate (although maybe they were never celebrated, despite standing there for decades).

All this got me thinking about the symbolic power of objects. I wonder if you have any in your house? Or your garden? I wonder which ones you notice in your Public spaces?

Maybe we should assume that they are intended to exert some influence over us. For example, I think many people with the buddha statues often see them as objects to help them to remain calm. One of the first phrases I encountered here, in the Charente, was “Soyons zen” – “Let’s be “zen” – or calm”.

I have quite a lot of owls in my house. I feel an affinity with them and I think they help me access reflection, contemplation and wisdom.

A common “device” over doorways is a heart.

I can certainly see the point of that! In fact, I think I’d quite like having a house where there was a heart over the doorway. Maybe it would help everyone who entered to remember the importance of “seeing with the heart”.

There’s a really interesting mythical one in this part of France (and I believe elsewhere in Europe too) – Melusine.

Half woman, half serpent (or dragon), with wings, there are a number of variations of the Melusine myth. Here’s a passage from wikipedia about her

One tale says Melusine herself was the daughter of the fairy Pressyne and king Elinas of Albany (now known as Scotland). Melusine’s mother leaves her husband, taking her daughters to the isle of Avalon after he breaks an oath never to look in at her and her daughter in their bath. The same pattern appears in stories where Melusine marries a nobleman only after he makes an oath to give her privacy in her bath; each time, she leaves the nobleman after he breaks that oath. Shapeshifting and flight on wings away from oath-breaking husbands also figure in stories about Melusine.

I wonder what influence her presence has on the people who live with her likeness on their walls?

One of the things which makes we human beings so unique is how we handle symbols and metaphors. We don’t just see objects as “things”. We attach value and meaning to them. They provoke emotions in us. They provoke our memories, stimulate our imaginations.

The objects to which we attach symbolic value, either individually, or as part of a culture, or society, have an influence on us. We often choose them exactly for that reason.

What symbolic objects are there around you in your daily life? And are you aware of the influence they have upon you?

Green life

The river Charente which flows through this region has a reputation for being calm and steady. At least, here in Cognac, and in this photo I took in nearby Jarnac, it pretty much always seems to be flowing with no fuss. It’s a total contrast to the tumbling, rushing, foaming waters falling down the rocky hillsides in Scotland, although, I must confess, the River Forth which meandered around Stirling where I was born, was also pretty smooth….it’s just that it seemed to swell and overflow frequently, which I haven’t seen happen in the Charente.

Local people claim the easy, relaxed attitude of the river influences their state of mind, and their behaviours. I’ve lived here for coming up on six years now and it isn’t stress free, but the values of ease and taking your time are really prominent here. Hey, it’s no surprise that the symbol of the Charente is a snail! And that’s not because they are a local delicacy – they aren’t!

On the particular day when I took this photo the water was astonishingly green. That was pretty unusual. I was walking along a riverside path shaded by trees and I came across this box which someone had placed here as a seat. I was struck by just how attractive this spot was for taking a pause, slowing down, and savouring the day.

As I look at this photo again now I am yet again astonished by the green-ness of it! Isn’t it lush? The overhanging tree, the river itself, and the far wooded riverbank are all completely different shades of green. Wonderful!

I don’t know about you but I definitely associate green with Life. This image seems full of Life to me. I’d be hard put to decide what colour is my favourite colour because I adore the blues in the sky and the sea, and I love the reds, yellows and goldens of autumn, but green, in particular seems to be the colour of Life for me.

I suppose when I stop to think about it, its the chlorophyll in the plants which gives us most of the green around us, and without that chlorophyll, there would be no life….at least, not as we know it.

I believe there is a power in Nature. A power of healing. A power of presence. A power of Life. And this green image exudes those powers. Surely we humans need to live amongst green spaces?

Not machine-like

The tendency to think that whatever we see is made up of small parts goes back a long, long way. You can trace it at least back to the Greek concept of the “atom” – that basic unit, or building block, from which everything else is made.

Well, maybe it took the 20th century splitting of the atom to discover that there are no basic units after all…..that when you look inside the “smallest” component part, there are even smaller ones inside, then when you look inside of those, there is……well, it all fades into invisibility somehow. Turns out there are no fixed, fundamental building blocks after all.

The Italian Physicist, Carlo Rovelli, who wrote “Seven Brief Lessons in Physics”, and “Reality is not what it Seems”, describes this well. Here are a few passages from him…..

The world of quantum mechanics is not a world of objects: it is a world of events.

The world is not a collection of things, it is a collection of events. The difference between things and events is that things persist in time, events have a limited duration. A stone is a prototypical “thing”: we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not stones.

A handful of elementary particles, which vibrate and fluctuate constantly between existence and non-existence and swarm in space even when it seems that there is nothing there, combine together to infinity like the letters of a cosmic alphabet to tell the immense history of galaxies, of the innumerable stars, of sunlight, of mountains, woods and fields of grain, of the smiling faces of the young at parties, and of the night sky studded with stars.”

“Elementary particles which vibrate and fluctuate constantly between existence and non-existence” feels like a totally different universe from the one built from indivisible, fixed, discrete atoms.

The deluded idea that the universe is made of bits was compounded during the Industrial Revolution where the machine became the dominant model for interpreting the world. It still is.

Human beings are not like this.

But we still interpret experience using this lens of the machine. We want what was described by Arthur Frank as the “Restitution Model” in Medicine – just fix the broken bit and I’ll be on my way – Diagnosis is finding the wonky part and sorting it or removing it. A patient with multiple disorders is compartmentalised with each disease treated by a different team of specialists….some to deal with the heart, another one to deal with the stomach, yet another to deal with the bones and joints. We even turn symptoms into parts, treating “pain”, for example, with “pain specialists”, as if pain was an entity in its own right.

We take the same machine model and apply it to society as well, reducing human beings to mere cogs in the great machine.

The English philosopher, Mary Midgley, in her “Beast and Man”, said

I had better say once, that my project of taking animal comparisons seriously does not involve a slick mechanistic or deterministic view of freedom. Animals are not machines; one of my main concerns is to combat this notion. Actually only machines are machines.

Animals are not machines, human beings are not machines, and society is not a machine. Using machine models to understand and create institutions, policies, methods of health care, education…….I’d like to see all that disappear.

Life is not machine-like.

You think you can understand, and explain the existence of, a creature like this by seeing it as a machine?

Art thinking

What’s this young woman doing? She looks relaxed, leaning both her forearms on the low wall as she gazes, or looks, (there is a difference) towards….who knows what? You can’t help but turn your head to see if you can see what she is seeing.

Deleuze and Guattari, in “What is Philosophy?” talk about three ways of thinking – concepts, functions and affects+percepts. Philosophy, they say, is our way of thinking concepts. Science describes functions. Art deals with sensations, affects and percepts.

In the city of Angouleme, about an hour from where I live, there are many, many examples of wall art. Angouleme is a major, maybe THE major centre, for graphic arts in France. Several of them are absolutely stunning. Many of them make you stop and think.

If art is a “bloc of sensations, that is to say, a compound of affects and percepts”, then what does that really mean in everyday life? I’m no philosopher and I wouldn’t be surprised if I misunderstand philosophical writings, but I am a “wonderer”. So, the two photos I’m sharing with you today, in this post, are just two examples of murals I’ve come across in Angouleme…….two murals which really stimulate my powers of perception and evoke emotions. They both make me wonder.

In this first one, everything in blue is the painting, but it’s been so cleverly painted that, at least at first, you have the impression you are looking at a real woman, leaning on a real wall, in front of a real hotel. Well, actually, it is painted on the gable end of real hotel, and the painted wall is an extension of one you can actually lean on. Maybe this graphic woman is looking into the window on the left? If so, she’s looking into a real window, not an imaginary one. Here’s the full picture…..

I love how the painted image blends with the physical world around it. It transforms reality. As I gaze at this in wonder, I slow down, feel calm and contemplative, and take my time to explore the whole painting. Isn’t it amazing that the woman, who is the artist’s creation, somehow induces in me, the viewer, these feelings of slow, calm contemplation?

What would this building look like unpainted? I’m not sure I’d even have noticed it. I certainly wouldn’t have stopped to gaze at it. And, here’s the other thing….I might not have followed the gaze of the woman beyond this low wall out over the valley below, towards the winding river, the boats, the houses and buildings at the edge of the city, and the farms and forests further out. I haven’t the slightest doubt that this work of art transformed my experience of Angouleme.

But, then, so did this one….

This is one of the most imaginative, evocative, narrative murals I’ve ever seen. It also stops you in your tracks. You can’t help but get drawn in, first to the woman and the man, who are kind of embracing, but there’s a mystery in this embrace. It doesn’t look entirely comfortable. What’s going on with these two? Then, above them, the glass in the window is broken. How did that happen? And above that, this enormous moon, which doesn’t really look like our Moon, but maybe some other planet? It always makes me think of the movie, “Another Earth“….But look at the biplane flying over the face of that planet? What era is this? Which makes us look at the couple again, and wonder what era they lived in as well…..they sure aren’t dressed the way we’d expect to see someone dressed in this day and age.

Then as I look again at this photo, I see the pink bike, parked against the railing, and I can’t help but think it’s her bike! So reality and fantasy blend and blur and lose their hard edges (do reality and fantasy really ever have hard edges?)

Finally, I look up and see what looks like the shadow of an angel with a trailing umbilical cord…..at least, that’s what it looks like to me, and I can’t help but turn around to see if I can see the actual angel behind me.

Oh, there’s the angel, over there, on the building opposite….

Isn’t that quite something? A drawing of a shadow which makes you turn around to see what’s casting the shadow? What a wonderful blending of perception and imagination!

Somewhere in the depths of my memory I seem to have a story of an ancient debate about whether or angels would have tummy buttons – because angels, allegedly, aren’t born, so don’t have umbilical cords. I remember thinking what an odd thing to have a debate about! But as I stand looking at this drawing, that old story comes rushing back to me, and in so doing, makes the artwork all the more interesting and engaging.

With both of these murals my experience of the day was transformed. They both challenged my perception of reality. They both stirred my feelings, stimulated my imagination and provoked memories. They both made me wonder.

As far as I know only human beings make art.

What kind of humanity would we be without it?

What shapes us?

This photo of water flowing over rocks in a Highland stream transfixed me the first time I saw it, and it’s lost none of it power.

When you watch water pouring down over, around, and between rocks in a stream or a river, you can see how the water itself is shaped by the rocks and the earth which create its edges (the banks of the river). If you look carefully you can often see that there is an ongoing lengthy relationship between the water and the rocks. It’s not just that the rocks make obstacles which the water has to flow around. You can see that as the water flows over the rocks, it shapes them.

However, what you see in this photograph is an additional dimension. You don’t just see that the rocks are making the follow a particular path. You can see that the surface of the water itself is shaped. Those bands, or ridges, look waves spreading over the surface of the water, except you wouldn’t expect to see waves in a stream or river as it pours down a rocky hillside. Where do they come? Maybe it’s something to do with the rocks on the river bed, or the rocks within the river itself, but it looks like something different. It looks like this pattern, this shape, emerges from within the water itself. As if it looks this way because of some influence within the water.

So, this photo always makes me think of that. It makes me think of how each of us is shaped by external structures, and the environments in which we live – by which I mean the physical, social, and cultural environments at least. But how we are also shaped by our constantly evolving inner structures and environments……our memories, imaginings, thoughts and ideas, as well as our physical bodies and all the cells, tissues and organs which lie hidden inside.

Who we are, what we are like, what we look like to others, what our characteristics are, are all shaped, are all constantly being shaped, by an alchemical mix of the external and the internal, of the visible and the invisible.

This is one of my all time favourite photos. I took it while having breakfast at a little cabin at the top of the hill on the edge of Biarritz. I realise that the concrete fence is not bonny! But that doesn’t take anything away from the picture for me. The rich, deep hues of blue in the sea, sky and even distant mountain are just gorgeous and I like the fluffy summer style of clouds floating by.

Hey, you might be saying, you’re going on about the fence, the sea, the sky, the mountain, even the clouds, but isn’t this a photo of a coffee cup?

Well, yes. You could say that. But, then you know my tendency to explore the contexts, the connections and the environment….how I am drawn to the “whole”. But, yes, it is a photo of an expresso, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

Even though these short coffees in Europe are called “expressos” they don’t necessarily imply a brief, speedy period of time. I noticed that when I first stopped for a coffee in Italy that the cafe had tall tables and no chairs. That was a surprise. Maybe that’s when I thought that an “expresso” wasn’t just fast to make, it was fast to drink. But that was a misunderstanding. When I went for breakfast with a group of Italian friends, they stood around the tables chatting, drinking their coffees, eating pastries or biscuits, and there was absolutely no sense of urgency or hurry.

Coffee time is a pause.

It’s often an in-between time….between waking up and engaging with the tasks of the day, for example. When I worked in Glasgow, I lived in Stirling, and traveled in the train for about an hour each way each day. I’d stop and enjoy a coffee once I arrived in Glasgow and before I caught my second train to the hospital, and, often, I’d stop and enjoy another one on the return journey. Those were times of pausing. Of stepping off the busy flow and slowing down to reflect, to read, to ponder. Coffee times were also times of sharing, of enjoying the company and chat. Not all coffee times are social times, but many of them are, and that’s important.

There’s a term in buddhism – “bardo” – it means a space. For example, there is a bardo between each in breath and each out breath, and another between each out breath and each in breath. There is even a bardo between each thought, but good luck catching any of those! I think a pause is a kind of bardo. A life bardo, breaking up a busy day, and helping us to re-centre, to re-focus, to re-connect and to re-store.

I was reading in an article in “Philosophie” magazine this morning. It was about rituals and one philosopher described his coffee ritual. He said he wakes up, drags his heavy feet and thick head through to the kitchen, pops a “dosette” into the coffee machine, presses the on button, and listens to the familiar sounds of the machine. That first coffee begins to re-connect his disconnected brain cells, but it also makes him cough. He has a second coffee, which settles his cough, then, the third coffee, he says, is “for pleasure”. Then he is ready to get on with the rest of the day. Wow! I think if I started every day with THREE expressos I’d FLY through the day!!

We all have our own rituals, our own habits, our own routines. This little coffee cup resting on the fence reminds me of that. It’s good to pause now and again, and in that bardo to take stock, to reflect, and to become aware of rituals, habits and routines. What are they, and what part do they play in my life?

How about you?

What comes to mind when you think of a pause, a bardo or a ritual?

Calm

In most countries the response to the Coronavirus pandemic has been to enact a lockdown. In France, it’s called “Confinement”. The same word used in English generally refers to imprisonment, but in Obstetrics it has another meaning related to the time between labour commencing and the baby arriving. Both of those situations come with quite a degree of stress!

Many people have found the restrictions tough but as long as they were in place then a kind of predictability began to emerge. In fact, each day could seem so similar to the previous day that sometimes it could be hard to work out exactly which day of the week it was. I’ve no doubt these lockdowns have produced their own particular stresses.

However, pretty much everywhere, the lockdown is ending (in France we have moved into “De-confinement”). The restrictions are being lifted in varied ways at different speeds. Because I live in France and would like to visit family in Scotland, I have to keep up with three sets of rules – those in France, those in the UK, and those specific to Scotland. Week by week that’s getting harder and more confusing. This period of lockdown easing has, in turn, its own, particular stresses. Not least because the rules keep changing now.

In addition to the stresses induced by trying to factor in different regulations in order to make future plans, I’m hearing an increasing number of people say that although they are now allowed to leave their home, they are too afraid to do so. On top of that, when you do venture out, what with all the perspex panels, instruction signs, brightly taped lines on the ground to stand behind or to follow, wearing masks, standing in long spaced-out queues (I don’t mean spaced-out in a drugged way!), and trying to maintain distance from everyone else…..well, it sure doesn’t feel like it used to do. It all takes some of the pleasure away. It all produces a sense of un-ease.

So, I thought today might be a good day to share a calming image. I’ve seen people sharing calming images on social media but I must say I don’t often find them very calming. I guess we all find different scenes calming. However, here’s one that works for me.

Take a wee while to yourself and gaze at this scene. Look at the wide and extensive calm water, stretching to every edge of the scene and beyond. See the red guide markers on the left, subtly guiding any boats to or from the shore. Look into the distance and see the long flat bridge, connecting the mainland on the left, to an island on the right (take that from me, you can’t see that you are standing on an island looking out at the sea from here) . Then notice the colours, the deep blue of the sky at the top of the scene fading into the pink from the last light of the sun which has just this moment set below the horizon. See the light blues in the sky just above the band of pink, and the similar light blues in the sea just in front of the bridge, and notice how the blues become darker and richer as the water reaches the shore just in front of you.

I find this scene wonderfully calming and peaceful. I hope you do too.

Do you have any photos on your phone, your pad, or your computer, which you can turn to, to absorb your attention in the beauty of this world we live in?

I am very attracted to liminal spaces…..the zones of change, the places where the boundaries dissolve, the areas where the elements mingle at their far edges creating new, different and unique phenomena.

One of my most favourite such space is the shore line. That magical rhythm of the sea dissolving on the sand as the big waves turn to foam and flatten themselves out as they land on the beach, followed by a rush of water, sand and pebbles as the closest waves to dry land retreat speedily back into the sea again.

On this one particular evening an extra layer of “liminal” came into play, as the light turned pink and tinted both the sea and the sand with the colours of a setting sun.

So, simultaneously, in both the dimensions of space and time, that liminal zone emerged….that place of wet sand, not quite beach any more, but not yet wholly ocean yet. And that time of the day, not quite daytime any more, but not wholly night yet.

It makes me tingle just to remember it.

These phenomena of borders, of liminal spaces, of junctions and transitions….they all appear in the “between-ness”. That means they all share that characteristic of revealing connections, influences, bonds and relationships. Whilst the left hemisphere of the brain is so brilliant at selectively focusing on parts, analysing them, classifying them and categorising them, it’s the right hemisphere which sees the “between-ness” and in so doing reveals the singular, the unique, relationships and connections, and, so, the “whole”.

I think it’s good to stimulate your right hemisphere with these experiences. If we are to re-balance the influences of the two hemispheres and move towards more human, more humane, more holistic values, the more we can develop our right hemisphere powers the better!