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Archive for September, 2019

“And not Or” is one of my favourite principles. It’s the basis of integration, synthesis and creative evolution. “And not Or” deals with paradoxes and opposites, not by eliminating one of them, but by relating the one to the other.

I took the photo above in the Santa Clara convent in Tordesillas. The building is one of those many examples you can find in Spain where a sacred space created by one religious group is taken over by another one, but instead of destroying the previous architectural and artistic features, the new group adds their own.

What you see today is the result of centuries of art and belief, creating something quite unique, something which has a narrative quality. You can read the story of the place and the cultures into the what we can see now.

There are obvious Islamic art motifs and designs in this panel (although, as a Scot, I’m always reminded of Celtic designs when I see these looping, intertwining designs in Islamic art). I’ve seen that kind of art a lot. But in this particular panel there are three creatures in the central strip. That’s very, very unusual for Islamic art, and the guide book tells me they are “medieval” or “gothic”. They are a really odd group of creatures, each one a “chimera”, an imaginary creature which has body of parts of completely different creatures. In the middle is a mermaid, on the right a centaur, and on the left, well, I don’t know what you call this sort of chimera, but it’s a human-lion hybrid. Chimera are particularly strange examples of “And not OR”!

Throughout the Santa Clara convent there are very strong elements of Islamic, Catholic and Gothic imagery and design. It can be jarring in place, and it can be quite sublime in others. I’m not sure what makes the difference. The main chapel has an astonishing gold ceiling of elaborate “mocarabes” design, with an enormous altarpiece of Mary, several saints and other biblical figures facing you as you enter. There are ceiling to floor drapes of deep red cloth covering the rest of the walls. I must say, on seeing the red cloth hangings I was instantly reminded of the scene towards the end of David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” where Agent Cooper has a very disturbing dream!

The synthesis, or evolution of the building through different cultures and religions also reminded me of the Santa Maria La Blanca church in Toledo. Here’s a photo of took there a few years ago…

This synagogue was built with muslim architects and was later turned into a church. Now, that must be pretty unusual. It’s a remarkable space, produced, surely, according to the same principle of “And not Or”.

The main reason I’m attracted to “And not Or” is that it is creative. It builds, develops and evolves through the relationships between the past, the present and the future.

“Or” divides. It sets apart and, all too frequently, opposes. It seems to me we have way too much of that in the world nowadays – “us or them”, “immigrants or nationals”, “Leavers or Remainers” (Brexit), “Pro-Trump or Anti-Trump” – fill in your own pairs of divided groups here!

I don’t think these divisions are healthy. We all share this one small planet, all emerge from the same astonishing Universe Story. Cooperation is at the heart of evolution. Yes, competition exists too, but it’s rather over-emphasised in human history. Without the cooperation of atoms, molecules, cells, organs, systems, organisms and environments, none of us would exist.

So maybe it’s time to tip the scales a bit, and give more energy to cooperation than competition.

“And not Or”

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We humans are pretty good at making maps. We do it all the time. Dr Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, describes the three commonest maps we make in the frontal cortex of the brain – a “me” map, a “you” map, and a “we” map. You might wonder about the use of the term “map” there, arguing that we create “images” rather than maps, but let’s not get bogged down on that one. I like both terms (one of my favourite principles in life is “and not or” – 🙂 )

The thing about a map is that it shows contexts and connections. It shows us where we are, where we might want to go, and helps us to imagine how to get there.

I was in Tordesillas, in Northern Spain, recently and visited the “Treaty House” which displays a number of ancient maps. Here’s one set which particularly grabbed my attention.

It’s a set of panels describing the known world at the time – the world of the “Occident” followed by a set describing the unknown world – the world of the “Orient”. Take a look –

In this first section you can clearly make out Britain (although Scotland hasn’t really become known yet!) and you can see the areas we now call Portugal, Spain, France, Scandinavia and so on.

The next one extends the first one to show Italy, Greece, Turkey, “The Middle East” and also more of the North African coastal countries.

For a medieval map it’s surprisingly accurate. It might even have helped people to find their way from one place to another.

But then check out these two panels of the “unknown”, “Orient” –

At first there are elements we recognise – The Nile, The Caspian Sea, but the further East we go, the more the map becomes an expression of a creative imagination.

Isn’t that fascinating?

I’ve never thought of mapping out what I don’t know before. After all, where would I stop? The older I get, the more I realise how much I don’t know – how much WE (we humans) don’t know. But it might be a fun idea, don’t you think? To sketch out some maps of the unknown…..

The personal maps of “me”, “you” and “we” are constantly being updated, constantly evolving, and we create them from both what we know, and what we don’t know…..from our memories, our present day experiences, and our imaginations.

Map making turns out to be a dynamic and fundamental ability. I wonder how aware we are, on a day to day basis, of the maps we have made, the maps we are making, and the influence they have on our lives.

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The front door of the house where I live opens directly onto a south facing garden. You could say there is grass covering most of this part of the garden, but I tend to think “diverse living ground cover” is somewhat more accurate. You see, I don’t tend it as a “lawn” trying to get it all uniform and regular. I do cut it with a lawnmower, and if there are any particularly jaggy thistles or the like, I might dig some of them out. Apart from that, I leave it do its own thing. And it is always surprising me!

Yesterday morning I opened the shutters, stepped out, and immediately in front of me was this little display of flowers. Aren’t they beautiful?

Of course, I took a photo. Just as well, because by the evening I could find no trace of them whatsoever.

So, this morning when I went out I saw this….

A single flourish!

This time, I paid closer attention and went out again to see how it was doing at 3pm, by which time the shadow cast by the sprawling mulberry tree was covering this whole plant.

Here’s what I saw….

Like yesterday, the show was over!

Goodness! How brief! What a spectacular creation of petals and colour! And what a disappearance!

If you look closely you can see (sorry, slightly out of focus I notice) a small cluster of pale beige petals where the bright colourful display had been. How does this happen? How does this plant create and display with such a flourish (get it? “flourish/flowerish”!) and how does it bring the display to an end?

You know, I think we often have the idea that plants are pretty static…..well, they aren’t! They are dynamic, vivaceous, always changing, living creatures!

One more thing……this was a great real life example for me of how the Japanese valuing of impermanence works. That little flower has somehow just become a bit more extraordinary, a bit more special, to me!

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Sometimes we stumble across patterns which catch our attention. I think we humans have a tremendous ability to spot patterns. We see them in clouds, on pebbles, cliff faces, well, pretty much everywhere. Here are some on a single tree.

That first one looks like an owl to me. The next one looks like an angel.

And the third one, looks like one of those ancient Chinese drawings of mountains.

I suppose what we see is influenced by what we’re already familiar with, and I suspect it’s influenced by a host of other factors too.

But what particularly delights me about these serendipitous discoveries is that seem a kind of art. Not the kind of art a human being makes with a brush, or a pencil, or even a musical instrument, but the kind of art which we make by noticing. It’s the weaving of perception, memory and imagination, and it has the power to delight, to astonish, to move…..as all art can do.

It’s also an incredibly collaborative form of art. It’s the tree, the rock, the shell, the cloud, forming in constant interaction with its environment over time, coupled with the human perceiver.

Would it be art if no human noticed it?

I wonder.

That’s a bit like the old “does a tree falling in a forest make a noise if there’s nobody there to hear it”, isn’t it?

Well, it seems to me that this particular kind of “found art” is like seeing a rainbow. It wouldn’t exist without the observer.

I don’t want to wander too far down a philosophical road here….I just want to share a moment or two of delight. Enjoy!

 

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Here’s a small crop of beans from the garden this morning.

First, let me say, I think they are just beautiful! Like gemstones….

Two things strike me – not one of them is identical to any of the others.

Every single bean is unique.

That’s a Law of Nature.

Secondly, there is no way to tell which one of these beans will grow into a plant, even if I plant them all at the same time, in the same soil, and tend to them all equally.

Life is unpredictable at the level of the individual.

That’s another Law of Nature.

The Universe has taken 14 billion years to create you. You are unique. You are special.

Only you can express your uniqueness, unfolding, growing, developing your one special life, one day at a time.

 

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Here’s a common experience I have.

I’ll be sitting in my garden reading and I hear a very high pitched, very distant bird call. I recognise it immediately now, even though I’d never heard it before moving here five years ago. It’s a buzzard. Although the call is quite faint, it catches my attention every time. I’m sure that’s helped by how often it’s silent here surrounded by the vineyards. (Although on other days the machines of viniculture create quite a racket, and a nearby airbase sends up training flights some days more than others)

When I hear the call of the buzzard I look up and peer into the sky to try and locate the bird. It’s not always easy because very frequently they fly so high they appear as just small black dots.

I saw this particular one and whilst often the buzzards circle and swoop on invisible highways in the air, this one appeared to be completely still. It was just hanging there, the way I often see the kestrels do, although they do that much closer to the Earth than the buzzards do.

So I took a photo with my phone.

Can you spot the buzzard?

Hey, it’s a bit like a competition I used to do with my dad. One of the newspapers would print a photo from a recent football match but with the ball removed from the image. You had to place a cross right on the dead centre of where you thought the ball was. The person who got closest won the money. It was called “Spot the Ball”. Well, this is “spot the buzzard”.

Answer at the end of the post ………..

Once I found the buzzard I started to wonder how it could just hang like that in the air. I started to wonder how it could fly with such apparent little effort. I started to wonder why it cried that particular call. I started to wonder what the world looks like from up there. How much detail can the buzzard see? Why does it fly SO high in the sky?

Wonder.

Everyday wonder.

I’ve referred a number of times to the French phrase “émerveillement du quotidien” which I love so much. It pretty much means “the wonder of the every day”. I find that when I get one of those moments, those moments of wonder, that my day feels a better day.

I find that the wondering connects me to awe.

I feel awe….astonishment, delight in, admiration for, whatever it is I’m wondering about. Not least because the wondering doesn’t have any immediate answers for me. Well, obviously, sometimes, the wonder drives curiosity and I later go searching online or in books for more information about whatever it is I’ve been wondering about. But that’s something different, isn’t it? Curiosity and knowledge-seeking. There’s just something delightful, uplifting even, about the process of wondering which doesn’t immediately drive knowledge-seeking, but, instead, creates a feeling of awe.

And here’s what happens next. When the wonder blends with awe I feel myself “taken out of myself”. I have an experience of transcendence…..what Arthur Koestler described as an “oceanic” feeling. I feel an increased, and deepened, connection with whatever is “outside” me, whatever I’m paying attention to. I feel an expansion and a loosening of boundaries. I feel a diminishment of separateness and an enhancement of oneness.

So, I wasn’t surprised when I read yesterday about “spiritual emotions”, especially as they were listed as follows –

  • Wonder
  • Awe
  • Transcendence

What sets off the spiritual emotions for you?

 

Oh, and, yes, as promised, here’s how to find the buzzard………

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Don’t you find that an encounter with art often provokes? Well, I do. On a recent trip to the Ile d’Oleron I wandered amongst the gorgeous, brightly coloured old fishing huts which have been transformed into artists’ workshops. They look a bit like this….

Beautiful, huh?

Let’s get back to the point of this post – the photo I used at the beginning. Here it is again, in case you don’t want to scroll back….

What I love about this image is that it depicts an encounter. A meeting of two creatures. Not two people, but a girl and a sea creature of some kind (not entirely sure what kind of sea creature!). Clearly, they are swimming towards each other. They have formed a relationship. A particular kind of relationship. A loving relationship. They are about to kiss. It feels like that. It looks like that.

So, that provoked two trains of thought for me.

First, about loving encounters, which create the most important kind of relationship in the universe – a loving relationship.

Why do I say that’s the most important kind of relationship? Because a loving relationship creates, and is created by, the formation of mutually beneficial bonds. These are a special kind of bond. They are “integrative”. They bring together people, organisms, energies, particles, every kind of phenomenon you can imagine, and, if they really do work in a mutually beneficial way, they create. They are the basis of growth, development and evolution. They produce novelty, unpredictably. They are the source of emergence, that phenomenon in the universe where what’s created could not be explained or predicted by examining only the parts of the previous state.

I do believe these are the most important kind of bonds we can create. At any level.

Second, about kisses. This image immediately reminded me of a passage in one of the physicist, Carlo Rovelli’s books.

The world is not a collection of things, it is a collection of events. The difference between things and events is that things persist in time, events have a limited duration. A stone is a prototypical ‘thing’: we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not stones.

Isn’t that beautiful, too?

I love to think of the world this way. Not as a collection of events but as a network of events – “of kisses, not stones“.

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