Archive for the ‘books’ Category

The light filtered through the paper caught my eye.

It’s soft and pleasing. It drew me to it. Then when I looked more carefully I saw the matrix of stalks criss-crossing behind the paper, and that changed my perception of it again. Then I noticed the woven circular frame. From first glance, to detailed inspection, I find this utterly beautiful.

I was thinking about it today as I contemplated it again and I remembered a book I read decades ago – The Lens of Perception, by Hal Bennett. I must say I don’t remember the details of the book all these years on, but the central metaphor did stick with me. The author proposed that we don’t see the world directly. We see it through a series of lenses, or filters, each of which is coloured by certain values and beliefs. It was quite an imaginative way of exploring how culture and social conditioning profoundly influences our perception and experience of the world.

Using a different metaphor, in these days of social media we read about “echo chambers” where we only read the messages and information put out by people who closely share our pre-existing beliefs and our prejudices. As the world divides into separate echo chambers people lose the ability to communicate with each other. Differing views are described as, at best, dissent, and, at worst, as betrayal. This is a powerful way of enforcing conformity. Divide and rule. Hardly a new idea is it?

However, it isn’t easy to see what filters or lenses we are using. Well, it seems easier to see which ones other people are using than our own ones anyway. (And what was that old Bible teaching about taking the plank out of your own eye before trying to remove the splinter from someone else’s?)

It’s not impossible though, and I suspect there are at least two very different ways to do it. One is to take the time to reflect on our pre-occupations. Have you ever done the “Morning pages” exercise promoted by Julia Cameron? Quite simply it is writing continuously without stopping until you’ve filled three A4 pages. It’s a stream of consciousness form of writing. You do it every morning for thirty days. Whenever I have done it I don’t read what I’ve written until the end of the thirty days. Each time it’s been a revelation. I find themes, phrases, and issues recurring over and over again. I find preoccupations I either didn’t know I had, or which I, at very least, didn’t know I held so strongly.

There are other ways to explore your values and beliefs but they all involve a conscious effort to describe them.

The other major way is to “phone a friend” as they say in the famous game show.

Robert Burns, my national poet, said –

“O, wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion.”

A wish to be able to see ourselves as others see us.

Well, there’s only one way to do that – other people.

This is where it gets tricky. Because to do this you need a friend or colleague who you trust. You need someone who won’t judge you. There’s no point jumping into somebody else’s echo chamber and challenging everyone there to find out what they think about your views! I suspect you know the answer to that before you even begin.

No, I think you have to start by sharing at a very personal level. But the trouble with that is, those others who you trust are likely to be seeing the world through the same filters and lenses as you do in the first place. I know they say “opposites attract” but I’ve always found that applies more to magnets than it does to people. However, there is no substitute for dialogue when it comes to clarifying what beliefs, values and world views you hold most dear.

Can we promote dialogue? Surely we can.

How do we escape the echo chambers, but criticise and challenge our views safely? I don’t know any way to do that which doesn’t involve non-judgemental engagement. It’s the key that opens the door.

Is there a non-judgement lens or filter?

What would the world look like when viewed it through that one?


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When I noticed this tree in the forest I thought it had a long deep groove running the whole length of its trunk. It was as if it folded in on itself. But then I looked more closely and I saw that a better explanation was that there were two trees growing together. You could trace two distinct trunks all the way up, each spreading its own branches high above the forest floor.

I was even more taken with this when I saw it as two entwined, two organisms, two life forms, living, surviving and growing together. It reminded me of the myths of the soul….that each of us is in search of the other half….each of us longing for our soul mate.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is one tree which has partially divided itself…..partially, but not completely, so that now it appears as almost two trees instead of one. But does it really matter? Do I care whether these are two trees living intimately together, or one tree manifesting two clearly visible aspects of itself?

The first idea stimulates my thoughts about how important relationships are. It makes me think about how I can’t fully understand anyone, or any thing, in exclusion from its relationships. We are all embedded in vast networks of other people, other creatures, plants, micro-organisms, elements and molecules. We all come into being through a process of emergence within those networks. We all survive and thrive only because of those relationships and networks.

The second idea stimulate my thoughts about our multiple selves. I’ve never been able to understand anyone, including myself, by reducing them to a single, solitary self. Miller Mair’s “Community of Self” really impressed me. It struck me as true. I know a distinct self as a doctor, which is quite different from, yet completely connected to, my self as a parent for example.

A homeopathic doctor in Paris once told me he saw every patient as like a diamond, with different facets glinting in the sunlight. Each facet represented an aspect of that person. That impressed me too.

Then, much later, I read the works of the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, and his focus on “a multiplicity of singularities” seemed to me to be saying the same thing, just in a different language.

We are all multiple.

We are all a complex of multiple, distinct, unique “singularities” – both within ourselves, and within our world.

We are all One.

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Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt – marvellous error! –

that a spring was breaking

out in my heart.

I said: Along which secret aqueduct,

Oh water, are you coming to me,

water of a new life

that I have never drunk?

Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt – marvellous error! –

that I had a beehive

here inside my heart.

And the golden bees

were making white combs

and sweet honey

from my old failures.

Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt – marvellous error! –

that a fiery sun was giving

light inside my heart.

It was fiery because I felt

warmth as from a hearth,

and sun because it gave light

and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night as I slept,

I dreamt – marvellous error! –

that is was God I had

here inside my heart.


Last Night As I Was Sleeping, is a poem by Antonio Machado (this translation from the original Spanish is by the poet, Robert Bly). I’ve decided to return to an exploration of poetry during this strange time in our world, and have started by reading “Ten poems to change your life”, by Roger Housden. The first poem in the book is The Journey, by Mary Oliver, and the second one is this one by Antonio Machado.

Roger Housden, who says, of Antonio Machado, “He lived a plain and simple existence, much of it as a country schoolteacher. What mattered to him was the deep current that joins the human soul to the world. What mattered above all to him was to be awake to that deeper life.”

I love the images in this poem, starting with the spring of fresh water breaking out in the heart. “The origin of the spring is not in your own heart; its waters are carried there by some secret aqueduct from a source beyond all your knowing”.

Then in the next verse he talks of making sweet honey from our old failures. What a nice variation on the “when life gives you lemons make lemonade”!

The next image is of the sun shining in his heart. Roger Housden says “Machado becomes the source of his own warmth and light”.

In the final stanza where Machado dreams of God in his heart, Housden says “He dares to leap over metaphor altogether and say directly what he has been inferring all along: you are own source, drink from your own well, live by your own undying light……..the light of the world that streams through your life….”

I found that as I read it various of my own photos came to my mind so I thought I’d collect them together here with the poem. What I really love about this poem is that idea of the flow of Life pouring through the depths of our being and found by looking at what we have in our heart.

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One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began


One day I was walking in a forest and I came across this signpost. Clearly, this was the way to go….

I followed the path strewn with blood red petals, but I didn’t know where it would take me.

Mary Oliver, in The Journey, the beginning of which I quoted above, continued her journey…

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

I turned a corner, and there before me I saw…..

…red petals cascading down a slope, and rising high up into the canopy of the trees. Maybe this is what I came to see? But I carried on….

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do –

determined to save

the only life that you could save.


Eventually, I found this….

…the heart of the wood.

So, this is how it is, isn’t it?

We don’t need a “goal”, or an “outcome”. We don’t need to “get” or “consume” anything in particular.

What we need to do, is find our heart.

This is as good a time as any to listen, and find out if you can hear what your heart is telling you.

We have access to more than one kind of intelligence. Not just the rational intelligence of the analytic left cerebral hemisphere in the brain, but the emotional intelligence of the heart.

You think that’s fanciful? Or just a nice metaphor?

I don’t think so.

It turns out we have a network of neurones, yes, neurones, the specialist kind of cell you find in a human brain, around the heart. There is a neural network around the heart. Apparently, the nerve connections between the brain and the heart are not just about the brain regulating the heart, they are two way. Our heart informs our brain.

And emotions? Those deep, intense embodied rivers of information and activity which course through the depths of our very being…..are they something supplementary? Are they something inferior in some way to our thoughts?

I don’t think so.

Our emotions are the organising, adaptive strategies which have evolved to enable us to survive and to thrive.

As the fox said to the Little Prince – “what is essential is invisible to the eye”.

Here’s Mary Oliver’s poem, The Journey, in full –

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

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I took this photo recently when visiting the Caumont gallery in Aix en Provence (before France closed down!).

I was attracted to the light shapes on the wall of the building opposite. The one on the right looks like a cocktail glass, but the other two are vaguely like kanji – which, given that the gallery had a special show of Japanese prints, is highly likely!

When I look at the photo now I’m reminded of two things – a famous painting by Magritte

And, a photo I took in the New Carlsberg Museum in Copenhagen of ancient biblical scripts written in Aramaic and found in Palmyra.

The room with the scripts showed the letters projected across the images on the walls as a soundtrack played of someone speaking words in Aramaic from the book of Genesis. That was one of those moments where the hairs on my arms stood up on end and my eyes got watery.

I have long since had a love of words. I have hundreds of books. I read all the time, often several books at once. I love stories and I am insatiably curious. When I qualified as a doctor I bought a complete set of Encyclopaedia Britannica with my first month’s salary. I know wikipedia might have surpassed that now but I can still get the thrill of serendipity by leafing through its pages and falling down a knowledge rabbit hole. At work I looked forward to every Monday morning because I knew it was the start of a week where patients would come and tell me their stories. Every single one of them unique.

I taught in Japan at one point and tried to learn a little Japanese. I didn’t get very far but I am still enthralled by their three alphabets – yes THREE! I chose to emigrate from Scotland to France when I retired to have the experience of living in another language and I’ve got a little collection of favourite French words for which I can’t find any direct English translations, or where the English translation feel somewhat inadequate. I love that. (Emerveillement would be my first example!) I’ve also been trying to teach myself Spanish over this last year, just because I’ve discovered Spain since moving to South West France, and have had a number of fabulous road trips there (I’m using the Duolingo app).

Words, and stories.

I’m also quite an avid reader of poetry, and I recently heard a fantastic interview with the American poet laureate, Tracy K Smith, on Ezra Klein’s podcast. Highly recommended!

With more and more of us having to put our normal lives on hold and stay at home I think this is a great opportunity to explore more books, more poems, more stories, words and art. Are you finding that too?

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Yesterday I wrote about sunsets. This morning when I opened the shutters I saw the most gorgeous example of “The Belt of Venus”.

It was every bit as compelling as the sunset I had just described…..and it was in the exact same direction…..looking West.

If the Sun was the greatest magnet we’d be drawn to watch it rise at dawn (if only we were awake and up early enough!), and it’s true that the rising of the Sun can be every bit as impressive as its setting. In fact, that phenomenon often makes me think of the scenes from “City of Angels” where the angels stand on the beach to watch the dawn. But the dawns are not usually as colourful as the sunsets, are they? When they are, when they fill the sky with rosy pink clouds, then what pops into my head is “Red sky at night, shepherds delight. Red sky in the morning, shepherds warning.” I know there are other variations of that saying in different parts of the world, but it does somewhat detract from the delight and attraction of the dawn sky versus the one at dusk, doesn’t it?

Most mornings, however, the sky isn’t pink and I’m not that aware of the Sun rising above the Eastern horizon. After moving here to the Charente I began to notice that the Western horizon was definitely pink some mornings and that spiked my curiosity. It turns out to be a phenomenon called “The Belt of Venus” and it comes about just as the Sun rises in the East but casts a shadow of the Earth just above the Western horizon. Well, both the phenomenon itself, and it’s rather romantic and glorious name, really engaged me, and now I’m much more likely to spot it. (That makes me wonder just what else we miss every day because we don’t recognise it. How much is invisible to us, passes us by, because we don’t pay sufficient attention, and we don’t know what we are looking at?)

Well, this is February now, and according to my monthly themes, February is the month of Love. So, how appropriate that Venus should make herself known so clearly this morning. Actually, we’ve had really clear skies these last few nights and one of the brightest objects in the night sky here is currently the planet Venus, so she’s around at night, as well as leaving her mark on the dawn.

So, I’m just reminding myself of all this today…..that February is a month to practice love, and loving kindness. That fits in with one of my two words of the year as well…..”bienveillance” – which is about “meaning well”, or acting with good intentions.

I like it when things come together like this….a phenomenon, how we name that phenomenon, and all that we attach to that name, the stories which spin off in all directions along a common theme, and the influence all that has on our daily behaviour.

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Do you do that “word of the year” thing? Where you choose a word at the beginning of each year, a word which will be some kind of touchstone, theme or “north star” for you?

This year, I’ve decided to choose two…….because I received two books as presents for Christmas and it immediately struck me that between them they lay a foundation for a way of living I highly value.

These are French books, so here’s another innovation for me…..up until now my Word of the Year has been an English word, but, hey, I’ve been living in France for the last five years and I’ve read a LOT of French, so, I reckon it’s high time I choose a couple of French words.

Here’s where things start to get interesting, because I can’t find direct, single word translations of these two words into English. Perhaps, more accurately, I should say I can’t find any direct translations into English which I find satisfying. I think that’s a great example of how learning a second language can both widen and deepen your world.

If you’ve read other posts on my site here you’ll have come across my use of the term “émerveillement” already. The first time I read the phrase “l’émerveillement du quotidien” I was entranced by it. It sort of means “the wonder of the every day”. The word “émerveillement” captures my core value of curiosity, of amazement, of awe and of wonder. I adore those moments when you notice something and it stops you in your tracks, where you pause, savour, and reflect. The more that happens in my life, the better my life seems to me. To really experience “émerveillement” you have to be open minded. You have to be curious, aware and non-judgemental. So the pursuit of “émerveillement” every day brings along with it a whole set of other attitudes and behaviours which I value.

Here are a couple of pages from the book which give you a flavour of why it entrances me –

The second word is “bienveillance” which could be translated as “well-meaning” but again, that direct translation doesn’t quite cut it for me. It is used to cover well-meaning and well-wishing, but also kindness, gentleness and care. So, another set of values and behaviours I really rate and aspire to every day.

Here a couple of pages from that book which might stir the same feelings in you. If they do, then, yet again, a picture will have proven to be worth a thousand words.

That quote in the middle image is from the poet Felicia Herman and it translates as “Happiness doesn’t grow in the gardens of anger”, which is an interesting line to consider in these days of conflict and polarisation.

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