Archive for November, 2015


Here’s a passage from Montaigne –

Never did two men judge alike about the same thing, and it is impossible to find two opinions exactly alike (about the same thing) not only in different men, but in the same man at different times.

I’ve been passing a spectacular tree recently. It’s in the corner of somebody’s garden in Chateaubernard on the way into Cognac, not far from the Biocoop. Here’s a photo I took the other day. I think this is a “kaki” tree. Certainly that’s what the fruit looks like. It inspired me to buy one of the fruits and taste it. Mmmm….delicious. Or was it…..?

Montaigne says, it isn’t possible to find two opinions about the same thing exactly alike. You might taste a kaki fruit and think “yuk!” Yet, what can we do, other than say truly what we experience?

This passage of Montaigne’s made me think about all the reviews which surround us. The well established reviews of movies, music, theatre, and books which appear in most newspapers at the weekends have been added to enormously by reviews online. Amazon, for example, allows anyone to post reviews and it’s not at all uncommon to find widely divergent views on the same book – just as Montaigne said. But they also use their algorithms to show you what other books, other people who liked this one, liked (or bought). At least this second method helps you to find people with some tastes in common to yours. There are sites like Tripadvisor which let people review and rate restaurants, bars, hotels and so on. Again, there you’ll see reviews of any particular establishment which range from fabulous to awful. What do you do with that?

Add into the normal range of opinions and tastes, those who deliberately post positive or negative reviews for commercial or malicious purposes – making up reviews to try to affect the rankings.

So I wonder, what do you do? How do you find books to read, movies to watch, music to listen to, places to go? How often do you read the reviews and how do you find the reviewers you trust? Maybe you get familiar with a particular blogger and find you share a lot of their tastes. That can help.

Montaigne’s final point takes us back to the fact that everything changes. We all find that what we loved or hated in the past can turn the other way as we get older. Maybe there’s a certain kind of food you used to hate, and now you love? Or maybe there are authors or musicians who just don’t do it for you any more (or alternatively, who previously didn’t interest you, but now that you look again, you fall in love with them!). Have you had that kind of experience?


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The arts that promise to keep our body in health and our soul in health promise us much: but at the same time those who profess these arts among us show the results of them less than any other men. The most you can say for them is that they sell medicinal drugs; but that they are doctors you cannot say.

Montaigne is frequently pretty harsh about doctors and the practice of medicine in his “Essais”. The last sentence in that passage above did really strike me however. “The most you can say for them is that they sell medicinal drugs; but that they are doctors you cannot say.”

A number of thoughts sprang up from there.

First up was Professor Peter C Gøtzsche, a researcher who published “Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime”. Read this from the introduction to that book –

The main reason we take so many drugs is that drug companies don’t sell drugs, they sell lies about drugs. This is what makes drugs so different from anything else in life … Virtually everything we know about drugs is what the companies have chosen to tell us and our doctors … the reason patients trust their medicine is that they extrapolate the trust they have in their doctors into the medicines they prescribe. The patients don’t realise that, although their doctors may know a lot about diseases and human physiology and psychology, they know very, very little about drugs that hasn’t been carefully concocted and dressed up by the drug industry … If you don’t think the system is out of control, then please email me and explain why drugs are the third leading cause of death … If such a hugely lethal epidemic had been caused by a new bacterium or a virus, or even one hundredth of it, we would have done everything we could to get it under control.​

This is an “evidence based” book from an “evidence based” expert. It’s not a conspiracy theory – and that, actually, makes it all the more shocking. Montaigne might have said that doctors only sell drugs, but Gøtzsche says pharmaceutical companies sell “lies about drugs”.

Then I thought about a doctor friend of mine who was told by their Clinical Director to spend less time talking to patients because that wasn’t a doctor’s job. A doctor’s job, according to this senior doctor, was “to write prescriptions”. (The astonishing thinking behind this was that only doctors have the legal right to write the full range of prescriptions so that was what they should focus on)

And finally this week I read in the Huffington Post, a piece by John Weeks about Integrative Medicine and CAM in the USA.

Regular medicine’s dominant influence when “CAM” integration by medical delivery organizations began in the mid-1990s was the industrial value of service production. Mayo Clinic’s director of innovation captures this concisely when he recently spoke of medicine’s historic focus on “producing” services rather than on “creating health.”

What he is writing about is a report from the RAND corporation about Complementary and Alternative Medicine which focuses on the issue of practitioners being reduced to providers of “products” – e.g. a chiropractor does a manipulation, an acupuncturist puts in needles. In fact, although this is not where that article goes, doctors are being reduced to prescribers.

So, full circle, back to Montaigne again – what does he mean when he says “The most you can say for them is that they sell medicinal drugs; but that they are doctors you cannot say”? Personally, I think he is saying if you reduce a doctor to someone who just supplies you with medications, then you don’t have a doctor any more. I agree. A doctor undergoes an immense, broad, arduous training. I think a doctor should always keep the focus on the whole patient, seeking to understand them in their uniqueness. The doctor should be an expert in diagnosis, able to figure out what’s happening by great listening skills, great observational skills and the knowledge and experience of dealing with patients with a wide range of diseases. When it comes to doing something therapeutic (apart from understanding and supporting their patients, which is therapeutic in itself) then, surely, we want to be able to offer more than just a prescription for a drug?

A few days back I wrote a post about biomimetics. Wouldn’t it be great if doctors became experts in health? In how a human being stays healthy? And in how a human being recovers from injuries and illnesses (we used to call that “healing”). I reckon there’s mileage in the biomimetics idea. We could be learning how living organisms stay healthy, repair and recover when injured or ill, then developing techniques which support, or mimic, those strategies and processes.

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What is good or bad for me?

Let me ask “what is good or bad for you?”

Are the answers to those questions going to be identical?

I don’t think so. We could get into a big discussion about what “good” and “bad” even mean, but without disappearing down that rabbit hole I’d just like to express the opinion that no-one can know you better than you can. No-one is better placed to know how you should live than you are.

We forget that in our increasingly controlling autocratic societies.

Here’s Montaigne

Tiberius used to say that whoever had lived twenty years should be responsible to himself for the things that were harmful or beneficial to him, and know how to take care of himself without medical aid. And he might have learned this from Socrates who, advising his disciples, carefully and as a principal study, the study of their health, used to add that it was difficult for an intelligent man who was careful about his exercise, his drinking, and his eating not to know better than any doctor what was good or bad for him.

Socrates who lived almost 2500 years ago……his teaching on health?

Take care about exercise, your drinking and your eating.

Wow! Public Health advice has come such a long way! (hmm….)

But the main point Montaigne is making is one I agree with.

I’d be astonished if anyone claimed they knew better than I did what was good for me, or bad for me. Take the relatively common place circumstance of pain. Can anyone tell me better than I can whether or not a treatment I take for pain reduces my pain? No, they can’t. Only my personal experience will tell.

What better advice than to be aware, to be reflective and to learn about yourself?

Without that you end up swallowing the advice of someone who isn’t living your life.

(Oh, and what about today’s photo? It’s a fig. It’s a fig which grew and ripened on the tree we planted in our garden and it tasted….mmmmm….words fail me…delicious! Like no fig I’ve ever tasted before. Are figs good for me? Well that one certainly contributed towards my pleasure in being alive that day, and I’m looking forward to more figs growing next season. Are figs good for you? You’re the better judge of that one!)

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I’ve recently pulled my copy of Montaigne’s “Essais” off my shelf and dived in again. The stimulus was a special edition of a literary magazine which I found in the local “librairie” (a common confusion for the English speakers in France is that a “librairie” is a bookshop and a library is a “bibliothèque”). The focus of the special edition is Montaigne so I’ve been reading a few writers and thinkers perspectives on the man and his writing.

Given that he lived almost 500 years ago his writing seems astonishingly modern. According to the articles I read he was the first French writer to write as “je” (“I”) – his essays are reflective and he made no claims for them to be anything other than an exploration of what it was like to be Michel de Montaigne. One of the writers called him “patron de bloggeurs” – the “boss/leader of the bloggers” – which made me smile.

I’d say that this blog, and many other blogs I’ve seen, are exactly that. They are one person’s unique reflections and expressions of what it is like to be [insert blogger’s name here]

I reckon I only have each day once, and nobody can tell what this day was like for me. That’s up to me. And it’s up to you to share your unique experience of the everyday too.

Because when we do that, not only do we enrich ourselves with the sharing, but we find that we learn what it is to be human.

I’m going to share a few of the gems I uncover in Montaigne’s “Essais” with you and I’ll start with this, (which I read yesterday)

Men do not know the natural infirmity of their mind: it does nothing but ferret and quest, and keeps incessantly whirling around, building up and becoming entangled in its own work, like our silkworms, and is suffocated in it.

It thinks it notices from a distance some sort of glimmer of imaginary light and truth; but while running toward it, it is crossed by so many difficulties and obstacles, and diverted by so many new quests, that it strays from the road, bewildered.

Isn’t that so true? Thoughts never seem to stop, do they? I remember reading about the Tibetan Buddhist concept of the “bardo” many years ago. A bardo is a kind of gap. The author of the book I read suggested a good meditation technique was to become aware of the bardos, or gaps, between our thoughts – the spaces between the ending of one thought and the start of the next.

Good luck with that!

It’s not a skill I’ve ever managed to achieve.

Most meditation techniques seem to involve gently, patiently and repeatedly bringing the focus of the mind back to something specific, be that a mantra, an image or an awareness.

I do think it’s good to practice some form of meditation. It can help to counter that incessant “whirling around”.

There’s a second aspect to that passage of Montaigne’s – how difficult it is to stay on track. Isn’t it true that we often set off with a new insight, a new goal or a new intention, only to stumble when the going gets tough or something else interesting comes along – and there we go again, off the road, “bewildered”.

I think it’s good to read these reflections from five hundred years ago. They are insights into the natural condition of the human mind. If we are aware of these features we can begin to learn how to work with them, rather than beating ourselves over the head for having minds like this in the first place, or trying to wrestle ourselves into submission.

The photo I chose for this piece is one I took a couple of weeks ago. One day I noticed these little blobs of bubbles in the grass. I’ve no idea what they are, what kind of creature made them, or why, but I thought they were pretty wonderful!

Busy, busy, busy….busy blowing bubbles….oops, there I go again – that’s interesting. What is it? Yep, there’s a certain pleasure in following your mind as it “strays from the road”….

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moon sky

The Guardian has published 15 quotes from Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince (one of those books which has so many quotable sentences in it) and it seemed appropriate to me to post this in this week when the world’s thoughts are turned to Paris.

One of my own personal favourites is this –

It is only with the heart that one can see clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.

We can all quite easily take a moment to reflect on something – anything – it can be a choice which has presented itself to us, a decision to be made, a person, a relationship or an event. The way I like to do this is to sit somewhere quietly, take three slow, deep and even breaths, call whatever it is I want to reflect on to my mind, place my hand over the area of my heart, and ask myself the question “What does my heart say about this?”

Give it a few moments and see what, if anything, emerges. It won’t always, but sometimes, suddenly, something seems crystal clear.

I like the second sentence in that quote too – “what is essential is invisible to the eye”. I’m a big fan of that one.

As I looked down through the list of quotes I was remembered this one –

Grown-ups love figures… When you tell them you’ve made a new friend they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you “What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies? “ Instead they demand ‘How old is he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?’ Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.

….which is some ways is a continuation of the “what is essential is invisible to the eye”.

Why do we put such emphasis on numbers, when what is most important to each of us is the personal, the subjective, the invisible?

This little scene from “Gregory’s Girl” (from a LONG time ago!) popped into my head –

In particular the line which Claire Grogan says about a minute into the scene.


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The other morning I was thinking how lovely the mulberry tree leaves are as they fall onto the ground forming such a beautiful circle. It reminded me of Andy Goldsworthy’s art.

Then I got down on the ground to photograph the morning sunlight on the dew-bejewelled grass…


…and the circle turned into a line!

Interesting that, huh? And it worked the other way too – turning back into a circle when I stood up 😉

How different the world looks when you change your perspective!

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He’s back. The robin who hangs around my garden. Here is up taking up position in the most-favoured tree at the south-western corner of the garden. He’s looking east as the sun rises and the warming rays are making both his red feathers and his eyes shine.

Bright eyed, and looking to the dawn of a new day. Watching over his familiar ground  and singing loud and long.

I don’t know where prayers go,
or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it
crosses the street?
The sunflowers? The old black oak
growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
along the shore or under the trees,
with my mind filled with things
of little importance, in full
self-attendance. A condition I can’t really
call being alive
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep. Maybe not.

While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don’t know why. And yet, why not.
I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don’t. That’s your business.
But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be
if it isn’t a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.

Mary Oliver. I Happened to be Standing.

Whether it’s a wren or a robin or another species of bird entirely, we need to hear these prayers, these hymns, to Life.



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