Archive for August, 2022

Colour, light, shadow, shape……I’m not sure exactly what caught my attention here. I was sitting sipping a cold beer outside a busy little bistro and I noticed the building opposite.

Maybe it was that bright shaft of sunlight which penetrated the trees which lined the square. I’m not sure, but I picked up my camera, zoomed in on this particular part of the building, and clicked.

When I look at it again now it reminds me of a Hopper painting. Something about the colours, the shadows, and the fact that it’s a street scene.

Whatever it was, the more I look at this the more beautiful I find it.

Isn’t there something important here? Isn’t this an example of how the universe draws us towards beauty?

Beauty is one of the three great classical values – good, true and beautiful. We find beauty everywhere, in the petals of a flower, a butterfly’s wing, the flight of a bird, a child’s laugh, a stranger’s smile, in music, paintings, poetry, sculptures, dance……

Beauty is an end in itself. The experience of beauty is the gift. In fact when we use beauty to achieve some other end….as advertisers do, then we lose something. It’s degraded by turning it towards utility.

Beauty attracts us. It captures our attention and stirs the soul. In fact, one of the greatest examples of beauty is the loving human heart.

What beauty did you encounter today? Or, better, why not set off today with the intention to encounter beauty? “There’s so much beauty in this world”, you can only miss it if you’re not paying attention.

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Do we matter?

If you look very carefully you’ll be able to see a person in this photo. They are standing on that elaborate metal creation protruding from the top of the cliff. Can you see them?

This immediately made me think of one of the core paradoxes of life – significance and insignificance. This single human being looks so tiny, even from the perspective of this small part of the world. Think how tiny each of us are on this planet, Earth. Think how tiny we are in this vast universe.

Doesn’t that make you feel pretty insignificant in the whole scheme of things? It makes me feel that way. A single human being, a single life, lasting just a few years. In the vast scales of time and space it’s hard to see how any of us matter.

There are many people who think this way. They think the universe and all that exists came to be completely randomly. A series of utterly chance events producing all the stars, all the planets, all forms of life, consciousness. It’s all random and purposeless. Evolution proceeded by a series of spontaneous chance mutations which were “selected for” by the environment as more likely to promote survival. Any single organism in this view is both pointless and purposeless, apart from any usefulness they might temporarily provide.


Not convincing to me!

I spent my working life one to one with individual patients. I found every single one of them to be unique, every single one of them to be valuable and worthy of attention and care. So I start from the other end of the scale. The human one. And try to make sense of the universe from that perspective. Not by observing others as detached objects, but through compassionate engagement, subject to subject in relationship.

The figures don’t stack up for me. The chances of the stars coming into being completely by chance are infinitesimally small. So small some people have come up with the multiverse idea….that all that can happen does happen in an infinite number of parallel universes. But that strikes me as a cop out. It’s a mathematical trick to make the chance explanation feasible.

Then there’s evolution and life. The truth is that the most successful organisms in terms of survival are single celled ones. There are bacteria and amoebae millions of years old. But the direction of travel of evolution has been ever increasing complexity. We know of no more complex creatures than human beings. But we only survive around eighty years or so. Goodness, trees can live thousands of years, how come the direction of evolution has produced more and more complex creatures which can survive less and less years? Why didn’t it stop with amoebae?

And then how did consciousness come to be, and at what point? If it’s an end point in complex matter how does that work? How does consciousness “emerge” from matter?

Or did consciousness come first?

Has matter emerged from consciousness? Is the direction of evolution not survival as a quantitative phenomenon but the creation of ever greater complexity, difference, beauty and uniqueness?

I don’t buy the dominant materialist mechanical view. It doesn’t make sense to me and it appears to reduce human beings to cogs in a machine, flawed and replaceable. Life without purpose.

But I do buy a wholistic, connected, consciously value based view. That every single creature is a unique subject. That it’s relationships and experiences that we should focus on, over objects and parts. That each of us has a wholly unique role to play in existence. That the universe took 14 billion years to produce you, and that alone is pretty damn amazing.

I find wonder everywhere and everyday. The older I get the more I know I don’t know and that fills me with awe and respect. What a gift to be alive, to have this singular opportunity to contribute to the development of consciousness, to witness and create beauty, goodness and truth.

Do we matter? It depends on your world view. How does the universe appear to you?

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There’s a lot of dock land development along the banks of the Loire in Nantes. The part which intrigued me most was the “Jardin Extraordinaire” – the extraordinary garden. It’s been created in an old quarry area known as the “Misery Quarry”, and, wow, has somebody transformed that land! There’s a 25 metre high waterfall, winding paths through bamboo and exotic plants. It feels like stepping into another world.

Look at this plant, for example. I have no idea what it’s called but it literally stopped me in my tracks. Isn’t it stunning? Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it utterly extraordinary?

The combination of colours and shapes make it appear like an explosion of life. I love it!

The whole garden has a feel of abundance and richness, although it’s obviously still pretty early days in terms of development with several signs indicating the plants are fragile so take care around them.

I’ve read up a little about this garden which was only created in September 2019. The old name of the “misery quarry” dates back to the 17th century before it became a quarry. It was said that the “miséreux”, the destitute, took shelter there. As a quarry it was a source of granite.

How wonderful to see this kind of reclamation. Well done, Nantes!

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The deep

Inside the Chateau of the Ducs de Bretagne is this enormous old well. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a well with so many pulleys above it. It was obviously a very important resource.

I’m always impressed by creations which are beautiful as well as useful. Look at the ornate and elaborate iron work on this well. There’s an instinct in human beings to create, and an instinct towards beauty. Whoever built this well could have made a much more mundane (and ugly) structure to draw the water.

But with so called progress we’ve become a bit distanced from beauty. Time and again it’s sacrificed at the altar of utility, which in turn is constrained by profit making. So cheapness wins over beautiful all around us. Don’t you wonder as you stroll around an old city why, if we’ve progressed, if we’ve become richer as a society, it’s all the older buildings which look the most beautiful.

Ok I’m in danger of falling into a dualistic generalising trap here, because there are some stunningly beautiful modern buildings and some dreadfully ugly ancient ones! But my thought here is that beauty seems built in from the start in these old structures. Whereas often now it’s only an afterthought achieved poorly through decoration and trimmings.

If we don’t surround ourselves with beauty don’t we make our lives more superficial, and poorer?

I think we do.

It’s time to reconnect to our depths…..

It’s time to promote values and qualities instead of utility and profit. Good, true and beautiful stand the test of time.

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Well, I’m in Nantes for the weekend. My first ever visit here. It’s the original capital of Brittany but somewhat bizarrely is in the modern administrative department of Loire Atlantique. I think that’s kinda sad and I believe it’s pretty controversial, but it also reminds me how we humans are constantly dividing up the territory to make new maps.

I’ve only been here about 24 hours but so far I’ve found it both convivial and cosmopolitan. I’m not used to city life any more. It’s busier and buzzier than what I’m used to. This is a real student town but the university doesn’t open again until next month. I expect it’ll feel different again once all the students return.

There are a lot of beautiful buildings here, open “places”, big squares and lots of green areas. The Loire runs right through the middle.

I like the street art. It surrounds you with local creativity, and gives you lots of opportunities to encounter what lies beneath the superficial commercialism of the town centre.

It’s been thirty years or more since I visited Brittany but I’ve always felt a connection through ancient shared roots in Celtic culture so I wasn’t surprised when the waiter at lunch time asked where we came from, and when we replied we were Scots, he said “We don’t speak the same language but we’re connected here”, placing his hand over his heart.

You just never know what cultural rivers continue to flow deep underground, below the maps, and even below the territory.

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The spring

There’s a spring opposite my house here in South West France. The Romans built the walls and the aqueduct a couple of thousand years ago. The water in the spring is the clearest water I’ve ever seen. I’ve been told that scientists have traced the origin of the water to the mountains in the middle of France, and it takes about three weeks, flowing underground, to reach here.

When I arrived here eight months ago the spring water poured powerfully over the little wall and into the aqueduct beyond. This summer, with France experiencing a historic drought, the water level in the spring has fallen and fallen. You can see how far away it is from tumbling over into the aqueduct now.

The locals tell me they’ve never seen it this low in their lifetime, which is pretty troubling. But it’ll be restored I think. “Normal” rainfall isn’t expected until October or November so I wonder if the water will be flowing vigorously again by the anniversary of my moving here.

Nature is full of cycles and seasons and we’re told that climate change isn’t stopping that. It’s just making the swings more extreme.

As they say around here, “On vera” (we’ll see)

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Iain McGilchrist, in his The Matter with Things, says that the most important, deepest and hardest to answer question is “why there should be something rather than nothing”.

The current orthodox answer is it’s all down to chance. We live in a purposeless random universe. Human beings are insignificant little creatures on one tiny planet floating in an empty universe.

But that orthodox answer is pretty hard to swallow. Lee Smolin, Physicist, says “we should ask just how probable is it that the universe created by randomly choosing parameters will contain stars. Given what we have already said it is simple to estimate this probability….the answer in round numbers comes to about one chance in ten to the power 229. (We might note the part of the universe we can see from earth contains ten to the power 22 stars)…..

That probability that our “something not nothing” is purely down to chance is mind boggingly small. So small it’s surely hard to believe.

The fact there is something instead of nothing is, frankly, astonishing.

The second question is why this something has “turned out to be complex and orderly, beautiful and creative, capable of life, feeling and consciousness, rather than chaotic, sterile and dead.”

If you aren’t amazed by everyday reality, you’re not paying attention. The sheer complexity and beauty of this world stops me in my tracks every day. I’m in awe of Life in all its diversity, complexity and beauty. Every flower, tree, butterfly, bird, every unique and astonishing human being……I am amazed.

Like everyone else I don’t have the answers to those two questions but I find that when I start to consider them I become ever more humbled, ever more blessed.

Maybe that’s what makes those two questions so great….not that we can find the answers but that in their contemplation we are opened up to the sheer, immense wonder of this world.

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Walk in beauty

This is the entrance to my garden. The first time we came to view this house we walked through this archway and thought “This is it”. Everything we saw after that just confirmed the initial feeling. We bought it. I know many people view lots of places before finding the one where they really want to live, but we were lucky. The first place we viewed was horrid, and the second was the one we bought.

What made the choice so clear?

I’m pretty sure it all began with beauty. Of course there was a lot more to consider…the location, the house itself, the condition of the house, the price etc but I’m sure it was the initial impression of beauty which enabled us to see solutions where there problems and potential which could be realised.

Iain McGilchrist argues in his latest book, The Matter with Things, that values are foundational to our conscious universe. Those values are Good, True, Beauty and Meaning. Further, he makes a good case for how beauty opens us up to the discovery of what’s true and what’s good. And I’m so doing we discover meaning in life, purpose in the universe.

So here’s my challenge for you today. Notice beauty. Find beauty in your life today…in your surroundings, in others, in music, in creations, in the flowers, trees and birds….just decide today you are going to notice beauty.

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This is one of my most favourite patterns in nature – branching. You can see it in this plant. You can see it in a tree, both above and below ground. You can see it in river formation as small streams gather to former larger ones which then collect into rivers all the way down to the estuary where the pattern emerges again as the river approaches the sea.

You can see it in lungs. You can see it in the circulatory system of arteries and veins. You can see it in the nervous system and inside our kidneys and our liver.

It’s no wonder we use this pattern to create family trees, to classify and categorise species and families of all living creatures.

But we have to be careful with this pattern because the further out the branching structure we ponder, the further apart seem the objects of our study. We always have to zoom out and follow the paths back to the common ones to remind ourselves of the ultimate connections.

There is, in fact, nothing separate from anything else, even in a common structure like this.

But there’s a key point. We need “and not or” because we need to distinguish one from another to see every instance of uniqueness whilst also needing to see the connections and realise how much is shared.

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Plants have several different strategies to disperse their seeds. One of the commonest is to use the wind. You’re probably most familiar with the seed head of a dandelion. Maybe you even played a game with one as a child counting how many puffs of breath it took to blow away every single seed. The dandelion was probably quite delighted that you enjoyed doing that….a win, win. A mutually beneficial relationship!

Can a dandelion be delighted? Can plants be happy or sad? Of course there’s no way to answer that question because happiness and sadness are subjective experiences. Nobody can really know what your happiness or sadness feels like. But through empathy, observation and imagine we can pick up when someone else is happy or sad. We see it in their expressions and behaviour. We hear it in their tone of voice. We understand it by listening to their stories.

Plants don’t have faces and they can’t tell stories. But we can still observe their appearance and behaviour. We can see when they are flourishing. We can see when they need water. We can see when they are struggling to cope with the heat of the sun.

Plants are aware. They detect the environment around them and respond to threats, challenges and opportunities. Plants have memories. They can remember which direction the sun will rise and turn to greet it. Plants communicate, through the release and reception of chemicals warning others of a present threat, through electrical signals amongst their cells, through vast networks of micro rhizomes entangled in their roots.

Plants, I feel, are a bit taken for granted. Probably because they don’t have faces, can’t tell stories and are limited in their ability to move.

But, hey, don’t you agree that they are absolutely amazing creatures? Often arrestingly beautiful. Frequently astonishing. Simply wonderful.

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