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There are certain numbers which are described as magic numbers in particular cultures. Whether they are magic or not, there are clearly some numbers which are powerfully significant and which appear widely a huge variety of forms.

I could probably make the case for most single numbers to be thought of as significant numbers. But the one I want to highlight today is “3” because I just stumbled across this little group of photos I took during a trip to Japan some years back.

This symbol, of three “comas”, or “tomoe”, is one I kept coming across everywhere. The first photo shows it at the end of a roof, and this is really, really common in traditional Japanese architecture. The second one shows it on the lid of a pump at a fountain. I really like that something everyday, something otherwise quite functional or mundane, is made more beautiful this way. The third one is at the other end of the scale – it’s gold and magnificent. But perhaps the one I like the best is the biggest image in this collection. It’s embedded into one of those wonderful, standing rocks you find at temples and shrines. The white background looks like a light source, but it isn’t. I love the “wabi sabi” appearance of the rusty, reddish metal which forms the shapes of the three commas, and I especially like how the sun casts the shadow of the same symbol onto the white background.

Maybe I find this symbol of three commas especially attractive because it reminds me of the dual, yin yang, symbol, a version of which I wear around my neck. But more because the Celtic form, known as a “triskele” is a symbol which was around me as I grew up and lived in Scotland.

But to come back to the number 3……why do I, and I suspect, so many others, find that such an attractive, even magical number?

Well, for me, I relate it to “body, mind and spirit”, which is one of the key ways to think about an holistic approach to human wellbeing and health. Throughout my entire career, both as a GP in the first couple of decades, and as a Specialist in Integrative Medicine, in the second couple up to retirement, taking a holistic approach was the keystone of my everyday work.

As a medical student back in the 1970s I was hugely impressed with a “Biopsychosocial” understanding of Medicine. There’s another “3” – the biology, the psyche, and the social – all of which, my teachers impressed into me, were important in health care. In fact, it’s been the dominance of the “materialist” approach which has been my main source of discomfort in our form of health care which reduces human beings to data sets and Medicine to pharmacology. That never impressed me, and it still doesn’t.

It’s always struck me that whether I come from a “body, mind, spirit” position, or a “biology, psyche, social” one, that only one of the elements of those triples, is visible. Only the body, or the “biology”, can be observed, palpated, measured. The other two, the mind/spirit or psyche/social, are invisible, and, frankly, I’d say irreducible to measurements. Materialism can’t capture them. Maybe that’s why I’ve always given such emphasis to the individual story, to emotions, thoughts, values and beliefs.

As I understand it, it’s not completely clear exactly what the triple commas represent in Japan, but it’s sometimes related to something like three kingdoms – of Earth, of Heaven, and the Mundane World, or to the Gods who rule each of those kingdoms. In Western thought, perhaps the triad would be Heaven, Earth and the Underworld.

It does strike me as interesting that Freud came up with Ego, Id, and Superego, as his tripartite model of the human psyche. And Lacan, I believe, wrote about the Imaginary, the Real, and the Symbolic in his model of the psyche. I’m also struck by the more modern psychoneurological triad based on the structure of the central nervous system – the “triune” model of the “reptilian”, “limbic” and “neocortex” structure, something which I used a lot with patients after I learned Dan Siegel’s “hand model of the brain“. By the way, he also describes the “map making” capacity of the frontal cortex as an ability to create maps of “me”, “you” and “we” (another interesting triad)

Hey, I could go on, but I’m sure you could add your own favourite triads and triples to this understanding.

Powerful as the number 3 is, I often think in terms of other numbers. I’m quite a visual thinker and as I explore ideas I’ll often find I’ve created little maps of 4 zones, or 5, 6, or 8 pointed stars. How about you? Are you aware of these numbers and their symbols in your thinking and your culture?

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I took this photo in Ueno Gardens in Tokyo. It’s the centrepiece of a peace memorial and I think it’s utterly beautiful. I love the design of the dove whose curves suggest the flowing shapes of the yin yang symbol and the little flame flickering in its heart, or soul, is very moving. Isn’t it wonderful?

When I look at it, it stirs feelings of peace in me, but there’s more than that, which I think comes down to the nature of the little flame. It looks vulnerable. It’s not a raging fire. It’s a flickering light. It looks as if it could be blown out by not too strong a gust of wind. That moves me too.

That small, flickering flame, contains two polar opposites for me…….the energy which is at the heart of all Life, in other words the power of Life, and, on the other hand, the vulnerability and transient nature of every individual life.

When my daughter was small and had an illness which seemed to flatten her I told her to imagine a small candle flame inside her which would grow in brightness and strength as she paid it attention. That helped her to recover and it’s a practice we’ve used at other times as we’ve needed it.

There used to be a belief in an entity called “the Vital Force” which was an invisible spirit-like force which kept us healthy and restored us when we were ill. “Vitalism” fell out of favour a long time ago, even if it is kept alive in certain healing traditions. As far as I know there is no such entity, but the concept remains a good one. As I understand it now, human beings are “complex adaptive systems” which have the capacity to be “autopoietic” – what all that means is that biologically our systems and responses enable us to protect ourselves on a daily basis…..our immune systems are a part of this natural defence. And we have systems which enable us to repair any damage which occurs….our inflammatory systems are part of that. We also have the abilities to learn, change and adapt. Putting all that together, we have something which isn’t a “thing”, something which we can’t see, can’t measure and can’t pin down which is like an inner flame – it’s the flow of Life energy which pulses through our whole being from conception to death.

In short, we have the capacity to self-heal, and all “treatments”, in every stream of healing tradition, work, only if they support and/or stimulate that capacity. There is no artificial healing. There is only the ability of the living organism to heal itself. We can learn to nurture that, to support that and to stimulate that. That, for me, is what Medicine should be about.

Some philosophers have described human beings as “symbolic beings” – because we are only the creatures which seem to create and handle symbols. Symbols are a powerful tool for us. They help us to connect with each other, to communicate and to learn. They can help us to thrive. In fact, I believe, they can help us to survive.

So this work of art, in Ueno Gardens, works for me as a powerful combination of symbols – ones which activate the forces of both Peace and Life.

I hope this works for you too.

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Have you ever thought “What the world could do with is a bit more love in it?”

When I saw this graffiti a few years ago it reminded me of the late, great John Peel, whose radio show I used to listen to regularly in my teens. I remember him one year saying he enjoyed picking up autumn leaves, writing “Hello” on them, and dropping them back down on the ground, because he could imagine the joy and surprise it would bring people who came across them.

Well, how about, today, you say “I love you”?

Say it to someone you love. Or say it to your cat, your dog, or any other animal you love. Or say it to your favourite tree, or a beautiful flower which is blooming in your garden.

Or say I love you to the Earth or to the Universe.

You choose.

Whoever, or whatever, you choose to say “I love you” to, really mean it. Don’t just throw the words away. Feel the love in your heart, and visualise radiating that love outwards. Unconditionally.

Write it down if you want. This graffiti artist certainly wrote it big, but you can write it any size…..in an email, a message, on a leaf, a piece of paper…..you decide.

If we all do this today, there will be more love in the world. Not one day, not just sometime, but today.

And you know what? Nobody can stop you. Nobody can prevent it. It’s up to you to become aware of the love in your heart, and to choose to radiate that love outwards.

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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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