Archive for July, 2016

ladybird yellow

I was sitting under the mulberry tree last saturday afternoon reading the newspaper when this little creature landed right in front of me. In an instant I was back in the real world. Let me explain….

I think that when we are reading, particularly if we are reading something which engages us fully, then we become absorbed into a different world. It’s a world partly described by the author, and partly created by my (the reader)’s memories and imagination. It’s not that that world isn’t real, but it’s highly subjective and intensely personal. Nobody else has my memories. Nobody shares my imagination. Nobody is having an identical experience to me. I might be transported by the words and my thoughts to far away places or far away times….real or imaginary.

But when this startling, attention-grabbing, little creature lands right in the centre of my vision, I leave that place and time and return to here and now.

I read an article by a French philosopher recently who argued that human beings can never experience the real because we always bring our memories, our imaginations and our processing of the sensory signals from the world to all of our experience. What we live is our subjective creation of the real. I’m not sure what I really think about that. I understand the point he is making but I something nags at me….maybe it’s that there is no real for we humans to experience other than the real that we humans experience. Oops, that sounds rather peculiar doesn’t it? What I mean is, is there any “real” “out there” which doesn’t include us? Isn’t the universe whole? And doesn’t the universe include us? So an imagined universe without us is less real, not more real, isn’t it?

Oh, I didn’t set out to go down that path. Where I meant to go was a different story altogether. Pokemon Go was released in France last week and in the papers I read a report of over a 1000 people rushing around the public garden in Bordeaux trying to find a rare Pokemon creature. Over a 1000 people! Rushing around a park looking for something that doesn’t exist! Well, only as a digitally manufactured creation. The makers call this “AR”, for “Augmented Reality” and the reporter who wrote the piece about the crowd in Bordeaux said that it was a delight to see so many happy people, their faces beaming with anticipation as they rediscovered the childhood delights of play. Wow! Very positive Monsieur Journaliste! But does something like Pokemon Go genuinely augment reality?

But then, I’m wondering again….isn’t this just a contemporary example of how the human imagination interacts with the rest of the universe to produce the “real”, irrespective of whether you are going to use the word “augmented” or not?

Maybe these technologies are bringing people together, stimulating delight and pleasure, creating a brand new world. Maybe.

I think my reality is augmented every day by the world around me. This little yellow ladybird made my day  different and made it feel special to me.

Don’t we augment our reality through curiosity and paying attention, by delight, wonder and being prepared to be amazed?

I think it does…….



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fields of gold

Fields of gold….this is what they look like where I live. Aren’t they spectacular? And don’t they go so well with a wide blue sky?

wide field

The first year I came to live here I kept driving past them thinking, must stop and take a photo sometime, but, somehow, I always had something more important to do. “I’ll catch them next time I pass by” I thought. But I didn’t. And when finally I decided to make a special trip out to photograph them, they were gone. Or almost. Heads down and turning brown. Just didn’t have the same appeal. So I missed them. Didn’t take long to miss them. It turns out they don’t look like this for very long.

I learned that lesson.

So when this caught my eye recently……


….I pulled over and took a few photos.

As I stood looking out across the field up to the top of the hill I recalled the scene on the beach at dawn in the movie, “City of Angels”, and I thought, “How amazing that this field of little seeds transforms into a carpet of tall green stalks and leaves, which, one day (or at least it seems to happen in one day), the sun comes up and these glorious golden flowers unfold to greet it, bathing their petals in its rays which warm their rich, abundant crops of seeds.”


How flower like.

I believe we are here to live like that. To flourish. To reach up, unfold, respond to the sun, the rain, and the wind. To emerge and to engage with a full becoming….becoming the unique and singular creatures which we are, and to express our uniqueness in full awareness of our communion with the rest of nature.

There are terrible stories around just now. Stories of acts of cowardice and killing. How are we to respond to them?

With fear? Closing down? Making our lives smaller?

Or with LIFE? Opening up, living our lives to the full?

Maybe I can learn from the sunflowers. Maybe I can stand up, radiate with the beauty of the life force which surges through me. And flourish.

Let me use that astonishing capacity which I share with all human beings – the ability to make conscious choices.

I choose to relish this moment, this day, this present, because if I put it off, I might miss living altogether.

I choose love instead of hate.

I choose to create instead of destroying.

I choose to be grateful for this “one wild and precious life“.

I choose to share my delight.



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14th July, 2016.

As I stood amongst the gathering crowds in Bordeaux on Thursday evening the sun went down and I spotted what looked like an angel watching over the city.

She’s “Liberty”, and sits on top of the column at Quinconces. Up close you can see that she is holding a broken chain.

The fireworks were spectacular, fired up into the night sky from a barge in the middle of the river, opposite the Bourse. The crowd was immense. I was watching from the left bank and surrounded by children, parents, young and old, ooh-ing and ah-ing, and finally applauding and cheering as the final glorious fireworks seemed to fill the entire sky. I was struck by the sheer delight around me. How much people thrill to firework displays!

The crowd slowly dispersed and I got back to the hotel, where the TV in the lounge was showing the dreadful events of Nice. As the details slowly emerged, the horror intensified. A lorry driven through a crowd, a crowd like the one I was part of, who had been enjoying exactly the same kind of show as I had, just minutes before. Incomprehensible.

I spent my medical career trying to understand. Diagnosis is really just a word for understanding. A person comes with a story, tells of their symptoms, has physical changes in their body. Medical treatment starts with understanding what’s going on, with what you are dealing with. That’s the diagnosis. Then you have to choose from a range of options as you decide what to do about it. What actions you should take now.

I approach these terrible events in the world in the same way. But I’m struggling. I don’t understand how a human being can go from taking smiling selfies in the middle of a crowd of happy people in the afternoon to driving a truck at them in the evening in an attempt to kill and maim as many men, women and children as possible. I don’t understand how it happens. The only thing I know is that it’s not simple. There will be multiple factors in play. Some of them will be society-wide, some world-wide, some very specific to certain individuals, or certain families.

My approach to health was not one of fighting diseases. I didn’t use all those military metaphors of eliminating, battling, fighting, killing and so on…..instead, I always sought to understand what might assist and stimulate the individual’s powers of recovery and resilience. Health seems to involve such things, at least in part.

So, as I try to make sense of these events in a country whose core principles are “liberty, equality and fraternity”, I reckon some of the answers will involve strengthening just those features. How do we grow freedom? How do we move towards, instead of away from, greater equality? How do we spread a sense of all being in this together, we human beings, regardless of race, gender or religion?

But maybe we have to start by making a decent diagnosis. Maybe a healthier society can only emerge from a greater, (and, I’d argue, better) level of understanding?

After that, we need to act. We need to do something different.

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On a recent trip to the nearby town of Saintes, I chanced across two little families.

Do you know what these particular chicks are going to look like when they grow up?

We are all dealt a certain hand when we are born, a particular and unique pattern of DNA. Our personal pattern shares a lot with others of course. All we humans have distinct DNA patterns that distinguish us from other animals. The surprise really is how shared the common patterns are. Some patterns are the same in humans, chimps, fruit flies and earthworms. Fruit flies and earthworms? I’m not too astonished about the similarities between humans and chimps (over 95% similar genome apparently), but fruit flies and earthworms? Who’d have thought it?

But there’s more to how we begin than our DNA code. From the very first moments of life we begin to develop differently. We humans have fingerprints for example, and there are no two identical sets of fingerprints in the world – ever. We have unique patterns all over our bodies, not just in our fingertips. Our eyes, for example, are also very distinctly different. We’re all becoming a lot more familiar with that uniqueness as we use our fingers to gain access to our mobile phones, or our irises and fingers to gain access to particular rooms, buildings, or even countries.

Babies develop distinctly different patterns of behaviour from their very first hours in this world. If you are a parent of more than one child you’ve probably wondered many times how can your children be SO different when they both came from the exact same parents, and grew up int he exact same family?

It’s so, so difficult to know what a little one is going to become. We can’t know what events will occur in their lives. We can’t know how their personalities will develop, what coping strategies they will acquire, what choices they will make.

But all of that is ok. It’s the nature of life. It unfolds. Little ones grow, change and develop every single day. And when I say little ones, I don’t just mean little human children. We see the same, albeit over shorter timescales, when we watch chicks grow into adult birds, or seeds grow into flowers, vegetables or trees. We see it everywhere.

I’m sure at some point you’ve chanced across an old photograph of yourself, your parents, or your children and you recognise them. Instantly. But oh how they’ve changed! Oh, how I have changed! And isn’t that second insight often quickly followed by “but I still feel the same me” (or some variation of that).

What’s the best thing we can do for the little ones?

Nurture them.

Love them in their developing uniqueness, knowing that from those very first days they are already different from us, and it’s our job to help them on the way to becoming all they can be.

If you’re still not sure what those chicks at the start of this post are going to turn out to be like when they grow up – here’s a couple of hints –

swan family

peacock family

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Kahlil Gibran (On Children. From “The Prophet”)

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I was sitting in the garden yesterday next to some buddleia bushes which are very, very popular with the butterflies. I watched a few of fly around, then took this one’s photo when he landed on the blossom near me.

Isn’t this creature both beautiful and astonishing? The colours and patterns on its’ wings, its’ delicate antennae, the long proboscis probing deep down into each little flower to gather up nectar? Have you watched a butterfly flying and feeding like this? Its’ movements seem completely random. It doesn’t start on one flower then move outwards or around in some obvious pattern. It will select this flower, then that one over there, then that one next to it, then it flies up into the air and lands on a completely different part of the bush, only to reappear again on the original flower a few moments later.

We can’t predict exactly which direction a butterfly is going to fly next.

Butterflies are almost a symbol of unpredictability. The apparent randomness of their flight is one of their key characteristics. When scientists discovered that everything on Earth was actually connected, they picked the butterfly as an example to explain how small changes lead to large, unpredictable ones. “The butterfly effect” poetically describes how the flapping of a butterfly wing in one part of the world can change the air movement there, which sets off a cascade of interconnected changes, leading to a hurricane in another part of the world.

Small changes that we make can lead to huge changes down the line. That always makes me think two things – first that if I want to bring about a big change, the way to do it is to keep making small changes. In other words, the choices and actions I make in my daily life, are the best, indeed maybe the only, way to bring about the changes in the world I want to see. The second thing is there are no guarantees. Despite the claims of some to know that if we do this or that, then the outcome will be exactly this other thing, that’s just not true. It’s better to stay humble and realise that not only is there much I don’t know, but I have no way of knowing exactly how things are going to turn out. Some people find that frustrating, but I think it’s empowering. It means I need to make my choices and actions on the basis of my values, not on the basis of control. I can’t control the future. But I can sure choose to act in loving ways. I can sure choose to act in “integrative” ways, building healthy, mutually beneficial bonds between me and the others (the well differentiated parts). I can choose to create. I can choose to increase diversity. I can choose to tolerate. I don’t need to be in control of the future.

Butterflies are magnificent examples of change. They go through four utterly different, distinct phases of life – egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, then winged insect. The four phases are so different that some people still think a butterfly is more than one creature. No wonder they are the symbol of change and metamorphosis.

All of life is change.

We are all in a continual process of becoming. It’s a characteristic of life – emergence – an unfolding, a developing, a creative changing reality.

Butterflies are also great examples of connectedness. I see that two ways. First of all, the day the buddleia bushes in my garden began to bloom the butterflies appeared. The more the blossom, the more the butterflies. You could almost think both the blossom and the butterflies emerge from the same source. They are certainly intimately connected. Mysteriously connected.

Secondly, some butterflies, like some birds, are migratory. They spend some part of their lives in one part of the world, and some in others. For the British “painted lady” butterfly that involves distances as far apart as Africa and the Arctic Circle. If that’s not enough to astonish you, wait till you hear this! They complete this migration over SIX generations. Yep, no single butterfly makes the full trip. No butterfly and its’ immediate offspring makes the single trip. It takes SIX generations to make the round trip.

How does that work?

I read that they navigate “using a time-compensated sun compass” – a what?! How does THAT work?

No wonder we see butterflies as symbols of change, metamorphosis, mystery and complexity.

Don’t we live on just an incredible planet? Isn’t life, literally, astonishing?

Every, single, day.




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tulip new

A new day, early morning, the sun rising, the dew glistening on the unfolding petals of the flowers which were just buds yesterday…..

Ellen Langer, the mindfulness researcher, says there are two ways to live your life – mindfully, or mindlessly. Her research shows that the simple way to live mindfully is to search for, and to be aware of, the new.

Neuroscience has revealed that we use our two cerebral hemispheres for different purposes. One of the key differences is that the left seeks out the familiar, whilst the right prefers what’s new.

Our preference for what’s familiar, or what’s new, is inextricably linked to our attitude towards difference. If you are averse to difference, you’ll prefer the familiar. What’s different, or unfamiliar, is then experienced as something to be afraid of, or anxious about.

“You ain’t from round here, are you, stranger?”

It seems the driver underpinning the preference for the familiar is often fear.

Whereas, the driver underpinning the preference for the new is more likely to be curiosity.

The good news is we all have both hemispheres, and we can all choose to focus on fear, or on curiosity. (Remember the story of the hungry wolves?)

If you want to develop certain muscles, you have to exercise them. If you want to develop certain attitudes to the world, you have to exercise those as well.

How much do you exercise your fears? How much time and headspace do you dedicate to them? And, on the other hand, how much do you exercise your curiosity?

Remember, as Ellen Langer says, if you want to live mindfully, seek out the new….

Or, as I’d put it “If you want to be a hero instead of a zombie, be curious”



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When I worked at what’s now called the NHS Centre for Integrative Care in Glasgow, every patient attending for the first time had a sixty minute appointment. 60 minutes doesn’t seem a lot in the context of a life time but to receive a whole hour of undivided, focused, non-judgemental attention feels like a gift.

My colleagues and I would frequently have patients tell us “You’re the first doctor to have actually listened to me.” I don’t think that feedback ever lost its power to shock. How did so many people get so far into the health care service and not have the experience of being listened to?

We all need to be heard. We all have the right to be heard. All of us.

The recent EU Referendum in the UK, and its political fall-out has made it even clearer to me that, politically, we are not being heard. There is a disenchantment with politics and politicians across the so called democratic world. Maybe one of the reasons for that is that our democracies are not enabling people to be heard.

In the UK there is a whole chamber of government, the House of Lords, which is 100% unelected. There is nothing democratic about it. Nobody voted for them and they aren’t accountable to the electorate.

The electoral processes based on simple majorities lead to government after government which does not represent the majority of the electorate. In the recent referendum 52% of those who voted, voted Leave and 48% voted to Remain. About 30% of the electorate didn’t vote. The 52% of the 70% are heard (on this question). The rest of the population are ignored. Parliamentary elections are like that too.

Is handing power to the largest minority the way to ensure that most people in the country are heard?

How can it be?

Most people don’t have the experience of being heard and, in consequence, don’t feel the elected governments represent them.

There’s an additional problem and that is that politics, as currently practised, is about power, not consensus. Those minorities who are elected believe they have the power to act according to their own beliefs and values. They act to exert power over others. If politics was about creating consensus, rather than wielding power over others, it would be an entirely different kind of politics. It would be more democratic. More people would have the experience of being heard.

Being heard isn’t enough.

We need to be cared about too.

Whilst it’s a good thing to listen to someone, to give them the time and attention to enable them to tell their unique story, it’s not enough. The response to that story, the doctors’ responses, the politicians’ responses, need to show that they give a damn. They need to show that the individual human being matters.

If we don’t have a system based on the principle that every one of us is unique and valuable then we get what we’ve got – politics, economics, education, health care, as if people don’t matter.

Isn’t it within the capacity of we human beings to create something better? What would the world look like if we did?

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