Archive for May, 2022

One May, a few years ago I saw this rainbow at the top of the vineyards behind the house where I was living near the town of Cognac. It was quite the most extraordinary rainbow I’ve ever seen. One thing that made it different and powerful was how it seemed to divide the Earth below into two separate areas…..the one within the rainbow’s arch, and the one outside it.

I’ve seen many rainbows but I’d never seen this phenomenon where the sky and the land below the bow itself turned a completely different colour. That had a powerful effect on me which is hard to describe but which was a profound state of awe – such a small word for such an intense experience.

The second thing about this rainbow was the intensity of colour it reached. You know how if you look at a rainbow you can see it clearly but soon it starts to fade, the colours weakening until it disappears. Well this rainbow intensified to the strongest light I’ve ever seen. It was if the strongest multicoloured searchlight was beaming down from heaven onto the vines.

The third aspect of this extraordinary rainbow was its sheer presence. Not only did it manifest as a full arc, but it lasted a long, long time…..over 20 minutes. I’d never witnessed such a complete and long lasting rainbow ever before, and haven’t since.

So this rainbow is obviously unique. Yes, I know every rainbow is unique, but these characteristics combined to take it to a completely other level. One I’ll never forget.

I think these intense experiences change us. They alter our consciousness. They change how we see the world. I’ve always valued wonder, awe and beauty but this particular experience brought my connection to the universe to another level.

Read Full Post »

Look at these fabulous flowers. I love this photo. It’s simple and pretty ordinary yet at the same time it reveals complexity and seems extraordinary.

These two flowers with their gorgeous red, pink and purple petals. Waving their “pistils” in the air, sending out signals which say “come closer”, “touch me”, “caress me”.

Isn’t it amazing how plants use beauty and the most delicate of elegant shapes to exert the power of attraction. Of course, what you can’t see in a photo, and often can’t see at all, are the tiny chemicals each plant sends out into the air, the scents, pheromones, chemical messengers, all magnifying that power of attraction.

What’s essential is invisible to the eye.

The Little Prince

Plants don’t survive and flourish through violence and bullying. They do it through beauty and attraction. There’s a lesson for us there……that Nature shows us these are the most important, most successful ways to live…..by making connections, by establishing relationships, by giving and receiving.

Read Full Post »

It strikes me that the practice of Medicine (I’m specifically referring to the world of Medicine for humans here), begins and ends with a relationship between human beings.

I’ll just focus on the doctor-patient relationship here, because that’s how I spent my working life. But I suspect that much of what is relevant to this relationship is also true for other health care workers, and perhaps even in other areas of human life.

When I say the practice of Medicine begins and ends with a relationship between human beings, I mean that the whole, unique person who is the patient has to be understood, cared about and attended to, by the whole unique person who is the doctor. Both individuals are important. I think this is partly why there are no doctors who are the best doctors for everyone, and I think it explains how in a group General Practice, each of the doctors in the partnership will have a specific loyal cohort of patients who always seek a consultation with that one particular doctor.

I also think this means that the whole person must always be considered. Anything less is reduced, and anything reduced is less than human.

In this context, I recently read “A General Theory of Love”, by Drs Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon. [ISBN 978-0-375-70922-7]. This book describes the model of the triune brain, which you might have come across elsewhere. (My introduction to that model was Dan Seigel, and later, Rick Hanson). It’s the observation that we have three brain regions – the brain stem, which is responsible for survival, and is found even in reptiles (henceforth to be known as the “reptilian brain”), the limbic system, which is responsible for memory processing and emotions (called the “mammalian brain”, because all mammals have this part), and the neocortex, which is massively developed in humans and seems to give us the capacities for abstract thought, conscious decision making and rational analysis.

In “A General Theory of Love”, Thomas Lewis and his colleagues focus on the limbic system – they describe in detail how this part of the brain helps us to “feel” other people’s feelings. It’s the kind of phenomenon that others call “heart feelings”. Without this part we’d have the reptilian survival strategies or the cold, analytic distancing of the neocortex. Let me be really clear here – this is a simplification and human beings are a lot more complicated than that. But this is a useful simplification which clarifies certain truths about what it is to be a human being.

In this post, I want to just bring to your attention some of the points the authors make when taking this perspective on the practice of Medicine, because I think health care is in a dire and degenerating situation in the world.

The last century saw a two-part transformation in the practice of medicine. First, an illness beset the relationship between doctor and patient, then radical restructuring attached the residual integrity of that attenuated tie.

I think the illness and the radical restructuring they refer to developed from a general reductive de-humanising of health care. Iain McGilchrist has shown how a “left hemisphere approach” has come to dominate society and I find that explanation helpful. Lewis says

American medicine has come to rely on intellect as the agency of cure. The neocortical brain has enjoyed a meteoric ascendancy within medicine even as the limbic star has fallen into disfavour.

Whilst this focus is a little different, the basic point is actually the same. By coming to rely on data, figures, statistics and techniques, we have reduced the human-ness of medicine. We’ve increasingly denigrated the patient’s narrative, the individual’s subjective experience, and the place of heart felt caring.

The limbic brain has a crucial role to play in attachment, and Lewis describes attachment theory along with the physical and social consequences of disordered attachment incredibly clearly. And here’s one of the most important points in this book – the physical reality and hence importance of relationships, emotions and attachment –

Medicine has lost sight of this truth: attachment is physiology

The radical restructuring they refer to is seen throughout Western Medicine – its the rise of bureaucracy. We see it in the proliferation of protocols and guidelines, of the prioritisation of measurement – what others have referred to as “Taylorism 2.0” (the modern equivalent of Taylor’s “scientific management”) – at the expense of what cannot be measured – the lived experiences of the patients and the health care workers.

Good physicians have always known that the relationship heals. Indeed good doctors existed before any modern therapeutic instruments did…

For many years, the medical community hasn’t believed that anything substantive travels between doctor and patient unless it goes down a tube or through a syringe.

They neatly sum up their thesis with

medicine was once mammalian and is now reptilian

Corporations and organisations have taken the high ground imposing their limits, their rules and regulations on those who try to care.

A corporation has customers, not patients; it has fiscal relationships not limbic ones.

The use of terms “customers”, “clients” and “consumers” in the area of health care has always disturbed me. Now I think I understand more clearly why!

I concur with this conclusion –

Before it is safe to go back to the doctor, a mammal will have to be in charge. And before that can happen, our physicians will have to recapture their belief in the substantive nature of emotional life and the determination to fight for it.

I’m not sure I’ve heard any politician, manager or profession leader say this so clearly – the problems facing health care are not ones of efficiency, targets and “better” guidelines. The problem is we need to make health care more human.

We need Medicine based on love, care and attention….where the heart is the keystone.



Read Full Post »

From the other end of the garden I suddenly noticed this flower shining in a sunbeam which had made its way through the trees. I was drawn towards it pulled by the force of its beauty and took this photo.

It’s an allium and this flower head is typical of this family. Just look at it! Isn’t it astonishing. It really looks like one of those fireworks which bursts open high in the night sky. Or like a starburst as a distant sun explodes.

It simply exudes Life – you can feel the energy surging through it. It’s glorious. I love how Nature surges forward in such abundance. There’s nothing mean, or constrained, about this. It’s a “hallelujah!” It’s a “it’s good to be alive!”

Plants live such different lives from we humans but I can’t help but be touched by these astonishing displays of beauty, uniqueness and creativity.

This is what the Life Force looks like. This is what “the Vital Force” feels like.

Read Full Post »

A good life

This week, I noticed this tiny little flower blooming in the grass. It’s only about the size of my middle finger. When you get down on your knees and take a closer look it’s got a thick, stubby stalk with tiny white flowers all over it.

Extraordinary. I’ve never seen a plant quite like this. Having noticed this one I then realised there were many more of them scattered over a large area of grass. This happens all the time. Flowers appear suddenly. One day they aren’t visible, the next they’ve shot up and unfurled their petals. Just like that. It still astonishes me.

Of course, the next thought is, “what is this?” which is a question that’s easier to answer in this age of phone apps. There are several which enable you to take a photo of any plant and upload it for instant identification. “Picture this” and “PlantSnap” are two I’ve used a lot. But recently a neighbour showed me “Seek” which lets you put in your location then it will show you the wildflowers, birds, mammals and fungi which are common where you live. Brilliant!

I’ve now discovered that the latest iPhones have this recognition function built in, without needing any apps. I don’t have the latest iPhone however, so I’ll be sticking with the apps for now.

This little plant turns out to be “Prunella laciniata”, commonly known as “Self heal”, or, “All heal”, a plant used in traditional and herbal medicine to promote natural healing.

As a retired doctor, discovering that I’m surrounded by healing plants in my garden is an added treat. This is only the latest of several species I’ve found, and I’m adding to them by planting others.

From the sheer pleasure of discovery, to the delight in beauty, to the joy of wonder and the provocation of curiosity, these everyday discoveries deepen my enjoyment of life. This is one important aspect of what I’d call “a good life”.

Read Full Post »

Yesterday I wrote about how power corrupts so we need the means and ways to insist on transparency and accountability. As I thought about the dominant model of democracy around the world it struck me that most systems foster conflict.

In the U.K. there is the government and the “opposition”. The role of latter is to oppose, and the procedures and practices in parliament seem designed to foster argument and conflict. In the USA it’s perhaps worse with a more two party system than there is in most European countries.

The first past the post voting system creates the narrative of a winner and a bunch of losers.

“Us and them”.

Division and conflict seem to be worsening in those countries which foster this idea of politics as conflict.

But there are other models out there which make some attempt to force a number of parties to work together. There are some countries which use proportional voting to try to get a better representation of a spread of views in parliament. And there are various examples of participative democracy in recent years with citizens assemblies and attempts to foster genuine discussion.

One thing which strikes me is that if the wind blows in the direction of competition there will be winners and losers, division and conflict. But if the wind blows in the direction of consensus, there might be more listening, more discussion and more cohesion.

When the aim is to agree how to live together then we might develop the systems which foster active listening, tolerance and consensus. But if we continue to favour competition where one group “beats” another group, what kind of society do we have then? A divided, angry and frustrated one, it seems.

We are all different. We won’t ever all see the world the same way, and nor should we. I often think of the human body made up of completely different organs and tissues which don’t compete with each other. They integrate with each other.

Integration is the formation of mutually beneficial bonds. That’s how all our organs work so well together. If they started to fight each other, they’d all die.

Imagine what a political system would look like if integration was the aim. Imagine what society would look like if we gave priority to the formation of mutually beneficial bonds, rather than to dividing into us and them and creating winners and losers.

Read Full Post »

Power corrupts

All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely

Lord Acton

Is there a country on the planet where this old insight can be ignored?

I don’t think so.

It’s not hard to find the stories and evidence of corruption in autocratic societies. Has there ever been a “strong man” government which wasn’t corrupt? Have there ever been dictators or monarchs who didn’t abuse their power and the people over whom they ruled?

I imagine the idea of democracy as a political system arose to attempt to prevent such abuses. If a population can remove a ruler from power then maybe that ruler’s power can be contained, maybe they can be “held to account”.

It doesn’t seem much like that when I look at the contemporary forms of democracy however. The system I know best is the U.K. and even though I don’t live there anymore, and don’t have voting rights there, what’s happening there informs my political views about how we humans might live together.

To me, the British system is a poor version of the democratic ideal. I say that for two reasons.

Firstly, there’s the House of Lords. I know I’ve started this post with a quotation from one such Lord, and there may very well be decent, well meaning people in the House of Lords, but a system which gives power for life to a group of unelected people is quite simply not remotely democratic.

Secondly, there’s the voting system based on the idea of winners and losers. Whether it’s in a General Election, or in a Referendum, the largest minority wins. Have you thought of it that way? It’s not “the majority” or “the people” who determine who has power. It’s the “winning” minority.

Has there ever been an election or a referendum in the U.K. which has won the support of the majority of those eligible to vote? Yet the winning minority always claim they “have a mandate” to wield power. With this mentality “governing for all the people” is either a delusion or a fantasy. Those who gain power, if they heed anyone, only heed the minority who vote for them.

But even if there were a genuine majority, say, 60% of those eligible to vote, supporting one particular group, what happens to the wishes, desires, values of the 40%? Telling millions of people that they “lost”, or that they should keep quiet and accept the wishes of the “majority”…..is that a path to harmony and justice?

Is it any wonder that around the world people are fed up with politicians, don’t trust them, and feel powerless? How’s that version of democracy going?

So, you’re probably saying, what would you do? Or, what can we do?

I’m sure I don’t have all the answers but in the light of the insight that power corrupts I’d say we need to build on the principles of limiting power through accountability and responsibility. Those who seek to keep hold of power, whether politicians, corporations or billionaires, typically do what they can to act in secret. Transparency, genuine openness about their actions, can begin to limit power. Tax avoidance schemes, complex accounting and company structures exist the hold power through hiding wealth and actions. Whether it’s the Panama Papers, the Paradise Papers or the Pandora Papers, leaks of secret papers reveal widespread corruption. Google any of those to read more.

So the first thing I’d call for is transparency and increasing the ability of the public to find out what those with power do with that power.

The second thing I’d call for is limiting the amount of time any one person can hold power. The House of Lords filled with unelected members holding that power for life is surely an anachronism. But those who make a career out of holding political power are surely also vulnerable. Shouldn’t there be time limits on them all. Not just on how long an MP can be a Minister or Prime Minister, but how long any individual can be an MP. Limit the number of years any individual can hold a position of political power.

My third call is for an end to voting systems which are based on enabling the largest minorities to have the greatest power. That involves a host of interconnected issues, but I’d certainly like to see the end of both “first past the post” voting for elections and “simple majority” voting in referenda.

If we want to increase trust, we need more openness and transparency. If we want to increase social cohesion we need to limit the power of “largest minorities”.

This post is a bit different from my usual but it seems to me that increasing inequality and injustice in the world demands that we pay some attention and use our imagination and creativity to come up with ways to limit power…..because “all power tends to corrupt”.

I don’t have all the answers and the points I’ve covered here are certainly not a comprehensive analysis of the problem, but my underlying principle here is “heroes not zombies” – become aware and become the active co-creator of your own life. Our current political and economic structures seem to me to act against that, preferring the existence of passive automatons over active, critical, aware individuals.

Transparency and accountability. Isn’t that what “democracy” is supposed to be about?

Read Full Post »

Life stages

Having posted yesterday about a butterfly and the sense of wonder they evoke in me. I came across this little creature later in the garden.

It’s pretty remarkable and beautiful in its own right, but, seriously, it’s nothing like a butterfly!

That thought instantly got me thinking again about life stages and unpredictability. When you reflect on your own life, or of the life of someone you’ve known for decades, it’s striking just how different we all are at age stage of life.

The me as an infant, seems SO different from the me I am now that it’s frankly astonishing. Ok, I know that I am that same person, that I didn’t become someone else in a literal sense. I have this single autobiographical memory and narrative woven from countless threads. I didn’t leave one body and step into another. But when I look back at different stages of my life I can get the strange feeling that I hardly recognise some of those older versions of me at all.

Growth and development are not random, but they are most certainly unpredictable in their details and specificity.

Most of the changes occur gradually and slowly but in every life there are events or experiences which are transformative. When we reflect on who we have become it’s those events which we recall, those turning points, those decisions, those opportunities grasped, those wounds inflicted.

It’s the same with illness. When I tried to understand a particular patient’s illness I had to enable them to tell their story, to recount the transformative events and experiences of their life.

We change all the time, physically, mentally, emotionally, socially. Remarkable as it is, metamorphosis is at the core of ordinary life.

Read Full Post »

I’ll never cease to be amazed by butterflies. Many of them have such beautiful colours and patterns on their wings. They are such delicate and astonishingly weird creatures! If you were using your imagination to create a life form, would you come up with anything that looked like a butterfly?

I’m sure that, like me, you’ve watched a butterfly in flight, and asked yourself “How on earth do they fly like that?” They seem to move through the air in an utterly unpredictable random manner. At no point can you figure out where they are going to go next. Yet they cover a lot of ground in a remarkably short period of time. They are certainly not very streamlined but they sure get from one side of the garden to the next quickly!

Sometimes I see two, three, or more flying around each other in some airborne version of a dance and I have no idea how they don’t keep bumping into each other.

But perhaps the most incredible thing about butterflies is their lifecycle. It’s still mind boggling to know that the caterpillar, chrysalis and adult stages are the life stages of every single butterfly. Not only do they look utterly different creatures during each of these stages but how on earth do they transform their bodies so completely from one stage to another?

Can there be a better representation of metamorphosis?

Butterflies are a great opportunity to experience the “How do they do that?” effect….not to find an answer, but simply to be amazed.

Wonder…..perhaps one of the most important qualities of a good life…..worth practising every single day.

Read Full Post »

Imagining meanings

I took this photo in May back in 2015 and it still captures my attention every time I glance at it. Isn’t this one of the weirdest cloud patterns you’ve ever seen? It’s a complete mystery to me. And we humans love mysteries.

It’s the fact that it seems to be five fairly similar clouds in a line that makes me see them as one connected event. We humans are meaning seeking creatures. I can’t help but try to come up with an “explanation” for these clouds.

The power of imagination kicks in and I wonder if they are natural – were they created by humans? Are they are series of puffs from a chimney? But what kind of fire would produce five separate puffs of smoke in a row like this? A sputtering aircraft? Nope, I don’t think so.

So are they letters of some mysterious alphabet? Is this a message written in the sky? Is it a word? If it were a word, what might that word be? Is it God, or a god, or Gaia writing a warning message? Or a greeting? “Hello world”??

I’ve tried all sorts of ideas over the years but never one that satisfies me. And, no, saying it’s just random doesn’t work for me either. A random shape I can understand, a series of connected random shapes? This doesn’t look random to me.

So, how about you? What pops into your head when you look at this image?

Here’s my latest – it’s the Loch Ness Monster going on her summer holidays to the South of France!

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »