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Archive for August, 2021

A wider net

What struck me about this web was how big the spaces were. I think most of the spider webs which I’ve noticed, gazed at, photographed, have been constructed much more densely than this. You know what I mean? A web is just a threads knotted together to create a net…..in other words it’s a collection of holes. I remember hearing a story about an old fisherman being asked how he made his nets, and replying “I just tie together all these holes”, nodding in the direction of an empty bucket with the clear suggestion that the bucket was where he kept all the holes!

So when I stopped to look at this web it was the size of the holes which caught my attention. Why would the spider want such big holes? Wouldn’t that mean that most flies would pass straight through? If she’d made a net of smaller holes, wouldn’t she catch more flies?

Then my mind jumped from the size of holes in a web to the whole idea of sensitivity.

When we are very sensitive to something we pick it up in its smallest amounts. I have certain allergies and it takes only a tiny amount of invisible dust to set my eyes streaming and my nose running. It’s good to have body systems which will expel noxious substances but allergies are a problem…..they don’t protect us from what might harm us but upset us by over-reacting to tiny little things that don’t. The best way I know to deal with allergies, apart from trying to avoid what you are allergic to, is to somehow down-regulate that whole system…..to make it less sensitive. That’s kind of like using a net with bigger holes, isn’t it?

I don’t mean to write a post about allergies today, but as I’ve always sought out holistic solutions, I’ll just say that’s the approach I try to find. The system in the body which reacts to allergens is an integral part of the overall system of defence, repair and self-healing, so paying attention to wellbeing, health and resilience helps to down-regulate the allergic system.

Even if allergies are not an issue in your life, I bet there are many other over-sensitivities or hyper-sensitivities which do bother you. When we allow ourselves to get all het up over trivial little issues, not only do we experience a lot of discomfort but we impair our ability to resolve what needs to be resolved.

As I drove up from South West France to Central Scotland over the last couple of days I listened to an audio book…..John Le Carré reading one of his spy novels. Oh, he’s so good! One line which grabbed my attention was when one of his characters was talking about the art of diplomacy, and said something like, diplomacy is the art of treating all crises as normal and solvable.

Wow! What an interesting idea! How easy is it to turn a small difficulty into a crisis and then to become so overwhelmed by it that we become paralysed, unable to find the solution….worse, even failing to imagine that there is a solution!

A couple of minutes later I passed a van. I don’t remember the name of the company written on the side, but on the back door of the van were the words “Solutions not problems”.

Isn’t the universe an interesting and amazing place? How do these synchronicities happen? I’ve no idea.

But between the novel and the slogan I realised there really is an important message here – don’t set the net so densely that it picks up all the things you don’t want to pay attention to…….a net with bigger holes will only catch the more significant issues. Down regulate the sensitivity settings so that the alarm bells don’t keep going off when there is nothing important to attend to.

Our systems are all interconnected and the feedback loops mean that small things magnify and problems seem to escalate easily. Which is why, I think, it’s important to pause from time to time, to shift our focus, to move to higher ground to get an overview, and allow ourselves to respond to what’s important, finding the solutions to the problems which matter, instead of becoming entangled in the alarm bells of oversensitised defences.

It’s only when we down regulate these over reactive states that we find a sense of calm, of balance, and a flood of solutions which wash away many of the problems.

What do you think? How tight and dense is your net? What’s “setting you off”? Can you down regulate? Can you create a more useful net? Can you choose to respond to what’s important and let the trivia pass on by?

As I write this I’m remembering a book title – “Don’t sweat the small stuff”. I never read it, but maybe it’s about the same idea.

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On the road

I’ve spent the best part of the last two days on the road.

This photo might give you a clue about where I am now….

Yes, I drove north to the Channel yesterday, crossed in the overnight ferry, then spent today driving up through England.

And, now, here I am, in Scotland!

Well, travel is sure different, isn’t it? I’ve had to show my certificates for my Covid vaccinations and my negative test and my passport and my residency card and my “travel locator form” showing where I’m going! All due to a combination of Brexit and the pandemic.

There’s no doubt all this bureaucracy is stressful but, hey, I think the only way to deal with it is first acceptance – no point fighting it if you want to travel – this is simply the reality to travel just now. Then take each step one at a time. That took a LOT of planning! Finally, organisation – we made up a folder each with paper copies of all the documents we needed.

But, hey, here we are now, about to see all our families for the first time in almost a year.

I know I often stress the importance of enjoying the journey but this time the best thing is the arriving!

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Bubbles of being

You know the kind of fountain where the water collects into a pool, or basin, at the foot of the central spray? Well, spend a few moments looking at the surface of the water in there and you’ll see something pretty much like this……swirling patterns of flow around constantly appearing and disappearing bubbles.

It’s mesmerising.

I also think it’s a good metaphor for society. Each of us is like one of these bubbles….distinct, separate, yet connected. But we don’t live alone. The bigger bubbles are like groups of us. Several individuals living together sharing the same home, workplace, habits of living, beliefs or values.

How often do you hear the criticism of social media as a way of magnifying the effect of people living in bubbles? Only communicating with like minded others. Intensifying their exclusive world view, and so furthering divisions?

We do all live in our social bubbles, but if we remember this image we’ll remember that all the bubbles exist in the same pond. We are all connected. Our bubbles are transient and, actually, our sense of Self as separate, or our sense of group identity as separate, might be beautiful and attractive but, ultimately, it’s a limited way of understanding reality.

The reality is we all emerge from within the whole pond, the whole Earth, that we all live within the same environment, and that our separateness is a limited, transient, delusion.

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Points. When I look at this photo of a bifurcation of a railway track into one to the left and one to the right the first thing which comes to mind is playing with an electric railway set as a child. A single oval track which just went round and round was no fun. Once you added a set of points the whole thing became far more interesting. There was more than one route your train could now take, and you were the one who decided which way it would go, just by flicking a little lever.

The second thing which comes to my mind is a flood of memories of many, many delayed train journeys to and from work due to “points failure”, almost always in exactly the same place. Over the years I often wondered why they couldn’t fix those particular points for good. I wonder if they’ve done it now.

But then my mind goes off down some different tracks altogether…..the tracks of decisions, FOMA, and singularities.

Decisions – we are faced with many decisions to take every single day. The first time I visited a coffee shop in America many, many years ago, the wall behind the counter was covered with descriptions of all the options. At that time, all I had known in Scotland when it came to coffee choices was “black or white”! I heard customers in front of me ask for their favourite coffees choosing size of cup, type of coffee, type of milk, amount of foam, various toppings or additions…..my mind was boggled! Since those early days, this kind of coffee choosing has become routine. I don’t even think about it any more. That’s one thing about decisions…..we make the repeat ones easier by turning them into habits, and then we don’t even realise we are choosing any more. Think of the number of automatic decisions you are taking every day in this way. Choosing when to get up out of bed, choosing the various elements of your morning routine, choosing your commute to work…..and on it goes. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t make our lives easier by turning repeat choices into habits. I’m just saying it’s interesting to pause sometimes and become aware of some of our automatic choices. It’s only when we do that, that we discover there are other ways to do things, other decisions which can be taken.

FOMA – first time I saw this acronym I had to look it up! Fear Of Missing Out. It’s apparently a big thing! Sometimes we decide to do, or to have, what everyone else is doing or having, because we are afraid that, if we don’t, then they’ll all be benefiting from something and we won’t. I guess this is a variation on the age old “keeping up with the Joneses”. This is a manifestation of the power of social connectedness which has evolved in the human species. We really are intensely connected into our webs of social relationships and they influence our decisions enormously. Advertisers play on these fears to manipulate us and influence us to choose their products or services. Instagram, Tik tok, Facebook……they all ramp this one up to the max!

Singularities – I’m no expert on quantum physics but as I understand it scientists current understanding of how the universe works involves something like this – there is an infinite number of possibilities in front of us – as best I understand it, this is like the philosopher, Giles Deleuze’s idea of “the virtual” – all these possibilities, collectively can be described as a “multiplicity of singularities”. In quantum physics, at the moment of observation, this infinite multiplicity collapses into “the actual”. At that moment, all the other options disappear. They’re gone. Some suggest they play out in the “multiverse” which is the idea of an infinity of parallel universes, each one following a different path. Not sure what I think about that, and, hey, its kind of hard to prove, isn’t it? Well, I find, that whether I’m coming at this from the quantum physics angle, or from a philosophical one, reality seems to be that the moment we decide, the moment we choose, all the other options or possibles are gone – at least for me in my one, unique, single life. I like this idea of a “singularity” – of the one unique actual which emerges from the vast web of possibles or “the virtual” every moment of every day. It reinforces my feeling that the present is special.

My goodness…..wasn’t expecting to go wandering down those tracks when I saw this photo!

How about you? What comes up for you when you see a bifurcation of the ways ahead like this?

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I took this photo of the sea and sky – at the time I wasn’t that conscious of the shape of the window through which I was looking, but, somehow, in this image the window becomes a hugely present frame. I think it’s because I’ve exposed the camera for the outside so the dark interior has become even more black than I remember at the time.

Still, that difference brings something extra to this photo. I mean, I could have cropped it removing all the black, but then it would’ve been a completely different photo. Isn’t that interesting?

I think this makes something about perception and reality more obvious. Whatever we perceive is the end result of a process of selective attention. We exclude certain elements from our awareness, include others, and we bring a lot of our life so far to every single experience.

Iain McGilchrist makes it clear in his Master and His Emissary book that the two cerebral hemispheres engage with the world differently, and one of the most important aspects of that is the way in which they focus. Briefly, the left hemisphere uses a narrow focus, zoning in on particular elements, re-cognising them, labelling them and categorising them. The right hemisphere, on the other hand uses a broad focus, seeing the whole as it is, seeing the contexts, the environment and the connections. We use both hemispheres all the time, but we might give more weight to the activity of one over the other. There is an interesting interplay between both of these types of attention in this image, or, maybe better, this image evokes an interesting interplay between both these types of attention. We focus in on the sea and the sky, we notice the black frame, we see the whole image, we see the smooth ripples on the surface of the water and the suggestion of clouds above the horizon.

What do we bring to create our personal frame? Thoughts, memories, and imaginings…….stories, images and experiences. What is my emotional state before I start to look at this? Those emotions “colour” what I see. What memories and previous experiences does it evoke? Whatever they are, they will interact with my emotions, and, together they will influence what I see and how I experience that viewing. Does this scene spark my imagination? Does it stimulate my creativity? Does it influence my motivation, stir my desire?

These are questions we don’t tend to ask ourselves. Most of this goes on below the level of conscious awareness, but it goes on, all the same, and it’s powerful. We literally co-create the world we live in.

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What do you see first when you look at this photo?

For me, it’s the mountains. I immediately see their jagged shape, their almost purple colour, and notice the beautiful blue sky above, with only a few white, fluffy clouds. The fluffy clouds and the sharp mountain ridges make an interesting contrast.

But then I see the path, and am pretty amazed by how straight it is. My eye is drawn quickly from the foreground right up the line of the pale, sandy path as it narrows like an arrow and heads straight for the mountains.

Then I see that on each side of the path are rows and rows of trees. It’s clearly not a path through a forest, but more an orchard, or a cultivated garden. So, again, there is an appealing contrast between the wild, ragged mountains, and the trimmed and tended garden through which the path has been laid.

This is one of those images which makes me reflect on those two elements of motivation and/or focus in our lives. There is the goal, or the destination – whatever we are working towards, whatever we hope for, visualise, or desire. And there is the path – the way we walk towards that destination, or work towards that goal.

Put them together, in other words, don’t choose “or”, but instead choose “and”, and you have the journey – the entire, irreducible experience of living – the subjective, unique, personal experience of you, on your way, along your chosen paths, along the paths you are busy laying, as you move towards your dreams, your desires and your destinations.

Life isn’t just about destinations, is it? And it isn’t really about only the paths either. But it is about the journey, which only you will make. Only you can tell your unique travel story if you choose to share your experience with an other.

One last point – these destinations, these far mountains, in our lives – well, some of them are there already, some have been created by others, and some of them are ones that only we can imagine. Same thing with the paths – some are there already, some have been laid by others, and some are our own creation.

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I was walking in a forest just outside of Kyoto and I noticed the reflections of these strange stumps of wood in this pond. I raised my camera to capture the scene, expecting to have a photo of a slightly unsettling landscape of chaotic, jagged sticks and stumps standing at all kinds of angles in the pond, their reflections doubling the feeling of their brokenness. I clicked. As I did so I noticed a blur of white flashing past. It was only when I checked the image in the screen at the back of my camera that I saw this white bird. A heron, I think. A moment of its flight captured in the instant of the camera’s action. Its great white wings elegantly beating downwards to propel the creature over the surface of the water.

It’s pretty difficult to get photos of birds in flight. Well, at least, I find it quite hard to do so deliberately. I have lots of photographs of birds standing on the ground, or perched on rooftops, or in branches of trees. But capturing a bird in flight takes a certain amount of luck. It’s almost a zen archery thing where you don’t try to hard but relax into capturing the scene.

Actually I have several photos of flamingos in flight, and swans too, but in both those circumstances I was somewhere where there were dozens, if not hundreds of them, and they were so busy flying here and there it was hard not to get a photo of at least one of them in flight. But this was different. Here I hadn’t even noticed there were birds around before I took this photo.

So what is this? A lucky photo? Serendipity? Or simply an example of the unplanned moment produced an experience of delight, an opportunity to wonder and feel awe?

I once read that a General Practitioner is a “specialist in managing uncertainty”. I know why that was said. As a GP you never knew what the next patient was going to tell you about. You never knew exactly what you’d have to deal with today. More than that, many, many people present to their GP at a stage in their illness where nothing is yet clear. You know the kind of thing. Someone feels “off”, “achey”, or “has a pain”, or some other of a host of possible symptoms, but it’s the early stage of an illness, and the “signs” – changes in the body which can be felt, heard, or measured – are not very clear. Within hours, or maybe over many days or weeks, the disease makes itself more obvious. It always struck me that this was one of the big differences between GP work and hospital work. In the latter case, the vast majority of patients present with something pretty obvious – either because of the severity, or the acuteness of the problem, of because by the time the problem is this troublesome the “signs” have all become clear. Absolutely, that’s not always the case, but having worked in both settings, my experience was that GP work was filled with much more uncertainty. There was another aspect which intensified that – time. In hospital practice the time spent with the patient is pretty limited. There’s an event or an episode, a diagnosis to be made, a treatment to be administered, then the patient, hopefully, is “discharged”. They go away. In General Practice the relationship is, potentially, for life. For those who spend a whole career in Primary Care they will have patients who they met as newborns, accompanied through their school years, their relationships, setting up their own homes, their work pressures, and the creation of their own little families. They will have known some middle aged men and women become elderly and frail. Patients in General Practice, at least traditionally, didn’t exist only in events or episodes, they existed in these long term relationships. So, of course, when someone developed a serious, potentially chronic illness, as a GP you had no way of knowing how the illness would progress. For some, it would become trivial, or even non-existent, for others there would be an unsteady but unrelenting path of decline, for yet others, this disease would be fatal. The uncertainty came in not knowing what might lie ahead……a fact of life, you might say, but, still, a key issue in the daily life of a GP.

Since the beginning of this pandemic, it’s felt that uncertainty has become a more difficult, daily presence for most of us. The twists and turns of the infection rates, the government responses, the attempts to find ways to treat and prevent it…….

How many times have you heard the word “unprecedented” in the last couple of year? I bet it’s an unprecedented number of times!

What have so many people done to try to cope with this? Because, let’s face it, to be filling your thoughts and imaginings with future possibilities, many of them, frankly, scary, doesn’t feel good! I think what many of us have done is to either deliberately, or serendipitously, focus on the present moment. There was a time in mass confinement when our world’s shrunk to the walls of our dwellings, or the fences of our gardens. In those times it felt better to be aware of daily little wonders, to focus on the real delights. That’s my “émerveillement du quotidien” thing that you can read about on this site. And even since the restrictions have eased somewhat, there’s been a sense of increased value and importance in relationships, with more communication…..perhaps not more in person, but certainly more in WhatsApp groups, video calls, phone calls and messages.

I think that’s how we cope best with the unexpected – delight in it when it offers us delight, feel the calmness which can accompany focusing on the present, and filling our days with what we value most.

Because, although it’s almost a cliche, life is best lived in this present moment. And sometimes, the unexpected can actually feel like a gift.

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The flow of life

As you probably know, still photography is my passion. Yet I am fascinated by change and movement. A bit of a paradox? Maybe, but here’s one particular photo which I return to again and again because when I look at it I see flow. I see movement. I see constant change. All in a still photo!

I love the shape of the water as it pours over the edge of the rock and I love the white foaming water too. Both seem to me to be full of energy.

Life, if I know anything, is a process of constant flow, a continuous exchange of atoms, molecules, energy and information.

Life is connection. Life is relationships. Life is unique experiences, every moment of every day.

Life is change, growth, development, and transformation.

Life is flow.

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If you look carefully at any flower, the chances are you’ll see at least one insect there. Often it’s a bee, our best known pollinators, sometimes a butterfly, but, on this occasion it’s a ……. (can anyone help me out here and tell me what this is??)

The first thing that struck me in this photo was the symmetry, or echo, between the shape of the head of the insect and the ends of the pistil and the stamen. That resonance of form seems to emphasise the type of relationship which flowers have with such insects.

There are, of course, some startling examples of really high degrees of resonance between shapes of flowers and pollinators, and we know that in many cases the relationships are highly specific – one particular species of flower existing really only because of the presence and actions of one particular species of insect…….and vice versa. The one could not exit without the other. At very least, not in this manner, but, in reality, not at all.

This, it strikes me, is the fundamental basis of reality and Nature.

Relationships.

It’s like that word “ubuntu”, which, if I understand it correctly, means “I am because you are”.

Not a single living creature in this world, not a single human being, exists in any way other than in constant relationship with a myriad of others – others of the same species and others of utterly different species. These relationships are active ones. They change both beings constantly.

I am changed in my interactions with you, and you are changed in your interactions with me.

We are better understood as a community of subjects, than as a collection of objects.

Life is an experience and every individual is constantly evolving, developing and growing. That’s why I have that byline at the top of my blog – “becoming not being”.

Becoming not being – all of us, are fully becoming who we are, moment by moment, experience by experience, in a vast, interconnected web of others beings, also in the process of becoming.

Is that a radical idea? Not really, but it sure shifts our consciousness and attention away from the reductive, materialistic, atomistic, quantifiable aspects of life towards the whole, the subjective, the experiential, the flow, the movement and the interactive nature of relatedness.

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Some days you just need a really beautiful, calm scene to gaze at for a wee while.

So, here’s one for you to do that.

I named this image “calm blue” probably because the sea is so calm – and so blue! – and that still seems such an appropriate title, don’t you think?

I love that I can see such an expanse of blue sky and blue sea here. The shades of blue are utterly gorgeous. I also like that there are so many shades of blue to see here, from the deep, inky black of the water at the bottom of the photo, to the palest of pale blues in the zone where the sky meets the sea.

I also like that although this is a very calm sea, there are a run of gentle waves rippling out just beyond the seaweed. I also like the the boats, one with two sails whose shape reminds me of ships of ancient times, and two modern sailing boats. If you look carefully there is also a bit of a wake of white foam where a small motor boat is crossing.

Finally, my gaze is drawn to the horizon and I see just suggestions of land…..perhaps an island in the middle of the image…..and look at that line of hills on the far right.

Why not have a short pause in your day, take your time, and let your eyes wander around this photo. Let your breathing slow down, and imagine you can fill your lungs with that fresh sea air. Imagine you can hear the gentle lapping of those small waves as they reach the shore.

Allow yourself to be inspired.

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