Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Every connection we make is a bond. Every relationship we have involves an interaction between ourselves and the other which changes both parties in the process.
In Saint Exupery’s “The Little Prince” he describes two key relationships, one which the Prince has with a rose, and one with a fox. In both cases he makes the point that creating the relationship changes how they see each other. In that process they become unique to each other, they start to care about each other, and, in fact, they become responsible for each other.

Lynne McTaggart writes in her book, “The Bond

An entirely new scientific story is emerging that challenges many of our Newtonian and Darwinian assumptions, including our most basic premise: the sense of things as separate entities in competition for survival. The latest evidence from quantum physics offers the extraordinary possibility that all of life exists in a dynamic relationship of co-operation.
All matter exists in a vast quantum web of connection, and a living thing at its most elemental is an energy system involved in a constant transfer of information with its environment.
The world essentially operates, not through the activity of individual things, but in the connection between them – in a sense, in the space between things.

We often have the tendency to think of a bond as a limitation, even something which imprisons us, as if each bond is a chain. But, I prefer to think of bonds as relationships, as connections which, at their best, are “integrative” – that is – mutually beneficial bonds between well differentiated parts. That, after all, is how the body works. Every single cell, every organ, every tissue and every system within the body exists in constant interaction with all the others. It functions because the basis of all these relationships is the creation of mutually beneficial bonds. And as I often think, what happens inside the body, happens outside the body. In other words, what we come to understand about the nature of reality by coming to understand ourselves helps us to understand the entirety of reality.

Carlo Rovelli, the nuclear physicist, advocates a relational understanding of the universe. He says

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.

Once we shift our awareness away from parts and separate entities towards relationships, connections, experiences and events, we find a whole other set of values develop.

Try it for yourself and see how it seems to you.

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There’s a bird reserve near Nimes, in the South of France, where you can see flamingos. I’ve visited it several times, and each time I take a host of photos. They are SUCH beautiful creatures!

I’m reading Gary Lachman’s “Lost Knowledge of the Imagination” just now, and this morning read these lines about beauty –

We perceive beauty, the Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus said, when we perceive something that is in accord with our soul.

Knowledge of beauty is knowledge of soul. It is self-knowledge, and when we discover beauty we are discovering part of ourselves.

The knowledge we receive in this way is not of fact but of quality, of value and meaning.

We perceive beauty, are open to its presence, through a change in the quality of our consciousness. Only like can know like. We must have beauty within ourselves to see it in the world.

I hadn’t thought of beauty this way before. When I read it I thought about the old adage of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” which always seemed to me to be a statement that beauty was in fact a matter of taste. But this perspective from Gary Lachman describes that sort of third way interpretation which I like so much. It’s not that beauty is “outside” us, as some kind of measurable object. I think we all know that. Beauty can’t be reduced to data, can’t be captured by mere facts. But neither is it just a matter of taste, as if it is entirely an experience of the individual rendering the rest of the real world unimportant.

The third way is that beauty is a resonance. It’s a harmony. And therefore it emerges in the lived quality of an experience, of an engagement, of a relationship. We need both parts of the relationship to be present…..something “within” us, let’s call that “the soul”, and something “outwith” us, let’s call that “the other”.

We know instantly when we find something, or someone beautiful. We don’t need to way it up, analyse the inputs, stimuli and signals. We just know. We know because our inner being resonates with whatever it is we are looking at….or it doesn’t. When it does, we have the sensation of joy, delight, and gratitude which accompanies all engagements with beauty.

Beauty, I reckon, is good for us. It’s good for our souls. It’s good for our consciousness. It’s good for our health.

So, here you are, a few photos in this post, all taken during one visit to the flamingos. I find them beautiful. I hope you do too. And I hope that appreciation of their beauty nourishes your soul, warms your heart, adds some positive quality to this present moment.

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“Special” – there’s a difficult word – when someone claims they are special they might be claiming that they are the exception which should be respected – that they don’t need to follow the same rules as the rest of the community. This “exceptionalism” is the root of a lot of trouble in the world. The danger with “special” is that others are seen as “not special”.

But I am a great fan of this word, and I think we fail to grasp it enough. This Robin is special to me. He lives in “my garden”. I see him almost every day. We know that Robins are territorial birds and I don’t ever, ever see a flock of Robins in my garden. I can’t be sure that the Robin I see today is the exact same Robin that I saw yesterday, but I assume he is. There are other birds like this near me. There’s a “Little Owl” who lives under the roof of my neighbour’s barn. He often sits on the roof at dusk and watches me as I close the wooden shutters over the windows of the house. He doesn’t fly away when he sees me. I’ve become familiar to him. You could say that we have become special to each other. There’s also a Redstart which returns to this garden every Spring and flies away for the Winter. We have had several back and forth whistling conversations together, the Redstart and I, and when I hear his call again in the Spring I know that Winter is over. When my grand-daughter hears him she says “There’s your friend, grandpa”.

In “The Little Prince”, the boy claims that his rose is “special”, that she is different from all the other roses. He cares for her more than he does for all the other roses. And there’s the key – what makes that one rose special is the attention and time he has invested in her, watering her, protecting her from the grazing sheep, and so on. It’s the time, attention, and emotional investment which makes this rose genuinely “special” for him.

I think everyone is “special”, and contrary to what I wrote above about exceptionalism, in my experience, in the consulting room, one to one, with patient after patient, I found that it was way, way too common for people to fail to realise just how special they are. In fact, they might have been bombarded with messages which have said the exact opposite for years – “you are nothing”, “you are worthless”, “you don’t matter”.

Those messages are cruel and they are wrong.

Every single human being is special, in the sense that they are unique. There are no two of us with identical bodies and minds, no two of us born in identical places, at identical times, to identical families. There are no two of us with identical life stories. In all my four decades of work as a doctor I never heard the same life story twice.

“Special” works when we embrace the paradox of “special” with humility. But there’s something else, and it comes back to what makes us unique – what makes us unique is our connections. Not our differences. I am not special because I am different from everyone else. I am special because of the particular, vast, complex web of connections and relationships that I have, that I’ve had, and that I will have.

One more thing to add here – love.

It’s not just our relationships which make both you and I special. It’s the relationships which we invest with love and care which make both you and I special.

Have you ever noticed that? Just like The Little Prince, the more we care, the more we love, the more compassion we have, the more special others become.

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This pandemic is giving us a really clear experience of living within limits. We experience that as a series of constraints. It’s frustrating and uncomfortable. We want to be free, don’t we? Free to do whatever we want, whenever we want, without a care in the world.

Wouldn’t that be bliss?

But, wait, isn’t that kind of naive? Because there is no such thing as living without limits. We are never free to do absolutely anything we could imagine or desire. That’s a fantasy. Or even a delusion.

I found myself thinking that as I looked at this old photo of a thin layer of cloud hugging the contours of Ben Ledi.

I have just read “Ou suis-je?” by Bruno Latour where he describes some of the limits we live. One of those is what scientists call “the critical zone” – which is the space in which Life can exist. It’s an astonishingly narrow space. You can probe down into the Earth about ten kilometres and you’re down to rock where nothing lived, and you can soar up into Space about ten kilometres and beyond that the atmosphere becomes so thin nothing can live there.

The actual numbers aren’t that important. What is amazing is that all of Life exists within a very, very narrow zone. I don’t know if you’ve seen a photo of the Earth from Space which captures the thinness of the atmosphere. Let me find it for you.

There you are.

Well that’s the image which came to my mind as I looked at my photo of Ben Ledi.

We all live within these very narrow limits. We share, with every other living organism, this astonishingly thin “critical zone”.

The fact that living with limitations has become such an intense experience for so many during the pandemic has woken us up. We live in One interconnected world, a world of precious and limited resources. Now we have to learn to change the way we live – to change away from consumption and destruction to sustainability and creativity.

The pandemic has also shone a strong light on inequality showing us, perhaps more clearly than ever, that too many people are struggling to live with financial and social limitations which make them most vulnerable to serious illness and death.

So maybe now is a good time to think about the reality of living with limits and start to make the changes which increase the chances of better lives for more of us, rather than keeping our eyes closed and hoping for the impossible.

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I took this photo of a path in a Japanese garden because I’d never seen wavy tiles like this before. In fact, having seen this one, I then came across several more. Although, many years on, I’ve never seen paving tiles, or stones, like this, for sale anywhere in Europe.

Maybe some of you will look at this and feel a bit unsteady, or dizzy, because they give the impression of flowing water, and you know how it is when you stand at the edge of the ocean and after crashing onto the sand, the water runs back between your feet, back to where it came from. It can feel quite destabilising. So, I think these wave forms have the power to communicate the sensation of movement, of flow, of change, and, yes, even of direction.

But I didn’t find them at all destabilising when I walked on them, rather I felt like I was walking/surfing/skiing/sailing over the surface of the Earth…..or maybe, rather, over the surface of the oceans. I love how this simple shape laid out in this repeating pattern captures the sense of life and movement. It felt completely different from walking over a pretty featureless tarmac, or over square, right angled, hard edged, separate slabs.

The other thing I thought of as I walked along this path was the story that Susan Jeffers tells in her famous “Feel the Fear” book, where she describes how a plane traveling from A to B spends only a tiny percentage of its time actually heading in the exact direction which would be a straight line between the two points. Rather the pilot is constantly adjusting the direction of the flight of the plane, a little bit to the right, then a “correction”, to the left, then back again, and so on. It’s a lovely metaphor for the need to be flexible and adaptable. It shows us how we need to proceed by going a little bit this way, then a little bit that way, all the time. It’s a counsel against so called “perfection” – as if there is “only one right way”. There never is.

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How do you grow a forest?

One seedling at time.

This beautiful little seedling is captivating. I spotted it growing from the moss covered forest floor, the seed casing with its wind driven system of flight and dispersal still intact, but the bright green of new growth clearly visible, and the beginnings of the spiral of unfolding showing us that this little seed has taken root, and is beginning the long journey to become a tree.

It makes me think about the relationship between the tree and the forest, between the particular and the general, between the individual and the group. A relationship I think we tend to get badly wrong. With the rise of statistically driven data collection and analysis, along with the development of algorithms, we reduce the unique person to a point in a set far too often. We pick one, or a handful, of observable, measurable characteristics, categorise them and use them as the be all and end all.

We define people according the group we’ve put them into. In so doing, we fail to see them as unique, individual, human beings. You just can’t know and understand a person from a data set. It’s not enough, and it’s often a fast track down the wrong cul-de-sac.

We make people invisible by reducing them to examples of a group.

All my working life I saw one person at a time…..whether that was in the GP surgery, with a rhythm of one patient every ten minutes or so, or in the specialist referral centre for people with long term intractable conditions, where we’d spend an hour to an hour and half for the first visit, then about twenty minutes for each follow up. In both these settings the rhythm of my day was determined by the scheduled appointments allowing me to give full attention focus to every single individual who came to consult me. I found that a great meditation practice, a great way of continuously coming back to the present moment…..not thinking ahead to who might come next, and not hanging on to the story of the person who has just left the room….but, rather, encountering the crowds, the queues, the “lists”, one person a time.

Of course I learned a lot from all these individuals which informed me about others. But the point is, it was a practice of focusing on the individual, and gleaning the general knowledge from there……not learning the general knowledge and trying to force each person into the right pigeon hole.

I learned from the work of Iain McGilchrist that this was the result of how we use the two hemispheres of our brain. The left hemisphere focuses in, abstracts information from its contexts, labels it and categorises it. It works with sets, groups, and generalities, continuously trying to fit new information into what we’ve learned already. The right hemisphere, on the other hand, focuses on the whole, seeking what is unique and particular in every context, every relationship, every circumstance, endlessly fascinated with what’s novel and what’s particular. As he says in his “Master and His Emissary”, we’ve let the left hemisphere become the dominant one, but evolution never intended that.

It’s time to re-balance, to prioritise the approach to life driven by the right hemisphere and to reap all the potential benefits of the analytic, labelling and classifying left hemisphere by handing those insights back to the right – in other words, by putting whatever we encounter, whatever we understand, back into the contexts and environments in which we found it.

We need to re-learn how to experience life, one seedling at a time. That’s how we’ll grow a healthy forest.

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Many years ago I did a road trip to Skye, and as I travelled up through the Highlands, around the island for a few days, then back down to the Central Belt again, I was stunned again and again by the beauty of the country. There’s no doubt that Scotland is a beautiful land. It isn’t best known for blue skies, sunshine and beaches, but, actually, on the right day, all of that is there. However, it’s always seemed to me it’s easier to find the darker, moodier, and I might even say, richer, atmosphere in Scotland. On that particular road trip I think it rained every day, and I got some of the most beautiful photographs I’ve ever taken.

This image captures so much that delights and inspires me. The first thing I notice is the bridge. It’s a traditional, old, stone, single arch bridge. There are dozens like it in the Highlands, and no two the same. I think it’s beautiful and I’m a big fan of bridges because I think they are the technology we humans invented to allow us to do two of the things closest to our natures – explore and connect.

We are insatiably curious creatures, we humans. Some of us more than other I’ll grant, but I still think the desire to explore and discover is as core to us as the Life Force. In fact, Jaak Paksepp, who is so important to an understanding the fairly new discipline of affective neuroscience – the neurological science of our emotions, identified seven core or “prototype” emotions, of which SEEKING is perhaps THE most basic and important. SEEKING is connected to the basic motivational arousal state of all forms of life, and we humans probably access it, and use it, more than any other other creatures on the planet.

Bridges speak to me of that SEEKING, that desire to discover what lies on the other bank of the river, what lies on the slopes of the opposite hillside.

They also inspire me to think of that equally strong drive which is central to our being – connecting. Iain McGilchrist, with his brilliant and detailed analysis of the human brain, shows us how the two halves of the cerebral hemisphere engage with the world in distinctly different ways. The right hemisphere is especially interested in making and exploring connections. Just stop to ponder for a moment – absolutely everything we encounter, everything we experience, everything we think, we connect to whatever else we know and imagine. It’s impossible for us to really consider anything at all as utterly and completely isolated from everything else. We are connection-driven creatures.

But there’s more than a bridge in this photo. There is a river too, which runs under the bridge, and this particular river has very stony banks. Stony banks with small shrubs and bushes growing in it. Rivers never stay the same. The water which flows down from the mountains doesn’t follow the exact same path every day. Some times the river will swell and all those stones will be hidden. Other times it will reduce to a trickling stream revealing vast stony banks. I love the river as a symbol of constant flow and constant change.

There are the mountains too. Tall peaks, so tall here, that the cloud base is hiding their higher regions. I love mountains. They inspire me to remember times I’ve climbed such hills in the past, struggling to get to the top, then finding myself utterly filled with delight at the views laid out before me once I get there (being careful not to go hill climbing on a day like that shown in this photo!) They inspire me too to think of the old philosophical practice of “the view from on high” – how helpful it is to stand back from the busy cluttered flow of the everyday, ascend to a height, and contemplate the bigger picture, change your perspective, and see how life changes as a result.

And then there are the clouds – clouds which hide tall mountains, clouds which dissolve into rain which then trickles down the hillsides to form the rivers which all run off to the sea again. Clouds which merge seemlessly with mists here – hiding trees, rocks and bushes, soaking them all as they pass on by. Mists which drift across the face of the glen like ghosts of clans from the distant past. Yes, I find that mists stimulate my imagination. They lead me to contemplate the invisible, and the traces of the past which still soak the present, the lives from the past which are still with us, carried by us in our genes, our memories and our stories.

Really, I can get a lot of enjoyment out of a scene like this. This is what I mean by “rich” experience, multi-layered, entangled, connected, inspiring……

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During this pandemic our horizons have been drawn closer, our worlds have become physically smaller and our social worlds have either diminished completely, or have been translated into the virtual world of messaging, video calls, and emails……something which can be enriching, even vital, but which still seem second best to the physical-social world of shared time AND space, and, especially of touch.

It’s a time where there’s a sense of collapsing into ourselves, of withdrawal, and of separation. Which is one of the reasons why this image is particularly appealing to me today. It reminds me of the fact that in Nature there are cycles and seasons. There are times, for example in the winter, when creatures and plants withdraw into themselves, hibernate, go dormant, on in old Scots “courie in“. In other words, there is a time in Nature when it makes sense to fold inwards, to snuggle, to curl up. But the appearance of a first crocus plant in my garden this week reminded me that there is another season around the corner – Spring – and that in the Spring time we see the opposite direction of movement…..a shift towards expansion, reaching up and beyond, of unfurling and unfolding.

I chose the French word “epanouissement” for my word of the year this year…..it means to flourish, to open up, to unfurl, in the way you see a plant move from the phase of a bud to a fully opened, multi-petalled blossom or flower. So I think of that word as I look at this fern unfurling.

I don’t think this unfurling motion is something we need to wait for. It’s not just that we are in winter and spring is around the corner (if you live in the Southern hemisphere, of course, you are in summer, and it’s autumn that’s just around the corner!).

No, I think that every day we can find a way to tune into this unfurling – this expanding, developing, growing, shift from potential to realisation. One way I try to do that is to deliberately choose two activities every single day – one activity of learning, and one of creating. Because I think learning and creating are our two most fundamental ways of growing and developing.

I have had a love of learning all my life, and my curiosity and appetite for discovery and understanding has only grown over the years. It utterly delights me to learn something every day. Amongst my learning activities I do language learning. Every day I learn a little French and/or Spanish. It’s become a habit (I use Duolingo to embed that habit) and I do it formally, following exercises, and informally reading in French, every day. I’m just a beginner at Spanish but I’ll move on to reading Spanish soon. I’m always learning other things too. Questions pop into my head as I live an ordinary day, and I pursue some of those questions online, using wikipedia, blogs, youtube, podcasts and articles.

I also love to create – for me that’s primarily photography and writing – but playing music is part of it as well. Well, in the creative areas of life, I find there is also always something more to learn – whether that be at the piano, on the guitar, on the computer, or in writing exercises.

So, I think unfurling happens all the time for we, humans. We just have to choose to become aware of it and give it some time and attention.

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I think this skeleton of a leaf is beautiful. For me it reveals the often hidden, or difficult to see structures which underpin reality. But what it does most is make me think about the two forces of the universe….

The flowing force – the energies which vibrate throughout the entire cosmos. And the structuring force – which gathers some of the flowing forces together to make patterns, shapes, forms and objects.

I like this way of thinking. It’s definitely not new! The yin and yang forces of Chinese thought are sometimes described as “active” and “passive” and I can see how that relates to “structuring” and “flowing”. Others translate these forces into “masculine” and “feminine” and while I do love the ancient myths and legends, the rich symbolism of art throughout the ages, a lot of people find it difficult to apply gender to these forces, and, sadly, once you add in hierarchies and male-dominated culture, then the “feminine” seems to lose out to the “masculine”, so, for me, thinking of the “flowing force” and the “structuring force” is more helpful.

Clearly we need them both to be working in harmony, or in an “integrated” way with each other if we are to have the reality which we experience.

One of the key books I read which helped me understand these concepts was “The Crystal and the The Dragon” by David Wade. I highly recommend it. He uses the crystal as the symbol of the structuring force, and the dragon as the wild, flowing force. But “the universe story” as described by Thomas Berry in “The Great Work” is a brilliant, engaging, description of this same idea. Thomas Berry calls them the forces of “wildness” and “discipline”.

Whatever the metaphors, symbols and words you find work best for you, I think it really helps to understand and be amazed by the reality of every day life, if you raise your awareness of these two fundamental forces.

Try it, and see what you think…..

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I have to go back about forty years or more to remember a collection of short stories I read. It was called “Strange News from Another Star”, by Hermann Hesse. Those stories made a big impact on me….so big, I remember most of them even now. Oddly, I haven’t re-read them over the years, but I did read them more than once back in my student years.

One of the stories from that book is entitled “Iris” and I always think of it when I see a flowering iris like this one. I remember the boy Anselm describing how he could follow the little yellow stalks as if they were a picket fence marking a path which led deep down into a secret garden. That image of looking at a flower really close up and losing yourself in the depths of that one flower has stayed strong in my memory and imagination. It feels like a description of one of those moments when you lose your boundaries and connect with another living creature so completely that you begin to experience the reality of the wholeness of everything.

Here’s a passage from that story (I looked it out today to write this post)

Iris smiled at him as he stood there at a loss, rubbing his forehead with his hand. “I always feel the same way,” she said to Anselm in her light, birdlike voice, “whenever I smell a flower. My heart feels as though a memory of something completely beautiful and precious were bound up with the fragrance, something that was mine a long time ago and that I have lost. It is that way too with music and sometimes with poems – suddenly there is a flash for an instant as though all at once I saw a lost homeland lying below in the valley, but instantly it is gone and forgotten. Dear Anselm, I believe we are on earth for this purpose, for this contemplation and seeking and listening for lost, far-off strains, and behind them lies our true home.”

I mean, how magical is that? Do you believe we are on this earth for a purpose? Do you agree that at least part of that purpose is “contemplation and seeking and listening….”? Because I’m pretty sure that those three things….contemplating, seeking and listening…..open us up to see more than what just flashes before our eyes.

Isn’t that ability to weave stories into our experiences of everyday encounters one of the key ways in which we make this a more enchanted life?

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