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Archive for April, 2014

Do you ever wonder why we are here? Or are you someone who thinks there is no answer to that question because the Universe is totally random and meaningless?

When the Universe created human beings, it created consciousness, and with consciousness came some new abilities – a combination of the ability to wonder (to be amazed by, to be in awe of, to have that émerveillement du quotidien), the ability to enjoy (to experience a wide range of sensations and subjective experiences), and the ability to care for (to look after, and to nurture).

Walking in the garden at the hospital where I work today brought all of that home to me….

 

Clematis

Tulip and rain

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Here’s an interesting article which makes 20 points suggesting that we have a serious problem with drug based Medicine.

Just to keep this nice and simple and direct, let me just pick ONE –

The CDC says that spending on prescription drugs more than doubled between 1999 and 2008

Just take a moment to ponder that one….in NINE years, yes, just less than a single decade, the amount the US spent on prescription drugs more that DOUBLED! What on earth does that mean? Have twice as many problems been cured? Are twice as many people healthier? Has this spending peaked? Is it on the way down now?

What kind of way is this to practice Medicine?

 

 

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In the A to Z of Becoming, Q is for Question.

Human beings have an unstoppable curiosity and it appears very, very early. If you have children who are old enough to talk, you’ll probably have encountered the “why?” question. Repeatedly. “Why?” “Because X”. “Why?” Because Y”. “Why?” In fact “Why?” might be THE most common question children ask (just above “Are we there yet?” when they are in a car!)

We never really give up on the why question, do we? We consider our lives and wonder how to live and what purpose there might be to life, and the question why is an important part of that.

But “Why?” isn’t the only question you could be asking. “Who am I?”  is another good one, and Marc Halévy stresses “What for?” which is also great for breaking through the walls of unthinkingness. (Is there such a word? There is now!)

Gary Lachman, in “Caretakers of the Cosmos” says

As far as we know, no animal wonders why it exists. Or, to out it another way, we are the only animals that do, and that wonder is precisely the threshold between our being only animals and being fully human. Whoever asked the first question about his existence was, by this reckoning, the first human.

That makes asking questions pretty essential doesn’t it? To be “fully human” we should think about why we exist.

I also like Montaigne’s repeatedly asked question which he puts in his essays – “Que sais-je?” (What do I know?) – that’s a great question to keep you in touch with humility!

I’ve just completed Robert McKee’s four day “Story” seminar today and we did a scene by scene analysis of “Casablanca”. Here’s one of the passages which leapt out at me today.

Rick: Who are you really? What were you before? What did you do? What did you think?

Ilsa: We said “No questions”

Rick: Here’s looking at you, kid.

Well, here’s looking at YOU, kid, but I say keep asking questions!

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Seedling

 

I woke up up the morning with this phrase in my head “witnessing not measuring”, which was quickly followed by “witnessing not controlling”.

I’ve been wondering about that since.

That’s the essence of my work. I sit with people, engage with them, enable them to tell their stories and be heard without judgement which leads to understanding and recognition. Everything I do therapeutically is intended to support and stimulate the individual’s self-healing. I think this is something we often forget in health care – there really is only one way to heal, and that’s by the person’s own ability to self heal. Stop and think for a moment. If you have a cut, how does it heal up? If you break a bone how does it knit back together? If you have a viral infection how does your throat return to normal? Ultimately it’s done to your amazing capacity to self heal and self repair. Any therapy should assist that process if it is to be effective. It’s not ME who produces healing. It’s not my therapies which produce healing. It’s the patient’s own healing system which does the work.

And I can’t control that. Nobody can accurately predict the outcome of any particular treatment given to any particular individual on any particular day.

We like to pretend that by making measurements we can predict and so control. It’s an illusion.

I amazed every single working day by human beings and their amazing healing powers. Witnessing this is powerful. Understanding and caring come with the witnessing, and therapies are then tried within that context. It’s humbling.

Today I read in Gary Lachman’s excellent “Caretakers of the Cosmos”

Love, for Scheler, was the sine qua non of phenomenology, which in its essential form, is a way of allowing the world to be what it is, without interference by human concepts or aims. It is, in a sense, a way of listening to what the world has to say to us, from which follows the recognition that it has something to communicate, and is not simply a vast inanimate machine.

I think, by the way, there is a lot to be gained from witnessing yourself……whether through mindful meditation, reflective writing, or however you might do that for yourself.

Maybe that’s the third variation of the phrase I woke with – witnessing not judging.

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Emerging branch

Take a look at this photo. It shows the growing new(ish) branch emerging from the trunk of a birch tree.
What stuns me is the beauty and the complexity. We don’t just see the new branch emerge like a stick or a stem, but we see all those ripples of activity on the main part of the tree.

I find all new life amazing but this is the first time I have noticed such elaborate and beautiful effects on a tree. It’s clear that how this birch tree grows is surprising and, I suspect, neither completely explained by science, nor in any way predictable in detail.

Could anyone predict exactly where a particular tree will produce new branches, and can anyone explain how the cells organise themselves to differentiate and multiply in this specific pattern?

I find it engaging and wonderful.

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Irises on the forest floor

On the forest floor in the Spring it’s amazing to see whole carpets of new life suddenly bursting through.

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower 

 

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Light catches my eye, especially when whatever is lit seems to glow as if the light emerges from within….

 

 

Sunlit birch bark

The light in the plant

and sometimes, the light seems to lead you somewhere

The Stairway to...

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In Mary Midgley’s excellent new work, “Are You an Illusion?”, which sets out strong arguments against reductionist materialism, one of the issues she raises is about the competitive basis of the physicalist approach so dominant in the world today. The Neo-Darwinist emphasis on “survival of the fittest” is too simplistic alone to explain evolutionary change. This is not a new argument of course, but one of the points Mary Midgley makes is about how before the emergence of this theory, the more dominant strain of thought was magic….which was based on attraction. She quotes Marcilio Ficino

“All the power of magic consists in love…..The work of magic is the attraction of one thing by another in virtue of their natural sympathy. The parts of the world, like the members of one animal….are united among themselves in the community of a single nature. From their communal relationship a common love is born and from this love a common attraction, and this is the true magic….Thus the loadstone attracts iron, amber, straw, brimstone, fire; the Sun draws leaves and flowers towards itself, the moon, the sea.”

This general assumption about the importance of attraction is surely just as rational a place to start from as the contrary one, popular today, that the universal force is competition.

Thought provoking.

Imagine how the world would be if we put love and attraction at the heart of our thinking instead of how to succeed at the expense of others?

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Orange sky from Pointe Rouge

 

In the A to Z of Becoming, P is for Pause.

A pause is a break, a temporary stopping. I first encountered the concept of the “bardo” in the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, where it was helpfully described as a space where enlightenment could emerge. The meditation teaching in that book is to become aware of the space between two thoughts, and gradually to practice increasing that space. In daily life the suggestion is to become aware of the space (or bardo) which occurs before an emotion arises eg anger or fear.

So, let’s look at two types of pausing.

The “pause of now” and “the long pause”.

The “pause of now”. One way to consider what goes on in our minds is to think of two default brain states – “reactive mode” and “responsive mode”. In reactive mode our minds work almost like reflexes. Someone or something “touches our buttons” and off we go, into a real state of anger, anxiety, fear or some other learned pattern of thought, feeling and behaviour. In this reactive mode we can feel entirely the victim of other people and of circumstances. It can feel as if we have no choices, that our happiness is entirely at the mercy of others. We are on automatic. We are in “zombie” mode. The responsive mode arises as we become aware of the early changes, recognise them, understand what is happening, and then make a choice about how we want to respond. So if we frequently find ourselves becoming angry or anxious when a certain person speaks to us, then if we can become aware of the reaction starting to happen, we can pause, then choose how to respond – sometimes we will choose to respond angrily, or anxiously, but sometimes we won’t. We will be doing the choosing as we open up this “necessary gap” and in the “pause of now” we gain flexibility, confidence, tolerance, autonomy, and move away from a victim or zombie way of living.

One of the easiest practices I know to begin to develop the skill of creating this pause to shift from reactive mode to responsive mode is Heartmath (see a simple introduction here). The first two steps of “quick coherence” in Heartmath are known as “getting neutral”. It’s a variant of “count to ten”, and it works. The more you practice it, the more quickly and powerfully it works.

There’s another kind of pause though, and it’s not the kind of pause which happens just over a few seconds, or at best few minutes. I got this idea from reading about the concept of “the long now“. We hear a lot about “living in the moment”. Maybe you’ve read “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle? If not, then maybe you’ve read elsewhere about the idea of being present, instead of spending your time on the past or the future (which might focus your thoughts on grief or anxiety). But when you stop to think about it, “now” hardly exists. This present moment has become the past by the time you’ve said “this present moment”. Henri Bergson, the French philosopher introduced the concept of “duration” to allow us to think differently about time (instead of splitting it up into moments, like frames of a movie), but his work can be quite hard to understand. Here’s a short summary of his duration idea –

Instead, let us imagine an infinitely small piece of elastic, contracted, if that were possible, to a mathematical point. Let us draw it out gradually in such a way as to bring out of the point a line which will grow progressively longer. Let us fix our attention not on the line as line, but on the action which traces it. Let us consider that this action, in spite of its duration, is indivisible if one supposes that it goes on without stopping; that, if we intercalate a stop in it, we make two actions of it instead of one and that each of these actions will then be the indivisible of which we speak; that it is not the moving act itself which is never indivisible, but the motionless line it lays down beneath it like a track in space. Let us take our mind off the space subtending the movement and concentrate solely on the movement itself, on the act of tension or extension, in short, on pure mobility. This time we shall have a more exact image of our development in duration.

One other concept I found easier to grasp was the idea of the “long now” – which, I suppose, in even simpler terms could be thought of as “now-ish” (reminds me of how Italian friends would often use the term “15 minutes” which if you used your watch to measure would produce huge frustration because they didn’t mean a number of minutes, they just meant a “piece of time” (of around 15 minutes in size!).

Drawing on these ideas of time, I think we can usefully propose “the long pause”

The long pause is a space, a few minutes, hours, days, or even weeks. I think a holiday often is a kind of a pause. It lets you step off the treadmill, get some distance between your working life and the rest of your life and provide a vantage point from which to see things more clearly, or a place from which to allow a new pattern of thinking, a new set of decisions, some new habits, or, yes, even enlightenment, to emerge.

So, here’s your verb for this week – pause.

Practice pausing in the moment to move from reactive mode to responsive mode, and build into your life some long pauses, some “time out” – daily, weekly, monthly, annually.

 

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Feather

Burrrrr

 

When you look at these two photos, do you think, like I do, that the first one looks “soft” and the second one looks “spiky” or “sharp”?

I don’t mean in terms of photographic quality, I mean, in terms of sensations.

When I look at that feather, I think it looks soft. When I look at the burr, I think it looks prickly.

But isn’t that odd?

These are photos. I’m using my eyesight to perceive them, not much touch sensory organs. I cannot feel their softness or their sharpness. But that’s the first thing that comes to my mind when I look at them.

This is what we do all the time.

We are constantly bathed in information, some of which we detect with our sensory systems of vision, hearing, smell, taste or touch. We use our brains somehow to direct attention towards some of those inputs and away from others. So sometimes what we notice is a sound, and at other times, a colour, or a light.

But we are not unidirectional. We don’t process only one type of information at a time. We use all our ways of knowing and we put the results together to create a unified, whole perception. So I can look at this feather, and think “soft”, or at the burr and think “spiky”, even though my eyes cannot experience those qualities.

The one way of knowing cannot be reduced to another. There are always multiple ways of knowing. What we are really great at is synthesising those ways to gain a greater understanding of what we perceive than we could ever achieve by using only one way.

On a different level, this is what Iain McGilchrist has highlighted in the different ways our two cerebral hemispheres approach the world. Our two hemispheres allow us different ways of knowing. How much more fruitful, however, to synthesise their activity, and to use our whole brains?!

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