A good life

This week, I noticed this tiny little flower blooming in the grass. It’s only about the size of my middle finger. When you get down on your knees and take a closer look it’s got a thick, stubby stalk with tiny white flowers all over it.

Extraordinary. I’ve never seen a plant quite like this. Having noticed this one I then realised there were many more of them scattered over a large area of grass. This happens all the time. Flowers appear suddenly. One day they aren’t visible, the next they’ve shot up and unfurled their petals. Just like that. It still astonishes me.

Of course, the next thought is, “what is this?” which is a question that’s easier to answer in this age of phone apps. There are several which enable you to take a photo of any plant and upload it for instant identification. “Picture this” and “PlantSnap” are two I’ve used a lot. But recently a neighbour showed me “Seek” which lets you put in your location then it will show you the wildflowers, birds, mammals and fungi which are common where you live. Brilliant!

I’ve now discovered that the latest iPhones have this recognition function built in, without needing any apps. I don’t have the latest iPhone however, so I’ll be sticking with the apps for now.

This little plant turns out to be “Prunella laciniata”, commonly known as “Self heal”, or, “All heal”, a plant used in traditional and herbal medicine to promote natural healing.

As a retired doctor, discovering that I’m surrounded by healing plants in my garden is an added treat. This is only the latest of several species I’ve found, and I’m adding to them by planting others.

From the sheer pleasure of discovery, to the delight in beauty, to the joy of wonder and the provocation of curiosity, these everyday discoveries deepen my enjoyment of life. This is one important aspect of what I’d call “a good life”.

Yesterday I wrote about how power corrupts so we need the means and ways to insist on transparency and accountability. As I thought about the dominant model of democracy around the world it struck me that most systems foster conflict.

In the U.K. there is the government and the “opposition”. The role of latter is to oppose, and the procedures and practices in parliament seem designed to foster argument and conflict. In the USA it’s perhaps worse with a more two party system than there is in most European countries.

The first past the post voting system creates the narrative of a winner and a bunch of losers.

“Us and them”.

Division and conflict seem to be worsening in those countries which foster this idea of politics as conflict.

But there are other models out there which make some attempt to force a number of parties to work together. There are some countries which use proportional voting to try to get a better representation of a spread of views in parliament. And there are various examples of participative democracy in recent years with citizens assemblies and attempts to foster genuine discussion.

One thing which strikes me is that if the wind blows in the direction of competition there will be winners and losers, division and conflict. But if the wind blows in the direction of consensus, there might be more listening, more discussion and more cohesion.

When the aim is to agree how to live together then we might develop the systems which foster active listening, tolerance and consensus. But if we continue to favour competition where one group “beats” another group, what kind of society do we have then? A divided, angry and frustrated one, it seems.

We are all different. We won’t ever all see the world the same way, and nor should we. I often think of the human body made up of completely different organs and tissues which don’t compete with each other. They integrate with each other.

Integration is the formation of mutually beneficial bonds. That’s how all our organs work so well together. If they started to fight each other, they’d all die.

Imagine what a political system would look like if integration was the aim. Imagine what society would look like if we gave priority to the formation of mutually beneficial bonds, rather than to dividing into us and them and creating winners and losers.

Power corrupts

All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely

Lord Acton

Is there a country on the planet where this old insight can be ignored?

I don’t think so.

It’s not hard to find the stories and evidence of corruption in autocratic societies. Has there ever been a “strong man” government which wasn’t corrupt? Have there ever been dictators or monarchs who didn’t abuse their power and the people over whom they ruled?

I imagine the idea of democracy as a political system arose to attempt to prevent such abuses. If a population can remove a ruler from power then maybe that ruler’s power can be contained, maybe they can be “held to account”.

It doesn’t seem much like that when I look at the contemporary forms of democracy however. The system I know best is the U.K. and even though I don’t live there anymore, and don’t have voting rights there, what’s happening there informs my political views about how we humans might live together.

To me, the British system is a poor version of the democratic ideal. I say that for two reasons.

Firstly, there’s the House of Lords. I know I’ve started this post with a quotation from one such Lord, and there may very well be decent, well meaning people in the House of Lords, but a system which gives power for life to a group of unelected people is quite simply not remotely democratic.

Secondly, there’s the voting system based on the idea of winners and losers. Whether it’s in a General Election, or in a Referendum, the largest minority wins. Have you thought of it that way? It’s not “the majority” or “the people” who determine who has power. It’s the “winning” minority.

Has there ever been an election or a referendum in the U.K. which has won the support of the majority of those eligible to vote? Yet the winning minority always claim they “have a mandate” to wield power. With this mentality “governing for all the people” is either a delusion or a fantasy. Those who gain power, if they heed anyone, only heed the minority who vote for them.

But even if there were a genuine majority, say, 60% of those eligible to vote, supporting one particular group, what happens to the wishes, desires, values of the 40%? Telling millions of people that they “lost”, or that they should keep quiet and accept the wishes of the “majority”…..is that a path to harmony and justice?

Is it any wonder that around the world people are fed up with politicians, don’t trust them, and feel powerless? How’s that version of democracy going?

So, you’re probably saying, what would you do? Or, what can we do?

I’m sure I don’t have all the answers but in the light of the insight that power corrupts I’d say we need to build on the principles of limiting power through accountability and responsibility. Those who seek to keep hold of power, whether politicians, corporations or billionaires, typically do what they can to act in secret. Transparency, genuine openness about their actions, can begin to limit power. Tax avoidance schemes, complex accounting and company structures exist the hold power through hiding wealth and actions. Whether it’s the Panama Papers, the Paradise Papers or the Pandora Papers, leaks of secret papers reveal widespread corruption. Google any of those to read more.

So the first thing I’d call for is transparency and increasing the ability of the public to find out what those with power do with that power.

The second thing I’d call for is limiting the amount of time any one person can hold power. The House of Lords filled with unelected members holding that power for life is surely an anachronism. But those who make a career out of holding political power are surely also vulnerable. Shouldn’t there be time limits on them all. Not just on how long an MP can be a Minister or Prime Minister, but how long any individual can be an MP. Limit the number of years any individual can hold a position of political power.

My third call is for an end to voting systems which are based on enabling the largest minorities to have the greatest power. That involves a host of interconnected issues, but I’d certainly like to see the end of both “first past the post” voting for elections and “simple majority” voting in referenda.

If we want to increase trust, we need more openness and transparency. If we want to increase social cohesion we need to limit the power of “largest minorities”.

This post is a bit different from my usual but it seems to me that increasing inequality and injustice in the world demands that we pay some attention and use our imagination and creativity to come up with ways to limit power…..because “all power tends to corrupt”.

I don’t have all the answers and the points I’ve covered here are certainly not a comprehensive analysis of the problem, but my underlying principle here is “heroes not zombies” – become aware and become the active co-creator of your own life. Our current political and economic structures seem to me to act against that, preferring the existence of passive automatons over active, critical, aware individuals.

Transparency and accountability. Isn’t that what “democracy” is supposed to be about?

Life stages

Having posted yesterday about a butterfly and the sense of wonder they evoke in me. I came across this little creature later in the garden.

It’s pretty remarkable and beautiful in its own right, but, seriously, it’s nothing like a butterfly!

That thought instantly got me thinking again about life stages and unpredictability. When you reflect on your own life, or of the life of someone you’ve known for decades, it’s striking just how different we all are at age stage of life.

The me as an infant, seems SO different from the me I am now that it’s frankly astonishing. Ok, I know that I am that same person, that I didn’t become someone else in a literal sense. I have this single autobiographical memory and narrative woven from countless threads. I didn’t leave one body and step into another. But when I look back at different stages of my life I can get the strange feeling that I hardly recognise some of those older versions of me at all.

Growth and development are not random, but they are most certainly unpredictable in their details and specificity.

Most of the changes occur gradually and slowly but in every life there are events or experiences which are transformative. When we reflect on who we have become it’s those events which we recall, those turning points, those decisions, those opportunities grasped, those wounds inflicted.

It’s the same with illness. When I tried to understand a particular patient’s illness I had to enable them to tell their story, to recount the transformative events and experiences of their life.

We change all the time, physically, mentally, emotionally, socially. Remarkable as it is, metamorphosis is at the core of ordinary life.

I’ll never cease to be amazed by butterflies. Many of them have such beautiful colours and patterns on their wings. They are such delicate and astonishingly weird creatures! If you were using your imagination to create a life form, would you come up with anything that looked like a butterfly?

I’m sure that, like me, you’ve watched a butterfly in flight, and asked yourself “How on earth do they fly like that?” They seem to move through the air in an utterly unpredictable random manner. At no point can you figure out where they are going to go next. Yet they cover a lot of ground in a remarkably short period of time. They are certainly not very streamlined but they sure get from one side of the garden to the next quickly!

Sometimes I see two, three, or more flying around each other in some airborne version of a dance and I have no idea how they don’t keep bumping into each other.

But perhaps the most incredible thing about butterflies is their lifecycle. It’s still mind boggling to know that the caterpillar, chrysalis and adult stages are the life stages of every single butterfly. Not only do they look utterly different creatures during each of these stages but how on earth do they transform their bodies so completely from one stage to another?

Can there be a better representation of metamorphosis?

Butterflies are a great opportunity to experience the “How do they do that?” effect….not to find an answer, but simply to be amazed.

Wonder…..perhaps one of the most important qualities of a good life…..worth practising every single day.

I took this photo in May back in 2015 and it still captures my attention every time I glance at it. Isn’t this one of the weirdest cloud patterns you’ve ever seen? It’s a complete mystery to me. And we humans love mysteries.

It’s the fact that it seems to be five fairly similar clouds in a line that makes me see them as one connected event. We humans are meaning seeking creatures. I can’t help but try to come up with an “explanation” for these clouds.

The power of imagination kicks in and I wonder if they are natural – were they created by humans? Are they are series of puffs from a chimney? But what kind of fire would produce five separate puffs of smoke in a row like this? A sputtering aircraft? Nope, I don’t think so.

So are they letters of some mysterious alphabet? Is this a message written in the sky? Is it a word? If it were a word, what might that word be? Is it God, or a god, or Gaia writing a warning message? Or a greeting? “Hello world”??

I’ve tried all sorts of ideas over the years but never one that satisfies me. And, no, saying it’s just random doesn’t work for me either. A random shape I can understand, a series of connected random shapes? This doesn’t look random to me.

So, how about you? What pops into your head when you look at this image?

Here’s my latest – it’s the Loch Ness Monster going on her summer holidays to the South of France!


When I look at this photo, at first I’m slightly confused. What is this? I see rocks and water but the rocks look like waves. Then it seems that the black area in the middle of the photo is a gaping mouth with rocky lips around it.

Actually you can see similar patterns in almost any fast flowing rock strewn stream amongst the Scottish hills.

What I’m looking at here is co-creation. The water is shaping the rocks and the rocks are shaping the water. Together they create this natural work of art, a constantly changing, fast flowing scene of beauty and power.

No plants, no animals visible but simply rock and water. Two of the four ancient elements. But together they convey an image, and an experience, of Life, of energy, and of creation.

They reveal a core truth about reality – all that exists is a result of co-creation. We don’t make ourselves. Rather we grow and develop in constant exchange and relationship with others, other people, other creatures, other forces and phenomena in Nature.

We are not alone. We are not separate. We co-create, co-habit, co-exist, co-evolve.

Is that a good enough reason to convince us to take care of this one small planet, and to treat others with the creative energies of love and kindness?

I think so.

I’m always keen to hear someone’s story. As a doctor I never felt satisfied with a mere description of symptoms. I remember one junior doctor presenting a patient’s “case” to me. They’d spent a long time with the patient and had meticulously recorded every symptom which was described. After about three A4 pages of this I had to say, “I hear all these descriptions but I can’t see the patient. Who is this person?” It wasn’t possible to understand them without enabling them to tell a narrative. I was lost in their forest of symptoms and so were they.

One of the commonest questions I’d ask was “When did you last feel completely well?” You’d be surprised how that would turn a story of a symptom which had been present for a month or two into a life story stretching back several years. From that “beginning”, we’d piece together a narrative, following one connection after another.

Only those stories enabled me and the patient to make sense of their illness, to understand them and to help them move forward.

When I look at the trees in this photo today I always wonder – how did they get together? When did they connect like this? What we’re the circumstances? I’d love them to be able to tell me their stories.

By the way, we might tell our stories in quite a linear, chronological way, but that’s only one way to tell them. Our lives are complex, cause and effect is neither linear, nor simple, but the factors, the themes and the patterns still appear within our stories.

The garden of the house I’ve moved to hasn’t had much attention for years. Some parts need serious reclamation work, clearing some real thickets of climbers and thorns. But even in the more open areas I’m finding lots of surprises.

I don’t think much has been planted here deliberately for many years so most of the plants arrived here by natural means (probably not least thanks to all the birds which live around here and surround me with their songs all day long).

I’m not very knowledgeable about plants but with the help of the internet and neighbours I’m managing to identify a few flowers which are brand new to me.

This photo is of one of the most recent ones. We’ve got maybe half a dozen or so spread around the garden. Turns out it is a “lizard orchid”……see what appears to be a long tongue, which is one of the petals?

Isn’t it amazing?

I love these unexpected treats. Have you had any such good surprises around where you live?

Chosen habits

You’ll know that I have a thing about conscious living. My blog’s title, heroes not zombies, is a call to step out of autopilot and get involved in the conscious creation of the unique story of your one precious life.

Habits and routines can easily allow us to switch off and just keep doing what we’ve always done. However, they can be both useful and enjoyable.

They can connect us to certain rhythms and cycles in life. We can relax into them, basking in feelings of familiarity. They can be the unchallenging, comfortable stepping stones across ever changing, even threatening rivers of everyday existence.

This photo represents one of my favourite habits, or routines. It’s a Saturday. Market day. I’ve stopped off at a boulangerie, picked up a croissant or chocolatine, and I’ve ordered a “grande crème” at a little cafe or bistro where I’ve chosen a seat in the sun.

Now, this isn’t going to happen every Saturday. It’s a good weather choice. (I’ll sit inside if it’s cold and wet!). And some Saturdays I’ll do something else. But it’s still a pleasing, comfortable routine.

I think that’s the trick with good habits and routines – becoming aware of them, and choosing them consciously.

Do you have some particular habits or routines which you’re happy to keep choosing? And are there some which, now you think about them, have become constraints which you’d rather shake off?