Archive for November, 2022

Soul growing

In The Matter with Things, Iain McGilchrist writes, “we can grow a soul – or we can snuff it out”.

Soul is a difficult concept but I suspect we all know it – maybe we can’t describe it, measure it, even point to it, but we know it.

We know what it’s like to have a soul mate. We know what soul food is. We recognise soul music, which is not just a musical genre, but any music which touches us deep in our soul.

I’ve made many visits to Kyoto in Japan, a really remarkable city studded with dozens of shrines and temples. The whole city feels soulful to me. Even though I practice neither Shinto nor Buddhism, I feel the soul energy as I walk into any of the gardens or buildings in the grounds of one of these holy places.

I feel the same stepping into a stone circle in Scotland, or tracing the cup and ring markings on the ancient stones.

I feel it faced with the cave wall art deep underground in France.

There are places which touch the soul.

Iain McGilchrist asks how we might grow our souls and suggests the use of symbols and rituals amongst other things.

In the temples and shrines of Kyoto there are symbols everywhere, and at every turn there are people practising the ancient rites and rituals.

Our industrialised, materialistic societies have been killing off souls. They’ve taken the heart out of life, reduced life to the useful or mundane. I saw a report yesterday that the clear majority of people in the U.K. no longer believe in, or practice, any religion, and who knows if that’s a good or bad thing? But it seems to have accompanied a disenchantment with the world and with life. There seems to be more mental illness, more unhappiness and certainly a lot more anger in the world. Our systems and organisations literally dehumanise us, reducing work to tasks, people to units of consumption and production….they are killing our souls.

So how can we grow our souls? I’m sure as an individual I can seek to spend more time with soul mates, eat food which reaches my soul, listen to the music which touches me at my core, spend time in the places where I feel my soul growing. I can slow down, savour the day, immerse myself in the wonder and awe of the here and now.

But I think we need to do more together to create communities and societies of love, care, compassion and creativity….in other words to prioritise the conditions, economic and social, which grow peoples’ souls.

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Compelling sunsets

I don’t think I’ve shared a sunset photo with you for a while, despite the fact I have a LOT of sunsets in my photo library. It’s partly because I moved house a year ago and the landscape around this house and the previous one is quite different. Now I’m surrounded by trees in every direction, which helps create the feeling of a comfortable, protected, niche, which is really tranquil and where the commonest sounds to hear are birdsongs. Before I was on the edge of a village in the heart of cognac country, surrounded by vineyards as far as the eye could see.

Both environments have their advantages and their disadvantages. Probably the one thing I miss is seeing the wide open, big sky sunset of the previous house. At certain times of year evening after evening I was compelled to go outside and marvel at an astonishing sunset. This photo is one I took exactly four years ago today.

We humans are instinctively drawn to both the rising and the setting sun. The glorious colours can cover the entire sky giving the impression of walking into the heart of a work of art…..which is what we do every day. This astonishing planet with its abundance of diverse, glorious forms of life, is indeed a work of art.

Sunrises and sunsets have the potential to take the Earth’s beauty to another level. They are, frequently, literally, irresistible.

If you want to experience awe, a sunset is an excellent opportunity, and I find that my sunset photos re-inspire me every time I look at them.

I’ve mentioned this before, but here it is again – a sunset is not really the Sun setting. The Sun isn’t moving over the sky, it’s the Earth which is turning. So a more accurate name for this phenomenon is “Earth rise” as the planet spins and the horizon rises towards the Sun. I don’t know about you, but when I read that my mind was somewhat boggled! And it still is! Amazing, huh?

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It’s raining at the moment. After months of record drought in France we’ve had a couple of weeks or so of rain every day. According to the weather forecast this is the last day of rain for a week. “On verra”…..which is French for “we’ll see”.

I use “on verra” quite a lot, not least because predictions of all kinds are so unreliable. I suppose it’s a phrase you’d also use for “don’t count your chickens until they’re hatched”. At least, it’s something that helps me to let go of trying to force the future to conform to my wishes!

In the time it’s taken me to upload this photo, and write those first two paragraphs the rain has stopped and I see blue sky again, which reminds me of that other old classic saying “this too shall pass”.

The only certainty is change.

But while it was raining I looked out of the window at this puddle and couldn’t help slipping into a contemplation of the beauty of the patterns made by the rain drops falling on the surface of the water. Aren’t they wonderful and fascinating?

I remember learning about “interference” in Physics class at school and it’s one of those lessons which has remained vivid throughout my whole life. Each rain drop sets off little waves on the surface of the water and as the ever increasing circles meet each other they co-create these wonderful interlocking patterns.

Sometimes I wonder if this simple, “ordinary” phenomenon was the inspiration for both Celtic and Japanese art….the interlacing patterns and knots drawn by the Celts, and the simple, gorgeous little wave patterns drawn onto pottery and raked into stone gardens in Japan.

Watching these patterns emerge as the little splashes interact (and “interfere”) with each other, I find my mind doubling down on the reality of constant, unpredictable change.

I am entranced. I am enchanted.

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Art and feeling

I see a chance of giving a felt impression of what I see.
Not always literally exactly – rather never exactly – for one sees nature through one’s own temperament.

Vincent Van Gogh

Isn’t this what art does? Each work of art is the creation of a person who was seeing and feeling something. It’s the result of an individual, unique experience which conveys something perceived and something felt.

As Van Gogh writes, we see nature through our own temperament. I’m sure you’ll have had experiences like that. An upset, a grieving, a sadness, a hurt which colours every waking moment and permeates every dream. In that “temperament”, nothing pleases, nothing seems beautiful or wonderful. Or, the reverse, where we are in a state of joy and security and delight, where we find beauty everywhere and even the mundane seems enchanted.

So this is what art does – the great artist (painter, sculptor, musician, writer, poet) turns their experience into a work of, what Deleuze referred to as, sensation. A sensation so filled with precepts and affects that many years later the viewer, listener, reader, can be touched by that very sensation and, perhaps see the world in some way like the artist did, but most importantly will feel something of what the artist felt.

I think it was the psychiatrist, Dan Siegel, who wrote about a patient who didn’t say, “thank you, I was listened to”, but “I felt, felt”. We want to be understood, to be seen and heard, but at a deeper level, what really counts, is feeling….when we have that experience of sharing a feeling we know we have touched something deep, something deep. We know we’ve made a soul connection.

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The philosopher, Mary Midgley, wrote “Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what would we do if the stars came out only once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would create new religions overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television.”

Have you ever been out in the countryside on a clear night? Far from city lights. The sky looks amazing. It is astonishing. To see the Milky Way, our home galaxy, spread across the black sky above our heads, to identify “the plough”, “Cassiopeia”, the “seven sisters”, a planet or two…..it is ALWAYS a thrill. It’s one of the best ways I know to be amazed, to slip into wonder, to feel your boundaries dissolve as you experience the reality that All is One, and One is All.

Patrick Curry writes, “Wonder, enchantment, astonishment, delight, joy – these are experiences that are not, and cannot be, simply willed into existence or manufactured on demand. They are not under control, not something we do but something that happens to us…..It cannot be tested, evaluated, improved, rolled out or developed, and there can be no system or method to achieve it.”

Wonder, love, joy…..all delivered to us by the universe when we live with open hearts, ready to receive.

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The tower in the middle of Copenhagen has this incredible roadway spiralling upwards. It allowed horses and carriages to ascend to the rooms above. I think it’s the only tower I ever climbed which had a road inside it!

As you ascend you see all around the city through the windows, passing 360 degrees again and again, each time at a different level, so at each window, even if it affords you a view in a direction you’ve already looked, what you see will be different.

I think this is a great physical, active metaphor for Life. We often seem to revisit the same issues or to experience the same problem again. It can feel like we are making no progress, that we are going round in circles. But, in fact, we don’t go round in circles and we never have the exact same experience twice. Rather we follow spirals, each time coming round again to a similar issue or problem, but because both we and the world we live in continuously change, every encounter is actually very different – even when, at first, it seems the same.

The cycles of life are less like circles, more like spirals. And we should be careful not to snooze too deeply into familiarity, because nothing truly repeats itself exactly.

Zombies might walk in circles, but we humans ascend in spirals.

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Facets or factors

This beautiful multi faceted sphere always inspires me. It reminds me how wonderfully complex we humans are. When a patient would come to me with a problem I was always aware there would be many sides to the story. To focus solely on one aspect of their illness would always be a mistake. I had to take the time to help them tell their whole story and to unravel the many different influences and factors involved in bringing about their current illness.

I recently read about “The Invisible Kingdom. Reimagining chronic illness”, by Meghan O’Rourke. The haven’t read it yet but I’ve listened to a couple of interviews with her and she describes the real epidemic of chronic illness affecting society and how our current health model doesn’t enable us to address it effectively. Everything I’ve heard her say resonates with me.

I’ll pick up a couple of points here. She stresses the importance to patients of being heard and seen, of being believed and not dismissed as mentally ill if there are no abnormalities found in their physical tests. I would say every single week without fail, I and my colleagues were told by patients “You are the first doctor to have really listened to me”, or “I’ve never told anyone what I’ve just told you”. The patients we saw all had chronic illnesses and the vast majority had exhausted all the other services before coming to us to try the homeopathic or integrative approach. Our emphasis on non judgemental listening over the course of a one hour consultation was surely the key to facilitating this kind of experience. Meghan O’Rourke points out that clinics based on ten minutes appointments are never going to manage to achieve this kind of outcome, and, although some would say it’s not possible to change that I believe we should push for it, just as we should keep demonstrating the benefit of continuity of care. The problem is there are not nearly enough doctors. The solution is to train and retain far, far more doctors.

Another important point she makes is that we live in hyper individualised societies and consequently we pay far too little attention to the individual’s connections – their relationships and environments. If we know poverty predisposes to ill health we should tackle poverty. If we know poor housing contributes, precarious poorly paid jobs, discrimination and poor education contribute we need to address all of those. Surely Covid has made that even more obvious than ever. If inadequate ventilation of workplaces and public enclosed spaces promotes the spread of viruses, let’s invest in clean air technologies and practices. If a cocktail of endocrine inhibitors saturate our water and our air, let’s address that. If the agrochemical industries produce and market obesogenic, poor quality food, let’s tackle that.

We are seeing huge increases in chronic disease in our so called developed societies. Surely we need to consider a lot more facets/factors than we’ve been doing if we want to create better, healthier lives for more people.

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The maps we make

We humans are sense making creatures. We don’t just see, we notice and we observe. We are primed to see patterns, to create associations between the different elements in a scene, to create narratives out of our experiences, weaving together the threads of events into rich unique tapestries of meaning.

We use certain patterns again and again, calling them up to see how well they fit the latest experience or scene. Maps are a particular class of such patterns. We use maps to see where we are, where we’ve come from, where we might go, and how we might get there.

Dan Siegel, the author of Mindsight, describes how, amongst many other things, we use our frontal lobes (the parts of the brain just behind the forehead) to create three kinds of map – a “me” map, a “you” map and a “we” map as we create a sense of self, recognise others and know what to expect in any particular relationship.

There are often times in a life history when we feel lost. Not lost geographically perhaps, but not knowing who we are, where we are in our singular story, or where that story is heading. It’s at times like that we might need both a map and a guide….someone who can help us see more clearly the answers to those questions.

I think there are two important things to remember about all this – “the map is not the territory” ie our maps are abstractions, created from only some of the possible elements of reality. Our life story, for example, can look very different depending on how much weight we give to certain events, something which allows us the possibility of creating a more satisfying story if we want to. And, the map is never complete. We can never see THE destination because the road ahead is being created as we live it.

Maps are really helpful but we should never see them as fixed, absolute “truths”.

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In harmony

Harmony and resonance are at the heart of most healthy relationships in the universe. We all experience the feeling of “being in tune” with someone else, of “being on the same wavelength”. It’s a complex phenomenon but it seems to involve our bodies as well as our minds. In fact, it especially involves heart to heart connections.

There’s a phenomenon described in Physics called “entrainment” where “oscillating” systems, systems which have a rhythm, harmonise with each other. There’s a well known story of a clockmaker going to bed after noticing all the pendulum based clocks were swinging in their own diverse ways, but when he came down to the workshop in the morning he found that all the pendulums (pendulae?) were swinging in complete harmony with each other. That’s entrainment!

Of course we find harmony deeply pleasing in music, but maybe we don’t pay enough attention to the rhythms, cycles and seasons of the world. Our societies seem to be built on a drive to control. We seek to dominate Nature and bend her to our will. But that road looks like its taking us towards disaster.

So, here’s something to try. Decide today to be aware of when you feel in harmony with others, with your surroundings, with your day. And just note when that is. The more we seek and choose harmony, the healthier our lives will be.

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Hope and expectation

After weeks and weeks of record breaking drought, November has brought its usual rains. Months ago the weather experts predicted it might take till now for the rainy days to return. In the midst of months of drought it can be hard to believe they’d ever return, and the Roman “source” has still not refilled to the level where the water pours over the edge to run down the ancient aqueduct.

In the midst of the rainy days the sun came out, the skies cleared and we had a bright, dry couple of days, so seized the opportunity to plant dozens of Spring bulbs – mainly tulips and daffodils.

I think planting bulbs is a real exercise in hope and expectation. Who knows what kind of winter lies ahead? But with the bulbs bedded into the soil I know we can look forward to some glorious red, yellow and orange blossoms when the Spring, inevitability, wakes up the plants after a Winter not yet begun.

There’s something deeply reassuring about the seasons and cycles of Life. I suppose with climate change the weather events seem to be becoming more extreme, but that cycle of seasons keeps on turning.

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