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Archive for June, 2021

Honey

Here are three jars of honey that I bought at a market stall here in France.

From left to right they are acacia, chestnut and lavender.

What’s the first thing you notice?

They are SO different, huh? Just looking at these jars should make you pause and think about this issue which I reckon we encounter multiple times every day – how uniqueness is always present even when we obscure it by abstraction and categorisation.

What?

Well you see I understand why we call the contents of all three of these jars by the same name – honey – because it’s true. They are all honey. But I’ve heard some people say they love honey and others say they hate honey. And here’s where the problem starts. Believe me acacia, chestnut and lavender honey taste incredibly different. They don’t have the same consistency and they don’t even smell the same.

I adore the chestnut honey but I’m the only one in my house who does. Others can’t even stand the smell. I find the acacia kind of bland but it’s probably one of the most popular ones in the shop. And the lavender honey spreads utterly differently from the other two. You can pour the others, but you’ll wait a long time to see the lavender one pour!

I know this skill of analysis and categorisation which is carried out by the left hemisphere is a kind of super power that allows us to think quickly but abstracting just a small number of features or characteristics and classifying the entire “object” according to only those features distances us from reality.

Reality, it turns out is a vast interconnected web of uniqueness with every element, encounter and relationship constantly influencing and being influenced by the others.

Generalising, labelling, runs the risk of blinding us to uniqueness which doesn’t only mean we separate ourselves from reality but it threatens our humanity.

Just last year when visiting my mum in hospital I overheard one nurse say to another “Have you taken blood from bed 16 yet?”

Yeah, right, try getting blood out of a bed!

That’s a common way of thinking and speaking in Medicine. I can remember the excitement of our group in Medical School when we heard “there’s a really unusual heart murmur in ward 6”! Well, we were just learning how to use that iconic instrument, the stethoscope and there’s only one way to detect unusual sounds in someone’s heart – to listen to them and learn each distinct pattern.

Thing is it’s too easy for the actual people whose blood needs to be examined or whose heart is making an unusual sound to just disappear.

Are we going the right way with this issue?

I don’t think so.

By shifting our attention from stories to data we are de-humanising not just our health care but our societies.

Is it any wonder that public and political discourse has become so polarised? If we see someone as “one of them” and “not one of us” it’s going to be pretty difficult to build a mutually beneficial relationship with them.

How do we counter that? Well I guess it’s takes curiosity and a desire to discover what makes someone unique. Because here’s the interesting thing I’ve found in life – when you discover someone’s uniqueness you find what you share with them and at exactly the same time you find you appreciate them as whole people.

It turns out that what we all share is the fact that we are all different.

And seeing both differences and similarities in uniqueness enables us to humanise our daily encounters, to build bridges and to care for each other.

Turns out that makes for a tastier, richer, more delightful life.

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Not just a few rocks

This is one of the many stone circles I’ve visited in Scotland over my lifetime. This one is at Lundin, and it’s a pretty small one, but rather uniquely, has a tree growing in the middle of it. That’s pretty unusual. Mostly these circles have just grass or a covering of small stones in them.

I suppose you could look at this and say it’s just a few stones, placed on their ends in approximately the same part of a field. So what’s the big deal? But wouldn’t that be a terribly reductionist, thin, and poor way to encounter something like this.

The truth is I don’t think anyone seriously looks at this and thinks, so what, just some stones in a field!

There’s something about the arrangement of stones into rough circles which resonates deeply with us. They catch our attention, provoke our curiosity and stimulate our imagination. They may even invoke memories for some of us, remind us of stories, create a sense of deep time connection to ancestors.

There is something else they can do too – they can move us. I’m sure I’m not the only person to feel a thrill approaching a circle like this, to experience a quickening of my heart and my breathing. Not with all of them, but with many of them, I have a distinct feeling when I step inside the circle. I can’t quite pin it down. It’s partly a feeling of joy, partly a feeling of wonder, and partly a feeling of expectation. Of what? I don’t know. About the best I can say is that the feeling inside some of these circles is special. It’s unique.

Is this why they were built in the first place? We don’t know. Are they works of art, places of ritual, scenes of celebration or enquiry? We don’t know.

But here’s what I do know. They aren’t just a few stones in a field.

They are opportunities to be enchanted. To be re-enchanted. Because, hey, let’s face it, it’s pretty easy to feel dis-enchanted these days!

There are many kinds of special places for human beings of course. They aren’t limited to stone circles. I wonder which special places you’ve found in your own life?

These special places make us more aware that life can be deep, rich and meaningful if we look behind the superficially disconnected material view of reality.

Here’s to a life of enriching experiences!

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I took this photo in Aix-en-Provence a few years ago and I still like it. These two students (I’m presuming they are students) are sitting close together in this empty square late one evening. They are both lit up by the light of their laptop screens and I’m guessing they’re sitting there cos the found a wifi they could connect to.

I like that they are together but separate. Each on their own laptop but sitting so close together and sharing a reason to be there.

This image sets off a few trains of thought for me.

First and foremost it reminds me of the deep need we have to be connected. We humans have evolved as the most highly social creatures on the planet. Our brains, our senses, our bodies don’t exist in isolation. They exist in constant flows of materials, energies and information. We couldn’t survive without making connections. If you’ve had a child you’ll know the intensity of connection which overwhelms you within minutes, perhaps seconds, of their birth. No infant would make it to adulthood without powerful ways to connect with others and secure the care they need.

It also reminds me of that rather paradoxical opposite phenomenon – our need to be separate, to know that we are individuals. Each person here on their own screen, making their personal connections with a unique social web of others.

In the light of the pandemic this image takes on a new significance. We have been distanced from each other and confined to our separate spaces to communicate through technology – screens and phones – and that’s produced a mixed bag of experiences. Many of us have reconnected with others who had faded into the backgrounds of our lives. Many of us have spent a lot more time connecting with others on Zoom, FaceTime, messaging services, Facebook, etc. And a lot of those connections have been good. But people are also talking about screen fatigue and recognising that “virtual” connections are not a substitute for “real” ones. We long for the physical, for the gentle touch, for the hug, for the greeting kiss, the firmness of a hearty handshake.

Maybe it’s good to become more aware of all that and to know that, as we go forward, the most important aspect of life is our relationships. We might feel like separate individuals but we live only in connection with others.

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Happy colours

I know that colour choices are very personal and subjective. We each have various colour palettes which we prefer, and I suspect there are certain palettes we prefer in particular circumstances.

I don’t really have a lot of bright primary colours around me. The colours I wear in summer are similar to the colours you’d see as you walk around certain Italian streets…..Bologna, for example. But in the winter I generally wear black or dark colours.

Now that I stop to think about it, I’m not really sure why I make these particular choices. It seems to happen mostly subconsciously, but maybe it’s a better idea to become more aware and make more conscious choices?

As I walked around the garden this morning the potager caught my eye. We’ve put in these twirly steel rods for the little tomato plants to grow up, and to stop us from poking our eyes out on the pointy ends we’ve attached these brightly coloured little plant pots.

Against a blue sky they are particularly delightful and they’ve got me wondering if bright colours are more likely to evoke the emotions of joy.

What do you think? How to colours influence your emotions and moods?

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What makes this photo special?

For me, it’s the sort of symmetry you can see here between the rows of vines covering the hillside and the rays of sunlight shining down through the gaps in the cloud.

There’s a resonance there. A sort of harmony which catches my attention. I think “as above, so below”, which is an old esoteric teaching about the way in which this physical world and the spiritual world are connected….or, if you prefer, how the Earth is connected to the Sky or Heavens.

Our brains are brilliant at spotting patterns. In fact, we don’t just spot patterns in the way that a mirror might reflect what stands in front of it, we create patterns. We learn patterns. We remember patterns. Think of the night sky, for example. Once you’ve been taught to see the invisible lines between some of the stars you call them constellations. And then you can find them again much more easily in the millions and millions of stars shining down on a clear night. But someone imagined those lines. They aren’t the same as the threads which make up a spider’s web, or the lines of minerals running through stones you find when you are out for a walk. Our ancestors created those patterns, and told stories so that others would be able to see them and share them.

So we are brilliant at spotting “similars” – we see patterns and attempt to match them to ones we know already, or others we can see, or create in the same moment. When we spot a similar it’s exciting. It’s “remarkable” – it’s attention grabbing and potentially meaning-creating – because that’s something else we are great at – making experiences and perceptions meaning-full. We constant attempt to make sense of the world we are living in, and to connect our experiences to a sense of purpose.

Some of these matches, these “similars” are like resonances – and this is one of those. Resonances are like harmonies. They delight. They spark a little joy, set off some feelings of awe or wonder. They are special.

This is one of the ways in which we can live a more “enchanted” life. A more “meaningful”, “rich”, “deep”, life. A life of soul. A life of spirit. A connected, “integrated” life. A healthy life. A life of flow and movement.

What patterns do you notice today? And what resonances, or similarities, do you see between those patterns, both between them and ones you already know, and between them and the others around you today?

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This photo gets me thinking about three dimensions of context…..horizontal, temporal and depth.

The horizontal dimension contains what’s around us here and now. All of our experiences occur within the context of a place. We live, moment by moment, in a web of physical connections which extend in every direction we can see. It includes the natural environment of all the elements and all the other living organisms which share this space with us. It also includes the social environment of all the other people around us (and now with phones, video and messaging services that social environment can stretch out over thousands of miles. It’s not limited to the physical horizon any more). It also includes the cultural environment of habits, behaviours, values and rules with which we co-construct our lives together.

The temporal dimension includes the past….the trails and tracks we can see behind us, the memories we have and the roots which lead from our beginnings to where we are now. It also includes the future, or rather all the possible futures we and others can imagine….that multiplicity of possibilities which collapse into a single reality as each moment emerges from the next one.

The depth dimension lies within us. It’s often unspoken, largely unconscious and unknown but it creates the foundations and defaults of our daily lives. Some of it emerges in our dreams, some is revealed in our language and words, some erupts through in the strength of feelings.

I think if I want to understand someone, whether that someone be me or an other, I need to see them, hear them, discover them in all three of these dimensions.

That’s why a holistic approach in Medicine always seemed necessary to me and why a rigidly reductionist one was often just too narrow to be of more than just a little help.

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There’s a tiny little bird makes a tiny little nest, every year, usually in what seems to me to be a precarious part of one of the trees or bushes in the garden.

I don’t know where she goes and lives in the other seasons but she sure likes to come here in the summer, lay a few eggs, hatch a few offspring, then she’s gone again.

Take a close look at this nest. It’s not neat, it’s not even especially beautiful and there is actually a hole in the bottom – look next to the eggs –

However, what I got thinking about when I saw her nest this year was this……

“Free as a bird”. This wee creature does what almost all other creatures do – makes a home where and whenever it chooses to.

We humans have made things way more complicated. We’ve created a whole class of people called citizens who have certain rights and can make certain choices that their neighbours who aren’t classes as citizens don’t have and can’t make.

It doesn’t make sense to me to class neighbours differently. Why shouldn’t the people in no. 16 for example be treated the same as those next door in no. 18?

Why have some who have, say “temporary settled status” (in the U.K.), or who are given some kind of visa with limited rights and responsibilities?

Here’s my preference. Treat everyone who lives in the same street, the same neighbourhood or community the same.

They are all inhabitants after all. All living together, all sharing the same spaces, the same facilities.

I don’t get the added value of these various limited rights classifications. Anyone able to make a case for me? Maybe I’m missing something but this little bird building this little nest just where she wants to every year seems to have freedoms we’ve taken away from some of our neighbours. Who gains from that?

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I saw this woman yesterday standing outside a supermarket in the middle of town. I was struck by the size of the books she was holding, and which she couldn’t resist opening and starting to read. It turns out they are a trilogy of YA fiction by a famous French author, the third volume having just been published, which is maybe what inspired this woman to buy all three.

I understand this compulsion. I’ve always had way too many books on my shelves….well, way too many in the sense that I couldn’t read them all in one lifetime. But that doesn’t stop me buying new ones. Suffice it to say I read a LOT!

I’ve had a fascination for stories all my life. In my earliest years I remember my Grandpa reading to me – he read me all of Walter Scott’s “Tales of a Grandfather” and he read me collections of myths, legends and fairy stories which he bought for me when I was born. My mum used to have a photograph hanging on the wall of her living room. It was a black and white print showing my Grandpa reading in the local library. I guess I got that gene!

I’ve told countless people that when I worked at the NHS Centre for Integrative Care (which I did for the latter two decades of my career), I used to look forward to meeting a new patient every Monday morning because I knew they would tell me a unique story – one I’d never heard before. In fact, story was the very heart of my engagement with these patients who, largely, suffered from long term conditions which had failed to respond to drug treatments.

Did it surprise me that they had failed to respond to drug treatments? Nope. Because there aren’t any drugs for people, there are only drugs for diseases and drugs to suppress symptoms. Drugs don’t heal. At best they create an environment conducive to healing. It turns out it’s people who heal, not drugs. It’s people with self-defending, self-repairing, self-balancing, self-creating and growing interwoven complex systems who heal.

I found that stories were the way to understand a patient. Not symptoms.

I read a piece about a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, Karl Deisseroth, yesterday, and in that interview he said

Anybody can read a diagnostic manual and see a list of symptoms, but what really matters to the patient is a different story

see it here

which reminded me of a passage by the English philosopher, Mary Midgely, which I read many years ago –

One cannot claim to know somebody merely because one has collected a pile of printed information about them.

Wisdom, Information and Wonder. Mary Midgley

and of this passage from philosopher Richard Kearney

Telling stories is as basic to human beings as eating. More so, in fact, for while food makes us live, stories are what make our lives worth living.

On Stories. Richard Kearney

In fact, that latter passage came into my head as I took this photo – here’s a woman absorbed in stories, standing next to empty supermarket trolleys and with her back to the stalls of food laid out in front of the shop.

Stories, I found, weren’t just the way to understand a person (to make a diagnosis even), but they were also the way to heal. By helping someone create a new story, I could stimulate that complex of healing systems within them, and spur them on to more than relief from suffering…….More than? Yes, to more self-awareness, more self-compassion, and to a re-evaluation of their life choices, habits and behaviours.

Stories can set us free.

Mind you, it’s also true that we can get trapped by stories – the stuck, multilayered ones we’ve been taught as children, or been brainwashed into believing by others. But even then, the answer, the release, the movement forwards, lies in the creation of new stories……our own, unique stories which allow us to realise our hopes, express our singularity, and live the life we want to lead.

Stories, you see, have a magnetic pull. We don’t live without them.

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I walked into the courtyard of a temple in Kyoto one day and saw this display of flowers. Well, actually, this first photo is what I saw once I got closer to the display which had caught my attention.

When you look at these flowers, all you see is some flowers. It’s not possible to see the pattern which is revealed only from a distance.

This is what you see when you stand back…

Isn’t this amazing?

Actually, whether you encounter the full image first, then get closer in order to realise that it is constructed from hundreds of flowers, or whether you start close up seeing only the flowers, and gradually stand back to see the full image, the two positions are a huge contrast, aren’t they?

These are the two perspectives we bring to everything. We use the left cerebral hemisphere to zoom in on individual elements. To do that it focuses on parts and identifies them, matching them up to whatever we have previously encountered and categorising them. In this case, it identifies the objects as flowers and labels them according to their colour. But at the same time, we use the right cerebral hemisphere to take in the whole picture, to see whatever we are looking at within its contexts. To do that it focuses on the connections and relationships, and, at the same time brings a heightened awareness for novelty – it homes in on whatever is new, whatever is unique, whatever is special.

You’ll know already from my writing that I believe the principle of “and not or” is a good one in life, and that’s in no small part due to the fact that this is exactly how we have evolved. We don’t have only one way of looking at things. We have multiple ways, and we throw them into the complex mix of reality so that we can do more than perceive the world in which we live, we explore, play, learn and create. We adapt, we grow and we evolve.

I’m very wary of black and white, rigid, fixed, narrow views of reality. The world is richer than any of us can conceive. The universe has more potential than any of us can imagine. And there is much to gain from diversity and tolerance.

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I think I first became aware of research suggesting that even a view of natural surroundings could be good for us in the paper about recovery times after surgery. The findings showed that post-op patients required less painkillers, had less post-op complications and required shorter stays in hospital if their bed had a view outside to a natural environment (as opposed to no view, or a view of a wall).

Then I came across the Japanese concept of “forest bathing” and work from a university in Tokyo which showed that spending a few minutes in a forest could increase the levels of helpful immune chemicals in the blood.

Today I read a paper about “Attention Restoration Theory” suggesting that spending time in nature improves the concentration levels of children with ADHD. This “ART” concept describes two kinds of attention – an easy, effortless, “bottom up” (neurologically speaking) attention to the environment, and an effortful, focused “top down” attention which we use when deliberately concentrating on something. We use the former when gazing out of a window to the natural environment, and the latter when trying to do a difficult mental task. The research study I read split children into three groups, putting one group in a classroom with no windows, one in a classroom with windows looking out onto a bare, built environment, and a third group in a classroom with windows looking out onto nature. They gave them all the same difficult lesson, took a five minute break where they stayed in their classroom, then tested their concentration after the break. Only the third group, the one in the classroom with a natural view, improved their concentration.

One of the things I like about this paper is that it showed two things – that turning our awareness towards the natural world is good for us, and, that the way to improve concentration wasn’t to “concentrate harder” but to build in a break where the mind could drift into a more natural state of open awareness.

Well, you know, I don’t really need any scientific research or “evidence” to convince me I like to have a view of nature from my window, or that I enjoy walking in forests, parks or along beaches, but, hey, it’s still good to learn about some of the measurable effects of open awareness and engagement with natural environments.

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