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Archive for May, 2021

The day I walked in a forest and encountered scattered, gorgeous red petals from some bushes, I came to an intersection. The path split and you had to choose which way to go. Smack on the intersection was this guidepost, which clearly directs you to go right. The fact that the arrow was painted the same shade of red as the petals strewn on the path struck me as not a coincidence. Somehow, it gave weight to the instruction. It helped me feel, yes, this is the best way to go. It “fitted” with what else I could see.

I’ve often wondered about this whole instruction/direction thing. I mean, who decided the path to the right was the best one to take? And why? I suspect it was laid out like this to make sure that everyone went the same way as they walked through the woods.

Shortly after I moved to this village in South West France, I came upon a panel near the church. It had a large map of the village and surrounding countryside and it had a couple of suggested walks traced out in coloured, broken lines. You could choose to follow the yellow walk, the blue walk or the green one. They were connected, so if you followed the shortest one, you’d find an intersection, where you had the opportunity to leave that route and expand into the intermediate walk, and, in that walk, there was a point where you could choose to leave that and follow the longest path. All the walks began from, and returned to the church. The panel said there were markers along the way. A bit like this red arrow, but rather than arrows, the markers were just “way markers” with dabs of paint according to which walk you were following. Some of the markers would have all three colours on them, and some, just one. You get the idea? Well, we set off to take one of the walks but pretty quickly, the markers vanished. Every intersection we came to seemed to lack any kind of marker whatsoever. Well, we eventually found our way back to the church, but wondered if the markers had all long since disappeared. The next time we decided to follow the route “clockwise” instead of “anticlockwise”, and guess what? There were clear markers at every junction. Whoever had set out the paths had painted the posts so they could be seen clearly as you followed a clockwise direction round the vineyards. But because they only painted one side of the posts, when you followed the paths anticlockwise, you couldn’t see a single marker!

Who decided there was only one way to follow the circuit? And when they did decide that, why didn’t they make that clear on the map at the start?

So, what’s this all about?

There’s no doubt directions and markers can be helpful. Very helpful. But rather too often they are a bit rigid, assuming that there is only one “right way” to go, and that everyone should go the same way.

That’s when I have a problem with them.

Life isn’t set in stone. Human beings are not all identical. There really is no such thing as “one size fits all”. So, I’m wary of “guidelines” and “direction indicators” and want to understand what lies behind them. So often nowadays, even the markers and signposts are missing. We are fed into a computer algorithm and coerced, pushed or pulled, along the same “choices” to make the same ones as everyone else. That problem is compounded by the way companies keep their algorithms secret. You don’t get to see the values, beliefs and intentions which the companies use to create them. And what if your personal values, beliefs or intentions are different from theirs?

In health care there are metre high piles of “clinical guidelines” and “protocols” now which every practitioner is expected to follow. I understand the good intention behind the creation of these things, but we have to accept that the future can’t be predicted, and that every patient is actually different, so there can be no single guideline or protocol which will guarantee the best health care for everyone.

Alongside that, I think the overuse of guidelines and protocols undermines the healthy development of both expert skills and “professionalism” and tends to give more weight to “processes” than to people (patients and practitioners).

That whole thing has got much worse during the pandemic, with an explosion of plastic arrows on the ground directing your movement and coloured strips setting new, otherwise invisible boundaries and limits. It all leads to a feeling of being micro-managed. It’s not comfortable.

How do we go forward in a better way? I suspect we need more transparency, more accountability and more flexibility on the part of the creators of these directions. A bit more humility would also help to prevent arrogance and righteousness in those who think they know what’s best for you better than you do yourself.

What’s your experience of directions, of markers, of guidelines, protocols and algorithms?

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I’ve long thought that there is a dilemma at the core of the human being which comes from two apparently opposite needs. The need to belong, and the need to be an autonomous, unique, separate self.

How do we achieve that?

We are social creatures. We’ve evolved that way. We have the most sophisticated and complex neurology which allows us to do much more than create connections and relationships with others. It allows us to empathise, to get in tune with, others. It enables us to influence and be influenced by others.

This pandemic has shown us even more clearly than ever that we are social creatures. We need our relationships. We need our families, friends, colleagues.

From the moment we are born we need to create healthy, strong relationships with others…..without them, we would die.

It’s also pretty clear that we all share this one little planet, and that the air, the water and the nutrition that we all need exists in inter-connected cycles and ecosystems – all without borders.

But we are all unique and separate individuals. We each have a finely tuned immune system which recognises anything which is “not me”. We have well-developed personal boundaries and borders. And we are all actually unique. The universe has never created you before, never created anyone identical to you before, and never will in the future. As we weave the events, experiences and relationships of our lives into our personal biology, we develop a completely unique set of memories, beliefs, values, characteristics and behaviours. We are all different. We all have a unique narrative to share.

You might think what we need is a balance between these two needs – a balance between separateness and belonging. But balance doesn’t seem to be quite the right concept to me.

It seems that we need to be healthily separate and healthily connected, both a the same time. We need to see, acknowledge and respect the uniqueness of every human being we meet, AND we need to build bonds of commonality, as well as understanding the vast interwoven networks of co-dependency and co-creation without which none of us could exist.

I guess it’s back to my favourite “and not or” – we really, really need to pay attention to, and nurture, both of these needs – in ourselves and in others.

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The phrase “The Floating World” is a beautiful one. I thought it was quite magical the very first time I came across it. I think where I first read it was in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, “An Artist of the Floating World”, a book which I still think has the ability to put me into an entirely different state of mind.

The original Japanese term for “The Floating World” is Ukiyo.

Ukiyo means “floating/fleeting/transient world”.

In the past it referred to a “pleasure seeking” urban culture but in modern usage

“the term ukiyo is used to refer to a state of mind emphasising living in the moment, detached from the difficulties of life.”

I really like the phrase and, in particular, I like the modern usage of the term. Living in the moment, detached from the difficulties of life, sounds pretty appealing to me. But there’s a strange paradox there, isn’t there? From one perspective I think the advice to be present, to be really aware of the time, place and circumstances which we call “here and now” is the only way to really engage with reality. After all, if our minds are busy wandering off down memory lane, or busy creating fantasies and fears about the future, then life, itself, is passing us by.

But on the other hand, what’s this “detached from the difficulties of life”? Is that a good piece of advice? Is that not escapism? Well, I suppose it could be escapism. T S Eliot said humans beings couldn’t bear too much reality after all. The entertainment industry and the psychoactive drug industry are both heavily focused on detaching people “from the difficulties of life”. Didn’t the Romans say the way to rule a people was through “bread and circuses”? In other words, make sure they aren’t hungry and keep them distracted with entertainment. Well, seems to me that’s still the most used strategy by those who wish to wield power over others in this world – whether they be politicians, businessmen or members of the 0.01%.

But isn’t there also a long, well established teaching about the power of non-attachment to reduce suffering in the world? Actually, I don’t think “non-attachment” and being “detached” are the same thing, but I won’t go into that in any more detail here.

My dilemma is how to be fully present, fully engaged with my life, moment by moment, yet not drown under the weight of difficulties, my own, those of others, or those of society.

Well, here’s where the floating world idea comes back strong. Look again at the ways of translating “ukiyo” – floating, fleeting, transient. Let me pick up that last word first. I have no doubt at all that an awareness of transience heightens my senses of delight and wonder. I relish the seasons of the new fruits and vegetables. I’m glad that those seasons don’t last all year round. I love to see the migrating birds arrive in my garden, and knowing that they will only be here for a few weeks before the fly south again, somehow, intensifies my delight in seeing them. I’m already looking forward to the hummingbird moths and the different coloured butterflies which will be attracted to the buddleia bushes in the garden once they flower. Knowing that we don’t live forever makes it all the more important to engage with life every single day…….not to run away from it, or pretend it doesn’t exist, but to fully engage with it.

Ultimately, this idea of a floating world is a counsel to “flow” through life, and that, I would say, is one of my highest aspirations. I want to experience the flow of Life through the cells and fibres of my being. I want to experience the flow of Nature, of existence, of the Universe, through the creation of every single unique moment and experience of my life.

I like it. This notion of a “floating world”.

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I came across this old stone bowl in the middle of a forest over ten years ago. The bowl was full to the brim with water. I don’t know what the bowl was doing there. I don’t know if someone threw it away, or placed it carefully here. I don’t know if they filled it with water, or if the rain fell day after day, between, and onto, the leaves of the trees which surround it. I don’t know its history.

But it stopped me in my tracks because of its beauty. Beauty can do that. It can be what we call “arresting beauty” because it captures us, catches our attention, slows right down and pulls us in.

I crouched down and took this photo. This is one of my photos which I return to again and again. Yes, partly because it gives me pleasure just to gaze at it. Within seconds I’m transported back into the depths of the forest. I can smell the damp bark of the trees, see the rich diversity of greens in the ferns, the bushes, the mosses and the trees. I can hear the birds singing.

But also because this is one of those images for me which works as a powerful metaphor of the mind.

When I look inside the bowl, the first thing I notice is the surrounding forest reflected on the still surface of the water. Isn’t that interesting? The first thing I notice is the world represented in the bowl. The first thing I notice is not the water itself. In fact, it’s quite hard to really see the water. When I look more closely I see ferns and I see tall trees and I see patches of blue sky above the roof of the forest.

Isn’t this a bit like how we perceive the world? Don’t we allow all the stimuli from the environment to set off cascades of chemicals and electricity inside our bodies and send them up towards the right cerebral hemisphere where we explore them, appreciate them, connect to them, and hand off some of that activity to the left cerebral hemisphere where we re-present it all to ourselves, match it against memories and knowledge, re-cognise it, analyse it, name and categorise it? Then send out the ripples and waves of that mental activity back towards the right hemisphere to be re-integrated into the whole, to offer it back to ourselves to give us the opportunity to make sense of it all, to seek meaning in it and weave the threads into our unique, personal stories.

I look more closely into the bowl to try to see the water itself, but it’s still not so easy. After all, how do we manage to see our own minds? How do we manage to see the processes which are going on which allow us to have this experience?

What do I see next? The hint of something below the surface. Are those brown leaves lying there? What else lies in the depths of the bowl? That gets me wondering again about the unconscious – all that activity which goes on just beyond our ability to be aware of it – all the processes of the mind and body which keep us alive, which nourish us, which defend us, which promote our growth. Now and again we catch some glimpse of what might being going on below the surface of awareness, of consciousness. We might glimpse it in our dreams. We might glimpse it in coincidences, synchronicities, in our imagination. We might glimpse it in meditation.

And what if the water in this bowl represents the self, the ego, the “I” who perceives and experiences? The water, the consciousness, which is filled with the reflections of the world in which we live our embedded, embodied lives?

The water, the deep subconscious below, and the bright reflective, surface above?

And after all this wondering, and mind wandering, I return to the sheer beauty, the magic, of this simple, old bowl of water lying in the depths of the forest, waiting for the opportunity to make my day special.

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I graduated in Medicine from The University of Edinburgh back in 1978. During my medical education and training I was taught about the heart. I remember we were taught about the heart muscle, the system of electrical conduction which produced the rhythm of beats, about the heart valves and how to diagnose different valve problems according to the sounds we could hear when we listened through our stethoscopes. I learned how to administer and read an “ECG” – that series of spikes and waves you see on heart monitors and printed out on long strips of paper.

I didn’t learn that there was a neural network around the heart, nor what that might do. Back then if we thought about it all, the heart was a sophisticated pump for keeping the blood flowing around the body, and phrases like “heart felt”, “broken heart”, “having a heart to heart conversation”, and so on, were considered flowery or poetic metaphors.

I know better now.

We now know that there are sophisticated networks of nerve cells around all the hollow organs of the body, but especially around the heart and the gut. We also know that there is a LOT of communication between the heart and the brain, and that, contrary to what we used to believe about those connections, most of the flow of information is from the heart TO the brain, not the other way around.

We’ve also learned that the beating of the heart creates electromagnetic waves which radiate out around the whole body, and can even be detected outside the body. Those rhythmic waves seem to have a role to play in co-ordinating, or “integrating”, a wide range of functions of the whole body, and even connect with, influence and can be influenced by the waves radiating from other peoples’ hearts.

It turns out that those metaphors we use have a biological, neurological, physical basis in the person. We have a certain kind of “heart intelligence” which allows us to “know” and to “communicate” from one heart to another.

Isn’t that amazing?

Since I came to understand all that I’ve realised just how important it is for we humans to have a “heart focus” – to try to connect to others and communicate with others “from the heart”, not just from the rational brain.

We all love to find heart shapes in Nature, don’t we? Like this little flower in today’s image. Or in the bark of a tree, the shape of a stone, or in a work of art. Why is that, do you think?

I think it speaks to the core importance of everything we think of when we use these heart metaphors in our language, in our poetry and in our songs.

After all, who thinks it’s a good idea for someone to act in a “heartless” way?

Not me!

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This is another of my most favourite photos. I took it one day from where I was living back then, just outside of Stirling, in Central Scotland. The largest mountain here, whose peak is hidden behind the dense, black cloud, is Ben Ledi. I’ve taken many, many photos of Ben Ledi because when I lived there and looked out towards it every morning I realised it didn’t look the same two days in a row, and that surprised me. I suppose I thought of mountains as unchanging, or, at best, as changing very, very slowly over millennia (although maybe they formed over extremely short periods of time as the Earth’s crust heaved and shook, and deep layers of ice flowed down from the North Pole).

When I was struck by just how different Ben Ledi appeared to me every single day, I realised that “the mountain” wasn’t just a piece of rock sticking up above the rest of the land. I realised that my experience of looking at the mountain was formed by all the elements…..the rocks, the plant life, the sunlight, the rain, the wind and the clouds. That realisation brought about a new understanding for me about the embedded nature of everything that exists. We don’t see “any thing” in isolation. We see whatever we are looking at in its dynamic, complex web of interactions and relationships with the rest of the world in which it exists. And we see whatever we are looking at within a relationship too – the relationship between me and the mountain – and that as I changed each day, so did my perception of the mountain.

This particular day we had pretty dramatic weather. You can tell from the colour and density of that cloud which fills the top half of the image that it was a day of rain and storms. The cloud base, as you can see, was low. It completely obscured the top of the mountain. But then suddenly the Sun broke through and sent these searchlight beams of intense, vivid light, below the cloud, and yes, even below the mountain……It looked as if the ground itself had caught fire!

How unusual – to see the sunlight BELOW the mountain! To see the sunlight BELOW the heavy black clouds!

That inversion of the normal reminds me of the famous image printed on the classic tarot cards – the image of the “Hanged Man”. I’ve read that some think that image relates to the Norse myth of Odin hanging upside down. Here’s a passage I remember about that myth (from Rachel Pollack’s commentary on Haindl’s paintings)

As an older and wiser version of the God Odin, the Hanged Man sacrifices the Emperor’s desire to dominate the world around him. He reverses his previous beliefs, and so gives up what other people find important: success, power, pride, the ego’s sense of being unique and special and separate from the rest of the universe. He gains understanding, peace, union with the Earth, the joy of life.

It also reminds me of the Leonard Cohen line – “there’s a crack, a crack, in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Finally, as I thought of a title for this post, I came up with “The Sun under the Mountain”, which immediately sounded like a hexagram from the I Ching. I looked it up – “Ken” is the trigram for the mountain, and “Li” is the one for the sun or fire. Ken over Li gives the hexagram number 22 – which goes by the name – “Grace”.

Isn’t that fabulous?

Maybe this image brings up other stories, lines from poems or songs for you. Maybe it evokes other memories or sensations. Does it?

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Here’s something which I reckon is part of the daily experience of the vast majority of us…….the weather changes all the time. This weekend, it’s mid Spring in the Northern Hemisphere, but I read on both the UK and French weather forecasts that it will be more like Autumn than Spring today. There’s obviously one of those big weather systems active over Western Europe and its bringing lower temperatures, rain and wind. But yesterday afternoon we sat outside in the garden, in the sun, and chatted with one of our neighbours, and, earlier, we hung out a washing on the line and it dried in no time.

I know that we can hit a run of days where the weather seems much the same, but, mostly, it changes every day, and it changes all day long.

This photo I’m sharing today shows rain falling on the next village across the other side of the vineyards. Sometimes it’s like that. We can see the rain coming, or passing us by. We can see the storm gathering, or the sky clearing. We can see the sun’s rays making their way across the Earth towards us.

My point is……change is an inherent characteristic of reality. We live in a dynamic, lively, changing, evolving universe. Our lives don’t stand still (even when it feels like that). The communities of cells which constitute a human body are alive, growing, dying, developing or being replaced, minute by minute. The human mind doesn’t stand still. Our neurones fire constantly. Even when we are asleep.

How are we going to respond to that?

Get angry, frustrated and upset that reality won’t bend to our Will?

Many spiritual teachers have taught that there lies the root of human suffering.

But it often doesn’t feel good to be constantly reacting to circumstances and bending to the Will of others does it?

Is there an alternative?

I think there is. It’s in adapting. It’s in flexibility combined with integrity. It’s in making the time and space to allow response rather than reaction. It’s in knowing that we have freedom. Freedom to choose, what Victor Frankl, said was the ability to decide how we wanted to respond in any given situation (I strongly recommend his “Man’s Search for Meaning”)

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Do you ever decide, at the start of a day, to look out for a certain colour?

It’s an easy practice and these days when most of us have cameras included in the phones we carry around with us everywhere, it’s pretty easy to take photos of whatever we notice.

I enjoy doing that. The decision to look out for a particular colour sets the intention, and heightens awareness, so, once set, I find, I see that colour everywhere.

I don’t take photos of absolutely everything that particular colour that day, because that’s too lacking in discrimination for me, and I like to select my subjects for photographs a bit more mindfully, or deliberately, than that. But once I’ve decided which colour I’m going to look out for I can then turn the practice into a three step exercise.

Step one is to be aware and to notice that colour whenever you come across it.

Step two is to choose to photograph some of what you notice. You don’t need “criteria” for that, just take the photographs intuitively. If you think, I’m going to take a picture of that, just do it.

Step three, at the end of the day, is to browse the photos you’ve taken.

I find that when I do this I live more easily in the present, and that I magnify and multiply my moments of wonder and joy.

How do I decide which colour to look out for? Usually by noticing something at the start of the day……either something in my immediate environment, or one of my photographs which has caught my attention.

This photo is one of my most favourite green photos! I mean, just look at those greens!

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Meditation in a huge variety of forms has become incredibly popular in recent years. “Mindfulness” seems to be marketed as the solution to almost everything, perhaps because it has contextualised the original Eastern teachings for a Western, twenty-first century audience, and removed the references to spirituality and belief.

However, I think there’s an equally ancient “classical” practice stretching right back to Greek philosophers. It’s the combination of slowing down and observing.

“Sitting and looking” is one of my favourite “activities”. Since I retired and moved from Scotland to South West France, I have spent many, many more hours outside than at any previous time in my life. Sometimes I’m outside to tend to the garden. I’ve discovered the delights of growing, harvesting and enjoying a wide range of fruits and vegetables, and I get a huge amount of joy from seeing the beauty of different trees, shrubs and flowers. But oftentimes I like to just sit on a chair in the garden and look.

I look up at the blue sky and watch a few buzzards soaring effortlessly on warm air currents swirling so high above me that the birds are just little specks, and their high pitched cries sound far away and near at one and the same time. I look up and see kestrels hovering on a single point in the air, their wings beating so fast I can’t see them, then watching them drop like a stone to the earth when they spot some prey far below them.

On cloudy days I get lost in the ever-changing tableau of characters which I can see in the clouds.

Throughout the year I see the seasonal changes in the long parallel lines of vines stretching from here to the horizon.

Sitting down makes me slow down. It allows me to pause, to take a few deep breaths (without even thinking about my breathing), and to become more present. It allows my awareness to open up and come alive, so that I notice what would otherwise pass me by.

It’s a great, life-enhancing, combination.

Sitting and looking.

I recommend it. (Health warning: too much sitting is bad for you health. Use it in moderation. Movement, walking and other forms of exercise are also necessary!)

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I saw this lying on a pine forest floor recently and stopped to take this photograph. I don’t know if this is a kind of moss, or a lichen, or what. It’s the colour of lichen, but the shape of moss, but its structure is more open than I’ve seen in either moss or lichen before. If you know what this is please leave me a message in the Comments section below.

Although my eye was caught by the pale green ball, after taking the photo and looking at it once I got back home, I found that the image was way more attractive than I had even thought when I took the shot……because of the mass of brown pine needles on the forest floor on which this structure is lying.

That took me by surprise, but, then again, it doesn’t surprise me. It took me by surprise because I was focused on just this pale green ball of interlaced fibres. I thought, and still do think, it’s almost like a model of the neural networks which make up our brain. Not that I’m saying I looked at this and thought, oh, look, a little brain! But I looked at it, found it beautiful, found it sparked my curiosity and drew me in, and thought that it was a good example of the complex inter-connectedness which is at the heart of universe.

It doesn’t surprise me to find my pleasure and interest both increase once I notice the ball is lying on a carpet of brown pine needles. Because I have learned over and over again that seeing whatever I am looking at in its contexts and environments pleases me and interests me in equal measure.

I can look at this and because of the pine needles instantly remember my walk in this particular pine forest. I remember the smell of the pine needles, the heat of the sun, the roar of the Atlantic Ocean just metres away. I get an enhanced, lived experience, which is specific to me. But then maybe you can see this too and remember a similar time when you, yourself, wandered through a pine forest. Maybe you also noticed mosses and lichens and enjoyed the scent of the pine needles. Or maybe you’ll decide now that one day you’ll have a walk in pine forest because this photo and these words inspire you.

You see, we all live in this vast, complex inter-connected network, this beautiful Planet Earth, in this mind-boggling Universe. And from the scale of a single pale green ball on a pine forest floor, right up to our web of relationships, to our shared life on this living planet, to the unfathomable depths of the universe stretched out in the night sky above our heads……..it’s all one vast, inter-connected web.

It’s all a matter of scale.

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