Archive for the ‘creativity’ Category

I saw this door panel in the Chateau Chenonceau. Isn’t it wonderful? What an incredible piece of craftsmanship carving this scene. I love the waves below the characters and the clouds above them, and I especially like how the clouds break out of the frame.

The scene is Poseidon and Amphitrite (I think!), the God of the Sea and his wife. They are being blessed with a wreath and a flower (a lily perhaps?) by two creatures with human bodies, fish tails and wings……nymphs I presume…from Amphitrite’s ancestry.

Apart from the beauty of this image in it’s own right, it is laden with symbolism, as are many of the carvings and tapestries of that period. Exactly what the significance is of each symbol and, indeed, of the myths of which they are integral part can be uncovered to a certain extent with study and research.

I invite you explore this for yourself. What can you find out about the characters represented and what stories are there about them? What can you find out about the nymphs, about the cupid figure, the trident, the bow, the wreath and the flower?

Some historians say that in their time the people who had these works of art created were well versed in the answers to all those questions. They could “read” a scene in the light of the knowledge they’d gained. They had been told these stories, taught these symbols, and they wouldn’t just look at an image like this and think “how beautiful” – the work would evoke whole sets of emotions, memories and fantasies for them. When I think of that I feel we’ve lost something because most of us haven’t had the education which allows us to have a similar experience.

Symbols and myths are an integral part of human life. Creating works of art is fundamental to our nature. I was listening to a BBC podcast the other day about cave art and the experts said the wall drawings of bulls, aurochs, deer and so on date way back to the times of not just the earliest humans, but to neanderthals too. Some of the cave art was created in caves so deep that not only were they in perpetual darkness but there could be no real reason for human beings to go there….other than through sheer curiosity, or to hide and protect their art works.

Who were those images created for, and what part did they play in their lives….of both the artists and the spectators? We don’t really know. But whatever the answers to those questions there is no denying that we are a species which does more than hunt, gather and farm. We create and live with art. It’s in our bones!

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Every living organism has the capacity to stay healthy and to repair any damage it incurs. In other words, they all share the ability to survive. Plants, micro-organisms, animals, humans…..every creature which lives has the ability to survive. Otherwise it wouldn’t exist.

We’ve discovered a fair number of the processes which enable us to survive and to repair when we are damaged. A whole bunch of these are called “homeostatic” processes – they are complexes of cells, chemicals and feedback loops which maintain a certain stability of the “internal environment”. They keep the working relationships between all the cells, tissues and organs in balance. Things tip too much one way or another, the homeostatic system kicks in and returns the organism to a more balanced state. When we are damaged, for instance, when we break the surface of our skin, or break a bone, then the body mobilises “inflammatory” processes to pour cells and chemicals into the damaged area, seal off any breaches in the defences, and start to lay down repair tissue.

Isn’t it amazing how the body does this?

There’s a huge tree just behind my neighbour’s house. One day about three years ago, in a storm, a large cluster of branches were broken off at the top of the tree, turning it from a pretty symmetrical plant into something that looked like a giant had taken a big bite out of it. Now that gap has gone. The tree has repaired the damage and has, almost, become symmetrical again.

Survival and repair. These are the fundamentals of life aren’t they? But they aren’t enough to fully describe Life. There’s a third element in every living creature – growth.

This rose in the image above is unfolding the petals from one of its buds. The unfolding is like a spiral, like one of those paper windmills you used to play with as a child. It’s utterly beautiful. This unfolding is an expansion, an opening up, a revealing and a stretching out to manifest itself. This rose is declaring “Here I am!” This rose is showing the world she exists by performing the third element of Life – growth.

Not just growth which is about becoming bigger, taller, thicker. Not just growth which expands the reach of the plant into the surrounding territory. But growth which reveals a whole new aspect of the rose. Before the flowers open up like this, the rose looks quite different. Green, leafy, thorny. But without flowers.

My littlest grandson is just seven months old now and seeing him start to “flourish”, start to “unfold” and “reveal” himself is like watching a miracle. Those first new behaviours and sounds are such a thrill, that emergence of interaction, of recognition and connection…..it’s breath-taking.

I used to find a similar awe and wonder when witnessing the unfolding and revealing of a patient as they moved beyond survival and repair into the fullness of health……seeing in that process the revelation of their uniqueness.

I think we tend to take these things for granted, because they happen all the time….these processes of survival, of repair and of growth.

But it’s worthwhile pausing from time to time and becoming aware of them….in the flowers, the trees, the birds, the other animals which share your world……in people you meet, people you love and in yourself.

It’s beautiful.

It’s inspiring.

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It’s ten months now since the wall fell down. I’m sure that the pandemic has slowed up almost everything this year, but it sure takes a long, long time to get things done in this neck of the woods!

I strolled through the garden the other day and took this photo at the lowest part of the gap in the wall. As it’s autumn now, the vine which used to cover the entire wall has now started to turn from green to red and gold. The stones have lain where they fell for months now and the vine just grew over them. You can see in this image the remnants of the wall, the living vine, the fruit it produces (It’s “Boston Ivy” by the way, or “False Vine”) and the gorgeous autumn colours of the leaves as we move towards winter.

I think this image is just beautiful. I love it. I love how much there is to see in it and I adore the overall combination of elements. It reminds me of the four stages of the cycle of reality – growth, maintenance, falling to pieces, emergence.

Using the lenses of “systems science”, “complexity science”, and, in particular “CAST” – “Complex Adaptive Systems Theory” (which is my MAIN lens for understanding reality) I can see that this image represents the stage where things are falling to pieces. All systems undergo this. After a stage of fairly stable fulfilment, as we see in summer and early autumn, there is a stage of letting go, of order crumbling to be replaced by something more chaotic, more wild, more “disordered”. Well, this is it.

What comes next? Emergence, novelty, a new phase, a stage of “reorganisation” building on the path followed so far. Almost always this new phase is unpredictable. Always it is unpredictable at a detailed level, but almost always it is unpredictable at a macro level.

This pandemic feels like a phase where the old order dies. It feels like a time of change. And we are all wondering “what comes next”? Can we play an active role in creating the new phase, you and I? I hope so. Because the old order got us to where we are and we want to move on from there now, don’t we?

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I love a view like this. These cliffs are shaped like water. The layers and folds look like currents and waves. This isn’t a coincidence is it? We see these echoes and resonances everywhere we look. I’m not a geologist so I can’t tell you exactly how these rock forms are created, but it’s pretty obvious that when land meets the sea, they co-create their shapes…..the shape of the land is fashioned partly by the sea, and the shape of the sea is fashioned by the land.

They also change the content and nature of each other, with the minerals and micro-organisms in the rock washing into the sea, and those in the sea soaking into the rock.

Nothing exists in isolation in this world. Everything exists within its own environments an contexts. The apparent boundaries and barriers are more fluid and more porous than we realise. Everything is influencing everything else through a vast, complex network of connections and relationships.

We humans are like that too. We are constantly exchanging materials, energy and information with everyone and everything else. That’s why I find it more helpful to think of the flows of reality and to focus on the connections more than on the so-called “parts” or “entities”.

The truth is that the way I live, the way I behave, communicate, and connect with others influences and changes them, and vice versa…..everyone else influences me.

We are nothing less than the co-creators of reality.

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There are three elements in this image which inspire me to explore an underlying theme. The elements are the leaf, the stone, and the sand. The underlying theme is change.

The leaf changes quite fast. Over the course of a single year it grows from a tiny bud, to a full sized green leaf powering the tree, capturing the energy from the sun and the carbon, oxygen and hydrogen from the air, to create the solid substance of the tree. Then as autumn comes the metabolism changes. We can’t see that directly but we can see the effects….a change in colour from green to yellows, browns and golds. Then the leaf falls from it’s stalk to the ground. Once on the ground, the change continues as it biodegrades into the soil. Nature wastes nothing. The leaf nurtures the soil.

The stone changes more slowly. If you look carefully you can see several different seams of colour, each a different combination of minerals. These minerals came together over many, many years, and it has taken a long, long time for the stone to split from a much larger mass, and centuries and centuries of wind, rain, and sun to shape it.

The sand that both leaf and stone are sitting on has taken even longer to form. It always astonishes me when I come across fragments of shells and fossils of sea creatures high up in mountains, far away from the sea. It reminds me that the history of the planet is immense and that change in the surface shape of the Earth occurs so slowly it can seem unchanging.

Three rates of change. The more complex the structure, the faster the rate of change. Which brings me to the fourth element in this photo….the photographer. That’s me in this case! Well, my life changes faster than the sand, the stone or even the leaf. Every cell in my body changes minute by minute. All my tissues and organs are renewing themselves daily. It’s quite mind boggling, and it’s why I like to think in terms of “flow” instead of in terms of “objects” or “parts”.

We are all transient manifestations of being in the One great Flow.

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If I drive about an hour west from here I come to the edge of France. This particular stretch of coastline is called “La Cote Sauvage” (the wild coast) and it’s where you can stand and look out across the Atlantic Ocean. There’s something life expanding about gazing out over this immense expanse of water. It makes you take a deep, deep breath and fill your lungs, which is one way of making yourself a little bigger! The air is filled with that scent of saltwater, of clean air, and of distant, invisible places.

Many of us are drawn to the sea. We talk of “the pull of the sea” or the “call of the sea”. My ancestors, on one side of my family, came from the Orkney Isles, off the north coast of Scotland. I don’t know if that connects to a Viking thread or not, but I do know that the Vikings were great sea travellers. There are even some suggestions that they sailed as far as the continent we call North America. But, wherever they went, what induces a sense of awe and almost incredulity for me, was that they set out across expanses of sea like this one. They had no idea where they were going. There were no maps, and they didn’t even know if the ocean had an edge that you might fall off when you got there. They just set off.

What were they thinking, these ancient mariners? Did they just think, oh I can see the edge of the water over there in the distance, I think I’ll go and have a closer look? In much the same way that we drawn to go to the edge of a cliff, or a high building, so we can peer over and see what we can see. Did they think there might be new land there? New territories to conquer or treasures to grab?

I don’t know but I think the same questions can be applied to any of the sailors who set off across unknown seas like these. Given that I am a bit of a fan of the “and not or” idea I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a bit of both….with other motivations blended in as well.

It’s a bit of a metaphor for life, isn’t it? On any day we stand at the edge of an ocean, an expanse of possibilities stretching from here to eternity. What lies out there? The future. Is the future just waiting to be discovered? Probably not, is the answer. How many routes can we take to cross that sea? An infinite number, is the answer.

The bit that doesn’t work in this metaphor is in the answer to that first question….”what lies out there?” The future is not a distant place. It’s not just lying there, passively and patiently waiting to be discovered. Why not? Because the future is “emergent”…..that is, as in all complex systems, the future cannot be predicted from even a complete knowledge of the present, because complex systems come up towards “bifurcation points” where they might go one of two ways….towards greater complexity or towards collapse and chaos. When they pass through these points they show this quality of “emergence” which is defined as a state which could not have been predicted from the previous knowledge. When that emergence is of a certain degree of significance everything is different….the system has undergone a “phase change”.

So the future isn’t out there waiting because we are still busy making it. It will arrive when we get there. A sentiment we know well from the advice to “cross the bridge when you get there” (knowing that when you get there, there might not be any bridge, or even a gap to cross).

It’s our imagination and our curiosity which propel us onwards on this voyage of creation. Every day, every moment, even, co-creating with the rest of Existence, the next moments, the next days, the near and distant futures, which are still a gleam in their parents’ eyes.

Pretty exciting, huh? Are you up for it?

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From the perspective of complexity science an “attractor” is an area of organisation within what otherwise appears as a chaotic system. Think of the phenomenon of a “Black Hole”. It’s like a sink hole where everything, even light, disappears into it. It’s like a point in the universe which pulls everything within its reach into its centre. A “Black Hole” is a sort of attractor.

An attractor appears around a focus, and once it is there it exerts this kind of “gravitational” or “magnetic” pull on anything which comes close to it. But the simplest way to think about it is the emergence of a consistent pattern in the midst of chaos. If there weren’t these points of organisational focus in the universe then space would be even, smooth and featureless. But space isn’t like that. It’s full of features, full of phenomena, of areas and points of organisation.

You can see something similar happen in the brain where distinct networks of neurones which “fire together”, “wire together”. There are examples of brain imaging which show the thickening of neural pathways when something is repeated…for example, when practising the piano (where you can see a thickening of the brain nerves used to control the fingers). It’s sort of a neural equivalent to what happens to muscles when someone practices body building.

The same thing happens with our habits of thought and emotion. The loops which start to fire in relation to particular thoughts or emotions have a pulling power. Many years ago I read a book by the psychologist Edward de Bono, “Water Logic”, where he described this tendency for thought patterns to become embedded in our brains by likening them to the way water makes its way down towards the sea from the heights of a mountain. The rain falls pretty evenly over the high lands, but starts to run together to form streams, rivulets, rivers and finally estuaries into the oceans. The next rain which falls tends to follow the paths already carved out by the previous rain.

I thought that was a pretty powerful image and I shared it with many patients over the years. It helped explain phenomena like flash-backs, compulsions and addictions to some extent. But I always thought it was only part of the story, and it wasn’t until I discovered “attractors” that I realised what the other part was.

So, it seems to me, that events which are accompanied by strong emotions can make new attractors in our minds. They can be traumatic events, accompanied by fear, anger, shame, or pain. Or they can be life-enhancing events like joy, wonder, tranquility, or a sense of one-ness with the world.

When we recall one of those events we are drawn back into the same original pathways and loops. Or when something new happens which is pretty similar to one of those attractors, then the whole thing kicks off quickly and powerfully once more.

Once I understood this I realised we can actively create our own new attractors, by having, and/or re-creating, the kinds of experience which we want….the ones of love, joy, belonging, tranquillity, awe or transcendence.

Attractors, it seems, are not fixed entities. They need to be fed to keep them growing, and neglect makes them likely to wither away. The more attention we give them, the more powerful they become.

I was thinking about this today when I looked at this photo of mine, taken in a zen garden in Japan. What I like about this image is not just the spiral, which is indeed very attractive, but the wider scene – how there are different flows, paths, bends, loops and spirals across the whole expanse of the stones. Can’t we do this with our minds? Create our own unique inner landscapes of pattern by becoming aware of existing attractors, and actively creating new ones?

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I’m pretty keen on biology….as you might imagine for a doctor! I’m interested in how the body works, the way the different cells, organs and tissues all function so beautifully together. I’m interested in discovering the connections within us with all the incredible feedback loops and cascades. I find it all fascinating.

But it was very clear to me from very early on in my work as a family doctor that human beings can’t be reduced to biology. There’s more to us than biology can explain. I often refer to the three flows which pulse through our very beings every moment of every day – the flows of materials, energy and information. Biology is pretty good at shining a light on the first two flows, but its the third one where things start to get so uniquely interesting when thinking about human beings.

One of the aspects of information flow is art. Now, I don’t mean to reduce art to information, or at least, not in the sense that information is “data”. I mean information as signals, not simply data. Information as meanings. So language, music and visual art all connect with us, and our whole being responds. You can blush because someone says something to you. Your heart can race because you hear a certain song. You can catch your breath, or feel a range of emotions, from disgust to delight, when you see a work of visual art.

Our lived environment is not just physical. We imbue it with meaning. We react to particular colours, designs, patterns, sounds, scents and physical touch. A particular taste can set off a cascade of memories….one of the most famous examples being Proust’s “madeleines”.

I think both street art, and advertising, affect us deeply. The images trigger certain responses within us…..maybe certain emotions, certain thoughts, or particular memories. But whatever they do, they change us. And because we are not compartmentalised, those changes ripple through our entire being. We don’t keep them in our heads.

I think we’re often quite unaware of the images and art around us. They often exert their influence in sub-conscious ways. But I like to be aware of them. I like to notice them, stop, and reflect.

In this photo I’ve captured both street art and advertising. What do you feel when you see them? What do you think when you see them? What effect do they have on you? (If any….because of course we are all affected differently by different images)

We co-create our lived reality, we humans. We do it collectively and we do it as individuals, creating and publishing, or “showing” our creations. We do that whether we are artists, or writers, or whether we simply talking to each other. We change the lived environment by constantly changing our behaviour, our language and by using our creative powers.

What kind of reality are you going to co-create today?

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Maybe one the most important concepts at the base of all my understanding of people, of Life, and of the world, is that everything is connected. Nothing exists in isolation.

If I want to understand a patient, a friend, a relative, or myself, I have to follow as many of the threads which create the rich tapestries of Life as I can. I can never know them all. The daily judgement is deciding that I know enough to act, keep an open mind and awareness, and watch to see how things change after the act. I don’t really know any other way to live.

In scientific terms we humans are “open systems”. That means we don’t have impermeable walls or borders which separate us out from the rest of existence. It is just not possible to know an individual in total isolation. Our whole being is continuously immersed in flows of materials, energies and information which change us as we change them. We are influenced by, and impacted by, the environment in which we live, the food and drink we consume, the behaviours and emotions of other human beings, and the experiences of all non-human life every day. And vice versa……everything we do, what we consume, what we discard and excrete, how we act towards other humans and other forms of life changes the planet we share every day.

I loved hearing the stories patients had to tell me. Every single story was unique. Every story was a story of events, experiences, and change as a result of interactions between the person and their vast interconnected webs of environment and relationships.

I was taught that good medical practice is based on making a good diagnosis. A diagnosis is an understanding. It was my job to listen to the story, examine the patient, and, if necessary order some tests, to discern the patterns within their experience which I had been taught to recognise. In my early years as a doctor those patterns were almost exclusively pathologies, or diseases. Over time I came to understand that diagnosis, or “understanding”, needed to be both deeper and wider than that. It wasn’t enough to name the disease. A doctor had to learn to see and understand the person who was experiencing the disease. That shift from pathology to person involved teasing out the threads, exploring the influences, the impacts and the personal responses.

Each of us have distinct patterns which occur and re-occur throughout our lives. Patterns of thoughts, emotions, behaviours run through our stories. Patterns of memory, experience and fantasy cycle and spiral across whole lifetimes.

They are amazing. They are remarkable. They are astonishing. I can’t see a time will come when I’m done with this. It seems to me that every day there are new patterns to discern, threads to follow, new connections to find and to create.

What a life! What a remarkable, awe-inspiring, wonderful phenomenon is Life.

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I find that the turning points of the year are a good time for some reflection. We’ve just passed through an equinox last week and, here in France, the summer heat has gone, and autumn has most definitely begun. Autumn is one of my favourite seasons (I have three other favourites! Ha! Ha!) and I’m looking forward to the leaves starting to turn golden, yellow, red and orange….gorgeous. But just as New Year is a like a gate to path through, watched over by Janus, the one with two faces, one looking forward and the other looking back, I think all these turning points are like gates.

Well, what a year 2020 has been so far! I know that Life is truly unpredictable but we sure didn’t see this coming, did we? For me, there are other factors in play which have turned 2020 into a bit of a waiting game. I find I’m constantly waiting for something….when is the virus going to go away? When are the restrictions going to be lifted? When can I travel again? Will there be a vaccine? Will there be new effective treatments for people who catch the virus? When are the Brexit trade negotiations going to be completed? How is that going to affect currency exchanges and therefore my income? When are the new regulations on residency coming in here in France, and when will my application for permanent status be approved? I could go on…….

You’ll have your own list, but do you notice something? Those are all about the future? They are all about what might happen, what is said to be going to happen but hasn’t happened yet…..and so on. So, let’s take a moment to turn the other way and look back. Let’s take a moment to reflect.

I think this pandemic is having impacts which are both personal and collective. It’s provoking many of us to think about how we live our lives. It’s making us think about what’s important. It’s a brake on that human tendency to take things for granted. I’ve read a couple of articles in the French Press recently taking another look at Sartre, and what he said about freedom during the time of the Nazi occupation. There’s something about living more consciously within limits and constraints which changes what we think about freedom, and which heightens the value of conscious presence. So, I’ve found that. That now, more than ever, I’m repeatedly drawn back to the here and now. I’m becoming more aware, making more conscious choices.

Let me give you an example or two. I’m more conscious now of what I eat, wanting to have a diet which encourages health and resilience. So, I’ve discovered new places to buy locally produced foods (which haven’t been shipped from half way across the planet) and I’m actually delighting in shopping trips for fresh fruit and veg, for locally sourced foods like honey, small farm meats and dairy and so on. I have also researched supplements and started boosting my levels of Vitamins C and D, and my levels of Zinc. The top three I identified as being important in immune health. I’m also more conscious, you might even say wary, about going anywhere. I don’t just pop out anywhere unthinkingly any more. I make a more conscious, deliberate choice.

Another positive change for me is a deepening of my connection with the natural world. I’m living in a house on the edge of a village in the heart of cognac-making vineyard country. The house has a garden with a fabulous mulberry tree right in the middle. The tree has grown enormously since we came to live here. I’m convinced we like each other! So, I spend as much time outside as I can. I’ve noticed that the days have been much quieter. Not all days, but there are certainly more days which sound like Sundays. And I’m hearing more bird calls and conversations than ever before. I’ve read about others having similar experiences…..as if humans stepping back a bit has allowed other creatures to step forward. I’m also convinced that spending time in the open air is good for, and time engaged with Nature is even better.

Collectively I think this virus has brought us an enormous opportunity to see things more clearly and to speak up for change. It’s clear that our health services have been inadequate and precarious. We shouldn’t have to be exhorted to “Protect the NHS” – the NHS is there to protect US! It’s clear that huge swathes of society are living precarious lives…..the poor, the long term sick, black and ethnic minorities, and so on. It’s clear that care of the elderly is inadequate and vulnerable. It’s clear that millions of people carry out vitally important jobs but they are undervalued and underpaid. It’s clear that globalisation in favour of capital has made whole countries less resilient, with elaborate distant supply chains breaking down. It’s clear that education is a mess and stuck in some very old ways of working. It’s clear that mass spectacles, mass tourism, mass anything really, just aren’t such a clever idea.

So what? you might ask?

Well, in my work as a doctor, I always thought that everything hinged on making a good diagnosis. If I didn’t see clearly what the patient was experiencing and couldn’t make sense of it, then treatment was going to be partial at best, and useless or harmful at worst. So I think we need to start by making some good diagnoses here….and diagnosis, for me, involves a kind of reflection.

Imagining, creating and spreading the possible solutions comes next. But we’d better start doing that soon!

How about you? What comes up for you as you reflect on your own life and our collective lives in the light of the 2020 pandemic so far?

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