Archive for April, 2021

When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city?

Do you huddle close together because you love each other?’

What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together

to make money from each other’? or ‘This is a community’?

T S Eliot. Choruses from The Rock

Is there any greater social creature than the human being? Our offspring are more dependent on us, and for longer, than any other living organism. Babies just wouldn’t make it to adulthood without the intense and dedicated parenting and care they need. Even the very structure of the brain of those who are deprived of love and attention in the first few months of life is poorer than the brain of a child who has been cared for. They develop less brain cells and less connections between the cells they have.

Children learn much faster than adults, but we all learn through strong social bonds. We learn by mimicry, by copying others, by adopting the attitudes, values and behaviours of those around us.

Ideas and insights spread like wildfire around the world. So do emotions, whether they be fear and despair, or joy and celebration. Emotions are infectious.

Think of the experiences you’ve had in large groups – whether are a spectator/fan at a sporting event, or a member of an audience at a concert, or festival. The experience of collective excitement and joy is transcendental. It is deeply moving.

Solitary confinement is the cruellest, hardest form of punishment meted out on human beings.

We need to belong, we need to connect, we need to form relationships. We need to love and be loved.

Not one of us would last long without the contributions and actions of countless others.

So why do we “huddle close together” as Eliot’s Stranger asks? Maybe it’s not because we all love each other. We don’t. Maybe it’s not “to make money from each other”, although that seems a strong possibility!

I think it’s because we are born into communities, and we live our lives in them. Back in the depths of history people lived in tribes, then they settled with the development of agriculture, and created larger and larger communities in towns and cities. The last couple of hundred years has seen an acceleration in urbanisation and more of us now live in mega-cities than at any point before. Yet, cities don’t hold that well together, do they? They all seem to have wealthy, privileged areas, and vast tracts of poverty and deprivation.

In the last few decades it’s become easier and easier to communicate over distances and now we have “virtual communities” which don’t share geographical territory together but are often much more cohesive and close than the “physical communities” we find in cities.

This pandemic has forced us from the physical into the virtual. It’s driven us into asynchronous communications of messaging and emails. It’s connected us through connected screens, and forced us out of shared workplaces and shared physical spaces of entertainment and recreation.

We’ll start getting back together in our towns and streets soon.

But I still like Eliot’s challenges from the Stranger. I think it’s a great idea to reflect and ask ourselves – what kind of communities do we want to build and/or belong to? And why?

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We planted a little fig tree a few years ago. It grew very quickly, didn’t produce much fruit the first year, produced more the next year, and here we are this year with what looks like is going to be bumper crop.


Maybe that’s not a word we think of on a daily basis, but maybe we should. For many reasons we are in the habit of living with a scarcity mindset. We feel we never have enough, we are always lacking something.

Whole economic systems and societies have been constructed on the foundation of the scarcity mindset. Already, even before this pandemic is over, you’ll read economists and politicians saying what we need now is to get people out to the shops and start buying. Buying what? Stuff. Doesn’t matter what. Just consume more, buy more, get more, have more.

And then what? All will be well?

Advertisers stir up discontent and desire, trying to convince us that unless we buy what they are selling our lives will be empty, devoid, incomplete. Trying to convince us every day that we lack…..

What do we lack?

Whatever they are selling.

But what if we lived with an abundance mindset instead? What if we realised that the universe had created the ideal conditions for Life to emerge? What if we realised that Planet Earth has evolved to allow Life to proliferate?

The issue isn’t one of scarcity. It’s one of uneven and unequal access. We could create societies where everyone had access to clean air, clean water, healthy food, comfortable homes, caring relationships, satisfying work.

Couldn’t we?

I just don’t believe the issue is scarcity. Because the universe didn’t just create the conditions for Life to emerge. It sustains Life. It develops Life. It proliferates Life.

I find that when I get in touch with an abundance mindset, I feel more gratitude. And gratitude is good for both mental and physical health. It’s one of the easiest and best things we can do – start a gratitude journal, and note down two or three things daily for which we feel grateful.

I find that when I get in touch with an abundance mindset, it opens my heart to others. It makes me more likely to be generous, kind and tolerant.

I find that when I get in touch with an abundance mindset it’s easier to enjoy the present moment, anxieties and fears start to settle, and creativity begins to flow.

I know that there is a lot of poverty, hunger, violence, cruelty and greed in this world. But I believe it can be different. Not least because we live in an abundant universe.

Is it hard to imagine a better world? Is it hard to believe we have the skills, the abilities, the knowledge and enough love in our hearts to make it happen? What do we need to make it happen? Intention, desire, determination and patience? If we bring those to bear with an abundance mindset, who knows what we could achieve?

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One of the most beautiful things to see in any garden is the unfurling of the petals of a flower. That phase where the bud opens up and the gorgeous coloured petals unfurl themselves captures an essence of Life for me.

I see this and I think “becoming not being” – you’ll have noticed that phrase at the top of my blog? I wrote that as a subtitle because it is the most fundamental lens through which I see and understand the world.

The difference between those two words is movement…a particular kind of movement…..movement of change from one state to another.

Everything is in the process of becoming. It’s easy to see that in living organisms. The trillions of cells which make up the human body are in constant process of birth, growth, maturing and dying. They are replaced at different rates according to their type (blood cells living much shorter lives than bone cells for example), but none of them stay the same for the whole lifetime of the person.

When we look at an old school photo we might recognise ourselves, but when we compare that to one taken a decade later, then another and another, we see very, very images of the same person. All might be photographs of me, but all look utterly different.

This process of growth and development is a key characteristic of health for me. When I was working as a doctor, it was important for me to have a positive definition of health. I wanted to to help people to become healthy, and healthy, I think, is a positive state in its own right, not just an absence of symptoms or disease.

When I used to look out of my window in Central Scotland I could see the mountains, and the distinct shape of Ben Led always caught my eye. It amazed me that every day it looked different. Of course, I wasn’t close enough, or around for long enough, to see the physical structure or the surface of the mountain change (though change it did, over millennia). But my daily experience of the mountain was created more than rocks and earth. It was created by the light, the clouds, the sun, and the seasons. And all that changed all the time.

Nothing is fixed.

That’s my point.

Nothing can be understood in isolation from its environment, from its network of connections and relationships, or from its unique history and potential.

Stories….narratives….are always in the process of becoming….because stories weave together the past, the present and some possible futures, into one beautiful cloth. A dynamic cloth, which is always unfurling, always becoming, not being.

This image stirs all of this for me. I love how the “becoming not being” lens makes every day so much more alive!

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Why do we like reflections so much? I have many to choose from in my photo library. This is one of my favourites. I took two shots when I saw this. One in landscape format, and one in portrait. I find it hard to choose between them but the portrait one here has a little something extra which is that it reminds me of a playing card. You know how the Jack, Queen and King in a standard set of cards look the same whether they are “the right way up” or “upside down”? Well, this image reminds me of that effect.

I think reflections are something which “catch our attention”. When I see one, I’ll stop, take it in, probably take a photo. So it does two crucial things which make all the difference between drifting through life on autopilot, and living a conscious life.

When we notice something and pause to look more closely we’re activating, what Iain McGilchrist, in The Master and His Emissary, calls “the necessary distance”. This human capacity to make a space allows us to make responses, not just react. When we are on autopilot we are under the influence of our habits and reflexes. We find ourselves experiencing emotions or taking actions which we don’t understand. But when we pause, create the distance between cause and effect, between stimulus and reaction, then we open up the gates to choices, to imagination which can lead to novel solutions to problems or can stimulate us to create works of art and self-expression. This distance cuts the strings which others can deliberately pull, and allows us to re-assert our own values, our own beliefs and to tell our own, unique, individual stories.

There’s something else about this kind of reflection I’m sharing with you today. Half the image is upside down. When we look at the upside down half we are challenged to do two things – to make sense of what we are looking at, and to see the unreflected reality differently because we are engaging more actively. Is that clear? What I’m trying to say is that the reflection stops me, the upside down part of the image challenges me, and between them these two halves combine to make me pause, which gives me the opportunity to become more alert, more aware, and to enjoy the experience of the present moment more fully.

Finally, a photo like this just brings me joy because of the sheer beauty of the image. I hope it brings you some joy today, too.

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I love a blue sky. It lifts my spirits and warms my heart.

A plain dull grey sky has the opposite effect.

But wait, the sky isn’t featureless. Even a horizon to horizon cover of grey cloud is never completely homogenous. There are always variations there. There are thickenings, patches where the sun almost breaks through, or lighter patches which are backlit by the sun. There are swirls and lines and sheets and all kinds of forms. You just need to slow down, pay attention and notice.

I think the richness of features in the sky are partly down to the water molecules which make up the clouds, partly down to the light from the sun, partly down to the temperature changes and air currents, but it has another layer of richness added by the human imagination. We are the pattern seekers, and pattern creators par excellence.

Look at this sky for example.

There’s the silhouette of the edge of a tree on the far right of the image. Let your gaze drift across leftwards from there. What do you see?

I see the shape of an eye. The way I’d start to draw an eye by marking two lines in the shape of connected ellipses. There’s no sign of an eyeball, so this is either a closed eye, with the darker edge of the lower lid representing eyelashes, or it is the eye-shaped hole we often see in masks.

Once I’ve seen this I can’t un-see it.

Isn’t that strange?

It takes the imagination to “see” an eye in the sky, but once it’s there it has an impact. I feel watched. I feel seen. I can understand how ancient peoples believed that multiple gods and spirits lived with them. And even if those gods and spirits don’t seem real any more. There was a time when we humans had an awareness of a shared cosmos. They experienced wholeness and connections in their everyday. They didn’t have to question or analyse it, reality just seemed to be that way. Everywhere they looked they saw patterns, told stories, made sense of the phenomena of the ordinary day. Everywhere they turned they brought their imagination to bear and saw connections, discerned meanings, and drew upon what they learned to create art, to find their way across the planet, and to learn how to adapt to the changes and the seasons.

I don’t think there is any way to go back to those times, and I also believe that we have learned a lot since then, that we have deepened our understandings, broadened our knowledge. But I have a nagging feeling that we live in more superficial times now. That life seems somewhat thinner without that rich imaginative layer of stories, shapes, forms and patterns.

But, hey, none of that has gone away. We are able to slow down, to pay attention and to activate our imaginations any time we want. We can see more than a passing glance will reveal. We can make connections of greater depth and significance. We can new stories of the wholeness of Gaia, of the interconnectedness of all beings, of the constantly changing evolution and development of forms and diversity.

We can enrich our lives with art, poetry, stories, music, dance, ritual and loving relationships.

Well, why not?

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I had never even heard of a hummingbird moth before I came to live here in the Charente. I’d never heard of a hoopoe bird either.

Look at them – aren’t they amongst the most unusual creatures you’ve ever seen?

You know the hummingbird moth is around from the noise of its wings. They emit a deep, bass, tone, quite unlike that of any other flying insects. They love the buddleia plants, just as the butterflies do. I love to watch them hover in front of the plant, and slip that long, skinny proboscis down into each flower to drink up the nectar. They make their way from tiny flower to flower. I can’t imagine just how little nectar they must get from each single flower, but they just keep going, making their way, their special, apparently totally random way, from flower to flower, and bush to bush.

You know the hoopoe is around from its distinctive call – which sounds like, well, you guessed it, “hoo-po, hoo-po”. I think when I first heard it I thought it was perhaps a cuckoo or a dove, but I’ve learned, now, to recognise it as the hoopoe. Isn’t he the most unusual shape? With that long, long beak, he runs around across the grass, stopping to drill down into the soil and come up with a grub, or a worm. I have absolutely no idea how he does that. The movements, like those of the hummingbird moth, seem completely random. Yet, time and again, he comes up with food. Can he hear what’s going on under the soil? Can he smell his prey? Does he detect movement beneath his feet? I really don’t know, but I love to watch him. Once the chicks are born, you can see them follow a parent around as the search for food. The little ones drill down again and again and rarely seem to come up with anything to eat. Their parents feed them at first. Then one day they’ll turn up by themselves and sometimes I’ve thought, oh no, this little bird is never going to find any food, but they keep at it, running this way and that and stopping to peck, apparently randomly. Then after a while, they crack it, and come up trumps as often as their parents do.

These are two creatures which were so strange to me, and, in fact, I still find them exceptionally strange, but they’ve become familiar to me. I look forward to the first one of the season arriving in the garden, and I never tire of watching how they live.

Isn’t it strange how the unfamiliar can become familiar, without losing its distinctive uniqueness?
That’s what these photos make me think. How every day is unique, how every person is unique, how every living creature is unique. And what delight that brings me.

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One summer day, three years ago, we were sitting out in the garden having lunch. Here in the Charente there is a particular variety of melon – the Charnetais melon. It’s the perfect size to cut in half, scoop out the seeds, and fill the middle with Pineau (a local drink produced by the surrounding vineyards). An easy and delicious dish.

We have several Buddleia bushes in the garden and they attract a lot of butterflies and humming-bird moths.

On this particular occasion, this butterfly decided to join us for lunch, and flew down onto the melon my daughter was about to eat (she seems to attract butterflies even better than the buddleia bushes do, by the way). The butterfly took its time and enjoyed the Pineau – can you see how its proboscis is disappearing down into the alcohol?

This little episode made the lunch experience even better. It added to our pleasure, our delight and our senses of wonder and joy.

As I look at this image again today I’m struck by how the key theme seems to be sharing.

We were happy to share our lunch with the butterfly. More than that, sharing our lunch made the lunch even better.

Isn’t that often the case with sharing? Isn’t a drink, a coffee, a meal, enhanced when we share it with those who we love?

This has been one of the greatest challenges of the pandemic so far, and I suspect it’s going to remain a significant issue for many months to come. Because of enforced distancing, lockdowns, experiences of deaths of loved ones, we’ve been living more isolated lives. Yes, probably we’re all using messaging apps more, using video links more, maybe making more contact over all than we did before but it’s different isn’t it? Yes, we can have a “video party” together and it can be fun. Yes, we can share a “video apero” with friends and catch up. But there’s a lot of everyday, ordinary sharing which we did together that has been put on hold.

However, isn’t one of the most striking features of this pandemic the extent to which so many human beings are prepared to look out for other people, to care for other people, to even put their lives on the line to heal other people?

Isn’t one of the most striking features how scientists around the world have shared their knowledge, ideas and research results with each other?

Isn’t one of the most striking features how governments and their central banks have suddenly discovered they can find the money to support individuals and businesses during these enforced closures?

This is where my hope lies. I know the forces of greed and privilege are still as active as ever. I know the forces of prejudice and injustice are as active as ever. But we have a chance to blow on these positive embers of sharing and see if we can make them glow brighter.

We don’t need to go back to competitive, selfish, hyper-individualistic ways of living. We can build on what we’ve learned – that we share this one world. That we are all interconnected and we can share the problems and the solutions. We can be generous. We can look out for others, care more, share more. We can build on what we have in common, and delight in working together, creating together and sharing together.

Can’t we?

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When I came across this window the light drew me towards it. The window itself is a pretty standard, rectangular shape. I like the squared paper effect, but I don’t like the iron bars on the outside. I know that in some countries bars on the windows of houses are very common place, but they tend to put me in mind of prisons. I just don’t like them.

So there were elements in this window which appealed to me, and those which I found somewhat off-putting. However, it was the quality of the light itself which really appealed to me and I decided to photograph the light. That’s why I stepped back from the window and took this photo.

Having taken the photo, from the first time I reviewed it on my computer, and every time since, I’ve been struck by the presence of the seats in the foreground.

Why are those seats there?

Not to sit and look out the window at the garden or whatever you can see “out there”. Because the window is opaque. You can’t really see through it all.

So why sit there?

To see the light.

To experience the light.

To enjoy the light.

It’s a funny thing but it’s this window, and a couple of other ones I’ve encountered, shift my focus away from what I can see “out there” through the window and replace that with a focus on the quality of light streaming through “into here”.

Does that sound like it isn’t much? Maybe it does, but, you know, I think when we look out of a window to see what’s “out there” then the window itself disappears. It’s a frame, and lens, and as such, it contains, and filters what we are seeing. And I think a lot of the time, we are not very aware of the frames and lenses which colour and alter our view of reality. But when we shift the focus to our experience of the light, then something different happens.

Is this the shift between grasping something, (the main way in which we “exploit” the world), and simply experiencing the present moment (the main way we “explore” the world)?

Is this the shift between a utilitarian approach, asking “but what is the window for?” to something more playful, something which has value in its own right, not just to act as a tool to achieving something else?

Huh, suddenly I’m reminded of an essay by C S Lewis about observing a shaft of light in his shed, then moving to be within the light itself, something which he used to think about the difference between observing and experiencing. I wrote about it once…..ah, yes, here it is, if you’d like to read it.

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In order to learn and grow we need two, apparently opposite, behaviours. We need to do, or discover something different, something new, or else we’d be stuck where we are. We need to move out of our comfort zones, and to try new things, if we want to develop.

But we learn nothing well, if we never repeat things. Have you ever tried to learn a new language, or acquire any new knowledge? It’s a lot easier if you go over the new words, new concepts or information, again and again. In fact, a key insight from learning theory is to re-present to you, at timed intervals, whatever it is you are trying to learn. There are many pieces of software which facilitate this, and language learning programmes use this technique as well. They present you the words you’ve just learned and test your learning. If you pass, the item is shown to you again after a longer interval than it is if you fail. So the items you haven’t quite learned yet are repeatedly presented to you over a short period until you’ve got them into you brain.

At university, studying Medicine, we had to acquire a lot of new knowledge. I remember being presented with three volumes of a manual of human anatomy before we started dissection class, and I asked the tutor, “Which bits of this do we need to learn?” His reply was “Which bits of a human being do you hope to treat once you qualify?” OK, I got it. It was ALL of it! Everything described in those three volumes! And that was just human anatomy.

Well, we all pretty quickly created our methods to learn and retain all these new facts, writing notes in notebooks, copying out the notes into other notebooks, turning some of the information into flashcards and shuffling those packs time and time again until we got them all right.

Our right cerebral hemisphere is great for seeking out and learning what’s new. It seems to have a real predilection for novelty. Our left hemisphere on the other prefers what it has already encountered. It loves to repeat again and again, rehearsing and refining everything which the right hemisphere presented to it. That’s why it’s good to use the whole brain – we need to encounter the new, and we need to repeat and revise to learn.

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Water and rock. Two very different forms of matter. The one flowing, moving, changing, restless. The other solid, steady, firm and enduring.

What happens when these two forms meet, as they are doing so vividly in this image?

Just look at the water amongst the rocks. I’ve zoomed in to focus on this area but you can see the ocean beyond the rocks and it looks pretty quiet and peaceful in comparison. In this zone, where the water is bounded by the rocks, it is seething. There is turmoil. There is action. There is an abundance of energy. You can see that, hear that, feel that.

In fact the water and the rocks are in a relationship. They are constantly exchanging atoms and molecules with each other. The rocks set a boundary for the flow of the water, giving it a shape, the shape of a roiling cauldron. The water leaches minerals out of the rocks. The water dissolves the surface of the rock. So, just as the rocks shape the water, so does the water shape the rock.

This exchange of materials goes both ways. There are molecules and substances deposited onto and seeped into the rock as the water crashes over it, again and again.

I look at this photo and I see the creative power of difference. When different energies, different materials, different thoughts and ideas crash against each other, and constantly interact freely with each other then they release a creative power.

If every day feels the same, if all our days are filled with the same mindless habits and routines, if we only ever exchange with the same people, comfort ourselves with our social media echo chambers, then our energy starts to sag. The mundane, the apparently unchanging, the monotony, are all energy sapping, and without energy there is no creation, no growth, no life.

I think it’s one of the most important things to do in life – make new connections, discover new things, new places, make new relationships and friends, read about new ideas, listen to new music, read new poetry……you get the idea.

I heard a psychologist talking about children recently, explaining how children’s brains seem to work differently from adult brains. She drew from both psychology and computer research to describe – the “explorer/exploiter” duality. We are all born as explorers and young children are in that mode all day. Everything is an adventure. Every day is filled with discovery and learning. Then as we get older we begin to prioritise the exploiter mode, learning to how focus, make plans, and how to fashion the things around in into objects and goals we want to achieve.

Well, the truth is, we need explorer mode a lot more than we use it. So why not start today? Discover, do, experience the creative power of difference.

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