Archive for September, 2020

When I was at university in Edinburgh, for some of the time I lived in the Halls of Residence (something which has come back to mind in the light of the stories of students in Scotland being confined to their Halls during this phase of the pandemic). My room looked out over a grassy mound in front of the back wall of the site, and above that up to Arthur’s Seat – a pretty spectacular view to have! One day, while studying at my desk I noticed a student pacing up and down at the base of the grassy mound. He had an open notebook in his hands and he read the text out loud as he took about thirty paces, then turned around and took thirty paces back the way he came. Time and time again he turned at the end of his thirty or so paces and headed back along his invisible path. I thought it was an unusual way to study! However, by the end of a couple of weeks of this happening every day instead of just green grass there was a well worn muddy path which he, alone, had created.

I’ve thought about that path many times. When I learned, years later, about how our brains physically change shape with repeated thoughts or habits – “what fires together, wires together” is the saying – then I thought of that student wiring the information into his brain, and treading it into the grass while he was at it!

The thing is, when we hit repeat, we increase the chances of the repeat kicking in more easily. That’s what happens with habits. The more you carry out a particular exercise or action, the more your brain makes it easier to establish your habit. That’s partly why people recommend sticking with a new habit for at least 30 days. Because after 30 days the path has already formed, the neurones have already established their particular pattern of connection, the brain has already thickened along that network.

When I started this blog and called it “heroes not zombies” I was keen to inspire and provoke people to step out of autopilot and act more consciously. That’s the idea behind the title. There’s something about habits which entrap us. We can get stuck….literally in ruts….whether in the grass or in our brains! Waking up, becoming aware, and making different, conscious choices is a way of expanding our lives and our experiences.

But it’s also helpful to create good habits. We can use the exact same mechanisms which have us going over and over the same old stuff in our minds, or following the same old behaviours, and, instead, create the thought patterns and behaviours we’d rather have.

I often used an old image from my photo library to illustrate how to change our experience – the photo of the wounded rock….you can read that story here.

The thing is, it can be really hard to break free of negative thought patterns, painful memories, triggered fears and so on. Focusing on them to try and address them directly can be counter-productive, returning us again and again to focus on what we are trying to escape from. The alternative, I find, is to “make better dents” (see the piece on the wounded rock), to create new patterns, new habits, to fire up new connections and get our brains into better shape. Literally.

So, when I looked at this photo of the shadows in the cloister today, a photo which I find both beautiful and calming, I thought about this ability to create a better experience by hitting repeat…..in a good way. In other words, to take the same actions, or have the same thoughts, repeatedly, but choosing those actions and thoughts. Choosing them because we want them in our lives.

Exactly which actions and thoughts you’d choose will be up to you. They might be about taking a daily walk. They might be about doing “Morning Pages“. They might be about meditation. I don’t know. You choose. Just choose the ones you want to have in your life, and keep hitting repeat…..at least for 30 days!

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We change the world every day. Just by living. Here’s a photo of a path. It shows a distinct gathering of seeds, leaves and other plant materials in a curving line. You know, instinctively, or because you’ve seen something like this before, that water has passed this way. Sure, maybe an artist did it. Maybe someone like Andy Goldsworthy, the sculptor, who creates fabulous works of arts from natural materials, but, no, somehow we just know, this particular trail was not created by any human hand.

One of the things which fascinated me when I came across this was the fact that the creator of this “natural art”, or, more mundanely, if you wish, of these marks, was water. Water carried these seeds, leaves, etc then it seeped away, leaving them in its wake.

I look at this and I think….this is what we do, we humans. Day by day, moment by moment, actually, we change the world, we leave our traces, we gather some things together, and discard them, or set them aside. We metabolise what we take into our bodies, and we excrete the products of that metabolism. We change the world with every breath.

This is happening on such a massive scale now that some scientists refer to this present time as the “anthropocene” – because human beings are now producing large scale changes to the very geology of the planet (and certainly to the biology of the planet!)

I don’t think we can avoid this. We change the world by existing. But we can become more aware. We can, individually, and collectively, try to understand just what changes we are bringing about. We can use that understanding to ask ourselves if we want to make other choices, if we want to try to make different changes.

And yes, I think that can be applied at all kinds of scale. If we develop more inter-disciplinary, integrated sciences and arts, then I believe we have the chance to reach better understandings, and make different choices. The key, I believe, lies in exploring the trails, seeking the connections, discovering the influences and factors involved in any change, and shifting our focus from trying to control to trying to understand reality.

How does the world change when we concentrate on competition and consumption? How does the world change when we concentrate on co-operation and sustainability? How does the world change when we prioritise quantities, data and statistics? How does the world change when we prioritise qualities, experiences and relationships? How does the world change when we prioritise money? How does the world change when we prioritise health? You get the idea….feel free to add, or to choose, your own.

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We humans seem to develop the habit of making binary choices. You can either choose this OR you can choose that. I suppose we make either/or choices on multiple occasions every day. It’s not something to avoid. If we tried to avoid it, we’d be paralysed. What would we have for breakfast? Where would we go today? Which tasks would be pay attention to and put our energy into? Let’s be clear, we make, and we need to make, binary choices all day long.

But I think this becomes a problem when we try to see the whole life through this lens. It’s a problem when we select out too little of complex reality to try to reduce it to either/or choices. That’s too simplistic, and it detaches us from the real world, leads to mistakes and regrets, pushes us into divisions and conflicts.

So we also need to see the “whole”, to look at “the bigger picture”, to take a “view from on high“. In other words we also need to explore the contexts and connections which exist, to follow the trails, the feedback loops, the influences and flows.

To do that, we need to stand back from time to time, take stock, pause and reflect. I think that’s happening a lot during the time of this pandemic. A lot of habits, routines, behaviours have changed now, or at least, for now. We are having to adapt. Is this virus going to go away any time soon? Doesn’t look like it. So, how am I going to live now? What’s important to me? What paths aren’t looking so clear now, and which other ones seem to be opening up?

Our brains have two enormous divisions – the left and the right cerebral hemispheres. Each of these halves engages with the world differently, and if, Iain McGilchrist’s thesis is correct (which I believe it is), then we’ve been paying way too much attention to the way the left hemisphere engages, and not nearly enough to the right. Here’s one of the key differences – the left makes binary choices. It separates, divides, and abstracts. It simplifies, categorises and labels. The right, however, seeks connections. It synthesises, contextualises, looks for the bigger picture, the “whole”. It prioritises relationships over objects.

The truth is we need both halves of our brains. Surprise, huh? But we need to learn to get them working together better than they’ve been doing. We need to learn the habits of joined up thinking, of humility, and of open-ness.

And not or – that’s the way I see it!

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This is the largest sand dune in Europe. “Le Dune du Pilat“, just south of Bordeaux. Isn’t it astonishing? When you visit it you can climb to the very top, either by trying to trudge up through the soft sand (not recommended), or by climbing the long, long, wooden staircase (take your time, and stop to catch your breath as often as you need, it’s a long way up!)

The light sand, it seems to me is typical of the “dis-integrating” force of the universe. It’s a quality of “disorder”. Whereas the dark forest seems typical of the “organising” force, with diversity of life forms, ever more complex, ever more structured and organised to create living creatures. Think of the scientific concept of “entropy” – the movement of phenomena in the universe towards the lowest energy states and towards the least degree of organisation or order. Life is the universe’s most incredible drive in the opposite direction. From simple atoms, to joined up molecules, to single cell life forms, to complex multicellular ones all the way up to the complex plants, animals and other forms of life which strive every day to survive and thrive, we see a whole direction of travel which is against entropy.

There’s an expansive force in the universe which increases diversity, options, potentials, possibilities, by creating more and more connections between all that exists. And there is a contracting force, which dis-integrates, dis-mantles, and dis-solves what has been created. And, here’s the thing……if there was only one of these two forces active, we’d have nothing at all.

That helps me to understand and even relish the qualities of the seasons, from the expansive growth periods of Spring and Summer, to the contracting, resting periods of Autumn and Winter.

It helps me to think of my in-breaths which expand my lungs and swell my chest, and my out-breaths which travel back towards the world around me. It reminds me of how I take in substances, atoms, molecules, with every inspiration and ingestion, to work the body’s alchemy on them, transforming them into more Life within me, and how I expel other substances, with every expiration and excretion, to continue the circles and cycles of universal Life.

The essential rhythm of the universe. The forces of creation, gathering and connecting, integrated with those of breaking down and dispersing…..

One isn’t “good” and the other “bad”. We can’t choose to “have” only one of them. This is the Nature of Existence, this constant, dynamic, interplay of these two incredible forces.

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I’ve got a shelf on one of my bookcases where I keep some of the books which have most significantly changed the way I think. OK, to be honest, there are too many books in that category to fit on one shelf but I do like the little collection I’ve gathered together there. I think of them as sources of light – they have all shone some light of illumination for me – and they still have the power to do that.

I thought of one of the insights I gained from those books when I looked at this photo I took in a museum in San Sebastian. It’s a photo of a window, but isn’t it a strange kind of window? I mean, you can’t see anything out of it…..you can’t see the outside world from inside the room. But then I thought, what it is doing is letting the light in. What it’s doing is illuminating the room, changing what and how you see the world around you as you stand inside this room. And it isn’t just any old window, is it? It’s not just a plain rectangle of clear glass. It’s filtering the light, softening it, changing it, before it enters the room. The window might be passive, but it’s still actively changing the experience of being in this room. Being in this room would be different if the window was different.

All that got me thinking about flow, because that’s one of the key insights I gleaned from some of the books on my special books shelf……that all that exists emerges from within a constant flow – a flow of material substances (atoms, molecules, compounds etc), a flow of energies (light waves, sound waves, heat, gravity, strong and weak forces of attraction etc), and flow of information (symbols, words, language etc) All three of those flows are modified by contexts, changed by the world around the perceiving, experiencing subject.

I find that becoming aware of these flows makes me appreciate the world more, makes me wonder more, makes me delight more. I love to look for the connections, for the relationships and bonds between each of us, and between us and the non-human world. I love to consider the directions of these flows – to visualise the flow of materials, energies and information which are surging through my being – and to consider how they are changed within me – how they are modified just because I exist – how they are modified by the choices I make.

That makes me aware of my role as a window in other people’s worlds too. How do I illuminate (or shade) the worlds of others? How do I modify these flows and send them onwards to enter the lives of others?

Because one thing is for sure – I don’t exist in isolation – I emerge from within these three genres of flow and I affect the lives of others as I modify and/or pass on these molecules, energies, words, stories, images and ideas. So maybe I should pay attention to how I am living and how I am interacting with all these currents, these waves, these whole rivers of flow.

Maybe I should be aware of what kind of window onto the world I am, and what kind of window you are too. How do we change the rooms/communities/worlds we each live in?

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It seems to me that a lot of people are talking about hope….and it’s opposite, hopelessness. It’s hardly surprising. Here we are just past the second equinox of the year and still trying to work out how to cope with the COVID-19 virus. A lot of people are feeling pretty fed up with the whole thing and I’m not sure saying “This is the new normal, get used to it!” is particularly helpful……although I understand the thinking behind the practice of acceptance.

There’s a lot more going on in the world which isn’t about coronaviruses and what’s causing you to feel despair, or giving you grounds for hope, will be different according to your own personal circumstances and which society you are living in.

I emigrated from Scotland, the country of my birth, when I retired six years ago. I’ve lived here in South West France ever since. So there are specific issues related to Europe which affect me a lot. Yep, the coronavirus thing, which has had a huge impact on life here, and back in Scotland where my family live. And Brexit, which seems to have dragged on and on and on for years now. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself waiting for some deadline to roll around and find out what laws and regulations are going to be changed which will require me to try and figure out how I’ll have to adapt.

There are, of course, global issues which bother me a lot too…..from climate change, to growing inequality, the democratic deficits in most so-called democratic countries, the decline of health care and education under the pressures of neo-liberal economics…….ok, ok, you get the idea.

Seriously, it’s not too hard to despair, is it? But can we live that way? Experiencing despair every day? Feeling hopeless and helpless? I don’t think so. The best I could say about any of that is that this is all a wake up call, an alarm bell, a provocation to make me do something…..but what?

I think it calls me to do a few things. Firstly, to wake up. To become aware. To pay attention, and to pay attention to what I’m paying attention to! Because it’s way too easy to fill my headspace with stuff which is scary, but which is either speculation or propaganda. So, I find that I’m drawn more and more into the natural world around me…..to see Little Owl sitting with her partner on the roof of the barn next door, to hear the distant calls of the Buzzards as they swoop way, way over my head riding invisible air currents effortlessly, to see the leaves begin to fall from the mulberry tree, to gather up the year’s harvest of pumpkins, tomatoes, and the last of the courgettes, figs and peppers, to see the clouds thicken and darken as the wind starts to blow through the garden warning me that change is coming……..

So that’s one thing….to be more present. In the here and now. To be more aware of the real world which I’m living in. But that’s not enough, is it? Because I am not separate from the rest of humanity, from the rest of life on the planet, from the rest of the planet, even. So, I explore, follow my curiosity and try to learn…..to learn about the lives of others (something I filled my daily life with during my working days as a doctor), to learn about this planet we share, to ask questions, to wonder and to listen.

Second, what I learn calls me to respond. How am I going to respond? With hatred, anger and fear? With love, calmness and confidence? Turns out I have a choice, and the choices I make strengthen themselves……the more I invest in any of these responses, the more strongly I react in exactly these ways. I think that’s maybe one of the most important lessons of my life…..reinforcement, the power of habit, how “what fires together wires together” in neurological terms, how the brain and the body change their shape and form according to repeated experiences.

So, that’s why I return today to this rainbow. This symbol of hope. Because I don’t see a good life is possible without it. I don’t see growth is possible without it. We all need hope.

Hope isn’t wishing away the bad stuff. That doesn’t work. It’s about acting with an anticipation of more love, calmness and confidence. Well, that’s what I’m focusing on just now anyway. Let me share a couple of examples. When I was a Junior Doctor working in hospital one of my responsibilities on duty was to lead the Cardiac Arrest Team. When someone needed resuscitation I’d get an urgent call and run at top speed to wherever they were in the hospital. So would several other doctors and nurses. I’m sure you’ve watched enough medical dramas to know that this particular event was a hugely challenging and stressful one. I’d feel that too. My heart thumping, my hands trembling, knowing that what I did right now might make the difference between life and death for someone. Yet, time and again, other people in the team would say they’d instantly feel calm once I arrived. I had this reputation for inducing calm. Actually that astonished me because I certainly wasn’t feeling calm inside! But it did teach me that being calm wasn’t about not being bothered…..it was more about being focused on the here and now…..more about being fully present and engaged.

How could I have gone to work every day if I hadn’t had hope? What would be the point of seeing the next patient if I hadn’t the hope that I could help to improve their life? I’ve thought about that a lot, and I don’t think I could have done it unless I had the love and confidence I needed to anticipate at the least the real possibility of a better outcome.

And, there, I think, lies the key. Hope isn’t actually about the details of the future, and it’s not about control or power. It’s about reinforcing my core values – love, calm and confidence. I am sure that every one of those increases only by acting in loving, calm and confident ways.

So, back to coronavirus….do I have hope? Yes, I do. I believe that if I approach this by trying to spread more positivity in the world, by repeating and reinforcing loving acts of kindness, by sharing moments of calm, and perhaps by inspiring some confidence, then I’m doing the best I can do today. That’s why I’m still writing these posts. If you’ve been with me since the beginning of this pandemic you’ll know I declared the intention to write and share a positive post every day during the “lockdown” or “confinement” as we call it here in France, well that intention has spread beyond the end of that phase and here I am, kind of addicted to writing these little pieces, sharing my favourite photos, and spreading my positive thoughts.

I hope that brings you some hope!

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Oh I just LOVE how green this image is! Such a rich green environment pulses with Life! It declares diversity, vibrancy, energy and flourishing. This green is the expression of THE core emotion experienced in some way or another by everything that lives – SEEKING (See Panksepp’s work on that – which I’ve written about in my book, “And not Or“)

All forms of Life drive themselves forward to find what they need to survive and thrive. This is what he calls “Seeking” behaviour. I chose those words carefully there…..”drive themselves forward…” because that’s another defining characteristic of living forms…..they all demonstrate “self-organising” capacities. They move, grow, change, act, according to movement and forces within themselves. Machines, on the other hand, need to be created and driven by external forces. In fact, Maturana and Varela refine this “self-organising” capacity, noting that living forms have a special kind of self organisation which they called “autopoiesis” – “self-making capacity”. We living creatures can grow and reproduce.

I know nobody has ever identified a particular “force” or “mechanism” for all of this. I know that “vitalism” has been dismissed by most scientists. But clearly there is something there we could call “the Life Force” isn’t there? Even if all we are doing is describing the presence of a phenomenon, a behaviour or characteristic. I think that’s how I see it. It’s this “self-organising”, “autopoietic” characteristic which vibrates, throbs, beats, resonates, responds, adapts, grows and acts…..I don’t think it comes from somewhere else…..I think it infuses the entire universe and expresses itself in what we call Life.

So, it’s not a thing or an object, this “Life Force” for me. It’s a presence, an experience, a colour, a sound, a scent, an ever-changing phenomenon.

This is it. This green vision of a forest. This is vibrant, pulsating, Life.

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This tree which someone has sawn through sometime shows the connections between life and death and the way we are created by our daily experiences.

First, although this is clearly a dead tree, a trunk left lying on the ground, you can see the new life springing from it, shooting up into the air searching for the Sun’s energies to capture them, reaching for carbon dioxide and water in the air to transform the invisible into the visible.

There would be no life on Earth without death, and no death without life. I’m not sure we are so good at remembering that. But you can clearly see, in this photo, how inseparable they are….life and death.

Secondly, as someone has cut through this trunk you can see the rings of the tree, each one telling a story of a year in the life of this tree. We haven’t really learned to read these marks terribly well but they tell us of good years and lean years, of the number of years the tree has been alive, and hint at incidents, traumas and recoveries.

How good would it be better able to understand what we can see right before our eyes?

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What is this?

Seriously, I have no idea! I took this photo just over two years ago but I don’t remember it! I’m not sure if this is a rock, a tree, a fossilised tree, a fallen Roman column…….there are elements which make me think of all of those.

But you know what? That makes this more of a mystery! And I love that! Well, actually, even if I knew what it was, there would still be plenty of mystery. More than what is it, how did it come to be this shape, and how did it come to be lying there? And here’s another one….is that a cave entrance under there? It looks like one.

We humans have a bit of a penchant for mystery, don’t we? Put the word “mystery” in the title of a book, a movie, or an article, and people will be enticed to check it out.

I think curiosity might be my strongest characteristic. I am unceasingly curious. As a child I remember getting two different “part works”….magazines which came out once every couple of weeks, and which you collected together into special binders. One was called “Knowledge” and the other was “Look and Learn”. I loved them both. When I graduated from university with my medical degree, with my first month’s salary as a Junior Doctor, I bought a complete set of “Encyclopaedia Britannica” (It’s in the attic! Can’t bring myself to get rid of it even though I use Wikipedia and all the other internet sources to go exploring these days).

I think this same characteristic contributed a lot to the kind of Medicine I practiced, to the way I worked as a doctor. I always looked forward to meeting the next patient, to hearing their story, to unravelling the mysteries of their illnesses. I loved making diagnoses, and I still believe that skill is THE key skill of a doctor. Without a good diagnosis, you’re stuffed! You can only find the treatment which will work best for you patient if you make a good diagnosis.

AND it doesn’t stop there….because how each, individual patient will respond to this particular treatment is a mystery. We don’t know. Nobody can accurately predict it. Will this person get the benefits that “most” people get? Will this be the person to suffer a serious side effect? Will this person find that this treatment actually does nothing for them at all? The only way to know is to stay curious, to follow up, and to listen carefully to what experience the patient has had since this treatment was started.

You’d be amazed how often that is neglected. A distorted use of “Evidence Based Medicine” claims absolute truths where the doctor thinks they know better than the patient what benefit the patient will experience. There are no absolute truths. Evidence changes all the time….informed by more experiences, more experiments and more studies. Treatments are always context-dependent. Two patients receiving the same treatment may well have two diametrically opposed outcomes.

We have to stay curious.

We have to retain our delight in mystery. And, here’s the paradox, we have to keep trying to discover, to learn and make the best decisions we can in every present moment.

There’s a humility which comes with curiosity and mystery. A humility which is the result of realising that there is always more to know.

So, now, bring all that to this pandemic. How many times have you heard the word “unprecedented” in relation to this disease? Over the course of this year we’ve developed our knowledge and understanding of this virus. Learning how it behaves, how different people respond to it, how we can influence the spread and the patients’ responses. And we are far from done yet.

All that can feel a bit more like frustration and uncertainty rather than mystery and curiosity can’t it? I think that’s true. I’ve experienced, and continue to experience, a lot of both frustration and uncertainty these last few months. But hey, you know my “and not nor” theme, don’t you? I think BOTH of these themes exist – mystery and uncertainty, curiosity and frustration. Becoming aware of them is the first step. Learning how to respond to, and adapt to, them, is the next.

So, I’m reflecting on this today and maybe you might too……how am I responding to the uncertainties, and how might I adapt better to them? How am I responding to the mysteries, and how might I make the most of them?

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You’ve probably looked over the edge of a cliff, or stood on a shore somewhere and seen something like this image. Isn’t it beautiful? You can almost hear the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks and the foaming of the sea.

What I see when I look at this photo is the constant interplay of two distinct media, or elements – rocks and water. The rocks look as if they are dancing a circle dance, with the sea swirling between them. I can almost hear the sound of ceilidh music! (well, I am Scottish!)

The rocks form a boundary. They are the limits of the reach of the water. The water can go no further. It crashes against the rocks, foams, splinters, evaporates, and falls back.

But the water changes the rock every time the two make contact. Look at the particular shapes of the rocks, with their smoothed, yet pitted surfaces. How do you think they came to be that shape? Only by years and years and years of constant interplay between the sea and the rocks.

What isn’t so easy to see from this distance, is that every time the water washes over the rocks it takes into the sea some of the atoms which the rock is made of. It dissolves some of the rock.

The sea changes the rocks. The rocks change the sea. Both in form and in substance. Both in shape and in content.

The rocks and the sea co-create each other, co-shape each other, co-make each other.

Isn’t it beautiful to witness?

All of Nature is like this. All of Life is like this. All of Existence is like this.

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