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What strikes me about this photo is that I can see two completely different kinds of threads which bind. There is the wire wound round and round the wooden poles to create a fence, holding the cross posts tight to the upright. And there is the web.

I like the words entwined and entangled, because I think they highlight an often invisible aspect of reality. We are, all of us, inter-connected. We all exist in vast webs of relationships. You can’t really see a relationship. It isn’t measurable, but it is still the basis of reality. We are constantly exchanging materials, energy and information with others. Our relationships are between us and other humans, between us and other creatures, and between us and the planet.

Perhaps the most fundamental characteristic of our relationships is that they change us, and we change the others. It’s never one way. We absorb, are stimulated by, penetrated by, elements, molecules, and organisms. We exist in energy waves which penetrate us, changing our own energy patterns as they do so. We live in a continuous flow of information, picking up signals, responding to signs, symbols and stimuli, moment by moment. At the same time we send out molecules in our breath, in our body fluids, from our skin. We emit energies produced by the beating of our heart, by the activity of our brain, and by the rhythms of our cells. We send out information, signals, and signs all the time.

This reality of inter-connectedness underpins our inter-dependency. Not one of us could exist without the entangled webs and ecosystems in which we live. There’s a strange fantasy about space travel…..that you could take a human being, build them a house on the Moon, or on Mars, and start to create a new place to live. But human beings live as only one of hundreds of inter-dependent species on planet Earth, and take one species out (if such a thing were possible – it’s not – you exist with more micro-organisms than you do with ancestral cells), and then see how it can survive, let alone thrive. It’s a fantasy.

We don’t choose most of our entanglements. Not consciously. We are born into many of them, nurtured within them, and live within them. We are so unaware of the rest of Nature that we think of ourselves as outside, apart from, separate from, all of existence. We aren’t. We all exist inside, a part of, integrated within Nature, and Nature is a vast, complex, interconnected web of ties, of bonds, of connections and relationships. We are so unaware of Society that we think of ourselves as separate individuals, as if nothing others do could affect us, as if nothing we do could affect others. But we exist socially, culturally, economically, in one vast, interconnected system.

But we can choose some of our entanglements. We can become more aware of our day to day reality, and, then, when we pause to reflect, and observe, we can learn, see, hear and know more. Only then does conscious choice have a chance. Only then can we develop responses on top of all our reactions. (reactions being automatic)

There’s something to think about – what are my entanglements? How and with whom am I entwined? How do those connections and relationships change me, influence me, move me? And how do I change, influence and move them?

A sweet spot

A few years ago I was walking through the Southern French town of Bormes les Mimosas and I noticed this little area just outside of a house at the end of a small pathway. It just appealed to me. As I look at it again today, I find it still appeals to me! It’s very simple. There is a small table with two chairs, a pot plant on the table and an old two seat bench just in front of it. The pale blue shutters of a window and a door are standing open and there’s an attractive, irregular, rock wall at the end of the passage. The whole scene is framed by plants giving the area a feeling of nook, hidden away in Nature.

What’s important to me here is the feeling that this scene induces….not the details really. I’m sure every one of us will find particular details appealing and others not so much. But I bet we all have favourite “sweet spots” – particular places we find comfortable, where we can feel content, happy and secure.

I think we all need such sweet spots in our lives.

Where are yours?

Or, if you were to create one, can you describe what it would look like?

Say I love you

Have you ever thought “What the world could do with is a bit more love in it?”

When I saw this graffiti a few years ago it reminded me of the late, great John Peel, whose radio show I used to listen to regularly in my teens. I remember him one year saying he enjoyed picking up autumn leaves, writing “Hello” on them, and dropping them back down on the ground, because he could imagine the joy and surprise it would bring people who came across them.

Well, how about, today, you say “I love you”?

Say it to someone you love. Or say it to your cat, your dog, or any other animal you love. Or say it to your favourite tree, or a beautiful flower which is blooming in your garden.

Or say I love you to the Earth or to the Universe.

You choose.

Whoever, or whatever, you choose to say “I love you” to, really mean it. Don’t just throw the words away. Feel the love in your heart, and visualise radiating that love outwards. Unconditionally.

Write it down if you want. This graffiti artist certainly wrote it big, but you can write it any size…..in an email, a message, on a leaf, a piece of paper…..you decide.

If we all do this today, there will be more love in the world. Not one day, not just sometime, but today.

And you know what? Nobody can stop you. Nobody can prevent it. It’s up to you to become aware of the love in your heart, and to choose to radiate that love outwards.

Waterfall/s

In my photo library I’ve named this “waterfalls”. Yep, plural. And when I looked at it again this morning I thought it seemed a great image to stimulate thought about working together…..in fact, “flowing together” was the phrase which popped into my mind. I slowed down the shutter speed for this photo so the water would blur like this. I think the whole sense of movement and flow is captured better that way. There’s a power in this scene, and that power lies in the water itself. Or, at least, that’s how it seems at first.

So I look at this and think, this is what we are like together…..when we flow together…..when our energies, our focus and our direction all align. Isn’t that beautiful?

I’d almost be happy to leave it at that. Just to put this image in front of you and hope that you’ll think of the power and the beauty of harmony, resonance and alignment.

But, then I wondered why I’d called the photo “waterfalls”, plural. Isn’t it just one waterfall? After all most waterfalls don’t have a single stream of water falling over a specific rock. Rather, most waterfalls are made up of multiple paths where different amounts of water channel through particular spaces, and tumble over specific rocks. We don’t look at a waterfall which has six streams of water falling and think, oh look at those six waterfalls, do we? Or maybe we do.

So that’s where my mind went next. It went off to reflect on our very human capacity to separate out whatever we are looking at. To break the whole down into parts. There are a number of words for that – abstraction is one. Abstraction is where we abstract, or remove, something from its context. Our left hemisphere is brilliant at doing that. Indeed it seems that’s the normal process……the whole flows into the right hemisphere which hands off some of that flow to the left so it can abstract the components, the parts, the pieces……abstract them, label them, categorise them. And, yes, what’s supposed to happen next is that the left passes the results of that analysis back to the right for it to re-contextualise it. It’s just, if Iain McGilchrist is right, that this process has broken down and we have developed the habit of giving priority to the work of the left hemisphere…….too often we see only the parts, and forget to re-contextualise them.

If we don’t allow ourselves to use our whole brain, then we see two waterfalls here, where, seeing the whole would mean we see just one.

I don’t know what works best for you, but I’ve had a lifetime of work refusing to rest with reductionist abstractions, and always striving to see and hear the unique whole person every time. Yes, I’ve had to focus down onto parts, perhaps listening to someone’s lungs or heart, perhaps measuring the level of a component in their blood, but, I’ve always preferred to re-contextualise whatever those abstractions reveal.

I think we need to do more of that.

I think we need to see the whole, to see the contexts, to seek the connections and relationships, and to realise that every experience we have changes us…..just as this beautiful waterfall constantly changes, moment by moment, month by month, year by year.

Gathering the gold

When I look at this photo the leaves seem like pieces of gold at first. Perhaps golden coins. But then I quickly see that they are fallen autumn leaves, with gold, brown, yellow and even green ones. The rock they have landed on, or stuck onto, seems like a collecting point, or a resting point. Maybe the leaves fell here from overhanging trees, but, in fact there weren’t any trees directly overhanging this rock, so maybe they were blown onto this rock. Alternatively, maybe they were swept downstream on the fast flowing water. Whatever their origin and mode of transport, they stuck to this wet rock.

Here’s what comes up for me as I reflect on this image……

Life flows past fast. It rushes by, moment by moment, day by day, even year by year. It never stops. Life is continuous and full of movement, just like this tumbling highland stream. There are places, however, where we can pause. Places or moments where we can step out of the rush and flow of things for a moment and take a breather. It’s important to do that.

When we do step onto the rock, which represents the time out moment, we find that there is some gold there. We find that stuck onto that place of rest there are some golden moments, and some of the gifts from golden moments, from the past. This reminds me of gratitude practice. Many people have demonstrated the benefits to our mental health and wellbeing of doing regular gratitude practice.

Quite simply, there is much to gain from taking a pause, a few moments, and either writing down some of the experiences, events, relationships, gifts for which we are grateful, or even calling them to mind, re-creating them in our imagination, and stirring the benefits of those special times all over again.

The rock, in these musings, becomes a place in the mind. A place where I rest, stand apart for a moment, create what Iain McGilchrist calls “the necessary distance” which allows us to reflect, to set new perspectives, and to see the whole. It’s a place of integration……where I reinforce the mutually beneficial bonds between me and “the other”.

Then I step off into the stream again, and flow off onto the next part of the journey.

The Fushimi Inari temple just outside Kyoto is quite unlike any other place I’ve visited. It’s an experience which was unique and which remains vivid in my psyche many years later. You follow a path through a forest, up a hill until you get to the top. The path has hundreds of these “Torii” gates enclosing much of it.

You’ve probably seen photos of these types of brightly coloured gateways from Japan. I think they are amazing. They are simple, beautiful and magical.

As you walk up the path you pass under one gate after another, and it never becomes “same-y”. It seems that you can experience the uniqueness of each gate, one at a time, and, of course, if you stop, look ahead, turn round and look back, then you see these long snaking tunnels…..because although the gates are clearly separate from each other, as you look at a number of them extending into the distance, the spaces disappear and they seem to form a continuous arch.

Maybe the closest thing to this in Europe would be a cloister with multiple arches, but, even that is not quite the same.

If I stand here and look back, I see a trail of events and experiences represented by each of the gates. Each event was unique, every experience changed me. Some of them stand out in my memory and I can see them clearly, others have fused with the ones around them to create a longer period of my life which I remember with only some representative details.

If I stand here and look forward, I see a cascade of events and experiences lying before me. Not fully formed, and not realised until I reach that point in my path. The ones closer to me lie in my immediate future and I see them fairly clearly. The further out ones are hard to distinguish, hard to know in their details.

Both of those orientations seem right to me. Both of them influence and inform the point where I have reached, the present time and place, under this one torii gate we call this moment.

As I reflect on my life this way, I realise that every event has its unique context, every experience comes into being as I live it, and transforms me, and my life. I realise I can’t see very far into the future, that the future is not lying fully formed ahead of me, but that some aspects of the future are already in place, waiting to create my next, singular, and special experiences of what will become “now” when I reach them.

I can reflect on the larger scale this way too, looking back over the last 18 months of this pandemic, remembering some of the events which changed me, and straining to look ahead, having, yet again, that feeling of uncertainty, of doubt, and wonder……knowing that none of us know, but that we have a pretty good idea of how the near future will look, all the same.

Perhaps this is not the most creative way to think about the past and the future, but I like it. It brings together the connectedness of events and experiences. It reminds me how every one of them changes me. And it reinforces my understanding that I need to be humble, flexible, and adaptable, responding to each gate as I reach it.

Earthrise

There’s something magical about seeing the sky turn golden, red or pink, isn’t there? Whether it’s last thing at night or first thing in the morning.

I love those scenes in City of Angels where the angels gather on the beach in the morning to watch the sunrise.

I delight in the beauty of a subtly radiant Belt of Venus over the western horizon at dawn.

But I never tire of sunsets.

You’d think that because we’ve all seen so many of them that we’d be so used to them. You wouldn’t be surprised if we hardly noticed them because they were so “ordinary” but here’s the thing, sunsets never become ordinary. They draw me outside to look at the sky, or they stop me in my tracks time and time again.

So I thought I’d share with you one of the many, many sunset photos I have. Like all the rest it stirs a mixture of joy, delight, wonder and awe in me. Sunsets are one of the most common ways to experience “l’émerveillement du quotidien” (the marvel of the everyday) which keeps that sense of specialness so alive in the here and now.

Just one final further comment – ever since I read the idea that a sunset is really an earthrise, because it’s the Earth turning and the horizon lifting towards the Sun, not really the Sun sinking below the edge of a static Earth, I find that word popping into my head every time I see this happen.

Remembering that this is an Earthrise is the best way I know to experience the sensation that this little planet is constantly turning in Space.

And that is truly amazing.

I have a life long love affair with books. My grandpa used to read to me when I was young, working his way through books like “Tales of a Grandfather” by Walter Scott, and collections of myths and fairy tales. I’ve always been intensely curious and had a fascination for both the local “reference library” and for story books from the “lending library”. Goodness knows how many books I’ve bought in my life, and I really don’t know how many I still have. I do know that most people who have come to my house seem surprised by just how many books there are, so I guess I have more than most people do.

I love bookshops, old and new, and I adore browsing around the booksellers at fairs and markets. It was a market like the one in this photo which caught my imagination whilst on holiday in France many years ago, and probably seeded my idea to retire when I did, and come to live in France. I had decided I wanted to live part of my life not just in another physical part of the world with a different geography, climate and history, but I wanted to live in a different culture. In particular I wanted to immerse myself in the language and literature of France…..it seemed to offer both different ways of seeing and understanding the world, and to open up whole areas of thought and observation which was unknown to me.

But I didn’t switch away from English to French. I still read a lot more English than I do French. I’ve been here just over six years now and it’s fulfilling all I’d hoped for. Of course, with the pandemic even bookshops were closed, and certainly markets and fairs were cancelled, but that hasn’t slowed down my reading.

There are a couple of very famous French books I’d recommend to anyone – they are so famous that they’ve been translated into many languages so chances are you won’t need to learn French to be able to read them. They are “The Little Prince” by Saint Exupery. It’s a brilliant, thought provoking story, beautifully illustrated. Many, many years ago I found a book in a bookshop in Aix en Provence. It’s called “Donner un sens à l’existence” by Jean-Philippe Ravoux. He’s a professor of philosophy in Aix, and the subtitle is “ou pourquoi Le Petit Prince est le plus grand traité de métaphysique du XXe siècle” – so, it’s, roughly, “Making sense of existence” – “or why The Little Prince is the greatest work of metaphysics in the 20th century”. It’s a brilliant little book, which draws on Saint Exupery’s story to enable the reader to explore a philosophy of life. I love it. Sadly, I don’t think it’s ever been translated into any other languages. However, don’t despair, just read The Little Prince. I really, really recommend it.

The second very famous French book which I recommend is Montaigne’s Essays. OK, the full collection is HUGE, and the original in Old French, beyond me. But I have copies in both French and English. However, what I’d recommend to absolutely anyone is Sarah Bakewell’s “How to Live. A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer”. It’s brilliant. It’s really an easy read and I think it makes an utterly fabulous introduction to the life and work of Montaigne. The man was a genius and his essays have been translated into many languages and still stand the test of time.

If I really get into recommending books I’ll never stop! But I thought I’d just share these two works with you today – because they continue to be my favourites, I have never stopped re-reading them, and you are likely to be able to find translations into your own language.

I took this photo many years ago in the Kelvingrove Gallery and Museum I’m Glasgow.

It’s one of those (many) art installations which have stayed in my mind forever. Every time I look at it, it feels fresh and inspiring.

I suppose a lot has changed in the years since I took this photo, and I find that the particular reflections, thoughts and ideas which are evoked by any image changes according to what I’ve experienced in the past, what I’m experiencing now, and what I’m concerned about in the future.

What I see now makes me think about the opposing world views of separateness and belonging.

I probably have way too many thoughts about this to put in a blog post, but let me just highlight some of the more prominent ones.

I could start by thinking about an economic structure like capitalism, which has become the dominant global model over the years. Or I could start by thinking about the political philosophy of neoliberalism which has been on the ascendant since the middle of the last century. Or I could begin with the way people interpreted Darwinism and turned it into slogans such as “survival of the fittest”. But maybe I could go all the way back to atomism, reductionism and the particular flavour of rationalism which emerges during the Enlightenment. Whichever of these starting points leads me to a seeing this as a collection of entirely separate heads. Probably all autonomous, probably all in competition with each other, where only the strongest, or most powerful, or richest will rise to the top.

Or I could start from seeing the vast web of connections between everything which exists. I could start from the place where the flows of energy, matter and information form relationships through encounters to create temporary, transient entities which continually change. Or perhaps I could start from the new findings of neuroscience which reveal how intensely social we humans are. Or from evolution and developmental science which shows us how no individual exists in isolation to others. Then I see in this image a vast web of interconnected people, each supporting the other, each forming integrated (mutually beneficial) bonds with each other.

In other words I can the representation of atomised alienated competing individuals, and I can see the representation of connected, collaborative societies.

How do you see the world?

I’ve never really thought of myself as someone who has a method but now I realise that I do.

What do I mean by a method? Well, simply that there are common behaviours that I have in life. Behaviours that developed day after day over many years.

My method has three elements, or three verbs if you like. They generally occur in sequence but it’s a continuous loop, not a straight line with a beginning and an end.

Observe, reflect, respond.

That’s it. Not more complicated than that.

Observe is more than look, of course. We notice most when we use a combination of our senses….sight, hearing, touch, maybe scent and taste.

I was taught to observe at medical school. We learned to listen to patients stories, to look at their bodies, to listen to their heart, and lungs, feel for swellings and organs, and so on. So when I say observe I mean paying attention, noticing, using all the relevant senses.

After observation I like to reflect, taking some time to make sense of what I’ve observed. To understand.

Only after that do I want to act. Action might mean saying something, making a suggestion or, especially when I was a working doctor I would prescribe something. Sometimes however the best action was to wait….to take some more time to learn more.

Well, that was my method at work. Observe, reflect, respond – and then continue on around that loop – observe again, reflect again, respond differently.

I realise this method has become my lifestyle. I think it suits me. It’s feels right.

Do you have any methods? Could you describe them?