Archive for October, 2021


I find lichens and mosses quite beautiful so I often feel drawn to photograph them. That’s what I did here in this garden. It was only later when I uploaded my shots to my computer to review them that I got a bit of a fright when I got to this one.

When I looked at the photo I saw a scary monster! The face of some creature straight out of a fantasy novel!

We have special circuits in our brains for spotting faces and they work so well that sometimes they see faces where no face exists. Like on this occasion. That always fascinates me. And once seen these faces can’t be unseen.

Our experience of seeing, then, is a creative act. We don’t just project an image onto some internal screen the way a camera lens does. We actively work with the visual stimuli to create what we see.

I decided to share this particular photo with you today because it’s Halloween. And this is the time we like to scare ourselves and others. Personally I’m not a fan of horror movies but there is something thrilling about being scared – remember Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video?

Actually people like to be scared, but only up to a point. There’s a fine line between being thrilled and being seriously upset with overwhelming fear. And that zone where the thrills occur is very variable. Different people tolerate or even seek it to very different degrees.

To some extent the thrill of being scared works only when we know we are kidding ourselves. For example we know that we are not in any real danger when we see someone with an axe in a movie or on the stage. It’s a completely different matter to be approached by someone like that as you walk down the street!

That’s the power of fiction isn’t it? It allows us to explore and experience a whole gamut of emotions and disturbing situations safely. Well that’s one of the things it does. I know fiction does a lot more than that – bringing pleasure, developing empathy and helping us to make sense of our lives, for example.

So, what are your favourite scary stories or movies? And how do you celebrate Halloween?

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Every two weeks I put two yellow bags of rubbish out for the recycling lorry to collect. There’s a spot to leave them next to a wall about a hundred paces or so from my house. As I walked that regular route this week I stopped beside this ivy which was growing over the old barn near here. I stopped because I was so attracted to the gorgeous red leaves.

When I stopped to look more closely, I took a photo, then noticed the seed heads everywhere amongst the leaves. What unusual and amazing seed heads I thought.

When I look at this photo again I see the red leaves immediately, then quickly after that I see those amazing seed heads. I let my attention wander across the image. I follow the flow of my attention.

There’s a French word, “flâner”. It means to stroll or to wander. Aimlessly. Well, I say aimlessly because it’s not about walking to get to a destination. The aim of wandering is to wander. A “flâneur” is a wanderer.

In our goal driven busy society simply strolling around, wandering, isn’t really valued very highly. But it feels good to let go of all the “have to”s and the goals and all the narrow driven focus that they entail, and just wander, following the flow of your attention, noticing and wondering, then moving on.

Because here’s one of the fundamental paradoxes of our reality. Our brains have evolved to develop two apparently opposite skills…..focus and a wandering attention.

It turns out we need them both.

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From the top

This is the view from the end of my street. The countryside around here is very different from the one in Scotland where I grew up.

The two biggest differences are the vineyards here, and the mountains there.

We’re only about 100 metres above sea level here but this is the highest point around….as you can see.

When I stand somewhere with a perspective like this I always think of the phrase “the view from on high”. It’s not just a physical description but a classical philosophical teaching.

When we take a “view from on high” we do two things – take an overview, seeing the whole, rather than just the parts – and we see the contexts or environments in which whatever we’re looking at exists.

Both of those actions enable us to see connections and so to understand.

The trouble with reductionism is that it ignores this perspective and while that might be useful when studying a part in detail, it always needs to be complemented with an exploration of the connections.

One way we humans do that is to tell stories. Stories tell us about the time and place where something exists or occurs. Stories can weave together the threads and paths which have led to what we’re considering.

Stories and taking “the view from on high” can help us to understand.

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A focus on quality

There are some words in French which I really like but find hard to translate directly into English. It’s not that I don’t understand the particular French word, but more that I have to think less like a dictionary and more like a thesaurus to cover the multiple nuances of meaning.

Emerveillement is one of those. I’ve mentioned that many times and you can pop that into the search box at the top of my blog and find a number of articles about it. It covers elements of wonder, awe and joy.

Épanouissement is another. It’s often used to refer to the blossoming of a flower but is also used to refer to human development and flourishing. Thriving would be another aspect to throw in there, so putting those connotations together it’s a good word to consider when thinking “what is health”?

“Bon vivant” is another one. This clothes shop in Cognac is called “Aux bons vivants” which would translate as something like “to those who live well”. The thing about “bon vivant” is that it means someone who loves life, someone who enjoys fine food and drink, someone who is concerned about quality and who enthusiastically enjoys life’s sensations…..in the sense of enjoying sensuality.

But “bon vivant” is one of those phrases which has made it into English and an English speaker who knows no French might use it like how “entrepreneur” is used in English. Was it George Bush who was alleged to have said “The French don’t even have a word for entrepreneur”?

In making its way into English however it seems to have acquired some negativity. It can often be used in a judgemental way to refer to someone who likes “fine things”, is “sophisticated” and a bit superior, or even someone a bit greedy. But I don’t think it ever carried those negative judgements in the original French.

To be someone who wants to live well you need to be passionate about life, to rate quality over quantity, to savour and enjoy the sensations of experience.

I love that. If you can park the judgements then you can find much to relish, much to appreciate in the life of a “bon vivant”.

I mean who doesn’t want to live “a good life”?

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Autumn is perhaps my favourite season. Not just because of the beautiful colours. Not just because like springtime it’s a season of change which makes me acutely aware of the cyclical nature of time. But because it blends endings and beginnings together beautifully.

I started university in the autumn. I started most of my jobs in the autumn as I progressed through training in various specialties then on into first General Practice then Hospital Practice. All of which embedded a sense of beginnings for me at this time of year.

But all around I see the leaves start to fall. I see the flowers and most of the plants in my vegetable plot die back.

I see that summer is over and winter is coming.

So perhaps this is the season where I’m most aware that each ending heralds a beginning and each beginning is tinged with the melancholy of something ending.

I like it best when I’m most aware of Life’s complexity and paradoxes. It feels richer, deeper, more nuanced then.

It feels more colourful when reality is less black and white.

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Another way

There’s always many ways.

When I first looked out over these vines and saw this glimmering road winding it’s way up the gentle hill, I thought that was the only route through the vines. But I quickly learned that there is a vast web of paths through the vines. They are gravel, crushed stones, or time worn paths across the grasses which grow between the “wires” and between the individual vineyards. There are no fences or hedges. There are no walls.

Everyone knows which vines are theirs but everyone is free to navigate their own way between them.

When I look at this photo it always sets off my thinking about how there are always other ways in life.

Recently I’ve become more aware of two contexts where we, collectively, tend to forget that lesson.

During this pandemic, time and again, I’m amazed at how little governments and authorities look outside of their own patch, both to highlight problems and to find potential solutions. I live in France but all my relatives live in the U.K. and I have friends as far away as South Africa, Australia and Canada. So I’m often aware of how each of those countries are experiencing and handling the pandemic. But you rarely hear the authorities in any one of them make any reference to the others. As if everyone has nothing to learn from anyone else. Virtually the only attempts at comparison I see is the U.K. government’s consistent claims to be “world leading” without actually showing how they’ve arrived at this position.

This narrowness of view is amplified by the media and there is virtually no sign of mainstream analysis of different policies or practices.

Surely we could all learn by exploring and reflecting on different ways.

The second, and related context, is health care. The dominant model is pharmacology and the pursuit of technological fixes. But healing, true healing, occurs within a person living within their particular circumstances and environments. This pandemic has shown us that the most vulnerable are usually exposed by their poverty, their precarious jobs, their marginalised position in society and by inadequate care.

Healing is stimulated and supported by relationships, by caring, non judgemental, attentive, long term relationships. But that’s not how we’ve built our systems of drug delivery and surgical procedures.

Healing is stimulated and supported by good nutrition, by time spent in Nature, by practices such as meditation, massage, rehabilitation and convalescent care.

Maybe we need to be exploring other ways? After all how are we caring for those who get infected by coronavirus but don’t need hospital care? And how are we caring for those with “long Covid”? Because those two groups alone make up the majority of people who experience the illness called “Covid”.

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Eye catching

This style of window is very typical in northern Spain. I think it’s beautiful. I like the shape and the design of the window frame, so it’s not a surprise that this one caught my eye as I wandered along the street in Segovia.

But my eye was caught by something else once I looked at the windows. The curtains were drawn on the first floor while they were still closed on the other two floors.

It’s often difference which catches our eye. Something stands out because it’s a different shape or a different colour. Or because it moves.

Movement is the creation of difference moment by moment. I’m sure you have experiences like that frequently, where you notice something out the corner of your eye because you’ve detected a movement.

In this case, it wasn’t movement but a difference in pattern. Perhaps if the curtains on all three levels had been drawn the same I wouldn’t have noticed them at all.

Having had my eye caught first by all three windows, then by the first floor one, it was colour which caught my attention next.

I think I notice more when I am traveling. I go out with an intention to notice, to see what I can see. But I’ve found I can do that anywhere. Even in my own garden. Any time. I can set my intention – to see what I can see – and go out and notice what’s changed, see what’s different.

It’s very easy for us to do the opposite, to walk or even drive without noticing. Have you ever had that experience where you arrive at your destination and you think “Goodness, am I here already?” You have no memory of the journey itself because your thoughts were elsewhere. You were preoccupied. Or simply living on autopilot. Zombie mode.

To try to counter that autopilot, zombie default whilst commuting I’d set my intention to notice. As I walked to the station in the morning I’d have my camera in my hand intending to take a photo or two. That worked. It kept me present, made me more aware. It’s even easier to do that nowadays because we all have cameras in our mobile phones, but you still have to set your intention.

Why not try it today. Set an intention to notice and see what catches your eye.

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Harmony is so pleasing isn’t it?

I love to listen to musical harmonies. For example when two singers voices sound just so good together. Simon and Garfunkel are the first to come to my mind when I think of that but there really are thousands of examples because I’m sure this is something I share with all humans.

We love resonance and harmony don’t we? It pleases us, delights us, calms us and nourishes us.

I’m always noticing harmonies in the world around me and one type is where two or more shapes echo or ressemble each other.

In this photo I’m struck by the resonance between the shapes of palace roof and the mountain behind it.

This palace at La Granja was inspired by the one at Versailles. If you visit both you’ll see echoes of the one in the other and both were built by powerful men demonstrating their status and wealth. But the mountain behind was created by much greater forces as Gaia sculpted the very face of the Earth.

Synchronicities are perhaps even more striking than physical shapes. They are the experiences we get which resonate so strongly with other similar ones that they astonish us. I often find them in the texts I’m reading, the music I’m listening to and the films and programmes I’m watching on tv. At times I think they occur because one of the big tech companies is following my activities online but the most impressive ones don’t involve the digital world at all. They occur in conversations, events and experiences.

Harmony is definitely beautiful but these resonances which we experience or notice do something else too. They give us a sense of everything having a purpose. They stir our souls and deepen the feeling that Life and Universe are all amazingly woven together.

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Time and place

What’s so remarkable about a single purple flower?

Why did I even notice it, and why bother to photograph it?

Well first of all it is very beautiful. The colours are so vivid. But although the splash of colour caught my attention what makes this flower so remarkable is time and place.

It’s flowering in late October. There are no other Morning Glory plants flowering in my garden at this time of year. More than that, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Morning Glory flower in late October.

And it’s flowering in the middle of vegetable plot. Yes, I know, the vegetable plot doesn’t look up to much in this photo but that’s because we’ve harvested all the tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce from this patch and the whole patch looks bare and brown.

What’s more, I didn’t plant any Morning Glory flowers in the vegetable patch. They grow in quite another part of the garden, far from here.

So it’s the context of this flower’s appearance which makes it unique and remarkable.

I am used to noticing the unique, the singular, unusual, peculiar. I did it all the time in consultations. It was never enough to just name a disease, to reduce diagnosis to the application of a particular label. I wanted to hear the whole story. What were the circumstances of this illness? When did it appear? How has it developed since then? What’s the life context of this illness? What place does it have here and now at this place in this patient’s unique and singular story?

I’ve always found that exploring the contexts and connections in someone’s life brings out what is remarkable, what is unique and what is most personal.

It’s not enough to apply a label, to reduce a diagnosis to a particular example of a known disease. I was taught it’s much better to understand the patient who has the disease than the disease the patient has.

So I find that all those years of seeking out the contexts, of exploring the timings and the places, makes noticing the unusual easier and more meaningful.

Beautiful and remarkable.

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Strange how the universe works huh?

I was struck by this scene of neat piles of fallen leaves on the wide paths in the garden of the Royal Palace at La Granja and earlier I noticed this on coming out of my hotel in Segovia……

Have you ever seen that level of tidiness in a Public space? I’m not sure I have…which is one of the reasons why I took that photo.

So did that earlier experience of the pile of leaves next to the pile of cut grass prime me to notice the neat piles of leaves in the gardens? Maybe but even that is part of a bigger picture….

I emigrated from Scotland to South West France seven years ago and because I didn’t know if I’d really want to stay here – reality meets dream – I decided to rent somewhere to stay instead of buying a home. I ended up liking living here so much I wasn’t very motivated to go house hunting. Then came the chaos and uncertainty of Brexit and Covid.

Well now the new regulations are clearer and my permissions etc are all in place it seemed the time was right and we went housing. It really took no time at all to find a place we fell in love with and we’ve bought it. Well, still some legal steps to complete but hopefully about a month from now we’ll get the keys.

So – tidying – in the broadest sense of the word is my world at the moment. Sorting through everything I own, giving things away, getting rid of broken things, forgotten things I wonder why I ever kept, and filling boxes to transport from here to the new house.

Maybe this is a good time to be creating some order in the chaos of this pandemic?

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