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Archive for January, 2021

Whether you think of waves appearing and disappearing on the surface of the sea, or of the emergence and disappearance of beautiful forms within a cloud, you know that both the wave and the cloud formation are inextricably connected to either the sea, or the rest of the cloud. Neither exists apart from the environment in which they appear.

We humans are like that too, even if we’ve been pretending to ourselves for hundreds of years that we aren’t. Whether we take on board a religious or a scientific concept that we humans are apart from Nature, we are wrong. Nature isn’t a thing, and doesn’t exist outside of us. We cannot relate to Nature by “dominating it”, or “controlling it”. Partly because Nature is not an “it”, but more so because we are as much Nature as the cloud form is the cloud, as the wave is the sea.

We emerge within Nature, never leaving Nature, never living outside Nature or separate from Nature. Nature isn’t a part of the country to go and visit. But we can definitely understand that the “natural environment” is different from the “built environment” or the “urban environment” – not separate from, or detached from, but different.

There is an enormous amount of evidence that spending time in “natural environments” is good for us. A recent study of 20,000 people showed that two hours a week could be a threshold. Researchers found significant differences in mental and physical health of those who spent more than two hours a week in natural environments, from those who spent less than that. They also found that people who lived in streets with more trees in them seemed to need less prescriptions for antidepressants. Of course, that doesn’t mean we can just replace antidepressants with trees! There are many other factors affecting the environments which people live in. Still, the finding of the benefit of trees, persisted even when the researchers controlled for other social factors.

Of course, we are never really outside of “natural environments”, any more than we can ever be outside of Nature. It’s a matter of degree, isn’t it? We know when there is a lot of life around us – trees, flowers, shrubs, birds and other creatures. What these studies confirm are that we need to be aware of that connection with the rest of Life on this planet. That when we feel cut off from the living world, our health declines.

As we move forward through this pandemic we’re going to have to reconsider how we live, both as individuals and collectively. Some of that change might be best informed by a change of mindset – one which considers that we are “a part” of Nature, not “apart” from Nature.

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This is Loch Gary. When I stopped at the side of the road to take this photo many years ago, I was struck by how the shape of the loch so closely mimics the shape of the Scotland. It’s almost good enough to be a map!

If you do look at this as a map of Scotland, then one of the interesting little extra things is that the bridge you see could represent the connection between Edinburgh and Glasgow across the “Central Belt”.

I was born in Stirling, a town which is almost equidistant between Scotland’s two cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. I studied Medicine in Edinburgh, worked there for most of the first two decades of my career then changed to work in Glasgow for the second two decades. There’s a long, long rivalry between these two cities. Each has a very distinct culture, and each is home to remarkably different accents. Maybe because I came from Stirling, people in Edinburgh often guessed that I’d come from Glasgow, and people in Glasgow often guessed I’d come from Edinburgh. I never subscribed to the rivalry between the two cities, liking them both for their very different cultures.

Maybe all of that has contributed to my love of connections, of seeing, accepting and even relishing difference, and my distaste for rivalry and competition.

I wonder how much the geography of our lives affects our values and our beliefs?

What do you think? What comes up for you if you reflect on that?

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This glowing leaf reminds me that all the energy which supports every single life on this planet comes from the Sun. We don’t get energy from anywhere else. Plants are much better at capturing the Sun’s energy than we animals are. They have chlorophyll in their cells and can turn sunlight directly into sugars to sustain them and to use to turn the carbon dioxide and water which they capture into the structures of their stalks, leaves and flowers. We humans, like other animals, have to eat something which has already done this part of the work – ie plants – or other animals further up the food chain which have taken the energy from plants, and even other animals by consuming them.

It does make me realise that the most direct way for us to get the energy we need to stay alive, healthy and growing, is to eat plants. Yeah, we can eat animals too, but, for the most part, that’s a more indirect and expensive way to get the energy we need.

I wonder if we are anywhere near making the kinds of devices which capture the Sun’s energy directly, the way that plants do it? Imagine if that was our primary source to meet ALL of our energy needs? No more need for carbon based fuels, nuclear power plants and so on. Wouldn’t that be good?

That idea is typical of a whole way of approaching new technologies – it’s called “biomimetics” – learning how Nature does something, then seeing if we can invent a way to either do the same, or to develop technologies using the same principles. I think that’s one of the most exciting potential routes forward for we humans. After all, Nature works on the basis of using all the possible connections, and never producing any waste. The lessons of millennia of evolution are lessons which are surely worth learning….

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For me, this is a photo of flow. It’s a still image, and you might say if I wanted to illustrate flow I’d be better sharing a video but I like the juxtaposition of stillness and movement which this single frame shows us.

There’s a lot of advice to live in the present moment, to “be here now”, to draw your attention into the current time and space. I know, I’ve shared such advice many times. I get the value of it. But there’s a paradox at its heart which we often ignore.

Life, time, and reality, is not divided into neat frames. It doesn’t exist as a series of isolated, bounded, limited, even disconnected pieces. So when we stop to think about what we actually mean by “the present” or even “this moment”, it rapidly becomes hard to pin down. Does the present moment last for a minute? Does it last a few seconds? Does it last only for a fraction of a second? Isn’t it the case that the very act of reflecting on the present turns into a reflection on the past……ok, maybe the immediate, very close, past, but the past, all the same. And where does the future come from? If it isn’t sitting waiting for us like the next train station along the line (and I don’t think it is), if it is, rather, “emergent”, that is created out of the present moment, then, again, as we stop to reflect on this moment, we pretty quickly find it’s being changed by the future unfolding before our very eyes.

No, the truth is that life, time and reality are more like flow than frames.

I’ve wondered about that too when looking at a river. Exactly what is a river? If it’s the water in it then that water is constantly flowing right by. It doesn’t stay. If it stayed, it wouldn’t be a river, it’d be a stagnant pond. (actually even stagnant ponds don’t stay the same!) So is it the course of the flow of the water? In other words the actual path which the water traces out? The banks of the river? Not so sure about that either, because if you look at old maps, or even some aerial photographs, you can see that the so-called “same” river changes its shape and direction continuously, sometimes in small ways, and at other times in starkly dramatic ones!

The Italian physicist, Carlo Rovelli, says that

A stone is a prototypical “thing”: we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. Conversely, a kiss is an “event.” It makes no sense to ask where the kiss will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not of stones.

In other words, the way out of this dilemma is not by trying to pint down our experience, label it a and stuff it into separate boxes. Instead, we just need to think of the world being made up of “networks of kisses”. Life is “made” of “events”.

Events are happenings. The don’t have terribly easy start and finish points, and even those points which we can see turn out to be inextricably bound up in networks of other relationships and happenings. Nothing exists in isolation.

I like this view of life. I like the practice of becoming more aware in the present by becoming more aware of the flows of energy, information and forms around me. I like the focus on “becoming not being” – as you’ll see at the top of the blog.

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When I worked as a GP in Edinburgh, my partner and I had two Practice premises (“surgeries” as we called them in Scotland), one up near the university, and the other down at the river front in Portobello. A typical day involved doing some work in both places, as well as visiting half a dozen to a dozen patients in their own homes (something which seems to have all but disappeared from the work of a GP). The working days were, as you imagine, busy days. There were many ways to travel between the two surgeries but one of my most favourite ways was to drive through Holyrood Park following the narrow road which snaked around the base of Arthur’s Seat. In the grass, at the roadside, I’d often spot someone sitting on a park bench, maybe reading, maybe drinking from a flask, maybe just looking around, and I’d think “Oh how I would LOVE to be sitting on that park bench!” But there was never time to do just that.

I’ve often wondered how much my work, and the busy-ness of the ordinary day, contributed to my love of park benches! Whatever the reasons, I know I’ve always had an eye out for them, and have several photos of seats in different parts of the world. The one in this photo was taken over 15 years ago in the Southern French town of Carcassonne. I still find it utterly beautiful. It pulls me towards it. I have a longing to be sitting there. Clearly it’s not about the super-comfortable shape or form of the seat, it’s what it represents – a pause, a moment of stillness, a quiet time to “do nothing”, or to contemplate, breathe, become aware of the here and now.

What this sets off for me today is reflection on the importance of slowing down from time to time, and the importance of deliberately breaking up the endless cycles of habits. We need to stop, take a breath (or several, conscious, slow deep breaths would be better), and allow ourselves to experience some moments of stillness. We need that even now in the midst of this pandemic and the total disruption of our “normal” lives (will “normal” need to be redefined after this? Probably)

So, take a moment today and ask yourself – where are your favourite seats? Best to consider a seat you can actually sit on today! Where can you take a moment, still your breathing and your mind, and return your clammer of anxieties, worries and fears to the here and now, and just notice. Just become aware. Just for a few minutes at least.

If that sets off a recollection of favourite memories of seats where you have experienced the greatest moments of calm, tranquillity and peace, then, go with that. Allow yourself to recreate those experiences as vividly as you can. What did you see there in that moment? What did you hear? What did you feel with your body? What did you taste and/or smell? Allow yourself to re-create the feelings which that moment engendered. Allow yourself to live it again for a couple of minutes.

You know what that will do? Well, what it might do anyway? It will produce a distinct harmony of the rhythms of your heart and your brain. It will set off a chain of reactions in your body which enhance your immunity, reduce harmful inflammation, and increase your resilience. It’s called “coherence“. And it’s good for you!

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When I came across these trees in a forest I was stopped in my tracks. The forest was quite a wild one, and I don’t think these two trees were grafted together artificially. What I mean is I don’t think there was a human hand involved. Which makes it all the more remarkable, because it looks like these two trees got really close to each other, starting kissing and never stopped!

Whatever the mechanisms involved I just love this image. It speaks to me of that most essential natural drive – to connect…..not just connect, but connect lovingly.

There is a key phenomenon which underpins all of evolution. No, not competition, which is what you’d think from the dominant orthodox view. Competition plays a role, but without integration, there would be nothing….no growth, no development, no evolution. Integration is the creation of mutually beneficial bonds between well differentiated parts.

Let me say that again. Integration is the creation of mutually beneficial bonds between well differentiated parts.

How did Life progress from single celled existence to the vast, diverse, web of complex multicellular organisms? Only by the individual elements getting together to make bonds which would be beneficial to both.

This drive towards integration is a loving drive.

It’s a movement based on “bienveillance” – on meaning and/or wishing well. It’s a drive to support and be supported, to nurture and be nurtured, to love and be loved.

Without these loving connections, we simply wouldn’t exist. Maybe it’s time to put competition into its proper place…..and that’s not THE most important place. I think we have to learn to live by loving instead of dominating, by co-creating rather than trying to come first. If we are going to compete let’s put that competition into the context of improvement…..of supporting all of us to grow, to become stronger, more resilient, to improve. Not to destroy, dominate, control, and grab the most for ourselves at the expense of the wellbeing of others. That old way just isn’t working.

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In 2004 I took a trip to Marrakesh and the day after my 50th birthday I took this photo. When you look at it I think you’ll be struck by hint of a river. There is a long, winding, irregular path in the desert below. Some of the sand looks dark, as if it is still wet, but most of it looks as dry as dry can be. But a river runs through here. Just not always reaching the surface I suppose. So we see the path of a river. A river bed, but the water is sleeping somewhere else. The water has passed through here, right along this very patch of sand, more than once. That’s why the traces it leaves is so deep on the right hand side of the image, and so easy to follow right up until it disappears into the distance.

You can see that from time to time the water comes in significant amounts. So much, in fact, that it broadens out the river, spilling over the edges, producing that clear swelling in its belly right in the middle of the shot. Where it swells, it gets a little wild, and carves out one of the sandy banks creating what looks for all the world like a large bite mark in the desert. And just beyond that zone of intermittent turbulence the water seems to seep under the surface in both directions, creating the conditions for plants to grow.

Maybe you can see a dark rounded patch to the left of the image? That’s the shadow of the hot air balloon I’m in. This is the only time in my life I’ve had a ride in a hot air balloon…..and for me, this was above the desert at the foot of the Atlas mountains, at dawn. That one small shadow brings all that back to me. I remember the day vividly. I remember the French pilot, the cool air, the bright morning, the way that I had the distinct sensation that I was standing still in a square basket as the world fell away below me – that it was the world which was moving, not me, not the balloon. Such a strange sensation. I remember the markings in the sand showing where water flowed from time to time, the well someone had dug to find the hidden water, the walled towns and the scattered flocks of skinny sheep.

You don’t have those memories, so the shadow of the balloon won’t mean much to you, but I wanted to share this with you today because of the images of both the shadow of the balloon, and the carved out markings in the sand, left by the water which passed by in the past. In their own different ways these “marks” (one fleeting, one lingering for much longer) tell us stories…..or to be more precise, provoke curiosity and/or memories. We try to make sense of them. We try to figure out just what we are looking at, and it doesn’t take long for imagination and memory to kick in and contribute so that we see much more than could be captured by simply measuring and describing the shapes we can see.

I think this is an example of how we see and experience so much more in the world than can be captured in the form of measurements and data.

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Can you think of any works of art which changed you? Any which changed your worldview? Changed how you understand yourself, your life, your world?

I was reading about Stendhal Syndrome the other day, which is the phenomenon of overwhelming emotions and physical symptoms experienced by some people in front of particular forms of art. Stendhal described it in relation to his visit to the Basilica of Santa Croce –

I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves’. Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.

What grabbed me about this concept is how art can have a profound impact on us – not just on the way we think, the emotions we feel, but in changing our inner physical reality…..speeding up the heart, releasing a whole cascade of different hormones, causing us to feel a little breathless, a little light headed, to give us butterflies in the stomach, to make us weak at the knees…….but it actually does something else too….

Every experience we have sets off patterns of activity in the neurones in the brain. In neuroscience there is a phrase used which is “what fires together, wires together”. That’s a description of how these patterns of activity, when repeated, actually change the shape of the microstructures of the brain. Art, literally, can sculpt our brains. No wonder it can change us!

Well, this image here is of Anthony Gormley’s work entitled “The Field”. I saw this for the first time in Inverleith House, in the middle of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. I stood in the doorway and looked at these thousands of little creatures, all looking up at me, all the same. Then, as I looked a little more closely I realised that each and every model was different. Not only were they not all the same, but every one of them was unique.

That’s it, I thought! This is the paradox at the heart of my work as a doctor. Every single patient who I meet has some characteristics, some symptoms, some signs of change in their body, in common with other patients I’ve met before. That’s why I needed to learn anatomy, physiology, pathology, the natural history of disease. That’s why I had to learn how to make a diagnosis. But, at the very same time, every single patient who I meet is unique. Every single patient has a story to tell me which I’ve never heard before because nobody has lived an identical life to them. The diagnosis of the “pathology” or “disease” isn’t enough. I need to understand it in the context of a life story, and a present life. What exactly is this person, today, experiencing? How has this present experience and change come about? What sense do they make of this “illness”? What does this “illness” mean to them, mean in their life, mean to the others in their life?

Well, that became the core of my understanding of the Practice of Medicine.

But it went further than that, because I realised, just as quickly, that this insight wasn’t relevant only to my work as a doctor. This is the essence of what it is to be a human being. We share a lot, you and I. But we are also unique, you and I. We can’t be reduced to a single characteristic, demographic, or “data set”, but we can be gathered into those groups…..we can find some common values, beliefs, desires in those features and factors. But we can never, ever, stop there. We can never rest in our understanding of a person by summing up their data, by figuring out what group we want to put them into. We have to discover the individual. What makes this particular person different? What is distinct and different about this person’s life story?

Even as I write this today, I find this excites me. It delights me. It moves me. It activates my thinking, my feelings, even my body.

Art really can be that powerful.

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What caught my eye here was the juxtaposition of the advert for the photographer and the statue in the alcove.

The older work is the statue. It’s a representation of prayer. France, Italy and Spain are three of the countries I know best on the continent, and all three share a rich religious tradition. To be more exact, they share a Catholic tradition. Representations of the crucified Christ, of the Virgin Mary, and of various saints can be found everywhere…..not just in churches and cathedrals, but on street corners, city centres and in small villages. What struck me about this particular statue was the act it portrays – prayer.

I know there are many different kinds of prayer, not least prayers of intercession (asking for help), and prayers of gratitude, but the image of the wedding photos in the windows just next to it led me quickly onto thinking of dreams, of hopes and desires. So, that context drew me into the consideration of prayers of that type – prayers of hope.

I don’t think we can underestimate the importance and the power of hope. I don’t think people can live without it. I’ve seen that many times in my medical career. People with no hope slip into despair and decline. I once I had a patient I knew say to me that her husband had just been diagnosed with cancer and that the doctors had given him six months to live. I asked her how she felt about that and her response surprised me. “Angry”. I asked why, and then came the bigger surprise. “How come he gets to know how long he’s got and I don’t know how long I’ve got?” Well, I didn’t see that one coming. However, it did lead to an interesting discussion about prognosis and what we can, and can’t, predict. Too often predictions like that turned into self-fulfilling death sentences. Because the reality is that, in any individual, we cannot make such accurate predictions. I learned that the hard way as a young doctor.

But let me return to prayers and dreams. I’m sure you’ll have come across the idea of visualisation? Of creating “mood boards” or “vision boards”? Of creating “goals” and “targets” even? Well, those are psychological methods we can use to create the life we want to lead. And isn’t that one of the things which prayers and dreams can do?

Have you noticed how many athletes seem to say a short prayer before the start of their race? Have you noticed how many perform an act of gratitude to the heavens, or to their god, when they win? I’m sure in our more materialistic, so-called rational, times, that prayer, belief, faith and dreams are dismissed more than ever before, but I always wonder if that’s really a rational response?

Because without hope, without dreams, without prayers, without vision, then what kind of life can we co-create?

My answer would be – the kind of life other people create for us! “Heroes not zombies” folks! We human beings really are the co-creators of our own lives. A person cannot be reduced to molecules and random events if we want to understand them. More than that, I suspect that fear and resentment are powerful factors in creating the kind of world we live in, and that there are plenty of players out there who know exactly how to stoke up both.

So, I’m a fan of prayers and dreams. I’m a fan of dreams and visions. I think that what we imagine, what we put our energy into, what we pay attention to, all contribute to both our personal experiences of daily life and to the reality of the world that we share with every other living creature on this little planet.

What kind of life do you want to lead? What kind of world do you want to live in? One focused on fear and despair, or one focused on love and hope? I do think we have a choice. Not in an “either/or” way, but in what we give emphasis to, what influences our world view, what lenses we use to understand the world, and as an act of co-creation.

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I managed a trip to the coast this week, for the first time in months. Walking along the sandy beach listening to the sound of the breaking waves and breathing the salty, fresh air, was a real tonic.

There were hardly any other people on the beach, and that particular beach is so big that you can have a couple of hundred people on it and it still feels almost deserted.

One of the things a lot of us like to do at a beach is to look for shells, driftwood, and whatever else the sea might have thrown up onto the sand. But something else which always catches my attention is a pattern. I love to see the patterns left in the sand by creatures who have moved across it, trails left by rivulets of water as they run back to the ocean, impressions imprinted by seaweed and shoes……you name it.

This photo today shows you one of the patterns I stumbled across. Actually there are three elements on this sandy canvas. There is the little piece of red seaweed, demonstrating the classic branching pattern of trees, plants, our lungs, our blood vessels, the way streams gather together to make rivers…..and so on. Then opposite that are the marks left by what? Water trickling away back towards the ocean? Seaweed which has been washed away? I’m not sure. Actually, when I look at it in this photo, that pattern is strangely convex. It seems to be sticking out of the sand. But when I was there it looked convex, grooves imprinted into the sand. The third element is the trace of a shoe. Someone before me stood here. Perhaps. Stood and looked at this very pattern. Or else they were just walking by and only by chance did they miss standing on the patterns in the sand. (I think it’s the former because I looked and couldn’t see other prints to the right of the pattern, so I saw no evidence that someone had just walked right through it. Besides, I like to think that someone else also experienced that “stopped in your tracks” effect of this piece of natural sand art!)

It’s the first two elements which really interest me. There is a sort of symmetry between them. There is an echo, a mirroring almost, between the red seaweed and the tracings on the sand. The similarity is so striking to me that I can even imagine that the sand and the seaweed are reaching out towards each other…..stretching out long thin fingers to almost touch each other.

I see this and I think “attraction”. Perhaps the most basic characteristic of the universe. There is a universal movement of elements, particles, and objects towards each other….to connect, form bonds, make relationships, to become attached to each other.

Curiosity is one of my strongest features, and what is curiosity other than an attraction to whatever it encounters? A drive to get closer, to understand, to connect, to make a bond?

Yes, I know, some of you will be thinking, hey, wait a minute, what about repulsion? Because don’t a lot of things repel each other, rather than attract each other? That’s true, repulsion too, is a fundamental characteristic of the universe. In fact you could say there’s a dynamic, constant balance between attraction and repulsion, which lies at the art of all the phenomena of the universe. Everything that exits is held in an ever changing, constantly moving tension between attraction and repulsion.

But if you stand back a little from that ongoing dance of attraction and repulsion, you can see what holds both of those opposites together…..a relationship. It’s the fact that they are connected which enables the interaction. Or the fact that they interact which enables the connection!

Either way, here it is, right in front of us, in the sand……..the essential nature of reality…….connections.

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