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illuminate

One day, I stepped out through the back door of the cathedral in Segovia and onto a large paved terrace surrounded by stone lions. When I turned to look back towards the tall arched doorway I noticed that the plain glass doors which hung in the doorway perfectly reflected the buildings across the street. I took a photo.

When I loaded up the photo later I noticed that there were some strange lights above and on the roofs and when I zoomed in I saw more clearly that behind the reflection of the tiles and the satellite dishes some of the cathedral’s stained glass windows shone through the glass door.

That got me thinking……

For centuries the church has created images and told stories to convince people what the world is like, what life is like, and how we should live. With captivating art and gripping stories it presented a particular view of the world. More than that, really, because in presenting that view and spreading it so widely, it created a reality for the people who lived in it.

But look at those satellite dishes.

Who is creating the images and the stories now? Who is telling people what the world is like? What life is like? And how they should live?

Who is presenting a view of the world and spreading it so widely, that it’s creating the reality for us who live in it?

With the rapid development in communications technology, with powerful mobile phones, connected computers, the internet, social media, memes, images and videos which “go viral”, some writers say we have created a whole new layer of the environment in which we live – the “noosphere” (the sphere of human thought).

The truth is we’ve always had a noosphere. We’ve always lived, we humans, within this environment of human thought.

There are image creators and story tellers who fashion the patterns of thought in this noosphere, and in so doing, they influence many others. They create the reality we experience.

But we have a choice. We can be the image creators and the story tellers, or we can be passive consumers. If we choose to be passive consumers, whose world, whose idea of the world, are we choosing to live in?

If we choose to be the image creators and the story tellers, what images shall we share? What stories shall we tell?

Are we going to live as zombies or heroes? Let’s co-create the world we want to live in. Let’s “be the change [we] want to be”.

I think it’s time to resist, to refuse to accept the world view which is responsible for massive inequality, injustice and suffering through the promotion of selfishness, division and greed.

We can make a better world than that. Can’t we? Let’s share our images of beauty, truth and goodness. Let’s share our daily delights and our experiences of awe and wonder. Let’s tell each other our stories of kindness, love and generosity. And let’s promote the world view that we are all connected and interdependent in this one, small planet we call Earth. Let’s share our attempts to adapt and live sustainability so we can co-create a better future for our children and grandchildren.

Shall we?

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I took this photo of the sea and sky – at the time I wasn’t that conscious of the shape of the window through which I was looking, but, somehow, in this image the window becomes a hugely present frame. I think it’s because I’ve exposed the camera for the outside so the dark interior has become even more black than I remember at the time.

Still, that difference brings something extra to this photo. I mean, I could have cropped it removing all the black, but then it would’ve been a completely different photo. Isn’t that interesting?

I think this makes something about perception and reality more obvious. Whatever we perceive is the end result of a process of selective attention. We exclude certain elements from our awareness, include others, and we bring a lot of our life so far to every single experience.

Iain McGilchrist makes it clear in his Master and His Emissary book that the two cerebral hemispheres engage with the world differently, and one of the most important aspects of that is the way in which they focus. Briefly, the left hemisphere uses a narrow focus, zoning in on particular elements, re-cognising them, labelling them and categorising them. The right hemisphere, on the other hand uses a broad focus, seeing the whole as it is, seeing the contexts, the environment and the connections. We use both hemispheres all the time, but we might give more weight to the activity of one over the other. There is an interesting interplay between both of these types of attention in this image, or, maybe better, this image evokes an interesting interplay between both these types of attention. We focus in on the sea and the sky, we notice the black frame, we see the whole image, we see the smooth ripples on the surface of the water and the suggestion of clouds above the horizon.

What do we bring to create our personal frame? Thoughts, memories, and imaginings…….stories, images and experiences. What is my emotional state before I start to look at this? Those emotions “colour” what I see. What memories and previous experiences does it evoke? Whatever they are, they will interact with my emotions, and, together they will influence what I see and how I experience that viewing. Does this scene spark my imagination? Does it stimulate my creativity? Does it influence my motivation, stir my desire?

These are questions we don’t tend to ask ourselves. Most of this goes on below the level of conscious awareness, but it goes on, all the same, and it’s powerful. We literally co-create the world we live in.

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What do you see first when you look at this photo?

For me, it’s the mountains. I immediately see their jagged shape, their almost purple colour, and notice the beautiful blue sky above, with only a few white, fluffy clouds. The fluffy clouds and the sharp mountain ridges make an interesting contrast.

But then I see the path, and am pretty amazed by how straight it is. My eye is drawn quickly from the foreground right up the line of the pale, sandy path as it narrows like an arrow and heads straight for the mountains.

Then I see that on each side of the path are rows and rows of trees. It’s clearly not a path through a forest, but more an orchard, or a cultivated garden. So, again, there is an appealing contrast between the wild, ragged mountains, and the trimmed and tended garden through which the path has been laid.

This is one of those images which makes me reflect on those two elements of motivation and/or focus in our lives. There is the goal, or the destination – whatever we are working towards, whatever we hope for, visualise, or desire. And there is the path – the way we walk towards that destination, or work towards that goal.

Put them together, in other words, don’t choose “or”, but instead choose “and”, and you have the journey – the entire, irreducible experience of living – the subjective, unique, personal experience of you, on your way, along your chosen paths, along the paths you are busy laying, as you move towards your dreams, your desires and your destinations.

Life isn’t just about destinations, is it? And it isn’t really about only the paths either. But it is about the journey, which only you will make. Only you can tell your unique travel story if you choose to share your experience with an other.

One last point – these destinations, these far mountains, in our lives – well, some of them are there already, some have been created by others, and some of them are ones that only we can imagine. Same thing with the paths – some are there already, some have been laid by others, and some are our own creation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope this works for you too.

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This photo has always fascinated me. At the time I took it the sunlight reflecting on the blue waters as they nestled at the foot of the wooded cliffs was what caught my attention. The whole scene is beautiful and it evokes a sense of peace and contentment in me. But from the first time I looked at it on my computer, what has struck me most has been that line on the surface of the water. Do you see it? It’s pretty much right in the middle of the image. It’s like a path, a blue path cut through the glistening white of the sunlit waters on either side of it. It is shaped like a bow, curving round from just over half way along its length to head towards the cliffs. The surface of the water in the path seems calmer than that on either side….it’s smoother somehow.

Clearly this is the trace left by a boat, but there is no sign of the boat. So when did the boat sail this way? A few minutes ago? An hour ago? Longer?

I suppose it could be caused by something which lies beneath the surface rather than by a boat, but what would run a length like that and have such straight parallel edges? No, I think it’s a trace, not something sitting below the surface.

I find that pretty amazing. If there was a boat at the leading edge of it I might not be so impressed, because all boats leave a wake, don’t they? But this is like a wake without a boat…..or a visible wake left by an invisible boat!

I always think of how we humans change the planet by living in it when I look at this photo. Just by moving from one place to another we change the surface, leaving a trail, leaving a trace. It reminds me of Robinson Crusoe finding a human footprint in the sand on what he thought was a deserted island. These traces say “you are not alone”, and that can be both a reassurance and somewhat unsettling.

Of course, this particular trace won’t last very long. It won’t be there tomorrow, or probably not even later today. But other traces we leave change the landscape for decades. Whether through deforestation, through mining, agriculture, or be the creation of living spaces, we change whole landscapes forever…..well, if not forever, then at least for generations. I’d argue it’s forever, because the changes don’t go away.

Changes don’t go away? Surely they do? Well, I’m not so sure. It seems to me that changes just change into something else. Time doesn’t reverse and we don’t return anything in the world to how it was before…….how it was before has gone, so the changes, if they do disappear, only do so by changing into something else. You know what I mean? Landscape changes produce biosphere changes, which cause further changes in the landscape. I see change as more a ripple than an event. I don’t see changes with definite beginnings and endings, but as emerging differences which cascade outwards through the infinite web of inter-connectedness.

Not all changes are as visible as the ones we see on surfaces, or in landscapes, of course. I know I change all the time. My consciousness changes all the time. My emotional state changes all the time. I think, I act, I communicate, I respond and react. Those waves of change ripple out through my connections. Like the one I have with you. When you stop by to read this today, some of what I’ve been thinking, some of what I’ve been feeling, or something that I’ve seen and shared with you today induces some change in you. Maybe a different thought, maybe the start of a different feeling, or the deepening of an existing one. Maybe this experience you are having reading this post, will ripple out into conversations you have today, or into what you choose to do, or, maybe even what you notice as you live your own life in the days ahead.

Of course, I don’t know.

But I’m aware of the possibility. And that awareness is at the heart of why I create these posts. My intention is to share some of my wonder, my amazement and my delight in daily living. To share from my heart with positivity. I hope this leaves a trace, or sets off some waves to ripple out into our shared and wonderful life together.

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

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

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

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

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

You choose.

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

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

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

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

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At the edge of the sea where the waves break onto the sad, sometimes you find an area like this, filled with pebbles and bubbling, foaming water. The hissing sound of the water as thousands of bubbles burst, and the clattering sound of the pebbles as they are tumbled back and forth by the waves is a beautiful sound.

When I look at this image I see the contrast between the foam and the stone. The foam lasts seconds, maybe a couple of minutes at most. The stones look permanent. They seem unchanging. But of course, they’re not. The reason that they are so smooth and rounded and glistening is due to the fact that they are undergoing constant transformation by the water. As they are washed and soaked by the water and rattled over each other by the waves, they change all the time, losing atoms to the sea, having their rough surfaces smoothed, and gradually, gradually, being reduced to sand.

The big difference between the foam and the stone is one of duration. Both are impermanent. Both are constantly changing. It’s just that the water does all that much more quickly than the stone does. In fact, the stone does it so slowly that we are mislead into thinking that the pebbles are permanent, eternal, unchanging. They’re not.

The other thing which strikes me when I look at this photo is how it reveals the fundamental truth that everything that exists is constantly being transformed by the encounters it makes with other things. We tend to think of the world as being made up of separate, easily identifiable, different objects – whether they are stones, trees, lakes or creatures.

But what about thinking about the world as made up of subjects, not objects? If everything (I really need to find another word for “thing” because just by using that I turn the world into a collection of objects!) which exists is in constant relationships with others….similar others, and totally different others…..and if those relationships change each of the partners through their encounters and experiences then maybe its better to think of the world as a community of subjects.

The world – not a collection of disconnected objects which can be standardised and replicated, but a community of subjects who co-inhabit the same planet and who resist standardisation through the perpetual transformations of being which emerge from their encounters.

Becoming, not being.

A finite, temporal world of encounters and experiences.

When I think of life this way I find a feeling of resistance arise in me – a resistance in the face of commodification, objectification, standardisation and control. It drives my desire for freedom, feeds my curiosity and opens me to the formation of new relationships and the experience of new encounters, every, single, day.

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Why don’t I just keep my photos in albums which I flip through from time to time?

Why don’t I just write my thoughts and ideas in a personal journal which nobody can read but me?

Because I’m driven to share.

We humans have developed as intensely social creatures. We haven’t evolved to survive as independent, isolated creatures. We have one of the longest dependent infancies on the planet. The little birds I see hatching in nests in the mulberry tree go from looking like small bald dinosaurs with open beaks, to feathered individuals which fly from the nest, successful on first flight, within days. It takes babies many months to walk, to speak and to be able to feed themselves with the food which they have no ability to find by themselves.

You know what I mean. We are created with the social means, the relationship-forming means, to survive and thrive.

Look at these wee girls. I don’t know what they are sharing but you can tell just from their body language how enthusiastically they are sharing. This is a basic, fundamental, necessary drive in all humans.

OK, I know, some people prefer to be more private, to limit their sharing to one or two, or a small handful of, people. But if we have no-one to share with, then, over time, that becomes a problem. We feel alienated, separated, lonely or abandoned. Depression sets in as a kind of implosion obscuring our view of others and of the rest of the world. When I worked at the Centre for Integrative Care in Glasgow, we would sometimes take a patient into the garden and sit with them noticing…..seeing the flowers, the bushes and trees, hearing the birds, spotting the squirrels and the fox. Those times enabled people to safely take the first steps out of the dark hole of depression. Their attention was captured by the natural world and their energy and focus began to flow back into a positive form of connection.

I made a commitment to write a post every day when the first lockdown came in here in France. I suppose, like all of us, I had no idea how long this pandemic would last, and so, it’s something of a surprise to find I’m still creating these daily posts. My thinking was to share one of my photos and also some of the thoughts and feelings which came up within me when I looked at particular images. The main reason to do that was that I find these photos and the reflections they elicit, a source of joy, wonder, delight and positivity.

So, this was my original thought – what if I shared something positive every day? What ripples might that set off? Whose lives might they touch? Might the joys, the wonders and delights become magnified in the sharing? I think they do. Because that’s the really fascinating thing about sharing – it’s not giving away – it’s not losing something that somebody else gains – it magnifies its positive effects on both or us. My life feels better at least in part because of this daily sharing. And I hope yours does too.

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I saw this woman yesterday standing outside a supermarket in the middle of town. I was struck by the size of the books she was holding, and which she couldn’t resist opening and starting to read. It turns out they are a trilogy of YA fiction by a famous French author, the third volume having just been published, which is maybe what inspired this woman to buy all three.

I understand this compulsion. I’ve always had way too many books on my shelves….well, way too many in the sense that I couldn’t read them all in one lifetime. But that doesn’t stop me buying new ones. Suffice it to say I read a LOT!

I’ve had a fascination for stories all my life. In my earliest years I remember my Grandpa reading to me – he read me all of Walter Scott’s “Tales of a Grandfather” and he read me collections of myths, legends and fairy stories which he bought for me when I was born. My mum used to have a photograph hanging on the wall of her living room. It was a black and white print showing my Grandpa reading in the local library. I guess I got that gene!

I’ve told countless people that when I worked at the NHS Centre for Integrative Care (which I did for the latter two decades of my career), I used to look forward to meeting a new patient every Monday morning because I knew they would tell me a unique story – one I’d never heard before. In fact, story was the very heart of my engagement with these patients who, largely, suffered from long term conditions which had failed to respond to drug treatments.

Did it surprise me that they had failed to respond to drug treatments? Nope. Because there aren’t any drugs for people, there are only drugs for diseases and drugs to suppress symptoms. Drugs don’t heal. At best they create an environment conducive to healing. It turns out it’s people who heal, not drugs. It’s people with self-defending, self-repairing, self-balancing, self-creating and growing interwoven complex systems who heal.

I found that stories were the way to understand a patient. Not symptoms.

I read a piece about a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, Karl Deisseroth, yesterday, and in that interview he said

Anybody can read a diagnostic manual and see a list of symptoms, but what really matters to the patient is a different story

see it here

which reminded me of a passage by the English philosopher, Mary Midgely, which I read many years ago –

One cannot claim to know somebody merely because one has collected a pile of printed information about them.

Wisdom, Information and Wonder. Mary Midgley

and of this passage from philosopher Richard Kearney

Telling stories is as basic to human beings as eating. More so, in fact, for while food makes us live, stories are what make our lives worth living.

On Stories. Richard Kearney

In fact, that latter passage came into my head as I took this photo – here’s a woman absorbed in stories, standing next to empty supermarket trolleys and with her back to the stalls of food laid out in front of the shop.

Stories, I found, weren’t just the way to understand a person (to make a diagnosis even), but they were also the way to heal. By helping someone create a new story, I could stimulate that complex of healing systems within them, and spur them on to more than relief from suffering…….More than? Yes, to more self-awareness, more self-compassion, and to a re-evaluation of their life choices, habits and behaviours.

Stories can set us free.

Mind you, it’s also true that we can get trapped by stories – the stuck, multilayered ones we’ve been taught as children, or been brainwashed into believing by others. But even then, the answer, the release, the movement forwards, lies in the creation of new stories……our own, unique stories which allow us to realise our hopes, express our singularity, and live the life we want to lead.

Stories, you see, have a magnetic pull. We don’t live without them.

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I walked into the courtyard of a temple in Kyoto one day and saw this display of flowers. Well, actually, this first photo is what I saw once I got closer to the display which had caught my attention.

When you look at these flowers, all you see is some flowers. It’s not possible to see the pattern which is revealed only from a distance.

This is what you see when you stand back…

Isn’t this amazing?

Actually, whether you encounter the full image first, then get closer in order to realise that it is constructed from hundreds of flowers, or whether you start close up seeing only the flowers, and gradually stand back to see the full image, the two positions are a huge contrast, aren’t they?

These are the two perspectives we bring to everything. We use the left cerebral hemisphere to zoom in on individual elements. To do that it focuses on parts and identifies them, matching them up to whatever we have previously encountered and categorising them. In this case, it identifies the objects as flowers and labels them according to their colour. But at the same time, we use the right cerebral hemisphere to take in the whole picture, to see whatever we are looking at within its contexts. To do that it focuses on the connections and relationships, and, at the same time brings a heightened awareness for novelty – it homes in on whatever is new, whatever is unique, whatever is special.

You’ll know already from my writing that I believe the principle of “and not or” is a good one in life, and that’s in no small part due to the fact that this is exactly how we have evolved. We don’t have only one way of looking at things. We have multiple ways, and we throw them into the complex mix of reality so that we can do more than perceive the world in which we live, we explore, play, learn and create. We adapt, we grow and we evolve.

I’m very wary of black and white, rigid, fixed, narrow views of reality. The world is richer than any of us can conceive. The universe has more potential than any of us can imagine. And there is much to gain from diversity and tolerance.

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