Archive for November, 2016


In this season the leaves begin to fall and one of my daily activities is to rake them up. Before I moved to France I lived in a second floor apartment so leave raking wasn’t part of my life. I’ve found that I really enjoy it. It gives me great pleasure. I know it’s not the same as a zen monk raking his stones, but there is something of that quality to it. I don’t rush it and the sweeping movements with the rake feel strangely relaxing. It’s also really pleasing to gather the leaves into a heap, then to scoop them up to take them away to the “déchetterie” for composting another day.

I am constantly amazed by the variety of shapes, sizes and colours, and often pause to look at a leaf more closely, to turn it over in my hand and feel its texture.

Once I’ve finished raking it feels like having tidied up, or cleaned a room. It’s satisfying. You can immediately see the results of your efforts.

The other morning I opened the front door, unlocked the shutters and stepped outside to see what I’ve captured in this photo. During the night the wind had worked differently from usual. Instead of scattering the leaves everywhere it had gathered them together into this heap under the tree. I hardly needed the rake that day. I just had to scoop up the leaves with my hands.

I remember years ago I used to read an American magazine entitled “Wired”, and they had a regular column of “new words”, neologisms which people were starting to use. One which really impressed me at the time, and has stayed with me ever since, was the word “pronoia”. You know the word “paranoia”? Which means the delusion that the world is conspiring against you. Well “pronoia” means the delusion that the world is conspiring to help you out!

I had a real sense of pronoia the morning I took this photo……

As I sat down to write this post I remembered a thought which has been attributed to Einstein, although I believe there is no record of him ever having actually said it.

“I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves. For if we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly and I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves as well in this process. If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially ‘playing dice with the universe’, then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning. But if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives. God does not play dice with the universe,”

Well, even if he never actually said it, it’s still an interesting thought to turn over in your head for a bit, isn’t it? So many people live as if the universe is harsh and hostile and they need to struggle against it, to overcome it. Yet others believe the universe couldn’t care less and that everything that occurs is completely random and meaningless, even an individual life. But there is this third option, which is that the universe is actually a creative, “friendly” place. If you think that way, then every day becomes filled with wonder and delight. Every day you encounter something, or someone, astonishing.

I prefer the third stance. I think there is too much beauty and elaborate complexity in the universe for it all to come down to either malign intent or apathy. There’s something amazingly wonderful about a leaf, a season, an ecosystem, a bird, a person…..I’ll never tire of being amazed by, and trying to understand, my daily life.

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I’ve lived here for two years now, so this is the third time I’ve seen the vineyards turn golden like this. The vines are fascinating all year round but in this season they are particularly beautiful.

I was just recalling some of the thoughts I’ve had which have been directly inspired by this countryside. The landscape around here looks just like this. It is so different from the wild mountainous landscape of Scotland. But once the grapes are harvested, the processes involved in turning them into cognac are very similar to the ones used to turn barley into whisky. The culture of blending, tasting and savouring cognacs is very, very like that of whiskies with each distillery producing distinct flavours depending on the ground on which the plants were grown and the work of the master blenders in the distillery. Two or three hundred years ago some of the distillery workers from Scotland came to this part of France and applied their knowledge and skills from whisky production to the local cognac.

The vineyards around here are old. There’s a noticeboard just outside this village telling the story of how in the 1700s particularly hardy vines were brought here from America to improve the local crops. The vineyard where the noticeboard sits is called “the field of experiences”, or, probably a better translation would be “the field of experiments” (I think I prefer the “experiences” over “experiments”, but that’s just me).

From these two little discoveries I realise how the distinct, unique character of this environment has been influenced by other parts of the world, other peoples, other plants. Nothing exists in isolation.

The “vignobles”, or vine workers, are busy all year around. The harvest was completed last month and one of the next tasks is tending to the individual vines, to remove any less healthy ones, any which have passed their best. I was startled by this work the first day I encountered it because it can involve using a tractor with a type of drill attachment to dig out certain plants. It sounds more like roadworks than fieldworks. Throughout the year the vine workers tend to each plant over and over again. Every single vine is pruned by hand. That’s another thing which surprised me. I don’t think farmers attend to each plant individually in a field of grain. I’m not sure that would be possible. But these vines are not like fields of grain. They are, more obviously, rows of individuals. From a distance, as in these photos, it is hard to see them as individuals, but to the vine workers every single plant requires their full attention.

That balance between the one and the many is something which is often at the front of my mind. I thought of it often in my work as a doctor, always mindful that even if this next patient was bringing me a story of a particular disease or disorder, they were always more than “another case of…..”. They were always a unique individual who required my full attention.

One final thought, before I finish today…..I’ve learned that although the landscape around here features vineyard after vineyard, that each vineyard too is different. One of the most important differences is the soil. Take a look at this map –


Each of these coloured areas produces a completely different flavour of alcohol. The large distilleries which produce their own distinctive blends of cognac will select certain amounts of grapes from certain regions, knowing that the flavours of each region are very different. Those differences have a lot to do with the different soil types, and a lot to do with the micro-climates created by the particular landscapes and locations.

I often wonder about our relationship to the physical world. How the environment, the water, the climate, the shape of the landscape, all influence us, how we, as human beings respond to and, in turn, shape the very environment in which we live.

We hear quite a lot about “identity politics” at the moment. Over the summer I read a piece of research which investigated the beliefs and attitudes of young French people to explore what influenced their identity. The conclusion was that the strongest influence on their identity was geography. They felt French because they lived in this part of the world called France. Not because they belonged to a particular race or religion, but because they lived in this land. That gives me hope.


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I want to share three photos with you today.

There is a large stone wall along one side of the garden where I live. It is covered with a plant called “Boston ivy”. In the winter it is bare…just a web of brown creepers clinging tightly to the stonework. In the summer it is a dense, deep green. Towards the end of summer millions of seedpods hidden behind the leaves, pop open in the last sun of the day, cascading down through the vine creating a sound that is for all the world like a waterfall.

But at this time of year, the change are at their most striking. The leaves turn golden, yellow, and a whole spectrum of reds –

red ivy.jpg

Then as the leaves fall, they reveal a forest of yellow stalks to which they were attached –


I’ve never seen anything like that in any other plant. After a while, all the stalks will fall to the ground too. But as the leaves fall away, they reveal the dark purple berries which hundreds of birds seem to desire – at least it seems that way to me as I see how busy they are every day just now.


I think the red colour of the stalks which hold the berries is astonishing.

Such variety! Such variation! Such daily change! Something new to see and to enjoy every single day…….

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I stumbled upon a goddess in the gardens today. She looks well pleased now she’s finished painting all of the leaves yellow.

I think she’s every right to be pleased. She’s done a fantastic job!


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I stood with the morning sun at my back and gazed at the leaves of the vine which covers the high wall at the edge of my garden here in the Charente.

This is my third autumn living in France and from the Autumn Equinox I’ve been anticipating the glorious sight of these leaves. I can’t look at it too much. It captures my attention and utterly delights me.

This third time round strengthens my awareness of the cyclical nature of the seasons. Time no longer feels linear to me. It’s beginning to feel more like a spiral.

As I prepared to take this photo I noticed my shadow and instead of changing the direction of the shot, I consciously decided to include the shadow. Shadows pass much more quickly than seasons do but laying the one transience over another multiplied the effect for me.

I’ve written before about transience, and how it is celebrated in the Spring at the time of the cherry blossoms in Japan, and those memories and ideas popped up in my mind as I prepared to take this photo.

As I look at the image again now, I’m drawn more to ponder how my experience of time has changed in these last two years. The Charente in France has a snail as its logo to represent the “slow life” which is characteristic of this region. That’s one of the reasons I moved here. Slowness, in this way of thinking about it, increases awareness. A “slow life” involves taking the time to savour, to relish, to delight in the everyday – the air, the colours of Nature, the birdsongs, the flavour of vegetables grown in your own garden – you get the idea.

But I realise now that time has changed for me in other ways too. It’s not just that it passes more slowly. I’m more aware of the seasons now than I have been at any other time in my life. We had quite a cool and wet Spring, but from the Summer Solstice, the temperatures shot up and stayed in the high 20s, low 30s (centigrade, my American friends!) pretty much every day up to the Autumn Equinox which came with mists and cooler morning air. When autumn comes the vineyards which stretch in every direction from my garden turn golden, yellow, brown and red. It feels like living in a work of Art.

There are two more rhythms I’m aware of. My every day begins with my opening the blue wooden shutters which cover every window of the house, and ends with my closing them again. The shutters need to be opened and closed from outside, so my day starts with my stepping out into the morning, and ends with my gazing up at the stars. And there’s the final rhythm I’m aware of – the moon. Tonight is a full moon, a “super moon” apparently. I’ll look forward to seeing it.


How do you experience the passing of time? What rhythms are you aware of?

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The opposite pole of my last post about taking the view from on high, is to focus on the particular.

In the autumn as the leaves reveal  an astonishing range of colours, one of the greatest delights is to look at a few, just one at a time. Yesterday morning, as the sun rose in the sky, I took a few photos of individual leaves as they caught my attention.

This one has beautiful yellows and reds in the one leaf. It was the contrast and range of colour which caught my eye, but as I look at the image now I see the sunlight shining through the leaf, and through the smaller green leaf close by. That sunlight surprise me because the leaf was lying on the ground but it looks as if the light is shining through from behind it. At first, that’s puzzling and draws me to look even closer. It shows how low the sun was in the sky, to be able to illuminate fallen leaves and grass from this angle…


This next one also grabbed my attention because of the colour. Such a rich, vivid red. But I was also instantly drawn to the shadows cast by the leaves of grass behind the leaf. They seem almost calligraphic – is that an “A” I can see there?


Having noticed the interesting effect of the low sunlight casting shadows behind the colourful leaves, I got down on the grass and photographed this one. Despite the fact this is  a two dimensional image, the shadows make it appear almost three dimensional (which, of course, it was when I was standing next to it!)


Finally, the sunlight making dew drops sparkle on the surface of a leaf always seems magical. What is it about water droplets that makes them so attractive? Every time they transform whatever they lie on in a way which reveals to us not just the beauty of the water, but of the surface it lies on.


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Edinburgh from above.


Bordeaux from above.

The other day I flew from Edinburgh to Bordeaux and took a photo of each from the plane.

These images immediately make me think of the concept from classical philosophy…”the view from above”, or “the view from on high”. It refers to the practice of standing back and taking an overview. It’s useful when we feel we can’t see the wood for the trees and when we want to see anything in its contexts…the contexts of time, space, environment, culture etc.

I often found this helpful for people who were experiencing high levels of anxiety or grief. Standing back a bit to see the bigger picture helps us to regain our stability when we are feeling a bit wobbly. That bigger picture might be the sweep of an era, spread over many decades, or it might be seeing the connections between whatever we are focused on and the global reality.

It’s important to consider details too, of course, and that’s the other pole – the ability to see the individual uniqueness of each moment, event, or person. But taking the “view from above” is, I would argue, equally important.

Think of that classic image of the earth rising over the horizon of the moon. Didn’t the sight of that beautiful, fragile, small blue marble hit us right between the eyes? Didn’t it make us realise that the Earth and all of us living on it is a single, living, vibrant whole?


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Of all the hundreds of trees and thousands of leaves I saw on my walk the other day, why did I stop and photograph this particular group?

It was difference which caught my eye. The striking pink of these leaves amongst the abundance of green ones stopped me in my tracks.

I love diversity. I find it beautiful.

Everywhere I look I see uniqueness. Every patient who walked through my consulting room door was different. Every one brought a brand new, unique story to tell me. And next time, when they would return, they, too would be different, because all of us change all of the time.

Mary Oliver begins her new collection of essays, “Upstream” with

One tree is like another tree, but not too much. One tulip is like another tulip, but not altogether. More or less like people – a general outline, then the stunning individual strokes.

Nature loves diversity. Mono-cultures are more vulnerable, less resilient. By making new connections between diverse, well-differentiated individuals, the processes of integration create novelty and stimulates growth.

So I hope this current wave of division and hatred of “the other” which we are witnessing in the world today will diminish.

I hope the current wave of homogenisation which characterises globalisation will be countered by millions of us reclaiming, not just our individual uniqueness, but the beauty and value which we find in diversity.

We need to find a better way to live together than the creation of binary divisions and calls to exclude, remove or eliminate “the other”.


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I named this blog “heroes not zombies” because we humans have a tendency to go about the world on autopilot. As we walk through the day the thoughts which fill our heads are often ones from the past or the future. We go over what people said or did, recall events and circumstances which made a big impact on us….even the ones which seemed quite inconsequential to others. And we go over and over what might lie ahead and worry about it. All these thoughts squeeze out our attention to the present. I’m sure you’ve had that experience of traveling from one place to another, maybe even driving a car, only to arrive and realise you were so preoccupied with something you are surprised you’re at your destination already.

There’s something else which prevents us from experiencing the here and now. We become habituated. We are creatures of habit and when we stay within the bounds of the familiar we have a tendency to become oblivious to the detailed differences of the every day.

And there’s another thing. People who want power over others, whether that be politically, socially or commercially, pressurise us to conform and be compliant. Difference is singled out as a negative and suppressed. Governments, institutions, authorities, corporations want to control us a mass. The Romans did that through the provision of “bread and circuses”, but maybe now its “sugar and screens”.

Living in a zombie-like autopilot submissive way means we lose touch with reality. Reality is the here and now. Reality is uniqueness. Reality is diversity. Reality is freedom, opportunity and change.

The alternative is to become the authors and main characters, or heroes, of our own life stories. We can co-create our daily reality and claim this one wild and special life as our own.

OK, so how did I get all that from that photo today?

The other day I was walking a route I’ve walked thousands and thousands of times over a lifetime. It’s autumn here in the northern hemisphere and the colours of the leaves on the trees this year is particularly eye catching. In fact I think to walk amongst trees is one of the best ways to draw yourself and your attention into the here and now. So I was stopping every now and again and taking a photo. Then, I don’t know quite why, but I looked up from the base of a tree towards the sky and took this photo.

It wasn’t just the colours which caught my eye, it was the shape and form of the branches. As I look at it now my imagination kicks in and I’m more and more convinced I just managed to glimpse the legs of one of the spirits of the forest as they leapt over my head in the canopy of the trees.

Well, I did say my imagination had kicked in……

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