Archive for January, 2022

Contrast and change

I noticed this leaf the other day. There were lots of leaves on the ground and they were all sparkling with tiny ice crystals.

Why did this one catch my eye?

Because it’s different.

Different from all the other bejewelled leaves lying around, and what makes it so different is that difference you can see across the leaf itself…..only the lower half of the leaf is sparkling with ice while the upper half appears largely free of it. I

t’s as if part of the leaf is warmer than the other part. How can that be? It was lying in a shady part of the garden so the sun hadn’t cast its rays more over one part of the leaf than the other. I lifted it up and didn’t notice anything unusual underneath it. I don’t know how come it looks like this.

But this is what we find time and again – polarities and opposites appearing together, like north and south poles of magnets.

When patients came to see me I listened to, and examined, them to make a diagnosis – to find what they had in common with everyone else who had the same disease. But at the same time I was on the lookout for the opposite – the differences that made a difference – in other words, whatever made me see their uniqueness.

We are good at spotting difference. We notice a background noise when it stops. We see a flicker of movement at the edges of our vision. We can pick out a familiar face in a crowd.

I know it’s important to make connections, to find common ground and to resonate with others. It’s good and pleasing to find similarities. They strengthen feelings of belonging.

But differences are incredibly important too. They reveal uniqueness, encourage our curiosity and bring us opportunities to recognise what’s “special”.

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Something different

The pattern I use for this blog is to post one of my photos then write a few words of reflection. My intention is to make positive waves, to inspire and delight you, to awaken your sense of wonder and to encourage curiosity and care.

Today, I’m starting with a 30 second video I recorded yesterday across the road at the “Source”. Maybe you read how I moved house just before Christmas and that I live in a small hamlet outside the town of Saint Jean d’Angely now. About a couple of hundred metres up the road from me is an ancient spring. The water is the clearest water I’ve ever seen anywhere. There are the remains of a Roman aqueduct here and the site was developed by the commune a few years back to make it an attractive place to walk, sit or have a picnic.

We’re in the middle of the coldest spell I’ve experienced since moving to France seven years ago. The temperature falls to about minus three degrees centigrade overnight and stays there till about noon.

Yesterday afternoon across at the spring I took this little video of the cold, clear water turning to steam as the sun warmed the surface, while the majority of the water tumbled over the edge of the pool, foaming and splashing and gurgling.

I have a fascination for water so to see its flow and movement at the same time as watching its transition from liquid to gaseous phase just delighted me. If ever there was a better metaphor for the constant transformative processes of Life, I don’t know it.

I hope it delights you too (turn up your volume when you play it)

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One time I visited Tokyo I looked up inside one of the buildings in the city centre and took this photo. I love the shapes of the beams and frames as I looked up at the skyscrapers towering on every side. It’s a marvel of design, engineering and construction.

But some time later, in the garden, I saw this one morning…..

One spider, no architects, no engineers. Just one spider, all by herself.

I am humbled by the natural world. Again and again I marvel at the achievements of simple creatures and of plants. There’s a concept around called “biomimicry” which is taking inspiration and learning from Nature and using that to develop new solutions and technologies for human beings.

It was always same for me with patients. Time and time again people amazed me. Their stories were remarkable and often deeply moving.

Maybe that’s been one of the best lessons in my life – stay curious and stay humble – you’ll be amazed and inspired. I guess it’s a bit like what the Buddhists call “beginner’s mind”.

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There are two obvious traces in this photo. One on the river, and the other in the field.

It looks like someone sailed a boat from the left to the right of this scene, turned around and went back the way they came. It also looks like someone’s driven a tractor or other vehicle in the field, making a pattern which highly resembles the one in the water.

What I can’t see, and didn’t see at the time, is a boat or a tractor. These are traces left behind. Traces of human activity.

We live with traces of human activity all around us, and we make new ones every day just by living. Some disappear very quickly, like breath in the air on a frosty morning, or jet trails in the sky. Some take a little longer, like the wake of a boat on the surface of the water. Others take longer still, like those on the surface of the soil.

In fact, we are said to be living in a new era, the “Anthropocene”, so called because we have reached a time when the accumulation of traces created by human activity is changing the shape and form of the entire planet. From destruction of rainforests to disappearing glaciers and coral reefs, the harms caused by our collective actions over many years.

Some traces, of course, are internal. They are drawn in the form of memories, feelings and knowledge. We draw those with stories, with art and with music.

Some traces in memories disappear quite quickly. But those which are engraved on our hearts can last for generations.

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I read an interview with Juliette Binoche in one of the French Sunday papers last weekend. She was talking about her participation in a recent documentary, La Fabrique des Pandémies which explores the link between epidemics and biodiversity loss.

What caught my eye was her reference to the exploration of the differences between France and Thailand in the experience of this pandemic. Despite similar population size, the number of deaths in France way outpaces that of Thailand. Clearly these are complex issues and, as is often said, comparisons are difficult. However there is no denying that comparisons make you think.

They can be illuminating because they highlight the difference between our experiences and those of others. If we never look beyond ourselves we deny ourselves the possibility of discovery which such differences suggest exist.

It’s highly likely that the causes are multi factorial. That’s how things are in health and disease. But she picked out one particular element which is the health of the human biome.

We have only recently begun to understand the significance of the billions of microorganisms which live in and on our bodies. Without them, we couldn’t live, and without a healthy biome we don’t stay healthy. The biome is affected by the diversity of the lived environment and as we destroy that we open the door for “zoonotic” viruses to spread into the human community. It is also affected by the chemicals in our environment, from antibiotics and drugs, to insecticides, herbicides and industrial chemicals.

Is the health of the human biome in France worse than that in Thailand? That seems to be what the researchers are exploring. It’s an interesting line of research.

In the interview, Juliette Binoche calls for us to concentrate more on creating health and healthy environments than we do on trying to find quick, short term “technoscientific” ones. This is where I think she hits the nail on the head.

Is it beyond our imagination, will and desire to create societies where everyone is well housed, well fed and well educated? I don’t think so.

We have to learn to live differently together on this little planet. The pandemic has shown us that we need to create healthier, more resilient communities.

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I took this first photo in Japan and the second in Spain. These are two very different aesthetics, each emerging within a different culture.

The first image is fundamentally asymmetrical. There is symmetry. The sliding paper panels on each side of the window create a balanced structure, but all the other elements are individual and unrepeated. Yet the whole image holds together. There’s a sense of balance, but it’s a dynamic one.

The second time image shows elements which are multiply repeated. Each individual archway is symmetrical and each archway is repeated in every direction.

I find both of these images deeply attractive. They are both beautiful. The fact they are so different from each other is a clear demonstration of the richly diverse creativity of human beings – individually and collectively.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while you’ll know that one of my favourite phrases is “and not or”. There’s a lot of energy around which seeks to create bitter divisions amongst us but the counter to that is respect for difference, acceptance of difference. And the promotion of diversity as a fundamentally good and valuable quality.

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Sleeping comfortably

What’s your favourite sleeping position?

Probably not the same as this flamingo! These are the extraordinary creatures. The way they move flicking their heads back and forth, walking as if on stilts. When they fly they look prehistoric. And when they are sleeping….look how they stand on one leg and curl that long neck around their body. Astonishing.

I’ve visited the flamingos in the Camargue in the south of France a number of times. They are always impressive, always wonderful. There was an item about them on the French lunchtime news yesterday which prompted me to browse my collection of photos of them and share one with you today.

The phrase that popped into my head when I looked at this one was “Are you sleeping comfortably?” which got me musing about uniqueness again and how, over the years, patients told me all kinds of different ways they’d try to get comfortable when they were ill.

And that reminded me of how we shouldn’t judge. What might look odd, or even bizarre, to us, may well be the absolutely best coping strategy for someone else.

It takes practice to observe, listen and understand without judgement but goodness, how it open doors and builds trust.

We could do with more understanding and less judgement in the world these days. We are all different after all.

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Bridging with the heart

In the grounds of the Roman spring near my house I noticed this simple footbridge over the start of the aqueduct. To me, this looks heart shaped. So that got me thinking….

Saint Exupery says that what’s most important is what’s invisible and that we see the invisible with the heart. I think our scientific understanding of the heart has advanced a lot since I was at university in the 1970s. We know now that there is a neural network around the heart which is intimately connected with the brain. The heart, both through this network and by emitting electromagnetic waves through its rhythmic beating processes signals and communicates with the brain and the rest of the body.

We know now that the metaphors of the heart have an anatomical and physiological basis. When we talk about “heart felt”, “heart broken”, or having a “heart to heart” with someone we are using more than metaphors. We are describing a physical phenomenon.

I think this partly explains the “therapeutic consultation”. When the doctor and patient make a heart to heart connection, the patient feels more than heard and understood….they feel “felt”.

This powerful connection does more than enable good communication however. I think it also facilitates the healing response in the patient.

In fact I think this is true of all our relationships. When we build a heart bridge between ourselves and another we create a powerful channel for healing energies, for understanding, for empathy and for care.

Isn’t this one of the best ways to improve both our own lives and those of others? By establishing heart bridges.

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Links and nodes

In the early morning at this time of year the grass is full of bejewelled spider webs. This is one of them. You could say there are hundreds like this, which would be true, but it’s equally true that every single one of them is unique. Try as hard as you like you won’t find two which share an identical pattern of water droplets and threads. Not only that, they change moment by moment as the temperature and humidity change and water molecules evaporate into the air. If you come back tomorrow you won’t find the same ones.

This beautiful creative process of interplay between a whole array of diverse elements amazes me…..grass, spiders, water, air, the Sun….and so on.

The basic characteristics of their structure is in fact the same – links and nodes. This network form is surely at least one of the most fundamental structures of reality.

I can look at this image and see morning spider webs in the grass, constellations in the night sky, satellite images of cities at night, neural networks in the brain…..

And as a representative model this same form describes social relationships, communities, road, rail, sea and air routes, cities….

Isn’t that remarkable?

At school in chemistry class we were taught a different model of reality – molecular models made of coloured balls and sticks. To an extent I can see that structure in this one but the key difference I think comes from a radical shift in perspective.

The old perspective is one of separate, fixed, often identical units – building blocks. The new one is of massively interconnected, dynamic, unique instances of natural occurrences.

I love this model. It’s a wholly different lens revealing those three great principles of reality – connectedness, dynamism and uniqueness.


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One of the things which struck me during my many visits to Japan several years ago was the practice of tying wishes or prayers to trees in the gardens of shrines and temples. Even in the middle of Tokyo you’ll come across all kinds of sacred places where you step out of the bustle, noise, concrete and glass of the city environment into a magical, tranquil oasis of a temple or shrine surrounded by a garden.

This photo is one of many variations of the tying a wish or prayer to a tree tradition. When you see one of these trees from the distance you can be fooled into thinking it’s a tree in full bloom, especially when the little papers are pink like these ones. But when you step a little closer you see that what you’re looking at is an abundance of hope – a blossom of dreams, desires, wishes and visions of the future…..just waiting to be harvested.

I think this is a beautiful practice. My default in life is optimism, even though at times I can slide into gloomy despair and catastrophising! Can’t we all? But I think I’ve carried dreams, visions, hopes and expectations throughout my entire life. I still do.

I believe that wishes, hopes and prayers are important. They create aspiration and stimulate imagination. They give us targets and goals to aim for. They create “north stars” to guide our path forward. They stoke up motivation and will. They help to organise our energies to help us realise the life we want to lead.

I don’t know how this fits into your life but for some people affirmations are a way of achieving this. For others, it’s the creation of vision boards. And for others it involves guided visualisation. For some it’s probably a system of diaries, planners and lists.

Maybe this year I’ll write out some of my personal wishes, hopes and prayers and tie them to one of the trees in my garden. Hmm…..there’s something to explore (I should tell you I moved house about a month ago and the large garden has gone wild over the last few years whilst the house has been uninhabited, so I’m still venturing into thickets and discovering all kinds of plants, bushes and trees)

How about you? Have you a way of bringing out your hopes, wishes and prayers and using them to create the life you want to live?

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