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Archive for the ‘creativity’ Category

“Now, Life is living you”

This sign is on the wall of a buddhist temple smack in the middle of Kyoto city.

Just take a moment and contemplate it.

Ever since the moment I saw this phrase and it stopped me on the pavement outside this temple, I often think of it, and the more we learn about Life on Earth, the more true this statement seems to me.

As best we know, planet Earth was formed from atoms which were created in the great furnaces and explosions of distant stars. Every single one of us has been created from those atoms. Nature doesn’t create new atoms, it recycles and rearranges the existing ones. So the atoms which can be found in your body were once found in other bodies, other species, other members of other kingdoms on this Earth.

Our bodies are Star Bodies. We are the children of the Stars.

Emanuele Coccia, the Italian philosopher challenges us to think about the Plant Kingdom differently. He has a new book out, “Métamorphoses” (I’ve got it in French…..you’ll need to wait for an English translation if you don’t speak Italian or French). One of the central themes of this book is that we are One….that there is only One Life which never ceases to change forms whilst never changing its substance. In other words, there are only the atoms which made up the substance of the Earth at its creation, but Life turns these atoms, continuously into new forms – new species, new individuals within each species. The process of evolution is a kind of sculpting, produced by the vast complex web of all that exists, to create ever more adapted forms of Life.

We are each like the individual waves on one great ocean of water, every one of us unique and transitory, emerging for brief periods of time before dissolving back into the vast sea.

It’s Life which fashions each of us, and each of us, in turn, interacts with, metabolises and changes the other forms of Life. So, as Emanuele Coccia says, once we understand the one-ness of everything, all ownership and frontiers lose their significance.

Life is living you.

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The other day the bees were going crazy for the pumpkin flowers. Each flower had two or three bees tumbling around in its depths, covering themselves with yellow pollen, and staggering as if they were drunk.

It was an amazing sight. Every single flower was filled with powdered bees. It was hard to photograph, but, I think you’ll agree, persistence paid off.

Strangely, (well, I never really understand how the universe does this), I had just read an interview in “Le Monde” with the Italian philosopher, Emanuele Coccia. He has a new book out, “Métamorphoses”, where he lays out his insights about the unity of Life, and the prime importance of plants. I read his earlier work, “La vie des plantes” some time ago and was hugely inspired by it – he gave me a whole new perspective on the world, teaching me to consider life from the perspective of the plant kingdom. In his interview he said a few things which came flooding back into my mind as I photographed these bees.

I’ll paraphrase what he said because the original is in French…..

Flowers contain the sexual organs of the plants but in order to reproduce they need the intervention of third parties – primarily insects or the atmosphere. So, what we learn from this observation is that flowers involve agents from other kingdoms in their individual sexual acts. This means that plants place their genetic and biological destiny into the hands of other species.

That’s quite a thought by itself, but he then goes on to ask “How do the insects choose which flower to pollinate?” The answer is, not by rational thought and logic, but by TASTE and AESTHETICS. So the evolution of plants is based on the tastes of other species.

Isn’t that a stunning idea? Or, rather, observation?

He has much more to say, but this is the part which I thought was most relevant to my experience of witnessing the crazy desire of the bees and the massive spread of pollen which was the result.

Life based on desire and taste……well, what do you know?

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Summer has established itself here in the Charente, and the big heat has come with days of 30+ degrees. The grass is brown and feels crunchy when you walk across it. We managed a visit to family in Scotland so we’ve been away from here for a couple of weeks and several plants just haven’t made it.

This evening was a time for watering, harvesting some tomatoes, courgettes and radishes, and making a start on tidying away dead plants and leaves to put them into the compost bin.

At first glance the garden looks like it is suffering and it’s certainly the end of the road for some plants, but this photo from a forest floor in Scotland in the autumn reminds me…..new growth is never far away.

In fact, new growth is hugely unpredictable. We’ve got about seven large pumpkins swelling up on a giant pumpkin plant which has made its way to every wall it can reach, and we didn’t even plant it! There must have been viable pumpkin seeds in the compost I spread on the plot over the winter months. What a gift! What a surprise!

Nature teaches me this – there is no waste, no final ending, there is always new growth.

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There was a craze hundreds of years ago for “chimera” – originally an idea from Greek mythology, medieval peoples took it a whole stage further and created all kinds of bizarre animals.

The chimera is an invented animal made up of the parts from other animals…so maybe a human head, a lion’s body, wings, a serpent tail etc. You can see lots of them carved onto the sides of old churches, and they illustrated old texts as well.

What do you think of them? Are they horrifying? (I think they were often intended to be so) or are they fun? Fascinating?

They just aren’t “natural” are they? You would never imagine that a creature like this existed anywhere. Maybe, once upon a time, some people did. Maybe they believed that they lived in unexplored regions…..remember the old maps with the unmapped areas labelled “Here Be Monsters”?

Probably the commonest reaction to them is a sort of disgust. We find them a bit repulsive….even the more beautiful ones!

I wonder if both chimera and genetically modified plants and animals touch that same core discomfort in us. There’s something a bit unsettling about cutting some DNA out of one creature and splicing it into another, don’t you think?

I think it’s no surprise that many people want GM foods labelled so they can choose not to buy them if they don’t want to. I think it’s not a surprise either that many people think there are complex ethical challenges to be addressed, and a need for intense oversight and control of the whole business of mixing DNA from creature into another……

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This is one of my most favourite photos. Here in the Charente we are blessed with incredible sunsets. There are, of course, all different kinds of sunsets, but one that I love most is the “immersive” kind. That’s where the entire sky changes colour. You know, watching a large disc of red sun sink below the horizon, is wonderful, but when the entire sky turns an infinite range of reds and purples it’s really something else.

When you are witnessing a scene like that, you are IN that scene. You are a part of it. You feel absorbed by it, entranced by it, enchanted by it. It’s a real world magical experience.

This particular evening I crouched down behind the old well in the garden and took this photo. I love the silhouette of the old iron bowl on its chain, suspended over the hidden depths of the water in the well, with the vibrant, glowing, fiery sky behind and above it.

That well has water in it. It’s over 20 metres down. We measured it using a ball of string with an old key tied on the end. 20 metres looks a long way down. When you peer into the well, (which is normally closed with a padlocked metal lid), you see a long dark vertical tunnel with a flicker of light in its very depths. Looking more closely you can make out shapes and colours which you know are the reflections of the sky, and of you. It’s a bit like looking into a kaleidoscope and recognising yourself.

This old iron bowl looks rather like a cauldron to me, which also inspires me to think of magic. It adds to the whole experience of being enchanted. So, maybe it’s not a surprise that what comes flooding into my mind when I look at this image are thoughts of alchemy…..of how we humans learned to work with both fire and water. Where would we be without either of these elements? Where would we be without having learned some of the secrets of fire and water?

Mind you, we’ve still got a LOT to learn! Do we really understand fire and heat and how to interact with it, how to live with it, how to thrive with it? Do we really understand water?

Of course there is a third element to consider when we experience a sunset like this……the observer, the one who is experiencing, the subject. It’s you, it’s me, it’s us. The truly astonishing alchemy of this is when we, as conscious, living, human beings, perceive and experience the fire and the water, and blend our memories and imagination to fashion an expression of those lived moments.

There is definitely a kind of alchemy in photography.

There is definitely a kind of alchemy in being human.

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Unusually, I’ve decided to start my post today with two images, instead of one. I’m steadily working my way through my photo libraries of pictures I’ve taken over the last couple of decades. I have, literally, tens of thousands of them. In fact, I’ve always been utterly daunted by the size of my image libraries and haven’t made any attempt to edit or organise them. But then the lockdown kicked in and I decided to create and share a post every single day. I reckoned that was one of the best things I could do in this current situation. There is so much uncertainty, fear, and negativity about that I thought one of ways I could respond to that was create and publish positive, inspiring and encouraging posts. My thinking was, and is, that the deliberate dissemination of positive waves might contribute to others, might provide some support and reassurance in these difficult times.

Two of the things I do a lot is take photographs and write. It’s a long time now since my blog evolved to have this consistent structure – each post created around one of my photos, plus an associated written reflection.

My experience of doing this continues to delight me. These daily posts have become something of an addiction. I’d find it difficult to miss a day now! Every day I edit and organise some photos in one of my photo libraries, and I download one of two of them which inspire me to write something. Then, each day I choose one of those downloads, pop it into a new post, take a little time to contemplate and reflect, then I write. From time to time, I hear from one of you, sending me a message of gratitude for a post I’d published and that, too, delights me, because it confirms for me that positive ripples can, indeed, travel right around the world.

Today I was thinking of using one of these two photos but wasn’t sure which one, then……guess what? Yep, I decided “And not or“, and popped them both in, because together they make a small sentence. Ok, not quite a sentence, but a small phrase…..

Whole hearted.

The half frosted leaf struck me as a natural yin yang symbol when I saw it, and it still has that power over me. Because the left half is frosted and white, where the right half has warmed up, lost its frost, and revealed its brown colour again, it really does speak to me of contrasts, opposites, and polarities, and of how all such things exist only in connection with their partners. The yin yang symbol is such a great symbol of wholeness. Of dynamic wholeness. I love it.

The shape which has appeared on this tree is typical of the way we draw a symbolic heart. I know we humans are good at spotting, or seeing, faces everywhere, but I think we are equally good at spotting, or seeing, hearts. The heart is a symbol of love, of soul, of deep feeling and commitment for us, isn’t it? “Heart felt”, “heart to heart”, “broken hearted”, “the heart of the matter”, are all phrases which reflect the place of the heart in the human psyche.

But, perhaps my favourite heart-connected phrase is “whole hearted”. That idea of “going all in”, of “fully committing”, of generosity, of love, of passion, of enthusiasm and desire. I’ve long since thought “why do anything in a half-hearted way?”

This is how I want to live my life.

Whole hearted.

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Look at the sand. Look at these lines. They look like waves, don’t they? Except sand doesn’t really do waves, does it? We know, when we look at this, that the sand has been shaped by some other force. We know that that force was water. Well, not really water, although water was involved. It’s been shaped by the forces which shaped the water.

Water often looks like this. Whether it’s the surface of a pond, a lake, or an ocean, the surface of the water breaks into long peaks and troughs which we call waves.

Nothing remarkable there?

Well, actually, it is. Because those waves in the water are movements of energy. You can’t capture a wave and examine it under a microscope.

A wave is more a verb, than a noun.

A wave is more a process, than an object.

The forces which create the wave are invisible to us. The shapes they make in the water are not.

So, when we look at the sand and see a pattern like this, we are seeing a kind of symmetry. We are looking at sand, fashioned into similar shapes to the water. But underlying both the sand and the water are these invisible forces which are doing the shaping.

Or, rather, the invisible forces are doing the shaping by interacting with the water and the sand. It’s a sort of collaboration.

I often wonder about the invisible forces which interact with the material world to produce the patterns, shapes and forms which we see around us.

I wonder about the invisible forces which interact with each of us to shape our experiences and our lives.

There is one particular quality in this kind of pattern which really captures my attention and imagination – transmission. When we see a wave move across the surface of a body of water, or we see how the sand has been shaped, then we realise we are witnessing something moving, something dynamic, something which is carrying particles, energy and information from one place to another.

That’s how I see the world now. A myriad of transient forms produced by continuous flows of materials, energies and information. Nothing exists in isolation. Nothing is fixed. Everything exerts influences which spread far and beyond the here and the now.

Everything, and everyone.

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This is a photo I took many years ago, just using my phone. It’s taken in Edinburgh at night. The purple light of the underside of the bridge caught my attention. It was only once I’d uploaded the shot to my computer that I noticed the person walking along the pavement. At that moment I realised the scene was greatly enhanced by the human presence. It became a much, much more interesting image.

I believe this is a fundamental principle and value which I have. I don’t share the views of some people who think the human species is bad. I believe that we humans are not separate from Nature, we are a part of Nature. We are, in fact, an inextricable part of Nature. I can’t understand a human being without knowing them within their webs of connections, without exploring the flows of materials, energy and information through those networks, without considering them within their contexts and multiple environments, physical, social and cultural.

Yes, we humans have done, are doing, and will do, a wide range of harms to each other, to other creatures, and the one, small, blue marble, planet which we share with all other forms of life, and we need to learn how to live in greater harmony with each other and within this Nature that we are part of. But in four decades of face to face, person by person, patient by individual patient, work as a doctor, I never met a single human being I didn’t value.

I’ve found that as I get older, and in particular, since I retired and moved to live in the French countryside, that I value the rest of Nature, more and more. As I opened the shutters the other morning I looked out and saw two birds…..a Hoopoe drilling down into the grass for some breakfast, and Little Owl, sitting up on the highest point of the wall, spinning his head around surveying his territory. And I thought, well, how amazing is this? I’m more aware of the phases of the moon now, and the rhythm of the seasons. I’m more aware of sprouting seeds, the rate of growth of pumpkins, the cycles of leaves, flowers and fruits. As I garden, I feel in touch with a bond of care, attention and nurture, in this phenomenon we call Nature. But I sure wouldn’t want a world without human beings in it.

There’s something else this image does for me. It sparks the creative, story-telling part of me. Here’s something else which is uniquely human. The ability to perceive, interpret and invent. The ability to make sense of, to apply values to, and to create narratives from, our daily experiences. We are a creative species. We have a driving need to make sense of our lives. I can’t help but wonder about this solitary person, making their way through the streets of Edinburgh at night.

Maybe we just need to learn to shift the balance of our actions and efforts, away from harm, consumption and destruction, towards more harmony, more humanity, and more life-enhancing care. Maybe this pandemic has given us an opportunity to hit the reset button, and do just that.

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I’m fascinated by carved objects on buildings. Often they are above a door or a window. Other times they are under a roof overhang, or somewhere in a garden or building. Certain buildings, like churches, are often highly embellished with these works of art. This owl is on a church wall. I know most of the carvings on churches relate to saints and important people in the Christian faith, but many of them are really not so directly related (think of all the gargoyles!). Who chose them, and why?

When I’ve traveled around Japan I’ve seen lots and lots of statues and statuettes….particularly buddhas.

However, it’s not at all uncommon to find figures like this for sale in Garden Centres here in France and I’ve noticed them a lot in French people’s gardens and houses.

There’s also quite a controversy raging just now about statues, with calls for the removal of statues of famous people whose actions and values communities no longer wish to celebrate (although maybe they were never celebrated, despite standing there for decades).

All this got me thinking about the symbolic power of objects. I wonder if you have any in your house? Or your garden? I wonder which ones you notice in your Public spaces?

Maybe we should assume that they are intended to exert some influence over us. For example, I think many people with the buddha statues often see them as objects to help them to remain calm. One of the first phrases I encountered here, in the Charente, was “Soyons zen” – “Let’s be “zen” – or calm”.

I have quite a lot of owls in my house. I feel an affinity with them and I think they help me access reflection, contemplation and wisdom.

A common “device” over doorways is a heart.

I can certainly see the point of that! In fact, I think I’d quite like having a house where there was a heart over the doorway. Maybe it would help everyone who entered to remember the importance of “seeing with the heart”.

There’s a really interesting mythical one in this part of France (and I believe elsewhere in Europe too) – Melusine.

Half woman, half serpent (or dragon), with wings, there are a number of variations of the Melusine myth. Here’s a passage from wikipedia about her

One tale says Melusine herself was the daughter of the fairy Pressyne and king Elinas of Albany (now known as Scotland). Melusine’s mother leaves her husband, taking her daughters to the isle of Avalon after he breaks an oath never to look in at her and her daughter in their bath. The same pattern appears in stories where Melusine marries a nobleman only after he makes an oath to give her privacy in her bath; each time, she leaves the nobleman after he breaks that oath. Shapeshifting and flight on wings away from oath-breaking husbands also figure in stories about Melusine.

I wonder what influence her presence has on the people who live with her likeness on their walls?

One of the things which makes we human beings so unique is how we handle symbols and metaphors. We don’t just see objects as “things”. We attach value and meaning to them. They provoke emotions in us. They provoke our memories, stimulate our imaginations.

The objects to which we attach symbolic value, either individually, or as part of a culture, or society, have an influence on us. We often choose them exactly for that reason.

What symbolic objects are there around you in your daily life? And are you aware of the influence they have upon you?

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What’s this young woman doing? She looks relaxed, leaning both her forearms on the low wall as she gazes, or looks, (there is a difference) towards….who knows what? You can’t help but turn your head to see if you can see what she is seeing.

Deleuze and Guattari, in “What is Philosophy?” talk about three ways of thinking – concepts, functions and affects+percepts. Philosophy, they say, is our way of thinking concepts. Science describes functions. Art deals with sensations, affects and percepts.

In the city of Angouleme, about an hour from where I live, there are many, many examples of wall art. Angouleme is a major, maybe THE major centre, for graphic arts in France. Several of them are absolutely stunning. Many of them make you stop and think.

If art is a “bloc of sensations, that is to say, a compound of affects and percepts”, then what does that really mean in everyday life? I’m no philosopher and I wouldn’t be surprised if I misunderstand philosophical writings, but I am a “wonderer”. So, the two photos I’m sharing with you today, in this post, are just two examples of murals I’ve come across in Angouleme…….two murals which really stimulate my powers of perception and evoke emotions. They both make me wonder.

In this first one, everything in blue is the painting, but it’s been so cleverly painted that, at least at first, you have the impression you are looking at a real woman, leaning on a real wall, in front of a real hotel. Well, actually, it is painted on the gable end of real hotel, and the painted wall is an extension of one you can actually lean on. Maybe this graphic woman is looking into the window on the left? If so, she’s looking into a real window, not an imaginary one. Here’s the full picture…..

I love how the painted image blends with the physical world around it. It transforms reality. As I gaze at this in wonder, I slow down, feel calm and contemplative, and take my time to explore the whole painting. Isn’t it amazing that the woman, who is the artist’s creation, somehow induces in me, the viewer, these feelings of slow, calm contemplation?

What would this building look like unpainted? I’m not sure I’d even have noticed it. I certainly wouldn’t have stopped to gaze at it. And, here’s the other thing….I might not have followed the gaze of the woman beyond this low wall out over the valley below, towards the winding river, the boats, the houses and buildings at the edge of the city, and the farms and forests further out. I haven’t the slightest doubt that this work of art transformed my experience of Angouleme.

But, then, so did this one….

This is one of the most imaginative, evocative, narrative murals I’ve ever seen. It also stops you in your tracks. You can’t help but get drawn in, first to the woman and the man, who are kind of embracing, but there’s a mystery in this embrace. It doesn’t look entirely comfortable. What’s going on with these two? Then, above them, the glass in the window is broken. How did that happen? And above that, this enormous moon, which doesn’t really look like our Moon, but maybe some other planet? It always makes me think of the movie, “Another Earth“….But look at the biplane flying over the face of that planet? What era is this? Which makes us look at the couple again, and wonder what era they lived in as well…..they sure aren’t dressed the way we’d expect to see someone dressed in this day and age.

Then as I look again at this photo, I see the pink bike, parked against the railing, and I can’t help but think it’s her bike! So reality and fantasy blend and blur and lose their hard edges (do reality and fantasy really ever have hard edges?)

Finally, I look up and see what looks like the shadow of an angel with a trailing umbilical cord…..at least, that’s what it looks like to me, and I can’t help but turn around to see if I can see the actual angel behind me.

Oh, there’s the angel, over there, on the building opposite….

Isn’t that quite something? A drawing of a shadow which makes you turn around to see what’s casting the shadow? What a wonderful blending of perception and imagination!

Somewhere in the depths of my memory I seem to have a story of an ancient debate about whether or angels would have tummy buttons – because angels, allegedly, aren’t born, so don’t have umbilical cords. I remember thinking what an odd thing to have a debate about! But as I stand looking at this drawing, that old story comes rushing back to me, and in so doing, makes the artwork all the more interesting and engaging.

With both of these murals my experience of the day was transformed. They both challenged my perception of reality. They both stirred my feelings, stimulated my imagination and provoked memories. They both made me wonder.

As far as I know only human beings make art.

What kind of humanity would we be without it?

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