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Archive for October, 2020

Here in Europe autumn is a season of great change where we move from summer to winter. One of the most astonishing phenomena of this season is migration. Look at this fabulous flying V of cranes heading south! I wish I could let you hear the incredible noise they make, but my little phone recording really doesn’t do them justice.

These are only one of the species of bird which migrates. The hoopoe and the redstart have already left my garden and I still have no idea where they go or how they manage to find their way back to exactly this small square of the Earth every Spring. The other birds I see around here flying in similar great V shapes are geese, but I haven’t seen any passing by yet.

Don’t you think it’s an astonishing phenomenon, this ability of these little creatures to navigate and fly across thousands of miles from one exact place to another? As far as I know nobody has managed to fully understand how they do that. But it’s also amazing to me that they have the energy and the determination to make the huge effort of flight over these enormous journeys.

Birds, of course, are not the only creatures to migrate. Many others do, from fish to butterflies. So it’s an important, significant natural phenomenon of Life. Many many more creatures migrate in the sense of moving from their original habitats to other ones, but don’t do this regular back and forth seasonal migration. In fact whilst millions of creatures live their entire lives in on physical location, or niche, millions of others either travel long distances within their lifetimes or over generations…….like humans, for example!

The BBC show, “Who do you think you are?” is often fascinating, tracing someone’s ancestors over centuries past. Normally, the stories take the subject to several countries, and as they tend to focus on only a small number of this person’s ancestors in a one hour show, we know that if they explored more fully they’d find origins in multiple and diverse locations.

The only living creatures to experience nation-state borders and barriers to this freedom of movement are human beings. Why do we do that? Why do we erect these utterly artificial and pretty arbitrary barriers to human movement, if it’s in our nature, as it is in so many other species, to migrate?

I find the rules and regulations around “citizenship” difficult, confusing and unjust. I don’t understand why two families living in the same street, with children in the same schools, adults working, shopping and enjoying life in the same offices, factories, stores, cinemas, theatres and sports halls, should have different rights and responsibilities. It sets up discrimination, prejudice and resentments.

Why don’t we change that? Change it to habitats. Why can’t we have the same rules, rights, obligations and responsibilities for all the inhabitants of the same habitats? Call that habitat a nation state if you must, but the important point is to treat all inhabitants equally under the same law.

I know that the whole issue of borders and migration is a difficult one, and I’ve read Rutger Bergman’s “Utopia for Realists” where he advocates no borders. Maybe that’s an aim worth having, but I think it will be a long and difficult road to get there. However, would it be so difficult to argue that all the inhabitants of the same habitat be given the same right and obligations?

This isn’t an issue of “nationality”, not even of an individual’s life story of several “homes”, or of ancestors from particular areas of planet Earth. It’s about how we live together in the present time, based on the present, not the past. It’s about developing fraternity, solidarity, equality, justice, fairness, and freedom. Can’t we learn this from Nature?

What do you think of this idea?

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I’ve stumbled across trees like this a number of times. The first time I saw a tree trunk taking such a convoluted, twisting path I was quite astonished, but more than not I see such patterns not just in a single tree, but in a tree’s relationship to another tree.

It’s not that common to find trees entangling themselves in each other like this. Of course, there are other plants, for example, “climbers”, which have the ability to entwine themselves on whatever they can reach, as their core characteristic. But in trees, it’s not so obvious. You know why? Because they do most of their entanglement below ground….in their root systems, which we now know from forest studies, are vast entangled webs of connections between trees with microfibres and fungi creating most of the functional connections between them.

We humans are perhaps the most sociable creatures of all. We certainly have the most highly developed systems within our bodies and brains to enable us to pick up signals, make responses, create bonds and connections, and to co-operate with others.

A bit like with the trees, most of those connections go on underground. Well, not below the soil, as they do in tree world, but in the sub-conscious. I think we tend to forget that. Our oldest, most developed, most evolved systems of function are unconscious. From everything to do with maintaining a healthy living body, to the detection of information and energy, to the whole vast world of emotions. It mostly happens below the level of consciousness.

We don’t have to think about making our heart beat. We don’t have to think about releasing insulin or adrenaline. We don’t have to be conscious of our processes of digestion. Our emotions, like our dreams, emerge from our sub-conscious.

Neuroscientists have discovered that our conscious thought making processes are actually much slower than our unconscious ones. Much slower, and starting just a bit later than the unconscious ones.

That’s quite something. We tend to imagine that we are primarily conscious, reflective, analytic, critical, rational creatures. But actually our survival, and our maintenance of healthy life occurs below the level of conscious awareness. We interact with, form bonds with, relate to, and entwine ourselves with other humans and with the rest of the “more than human” world through ancient, highly evolved un- or sub- conscious processes. They work. They are highly refined and they are fast.

I think it’s a mistake to think of our conscious processes as “superior” or “higher”. Rather, they give us the ability to create spaces, to stand back, to pause, to see, hear, become aware and reflect, and then to make choices and express our will. They are wonderful processes and we wouldn’t be fully human without them.

But let’s not dismiss or belittle our processes of entanglement which connect us to all that is more than our individual selves. Let’s not dismiss them, because if we do, we delude ourselves into thinking we are completely separate, isolate individuals existing as if in a vacuum.

We aren’t. We emerge from, and exist within, all that exists. We are entwined.

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I saw this on the wall of a church in Saint-Jean-de-Luz in Southwest France. A “rencontre”, as you can probably tell from the drawing, is a meeting. I haven’t seen this portrayed in other churches but I really liked that it was displayed so prominently in this one.

For me, the key to understanding Life is revealed in connections, relationships, or bonds. In fact, it is revealed in a very special kind of connection – one which increases “integration”.

Integration is “the formation of mutually beneficial bonds between well differentiated parts”. I think this is easily understood when you think of the human body. We have several organs, from a heart, a liver, a pair of kidneys, a pair of lungs, a brain, and so on. All of these separate, distinct, structures have their own particular functions to carry out and they must carry them out in a way which is more than harmonious…..they must act to promote mutual benefit. The “integrative” connections exemplify collaboration and co-operation. Our organs do not compete with each other….not for energy, food, or protection. Not in a healthy state, anyway.

So, here is the basis of natural health – harmonious, well-integrated, collaborative relationships between distinctly different parts.

You can scale that up – so that a healthy society is a diverse one composed of unique individuals who relate to each other in mutually beneficial ways. You can scale it up further to consider whole ecosystems, or even the global biome, and see that this is the basis of Nature.

Much has been made of the role played by competition in Nature, and in particular in the story of evolution. But, competition has only ever been one part of the story. Without collaboration, without the creation of mutually beneficial bonds, Life would not exist, and it certainly wouldn’t evolve.

When I see this image of a “rencontre” I’m also reminded of the story of the Little Prince and the fox, as told by Saint-Exupery in his “The Little Prince”. In particular I remember the passage where the fox asks the Little Prince to “tame” him – by which he means to create a bond between them, and gives the example of rose which the Little Prince tended to in his home. The Little Prince claims that his rose, of all the roses in the world, is special to him. He cares for her, looks after her, and feels for her. What makes her special is the bond – the bond of care. The fox points out that if he and the Little Prince form such a bond, then they will be very upset when they have to part – because these bonds of care matter to us. They matter to us more than anything.

We can’t have too much of this type of connection in our world. In fact, we need a whole lot more of them – we need the bonds of “integration”, the “mutually beneficial” ones, the bonds of “care”.

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I like photos like this one. At first glance it’s a scattering of petals on the ground, but on closer inspection they are spread across both gravel and water, and when we look at the surface of the water we see more than the petals….we see the reflection of the sky, of clouds and of a tree.

Once we’ve taken that in we are able to see something of how those petals got there.

So what, you ask?

Well, I’m pretty sure none of us think petals just appear out of thin air, or out of the ground, do we? We know they came from a tree, and we know the wind was likely involved in blowing them to the ground, just as it blows the clouds across the sky. We know that the clouds dropped rain and the rain formed the puddles that now hold the delicate petals on its surface. We could follow any of threads in any direction. We could choose to explore the life story of the tree. We could follow water molecules through their global cycle between oceans, sky, mountains, rivers and sea again. We could explore the soil at the edge of the puddle, that same soil in which the tree is spreading its roots. And so on…..

In other words, petals are not the result of spontaneous combustion. They don’t appear “out of thin air”. And that’s the same for everything. Here we are in a middle of a pandemic and we are so focused on the virus that we are in danger of understanding why the pandemic is unfolding this way.

This virus seems to cause no symptoms in 80% of the people who it infects. But it makes some so sick they need to be treated in hospital, it kills a proportion of them, and it leaves another proportion with debilitating symptoms for months.

Why the difference? A number of factors have been identified so far….it hits hardest at the elderly, the frail, those with chronic health conditions such as diabetes, obesity, heart and lung diseases, and so on. It hits BAME groups harder. It hits the poor harder.

So, the widespread and severe disruption and damage occurring during this pandemic can only really be understood if we explore the contexts….if we follow the threads, study the environments in which it spreads. It’s not all about the specific potentials of a particular virus.

There are some things we can do as individuals to reduce our chances of suffering from this virus, but, ultimately, we’re going to have to act together to change the underlying vulnerabilities of our whole society.

It seems to me that this pandemic is shining a bright light on a whole number of weaknesses and failings in our current system – the effects of poverty and inequality; the effects of poor quality overcrowded housing; the effects of fragile work contracts in conditions which cause stress and harm; the effects of making schools too big, with class sizes too large; hospitals too big, with too little staff; of insufficient health care and long term care of the elderly; of discrimination and injustice; of poor diets and of societies built on consumption rather than creation.

I could go on……..

Do you agree? Shall we make a start together?

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Once the leaves fall from the vine the nests built by several birds over the spring and summer are revealed. I don’t know which birds make these particular nests but I do know a blackbird is one of the most likely candidates.

Seeing this nest again made me think about the concept of “home”. What makes a place a “home”? What makes the place where you live “home”?

I remember when I was a GP in a small village in South West Scotland that I was surprised how some young adults had never travelled as far as Glasgow, the big city, less than an hour away by train, bus or car. I also remember how loyal many patients in Portobello were to their town, and didn’t really see themselves as citizens of Edinburgh….same thing in Leith, where people even call themselves “Leithers”. It seems wherever I go I find people who call this particular place “home” and are extremely resistant to ever living anywhere else.

My “home” town was Stirling. That’s where I was born and brought up. But the other places I lived over the last forty years or so have also felt like “home”. I feel “at home” here in this small village south of Cognac in South West France now.

It seems we are able to attach to pretty much anywhere. Is that the definition of “home”? The place we are “attached to”? The place where “we belong”? But isn’t it also true for many of us who have lived in several different places that we have a sense of “home” in many of them? “Home” it seems to me is not a singular, exclusive concept. We can feel at home in the place where we are living now, and we can still have that sense of having left a “home” once we move away from here.

What makes “home” for you?

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I love a view like this. These cliffs are shaped like water. The layers and folds look like currents and waves. This isn’t a coincidence is it? We see these echoes and resonances everywhere we look. I’m not a geologist so I can’t tell you exactly how these rock forms are created, but it’s pretty obvious that when land meets the sea, they co-create their shapes…..the shape of the land is fashioned partly by the sea, and the shape of the sea is fashioned by the land.

They also change the content and nature of each other, with the minerals and micro-organisms in the rock washing into the sea, and those in the sea soaking into the rock.

Nothing exists in isolation in this world. Everything exists within its own environments an contexts. The apparent boundaries and barriers are more fluid and more porous than we realise. Everything is influencing everything else through a vast, complex network of connections and relationships.

We humans are like that too. We are constantly exchanging materials, energy and information with everyone and everything else. That’s why I find it more helpful to think of the flows of reality and to focus on the connections more than on the so-called “parts” or “entities”.

The truth is that the way I live, the way I behave, communicate, and connect with others influences and changes them, and vice versa…..everyone else influences me.

We are nothing less than the co-creators of reality.

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When I looked towards the Western horizon late in the evening I saw this glow.

Isn’t that interesting? I didn’t notice the vineyards, the village of Salles d’Angles on the hill. I didn’t see the Sun, because it had already slipped below the horizon. What I noticed, and what I’m struck by again, is the glow.

First of all, it is just stunningly beautiful. It reminds me that our attention can be caught by beauty, by wonder, awe and amazement……even if a lot of the time these days we find our attention caught by threats. Have you come across the term “doom scrolling”? Where you keep scrolling down through your social media, be it Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or a newsfeed, and you glance at story after story, image after image, which unsettles you. You find yourself becoming more anxious, angry, despairing, and fearful.

That’s not by chance. It’s by design. Whether it’s advertisers trying to seduce us, or scare us, into buying somebody’s products or services, or it’s power-mongers trying to manipulate you into supporting them, or pressing your buttons to try to control your behaviours. There are a lot of people trying to get into your headspace – in their interests, not in yours.

But we can still choose to invest our attention in beauty, wonder, awe and amazement. We can still choose to invest our attention in whatever nurtures us, integrates us (remember that integration is the creation of mutually beneficial bonds between well-differentiated parts), whatever promotes our growth and well-being.

Second, this glow that I see on the horizon is a radiance of light from the Sun. But we all radiate. We all glow. We give out vibes. We send out signals. We create waves which influence, or impact on, others. So, that makes me wonder……

……what kind of glow am I radiating today? A glow of beauty, joy, delight, love? Or a glow of fear and hatred? Huh! It’s not binary, is it? Chances are we send out waves from the entire spectrum every single day!

So, maybe the question is, what colours am I going to consciously include in my glow today?

The colours of love, beauty and wonder? The colours of delight and joy? The colours of “Bienveillance” and “Emerveillement”? (My two French words of the year – roughly, and inadequately, translated as “well wishing” and “wonder”)

Yes. Those are the colours I want to choose from my palette today.

How about you? What colours are in your glow? What are you radiating out into the world today?

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There are three elements in this image which inspire me to explore an underlying theme. The elements are the leaf, the stone, and the sand. The underlying theme is change.

The leaf changes quite fast. Over the course of a single year it grows from a tiny bud, to a full sized green leaf powering the tree, capturing the energy from the sun and the carbon, oxygen and hydrogen from the air, to create the solid substance of the tree. Then as autumn comes the metabolism changes. We can’t see that directly but we can see the effects….a change in colour from green to yellows, browns and golds. Then the leaf falls from it’s stalk to the ground. Once on the ground, the change continues as it biodegrades into the soil. Nature wastes nothing. The leaf nurtures the soil.

The stone changes more slowly. If you look carefully you can see several different seams of colour, each a different combination of minerals. These minerals came together over many, many years, and it has taken a long, long time for the stone to split from a much larger mass, and centuries and centuries of wind, rain, and sun to shape it.

The sand that both leaf and stone are sitting on has taken even longer to form. It always astonishes me when I come across fragments of shells and fossils of sea creatures high up in mountains, far away from the sea. It reminds me that the history of the planet is immense and that change in the surface shape of the Earth occurs so slowly it can seem unchanging.

Three rates of change. The more complex the structure, the faster the rate of change. Which brings me to the fourth element in this photo….the photographer. That’s me in this case! Well, my life changes faster than the sand, the stone or even the leaf. Every cell in my body changes minute by minute. All my tissues and organs are renewing themselves daily. It’s quite mind boggling, and it’s why I like to think in terms of “flow” instead of in terms of “objects” or “parts”.

We are all transient manifestations of being in the One great Flow.

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When you look at a sky like this you know a storm is coming. When it’s as dramatic as this it can be quite intimidating. At very least I know to prepare a little, unplugging my router and other equipment in case it gets fried by lightning (and, yes, it’s happened once since I came to live here). We also have an issue with heavy rain overwhelming the drains and then pouring down the driveway so another preparation is sandbags along the bottom of the garage door (and, yes, it’s happened more than once since I came to live here).

But sometimes, even a dramatic sky like this just passes over with hardly any rain, and no significant thunder and lightning. It seems impossible to predict at a local level. Even when the storm does come, it doesn’t last. Maybe just half an hour or so, or sometimes an hour or two, but usually it’s pretty brief.

I know that it’ll be different in different parts of the world, and I’m also aware of the absolutely catastrophic effects that dramatic, severe weather can have….most recently here down in the Valley of Roya just north of Nice where whole roads and parts of villages were washed away. Tragic.

I’ve also seen news coverage of the after effects of that storm, and as in other parts of the world when such calamities occur, what you see is dozens, if not hundreds, of people immediately appearing to do what they can to help….helping people to safety, cleaning up, making food, donating food, water and clothes. It is impressive. It is very impressive. You see it every time, no matter which country it happens in. You know some people don’t have a very good opinion of human beings and I know we can be an aggressive, exploitative species, but what impresses me so much more is this ordinary straightforward instinct to help and to work together to relieve the suffering of others.

Fundamentally, I believe that people are good. That’s my starting point. If things don’t turn out that way with an individual or a group then I adjust my attitude and behaviour to stay safe, to protect myself. But I start by believing in human goodness. In fact, I don’t know how I could have worked as a doctor for forty years without believing that. Everybody seems to be “worth saving”. Everybody who needs help “deserves” it. I know it’s complex and I’m not trying to be simplistic or naive here, but I really do believe that your experience of life changes when you start from a belief that people are fundamentally good.

I recently came across Rutger Bergman’s latest book, Human Kind, and he takes exactly this idea as his starting point….what if we believed that humans were basically good, instead of believing they are basically evil, or bad? I recommend it. It’s worth a read.

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I saw this framed poster a couple of years ago in a shop in Copenhagen. I kinda wish I’d bought it! It’s a simple but elegant representation of something which has become my core model when I consider reality – networks.

When people say everything is connected to everything else they are right and the easiest way to both visualise and explore that is the network.

A picture of a network is simply some nodes connected by lines. The nodes might be people in your life, including you, with each line representing relationships. The nodes might be cells in your body, some more directly interconnected than others but all living in each other’s influences. The nodes might be neurones in your brain, each of which is connected to up to 50,000 other neurones! Can you imagine that? It’s literally mind boggling.

Networks can map thoughts, feelings and actions. They can help us trace the influences on any single moment cast by the past and the future if each node is an experience, real or imagined.

We have two halves to our cerebral cortex and it seems the left half is particularly good at noticing and exploring the nodes – the parts, the elements, the items, components or data. The right half, on the other hand, is particularly good at noticing the links, the bonds, connections and relationships.

Think of the constellations in the night sky, each twinkling star a node. When I look out now I see Orion has reappeared and makes his way each night across the winter sky from east to west. He’s been gone all summer and now he’s back I know winter is coming. But how do I see Orion? By tracing the invisible lines which connect the individual dots (stars).

When I first read about complexity science it was this model of networks which made it all clear to me, and, in particular, learning about the non-linear nature of the relationships between the nodes in living creatures helped me grasp the concept of the “complex adaptive system”…..which shone a bright light of understanding on everything from self-healing, to uniqueness.

If you’d like to explore this subject a bit more, here are some of the best books I’ve read about this concept of networks, connections and links.

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