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I remember how surprised I was to discover how the days of the week share a naming tradition across many languages. The key to understanding the links is to see how each language attributes the same planets to the same days.

Starting with Sunday, the sequence is the Sun, the Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn. It’s consistent across many, many languages. Learning a little about the symbolism and mythology of each of the planets allows us to create a rich daily experience with a different theme, or focus, for each day of the week. Try it for yourself. Get yourself a notebook or diary and pick a theme related to each planet and note the themes for each day, then return to that theme throughout that day and see how it colours your experience.

I have since felt quite frustrated that the same principle can’t be applied to the months of the year. Not only are the names of the months not shared through the various languages of the world, but the European model isn’t even based on a consistent naming system. Some of the months are named after Gods, like March, named after Mars, some are named after Roman Caesars, like July and August, and others just get a number, as we see in October through to December. I don’t like it! It feels clumsy and inconsistent. Especially in the light of the names of the days.

I’ve looked around but haven’t found any alternative naming system. What was I looking for? Well, a set of names which had symbolic or mythical meanings, as we have with the days of the week, so that I could play with the themes each month which related to those symbols.

So I came up with my own set of themes, one for each month of the year. Here they are, each one with a sentence or two to explain why I came up the particular theme for the specific month.

January is the start of the new calendar year. It’s named after Janus who faced both forwards and backwards, and can be symbolically represented by a gate. At a gate, we stand on a threshold, about to step from one place to another. January is like this. It’s the time of taking an overview of the year, of starting a new calendar, a new diary, a new journal. It’s a time of reflections and resolutions, looking back at the year just finished and forward to the one beginning.

February has Valentine’s Day right in the middle, but why restrict this loving theme to only one day? How about making February the month of acts of loving kindness?

March is named after Mars, the God of War, or, perhaps more positively, of strength and power. This would be a good month to pay attention to your personal autonomy and your strengths. Maybe a good time to explore the “Signature Strengths” of the Positive Psychologists.

April is the month of the tree blossoms. In Japan, it’s the month of the annual appearance of the Cherry Blossom. This month is a month to celebrate transience. As we celebrate the beauty and uniqueness of transient blossoms, we become aware of the transience of everything in life, not something to fear, but something which enhances our appreciation of every moment. It’s a time to celebrate and enjoy what we have for just a short time.

May is the month of the flowering buds. It’s a time when Nature reveals some of her potential. Make this the month you do that too. Make May the time to wonder about what may come to pass, to imagine how things in your life can flourish.

June is the month of midsummer. The month with the longest day. This can be the month to celebrate the light.

July is the beginning of the second half of the year and for many, is the beginning of the holiday season. This is a month to consider rest. A time to take a break, to pause, relax, and take it easy for a while.

August is “Le Grand Depart” in France, the month when everyone sets off to have a holiday somewhere. To get there, they have to travel. It’s good to enjoy your home, but it’s also good to broaden your outlook by travelling and discovering other places.

September tends to be the start of the academic year. Schools, colleges, universities begin their year here. But you don’t need to be a student to learn. We can all learn throughout our whole lives. What would you like to learn this year? Are there any courses you’d like to take? This is the month to plan and begin new skills and new knowledge.

October is a month of berries. It’s a time of fruition. Maybe this is a good month to celebrate that aspect of life? A time to enjoy what’s come to fruition. A time of congratulation.

November can be a time to reflect as the year draws towards its end. This reflection can be on any, or all, aspects of your life. How is your year going? How are you?

December is the month for gratitude and giving. What are you grateful for, and how could you give to others?

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“And not Or” is one of my favourite principles. It’s the basis of integration, synthesis and creative evolution. “And not Or” deals with paradoxes and opposites, not by eliminating one of them, but by relating the one to the other.

I took the photo above in the Santa Clara convent in Tordesillas. The building is one of those many examples you can find in Spain where a sacred space created by one religious group is taken over by another one, but instead of destroying the previous architectural and artistic features, the new group adds their own.

What you see today is the result of centuries of art and belief, creating something quite unique, something which has a narrative quality. You can read the story of the place and the cultures into the what we can see now.

There are obvious Islamic art motifs and designs in this panel (although, as a Scot, I’m always reminded of Celtic designs when I see these looping, intertwining designs in Islamic art). I’ve seen that kind of art a lot. But in this particular panel there are three creatures in the central strip. That’s very, very unusual for Islamic art, and the guide book tells me they are “medieval” or “gothic”. They are a really odd group of creatures, each one a “chimera”, an imaginary creature which has body of parts of completely different creatures. In the middle is a mermaid, on the right a centaur, and on the left, well, I don’t know what you call this sort of chimera, but it’s a human-lion hybrid. Chimera are particularly strange examples of “And not OR”!

Throughout the Santa Clara convent there are very strong elements of Islamic, Catholic and Gothic imagery and design. It can be jarring in place, and it can be quite sublime in others. I’m not sure what makes the difference. The main chapel has an astonishing gold ceiling of elaborate “mocarabes” design, with an enormous altarpiece of Mary, several saints and other biblical figures facing you as you enter. There are ceiling to floor drapes of deep red cloth covering the rest of the walls. I must say, on seeing the red cloth hangings I was instantly reminded of the scene towards the end of David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” where Agent Cooper has a very disturbing dream!

The synthesis, or evolution of the building through different cultures and religions also reminded me of the Santa Maria La Blanca church in Toledo. Here’s a photo of took there a few years ago…

This synagogue was built with muslim architects and was later turned into a church. Now, that must be pretty unusual. It’s a remarkable space, produced, surely, according to the same principle of “And not Or”.

The main reason I’m attracted to “And not Or” is that it is creative. It builds, develops and evolves through the relationships between the past, the present and the future.

“Or” divides. It sets apart and, all too frequently, opposes. It seems to me we have way too much of that in the world nowadays – “us or them”, “immigrants or nationals”, “Leavers or Remainers” (Brexit), “Pro-Trump or Anti-Trump” – fill in your own pairs of divided groups here!

I don’t think these divisions are healthy. We all share this one small planet, all emerge from the same astonishing Universe Story. Cooperation is at the heart of evolution. Yes, competition exists too, but it’s rather over-emphasised in human history. Without the cooperation of atoms, molecules, cells, organs, systems, organisms and environments, none of us would exist.

So maybe it’s time to tip the scales a bit, and give more energy to cooperation than competition.

“And not Or”

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We humans are pretty good at making maps. We do it all the time. Dr Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, describes the three commonest maps we make in the frontal cortex of the brain – a “me” map, a “you” map, and a “we” map. You might wonder about the use of the term “map” there, arguing that we create “images” rather than maps, but let’s not get bogged down on that one. I like both terms (one of my favourite principles in life is “and not or” – 🙂 )

The thing about a map is that it shows contexts and connections. It shows us where we are, where we might want to go, and helps us to imagine how to get there.

I was in Tordesillas, in Northern Spain, recently and visited the “Treaty House” which displays a number of ancient maps. Here’s one set which particularly grabbed my attention.

It’s a set of panels describing the known world at the time – the world of the “Occident” followed by a set describing the unknown world – the world of the “Orient”. Take a look –

In this first section you can clearly make out Britain (although Scotland hasn’t really become known yet!) and you can see the areas we now call Portugal, Spain, France, Scandinavia and so on.

The next one extends the first one to show Italy, Greece, Turkey, “The Middle East” and also more of the North African coastal countries.

For a medieval map it’s surprisingly accurate. It might even have helped people to find their way from one place to another.

But then check out these two panels of the “unknown”, “Orient” –

At first there are elements we recognise – The Nile, The Caspian Sea, but the further East we go, the more the map becomes an expression of a creative imagination.

Isn’t that fascinating?

I’ve never thought of mapping out what I don’t know before. After all, where would I stop? The older I get, the more I realise how much I don’t know – how much WE (we humans) don’t know. But it might be a fun idea, don’t you think? To sketch out some maps of the unknown…..

The personal maps of “me”, “you” and “we” are constantly being updated, constantly evolving, and we create them from both what we know, and what we don’t know…..from our memories, our present day experiences, and our imaginations.

Map making turns out to be a dynamic and fundamental ability. I wonder how aware we are, on a day to day basis, of the maps we have made, the maps we are making, and the influence they have on our lives.

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Don’t you find that an encounter with art often provokes? Well, I do. On a recent trip to the Ile d’Oleron I wandered amongst the gorgeous, brightly coloured old fishing huts which have been transformed into artists’ workshops. They look a bit like this….

Beautiful, huh?

Let’s get back to the point of this post – the photo I used at the beginning. Here it is again, in case you don’t want to scroll back….

What I love about this image is that it depicts an encounter. A meeting of two creatures. Not two people, but a girl and a sea creature of some kind (not entirely sure what kind of sea creature!). Clearly, they are swimming towards each other. They have formed a relationship. A particular kind of relationship. A loving relationship. They are about to kiss. It feels like that. It looks like that.

So, that provoked two trains of thought for me.

First, about loving encounters, which create the most important kind of relationship in the universe – a loving relationship.

Why do I say that’s the most important kind of relationship? Because a loving relationship creates, and is created by, the formation of mutually beneficial bonds. These are a special kind of bond. They are “integrative”. They bring together people, organisms, energies, particles, every kind of phenomenon you can imagine, and, if they really do work in a mutually beneficial way, they create. They are the basis of growth, development and evolution. They produce novelty, unpredictably. They are the source of emergence, that phenomenon in the universe where what’s created could not be explained or predicted by examining only the parts of the previous state.

I do believe these are the most important kind of bonds we can create. At any level.

Second, about kisses. This image immediately reminded me of a passage in one of the physicist, Carlo Rovelli’s books.

The world is not a collection of things, it is a collection of events. The difference between things and events is that things persist in time, events have a limited duration. A stone is a prototypical ‘thing’: we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not stones.

Isn’t that beautiful, too?

I love to think of the world this way. Not as a collection of events but as a network of events – “of kisses, not stones“.

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Sometimes I notice that something I’m looking at strongly reminds me of something else. In fact, isn’t that the fundamental way in which we engage with the world?

Whatever we are looking at, hearing, sensing….wherever we are….our experience is unique. Even a person standing right next to us in that same moment will have a different experience.

One way to consider this idea is to think of two people walking along the bank of a river. For the first person, throughout their whole life they have found something soothing and calming about the flow of a river. They look at this river, walk beside it, and feel calm. It delights them. For the other person, rivers are associated with danger. Maybe somebody they knew fell in a river and drowned one day. Maybe they, themselves, fell in and almost drowned one day. Every time they approach a river, any river, they feel anxious, insecure and unsafe. They are alert to the possible dangers.

These two people are sharing a moment in time and space, but neither of them is having the same experience as the other.

I often wonder about the connections we make in our minds….the memories which come to the fore, the emotions and thoughts which arise, in any particular moment. And how those memories, those thoughts, those emotions and, yes, beliefs, fashion each and every new experience.

When I looked at this scene above through the viewfinder of my camera it looked pretty much like you see it here in this photo. Instantly I thought of Magritte’s “Day and Night”.

And in that moment I wasn’t seeing just some clouds in front of a blue sky over some rooftops. I was seeing a work of art. It reminded me of an early scene in the movie, Basquiat, where the artist looks up at the sky and see surfers.

It set me off thinking about the power of art to change the way we see, not only the moment we are looking at a particular painting, but the way we see the world ever after.

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I recently visited the Chateau de Clos Lucé in Amboise, in the Loire valley. This is where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last years of his life. He was invited to live there by François I in 1516. The king provided Leonardo with a place to live, 700 gold ecus a year, and financed his works, in turn for the pleasure of his company and daily discussions with him. Leonardo only lived three more years, dying in 1519, which is why, on this 500th anniversary year of his death, the chateau is hosting a major exhibition of his work. (As an aside I find it fascinating and inspiring that Leonardo was given free range “to dream and work” – what kind of society could we have if we funded creatives and academics to “dream and work” together, without goals, funding applications or publication demands?)

There are a number of Leonardo quotations around the chateau and the gardens. This one caught my eye –

You know that medicines when well used restore health to the sick: they will be well used when the doctor together with his understanding of their nature shall understand also what man is, what life is, and what constitution and health are. Know these well and you will know their opposites; and when this is the case you will know well how to devise a remedy.

After a lifetime career in Medicine, I’m less sure now that medicines do “restore health to the sick”. I think it’s biology which restores health. Human beings are complex adaptive systems, and all such organisms have both “self-healing” and “self-making” capacities. The best medicines stimulate those natural processes of healing. The next best support the processes. Many of the ones we use reduce symptoms, or reverse an imbalance in the body, both of which are reasonable goals and acts, but are they directly involved in restoring health to the sick? Do you think that’s just semantics? I don’t. I’d have a hope for the future that we’d develop the treatments which really do support and stimulate the natural processes of healing, and that’s what Leonardo says, in other language, at the end of that quotation – “when this is the case you will know well how to devise a remedy”.

When what’s the case?

Oh, yes, understand “what man is, what life is, and what constitution and health are”.

Ah! Well, there lies both the problem and the signposts to the solutions…..

A couple of years into my work as a General Practitioner I started to wonder what health is. Nobody taught us what health is at university, and the clinical training of a young doctor focuses on learning diagnostic and therapeutic techniques – identifying pathologies and treating disease states. I went back and looked at my Clinical Medicine textbooks. I searched the index for “health” – no entries. Nope, not one. That set me off on an exploration, looking for an understanding of what health is. The medical school textbooks were no help. Oh yes, there was that old World Health Organisation definition –

“a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

But all that really does is substitute the word “well-being” for “health”. It does suggest health is multidimensional – physical, mental and social – and it does suggest health is something positive, not just the absence of disease or infirmity. But does it really take us much further that irritating “Brexit means Brexit”?

While researching the issue of the absence of health in medical textbooks, I discovered there was a kind of parallel anomaly….biology textbooks didn’t have a definition of life. Really? Well, yes, it wasn’t uncommon to find a biology textbook without the word life appearing in the index.

So what is life?

One of the more satisfying descriptions I read was from Maturana and Varela’s, living organisms demonstrate a “self-making” capacity, which they termed “autopoiesis” and that lead me down the path of the complexity scientists and their definition of “complex adaptive systems”. I still find that a good starting place.

That leaves us with two more areas to explore, according to Leonardo. What is man? and What is a constitution? Remember he was writing 500 years ago, and we would probably now say “What is a human?”, rather than “what is man?”. Let’s leave constitution aside for just now, as it’s pretty embedded in the issues of what is a human and what is health?

What is a human being?

There have been a couple of books published recently which put this question centre stage again. Douglas Rushkoff’s “Team Human“, and Paul Mason’s “Clear Bright Future“. Both of these books are concerned about the impact of technology on human beings and on our societies. Rushkoff says –

being human is a team sport. We cannot be fully human, alone. Anything that brings us together fosters our humanity. Likewise, anything that separates us makes us less human, and less able to exercise our will.

In other words, he focuses on the innate sociability and need to act co-operatively in human beings. I’ve heard Paul Mason say at least two interesting definitions of what is a human – human beings “use energy to counter entropy” – in other words we are a creative species. And human beings are “co-operative, imaginative and linguistic” – the combination of which makes us a unique species.

All of these ideas are interesting to me. And I find it refreshing that these questions are coming to the fore now. Surely this is a timely and positive response to the mechanical, data and statistics driven reductionism which is so utterly de-humanising.

I continue to explore what it means to be human, and I find some of the more impressive answers in the works of philosophers, from the classical schools to Spinoza, Bergson and Deleuze (to name just a few!)

Of course, I could write about this for hours! Ha! Ha! But I’ll stop here and leave the possibility that these are questions you might like to pursue for yourself.

Let me summarise – because I think this is a lifetime project as well as potentially the basis for a whole curriculum –

  • What is Life?
  • What is a human being?
  • What is health?

The answers which appear from those studies could, possibly, give us the remedies of the future – the ones which actually do “restore health to the sick” – and, yes, more than that, allow us to create healthier societies filled with people who fulfil their potentials, creatively, co-operatively, and artistically…..can I even say “spiritually?”

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I think it’s pretty well established that being out in Nature is good for us – good for our physical and our mental health – but also good for well-being and just feeling that life is worth living.

I know that since I moved from a second floor flat in Central Scotland to a house with a garden in the Charente that I’ve been out in nature much more, that I feel closer to nature, more a part of nature even – that I feel more in tune with the birds, the seasons, the plants, the rhythms of Life and this World.

I think it’s also pretty well established that one of the aspects of being human which distinguishes us from other creatures is Art. The philosopher, Giles Deleuze said there are three ways of thinking – philosophy, which is thinking about concepts; science, which is thinking about function; and art, which is thinking about percepts and affects. I’ve always found that model useful. I enjoy all three ways! In terms of visual art I do enjoy galleries, but there’s something especially impressive I find when I come across art in Nature.

Here are some examples from a recent trip I made up to the Loire Valley –

What about you?

Have you any favourite examples of art in natural settings to share?

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