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Archive for January, 2016

Have you ever visited the Musée d’Orsay in Paris?

No?

Put it on your list.

It’s one of my favourite places in the world. It was originally a railway station and has been turned into an art gallery on the banks of the Seine. It’s an astonishing building. Quite incredible that anyone would construct a railway station to look like this, but also, quite brilliantly transformed into a gallery.

When I go I like to go straight from the main entrance, down through the sculpture gallery right to the far end of the building where you can find an escalator that takes you up to the fifth floor where there is a fabulous collection of the work of the Impressionists.

Before you get to their work though you pass through the room with the clock in it.

That’s the one I want to share with you today.

Here are three photos I took –

one

group

seeing beyond

These all stimulate my thoughts about time and how we relate to it. They conjure up my thoughts about “taking time” – in other words, slowing up, savouring, taking the time to fully experience the here and now, but also, taken in sequence, these three images provoke the following thoughts –

Firstly, how good and necessary it is to spend some time by yourself. Remember Julia Cameron’s “Artist’s Way”? I often told people about her exercise of making an “artist’s date” – actually scheduling into your diary a piece of time – it might be an hour, half a day, a day – and there are only two rules to apply to that piece of time – you have to spend it alone (no sharing!) – and you have to spend it doing something you enjoy (no chores!). You should then schedule in a regular series of these dates at a frequency you can manage – daily, weekly, forthnightly….whatever. Whether or not you are an artist, I think this is a very, very valuable exercise to try.

Secondly, how good and necessary it is to spend some time with others. There is something truly magical about sharing an experience with someone else – whether that be a visit to a gallery, listening to song, watching a movie, having a meal – we are social creatures, we human beings and sharing experiences with others makes our heart sing.

Thirdly, when we lose ourselves in something….a view, a book, a creative act……we experience “FLOW” – what Czikszentmihalyi wrote about in his study of happiness. It’s that time when we are “in the zone” and time “stands still”. Just gazing through this clock to Montmartre is an entrancing experience.

Isn’t strange that time doesn’t pass at a constant speed? Despite what clocks seem to tell us?

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last leaf

There’s a growing body of evidence that using your brain is good for your brain. Who’d have thought it?!

There’s also a growing body of evidence that what is good for your brain is good for you. The old mind-body duality is breaking down in the light of neuroscientific findings about the connections between the brain, the rest of the nervous system, and the rest of the body.

Using your brain is one of the key themes of this blog. I believe it’s just too easy to drift through life in zombie mode, influenced by others, manipulated by others, controlled by others. And yet, I also believe it very, very possible to make our own choices, to become “self-directed”, conscious creators of our own, unique stories and, hence, lives.

One of the most commonly promoted ways to use our brains is “mindfulness“. A sort of clumsy word which describes a certain state of awareness.

You can practice “mindfulness” by learning certain meditation techniques, and/or, you can do what Ellen Langer says, and “seek novelty”. 

I find that choosing to be aware, stoking the natural curiosity for the day, seeking “l’émerveillement du quotidien” is one of the easiest, and most delightful ways, to achieve this – this is the main way I try to be “mindful”.

There are two related techniques which help me to live this way. They both date way back thousands of years but both work just as well here and now.

Here are two photos to illustrate the techniques.

The first one is the one at the start of this post. It’s “the last leaf”. There’s a mulberry tree in my garden here in France and this is my second season of raking up and gathering the leaves as they fall. The first year I arrived here I wasn’t prepared for this phenomenon. This tree really sheds a LOT of leaves. I confess, I found that clearing up the leaves was a bit of a burden. But this year? This second season for me? I’ve loved it. Pretty much every other day I’d take the rake and gather up the leaves into huge canvas bags and every other week I’d make a trip to the “déchetterie” (“the tip”, we’d say in English). I enjoyed taking my time, rummaging through the different shapes, sizes and colours of the leaves. I enjoyed seeing the green grass again once the leaves were gathered, but quickly, of course, the grass would recreate a “wabi sabi” appearance with just two or three newly fallen leaves adding interest and attracting attention.

As more and more of the tree shed its leaves I decided I’d like to photograph the “last leaf”. That’s my first image in this post. And that’s the first technique – “live today as if this is the last” – that’s not as morbid as it first sounds…..due to the constancy of change, every day is unique, and the truth is, you will never have a chance to live this day, exactly like this, ever again. So it might be a good idea to savour it. To notice what you can, to hear what you can hear, touch what you can touch, smell what you can smell, take your time to taste and savour the food you are eating.

Because this will be your last opportunity to do so.

Here’s the next image –

first leaf

We have twin birch trees in this garden, and when the wind blows in the autumn, they shed, not only leaves, but lots of small twigs and branches. Yep, most of these head to the “déchetterie” too, but Hilary picked some up, finding their shapes pleasing and used a couple as a table decoration. There was a little water in the bottom of one of the vases she used, and look what happened! A few days later, there was a new leaf!

So, here’s the second image, “the first leaf”, and the second technique, “live today as if it’s the first”.

That’s true too. Due to the uniqueness of every day, of every experience, of every moment, whatever you encounter today, you encounter for the first time. Sometimes that’s not so obvious. Our habits and our routines deaden our awareness and we become oblivious to the small changes which can make a big difference.

You have never lived this very day before. So why not approach it with the sense of wonder, curiosity and amazement which you did so naturally as a child? (This is “l’émerveillement du quotidien” – the wonder of the every day)

I mean look at that little twig! It’s grown a leaf! A perfect, bright green, little leaf! Isn’t that amazing? I wondered a wee while ago about how difficult it was to know whether a seed was dead or alive, but I didn’t wonder about these (apparently discarded) twigs. They were dead as far as I knew. But add a little water, and, hey presto! Life magically emerges!

If you don’t stumble across something new, something for the first time, today, you’re just not looking.

So, there you go, two photos, two ancient techniques, “last and first”, and a step in the right direction from “zombie to hero“!

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changing weather

I stopped to take this photo partly because the drama of the dark rain cloud half filling the sky caught my eye, but also because I instantly thought about the yin yang symbol – half dark, half light, capturing the essence of constant change.

But when I look at it now what springs to mind is the old question about a glass of water – is it half full, or half empty? And what does that say about the way you see the world?

So, what do you see here? A brightening sky of spreading blue? Or a darkening sky of spreading grey?

Whichever it is, of course, this too shall pass – the blue will be covered with rain clouds again, and the rain clouds will pass on by to reveal the blue.

But I do wonder, how our world view influences our view of the world…..and how that affects not just what we notice, but how we interpret what we notice?

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lunch in paris

I wonder how many people are thinking about food at this time of year? Lots, I expect!

As a doctor, I was often asked for a “diet sheet” but I never had such a thing. I thought that just as every patient was a unique individual so there was no standard diet which everyone should follow. We’d have a chat about food and I’d suggest a good start would be to become aware of what the person was eating and noting any specific effects they experienced. For example, I found that if I ate a sandwich at lunch time, my energy would drop within the next hour or so. It was better to have soup, or salad, or sushi. In fact, I found that after sushi I’d experience a rapid boost in energy and alertness. I don’t expect everyone would have the same experience.

So the first part of my advice about food would be to keep an eating journal for a couple of weeks, noting what you eat and drink, and also noting anything you experience in terms of energy, mood, alertness, any physical symptoms etc. In other words see if you can learn for yourself what the effects are of different food and drink.

The second part, though, was something I read about a number of years ago in a French magazine. It was that food has a place in our lives which is far greater than nutrients or food groups. It’s not all about carbohydrates, omega 3, or dairy products, for example. What’s also important is where we eat, and who we eat with. In other words, the contexts (physical and social) of eating are important. It’s really quite a different experience to eat a sandwich at your desk, than to enjoy a “croque monsieur” on a Parisian street corner! (see the photo above).

Seriously, give some thought not only to the foods you are eating, but to how eating fits into your life. I have a hunch that the more you enjoy the experience of your meal, the more you’ll find what you’ve eaten is good for you!

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paris

Returning from Scotland to France the other day, I flew over Paris and captured this view.

The first thing which catches your attention is probably the sunlit River Seine, around which the city has grown. It sparkles and shines and reminds me that Paris is known as the “city of light”.

But what comes to mind when people mention Paris now, in the light of 2015? At the start of 2015, we heard about the terrorist attacks on the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, and on the Jewish supermarket. Then we saw the huge expression of solidarity spreading far beyond Paris into the rest of France and the rest of the world with thousands upon thousands of people coming out into the streets and declaring “Je suis Charlie”.

je suis charlie

At the other end of 2015 came the massacres of mainly young people enjoying music, drink, food and each others company as the terrorists struck again in this same city. And, again, there was a reaction across the world, as people flew the tricolour, changed their profile pictures, sang La Marseillaise, and declared their solidarity with the people of Paris.

These attacks have been interpreted as an attack on what Paris “stands for” in the world, as an attack on “French values”……and so as an attack on both pleasure and delight in Life, and on “freedom, equality and brotherhood”.

Of course, these events are complex and can’t be reduced to such apparently simple interpretations.

How do we choose a life of joy instead of a life of fear? How do we say “yes” to the world, instead of “no”? I don’t think we know all the answers, but when seen from above, this sparkling city still seems to shine as some kind of beacon.

Paris is still a “city of light”.

Then I looked again at this photo, and I zoomed in so I could see the Eiffel Tower. The truth is it’s not to easy to see the Eiffel Tower in a clear blue sky any more. Most days it seems to be dulled or obscured by pollution in the atmosphere, so isn’t it interesting that the global climate change conference took place in Paris just before 2015 ended?

Wow! We have a lot of work to do, to make this world a better place for us all to live in together. A lot needs to change as we switch from consumption and waste to resilience and sustainability, as we choose to shift our attention from fear to love.

But let me return again to this image, because, instead of reducing it to its parts, I find it simply beautiful. Isn’t Paris also known as a place where artists gathered? Isn’t it one of the great symbolic cities of creativity and imagination?

Here’s my hope then for 2016. That we can each enrich our lives this year with love, imagination and the joy of living. That this can be a year when we nurture and sustain the beauty of the light in our world – that burdens are lightened, days are brightened and that we become more enlightened.

paris by night

shining lights

 

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IMG_4335

Opened the shutters, stepped outside to peg them back and saw the sunrise over my neighbour’s barn.

The sun was bright but fuzzy as a low cloud, or drifting mist, passed over its face.

And above all that a mackerel sky.

“Happy New Year” you might say a number of times today (and in the next few days) as you meet friends and family.

What else will you be doing today? Reviewing 2015? Recalling events, remembering experiences, retelling stories? Looking ahead to 2016? Making plans, resolutions, choosing what changes to make?

January is named after “Janus” – the god of two faces, one looking back, one looking forward.

Janus was the god of gateways, standing on the threshold of today. It’s good to linger a little on the threshold I think, and take your time to remember and to imagine.

Bonne Année!

 

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