Archive for August, 2021

Yesterday I shared a photo I took of light on Montaigne’s floor, and here is one of the corner of one his fireplaces. I love this double spiral. I’m very familiar with double spirals from Celtic culture, and I have worn a yin yang symbol around my neck for many, many years, but this spiral looks very different. It’s as if each spiral cups the other in it’s curls which, to me, makes it look like each is protecting, even caressing the other.

Do you see that? Or is it just my imagination?

Having seen it my mind turns to the importance I give to kindness, to nurture and to protection. I really think if we try to base our personal and collective decisions on kindness, compassion and the willingness to look after others, I reckon we are starting from a good base. When I hear a political, economic or social policy being advocated, I test it against that. Who is the decision or plan going to affect, and will it spread more kindness, more care, more love?

So here’s my gift to you today….this little image of one spiral caressing the other. I hope it will act like a seed of positivity and love for you, so you and those around you will experience kindness and care today.

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I took this photo in Montaigne’s château a few years ago. What caught my attention was the play of light on the ancient stone floor. I think it’s one of those photos which is beautiful in its own right, but also one which gets me wondering and musing every time I look at it.

A preliminary thought is that the light is ephemeral, likely to be gone in a moment, or in a few minutes at most. The fact it isn’t even a solid band of light enhances that sense of something fragile. And the light is playing on solid stone floor. Something firm, substantial and unchanging.

So it’s like a contrast between the impermanent and the permanent.

But, wait, look a bit more closely at the stone tiles and you can see plenty of evidence of change. One of them is almost shattered. It looks like it is in several small pieces, yet, I can tell you none of those pieces moved when you stood on them. They weren’t loose. Others have smooth indentations, surely changed by the effects of thousands of human feet walking over them over hundreds of years.

There aren’t really two distinct categories in the world, one insubstantial and changing, with the other solid and unchanging.

The reality is everything changes all the time. Just at different rates. Still, the contrast between the rapidly changing and the really slowly changing is very beautiful, and wondrous. It heightens our awareness of the constant flow of life and time.

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This tree has one of the most dramatic and startling shapes I’ve ever seen. You can tell that at some point as it was climbing straight upwards like all the other trees, then it almost broke in two, but survived and carried on growing horizontally for a bit.

I’ve often looked at this image and thought of how illness can impact our lives. One of the most useful questions I’d ask patients who were suffering from long term conditions was “When were you last completely well?” That would lead to an exploration of life events and the evolution of a particular illness.

Thinking that way isn’t a simplistic cause and effect approach. It’s about clarifying what usually turns out to be a number of factors and events which have made an impact.

The big events in our lives, births, deaths, beginnings and endings of relationships, jobs, moving house and so on, change us. They don’t just make an impact, because we adapt and carry on. But in our hearts, in our souls, and even in our bodies, we are changed by the events and relationships in our lives. Traumas don’t “go away” but, at best we adapt and continue off along a different road.

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Swan watching is a delight, though probably we are most familiar with seeing them glide, seemingly effortlessly over the surface of the water.

On this particular day there were a lot of swans and many of them were taking off, flying or landing. In flight swans look as elegant as they do “swanning around” on the water, but take off and landing is something else. Both seem to involve a lot of effort, a lot of splashing and a lot of noise.

This photo of one swan taking off, however, captures two important aspects of swan flight.

The first is how streamlined they appear as they leave the surface of the water. Look at it with its neck fully stretched out, it’s whole body already parallel to the loch.

The second, maybe not so obvious unless you’re actually there, is how the swan has to commit to flight in order to take off.

It’s this second point which impresses me so much. It really doesn’t look easy to transition from the one state to the next, from swimming around to flying through the air.

It reminds me of seeing bird chicks in a nest growing their first flight feathers and preparing themselves for their first ever flight. They have to commit to it, and just do it. There is no third way.

Commitment – we need this if we are to achieve anything in life. With the Will, determination and commitment, we can achieve what we set out to achieve. Without it, “the game’s a bogey” as we say in Scotland. Or, in other words, we’ll fail.

What do you want to achieve today? Whatever it is, you’re going to have to commit to it.

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The life force

Some people say there is no such thing as a life force. Maybe there isn’t. Well, not an entity or a thing you could call a life force, not something you can grasp, directly observe or measure. But as a concept, as a phenomenon, it makes a lot of sense to me.

I always found it helpful to think of the life force as a blend of the body’s self healing capacity, the energy state of the whole system, and the quality of that vague phenomenon we call well being or vitality.

It’s something we all know. It’s subjective, not objective, yet we can all detect it. You can look at a plant and know instantly that it’s in good or bad health. You know yourself whether or not your strength and resilience is in good form.

When I was a junior doctor in Paediatrics my mentor said he wanted to teach me how to recognise quickly a sick child. Seemed an odd comment at the time but as the weeks passed I understood perfectly what he meant. Once I was a GP it was indispensable to me to be able to walk into someone’s house and know in an instant that a child needed emergency care. You knew before examining them, before making a diagnosis, that you had to act with urgency.

At the other end of life’s journey I often wondered just what it was that changed so clearly when someone died. In that moment, in that instant, it was as if a light went out. Yes, I know about organ failure, about cardiac and respiratory arrest, about brain death, but there’s something not so easy to define which seems to occur at the moment of death and I still think of it as the end of the life force.

The other way I find this concept useful is in relation to healing. It just seems to me that there is no true healing other than through the processes of self repair. That helped me remember to be humble. Whatever treatment I recommended or delivered I knew that what I was doing was supporting the self healing, self repairing, self balancing functions of the person.

How’s your life force today? Vibrant? Strong? Healthy? Or weak, dull and needing attention?

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Irrepressible life

A walk in the forest never fails to throw up something startling, something curious or something amazing.

You know that favourite phrase of mine about discovering the wonder in the every day? I find that pretty much any day can feel a better day, can feel a good day, when I have a moment when something catches my attention and I am amazed.

I find this happens most in natural settings. Although I do believe you can find things to stir your curiosity and amazement in any environment, whether in a park, in the countryside or on a city street.

I particularly enjoy spending time around trees! It doesn’t have to be a large or dense forest but it’s good when a path is tree lined or there is an area of a park where several trees grow together. I like those “communities of trees”.

Search for “forest bathing” on this blog and you’ll find a few articles I’ve written about the health benefits which can arise from spending a bit of time amongst trees.

I took this photo earlier this week on a walk through a wooded area of one of Edinburgh’s many parks.

Isn’t it amazing? Look at this bright, vivid new growth emerging right out of the trunk of the tree and immediately stretching up towards the sunlight!

What a great image of LIFE – of creativity, of emergence, of the Life Force.

I love it. It resonates with me and delights me. I hope it does for you too.

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Come hither

I can’t look at this photo without seeing what seems to be this flower gesturing “come hither”. It just looks to me like it has an outstretched hand with fingers curled and the index finger beckoning.

Well of course that’s really what flowers are about. The plants make themselves beautiful and attractive so that their preferred pollinators won’t be able to resist them.

A few years ago I discovered some of the philosophy and science of complexity and it hugely increased my understanding of the world. If you search my blog for “complexity” and/or “complex adaptive systems” you’ll find several articles about it. One of the features of complex systems is the presence of “attractors”.

Attractors are like organising nodes. They influence the flow of energy and information in the system and partly influence the physical forms and shapes which emerge.

These knots in a tree are the kind of pattern I visualise when I think of attractors.

There are three types of attractor – point attractors which organise around a single point (think of whirlpools or black holes), loop attractors which have two points which interact (creating alternating states, polarities and interlinked opposites), and chaos, or “strange” attractors, where a number of points are active together creating complex, and often perplexing patterns.

I think you can see the effects of attractors in natural physical forms but I think they also exist in our psyche. Certain events, experiences and habits develop the features of attractors, keeping us stuck in the same place, cycling around and around established loops, or pulling us into feelings of chaos and confusion.

Maybe you’ve come across the idea of describing stepping stones in your life or chapters in your personal story. We can also use this idea of attractors which are related to significant life events. That can help us make sense of things.

But more than this I think we can use attractors positively, through deliberate patterns of thought and behaviour. That’s how we create new habits, and break free of old ones.

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I saw this leaf spinning around in space and was astonished. How can a leaf hover like that? When I looked more closely I saw the missing piece….a fine, almost invisible thread connecting the leaf to another one which was still attached to the tree.

I suppose the closer inspection was a revelation. Suddenly I understood. But didn’t that revelation take the magic away? Because up to that point I was watching a leaf spinning on the spot in mid air. In fact it wasn’t magic. There was a thread.

But you know, discovering that didn’t take away the “magic” for me. Because isn’t this amazing and beautiful? A leaf spinning around attached by a single strand (probably from a spiderweb).

We humans love mysteries, but we love to solve them too.

I think that was a big part of my work as a doctor – the delight in unraveling mysteries, making sense of patients experiences. Time and time again making a diagnosis brought huge relief to people. A diagnosis, really, is an understanding, but it often seems to be a revelation.

Once we understand, once we see more clearly, mystery is transformed into discovery. And that’s pretty amazing.

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Oh, I know, dreadful title, huh?

But there’s something both fascinating and playful about this image of lichen on a rock.

I know it’s natural but it seems like a work of art to me. I think that’s because of the combination of different colours, shapes patterns in each little lichen patch, but also because of their spread across the rock in a way which makes them resemble foot or paw prints.

I read that lichen grows mainly on north facing surfaces but I know for sure that’s not exclusive. I haven’t been able to know which way is north just by looking at lichen!

Thinking of that brings another idea to mind….constellations. It doesn’t take a huge amount of imagination to see this as a constellation rather than as a trail.

Either way, I can’t help thinking that we moderns have lost a lot of our ability to read the sky and the landscape. And it seems to me that’s a result of the extent to which we’ve separated and distanced ourselves from Nature.

Still I find it’s easy to reconnect. Just a short stroll in a forest, a park or a garden gives me an abundance of opportunities to notice, to be delighted, to wonder and to feel connected to the living world again.

I know there is lots of evidence supporting the claim that activities such as “forest bathing” or simply spending some time in green spaces is good for both health and well-being, but even without that I reckon we can all enjoy the benefits of being in a living, growing, diverse environment.

I recommend it.

Noticing, slowing down, wondering and savouring are all essential activities which enhance our quality of life.

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Astonishingly different

Both of these flowers are beautiful.

This is one of many photos I have where I get the impression that the contrasts and differences make everything in the image more beautiful. The purple against the yellow, the elaborate petal shapes against the simpler ones, both the flowers against the rich, green background. I love it.

You could focus in on any single element here and be amazed by it. You could explore any of the single flowers, perhaps try to draw one of them, and you would quickly find yourself relishing it’s uniqueness. But I think it’s the heightened presentation of their differences which makes the case that each is uniquely different.

This, is, absolutely, one of the foundations of my understanding of this world. I worked through four decades as a doctor. My “normal” working day was largely spent with patients one at a time. The entire essence of my work was the one to one relationship between doctor and patient built up over time. Continuity of care was the keynote of all the places where I worked. The expectation was to commit for the duration. Of course, that didn’t mean that each of us was the right person for every single patient. We weren’t. And as needed we would refer patients to colleagues, stand back, pass on the responsibility for a particular person’s care to another who had different skills, different knowledge, a different way of engaging, from our own.

I looked forward to Monday mornings because I knew I would meet a “new” patient, who would tell me a unique story, one I’d never heard before. My day unfurled, one patient at a time, and the full attention engagement with each, had clear starting points, and clear endings, set by them entering the consulting room, then leaving it. If I continued to allow my mind to be filled with the previous patient, I couldn’t be fully present for the one before me now. That rhythm and practice was, I now understand, a kind of meditation practice, moving through a cycle of full attention and fully letting go.

The sequence of patients was always an astonishment. Over the course of a single clinic, with a dozen or two patients, you couldn’t help but be amazed by how different each one was, how unique their story, how singular their experiences of both illnesses and treatments.

I’m sure that’s had an enormous influence on who I am, on how I make sense of this life, and on the creation of my values and beliefs.

I just don’t buy in to the industrialised model of standardisation and processes. There is no standard patient. There is no “mr or miss average”. There is no “ordinary” day. Every moment of every day is new, different and transient.

Every day is special.

YOU are special.

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