Archive for April, 2014

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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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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Connections are important – whether we think if links, bonds, or relationships – we can understand nothing if we ignore the connections.

Christakis describes the importance of social connections in “Connected

Barabasi describes this beautifully in “Linked” where he shows the usefulness of thinking about “nodes” and “links”.

Bloom describes the essential “social” nature of the universe by focusing on connections in “The God Problem“.

McTaggart comprehensively focuses on connections in “The Bond

But, you know, there is a special kind of link, bond or connection which lies at the heart of all healthy, flourishing, growing organisms, all forms of Life, and all aspects of Nature – its the kind we see when we look at “integration”

Here’s a definition of “integration” – the creation of mutually beneficial bonds between well-differentiated parts.

There’s the key – “mutually beneficial bonds” (or links, or relationships)

I’m thinking this might be THE touchstone value – if you want something to grow, create mutually beneficial links between whatever it is and the rest of the world. If you want a relationship to thrive, create mutually beneficial links. If you want to know how to choose between different possible actions, ask yourself, do these actions create, or enhance, mutually beneficial links?


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I’m a great fan of living every day with a sense of wonder (l’émerveillement du quotidien) and I must admit that colour often catches my eye.




Water into wine

Floral doorway

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A cloudy day in Scotland….

cloud hidden

A cloudy day on the Med….

Cloudy day on the Med

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Stone cross

We seek out difference all the time. We look for the edges of things, for their boundaries, in order to see them clearly.
But nothing exists in a vacuum.
Every”thing” we see we have abstracted from its context. We focus on only some of what we see in order to see what we are focusing on.
I’ve read there are no foregrounds without backgrounds.

If it’s true that every”thing” is inextricably linked to its environment and is constantly changing or evolving, then we should be wary of this whole process of separating and labelling.

The beauty in the above image is, I think, in the interplay between the wall and the cross, each of which would be diminished by the removal of the other.

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