Archive for the ‘creativity’ Category

When I came across these trees in a forest I was stopped in my tracks. The forest was quite a wild one, and I don’t think these two trees were grafted together artificially. What I mean is I don’t think there was a human hand involved. Which makes it all the more remarkable, because it looks like these two trees got really close to each other, starting kissing and never stopped!

Whatever the mechanisms involved I just love this image. It speaks to me of that most essential natural drive – to connect…..not just connect, but connect lovingly.

There is a key phenomenon which underpins all of evolution. No, not competition, which is what you’d think from the dominant orthodox view. Competition plays a role, but without integration, there would be nothing….no growth, no development, no evolution. Integration is the creation of mutually beneficial bonds between well differentiated parts.

Let me say that again. Integration is the creation of mutually beneficial bonds between well differentiated parts.

How did Life progress from single celled existence to the vast, diverse, web of complex multicellular organisms? Only by the individual elements getting together to make bonds which would be beneficial to both.

This drive towards integration is a loving drive.

It’s a movement based on “bienveillance” – on meaning and/or wishing well. It’s a drive to support and be supported, to nurture and be nurtured, to love and be loved.

Without these loving connections, we simply wouldn’t exist. Maybe it’s time to put competition into its proper place…..and that’s not THE most important place. I think we have to learn to live by loving instead of dominating, by co-creating rather than trying to come first. If we are going to compete let’s put that competition into the context of improvement…..of supporting all of us to grow, to become stronger, more resilient, to improve. Not to destroy, dominate, control, and grab the most for ourselves at the expense of the wellbeing of others. That old way just isn’t working.

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Can you think of any works of art which changed you? Any which changed your worldview? Changed how you understand yourself, your life, your world?

I was reading about Stendhal Syndrome the other day, which is the phenomenon of overwhelming emotions and physical symptoms experienced by some people in front of particular forms of art. Stendhal described it in relation to his visit to the Basilica of Santa Croce –

I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves’. Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.

What grabbed me about this concept is how art can have a profound impact on us – not just on the way we think, the emotions we feel, but in changing our inner physical reality…..speeding up the heart, releasing a whole cascade of different hormones, causing us to feel a little breathless, a little light headed, to give us butterflies in the stomach, to make us weak at the knees…….but it actually does something else too….

Every experience we have sets off patterns of activity in the neurones in the brain. In neuroscience there is a phrase used which is “what fires together, wires together”. That’s a description of how these patterns of activity, when repeated, actually change the shape of the microstructures of the brain. Art, literally, can sculpt our brains. No wonder it can change us!

Well, this image here is of Anthony Gormley’s work entitled “The Field”. I saw this for the first time in Inverleith House, in the middle of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. I stood in the doorway and looked at these thousands of little creatures, all looking up at me, all the same. Then, as I looked a little more closely I realised that each and every model was different. Not only were they not all the same, but every one of them was unique.

That’s it, I thought! This is the paradox at the heart of my work as a doctor. Every single patient who I meet has some characteristics, some symptoms, some signs of change in their body, in common with other patients I’ve met before. That’s why I needed to learn anatomy, physiology, pathology, the natural history of disease. That’s why I had to learn how to make a diagnosis. But, at the very same time, every single patient who I meet is unique. Every single patient has a story to tell me which I’ve never heard before because nobody has lived an identical life to them. The diagnosis of the “pathology” or “disease” isn’t enough. I need to understand it in the context of a life story, and a present life. What exactly is this person, today, experiencing? How has this present experience and change come about? What sense do they make of this “illness”? What does this “illness” mean to them, mean in their life, mean to the others in their life?

Well, that became the core of my understanding of the Practice of Medicine.

But it went further than that, because I realised, just as quickly, that this insight wasn’t relevant only to my work as a doctor. This is the essence of what it is to be a human being. We share a lot, you and I. But we are also unique, you and I. We can’t be reduced to a single characteristic, demographic, or “data set”, but we can be gathered into those groups…..we can find some common values, beliefs, desires in those features and factors. But we can never, ever, stop there. We can never rest in our understanding of a person by summing up their data, by figuring out what group we want to put them into. We have to discover the individual. What makes this particular person different? What is distinct and different about this person’s life story?

Even as I write this today, I find this excites me. It delights me. It moves me. It activates my thinking, my feelings, even my body.

Art really can be that powerful.

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What caught my eye here was the juxtaposition of the advert for the photographer and the statue in the alcove.

The older work is the statue. It’s a representation of prayer. France, Italy and Spain are three of the countries I know best on the continent, and all three share a rich religious tradition. To be more exact, they share a Catholic tradition. Representations of the crucified Christ, of the Virgin Mary, and of various saints can be found everywhere…..not just in churches and cathedrals, but on street corners, city centres and in small villages. What struck me about this particular statue was the act it portrays – prayer.

I know there are many different kinds of prayer, not least prayers of intercession (asking for help), and prayers of gratitude, but the image of the wedding photos in the windows just next to it led me quickly onto thinking of dreams, of hopes and desires. So, that context drew me into the consideration of prayers of that type – prayers of hope.

I don’t think we can underestimate the importance and the power of hope. I don’t think people can live without it. I’ve seen that many times in my medical career. People with no hope slip into despair and decline. I once I had a patient I knew say to me that her husband had just been diagnosed with cancer and that the doctors had given him six months to live. I asked her how she felt about that and her response surprised me. “Angry”. I asked why, and then came the bigger surprise. “How come he gets to know how long he’s got and I don’t know how long I’ve got?” Well, I didn’t see that one coming. However, it did lead to an interesting discussion about prognosis and what we can, and can’t, predict. Too often predictions like that turned into self-fulfilling death sentences. Because the reality is that, in any individual, we cannot make such accurate predictions. I learned that the hard way as a young doctor.

But let me return to prayers and dreams. I’m sure you’ll have come across the idea of visualisation? Of creating “mood boards” or “vision boards”? Of creating “goals” and “targets” even? Well, those are psychological methods we can use to create the life we want to lead. And isn’t that one of the things which prayers and dreams can do?

Have you noticed how many athletes seem to say a short prayer before the start of their race? Have you noticed how many perform an act of gratitude to the heavens, or to their god, when they win? I’m sure in our more materialistic, so-called rational, times, that prayer, belief, faith and dreams are dismissed more than ever before, but I always wonder if that’s really a rational response?

Because without hope, without dreams, without prayers, without vision, then what kind of life can we co-create?

My answer would be – the kind of life other people create for us! “Heroes not zombies” folks! We human beings really are the co-creators of our own lives. A person cannot be reduced to molecules and random events if we want to understand them. More than that, I suspect that fear and resentment are powerful factors in creating the kind of world we live in, and that there are plenty of players out there who know exactly how to stoke up both.

So, I’m a fan of prayers and dreams. I’m a fan of dreams and visions. I think that what we imagine, what we put our energy into, what we pay attention to, all contribute to both our personal experiences of daily life and to the reality of the world that we share with every other living creature on this little planet.

What kind of life do you want to lead? What kind of world do you want to live in? One focused on fear and despair, or one focused on love and hope? I do think we have a choice. Not in an “either/or” way, but in what we give emphasis to, what influences our world view, what lenses we use to understand the world, and as an act of co-creation.

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I took this photo about twenty years ago. I’m not brilliant at organising my photos, so I’m not totally sure where this is. I think it’s Genoa. Well, it sits between photos taken in Florence and others taken in Genoa and it looks a lot more like Genoa than Florence to me. Either way, it’s definitely Italy.

What I love about this photo is that isn’t static. You know I’m a great fan of “becoming not being”. I love the concept of the constantly changing, every evolving, moment. I love the experience of the present emerging from the streams of the past, and fashioning the possible futures in every lived moment.

I have many photos of paths, and when I look at a path, I feel pulled towards it, to go exploring and discover what lies along that path…..not just where the path might lead, but what I might find as a follow that path. This street adds another level of dynamism, in my opinion, because of the steps. The steps entice you to climb, or to pause, and look back to see where you came from.

The first thing I notice in this image are the two people, a woman wearing a white shirt, and striped skirt, carrying a bag in her right hand, and a young man, dressed in black, hands jammed into both pockets of his not quite full length trousers, his black dog keeping so close to him that at first I didn’t even spot the dog was there! Both of these characters are heading towards the archway, but haven’t quite got there yet.

Above the archway is a statue of, I presume, the Madonna. Her gesture catches my attention. It looks as if her arms are positioned to hold or caress an infant, but there is no infant there. So I see her, I interpret her gesture as caring, and I see a void, a space waiting to be filled? Maybe that’s one of those half glass of water events – is she preparing to care for a child, or has she just lost one? Either way, I find the statue surprisingly emotional. Well, that’s what art can do.

The next thing I notice is that this seems a residential street, with many apartments in all the surrounding buildings, each painted in, what is for me, the typical colours of the North of Italy and the South of France (more Italy than France). I see the washing hanging out of one of the windows, and, again, I’m on the Med…..at least, that’s where I remember seeing washing hanging from the windows of old city apartments.

So, I don’t just feel physically drawn to move up or down this stepped, narrow street. I feel my heart stirred. I feel my curiosity provoked. I feel the rising of my desire to hear what stories these people have to tell.

This might, at first, seem like a static, urban landscape shot, but, pretty quickly it becomes something which declares and demonstrates life and movement.

It provokes the movement of curiosity, of wonder, of the heart.

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In this pandemic much has been said about “the economy” as if there is such an entity. What are the critics of Public Health measures talking about when they talk about “damage to the economy”? Profit? Well, a lot of Tory cronies in the UK are sure making plenty of profit, so I guess it’s not “profit” as such, it’s some business profits. Probably what most people think about are the shopping and hospitality sectors of society, as shops, cafes, restaurants, hotels and so on have had to close to reduce the spread of the virus.

As best I understand it this is a false choice – you can’t choose either the health of the population or the health of the economy. Both affect each other, and probably you can’t have a healthy economy if your population is sick.

But there’s another whole aspect of life which has been hit hard by this pandemic and the measures taken to reduce social contacts – culture. Now, what is “culture”? Well, I mean all of the “arts”, from performance arts, to expressive arts, from music concerts to gallery exhibitions, to dances, theatre and cinema. And more besides.

I took this photo in Florence almost twenty years ago. It’s the kind of scene you can see in many cities around the world. You could say, it’s just an entrepreneur making a living drawing portraits in the street, but this image tells us more than that. Look at that crowd. They aren’t all buying drawings, or paying to have their portrait painted. They are enjoying witnessing the act of creation.

We humans are, amongst other things, profoundly creative. We apply our creativity to our daily lives, with our problem solving, our aesthetic choices, and our own, individual acts of imagination and expression. Here in France you can find fabulous examples of “wall art” in caves, deep underground. That art goes right back to palaeolithic times. There is no way humans have ever been content to merely survive, to simply invest in getting shelter, food and drink. We have always needed culture. We have always needed visual arts, music and dance. We have always needed storytelling and songs. In fact, I think that need for culture – both personal and shared – is a defining characteristic of what it means to be human.

I suppose that during these lockdowns we have shifted our creativity and culture online, and that’s great, but it isn’t a replacement. My hope is that the online expansion will continue and will feed into the physical/social world of museums, theatres, cinemas and concert halls once this is over.

I have another hope, which is that this pandemic might have raised our awareness of the importance of creativity and culture, that many people will be shifting their priorities and values from consumption and “running the rat race” to relationships and creativity. Because if that happens, then the future could look very different from the past.

I think art is important. It nurtures us. It sustains us. It deepens the meaning of our lives. It enhances the quality of our lives…….even when we are, apparently, not paying attention to it……..

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I must admit I have a penchant for bridges, and I have several photos of beautiful ones I’ve seen in different parts of the world. It’s pretty amazing how different a bridge can be. You could say that every single bridge is unique. Even two bridges of the same design will be built over different rivers, or different parts of the same river, and will connect two quite distinct, and particular areas of the Earth (banks, fields, towns, or whatever)

I think we need bridges more than ever. We need to make better connections between ourselves, and between human beings and the rest of the living world. In fact, between human beings and the rest of the entire planet.

Building bridges are about creating integrative relationships – the creation of mutually beneficial bonds between well differentiated parts. In other words they are about connecting diversity and difference in ways which enhance, support and nurture both of the parts.

We need that physically. We need it emotionally. We need it socially. We need it metaphorically and literally.

Here’s to more beautiful bridges! Let’s make the connections!

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Yesterday I wrote about “unfurling” and this morning I came across this photo in my library.

It’s another example of this process we see everywhere in Nature – the opening up of a bud as the flower expands itself at the end of a stalk. It’s an “unfolding”, a “revealing”, or even, a “revelation”.

Really at this stage of a flower you get a strong sense of what is to come…a strong sense of potential. But it’s not quite there yet. It’s in the process of getting there. I like images which capture that concept because I have long been taken by the primacy of “becoming” over “being” – see the phrase at the top of the blog “becoming not being”!

I first encountered the importance of the concept of becoming in the works of Giles Deleuze, but having seen it there I went on to see it everywhere. Really, as I understand it, it involves a significant, and important shift of focus from looking at objects with fixed dimensions to looking at experiences and events which literally unfold before your very eyes. When you shift away from seeing, or trying to see, reality as composed of discrete, separate, bounded parts…..like marbles in a sac……to seeing reality as composed of flows and connections, then you stop wanting to pin things down and fix them. You delight, instead, in the dynamic, living, changing, nature of the universe.

This thinking helped me understand my patients and their illnesses, because instead of looking for discrete pathologies, I became more interested in how those pathologies arose, how they were affecting the person in their everyday life, and trying to understand how to influence the direction and nature of their development into the future. I became less interested in “outcomes” because every “outcome” is an arbitrary point, and more interested in a “life” and a “life story”, and therefore far more interested in following that patient over many years, rather than seeing Medicine as a tool applied to a thing at a particular time – not “getting it done” but “understanding, supporting, encouraging and teaching” instead.

I don’t know if that brief summary is enough to help you see what a radically different way this is to live and to make sense of the every day, but I suggest you try it…….try to notice the processes of becoming, the unfolding, the revelations, the unfurling today, and then let your curiosity follow the threads back to the past and origins, as well as forwards, to potentials and maturity.

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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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When I lived in Scotland the first snowdrops to appear each year always caught my attention. These small white flowers hang like little bonnets, which gives them the appearance of being discrete. They aren’t showy, or majestic, but they are obvious all the same. I think it would be hard not to notice them.

Here in France we don’t have snowdrops. Well, not in this part of France anyway. I’ve never seen them growing wild, and I’ve looked many times in nurseries and garden centres for the little bulbs so I could try growing some in my own garden, but I’ve never found them. Somehow, that makes them even more precious, and, perhaps, somewhat obviously, it gives them a new significance for me. I see them now as emblematic of the country of my birth.

Snowdrops don’t appear for long but they are one of those flowers which marks the cycle of the seasons. There are many other flowers which do that, of course, but the snowdrops seem to manage to break through the winter soil, push up their thin, delicate, green stalks, and unfold their beautiful white petals before most of the other flowers do. In that sense, they are like the beginning of something for me. I know that after I see the first snowdrops, the crocus flowers won’t be far behind, and already I find I’m starting to look forward to the daffodils and tulips.

Every flower is new, of course.

No individual flower repeats itself. Every year each unique, particular bulb wakes up, pushes upwards and shares the beauty of its own petals in its own time, its own place, and its own way. That reminds me of the classical spiritual practice of approaching every day as if for the first time……because that’s the truth…..this day has never been lived before. Everything you see, everything you hear, everything you smell, taste and touch, everything you feel, everything you do, will be for the first time today. It might be a lot like yesterday, but, actually, it’s different.

Starting your day with the knowledge that this day is a new day, and that every experience and event which occurs will happen for the very first time, opens up your potential to wonder and to learn. It opens up your curiosity and your consciousness, filling your day with discoveries, delights, and wonder.

All of that is good for the health of your right cerebral hemisphere – this is the part of the brain we use to discover novelty, to see things in their singularity, to appreciate the holistic nature of reality. And just as we develop muscles by exercising them, so we develop mental functions and neurological structures by exercising them.

New every time – a great way to increase the quality of your life, a great way to encourage growth, a great way to become enchanted again by this world we live in.

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