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Archive for June, 2019

I reckon I come across something amazing every day. Maybe I’m easily amazed! But in French, the phrase, “l’√©merveillement du quotidien” (the amazement of the every day), is one which has made its way to the core of my being. I don’t know if you’d call it a value, or a principle, but it shapes my life, moment by moment, day by day.

This photo is of something I noticed the other day, something which attracted my attention, then stimulated my thinking. That’s the kind of amazement I like best!

What I saw first was the sky. Just a bit of the sky between two buildings. The clouds looked unusual and pleasing, so I framed the shot, taking in the silhouettes of the buildings on either side of the patch of sky. I liked it the moment I saw it. And I clicked.

When I looked at the shot later it pleased me even more. Not least, I think, because of the contrasts. There’s the contrast between the blue and white of the sky, and the dark browns and grey/blacks of the buildings. But there’s another contrast too.

Look at the shapes.

There’s the shape of the stepwise construction of the building, the bricks laid, one by one, each one separate from the other. It’s like a stair case, isn’t it? A stair case you climb one step at a time. The shape, it seems to me, is typical of what we’d call “discrete”. Each step is distinct from, separate from, the others. And each one adds in a pretty linear, arithmetical way to the others.

But then there is the shape of the clouds. They look like waves. They emerge out of the invisible, out of the blue, each one becoming less distinct, less separate, than the other, till at the top of the image the waves merge into a patch of cloud, almost like waves disappearing into the sea.

I find that pleasing.

I find that appealing, attractive and it make me wonder. Isn’t that the essence of amazement? Of “√©merveillement”?

I find that thought-provoking. It seems to me that the left hemisphere of the brain is great at seeing patterns, great at breaking the whole down into individual, discrete parts, great at constructing, building, step by step. Whilst the right hemisphere is busy seeing the whole, seeing the context, seeing the connections, great at finding what’s new, great at engaging with waves which emerge from the whole, (from the sky, from the sea, from the Earth) and dissolve back into it again.

How amazing. To have two brains working away at the same time, enabling us to see and appreciate this universe so uniquely.

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This small street in Segovia doesn’t look like much but up on the wall is this plaque –

Now, my knowledge of Spanish is very limited but I can see this is the name of the street – it’s the street of the door of the moon. The “Door of the Moon”! Oh, now, doesn’t that change things? What a name!

I’ve had a bit of a hunt online but I can’t find out much information about this street, or about the “door of the moon”, but I did discover there is also a “door of the sun” (of course!). When Segovia was a fortified town it had a wall around it, and to gain entry there were a number of “doors”, some of which were I think just wooden gates, and, as best I can tell, “the door of the moon” was one of those gates.

I haven’t come across any stories associated with these doors yet, but if any Spanish speaking readers here are inspired to do a bit of investigating I’d be delighted to hear what you discover!

For me, this is just such a romantic name. It inspires. It activates my imagination. Does it active yours?

See what a name can do? Doesn’t it whet your appetite for some stories? The stories which explain, or give meaning to, whatever has been named.

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There’s a very human tendency to view ourselves as outside the world. What I mean is that we feel we are IN the world, but we remain APART from it. We are dualists. We think “there’s me” and “there’s the world”.

How did we get here? Just parachuted into it? Dropped down from outer space? We talk about “Nature” or the “the natural world” as if that’s something other than ourselves. As if it’s a place we can visit, and then leave again.

But that’s all a sort of delusion, isn’t it?

There is no “me” separate from “the world” or from “Nature”. We didn’t land on Earth from an alternate universe, we emerged within it, live within it, die within it. There is nowhere else. (Or if there is, we have no way of knowing that)

Yet, this sort of division persists, doesn’t it?

In fact, it seems this is a crucial and necessary part of being human. Our brain has evolved the ability to create what some call, “a necessary distance” between the flows of energy, information and materials pouring through ourselves and the planet we live on.

We are great pattern spotters, we humans. We see patterns, analyse them, name them, categorise and label them, then we can re-cognise them very quickly. We create maps in our minds. We create a “you map”, a “me map” and a “we map”, as Dan Siegel says in “Mindsight”. These maps contribute greatly to our sense of self, as well helping us to recognise others and develop confidence and belief in our relationships.

Our linguistic abilities are used to create the names and labels and to think about whatever we are applying them to, as well as enabling us to communicate about them. We use words, symbols and metaphors to take these processes of analysis and recognition to whole new levels. These are some of our super-powers as humans. They enable us to literally, and metaphorically, grasp the world in which we live.

To do all those things requires us to step back from the flow of experience. We use this “necessary distance” to momentarily step aside, to enable us to see more clearly, understand more deeply. With this comes this sense that we are “apart”. That there is “me” and “The Other”. When, in reality, there is only ONE, and we live inextricably IN the flux and the flow.

I don’t like judgements. They stop thought. But we need them. It’s just we need to be able to let them go more easily than we make them as our understanding deepens, as we see more and more connections, envisage the contexts in which whatever we are examining exists.

So, it’s interesting to me, to take the old school philosophical spiritual practice of “the view from on high”, literally from time to time. To climb up somewhere, to take the time to gaze towards the horizons, to see the landscape unfolding in front of me. To see the “bigger picture”.

This photo is one I took the other day when standing outside the Alcazar in Segovia. I’m pretty sure that what caught my eye was the church. It seems to stand alone. Almost in the middle of nowhere. But as I framed the shot my eye was led from the church to the winding road which my mind then followed to the top of the hill. Up on the ridge I could see buildings. A lot of buildings. So not a church in the middle of nowhere at all. But still, a church set apart somehow. The curve of the road was immediately appealing and I made sure I included it in the camera frame.

Now that I look at this image I see, yes, the church, that physical symbol of the spiritual connected to the village at the top of the hill by a winding, beautifully curving road. You could argue the road leads to the church. Or you could see the road as leading from the church to the town where people live. In other words, you can see the church, the town AND the connection all at once. I find that immensely pleasing.

I don’t know if that will get you thinking about the place of the spiritual in human life. It might. Or maybe it will get you thinking about connections, contexts and the illusions of separateness?

Ah, before I go, one other thing……see the wall someone has built just to the left of the church and the road? Someone has claimed this piece of the Earth as their own and built a wall around it to strengthen their feeling of separateness. Most people live in the village on the ridge, or so it seems to me. Not many live behind the wall.

Oh yes, walls again. We are hearing a lot about them these days. Both literal walls, to separate Americans from Mexicans, or Palestinians from Israelis, and the toxic and divisive “US AND THEM” walls which divide “natives” from “immigrants”.

But it’s all one world, huh? We share the same planet, the same air, the same water, the same place in the evolutionary path of Life.

It’s a bit of a challenge isn’t it? To see differences and separations but to see them as inextricably connected in a bigger picture.

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Sometimes I notice that something I’m looking at strongly reminds me of something else. In fact, isn’t that the fundamental way in which we engage with the world?

Whatever we are looking at, hearing, sensing….wherever we are….our experience is unique. Even a person standing right next to us in that same moment will have a different experience.

One way to consider this idea is to think of two people walking along the bank of a river. For the first person, throughout their whole life they have found something soothing and calming about the flow of a river. They look at this river, walk beside it, and feel calm. It delights them. For the other person, rivers are associated with danger. Maybe somebody they knew fell in a river and drowned one day. Maybe they, themselves, fell in and almost drowned one day. Every time they approach a river, any river, they feel anxious, insecure and unsafe. They are alert to the possible dangers.

These two people are sharing a moment in time and space, but neither of them is having the same experience as the other.

I often wonder about the connections we make in our minds….the memories which come to the fore, the emotions and thoughts which arise, in any particular moment. And how those memories, those thoughts, those emotions and, yes, beliefs, fashion each and every new experience.

When I looked at this scene above through the viewfinder of my camera it looked pretty much like you see it here in this photo. Instantly I thought of Magritte’s “Day and Night”.

And in that moment I wasn’t seeing just some clouds in front of a blue sky over some rooftops. I was seeing a work of art. It reminded me of an early scene in the movie, Basquiat, where the artist looks up at the sky and see surfers.

It set me off thinking about the power of art to change the way we see, not only the moment we are looking at a particular painting, but the way we see the world ever after.

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I’ve recently realised I have a dual speed approach to photography.

First of all, something catches my eye and I stop to take a photograph. Normally, I don’t spend long over this part. I see something. I stop in my tracks. I get my camera or phone out of my bag, frame the shot, and click. Photo taken. That’s the fast part.

Secondly, I upload all the photos I’ve taken that day, or that week, onto my computer. Then I make a first pass, deleting the ones which are just awful, and adjusting others, cropping, straightening, lightening, deepening…whatever seems to need done. That takes time. It’s the first phase of the slow part. As I do that, certain images strike me more than others do, and I mark them as “favourites”.

Thirdly, and this might happen, days or even weeks afterwards, I browse through them, or find myself searching out a particular photo because I’ve been thinking about something and that image has come to the front of my mind. I pick out the one I’m looking for, or I pick one that strikes me in that moment, and begin the fourth stage.

Fourthly, I upload the photo to my wordpress account and paste it into a new post. Then I take my time to look at it more closely and write what thoughts arise. This is the final slow part.

Here’s an example. I was in Paris for a few days a couple of weeks ago and one of the days as I was crossing a road I noticed this huge mural above the shops. I stopped (deciding not to cross with the green man yet!), took out my camera, framed the shot and clicked, then I continued on my way. Once I returned home I uploaded all the photos and when I saw this one I cropped it a bit to focus on the artwork itself. Then I inserted it into this post. The thoughts which have arisen included what I’ve just written about the dual speed nature of my photography, which, strangely, are a set of thoughts about thinking about this photo…..a kind of meta-view……an overview, if you like. Then I returned to the image itself.

This image intrigues me. It’s a huge flight of stairs. I was exploring Paris at the time and that always involves a LOT of walking and a LOT of stairs if you use the metro. I checked my phone and it told me I’d climbed 14 flights of stairs that day! Wow! In that sense, this image was a great motif – this is what a visit to Paris entails – lots of steps! By the way, have you ever climbed the steps up to Sacre Coeur? That’s quite a climb. Or made your way up the crowded Spanish Steps in Rome? Or have you climbed any of the long stairways in Edinburgh up to the Old Town? (You’ll have figured out by now I’m remembering some of the long stairways I’ve climbed. I could add a lot more, but I’ll leave you to add your own).

I’m of a certain age, so a particular piece of music pops into my mind at this point. Yep, Led Zeppelin, ‘Stairway to Heaven’.

And then I return to the image…..

Could the musicians be playing ‘Stairway to Heaven’? If not, what might they be playing?

What other characters are in this mural? There’s a young girl at the top. She’s looking pretty happy and welcoming, and there’s the central character, the man with the suitcase. I realise I’ve immediately identified with the man with the suitcase. Isn’t that something we do quite a lot? Identify with the hero? The central character in the story? Isn’t that how we make sense of our lives actually? Telling ourselves the stories where we are both the author and the main character? Which gets me wondering about the stories we tell. Maybe the man’s suitcase is full of stories? Maybe he’ll be telling some of them to his child (that is his child at the top isn’t it?) once he gets to the top. I suppose there are a lot of life stories about uphill struggles. And lots which are about things “all going downhill” too!

One of my greatest joys throughout my working life was to hear people’s stories, the stories of the patients who came to see me. I never heard too many. Maybe I could even say I never heard enough of them? I loved to sit and listen to them.

Hey, the other night there I watched the movie “Hector and the Search for Happiness“. Seen it? I recommend it. I laughed! And it’s gently thought provoking too. Well, one of the lines in that movie is “Listening is loving”. I liked that line.

I get the feeling that this man is coming home, don’t you? The girl looks like she’s gesturing “welcome back!”

But wait, there are two other characters in the image. Near the top of the stairs there are two statues, both of which seem to have just come to life, and are about to step out from their little platforms. Doesn’t it look like that? I mean, they could just be two statues, each captured in an action pose, but I don’t get that impression. It looks like they are starting to move. Are these two goddesses? If they are, then what are they about to bring into this man’s life, into his story?

What do you think?

……well, this is what I mean by dual speed photography – from noticing to contemplating.

I recommend it.

 

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On a recent trip to Paris I came across this graffiti. It was the image of the girl with the balloon which caught my eye but, afterwards, when I looked more closely at the text, I saw it read – “Mange, et savoure la vie!” –

“Eat, and savour life!”

The two verbs, given as commands, are in the familiar, rather than the formal forms, which makes the advice somewhat more human, more friendly.

How do we eat life? I think it’s by consuming every experience, swallowing the everyday phenomena and making them a part of ourselves. Because, that’s what we do, don’t we? We encounter, we taste, we swallow, we digest, and we integrate our experiences into our selves. What we encounter, how we taste it, whether we swallow it, or spit it out, and how we process it, all goes to make us what we are. It all goes to make our lives what they are.

How do we savour life? By slowing down, consciously experiencing, and suspending judgement.

That reminds me of a plaque I once saw on the wall of a fisherman’s cottage in Provence –

Which can be read as “Go slowly in the morning, and not too fast in the evening”.

I think this is a key to happiness, a fundamental principle of how to live –

Savour the day

and slowing down, taking your time to notice and become aware, is the best way I know how to do that.

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Do you get those experiences where something catches your eye, then when you stop to reflect on it, its significance gets deeper and deeper?

Last week I was in Paris, and on one of the rainy days was heading for a restaurant at lunch time but this scene caught my eye. Despite the fact it was raining, I stopped and took a photo. In fact, I took two….the first time my camera slipped as I pressed the shutter and I only caught the top of the scooter!

These electric scooters are everywhere in Paris just now. You can hire one using an app and drop it off anywhere you like. In fact, that’s become a bit of a problem. People are falling over them on the pavements and sustaining injuries, so the authorities are starting to consider new regulations to control them.

I took the photo because I thought it looked funny. To see this serious gentleman either looking down at the scooter somewhat disdainfully made me smile. Then I thought maybe he’s actually thinking about jumping down onto it!

When I got home, I decided to find out who this man is – turns out he is “The Marquis de Condorcet”, a leading Enlightenment thinker and writer, a mathematician and philosopher. One of his most deeply held beliefs was “progress”. He thought we humans, through learning and communicating with each other, would steadily increase our understanding of the natural, social and political worlds, continuously progressing and improving society. “However, Condorcet stressed that for this to be a possibility man must unify regardless of race, religion, culture or gender”

The wikipedia entry on him goes on to say this –

Condorcet was concerned with individual diversity; he was opposed to proto-utilitarian theories; he considered individual independence, which he described as the characteristic liberty of the moderns, to be of central political importance; and he opposed the imposition of universal and eternal principles.

He was a champion of diversity, equality and individual freedom. But he was also a champion of thinking – that progress required us to deepen our understanding of the world and of each other, comparing and reflecting on our individual experiences. He campaigned against slavery and for women’s civil rights.

So, it took an electric scooter to get my attention, but I’m glad I’ve discovered Condorcet. I think we could learn something from him about the importance of values, diversity and justice.

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