Archive for December, 2020

Many years ago I came across this little pool of water with oil spread across its surface. I was entranced by the beauty of it, and I still am. It looks like a colourful map of the atmosphere, or of temperature flows over the surface of the Earth. It immediately reminded me of one of the very first experiments we did in Chemistry class at High School – the lesson was entitled “A little goes a long way”. First we put a few grains of potassium permanganate into a huge glass tub filled with water and watched in amazement as the purple rapidly spread from a tiny dot to colour the entire tank of water. Then we were given talc to sprinkle on top of the water in another big glass tub. It quickly spread out to cover the entire surface with a thin film of greyish white powder. We then dropped a single drop of oil onto the talc and in an instant the oil pushed every grain of talc out to the edges of the tub instantly “clearing” the water’s surface. You can tell how impressed I was…..this was when I was 12 years old and I’m 66 now!

In the years since I was at school, and even in the decade and half or so since I took this photo, we’ve become much more aware of climate change and the impact of carbon consumption on the whole planet. So, now I look at this beautiful image and I see an addiction. The addiction of industrialised humanity to oil. I think you’re probably aware by now of just how much countries have subsidised the big oil companies and how they continue to do so. You’re probably also aware of the massive lobbying efforts of Big Oil to persuade politicians to continue to support them, and to resist calls to reduce carbon consumption. Here in France a couple of years ago a government proposal to slightly increase the tax on petrol and diesel led to an outpouring of anger and the creation of the “Gilets Jaunes” movement, with roundabouts occupied throughout the country, motorways blocked, toll stations burnt to the ground, and refineries blockaded. The Saturday city demos continued right up until Covid struck. The protestors complaints spiralled in all directions but it was the increase in the price of oil which sparked the whole movement.

Clearly we are not going to be able to kick our oil addiction unless we simultaneously address poverty, low wages, inequality and economic insecurity. But we are also going to have to develop and spread non-carbon or low-carbon alternatives as quickly and as much as we can. I suppose that’s at the heart of the proposals in many countries for a “Green New Deal” – at least in principle.

I’m a big fan of “biomimicry” which is the creation of technologies which emerge from learning about how things work in Nature. Nature, after all, does not create waste or pollution. Trees absorb the carbon dioxide from the air, and send out oxygen for us all to breathe. We need to learn how to be more like the other creatures and living organisms on the this planet…..thriving without creating pollution or destroying the ecosystem.

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Look at these two images.

I took this photo at Achnabreck in the Kilmartin Glen in the West of Scotland many years ago. The Kilmartin Glen has hundreds of cup and ring marked rocks, standing stones and cairns dating back 5000 years to prehistoric times.

As I wandered around the rocks, taking photos, on a typical showery day in Scotland, I noticed that when I looked at some of the water filled indentations that they looked concave, but when I moved to the other side of the rock the water now seemed to be convex. I’m no expert in optics so I could’t explain the phenomenon but when I got home and uploaded this photo, I noticed that if I flipped it 180 degrees I was able to replicate what I’d seen.

So those two photos above are just one photo – with the one flipped 180 degrees to the other. I find this quite mesmerising…….whatever the, probably simple, optical/physical explanation. Every single time I look at these two images side by side I am inspired to think about how different “the same” world looks when we change our perspective.

Maybe this is a variation on the old “glass half full, glass half empty” idea, but in this case, sunken vs swollen water in indentations.

Actually, just by itself this is one of my favourite photos of all time. First of all, if it hadn’t been raining then the cup markings wouldn’t have filled with water and would have looked very, very different. Something else which highlights the contingent nature of all of our experiences – every event, every experience is unique, because no two sets of time, place, weather, environment, mood, mental state, place in a personal narrative are ever identical. Secondly, how on earth did people with just stones as tools make these marks? And isn’t that one which isn’t a circle, a footprint? A footprint in rock?? Thirdly, why did they make these marks? We don’t know. There are amazing spirals and loops and spirals with tails scattered on rock surfaces throughout this valley – but nobody knows why. Are they maps? Do they tell a story? Are they the marks of particular tribes? Are they symbols of spiritual signficance? Are they art? Are they doodles?? We don’t know. And why here? Why in the Kilmartin Glen (I’ve found that not many people I’ve met know about the Kilmartin Glen but it’s one of my most favourite, most special places in the whole of Scotland)

Here, in the last couple of days of 2020, with yet another wave of the virus on the up, and vaccination programmes just beginning to be rolled out, I’m sure we’ll all be taking some time to reflect on this most unusual year, a year we will never forget.

As I reflect, I’m hoping to do two things – acknowledge the losses and the difficulties of this year, then affirm the gains and opportunities – because this, maybe more obviously than most years, is a year when so much has happened and so much has changed that it feels a year of special significance – perhaps a turning point, perhaps a year of revelation, perhaps a year of re-evaluation, perhaps a year of enlightenment – because this year surely seems a year when we human beings were given the opportunity to change direction.

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In my two previous posts I’ve considered how our experience is altered by the frames through which we live – through which we perceive and engage with daily reality. These frames, psychologically, are fashioned out of our beliefs, our values, our habits and our memories.

This photo is of a picture frame at a stall in an antiques market in the middle of Aix en Provence. What always strikes me first when I see this photo is how the frame is the dominant source of colour in the image. I’ve actually looked at this and wondered if it was a black and white photo with only the picture frame coloured later on, but it isn’t. I haven’t edited or changed anything from the original shot. When you look more carefully you can see plenty of colour to the right hand side of the image. Still, that contrast between the golden frame and the pretty monochrome pavement, tree and the left hand side of the background really, really makes the frame stand out.

So, I got to thinking a bit more about this idea of the frame, fashioned from our beliefs, values, habits and memories, and how that plays such a role in our lived reality. The first thing that came to mind was the way in which our two cerebral hemispheres engage with the world differently. The left focuses in on parts and details, emphasises objects, measurements, and data. The right is more focused on the whole, on the connections, relationships, the “between-ness” of everything, and on the particular, the unique and the specific. Along with that goes a predilection for mechanisms and machines with the left hemisphere and a predilection for nature and human beings with the right. At least, that’s one way of summarising some of what Iain McGilchrist describes in “The Master and His Emissary”.

The question then is which hemisphere are we in the habit of using most? And I think, again agreeing with McGilchrist, that there is no doubt the left hemisphere approach to the world has become the dominant one. We live in a world where we give priority to data, measurements, objects, control and grasping, to machines and computers, to industrialisation and automation. But this pandemic has shown us the importance of understanding how everything connects, of the importance of the human, and the unique, of our need for care and for each other. So, maybe one way we need to move forward into 2021 is by building the strengths and powers of the right hemisphere “frame” of values, beliefs, and habits. Maybe our way forward is going to require more imagination, more flexibility, more adaptability than the dominant “frame” the left hemisphere has provided for us?

The next thing that comes up for me is about our shared values, beliefs and habits – our structural ones which have produced modern day capitalism, our exploitative relationship to “Nature” which we see as something outside of us, something to be dominated. What if we tackled those two issues together?

What if we explored a different kind of economics and politics which would reduce inequality, reduce exploitation and injustice? What if shifted from having money as our god to Nature as our god? To see Nature as something we are a part of, not apart from. To see Nature as a source of infinite wonder, of an enormous resource, not to be consumed but to learn from? What would the world look like through that frame? How would that change our values, beliefs and habits?

Well, that’s what I want to explore in the months ahead. I want to learn more, understand more, and share more about the real world, the real world seen through the frame of connectedness, uniqueness, diversity, equality, kindness and wonder.

How about you? What values, beliefs and habits do you think dominate the frames through which you engage with the world? And which of those do you think are shared with others? Is there anything there you’d like to change?

In fact, more than that, what if you were to imagine your “golden frame”? Your ideal, your dream, frame? The way you’d most like to engage with the world and the shared beliefs, values and habits which you’d like to spread most widely? What would that look like?

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Yesterday I wrote about the difference between viewing a garden from the perspective of inside a building, to that of viewing it as you walk around the garden itself.

The photo I used for the first perspective showed a traditional rectangular shaped doorway, all straight lines and 90 degree angles between them. So I thought I’d contrast that today with this photo, taken at a different temple, but again showing a garden viewed from the perspective of inside the building.

This time it’s a round window. Now, before I say anything more what do you feel as you look at this image? Isn’t there something particularly attractive about the round frame, instead of the rectangular one? Isn’t it somehow less aggressive, less harsh? Even if you didn’t think the other window frame really had those qualities before you looked at this one.

But there’s something else about this frame…..the circle is not complete. There is a section missing at the floor level. This is, as I understand it, another characteristic of Japanese design aesthetics. The idea is that if you leave something “less than perfect” or “incomplete” then it does two things – it stimulates the observer to use their imagination to “complete” the shape, and it contains a kind of latent dynamic quality – it is in the process of “becoming”. It isn’t “fixed” or “dead”.

All that makes me wonder about the kinds of frames we use to engage with everyday life. Because there is no doubt that our values, beliefs, memories and habits all exert powerful effects on what we notice, what impact those observations and experiences have upon us, and what sense we make of them.

Do you agree?

If so, I think that’s why it’s good to stop now and again, to reflect and to try to become more aware of just what values, beliefs, memories and habits we access most frequently. One simple way to do that is Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages” exercise. It’s just writing non-stop, stream of consciousness writing to fill three pages of a notebook every morning. My experience of this is that it works best when you don’t re-read what you’ve written until some time later – say at least a month or so – so, here’s my proposal – are you up for doing “Morning Pages” every day of January? Then reading over what you’ve written once we reach February?

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I’ve read before that one of the major differences between Japanese and English garden design is that in Japan the emphasis is on what the garden looks like from inside the house, whereas in England the garden is designed from the perspective of the observer actually in the garden.

I think that’s probably an over-simplification and as with pretty much all generalisations it should be taken with a pinch of salt.

However, here’s an example of a Japanese garden. I took this photo form the interior of a temple, and you can see that the garden pulls your attention towards it. Not only does the window seem to create a frame for a beautiful picture, but the wooden flooring leads you out of the room towards the fence inviting you to enter the garden…..but only to the edge.

Maybe that’s partly where this idea comes from that the aesthetic in Japan is to create the experience for the observer standing just a little bit outside of the garden.

But, now, look at this next photo, which I took during the same visit to the same garden.

This isn’t a garden just to be looked at from the outside. Look at these winding paths, the stone lantern, the opening between the trees, the well trimmed low shrub, the grey rocks. This is all absolutely begging you to get out onto that path and experience this garden as it unfolds around you! This is a garden to be experienced from the inside of the garden itself.

How do I reconcile these two views and these, at face value, conflicting sets of design value?

And not or“.

Here’s some of the true genius of Japanese aesthetics, in my humble opinion…….a resolution of polarities to create something greater than either of the poles can achieve by themselves.

This is a garden created to be beautiful and inviting from inside the temple, AND to be beautiful and inviting once you are in the garden itself. Both of these experiences are so memorable, and dovetailing the two perspectives into one takes the entire visit to a whole other level.

I find this incredibly inspiring. It inspires me to connect to, to seek out, and to create, beauty. It inspires me to break down the artificial boundaries between perspectives – to bring the view from outside the garden into the view from within the garden. It inspires me to create curiosity and intrigue as well…..because don’t you just want to walk along that path and have a closer look at those rocks, that shrub, that stone lantern? Don’t you just want to walk along that path and “bathe” in that gorgeous forest of colour? Don’t you just know in your bones that this is the kind of thing which is “good for you”, which will nourish your soul, stimulate your body and your mind, enrich your life?

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When we look up the world looks very different.

This is not the view of a tree which you’d usually see in a photo, and I think it stands out all the more because of that.

In “Metaphors we live by”, Lakoff and Johnson make a convincing case for the embodied nature of the metaphors which underpin the meaning of so much of our speech. We take these metaphors so much for granted that we don’t even notice them. They give many, many such examples in their book, but the one which comes to mind as I write this is the one I used for the title today – “Looking up”.

Looking up is something we do physically, as you see in this view of a tree. “Looking up” also refers to our position in the physical world. We’d have to be very tall to look down on most trees! We look up to see what is above us…..or to raise our eyes from the ground if we happen to be walking around with our gaze fixed somewhere just between our noses and our feet.

The important insight about the embodied nature of our metaphors is that we can find clues in the language we use which can point in two different directions – they can indicate something about our emotions and our behaviours, but they can also indicate something about our bodies.

Once I learned that insight I became even more alert to the exact language a patient would use when describing their symptoms and experiences. Sometimes the words and metaphors they chose were the clues to finding their pathologies, and the way in which they were unconsciously trying to adapt to those pathologies. But that’s for another day.

Today I just wanted to highlight how physically “looking up” can actually link us in to the emotions, values and behaviours of “optimism”, of “looking forward” and of looking ahead with some flavour of brightness or expectation. Because it seems to me that we are pretty desperately needing a bit more positivity just now.

So, here’s my thought……maybe if we go out and deliberately, consciously, look up more, it will influence our mental state at a deep, unconscious, and emotional level and work as a kind of “reset” to enable us to engage with our lives more positively in the year ahead. And maybe if we do that, then as the active co-creators or reality, we will actually begin to build a better world.

As you raise your glasses at the end of the year, here’s to a time when things begin to “look up”!

Another world is possible.

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This is just an iPhone photo at night, so not a great quality shot, but what it captures is a special moment. You can see the crescent moon quite clearly, and now that I live in the countryside I’m constantly aware of the current phase of the moon. I notice when its a “new moon”, when it’s a waxing crescent, a waning crescent and when it is full. That wasn’t the case when I lived in a city. I guess when we live in a city, what with all the light pollution at night, as well as air pollution which seems to make the sky more obscure, that the phases of the moon are just not obvious. But there’s an element of attention too. City life = working life for me, and a lot of the time while working my attention and thoughts were absorbed in all the important things of the day. Consequently, noticing such things as the phase of the moon, slipped away from me.

I like that I am more aware of it now, because it gives me an ongoing sense of connectedness to one of the rhythms of the universe, that cycle of phases of our moon.

But there’s an even greater rhythm revealed in this particular photo – if you look at the sky at the twelve o’clock position relative to the plum tree, you might make out a star – or if you look really carefully you’ll see that it’s two stars, very close to each other. Well, they aren’t stars really, they are planets. Jupiter and Saturn. From our perspective here on Earth they seem to be occupying almost the same small square of space in the sky. They haven’t appeared this close to each other for hundreds of years and won’t again for another several hundred years. That makes this particular pattern special. It’s the only time I’ll ever see this in my lifetime. Generations of my ancestors never saw this, and generations of my offspring will never see it either.

Yet, it impresses me so much, not just because of its uniqueness, or, that it is so rare. What impresses me ever more is how this is part of a cycle of the universe which is way, way greater than I am. It is a rhythm, a pattern, a cycle which loops through generations….in both directions. That fact really strikes me. It humbles me. It puts me, viscerally, not just intellectually, in touch with the fact that I am part of something much, much greater than I am.

I find that intensely reassuring. I find it transcendent. I find it incredibly satisfying.

I also find it beautiful.

This is a great example of when the night sky reminds us that we are a part of flows, of patterns, of rhythms and cycles which are far, far bigger than we are. Isn’t that “awesome”, “inspiring”, “enlightening”?

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When France went into lockdown the first time in this pandemic I decided to share one of my photos, and write some reflections on it, every single day. My idea was to send some positive waves out into the world. I wanted to spread some beauty, some awe, some wonder, some love. And I wanted to provide some inspiration, some stimuli to reflection as we all try to work out what on earth is going on, and how might we collectively, and individually, respond to it.

I had no idea that I would still be writing and publishing these posts by the time December would be drawing to a close. I wrote the first of this series on March 17th……that’s just over 280 days ago, and I haven’t missed a single day.

As we move towards the end of any year we approach a threshold. January, after all, is named after “Janus”, who has one face looking backwards and one looking forwards. It’s a time when we traditionally begin to think about “New Year resolutions”. It’s a time when newspapers, magazines and TV shows do a “Review of the Year”, producing dozens of “Best of 2020” lists. So, in the midst of all that, I came across two photos which I took earlier in the year…..both of them are paths.

The first path is the one at the top of this post. Isn’t it beautiful? This is one of my most favourite kinds of path….through a forest, or, at very least, tree-lined. This particular one is a tree-lined path connecting the remains of a Roman amphitheatre to an extensive Baths complex and the outline of a temple. I wrote about this place the other day, highlighting what was obviously important to people in those times – culture, health and spirituality. Compared to those magnificent structures this path seems kind of humble but I love it all the same. It inspires me to reflect on the whole concept of a path – because I think the paths we walk are probably more important than the goals we make. You might think, well, doesn’t every path lead to a destination? Aren’t those destinations “goals”? OK, I don’t want to divert off my main thought here. My point is that as we come to the end of 2020 and start into 2021, which paths do we want to take? Do the paths exist already? Or do we have to lay some new ones?

The second path is inside the old Roman bath complex –

Look at these stones! Look how worn they are! Can you imagine how many people walked along this narrow passageway between two of the bath houses? Almost 2000 years ago? It’s been a long, long time since the Romans lived in this part of the world, and I know that with the excavation and opening of the site to the Public that many others will have trod this same path recently, but isn’t it astonishing how long a path can exist?

This second path made me wonder about our human tendency to do what other people are doing. We are created as highly social creatures and it’s not a bad thing to learn from others, to share experiences with others, even to mimic or echo others. But too much of that tendency can obliterate individuality and turn us into “zombies” unconsciously responding to signals and stimuli set by others. This pandemic with its repeated lockdowns and its long drawn out “social distancing” has, at least, shone a light on that. It’s showing us what we’ve been blinding following, what we’ve tolerated, and maybe even, I’d suggest, made us start to wonder how we got into this mess in the first place – in other words if we can find and understand the paths we’ve taken to end up here, maybe we can choose different paths, create more, and better ones, to take us forward.

Well, these are the things I’m going to be reflecting on over the next few weeks. I’m reaffirming my commitment to continue created these little posts every day until this pandemic is over. But I’m also ready to make some new paths too………..

……..and here’s my wish for you – that you create your own unique paths as you walk into 2021, that you create them yourself, and that you create them with those whom you love.

Another world is possible.

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I worked for about 40 years as a doctor. I’ve studied I don’t know how many diets in that time. I’ve seen “miracle” diets come and go, I have seen diets for losing weight, diets for preventing heart disease, diets for preventing cancer…..it goes on and on. And confusingly over the years there have been totally contradictory pieces of advice – especially about carbohydrates and about fat.

However, here’s the good news…..time and time again, the evidence keeps returning to a pretty simple fact – the more your diet is plant based the better. It’s good old fruit and veg which comes out top again and again and again. I know, there are lots of other issues and nuances, and it doesn’t ALL come down to fruit and veg, but if you are thinking of doing one thing to “improve” your diet in 2021 – eat more plants!

These photos are of some of the harvest we got this year from our little veggie patch. We don’t have a big patch but it’s very productive. I use compost I make from the grass cuttings etc in the garden, and I don’t use any chemicals at all. I live in South West France in an area famous for vineyards where the grapes are grown for cognac production. I’m sure that wherever your live there will be different plants which grow well, which I can’t grow, and others I get in abundance which won’t grow where you are.

As well as geography and environment affecting what you can grow, I believe that we all need individualised diets too – we don’t all enjoy the same flavours, some of us are allergic to certain foodstuffs, and each of us have particular needs in terms of nutrition. But I’m sticking with this one single piece of advice because it applies whatever the variations – eat more plants!

I highly recommend growing some fruit and/or veg if you can. You don’t need a huge piece of ground, and if you live in a city there may be the possibility of getting an allotment, or, increasingly, citizens are getting together to get permission from local authorities to create community gardens where anyone can plant, tend and harvest some fruit and/or veg. See if such a thing exists in your area, and if it doesn’t, maybe you can initiate one…..hey, someone’s got to make the first move!

There is an additional health benefit which comes from growing your own fruit and veg – being outside, exercising and the whole cycle of seeding, tending and harvesting are all good for us. And don’t worry about not managing to become self-sufficient – pretty much nobody is going to become totally self-sufficient from a garden, an allotment or a community project. Just do it for fun, for the bonus of some additional variety to the fresh food in your diet, and there will be a spin off – you’ll become more aware and more informed about ALL the food you consume. For example, the first time I ate a radish I had grown it almost blew my head off! I had no idea radishes could have such a powerful taste! And I’ve had several other mind opening experiences as my taste buds discover flavours for the first time.

So, eat more plants. If you can, grow some plants. And just enjoy the flavours. Honestly, it’ll be a good start.

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There’s a Roman site about an hours drive from where I live. I visited it earlier this year during one of the times we weren’t in lockdown. These three photos show you the three main parts of the site. First on the left is an amphitheatre. The guide says this kind of amphitheatre was used for performances, like plays and music, not like the different sort of amphitheatre they made elsewhere for gladiator fights. In the middle is the remains of a temple. Look at the extraordinary shape of it! Again, the guide says, it’s thought there was a Celtic temple on this exact spot before the Romans constructed theirs. On the right is one of the baths in an enormous complex of baths. You can sort of make out the floor level of the bath, and below that the area where they lit the fires to heat up the water. It’s an astonishing building with several different baths, each of which were apparently heated to different levels.

One of the things that astonishes me about this site, apart from just how big it is, is exactly which buildings were constructed and what they were constructed for – primarily you’ve got the cultural space of the amphitheatre, the religious space of the temple and the social/health space of the baths.

Now contrast that to a modern “High Street”! Or one of those rings of shopping malls orbiting a town or a city!

I look at this and I wonder…..is it time to shift our priorities? To put culture, spirituality and health at the centre of our societies and communities? How might that change our experience of life?

What do you think? I’m not wondering here about re-creating a copy of what the Romans did…..I’m wondering about what a contemporary or into the future equivalent would be if we picked up on some of those core values…..creativity, spirituality and healthy sociality. (is that a word? “sociality”? well, I hope you know what I mean!)

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