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Meditation in a huge variety of forms has become incredibly popular in recent years. “Mindfulness” seems to be marketed as the solution to almost everything, perhaps because it has contextualised the original Eastern teachings for a Western, twenty-first century audience, and removed the references to spirituality and belief.

However, I think there’s an equally ancient “classical” practice stretching right back to Greek philosophers. It’s the combination of slowing down and observing.

“Sitting and looking” is one of my favourite “activities”. Since I retired and moved from Scotland to South West France, I have spent many, many more hours outside than at any previous time in my life. Sometimes I’m outside to tend to the garden. I’ve discovered the delights of growing, harvesting and enjoying a wide range of fruits and vegetables, and I get a huge amount of joy from seeing the beauty of different trees, shrubs and flowers. But oftentimes I like to just sit on a chair in the garden and look.

I look up at the blue sky and watch a few buzzards soaring effortlessly on warm air currents swirling so high above me that the birds are just little specks, and their high pitched cries sound far away and near at one and the same time. I look up and see kestrels hovering on a single point in the air, their wings beating so fast I can’t see them, then watching them drop like a stone to the earth when they spot some prey far below them.

On cloudy days I get lost in the ever-changing tableau of characters which I can see in the clouds.

Throughout the year I see the seasonal changes in the long parallel lines of vines stretching from here to the horizon.

Sitting down makes me slow down. It allows me to pause, to take a few deep breaths (without even thinking about my breathing), and to become more present. It allows my awareness to open up and come alive, so that I notice what would otherwise pass me by.

It’s a great, life-enhancing, combination.

Sitting and looking.

I recommend it. (Health warning: too much sitting is bad for you health. Use it in moderation. Movement, walking and other forms of exercise are also necessary!)

Scale

I saw this lying on a pine forest floor recently and stopped to take this photograph. I don’t know if this is a kind of moss, or a lichen, or what. It’s the colour of lichen, but the shape of moss, but its structure is more open than I’ve seen in either moss or lichen before. If you know what this is please leave me a message in the Comments section below.

Although my eye was caught by the pale green ball, after taking the photo and looking at it once I got back home, I found that the image was way more attractive than I had even thought when I took the shot……because of the mass of brown pine needles on the forest floor on which this structure is lying.

That took me by surprise, but, then again, it doesn’t surprise me. It took me by surprise because I was focused on just this pale green ball of interlaced fibres. I thought, and still do think, it’s almost like a model of the neural networks which make up our brain. Not that I’m saying I looked at this and thought, oh, look, a little brain! But I looked at it, found it beautiful, found it sparked my curiosity and drew me in, and thought that it was a good example of the complex inter-connectedness which is at the heart of universe.

It doesn’t surprise me to find my pleasure and interest both increase once I notice the ball is lying on a carpet of brown pine needles. Because I have learned over and over again that seeing whatever I am looking at in its contexts and environments pleases me and interests me in equal measure.

I can look at this and because of the pine needles instantly remember my walk in this particular pine forest. I remember the smell of the pine needles, the heat of the sun, the roar of the Atlantic Ocean just metres away. I get an enhanced, lived experience, which is specific to me. But then maybe you can see this too and remember a similar time when you, yourself, wandered through a pine forest. Maybe you also noticed mosses and lichens and enjoyed the scent of the pine needles. Or maybe you’ll decide now that one day you’ll have a walk in pine forest because this photo and these words inspire you.

You see, we all live in this vast, complex inter-connected network, this beautiful Planet Earth, in this mind-boggling Universe. And from the scale of a single pale green ball on a pine forest floor, right up to our web of relationships, to our shared life on this living planet, to the unfathomable depths of the universe stretched out in the night sky above our heads……..it’s all one vast, inter-connected web.

It’s all a matter of scale.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about since this pandemic began is money. Not my own personal finances, but money in society. Since the last big economic crash in 2008 a lot of governments brought in austerity measures because they said things like “there is no magic money tree”, and “we have to balance the budget”. But then once the pandemic took hold all of a sudden there were billions, literally billions more dollars, pounds, euros etc spent….and that huge increase in spending looks set to continue.

What’s happened?

Did somebody find the magic money tree after all?

It was thinking about things like this which led to me to explore a bit of economics and, no, I’m not about to deliver an economics lecture here, and reading a few books hasn’t made me an expert. But I thought I’d just share some of the more useful insights and ideas that I’ve discovered. Maybe I should also say that most of the economists I’ve read who have seriously impressed me are women. People like Kate Raworth, whose “Doughnut Economics” model makes it easy to see how there is a sweet zone between failing to deliver on the needs of human beings, and over-taxing the environment, and so threatening the existence of all life on Earth.

People like Mariana Mazzucato who describes how we can rethink the role of government in society and orientate our decisions around a sense of public purpose.

But I started with Stephanie Kelton, and read her “The Deficit Myth”. This single book turned my thinking about money upside down.

However, all I want to share with you today is to prompt you to ask yourself the question “Where does money come from?”

I took the photo I’ve posted here in Japan many years ago. It was in the grounds of a temple, and it shows lots and lots of coins which people have thrown into the water. We humans have a tendency to do this in many cultures – throwing coins into fountains, into wells, or into ponds, and making a wish. When I look at this photo I realise that I think of money as something physical – either coins, or notes.

However, the truth is that for me, and I suspect for most of you, most money isn’t physical at all any more. I’m retired so I my income is a government pension. The government don’t send me coins and notes each month. They use a keyboard to tell my bank to increase the size of my bank balance. Most of that balance is spent on things like rent, energy and telecoms, and food. Pretty much all of that spending doesn’t involve my handling any coins or notes at all. I set up a regular instruction to my bank, or I use a plastic card at a till, and the number in my bank balance goes down, while the number in the landlord’s bank balance goes up, or the number in the energy company’s bank balance goes up, or…..you get the picture.

Now I didn’t really think about that much till I read Stephanie Kelton’s book. But there has been a huge shift in the world, away from what was called “the gold standard” where the money created by the government was linked to the amount of gold they had their vaults, to what is now termed “Fiat currency”. The dollar and the pound, for example, are “fiat currencies”. Only the issuing government can create that money, and it does so by using a keyboard to change the size of various bank balances.

I used to think the government spent the money they raised – in other words they tax us and use those taxes to spend on Public services etc. But I hadn’t thought it through. Stephanie Kelton makes it clear that it’s the other way around. The government can’t take in tax any money other than the money it has already created. In other words, nobody creates new money apart from the government. Well, if you do, it’s called forgery or fraud!

So, when the government wants to spend some money on, say Covid tests, hospitals, supporting businesses, then it does that by creating money on the Central Bank computers. That’s the magic money tree that seems to have been discovered.

But wait, I thought, you can’t just keep creating more and more money, can you? Well, it seems you can’t. You can keep creating more and more money until society’s resources are fully engaged. Beyond that, inflation occurs. What then? Take some of the excess money out of the economy through taxation is the suggested answer.

Huh! Well, honestly, I had never thought of it that way.

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that government finances are NOT like family finances. And the big difference is….we can’t print money when we want it, but the government can.

OK, there is an awful lot more to learn and understand about all this, but Stephanie Kelton’s book is a great starter.

Does this interest you?

Maybe not, but it interests me because it seems as clear as clear can be that our current economic and political systems are not working. Covid has exposed our vulnerabilities, our weaknesses and our true deficits. If we don’t address those then this isn’t going to be the last pandemic to wreak havoc on us all.

Here’s a nice little summary of the key points in The Deficit Myth

And here’s my favourite podcast for learning more about these ideas.

Honestly, money isn’t something I’ve given much thought to in my life….well, apart from my own family finances that is……but the new ideas of Kate Raworth, Stephanie Kelton and Mariana Mazzucato are a total revelation to me, and they actually make me believe a lot more is possible than I had realised. They give me hope.

My daughter, Amy Palko, who produces a knitting blog on youtube, entitled “The Meaningful Stitch” did a poetry advent in the month of December with one of her online friends from the knitting community, Jackie, of Cady Jax Knits. You can find their videos here

One of the things they discussed was creating a personal anthology of your favourite poems. I thought that was a great idea and got out this handmade notebook which my wife, Hilary, had created and given to me, and started writing some of my favourite poems in it.

I think it’s important to actually write the poems in, not to print them out from the internet and paste them in, though, if that would work better for you, then go ahead. I find that taking the time to hand write each poem enhances my experience of the poem itself.

I keep this notebook on my desk beside my computer and from time to time I read a poem or two, or I copy in another poem that I really love.

I really recommend this. It’s one of those practices which takes something meaningful and enjoyable – in this case poetry reading – and increases the time and attention you give to the poems you select. In the process you create a unique collection of exactly the “best” poems for you.

If you’ve read a few of my posts on this blog, I’m sure you’ll be aware of how Iain McGilchrist’s thesis on the differences between the left and right cerebral hemispheres. Well, if he’s right, which I think he is, then there is an imbalance for each of us, and for our wider societies, between the approaches, the world views, or the ways of engaging with reality, which each hemisphere offers us. We have become left brain dominant, and it would be much better to use our whole brain more, and re-set the balance, to put the right brain back in its rightful role as “The Master” and use the left brain “Emissary” to do what it does best. Since I came to understand that thesis, I’ve been more aware of trying to support and develop what the right hemisphere can bring to my life.

Well, there are many ways to do that, but I’ll just share three with you here.

The right brain loves novelty and finding connections, so as I practise curiosity and the sense of “émerveillement du quotidien” I’m building up the right hemisphere.

The second thing is music. The right brain relishes music – both creating music and listening to music. I play music a lot. Mostly I listen to music, but I also try to play a bit of piano and guitar from time to time. Music is very personal and what I like, you might not like, but I’ve recently discovered Paradise Radio, a commercial free, internet radio station from the US, and I love, love, love it. You can select between “main mix”, “mellow mix”, “rock mix” or “world mix”. Check it out.

The third thing I’ve identified is poetry. We activate our right hemispheres a lot when we read and write poetry. More so than we do when reading stories, or articles.

So, there are my three daily practices, which I hope lead to development of a more whole brain way of living……curiosity, music and poetry.

There’s a tiny, beautiful little village on the coast about an hour’s drive west from here. One day while wandering down its medieval streets I saw this sign on a door.

It says, (in my translation), restaurant recommended by the Club of those who life a good life. Actually in French it’s much more elegant than that, but I had trouble translating “vivants” – “livers” would seem the obvious word but that looks like an organ in the body! “lifers” on the other hand makes you think of prisoners! “living beings” is closer, but doesn’t feel quite right, so I’ve opted for “those who live a good life”.

I immediately wondered about this “club” and looked it up online later. It seems to be a restaurant recommendation website in France. Perhaps not terribly exciting!

But I loved the name, and it stimulated my imagination.

Philosophers have wrangled with the question “what is a good life?” for hundreds of years, and it’s something which feels simple and obvious, but when you stop to consider it, it seems impossible to pin down.

I also suspect that we might all give different answers to the question. So, I thought I’d pose it for you today –

How would you describe “a good life”?

I was going to add something myself here, but I’ve decided to just leave this as a prompt for now…….for two reasons. Firstly, I think we can all benefit from taking a little time now and again to contemplate this question. It gets us thinking about our values, our beliefs and our desires, and it also challenges us to consider to what extent we are already living a good life, or whether we think that one day we will. If you think you’re already living it, how would you describe it? What makes your life a good one? And if living a good life is something you hope for one day, what do you imagine it will look like? Because if you don’t know what it will look like, you might not recognise it when it arrives!

Just answer this for yourself after reading this, or discuss it with friends or family. Or, if you like you can tell me – either by leaving a Public comment here, or, privately, by emailing me at bobleckridge@gmail.com

Traces

Look at this amazing pattern left on the sand by the action of the water after the tide has gone out again at the beach.

When you look at this you know immediately that the sand has been shaped by the water, although, to be honest, I don’t understand how water manages to make such intricate patterns like this on the sand. Maybe somebody does!

There are other striking patterns on the wet sand at the beach, some clearly made by plant material, seaweed I expect, and some obviously from the imprints of shells, some little worm-shaped piles caused by burrowing creatures throwing up the sand behind them, and often many footprints of birds which have run across the beach.

What impresses me most about all these patterns is that they are the traces left by some activities which occurred a little while ago. They are the evidence of the past imprinted on the present. That reminds me of how we are shaped by the events and experiences of our lives. Our encounters with others change us. Our experiences don’t just create memories, they set up patterns of chemical, electrical and cellular response in our bodies.

We can become aware of some of that in bodily changes, from tightenings of muscles, to changes in heart rate and breathing, to sweating and trembling, and so on, usually before we are even aware that we reacting to something.

I spent much of my career working with patients who had chronic, long-standing illnesses, and we could often make some sense of what was going on by teasing out the threads and themes which ran through their stories over many years. It certainly wasn’t always the case, but sometimes the actual disease and its precise location in the body was clearly related to the body’s responses to events or experiences long forgotten.

It’s pretty clear to me that just as the movement of the water shapes the sand in the way you can see in this photo, so do our experiences and relationships shape us. Realising that makes me want to be more aware of my own actions and words. It makes me want to choose to spread constructive, supportive and creative waves in the world. After all, whatever we do, whatever we say or write, has effects far beyond the limits we could imagine.

It’s good to have someone looking out for you, isn’t it? It’s good to know that someone has your back. It’s good to know that someone is keeping an eye on you, to keep you safe, and make sure you have what you need.

During the pandemic lockdowns, millions of people looked out for others. They checked on elderly or vulnerable neighbours, got their shopping and their necessary medication for them. Millions of people got in touch with others to say hello, to see how they were, to let them know they hadn’t been forgotten.

I live in a village in Southwest France, and although people live quietly and privately here, they look out for each other. There isn’t an organised “neighbourhood watch” but there is an awareness of the presence of vehicles, of unusual noises, and even of people walking down the streets.

We humans are social creatures, and whilst there is undoubtedly a lot of greed, cruelty and selfishness in this world, there is also an abundance of care and concern. Yes, I know Food Bank use has risen by over 30% in the UK, and it’s terrible that the economic and political decisions taken have made that happen, but the other side of that story is all the volunteers and donors who make the Food Banks happen.

The only effective way to deal with an epidemic, as shown in every epidemic the world has known, is to identify those who have caught the infection, and isolate them. With Covid scientists quickly discovered that the vast majority of people who caught it didn’t experience any symptoms at all. So the only way to find those who are infected is to do tests. Now we are moving into a phase of demanding proof of a negative test to travel, or, soon, perhaps to attend a sports event, a concert, or even to go to a restaurant or cafe.

Alongside the increase in surveillance technologies related to the pandemic we’ve already seen a massive expansion of CCTV, technologies to track mobile phones, to analyse credit card spending, and so on. And what about the internet technologies? The harvesting of personal data, the planting of “cookies” on your computer and phone, and the tracking technologies which follow you around the internet and report back what they find to allow for “targeted advertising”? All that “looking out for” doesn’t feel so good, does it?

The differences arise from intention, autonomy and open-ness (or the opposite – manipulation and secrecy). When the intention is care, we are off to a better start than when the intention is to exploit or manipulate. That’s pretty clear, huh? It’s one thing to look after someone or to support them, it’s quite another to seek to profit from them or trick them. The autonomy bit is equally important. If I agree to participate with someone who wants to watch over me, then that’s my choice. If they do it behind my back, then there’s a risk they are trying to exert power over me, or to diminish the power I have to decide things for myself in my own life. And even with good intention, and voluntary participation, I’m still not comfortable with secrecy.

Sometimes I think that one of the biggest problems we have in the world now is a lack of transparency. Politicians, security services, private companies, multinational corporations, lobbyists, and the rich elites all seem to prefer to avoid transparency. As reports emerge of dodgy deals, as politicians and the media “spin” stories to hide the truth, as those responsible for damage to others and the environment escape responsibility, then trust erodes more and more.

We need more transparency, more accountability, more open-ness, more co-operation, if we are to counter the worst effects of those who turn “keeping an eye on you” into exploitation and manipulation.

Isn’t it high time we, we collectively, we the societies who want democracy and freedom, forced the selfish, the greedy, and the cruel out into the light of day?

Isn’t it time for us to “keep an eye on” the politicians, the lobbyists, those with wealth and power, the corporations and the multinationals? We humans have the desire and the ability to care for each other, but we can’t “look out for each other”, if we are being spied on, manipulated and exploited.

Sometimes you come across a stone that just demands to picked up, turned over, contemplated and brought home. That was the case with this one which I still have with me. I like it partly for its almost heart shaped form, but I like it most for the pattern you can see on it.

When I look at this, I see a number of lines of varying breadths and lengths, criss-crossing the surface and I think of each of them as a representation of a path, or a journey.

When I trained in Medicine, we were taught “how to take a history”. While I developed a bit of discomfort around the use of the verb “to take” there, I kept the concept of the history. In fact I’d tell people a large part of my work was about enabling people to tell their own personal history…..or their story. I used the idea of “story” a lot in my work. I’d ask people to tell me about their present experience in the light of past events and within the scope of their fears and hopes for the future. The traditional life story has a clear timeline, starting at birth and ending with the person’s death. Except, I quickly discovered, that in order to understand a person well I had to explore the family stories too….in other words to hear what happened before the patient was even born……as well as exploring the stories of many of the others (brothers, sisters, other relatives, friends and colleagues) whose stories intersected with the patient’s story.

So, I was quite surprised when I read a small article in “Philosophie” magazine about maps – they described how the French philosopher, Giles Deleuze said that our “subjectivity” was created from our movements, from our meetings, and from the relationships we had with other beings, other things, and other places. He said the map was an imprinting of all these movements, encounters and relationships which was laid down in our psyche, and so, when analysing ourselves we had to explore more as a geographer than as a historian.

Now, as you know, I’m a great “and not or” person, so I wouldn’t replace the work I did, or the way I make sense of my life with a geographical approach instead of an historical one, but I find that notion incredibly appealing.

What if, next time you are exploring your life, your experience, and your “self”, you make a map – a map of the journeys you’ve taken, the places you’ve gone, the experiences and encounters you had there, and the relationships with people, other living creatures, things and places which you’ve woven into your soul as you have lived?

What might that map look like?

It strikes me that adding this geographical approach to my life opens up new insights because it reveals and highlights the interactions, relationships, encounters and experiences of my life. The historical approach, of course, can reveal the characters, the events and the chronology of a life, but this shift of focus from my “story” to my “map” has, I think, loads of potential.

Awe and wonder

We have a tree paeony in the garden. It’s quite a tall plant now, and it produces a glorious flower once every year. I think in its best year it produced three flowers, but most years, it just produces one. That rarity makes the flower even more special. How amazing is it to wait a whole year, anticipating the swelling of a bud, seeing the curled petals emerge then unfurl in the sun to fully open up to the world for a few days. Look at the abundance of pollen. There’s so much it has spilled out all over the white petals. The flower lasts for only a few days, then the petals fall off and the paeony gets into creating and distributing fertilised seeds again. That transience also enhances the sense of awe I have when I see this beautiful flower.

In Japanese aesthetics transience ranks very highly. They celebrate the cherry blossom every year by reporting it on the nightly TV news and splashing photos across the front pages of the newspapers. I’ve seen cherry blossom maps on TV in Japan which are the equivalent of weather maps but instead of showing the weather track the progress of the cherry blossom across the country from the south to the north.

I remember going to see a “millennium plant” once in the Royal Botanic Gardens….one of those creatures which only produces flowers once every hundred years or so. I can’t remember the proper name of the plant, but I felt so privileged to witness its flowers in full bloom.

We have a similar response to eclipses, and to unusual conjunctions of planets or stars in the night sky, and to the appearance of comets. Their rarity makes them more special, and we then experience these events as more significant.

Awe and wonder. The more I experience awe and wonder, the higher I rank the quality of my life. In France there is this word, émerveillement, which is one of my most favourite French words. It means “wonder”, “amazement”, “awe”, “marvel”, and various other English words, because in English there isn’t a direct equivalent single word. “L’émerveillement du quotidien” is one of my most favourite French phrases. It means to find this wonder and awe in daily life.

Well, I guess it’s pretty easy to find wonder and awe in the face of the unusual, the long anticipated, the rare and the peculiar. But actively seeking amazement, awe and wonder in the everyday takes life to a new level. Will you find some every day if you are looking? My answer would be “probably”. I do. But even if you don’t having the intention, having the goal if you like, every day of seeking out what’s awesome and marvellous, will open your mind and your heart to the exactly those possibilities.

I think the conscious intention to seek “émerveillement” opens us up in the way this tree paeony flower has opened up in this photo I’m sharing with you today. And when we do that life becomes just a bit more special, just a bit more magical.

Try it for yourself.

Entwined

I reckon we pretty much expect trees to grow straight up, then branch a bit, then grow further, still straight up. But, actually, of course, this is seldom the case. Trees, even their main trunks often veer off this way and that, or bend in one direction, only to turn in a totally different one a few metres further on. I confess I don’t know what makes a tree take the twists and turns that it does.

Look at this one for example, not only has it swerved around an almost 90 degree angle but it seems to have entwined itself on the neighbouring tree. What do you think? These trees are lovers? They’ve entangled themselves in each other’s lives forever?

It looks that way to me.

So maybe some of the shape of this tree can be understood in relationship to the other tree. Now how often is that the case with we humans? Do we ever reveal our character in any other way than by responding to what we encounter and by acting in response to the others in our social world? Can you really understand anyone without understanding their place in a family, in a community, a society? Can you really understand anyone without seeing how they respond to others, without exploring the nature of their relationships? I don’t think so.

A belief in the uniqueness of every single human is at the core of my world view and my practice as a doctor. But I never attempt to understand a person solely in isolation. I can only get an idea of who they are by hearing the stories of their experiences and relationships, and by observing how they respond to others….including myself.

I’ve no doubt that all our interactions with others change us. I would not be who I am today without having been changed by all the doctor-patient relationships I experienced in my life. You could say patients made me who I am. Not only patients of course, you also have to take into account the others in my life, family, friends, colleagues, even those who challenged me, or disliked me.

Our lives are entangled.

That’s just how it is.

But we can make choices, and we choose both who and how. We can choose to pay attention to certain people, to care for them, to engage with them, to collaborate with them, or to compete with them. All of those choices weave our unique, personal web of inter-relationships. And that constantly evolving cloth forms the very tissue of our being…..or should I say of our “becoming”.

When I look at this photo today it leads me to contemplate the people in my life, those who are no longer present, those who I’m actively relating to, and those who played significant roles in fashioning my experiences and creating the memories I have. You could say, it leads me to consider the characters in my life story. Who they are, who they were, what experiences we had together and how we become entwined and entangled.

I am grateful to them all. We made each other who we are…..together.