Archive for March, 2009


Recently I read, one Saturday morning, in the Glasgow Herald, about a plant in the Glasgow Botanic Gardens which only flowered once every twenty years or so and whose flowers only lasted for a couple of weeks. I thought to myself, I think I’ll take a trip to Glasgow tomorrow and take my camera. The following day it was a horrid day! Driving rain hammering against the window panes. I could tell it was cold, damp and miserable outside. A trip today? A photographic trip? Was I mad? Could I be bothered? Right, I told myself, get yourself ready and take the car (not many trains or buses to Glasgow on a Sunday I’m afraid!). Driving through I ended up in long queues of slow moving traffic. Was everyone going to see this plant? (well, no, it turned out there was a big football match on in Glasgow and I guess most other people were going shopping….) Finally I got to near the Botanic Gardens, and got parked in a single space right opposite the back gates. In fact, I couldn’t see another parking space even remotely close, so the fact this space was here felt auspicious. There wasn’t much point trying to use an umbrella. It would’ve been destroyed within minutes, so I tucked my camera under my jacket, zipped up to my chin, got my head down and ploughed through the rain into the gardens. It was at this point I realised I hadn’t a clue where the plant I wanted to see was growing. The first glass house I came to was the Kibble Palace, a beautiful old glasshouse totally refurbished in recent years. I wandered around in the nice dry, bright atmosphere, taking photos of some very interesting looking plants, but no sign of the one I had especially come to photograph. At the front door I looked up the path and saw the more modern glasshouses at the top of the hill. The first one I walked round wasn’t the one with the elusive plant either, and neither was the second one, but the third one! Wow! Look what I saw!
puya alpestris
puya alpestris
puya alpestris

Have you ever seen a plant like this? Have you ever seen petals this colour?

And here’s the interesting final thought……it’s pretty likely I’ll never have an opportunity to see this plant in flower again in my lifetime.

Seize the day.

PS the name of the plant? Puya alpestris.

Read Full Post »

sun rising over pillar

Standing waiting for the train the other morning I turned and noticed the sun had risen to the point where it was shining directly over the end of the footbridge they are building over the railway line. Just at that very moment it looked like the sun was at the top of a pole and was shining like the brightest street light you could ever imagine.
I’ve learned that if I keep a camera in my pocket (not in my bag!) at ALL times, then when I see a moment like this I can seize it.

Read Full Post »

I’m reading The Discoverer, by Jan Kjaerstad (ISBN 978-1905147366) just now and a few pages back he mentioned something called a “studiolo”. This was a secret room hidden deep within a palace (usually not even on the architect’s drawings, and often windowless), in which a Prince would keep a private collection. The key to the collection was anything which induced a sense of wonder. Now, there’s a VERY appealing idea. I’ve written before about how wonder, amazement, or, “emerveillement“, can bring a very special quality to everyday life, so the idea of having a collection which would stimulate such an attitude is really very interesting. As The Discoverer is a novel, I wasn’t sure if the author had made the idea up, or if such rooms ever really existed. Well, guess what? They did!

Wikipedia has an entry about such rooms. They were also known by the German word “Wunderkammer”, or from the French “cabinet” as a “cabinet of curiosities”, or “cabinet of miracles”. Some people have misinterpreted the “cabinet” as an item of furniture, but it was actually a room. A particularly spectacular version was the Studiolo of Francesco I de Medici, in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence. Sadly, all the objects in that one are long since gone, but the room itself looks stunning. The contents, we are told, would be natural objects, shells, crystals, horns and so on, and art objects such as paintings and sculptures. What held the collection together was the collector. Whatever he, or she, (usually he!) found made him wonder was a worthwhile item for inclusion.

These rooms were probably precursors of museums as well as being laboratories of discovery and sources of inspiration. They were catalysts to the imagination, to creativity and to understanding.

I love this concept, and was therefore intruiged by the description of some contemporary manifestations of “cabinets of curiosity”, or “wonder rooms”.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA, uses this idea.

There’s an Italian cultural organisation dedicated to the concept.

And a quarterly Arts magazine called “Cabinet“.

Interestingly, there’s a mention in the wikipedia article of some bloggers describing their blogs as “wonder rooms”. Well, I haven’t exactly made my blog that way, but it’s not far off it, is it? Quite often, I browse through my old posts at some of the photos, references, or reviews and they stimulate my “emerveillement”. I hope browsing through them might do the same for you. But I’m inspired now. Maybe there’s a photobook project in this? Maybe there’s a website project? Maybe I could start a physical collection somewhere in my home! Does this idea inspire you? If you come across such rooms (physical or virtual) please let me know!

Read Full Post »

Why’s the moon lying on it’s back?
I’m sure there’s a simple explanation for this but I’m so used to seeing the crescent phases of the moon looking like a “C” (or an inverted “C”) that it really struck me as odd when I saw it sitting up there like a smile!

moon and venus

(taken in Provence on February 27th)

Read Full Post »

I recently attended a two day “medical update symposium” for doctors at BMA House in London. I was impressed. The methods used and the organisation demonstrated were superb. One of the things we were encouraged to do after each session was to write down in the comprehensive handout three “take home” messages. A couple of days on from the event, as I think back over it, here are my three overall “take home messages” –

1. Continuity of Care. Both the respiratory physician and the dermatologist made pleas for continuity of care. The former showed a short video of a patient with COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) whose main point was how important it was for patients with chronic diseases to be able to see the same health carers over time, and the dermatologist commented how he came under pressure to discharge patients from his clinic and not follow up people with lifetime chronic skin disorders for life. So there are two aspects to continuity of care raised here – seeing the same carer and not having a chronic problem dealt with episodically. A third dimension was frequently referred to and that was the dis-integration of health care which is escalating on the back of the biomedical model (nobody used that term) which divides a person into their various diseases and disorders and attempts to deal with each of them in isolation (in the UK this is driven harder by what is called “QOF” – a system of paying GPs for reaching over a hundred different defined targets)

2. The non-linear relationship between disease and dysfunction (again, nobody actually used that language). The respiratory physician showed very clearly how a whole range of recommended and even mandatory lung function tests did NOT correlate with “breathlessness” as experienced by patients, so doctors could attain their targets, get paid, but the patient might still be complaining their life had not improved. The neurologist showed eight MRI scans of peoples’ brains and asked us to identify which one of the eight had any symptoms. ALL showed identifiable lesions. ALL but one were picked up incidentally while screening of looking for something else. That was one of the clearest demonstrations I’ve ever seen of the non-linear relationship between pathology and ill-health.

3. My third take home message was about prevention of cardiovascular disease – a subject repeatedly hammered home over the two days. Two flies in the ointment briefly appeared – in one session the presenter jokingly said that if the figures were extrapolated we’d have immortality within a few years (because stopping smoking, reducing cholesterol etc would “save so many lives”). A nonsense of course, but an important point. Exactly what are all the people who aren’t going to die from cardiovascular disease going to die from instead? Given that life has still stubbornly stuck with a 100% mortality rate.

The neurologist when discussing differential diagnoses of certain chronic neurological diseases, mentioned a particularly nasty, completely untreatable, progressive, degenerative disease and, again in a throw away remark, said you could hope the poor patient might be released by a heart attack or something before it got to this stage. I’m not arguing that preventing heart disease is a bad thing, just that it’s not an informed choice to make if you don’t consider what alternatives might then be your more likely future. (that would take me off down my hobby horse about the stupidity of basing health care on death avoidance, but I’ve done that elsewhere!)

Read Full Post »

The BMJ “views and reviews” section often contains the journal’s most thought-provoking and interesting content. This last week included a review of John Wesley’s 1747 text called  “Primitive Physic: Or, an Easy and Natural Method of Curing most Diseases”.
You might know of Wesley as the founder of the Methodist Church and a prolific hymn writer, but I’m guessing that, like me, you didn’t know he’d written anything on health. I was struck by two features. First of all, in recommending particular drugs or treatments he says this –

I have purposely set down (in most cases) several remedies for each disorder; not only because all are not equally easy to be procured at all times, and in all places: But likewise the medicine that cures one man, will not always cure another of the same distemper. Nor will it cure the same man at all times. Therefore it was necessary to have a variety. However, I have subjoined the letter (I) to those medicines some think to be infallible

You’d be surprised how many people haven’t quite sussed out this wisdom! In this current regime of “Evidence Based Medicine” and Clinical Guidelines the strong impression is often conveyed that there are two kinds of medicines – those that work and those that don’t. In fact, if Wesley’s methodology were to be followed the authors of “evidence based guidelines” would be sorely tempted to mark all their recommended drugs with a “l” for “infallible”! When it comes to health care and available treatments we would do well to heed Wesley’s “ Therefore it was necessary to have a variety”.

The second feature was a scan through his “rules” for healthy living – read them in more detail here

Pretty much what he’s saying is take exercise (in fresh air), drink plenty of water, eat enough to feel well but no more, have a mixed diet with a ratio of meat:veg of about 2:3, and avoid processed food as much as possible (OK, for him processed was seasoned, spiced, pickled etc – but the point was still to eat as much unprocessed food as possible). Finally, abstain from alcohol, (tea and coffee if you have bad “nerves”), go to bed early, get up early and have a regular rhythm to your sleep habit. Sound familiar?
I was just at a Medical Update seminar in BMA House in London and lecturer after lecturer advised – stop smoking, drink more water, take regular exercise and don’t eat till you get obese as the key ways to reduce risks of a huge range of diseases. Indeed, in the very same issue of the BMJ is an article about trying to persuade women to adopt healthier lifestyles pre-conception and how the vast majority don’t change their behaviour after such “education”. We don’t get it do we?
Who doesn’t know that to smoke, drink alcohol to excess, avoid all exercise and eat till you’re obese might not be good for your health? It’s over 260 years since Wesley preached his message (and I bet you can find plenty of older writings preaching exactly the same things). It doesn’t work. It’s not that the lifestyle doesn’t work. It’s the preaching the lifestyle that doesn’t work. People don’t choose to smoke, to get drunk, to eat till they get fat to get diseases. And they’re not going to choose not to smoke, not to get drunk or to change their eating habits for some statistical possibility of future health.
Throughout history the greatest health benefits have never stemmed from a targeting of individuals, they’ve come from social, economic and political interventions. Isn’t it time we started to apply a bit more effort and resources to housing, town planning, public transport, the industrialisation of the food supply, and socio-economic inequality? You never know – might just have a greater impact than preaching healthy lifestyles.

Read Full Post »

All within the context of the daily reality, finding much to marvel at, to be amazed by, to be in awe of, in the present, in the here and the now

I think the French words “emerveillement” and “quotidien” say so much about how to live.

I capture the amazing in the everyday with my cameras.

Here’s a set of a just a few of my favourites


Read Full Post »

To imagine actively, creating, expressing, dreaming and playing

To see the invisible
Imagination allows us to see the invisible. Saint-Exupery’s fox tells the Little Prince, “Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”. We know that, don’t we? Love, passion, purpose, happiness, enlightenment……all experiences we have, all experiences that are important to us, but none of which can be seen, known or experienced by another, except by using our imaginations. Ian McEwan, the author, wrote after 9/11 that the biggest failure of the terrorists was a failure of imagination. If they could have imagined the lives of the people on the planes, and their families on the ground, they couldn’t, he argued, have committed their heinous crimes. I’ve always remembered reading that. I thought it was incredibly powerful and it’s true. Compassion emerges when we combine love with imagination. I’ll return to that in another post, but the important point for now, is that without imagination we cannot “see” what someone else is experiencing. Without imagination, compassion just wouldn’t exist.
We mustn’t mistake the invisible for the unreal however. There’s nothing unreal about love, or any of our subjective experiences. They are real, as real as physical objects. There’s a very common failure in contemporary societies which regards only the physical as real, or only the physical as important. It leads to that criticism of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. It leads to a distorted view of science which dismisses subjective, first person experience as, at best, a bias, and, at worst an irrelevance. That’s a failure of imagination. However, complexity science concepts such as emergence are beginning to address that failing.

To see the possible
Imagination allows us to see the possible. Human beings are great at invention, at problem-solving, at making things. All of these abilities stem from the imagination. Everything human beings make begin in the imagination. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a chair, or an aircraft carrier, a mug or a spaceship, none of them would exist had someone not imagined them first. If nobody can see the possible, then the possible doesn’t come into existence. We are creators. You could argue that the real Truth revealed in the claim that we are made in God’s image, is that we are creators. We ceaselessly create, continuously solving problems, inventing, making objects, expressing ourselves through stories and through art. If you stop to think about it, you’ll realise that there aren’t two kinds of people – those who are creative and those who are not. We are all creative. It’s an inescapable part of our make-up. The differences come in what we choose to do with that creativity and how we choose to manifest it.
Is it possible to achieve anything in life without having goals? And what are goals other than our imaging the possible? How do we grow without imagination? How could we change anything about lives without imagination?

To see the impossible
Imagination allows us to something else pretty amazing. It not only allows us to see the invisible and to make the possible probable, but it allows us to envisage the impossible too. In magic, fantasy and science fiction, we encounter the impossible and take it on board as if it were real. We can immerse ourselves in such stories and change our perspectives so that the boundaries between the possible and the impossible shift. Before the invention of aeroplanes, for example, anyone who imagined human beings could fly was imagining the impossible. Without imagination, this would never have turned into the possible, and further from the possible into the actual.

How imagination changes the world
Look at this –


The surrealists were masters at provoking us to think about reality. Here, Magrite doesn’t just make us stop and think, “Well if it isn’t a pipe what is it? Oh, a drawing of a pipe!” He gives us the experience of creating reality through representation. He teaches us something profoundly important about the creative nature of perception and reality. We have a fabulous ability to create symbols and metaphors, both of which would be impossible without the imagination. This ability profoundly enriches our lives. It changes, what Robert Solomon would call a “thin” experience into a “thick” one. Here’s an example. Imagine someone buys a pottery mug. It’s just a mug. Maybe they associate the colour or the shape of it with some other mug they once handled, but maybe not. However, if this particular mug is a gift given to his loved one, and if later they sit together happily drinking from this very mug, lovingly sharing the one cup, then, at some other time, the person who bought the mug finds that it isn’t just a mug anymore. He can imagine his lover’s lips parting as she drinks from it. He can imagine her delicate fingers and her soft hands as she cups them around it. He now experiences that very same mug quite differently. In fact, using his imagination he can even do that when the actual mug is nowhere to be seen, just by calling it up in his mind.
Our living with objects, our experiencing and sharing the world with others, involves our imagination. Our imagination enables us to see the invisible connections. John Berger describes this beautifully by giving the example of the constellations. He says we look up at the stars scattered apparently randomly over the night sky and see invisible lines connecting some of them to each other to make constellations. The invisible lines are created and revealed through stories. We learn the stories of the stars and that allows us to name the constellations.
We change the world through the stories we create about it.

The danger of imagination
Imagination is a bit like passion. It’s a good thing, but not always. There’s a paradox in imagination, just like there’s a paradox in passion. Our imagination allows us to imagine death, disease, and all kinds of threats and dangers. Sometimes our minds get stuck on what we’ve been imagining, so that death, or cancer, or being robbed, or whatever, becomes the most important possibility in our lives and we make all of our choices in the light of that. This can really limit our lives. We can become paralysed by the fear which is the consequence of what we imagine.
And there’s another way in which imagination can be dangerous. Too much imagination can detach us from the real world. Mental illnesses which involve hallucinations and delusions, psychotic illnesses, are distressing and dangerous not only to the person who is suffering, but potentially to others too. We treat, by suppression, the diseases of the imagination. Of course, whether or not they are actually diseases, depends on a cultural, a social understanding. In some cultures a particular experience might be described as a spiritual one, whilst in another it would be interpreted as a sign of disease. Within the particular cultural contexts however too much imagination, or particular uses of the imagination can produce suffering.

Nurturing imagination
How can you improve your faculty of imagination to become more creative, and to experience a richer life? Through play, through art and through stories. Think of the rich imaginative world of children and how that is both manifested and nurtured through encouraging creative play. Childhood doesn’t last very long, and one of the forces which brings it to an end is anti-play. We insist that they become more serious, taking that as a sign of maturity. We replace play with work and responsibilities. In so doing, there’s a danger we inhibit the development of the imagination.
Art, in all its forms, is a way of activating and nurturing the imagination. Both the experience of art, and the creation of art. Experiencing art can profoundly provoke the imagination, whether we are looking at a painting in a gallery, listening to a performance in a concert or witnessing a play or an opera.
We create a sense of self through the stories we tell ourselves and others. Stories can provoke our imaginations and help us to not only have a rich, meaning-full life, but which can change the reality of our world.

In all their forms, play, art and stories, can stimulate and develop our ability to imagine, and consequently, to develop our capacity to see the invisible, the possible and even the impossible.

Read Full Post »

To engage wholeheartedly, to be passionate about, absorbed in, immersed in activities

passionate red

Animate. Animation. Animal. Those words all share a common root – “anima”. Anima means “the life principle” or the “soul”, amongst other things. What is this “life principle”, this “soul”? Well, whatever your beliefs, I think you’ll agree that you instinctively know about “soul”. For example, most of us know soul music when we hear it. In fact, most of us know when any song is sung with “soul”. It’s something akin to passion isn’t it? It’s a song sung wholeheartedly, powerfully, movingly.

What does it mean to “animate”? It means to make it move, doesn’t it? A computer animation creates moving images, moving images which make the objects or characters seem alive. There is something very important here. One of the key characteristics of a living organism is one of movement. Think of the beating of your heart, the flow of air in and out of your lungs, the constant activity of all the organs of your body. When all that movement ceases, life has ended.

This constant movement can be thought of as some kind of flow. In some countries there is a concept known as “Chi” – in fact, acupuncture is a therapy which claims to be able to influence the flow of this mysterious “chi”. However, in all cultures, I think, we experience this “flow” as energy. This energy we experience is quite a mysterious phenomenon. Think of a scale of 0 to 10 where 0 is the lowest energy you can imagine experiencing and 10 is the greatest energy you can imagine. Where are you right now on that scale? The vast majority of people can answer that in an instant. You don’t need time to figure it out. We do it intuitively and holistically. We can break it down though. What about mental energy? Or physical energy? Or emotional energy? Many people are able to report quite different figures for each of those “energies” in the same moment. I don’t understand exactly how we make those assessments but I’m pretty sure we’re becoming aware of the “flows” inside and that’s what we’re reporting.


The psychologist Csikszentmihalyi has conducted a lot of research on the mental characteristics of this “flow”. He describes a flow experience (by which he means something optimal) as being when you are in the process of achieving a challenge you’ve set yourself. Reaching the top of a mountain you are climbing would be one example, playing a challenging piece of music on an instrument would be another. Both the physical and the psychological senses of flow can be understood as passion. When we are passionate about something, we can be totally absorbed by it, we can lose ourselves in it; we feel energised, buzzing, our hearts beat faster, our breath quickens. This feeling of passion is a basic need. It’s the need to feel, and to know, that we are alive.

But passion at its fullest is neither good nor bad, at least, not in a moral sense. Think of the French “crime of passion” verdict for example. It’s almost a kind of insanity, where the passions have overwhelmed the reasoning mind. Spiritual practices have traditionally aimed at teaching people how to manage or to control these “passions”.

But not all passion is this kind of an overwhelming phenomenon. It’s not always so dramatic. An aspect of passion is wholeheartedness – to do whatever it is that you are doing wholeheartedly, with commitment and attention and focus. All such activities which stimulate your passion in this sense, are absorbing. These are times when time itself flies past, where you feel temporarily out of the world and totally into your own world. On the other hand they can feel like transcendent experiences where you are so in the flow that you lose that sense of boundaries, of the margins between you and other or between you and the world, where you step into the full flowing river and you feel like you become that river.

in the flow

We need passion in life.

We need passion to feel alive.

The more you engage with life wholeheartedly, the more you will feel in the flow. The more you are passionate about something or someone, the more significant and important that activity or person will be for you.

Perhaps passion is not a simple good but without passion, or flow, how do you know you’re alive?

Read Full Post »

To understand, to make sense of

We are meaning seeking, meaning creating creatures. We are constantly trying to make sense of our experiences, to understand our lives, our selves and others. We are always on the lookout for patterns, connections between events and experiences, for explanations.

The physical world

Let’s consider this from the perspective of evolutionary biology and from the science of complex systems. Look at the qualities and the characteristics of increasingly complex organisms. Think of the flow of life from the relatively simple to human beings, the most complex organisms in the world. From single cell creatures such as bacteria and viruses, through plants with their astonishing diversity and rich patterns and lifestyles, to animals which have developed high degrees of cellular differentiation, developing tissues, organs and whole body systems, to the animals with a nervous system and a brain, to, ultimately (so far!), the rich complexity of the human mind and body. At each stage of complexity we see the emergence of new and unique characteristics and abilities, not shared with simpler organisms, so by the time we consider the human being, we see the emergence of consciousness, of memory and imagination, with the capacity to develop language, to be able to create and handle metaphors, enabling us to communicate, to see patterns, to collaborate and connect and to develop deep and rich levels of understanding. It’s quite something. And we need this ability to make sense of things because these characteristics of consciousness, memory and imagination make us acutely aware of a number of problems. We become aware of our own mortality. We can imagine not existing any more. And that’s scary. We need some way to handle that, to understand it. And we become aware of the essential paradox which everyone has to wrestle with – that we need to know that we are unique, separate and individual but that at the same time we are connected, we share and we belong. Those two issues – the awareness of mortality and the awareness of the paradox of separateness and belonging – are at the heart of much distress and pain. Making sense of these issues and the effects of these issues in our lives goes a long way to making life a better life.

The relationship world

Let’s consider it now from the perspective of narrative. Richard Kearney, in his “On Stories”, says a lot about how we use stories to understand our lives, our selves and others. He says “Every life is in search of a narrative. We all seek, willy-nilly, to introduce some kind of concord into the everyday discord”. And Robert Coles in “The Call of Stories”, says of doctors, that “The people who come to see us bring us their stories. They hope they tell them well enough so that we understand the truth of their lives. They hope we know how to interpret their stories correctly. We have to remember that what we hear is their story.” Stories need an author and a reader, a teller and a listener. Stories are a shared activity. They are the way we create understanding and meaning together. Karen Armstrong in “A Short History of Myth” shows very clearly how certain kinds of stories are powerful tools for making sense of the deep paradoxes of life. Owen Flanagan in his “Really Hard Problem” puts forward a fascinating concept of “spaces of meaning” and shows how because we all have our own unique perspectives on the world that we create shared understandings by entering into “spaces of meaning” with each other. In a much simpler and more artistic way, Saint-Exupery makes the same point in his “Little Prince” who shows us how we all live on different worlds (when was the last time you said to someone “What planet are you on?!”) and that what connects us are our stories (and love!)

The spiritual world

Spiritual in the sense of that feeling of being connected to something greater than ourselves, or that sense of purpose and meaning in life. The spiritual way of looking at life is about taking a larger perspective, seeing ourselves in the flow of life, of history, of a planet circling a sun in a vast universe. Spiritual practices can be about experiences, experiences of transcendence for example, but they are also fundamentally practices of meaning creation. We understand, we make sense of, we create meaning through our values, our attitudes, our beliefs, our attractions and repulsions. Spiritual practice can be amongst the most powerful ways of understanding life.

Different ways of understanding

There are different ways to understand. The physical way can be seen in science which, as Deleuze says, is a way of thinking about function, a way of trying to understand how things work. The relationship way is seen in storytelling and in philosophy, and that leads to the third way, the spiritual, which is a way of understanding the connectedness to that which is greater than the self. There is no one right way. We really all are unique. Our views, our memories, our consciousness are all unique and individual. But we are also connected. We share environments, we collaborate, we compete, we form and break relationships. We share. What we all do is try to make sense of our lives, of the world and of our daily reality. We need to understand, to see patterns, to grasp that reality. When we don’t do that, we feel scared, confused, alone. We are meaning seeking, meaning creating animals. Nihilistic thought, randomness, chance and powerlessness can be overwhelming, can become unbearable, closing doors, squeezing out hope and leaving us lonely and in pain. Why me? What have I done to deserve this? What’s happening? What’s going to happen? We’re full of questions, and always seeking answers. We do that by using our ability to understand.

But we mustn’t forget that our understanding is always unique and personal, and the we need to negotiate, in our spaces of meaning, to create our communal visions, our shared purposes. With understanding comes humility, a humility which should prompt us to ask others What sense do you make of this? What does it mean to you?

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »