Archive for August, 2014

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul.” – John Muir

Just as we are constantly influenced by what’s inside us, so we are constantly influenced by what’s around us.

One of those influences is beauty.


Bay of Biscay

Monet like reflections

Moonrise over the Atlantic




A recent article in The Atlantic looks at the influence of beauty on happiness.

Beauty tends to feel like something that must be found in special places—parks and museums, galleries and exotic cities. Lunch is not a place one would normally think to look. But finding beauty in normal activities can bring deep happiness to life, studies show.

“In a paper titled, “Untangling What Makes Cities Livable: Happiness in Five Cities,” Abraham Goldberg, a professor at University of South Carolina Upstate, and his team conducted a statistical analysis of happiness in New York City, London, Paris, Toronto, and Berlin.”

In addition to the usual “Big Seven” influences (wealth, family relationships, career, friends, health, freedom, and personal values), Goldberg found that what makes people happiest is the beauty around them.

It seems part of humans’ appreciation of beauty is because it is able to conjure the feelings we tend to associate with happiness: calmness, a connection to history or the divine, wealth, time for reflection and appreciation, and, perhaps surprisingly, hope.

Beauty, famously, is “in the eye of the beholder” and maybe some of the images I’ve included here are not what you might find beautiful (but I do!), but what interested me about this article was not just that beauty can be found in big works eg architecture, great paintings etc, but also in everyday small objects and scenes.

I also especially liked the quotations towards the end which highlight a very interesting aspect of beauty – it’s connection to anticipation, or hope…..

“So long as we find anything beautiful, we feel that we have not yet exhausted what [life] has to offer,” writes Nehamas. “That forward-looking element is … inseparable from the judgment of beauty.”………… As the 18th-century French writer Stendhal wrote, “Beauty is the promise of happiness.”



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Here’s an interesting recent research study looking at how the micro-organisms which live in our bodies might influence our behaviour. The researchers

concluded from a review of the recent scientific literature that microbes influence human eating behavior and dietary choices to favor consumption of the particular nutrients they grow best on, rather than simply passively living off whatever nutrients we choose to send their way.

It seems that different organisms have different nutrient needs and that are able to send signals which will increase the chance of them getting what they want. Amazing, huh? The communication seems to be two way, because its also been found that changing your diet changes the “flora” (that’s the community of micro-organisms in your gut) within 24 hours.

Some of the signals apparently go through part of the autonomic nervous system.

“Microbes have the capacity to manipulate behavior and mood through altering the neural signals in the vagus nerve, changing taste receptors, producing toxins to make us feel bad, and releasing chemical rewards to make us feel good,” said Aktipis, who is currently in the Arizona State University Department of Psychology.

Given that there are about 100 micro-organisms to every human cell in the human body, the concept that each of us is a living community of highly diverse cells is a strong one. There must be an immense amount of inter-cellular communication going on that we totally unaware of as we live our lives.

Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Gives “acting on your gut feelings” a whole other dimension!

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Blue flag

In the A to Z of Becoming, Part 2, G is for “Go”.

I’ve got three different contexts of the verb “go” for you to consider this week.

Firstly, as this is the month travel in the 12 monthly themes (the month of “Le Grand Depart”), where might you go? Are you planning any holidays, any weekends away, any day trips? Or maybe you could just break a routine and go somewhere different this week…..a different route to work, a different park for the children to explore, a different cafe, restaurant or even supermarket! Yep, just GO! Go somewhere different!

Secondly, “Go!” is a command. We shout it at the start of a competition or a race, but we can can use this ourselves to just start something. You’ve probably got a list of goals somewhere, either written down in a notebook, or rattling around in your head, so why not pick one and make a start? Take your first lesson in that foreign language you want to learn, or pick up that instrument you’ve been meaning to play, go out a buy a notebook to start your writing practice, sign up for exercise class…….whatever it is, just pick one and “GO!” Make a start!

Thirdly, we use the verb go in the phrase “have a go”, which means to try something. So why not give some thought to what you’d like to try and take the opportunity to do it? What would you like to “have a go at”? Baking? Cooking? Fishing? Tennis? Photography? Again, why not pick one and “have a go”?


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rock weathering

sparkling water

stained glass light

tree ripples

It seems the way are brains are made we are predisposed to notice patterns.

The scientific method is based on noticing patterns, describing them, and, in particular spotting patterns which repeat. Patterns which repeat give us the ability to predict – not just what might happen next, but what might happen if we take a particular action. In other words we can use what we learn from pattern spotting to manipulate objects. But there are no patterns which ALWAYS repeat and none apply in ALL contexts of time and place. The danger of pattern spotting is to generalise and turn repeating patterns into “laws” or “rules”.

Science can easily go wrong when it hardens into arrogance…….the arrogance which often arises out of conviction.

A good doctor recognises a pattern of symptoms and signs, makes a diagnosis, takes an action known to be likely to produce a particular desired outcome, but retains their awareness and curiosity to seek new patterns, to reconsider their assessment of the patterns and tries different actions when the first one fails to achieve what the doctor was trying to achieve.

After all, even weather patterns are unpredictable…..




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left or right?

Rules, rules, rules……..

When I look at people, animals, plants, when I think about experiences and events, one thing is clear.


Not only is every person unique, but every experience is unique. As Heroditus said, you can’t step into the same river twice.

Today has never happened before. This moment, here and now, is unique.

Yet we create systems in society which ignore this reality. We create schools, health services, whole economies on the basis of imposing uniformity and conformity.

Uniformity and conformity might work well when you are running a factory to produce a product. Mass production and mass consumption seem to fit well with uniformity and conformity. You don’t want an individual factory worker to bring their uniqueness and creativity to the manufacture of the computer component your factory produces.

But in situations where the focus of activity is human – for example, education or health care – then uniformity and conformity don’t make sense.

But what about standards you ask? Doesn’t every patient deserve to have the best care?

Ah, yes, but is the best care that which denies the individual’s uniqueness?

Throughout my working life as a doctor I believed the way to deliver the best care was firstly to give a damn…….to genuinely care about the patient, to put aside personal preferences in order to empathically understand what was important to this person. Secondly, to deliver the best care you need to be constantly reflective.

How was that? How did it go? Why did things go the way they went?

The counter to uniqueness and freedom is uniformity and conformity.

Sadly, these are the values we see increasingly in management and society. There are massive attempts to deny individuality and to impose conformity.

We’ve always had these competing forces. Thomas Berry refers to them as discipline and wildness. Iain McGilchrist describes them in the context of the distinct approaches to reality delivered by the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

What I especially like about Berry and McGichrist is their understanding of the inevitability of these opposing forces, and of how they work together to produce the whole.

We do need to use both halves of our brains.

We do need both discipline and wildness.

And we need to be able to stand back and reflect and see when and where we need to focus on the one rather than the other.

Right now, it feels to me, we’re concentrating too much on uniformity and conformity. We could do with increasing diversity, supporting uniqueness, and freedom.

If human beings really are unique then we might do well to create our systems around that core fact of reality.


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Just seeing – vision – amazes me. We know so little about how it happens.

At university I learned about the visual cortex – the area of the brain which processes the signals from our eyes and created the images we “see”. I remember being strangely surprised to think through what it meant that light waves hit the backs of our eyeballs and then that energy was transformed into electro-chemical signals which sent information back along the “optic nerve” and how the exit point from the eyeball where the nerve goes off to the brain received no light information at all so should always be present a gap in the image we see. But there is no gap to see! Our brains seamlessly, instantaneously and constantly process all the information from our eyeballs and creates this experience of moving images which never have any holes in them!

We now know that there is a lot more of the brain involved in creating images for us than we previously thought. Read this wikipedia article for starters.

So, what amazes me is not just how we experience this seamless visual image, but how we instantly know what we are looking at. Take a look at these photos I took of people on the Miroir D’eau in Bordeaux. The first one is taken pointing the camera at a mirror which is reflecting the image from outside the building I’m in. People are in the mist created by the water spray. The second is outside with me actually on the Miroir and the people in the mist. The third is a shot taken after the mist has settled.


Through the window

Lost in the mist

miroir d'eau Bordeaux

In all three shots we know we are looking at people. Sure, as the images become more clear we can see more detail, but isn’t it interesting that we have a pretty good idea of what we are looking at right from the first image?

Wow! Isn’t the ability to SEE just amazing? And how wonderful that we continue to learn how we do that. We often forget that our level of understanding is just our current level. It’s never complete. It’s never the “full story”. What more will we learn even in my lifetime?

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From small, delicate, beginnings…..

forest floor

…..to a life really lived……

a tree story


How such small seedlings grow to become such old and experienced trees…….!

What stories could they tell?

Who could have predicted the twists and turns, the traumas, the wounds, the opportunities, the new directions, the crises of survival, the creative responses to challenges, the relationships with the others in the forest?

How much more so for a human being?

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in the sea at sunset


 There is no out there which can be known in any way other than from in here

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Ripples stimulate my thinking about influences – how every action we take has “unintended consequences”; how the future can never be predicted because emergence is a characteristic of all Life; and how the past appears again in the present as a co-creator of what we experience today.

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In the A to Z of Becoming, one of the verbs beginning with an “F” is to feel.



To feel something means at least two distinct yet inextricably connected things in the English language.

Firstly, it refers to the sense of touch. Look at the moss covered rock in this photo. When I was actually in the forest and encountered this, I found it impossible not to touch it. Some surfaces, some textures seem to beg to touched and feeling them is both an experience of pleasure, and a voyage of discovery. Our bodily sense of touch allows us to feel things in this way. We can feel objects and we can feel the sensations which arise within our own bodies. For example we can feel hot or cold, heavy or light, stiff or supple.

Secondly, we use feel as a verb related to emotions. If you hurt someone’s feelings, you are upsetting them emotionally. We can say we feel happy or sad, anxious or relaxed.

What strikes me is that these two variations of feeling are inextricably linked. The verb, to feel, is a connecting word – it joins our bodies to our psyches.

We see this best in the way we use embodied metaphors in our language. If I say I feel hot and bothered, then I am probably experiencing both an increased temperature and a feeling of irritation. If I say I feel comfortable then I’m probably referring to both a feeling of physical comfort and ease and a mental state of relaxation. Tension is felt in the body and the mind at the same time.

There are many psychology studies which have examined this linkage. One of the ones which most surprised me was where the subjects in the study were asked by a researcher to hold a cup as the went up together in the lift to the room where the study was to take place. Sometimes the researcher had a hot drink in the cup, sometimes a cold one. At the end of the study session each participant was asked what the thought about the researcher and those subjects who had held a hot drink felt much more positive about the researcher than those who had held a cold drink. (You might like to think about that next time you’re having a meeting!)

Dan Seigel describes a meditation exercise he calls the “wheel of awareness” – you can read, and/or listen, to it here. You can try a variation of it focused on feeling –

Sit in a quiet place, get comfortable and close your eyes.

Take a deep breath in, filling your lungs with air, then slowly let the breath out, until your lungs are completely empty. Repeat that three times, then bring your attention to the physical sensations you can feel. Can you feel the ground under your feet? The cushion you are sitting on? The arms of the chair you are relaxing in? Does the room feel warm or cool? Take your time just to notice each of these feelings. Notice them, then return your awareness to your core.

Next, bring your awareness, methodically, to the sensations arising within your body. This section of the meditation is often described in mindfulness practice as a “body scan” (you can read the detail elsewhere, or here)

Finally, notice the feelings which are arising, or are present, in your mind. Notice them, name them, then return your awareness to your core.

Stop when you want to. Open your eyes, and, if you like, write down in your notebook a description of what you have just experienced. What links do you note between the feelings or sensations arising from the external world, those from within your body and the feelings which are present in your mind?


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