Archive for March, 2013

diversity in the autumn garden

It’s common for us to experience loss, break down, destruction and disintegration.
In the middle of it, it can become hard to see the wood for the trees, and it can feel like this falling apart is not just inevitable but permanent.

As the leaves fall from the trees in the autumn, the bare branches of the winter woodland give the appearance of life being over for those trees.

Human beings know they don’t live forever, and although some have a belief in reincarnation, or lives of different forms from this life, nobody expects they are not going to experience loss, degeneration and death.

If the course of Life could be summarised as destruction and decline, then what kind of Life would that be? Is that really what we believe? That the direction of Life, the direction of the Universe even, is towards destruction and disintegration? Having begun with a Big Bang, are we heading for the final whimper (as T S Eliot wrote?)

But look again at the photo above. What do you see? Death and destruction? Loss and endings? Life and growth? Change and diversity?

The old mechanical, materialist view of the world teaches the idea that we try hard to resist destruction. “Entropy” is the term used to describe the inevitable run down of a system. But this view is more relevant to machines (which are “closed” systems), than it is to Nature (which is full of interconnected “open” systems).

Prigogine coined the term “dissipative structures” to better describe the reality of Nature and living organisms. He found that complex adaptive systems used dissipation to renew themselves, and in this renewal they grew, developed and adapted to changes in their environment. Indeed, Varela and others coined the term “autopoiesis” (self-making capacity) to describe the essential characteristic of a living system.

All living systems, ourselves included, are continuously breaking down existing structures and elements in order to create ourselves anew – in order to not just adapt, but to flourish. Not a single cell in our bodies lives as long as we live. In fact cells live between a few days and few months on average. It’s not the material, or the “stuff” of which we are made which makes us who we are. In that sense, we are much more like a river than we are like a machine.

I find this idea thrilling. Partly because I work every day with people who are experiencing loss and breakdown, people whose lives are falling apart. When a loved one dies, when your relationship or your job ends, when disease appears suddenly, or slowly in your life, it can all become quite overwhelming and it can be hard to see how any good can come of this experience. But here’s the key point, such continual change, such cycles of breaking down and destruction are not just inevitable but they are a necessary part of growth and renewal. These special times are times of renewal.

Spring time (not quite managing to appear yet here in the UK) is a good time to reflect on this. I’ve mentioned before how the Japanese celebrate transience through the cherry blossom festivals.

Renewal occurs through adaptation. As our lives change, if we take the time to become more aware, and we learn not to cling to current forms, we can see that in the midst of dissipation we discover the vast potential for creativity and growth. Just think of the universe story for a moment. Is it one of era after era of decline and destruction? No. It’s one of ever increasing diversity and complexity. It’s a story of cycles of joining together, breaking apart and forming new connections. It’s a story reflected in every single living being. Here’s the miraculous truth. The universe is not a closed machine heading day by day towards destruction. It’s a vast interconnected web of open systems producing the most elaborate, most complex and most amazing phenomena day after day after day.

snowdrops closeup

Read Full Post »

We are a pattern-spotting, and pattern-creating species. This is a brilliant quality to possess. It allows us to make sense of very complex systems, to engage with Life and phenomena holistically and to see (or create) the meaning behind our daily perceptions and experiences.

eye of the tree

Margaret Wheatley, in her Leadership and the New Science, says

Wholeness is revealed only as shapes, not facts. Systems reveal themselves as patterns, not as isolated incidents or data points.

Further, she says,

It is the nature of life to organise into patterns

morse moss


What patterns do you see today?

What patterns touch you, capture your attention, or help you make sense of things?

Every consultation I do, I sit with a patient and we have a conversation. It’s best if I do most of the listening, and stimulate the odd reflection when I begin to discern patterns. At the simplest of levels I was taught diagnosis at Medical School. I still think we make the best diagnoses by quickly spotting the patterns – the connections and inter-connections between the elements of a story, the symptoms expressed, the signs and changes manifested, and recognising the pattern which holds this all together.

At the deepest level there are a multiple of patterns in every person’s life, each interacting and interweaving to create ever more beautiful and amazing spiralling narratives. This is how we get to know each other. This is how we get to know ourselves.

Let’s make some new patterns together……how about it?


zen garden

Read Full Post »

What’s with all the war language these days? The War on Terror. The War on Drugs. The War against Cancer. Winning the battles against bacteria and viruses. And all the disease-focused charities – “beating cancer”, a recent one in Scotland “let’s take this outside, cancer”, “help win the war against heart disease”, “beat obesity” and on and on and on……

What are these wars exactly? And what would winning them look like? A world which eliminated these “enemies”? When it comes to bacteria, have a read at the chapter in Howard Bloom’s “Global Brain” about bacteria – is there any other life form on the planet which has been able to adapt to, and colonise such an incredible diversity of environments? Some live in us. Some live in the mouths of volcanoes which are erupting miles under the oceans! They demonstrate fabulous adaptive powers…..we see that in how they “learn” to resist toxic drugs which we throw into the environment and they can spread that knowledge around the globe with fantastic speed. Anyway, we don’t want a world without bacteria. We’d die. Did you know that apparently there is ten times as much bacterial DNA in YOU than there is your own DNA? Pretty mind boggling.

I enjoyed Howard Bloom’s “Global Brain” but he did emphasise the competitive element of Life too much for me.

But wait, I hear you say, surely competition is the ESSENCE of Life! At least, isn’t that what we learned from Darwin and from his followers? “Nature red in tooth and claw” and all that?

I think that’s partly where we’ve gone wrong. Yes competition is a strong part of Life. To deny that would be to deny reality. But that is not the same as doing battle or waging war. Think about sports like athletics, cycling or ice skating for example. The winner of those competitions is the person who performs the best. Usually the person who does the best and wins the medals is achieving their “personal best” too. They win by being the best they can be. They don’t win by waging war on the other competitors. Competition, in other words, can bring out the absolute best in people by being focused on the self – by trying to achieve one’s personal best. Yes, I know other sports are not like that. There are sports where you have to harm your competitors to win – boxing being the obvious example. But most sports, it seems to me are not like boxing. Maybe we should award “personal best medals” at competitions as well as “best competition performance medals”?

But the other big thing that is missing in this focus on war and battle is co-operation and collaboration. No, I’ll go further, it neglects the importance of the inextricable links between us, about our co-evolution, our co-dependence. Read books like, The Bond, Connected, Linked and you might start to see things differently. What matters in the evolution of complex adaptive systems is the connections, the relationships between the parts.

We won’t win these so called wars. What we should be doing is trying our best to be the best us we can be. We should be encouraging diversity, flexibility, autonomy, the building of mutually enhancing bonds between us and between ourselves and other aspects of Nature. Only down that road will we adapt, grow and thrive…….

Read Full Post »

sometimes the easiest way to connect to Nature’s rhythms is just to look out of the window……


Read Full Post »

Margaret Wheatley works in the area of leadership and organisational change from the perspective of what we can learn from living reality. She has the complex adaptive systems concept at the core of her work. I recently stumbled across her writings, particularly her four “principles of living systems”. Here they are –

  1. Participation is not a choice
  2. Life always reacts to directives, it never obeys them
  3. We do not see “reality”. We each create our own interpretation of what is real
  4. To create better health in a living system, connect it more to itself

The first principle relates to the reality that everyone, every thing, every aspect of our world, our universe, exists inextricably embedded in the contexts of its existence. A living organism is an “open system”, with information and energy constantly flowing into and out of it. A living system is dynamic and perpetually changing and “co-evolving” with the other elements of the ecosystem in which it lives. You can’t change a part of a person without producing changes in the rest of that person, and you can’t change a person without setting off a cascade of unpredictable changes in the world in which that person lives (and vice versa – you can’t change something in someone’s world without setting off changes in that person). Participation is not a choice, it’s an inevitability.

The second principle is the core of adaptation. Every individual is unique and cannot be controlled like a robot or a machine. You can force people to behave a certain way for a period of time, but ultimately all the organisations and political systems based on force collapse. You can’t force the sun to shine, the wind to blow, the rain to fall, or Life to obey your commands.

The third principle is something we often forget. Iain McGilchrist, in The Master and His Emissary, highlights how the left cerebral hemisphere is particularly well developed to “re-create” reality. It creates “re-presentations” of the raw information and energy which flows into the person. These representations allow us to make sense of the world and to literally to grasp things better. It’s a fantastic development and is probably at the core of our industrial and technological development as a species. We also know now that the part of the brain just behind the forehead, the mid-prefrontal cortex, has many, many functions, but amongst them is a map-making facility. It’s crucially involved in creating, what Dan Siegel calls, “a me map, a you map and a we map”. We never know any of this reality directly. Rather we constantly create our perceptions and our understandings, influencing those creations with our memories, our hopes, our beliefs, our values and our desires.

The final principle is Margaret Wheatley’s way of talking about integration. When a system is well integrated there are healthy, mutually beneficial relationships between all the connected parts. That produces coherence and harmony. It’s the basis of health.

When I first created this blog, I wrote a permanent page on “ACE” – “Adaptation, Creativity and Engagement“. It was really interesting for me, therefore, to discover this quote from Margaret Wheatley (which I believe, essentially highlights the same characteristics)

Over many years of work all over the world, I’ve learned that if we organize in the same way that the rest of life does, we develop the skills we need: we become resilient, adaptive, aware, and creative. We enjoy working together. And life’s processes work everywhere, no matter the culture, group, or person, because these are basic dynamics shared by all living beings


Read Full Post »

Cloud Atlas

Why did I leave this book lying unopened on my bookshelf for about four years? I don’t know. However, while recuperating last week, I read it, and, boy am I glad I did. What a superb piece of writing it is. Maybe you’ve been out to see the movie by now (I haven’t), but Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, is a story cycle. It is six interlinked stories, with each story ending on a cliff-hanger before going on to the next story, right up to story number six, then we pick up all the threads, revisiting first story five, then four, then three and so on. The range of genre and styles is astonishing, with everything from a sixteenth century travel journal to science fiction set in the twenty third century. I loved it all. Each story links to the others in a multiple of ways and the very last couple of pages sum up what it’s all about.

Here is what it is all about (don’t worry, no plot spoilers revealed here)

What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts and virtuous acts. What precipitates acts? Belief.

The character, Adam Ewing, goes on to write….

Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world.

What a great phrase! ….the mind’s mirror, the world.

If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation and bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being……If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth and claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable and the riches of the Earth and its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real.

With that, Adam decides to dedicate himself to the cause of the abolition of slavery, mindful of how he is likely to be vilified, and attacked for doing so, and how is father-in-law will say

only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean.

And Adam will reply

Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?

What do you believe? What kind of world are you creating?

Read Full Post »

Oh there are some nasty viruses around! Got whacked by one, but I’m back now.

Here are some of the colours around just now….

purple tulips

yellow tulips

white orchid

snowdrop hill

Read Full Post »