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Archive for the ‘art’ Category

I walked into the courtyard of a temple in Kyoto one day and saw this display of flowers. Well, actually, this first photo is what I saw once I got closer to the display which had caught my attention.

When you look at these flowers, all you see is some flowers. It’s not possible to see the pattern which is revealed only from a distance.

This is what you see when you stand back…

Isn’t this amazing?

Actually, whether you encounter the full image first, then get closer in order to realise that it is constructed from hundreds of flowers, or whether you start close up seeing only the flowers, and gradually stand back to see the full image, the two positions are a huge contrast, aren’t they?

These are the two perspectives we bring to everything. We use the left cerebral hemisphere to zoom in on individual elements. To do that it focuses on parts and identifies them, matching them up to whatever we have previously encountered and categorising them. In this case, it identifies the objects as flowers and labels them according to their colour. But at the same time, we use the right cerebral hemisphere to take in the whole picture, to see whatever we are looking at within its contexts. To do that it focuses on the connections and relationships, and, at the same time brings a heightened awareness for novelty – it homes in on whatever is new, whatever is unique, whatever is special.

You’ll know already from my writing that I believe the principle of “and not or” is a good one in life, and that’s in no small part due to the fact that this is exactly how we have evolved. We don’t have only one way of looking at things. We have multiple ways, and we throw them into the complex mix of reality so that we can do more than perceive the world in which we live, we explore, play, learn and create. We adapt, we grow and we evolve.

I’m very wary of black and white, rigid, fixed, narrow views of reality. The world is richer than any of us can conceive. The universe has more potential than any of us can imagine. And there is much to gain from diversity and tolerance.

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What are some of the core characteristics of being human?

Well, this photo reminds me of two of them.

Observe and create.

We are great at observing. When we slow down, take our time, and really pay attention, then we notice details, see connections, discern patterns, understand underlying themes and aspects of reality. I think this is one of our key powers. Yet, too often, we are too busy, or too distracted and life passes us by.

This is maybe one of the best ways I know to improve the quality of every day life – observe – just notice – just pay attention – just become aware. When we interact with whatever we pay attention to, we develop a deeper understanding – a deeper understanding of what we are observing, of reality, and of ourselves.

We have tremendous powers of observation, which entwine perception with analysis, re-cognition and imagination. Observation can spark insights, connect us to meaning, purpose and sense, and so enrich the every day.

We just have to slow down, set our intention, and raise our awareness. And like all strengths and abilities the more we practice those the easier they come to us.

This man is sitting on his traveling chair with paper on his knees, and he is drawing, or painting (I can’t quite remember which). In other words, he is doing more than observing. He’s creating. We are creators. We create all the time. We bring memories and imaginings together to express ourselves, to solve problems, to invent, to make art. We humans have painted on cave walls, constructed great stone circles, and buildings, developed tools and shared our knowledge and skills with each other right from the beginning of our lives on Earth.

I know sometimes we think of creativity as being the reserve of great artists, musicians, poets and so on, but it’s more than that. It’s something we all posses and something we all use every day….whether that’s in cooking, caring, dressing ourselves, nurturing and nourishing, communicating and connecting, or in our ways of thinking. We engage with the world creatively. We make each day, each experience, each moment our own. That takes creativity.

So, here’s a good place to start if you want to increase the quality of your every day life – observe and create.

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The phrase “The Floating World” is a beautiful one. I thought it was quite magical the very first time I came across it. I think where I first read it was in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, “An Artist of the Floating World”, a book which I still think has the ability to put me into an entirely different state of mind.

The original Japanese term for “The Floating World” is Ukiyo.

Ukiyo means “floating/fleeting/transient world”.

In the past it referred to a “pleasure seeking” urban culture but in modern usage

“the term ukiyo is used to refer to a state of mind emphasising living in the moment, detached from the difficulties of life.”

I really like the phrase and, in particular, I like the modern usage of the term. Living in the moment, detached from the difficulties of life, sounds pretty appealing to me. But there’s a strange paradox there, isn’t there? From one perspective I think the advice to be present, to be really aware of the time, place and circumstances which we call “here and now” is the only way to really engage with reality. After all, if our minds are busy wandering off down memory lane, or busy creating fantasies and fears about the future, then life, itself, is passing us by.

But on the other hand, what’s this “detached from the difficulties of life”? Is that a good piece of advice? Is that not escapism? Well, I suppose it could be escapism. T S Eliot said humans beings couldn’t bear too much reality after all. The entertainment industry and the psychoactive drug industry are both heavily focused on detaching people “from the difficulties of life”. Didn’t the Romans say the way to rule a people was through “bread and circuses”? In other words, make sure they aren’t hungry and keep them distracted with entertainment. Well, seems to me that’s still the most used strategy by those who wish to wield power over others in this world – whether they be politicians, businessmen or members of the 0.01%.

But isn’t there also a long, well established teaching about the power of non-attachment to reduce suffering in the world? Actually, I don’t think “non-attachment” and being “detached” are the same thing, but I won’t go into that in any more detail here.

My dilemma is how to be fully present, fully engaged with my life, moment by moment, yet not drown under the weight of difficulties, my own, those of others, or those of society.

Well, here’s where the floating world idea comes back strong. Look again at the ways of translating “ukiyo” – floating, fleeting, transient. Let me pick up that last word first. I have no doubt at all that an awareness of transience heightens my senses of delight and wonder. I relish the seasons of the new fruits and vegetables. I’m glad that those seasons don’t last all year round. I love to see the migrating birds arrive in my garden, and knowing that they will only be here for a few weeks before the fly south again, somehow, intensifies my delight in seeing them. I’m already looking forward to the hummingbird moths and the different coloured butterflies which will be attracted to the buddleia bushes in the garden once they flower. Knowing that we don’t live forever makes it all the more important to engage with life every single day…….not to run away from it, or pretend it doesn’t exist, but to fully engage with it.

Ultimately, this idea of a floating world is a counsel to “flow” through life, and that, I would say, is one of my highest aspirations. I want to experience the flow of Life through the cells and fibres of my being. I want to experience the flow of Nature, of existence, of the Universe, through the creation of every single unique moment and experience of my life.

I like it. This notion of a “floating world”.

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I graduated in Medicine from The University of Edinburgh back in 1978. During my medical education and training I was taught about the heart. I remember we were taught about the heart muscle, the system of electrical conduction which produced the rhythm of beats, about the heart valves and how to diagnose different valve problems according to the sounds we could hear when we listened through our stethoscopes. I learned how to administer and read an “ECG” – that series of spikes and waves you see on heart monitors and printed out on long strips of paper.

I didn’t learn that there was a neural network around the heart, nor what that might do. Back then if we thought about it all, the heart was a sophisticated pump for keeping the blood flowing around the body, and phrases like “heart felt”, “broken heart”, “having a heart to heart conversation”, and so on, were considered flowery or poetic metaphors.

I know better now.

We now know that there are sophisticated networks of nerve cells around all the hollow organs of the body, but especially around the heart and the gut. We also know that there is a LOT of communication between the heart and the brain, and that, contrary to what we used to believe about those connections, most of the flow of information is from the heart TO the brain, not the other way around.

We’ve also learned that the beating of the heart creates electromagnetic waves which radiate out around the whole body, and can even be detected outside the body. Those rhythmic waves seem to have a role to play in co-ordinating, or “integrating”, a wide range of functions of the whole body, and even connect with, influence and can be influenced by the waves radiating from other peoples’ hearts.

It turns out that those metaphors we use have a biological, neurological, physical basis in the person. We have a certain kind of “heart intelligence” which allows us to “know” and to “communicate” from one heart to another.

Isn’t that amazing?

Since I came to understand all that I’ve realised just how important it is for we humans to have a “heart focus” – to try to connect to others and communicate with others “from the heart”, not just from the rational brain.

We all love to find heart shapes in Nature, don’t we? Like this little flower in today’s image. Or in the bark of a tree, the shape of a stone, or in a work of art. Why is that, do you think?

I think it speaks to the core importance of everything we think of when we use these heart metaphors in our language, in our poetry and in our songs.

After all, who thinks it’s a good idea for someone to act in a “heartless” way?

Not me!

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My daughter, Amy Palko, who produces a knitting blog on youtube, entitled “The Meaningful Stitch” did a poetry advent in the month of December with one of her online friends from the knitting community, Jackie, of Cady Jax Knits. You can find their videos here

One of the things they discussed was creating a personal anthology of your favourite poems. I thought that was a great idea and got out this handmade notebook which my wife, Hilary, had created and given to me, and started writing some of my favourite poems in it.

I think it’s important to actually write the poems in, not to print them out from the internet and paste them in, though, if that would work better for you, then go ahead. I find that taking the time to hand write each poem enhances my experience of the poem itself.

I keep this notebook on my desk beside my computer and from time to time I read a poem or two, or I copy in another poem that I really love.

I really recommend this. It’s one of those practices which takes something meaningful and enjoyable – in this case poetry reading – and increases the time and attention you give to the poems you select. In the process you create a unique collection of exactly the “best” poems for you.

If you’ve read a few of my posts on this blog, I’m sure you’ll be aware of how Iain McGilchrist’s thesis on the differences between the left and right cerebral hemispheres. Well, if he’s right, which I think he is, then there is an imbalance for each of us, and for our wider societies, between the approaches, the world views, or the ways of engaging with reality, which each hemisphere offers us. We have become left brain dominant, and it would be much better to use our whole brain more, and re-set the balance, to put the right brain back in its rightful role as “The Master” and use the left brain “Emissary” to do what it does best. Since I came to understand that thesis, I’ve been more aware of trying to support and develop what the right hemisphere can bring to my life.

Well, there are many ways to do that, but I’ll just share three with you here.

The right brain loves novelty and finding connections, so as I practise curiosity and the sense of “émerveillement du quotidien” I’m building up the right hemisphere.

The second thing is music. The right brain relishes music – both creating music and listening to music. I play music a lot. Mostly I listen to music, but I also try to play a bit of piano and guitar from time to time. Music is very personal and what I like, you might not like, but I’ve recently discovered Paradise Radio, a commercial free, internet radio station from the US, and I love, love, love it. You can select between “main mix”, “mellow mix”, “rock mix” or “world mix”. Check it out.

The third thing I’ve identified is poetry. We activate our right hemispheres a lot when we read and write poetry. More so than we do when reading stories, or articles.

So, there are my three daily practices, which I hope lead to development of a more whole brain way of living……curiosity, music and poetry.

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I love a blue sky. It lifts my spirits and warms my heart.

A plain dull grey sky has the opposite effect.

But wait, the sky isn’t featureless. Even a horizon to horizon cover of grey cloud is never completely homogenous. There are always variations there. There are thickenings, patches where the sun almost breaks through, or lighter patches which are backlit by the sun. There are swirls and lines and sheets and all kinds of forms. You just need to slow down, pay attention and notice.

I think the richness of features in the sky are partly down to the water molecules which make up the clouds, partly down to the light from the sun, partly down to the temperature changes and air currents, but it has another layer of richness added by the human imagination. We are the pattern seekers, and pattern creators par excellence.

Look at this sky for example.

There’s the silhouette of the edge of a tree on the far right of the image. Let your gaze drift across leftwards from there. What do you see?

I see the shape of an eye. The way I’d start to draw an eye by marking two lines in the shape of connected ellipses. There’s no sign of an eyeball, so this is either a closed eye, with the darker edge of the lower lid representing eyelashes, or it is the eye-shaped hole we often see in masks.

Once I’ve seen this I can’t un-see it.

Isn’t that strange?

It takes the imagination to “see” an eye in the sky, but once it’s there it has an impact. I feel watched. I feel seen. I can understand how ancient peoples believed that multiple gods and spirits lived with them. And even if those gods and spirits don’t seem real any more. There was a time when we humans had an awareness of a shared cosmos. They experienced wholeness and connections in their everyday. They didn’t have to question or analyse it, reality just seemed to be that way. Everywhere they looked they saw patterns, told stories, made sense of the phenomena of the ordinary day. Everywhere they turned they brought their imagination to bear and saw connections, discerned meanings, and drew upon what they learned to create art, to find their way across the planet, and to learn how to adapt to the changes and the seasons.

I don’t think there is any way to go back to those times, and I also believe that we have learned a lot since then, that we have deepened our understandings, broadened our knowledge. But I have a nagging feeling that we live in more superficial times now. That life seems somewhat thinner without that rich imaginative layer of stories, shapes, forms and patterns.

But, hey, none of that has gone away. We are able to slow down, to pay attention and to activate our imaginations any time we want. We can see more than a passing glance will reveal. We can make connections of greater depth and significance. We can new stories of the wholeness of Gaia, of the interconnectedness of all beings, of the constantly changing evolution and development of forms and diversity.

We can enrich our lives with art, poetry, stories, music, dance, ritual and loving relationships.

Well, why not?

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I came across these two works of art at very different times, and in very different places. One is on the gable end of a city centre building in the middle of Malmo, Sweden, and the other is in a church in the little town of Saint Savin, in France. Both are by contemporary street artists. I really like both of them.

One of the things that strikes me about these two image is the position of the woman’s hands. In the Swedish one her left hand loosely holds a rosary or some other religious object, whilst her right hand is upturned and a lit candle rests on her palm. In the French one both hands are held upturned and in their palms there is a puff of smoke, or a breath, perhaps a suggestion of a spirit. Both of these images are spiritual. The Swedish one has imagery from more than one religion, whilst the French one, which is in a church, is more Christian.

I’ve often looked at these images since I captured them and maybe they will bring you some peace, some joy, or some sense of connection to what’s greater than any of us if you spend some time with them, too.
I love this upturned hand gesture. Try this for yourself. Clench your right hand into a fist. Squeeze tight, and ask yourself what you are feeling. Now open your hand and turn it, palm upwards, and ask yourself what you are feeling.

It’s different, isn’t it?
The clenched fist feels tight and tense. There a sense of trying too hard to grasp something, of preparing to strike out and fight. The open handed gesture feels exactly that…..open. It feels light, comfortable and expansive.

The one feels ready to hold on, and the other feels ready to let go. The first puts us in the place of seizing or fighting, whilst the other opens our hearts and our minds to be ready to receive. I guess we need all of these functions in our life, but I have a strong feeling that the closed fist tends to go with closed hearts and closed minds. And I think what we all need now is to open our minds to new ways of living together, open our minds to new ways of organising our societies. I think we need to open our hearts to others, to feel the flows of love and care which course through this world……do they? Yes they do! We’ve seen plenty of examples during this pandemic.

Oh, yes, of course, there is still plenty grabbing and seizing going on, but what has struck me so much more this last year or so is the awareness that many of us now have of being interconnected. Hasn’t this tiny, invisible, little virus show us that? That we live on One Earth. That we are so deeply interconnected and interdependent that our barriers and boundaries count for little. If the open handed gesture goes with open minds and open hearts, which I believe it does, then this is what we need more.

We are opening our hearts to others, we are opening our minds to new ways of living, we are opening our hands to receive an awareness of the Spirit. In both these works of art, what the woman holds on her upturned hand is a symbol of Spirit, of Soul, of what is invisible, and what is greater than any of us.

Oh and one more thing…..it’s no coincidence that these are both images of women, perhaps even of the Divine Feminine. And isn’t that exactly what we are needing now? A shift away from the Masculine Dominant societies and cultures back towards what we humans once knew…..the importance of the Divine Feminine.

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Sometimes I think I don’t say it clearly enough, so I’m focusing on it today.

Here’s my core belief – I believe love is the strongest force in the universe. I believe that love, in all its manifestations, underpins the creation of Life, the existence of human beings, and the constant movement towards ever greater complexity through the creation of an infinite network of connections.

I believe that it is love manifests as attraction. From the blending together of energies and universal forces, to the binding together of subatomic elements to create atoms, the building up of atoms into molecules, and molecules into complex materials which combine to create living cells, to the desire of cells to live together and form mutually beneficial bonds so creating multi-cellular creatures, right up to the way we humans are fundamentally social creatures where none of us could exist in utter isolation.

That deep intense love a parent feels for their new baby from the moment they set eyes on each other. Without that love, no bond would form, and without the bonds of selfless care, that baby would die. With an abundance of love and care that baby can more than survive, they can develop, grow and excel in becoming the unique individual that only they can be.

I believe it is love for other creatures, other forms of life, for this little planet, Earth, in which we all live, which stokes our curiosity, opens our hearts, moves us towards each other and to towards new discoveries. It’s our love of knowledge and understanding which underpins everything from science to philosophy. It’s our love of beauty which underpins so much creativity and art.

I believe it is our love for justice which drives us to demand it.

As I look around the world in these pandemic times, of course I see lots of evidence of cruelty, unfairness and neglect. But I also see an outpouring of love, of people reaching out to each other, of people caring for each other, of people risking their very lives for each other.

I am attracted to those who have loving hearts and minds. I am repelled by those who are driven by hate and cruelty. But here’s the strange thing, from my experience of a lifetime of work as a doctor working with patients one to one I believe that love has the potential to heal even the most hardened, most hurt, most closed off hearts and minds.

So, let me say it clearly once more.

I believe love is the strongest force in the universe.

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This cut crystal really hits the spot for me – firstly, I see it and I think it is really beautiful. The beauty of it delights me. Secondly, I’m amazed by it. The craftsmanship involved in imaging then fashioning a piece like this utterly astonishes me. Thirdly, it fascinates me. I gaze at it and look at the way the light travels through it. I see how each facet acts like a lens through which I can see the other facets, and how all the facets act as lenses on the window and the rest of the room.

I can have that blend of responses to many of the photos I have and I think that’s got a lot to do with my decisions about which to gather together into my “best photos” folder. Beauty, amazement, wonder and fascination. Altogether they bring me joy. And, without falling into the habit of ranking and creating hierarchies, I think joy is one of the most emotions we can have in our daily lives. Joy activates a whole set of physical and psychological changes in us. And, it just feels GOOD.

But this image does one more thing for me, the thing I really look for in my special collection of best of the best images – it inspires, stimulates thought, curiosity, wonder, and a potentially infinite web of threads of thought.

This idea of a multi-faceted interface gets me thinking about how we humans are like this. Whenever a patient told me their story, as we explored different themes, events and experiences, I’d see them shining like this – each aspect, each theme, each way of behaving, of experiencing, of engaging with the world glimmering like one of these facets. There are many selves within each of us. In 1977 the Scottish psychiatrist, Miller Mair, described a model of the “self” coining the term “community of self” – his idea was that none of us can be reduced to one simple set of characteristics, behaviours and qualities. Each of us exhibits a different self in different contexts – for example, there would be differences in how I was with patients, from how I was with my family, with colleagues and with friends. But that each of these selves were not separate, at least, if we were mentally healthy. Instead, they would all be integrated into one – into one community where they all interacted to give us the sensation of a unitary, or single, self. I liked that model. It opened up the possibilities of exploration of different aspects of a person, often contradictory or opposing aspects, while allowing every one them a place where they could be accepted.

This idea also makes me think of Indra’s Web – that beautiful idea of the universe consisting of an infinite be-jewelled web, where everything is connected, and every gleaming jewel reflects all the other jewels. I think that’s a great model for understanding the world in which we live.

It also makes me think of how we use multiple lenses through which to see, and understand, the world. In fact, if we reduce ourselves to seeing everything through just one small lens or window we find that we tumble into division and conflict with others who don’t share that single lens. But when we embrace the multiplicity of lenses through which we can see the world we can find points of connection with others.

That’s my final thought for today – not only are we all like this multifaceted cut crystal, but when one of our facets lights up in connection with one of someone else’s facets, then we don’t just make a connection, we can brighten each others lives.

I hope this lens, this shining small facet, here today, brightens your life today, and that you, too, feel the stirrings of joy, of wonder, of delight and of connection.

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I love spirals. I find them quite captivating. My attention is caught by them and I’m drawn close to contemplate them. I’m not sure what it is that makes them just so beautiful, but, to me, they are amongst the most beautiful shapes in the universe. You can see them around you in many places of course….in plants, especially climbers which use this method of finding places to hook onto, then pulling tight to hoist themselves upwards. But also in ferns, and in plants which throw out creepers and tendrils which stress across the ground. We humans often create spirals in our art. Maybe it’s because I’m Scot, because like most Scots I’ve been steeped in the traditional Celtic and Pictish complex knots, three armed spiral shapes which we call the triskele, and intertwined ribbons which swirl around each other. However, I suspect it’s not just those of us with Celtic backgrounds who like spirals.

One of the things I like best about the spiral is that it seems to me that a person’s life story often has that sort of trajectory. There are issues, problems, difficulties which we meet, attempt to address, or run away from, which just keep spiralling back again and again. In fact, human development too seems to have a spiral path.

I don’t think time flows in a straight line. It loops, and it spins, slows down, pauses, runs forward. The past and the future both have their part to play in my ability to make sense of the present. They don’t exist in three separate, sequential boxes, but rather, they loop, cycle and spiral together to create the intricate patterns of the tapestry of a life.

There’s a special thing about this photo. You have to look a bit more closely to see it. Right in the middle of the main spiral in this photo you can see the world clearly – it’s as if you are looking through a lens.

Isn’t that magical?

It reminds me that if I really do want to see the world clearly, then the lens of the spiral can be a pretty good way to do that. What do you see more clearly about your life, when you consider it through the lens of a spiral?

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