Archive for the ‘from the dark room’ Category

This cut crystal really hits the spot for me – firstly, I see it and I think it is really beautiful. The beauty of it delights me. Secondly, I’m amazed by it. The craftsmanship involved in imaging then fashioning a piece like this utterly astonishes me. Thirdly, it fascinates me. I gaze at it and look at the way the light travels through it. I see how each facet acts like a lens through which I can see the other facets, and how all the facets act as lenses on the window and the rest of the room.

I can have that blend of responses to many of the photos I have and I think that’s got a lot to do with my decisions about which to gather together into my “best photos” folder. Beauty, amazement, wonder and fascination. Altogether they bring me joy. And, without falling into the habit of ranking and creating hierarchies, I think joy is one of the most emotions we can have in our daily lives. Joy activates a whole set of physical and psychological changes in us. And, it just feels GOOD.

But this image does one more thing for me, the thing I really look for in my special collection of best of the best images – it inspires, stimulates thought, curiosity, wonder, and a potentially infinite web of threads of thought.

This idea of a multi-faceted interface gets me thinking about how we humans are like this. Whenever a patient told me their story, as we explored different themes, events and experiences, I’d see them shining like this – each aspect, each theme, each way of behaving, of experiencing, of engaging with the world glimmering like one of these facets. There are many selves within each of us. In 1977 the Scottish psychiatrist, Miller Mair, described a model of the “self” coining the term “community of self” – his idea was that none of us can be reduced to one simple set of characteristics, behaviours and qualities. Each of us exhibits a different self in different contexts – for example, there would be differences in how I was with patients, from how I was with my family, with colleagues and with friends. But that each of these selves were not separate, at least, if we were mentally healthy. Instead, they would all be integrated into one – into one community where they all interacted to give us the sensation of a unitary, or single, self. I liked that model. It opened up the possibilities of exploration of different aspects of a person, often contradictory or opposing aspects, while allowing every one them a place where they could be accepted.

This idea also makes me think of Indra’s Web – that beautiful idea of the universe consisting of an infinite be-jewelled web, where everything is connected, and every gleaming jewel reflects all the other jewels. I think that’s a great model for understanding the world in which we live.

It also makes me think of how we use multiple lenses through which to see, and understand, the world. In fact, if we reduce ourselves to seeing everything through just one small lens or window we find that we tumble into division and conflict with others who don’t share that single lens. But when we embrace the multiplicity of lenses through which we can see the world we can find points of connection with others.

That’s my final thought for today – not only are we all like this multifaceted cut crystal, but when one of our facets lights up in connection with one of someone else’s facets, then we don’t just make a connection, we can brighten each others lives.

I hope this lens, this shining small facet, here today, brightens your life today, and that you, too, feel the stirrings of joy, of wonder, of delight and of connection.

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A human being is a part of the whole, called by us, “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.”

Albert Einstein

This is foam on a beach. As the waves break, turn white, and crash onto the sand, sometimes they make bubbles…..lots of them. If you look closely you’ll see all different sizes of bubbles and as they catch the sunlight they show us all the colours of the rainbow. They are like delicate, precious gems. However, like all bubbles, they don’t last very long. As you watch, they pop and disappear before your eyes, disappearing back into the rest of the surf, back into the great ocean which they never actually left.

Einstein says our sense of being separate is an optical illusion. We have these functions we call consciousness, ego and self…..what are they? Where can we find them? Where do they come from and where do they go to?

I am convinced that each of us is unique. I spent my working life meeting, getting to know and to understand, thousands of people, one person at a time. I never found any two people who were identical. I find it’s easy to judge people when you don’t know them. It’s easy to make loose assumptions about individuals when you only “know” them as members of a group or a category. But when you take time to listen without judging, when you actively build a relationship of care, I find that everybody has something amazing to tell. Everyone has the ability to astonish you. The hearts, the desires, the longings, the hurts and the struggles of others create utterly unique life stories, and remarkable people.

But I’ve never thought that we are separate. As you start to follow the threads in a person’s life story, it’s hard to find a starting point. In fact, we doctors are taught to explore a patient’s family, their social, work and personal relationships, as well as their particular body and mind. Holistic practice demands that we follow the threads in as many directions as we can. Frequently, patients would tell me they had never told anyone else what they had told me and that I must know them better now than anyone else does. Yet, I knew I spent only a few short hours over a number of months with them, so how could I really know them? I knew how I’ve never got to the point where I think I know and understand everything about myself, let alone about anyone else.

Well reality is like that. We encounter individuals on particular occasions. Like these bubbles in the foam we can see them, recognise their uniqueness, but they are never separate. We are all connected. We all emerge from the same ocean, from the same atmosphere, from the same ecosystems. We have all evolved from the same beginnings. As we live our lives, our short, transient lives, we build an infinite number of connections and relationships. Everything and everyone is always changing.

I think that’s the most amazing and thrilling aspect of life – that we have the ability to separate out, to see each bubble as it is, to know each person as they are, whilst at the very same time knowing that whatever it is, whoever they are, this appearance of separateness is a delusion.

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I love spirals. I find them quite captivating. My attention is caught by them and I’m drawn close to contemplate them. I’m not sure what it is that makes them just so beautiful, but, to me, they are amongst the most beautiful shapes in the universe. You can see them around you in many places of course….in plants, especially climbers which use this method of finding places to hook onto, then pulling tight to hoist themselves upwards. But also in ferns, and in plants which throw out creepers and tendrils which stress across the ground. We humans often create spirals in our art. Maybe it’s because I’m Scot, because like most Scots I’ve been steeped in the traditional Celtic and Pictish complex knots, three armed spiral shapes which we call the triskele, and intertwined ribbons which swirl around each other. However, I suspect it’s not just those of us with Celtic backgrounds who like spirals.

One of the things I like best about the spiral is that it seems to me that a person’s life story often has that sort of trajectory. There are issues, problems, difficulties which we meet, attempt to address, or run away from, which just keep spiralling back again and again. In fact, human development too seems to have a spiral path.

I don’t think time flows in a straight line. It loops, and it spins, slows down, pauses, runs forward. The past and the future both have their part to play in my ability to make sense of the present. They don’t exist in three separate, sequential boxes, but rather, they loop, cycle and spiral together to create the intricate patterns of the tapestry of a life.

There’s a special thing about this photo. You have to look a bit more closely to see it. Right in the middle of the main spiral in this photo you can see the world clearly – it’s as if you are looking through a lens.

Isn’t that magical?

It reminds me that if I really do want to see the world clearly, then the lens of the spiral can be a pretty good way to do that. What do you see more clearly about your life, when you consider it through the lens of a spiral?

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“Emerveillement” is one of my most favourite French words. It means wonder, amazement, marvel…..words like that. You get the idea? I am a “wonderer” – Curiosity may be one of my core features. I’m sure that helped me to be a good doctor. I found every single patient fascinating. Monday mornings for me were an opportunity to begin a new week of meeting new patients, hearing their stories, working with them to make sense of their illness and to understand both who they were and what they were experiencing.

But my sense of curiosity, of wonder, of “emerveillement” was never focused solely on human beings. Every day my mind fills with questions, I find myself astonished by something I see, hear, or read. New discoveries delight me. New knowledge thrills me. And perhaps nothing pleases me more than achieving a better understanding of something.

This photo is one I took during several visits I’ve made to Segovia over the last few years. Surely it’s Segovia’s most impressive feature! It’s an enormous aqueduct built by the Romans (yes, the Romans!) to bring water from the countryside into the heart of the town.

I mean, just look at it! Isn’t it astonishing? What a conception! What a feat of engineering! What a vast labour, heaving those stones, cutting them to the right size, putting them into the correct positions! The aqueduct didn’t have a pump. As far as I know, Romans didn’t have pumps…..well not machine ones anyway. No, instead they built this impressive structure so that water would flow continuously downhill along the length of the high channel. Seriously impressive! Human genius!

But there’s more….because not only is it an incredible solution to the problem of how to get clean water to the population in the town, but just look at it…..it’s beautiful. It’s a work of art.
Nowadays we would be more likely to cut a trench, lay some pipes and then cover them up. Not the Romans. They created a thing of beauty which was also a solution.

I can’t help but think we’ve gone too far down the road of “utilitarianism”, “short term thinking” and “profit taking” these days. How many of the water supply mechanisms made in the last century will still be functioning and looking beautiful two thousand years later.

The human genius is not just in finding solutions. It’s in creating beauty, and in seeing far enough forwards to make things which can last. We need a bit more of that.

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This is one of the most unusual windows I’ve ever seen. I spotted it during a trip to Segovia, Spain a few years ago.
Have you ever looked through a window which has really old glass in it? The glass has structure and shape. It often has twists, curls or waves in it, so that whatever you are looking at through the window is completely changed by the window itself.

We are used to having factory produced smooth, “flawless” glass in our windows. It’s so unobtrusive that we don’t even really notice it at all. In fact, some places put red discs, or notices on the glass to stop people from trying to walk through it. But I like that older, hand-fashioned glass. Those patterns and shapes don’t seem like flaws to me, and I rather enjoy seeing the results of the creative fusion of whatever is on the other side of the glass, the glass itself, and my own act of observation. It reminds me just how actively creative perception is. Other wise I tend to think of it like a camera lens with the image of the “outside” cast precisely onto the screen after flipping upside down twice, once as it goes through the lens, then a second time, to “correct” it, as it passes through a prism. See, even that apparently more direct way of seeing, isn’t as direct as we first think, is it?

As well as reminding me of the active creative processes involved in perception, because it makes me more aware of myself as the viewing “subject”, I’m also reminded of how every one of us experiences the universe from our own unique perspective.

This particular window magnifies that idea for me. You could imagine that each of these circles is a unique lens through which a different person sees and experiences the world. Each one a bit different from the others. But, actually, all of the circles are connected……you see those connecting lines in the glass?

Because that’s a bit like how it is for us, isn’t it?

I view the world from this place of a “self”, whatever that is, this particular place which I cannot share with any other living being. No two of have identical experiences of what we perceive. We bring our unique memories, values, beliefs and imaginings to bear on it all. But that doesn’t mean we are completely separate looking at totally different worlds. We share a lot….we share a lot of atoms and molecules, we share time and space, we share stories, beliefs and traditions…..whatever we see and experience is not entirely disconnected from what others see, experience and feel, after all.

It’s a tricky one, that. It’s a constant dynamic balance, an integration of what’s different and what’s shared. Pretty amazing, huh?

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I know that it is still too early for many of you to feel that we’ve reached a time of opening up. Here in France we are into yet another “confinement” and can only travel up to 10 km from home and there’s a curfew every night. But this is Spring here in the Charente and as I look around my garden I see “opening up” everywhere I look.
The trees and flowers have buds starting to unfurl. I see the green protective covers begin to peel back and show me hints of the glorious colours of the petals and blossoms which are about to emerge.

Life doesn’t progress along neat straight lines. It’s not “linear”, and it’s not exact. In fact, Life is so diverse that the changes around me occur at different rates all the time. The plants go through their various stages of seasonal cycles in their own time. The plum tree blossom has gone now, the cherry tree blossom is carpeting the grass every time there is a breeze, but the mulberry tree is only showing its first hints of the leaves to come. The Spring daffodils and tulips are all but past however the irises, the poppies and the tree paeonies are only about to reveal their beautiful flowers.

Wherever you live in the world there will be seasonal changes going on around you which are a bit different from the ones I see around me. Life is varied and diverse, and whilst all Life shares a tendency to “becoming” over “being”, the evidence is always contextual. It all depends on the circumstances and the local environment.
I think we humans are like this too. Yes, you can see broad, sweeping life stages in every individual, from birth to childhood, through adulthood and into mature, old age. But we don’t all develop at the same rate or in the same way. And we don’t progress mechanically as if we are working our way square by square around a board game.
We leap forward, retreat, hit setbacks, meet challenges, stumble across opportunities. We build support and networks of relationships. We connect, and we disconnect. There really are an infinity of paths and an infinite diversity of life stories. No two of us are identical.

But this “opening up” that I see in today’s image, is an essential part of being human. We don’t grow if we don’t open up.

For the second half of my career I worked in a specialist centre for people with chronic illnesses. When someone has suffered for a long time they are often in a state of closing down, of separating themselves out from the world, and of building more walls in the hope of some security and safety. They are often exhausted and lack the ability to take even small steps forward. For all those reasons, our hospital was built around a garden which was like a small, abundant, natural, cloister, where we could wander, sit, wonder and talk together……the patients and the staff. Time and time again we’d see how this enabled people to re-connect, to break out from the closed, separated, fearful places they had retreated into, and begin to notice the plants, the seasons, the birds, the fox and the squirrels, to begin to be heard, to begin to feel cared for.

This process of healing required a coming together of “opening up”. The opening of the hearts and minds of the carers, who paid attention, and listened without judgement. And the opening of the hearts and minds of the patients who could begin to feel safe, to feel hope, and begin to get in touch with Life’s flow of energy again.
Wherever we are in life, whatever stage we have reached, we all need to open up in order to grow. We need to find the right circumstances, the fertile ground, the caring, loving connections between ourselves and the rest of this world……other people, other creatures, “Gaia”, herself…..in order to flourish, in order to become fully what we can become.

Even in the midst of these difficult times if you look around you will see signs of opening up…..in hearts, minds, bodies…..in communities, relationships, in plants and other creatures.
I think it helps to look out for those signs of opening up. It gives us hope and courage, and without those, then what?

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I think this is one of the most remarkable trees I ever saw. I don’t know what the story is here. I don’t know if the original trunk was damaged, became diseased, or was deliberately cut down by some people. But what you can see here is the remaining stump of the tree, surrounded by new growth on all sides. So it’s like a ring of trees around the original one. I can’t prove it but I bet these are not separate trees at all. As best I understand what happens in situations like this, all of this growth stems from the one plant. It is, in fact, one tree, with several trunks.
This image sparks off two trains of thought for me.

The first is about resilience. Living organisms have astonishing powers of resilience. Of course, they aren’t immortal, but when you do see recovery the shape and direction it takes can be pretty surprising. I saw that many times with patients. There were always those who didn’t just “become well again”, but who were so changed by the experience of their illness, that as they healed, they grew in completely different directions to the ones they had taken up to becoming sick. A few months, or years, further one, they were truly transformed. The impact of the illness might still show in some ways, but the changes in their personalities, choices, behaviours, ways of thinking and living, were so profound that it was hard to see they were, in fact, “the same person”.

The second is about identity. That phrase, “the same person”, is always one which gets me wondering about identity. I read an article online this morning about the Celts. It described the controversy which exists between academics about just how the Celts were, who they were, where they lived and where they came from. What amazed me about that piece was just how widespread the “Celtic” peoples appear to have been in the past, and whilst there is debate about whether the Western Celts moved East, or vice versa, and whether or not, the people we call “Celts” were all “really Celts” is something I find much less interesting. Rather than falling down the rabbit hole of identity and its origins, I found myself wishing again that people would accept how inter-related we all are….all we humans. These attempts to divide us up into neat categories and then challenge each other on whether or not we qualify to be a member are both harmful and sad.

Yes, it might be interesting to trace some of the threads which have intertwined to weave our individual tapestries of self, but can we give up on all this unhelpful categorisation and attempts to separate and divide? Can we see instead that every one of us has connections, past, present and future, which wind their way across all such artificial, imaginary boundaries, which we call “categories”?

Our connections, what we share now, what our ancestors shared before, what we will share in our common future, all matter so much more than all this putting everything and everyone into separate, labelled boxes.
After all every one of us is changing every moment of every day, and with enough time passing, those changes can take on the significance of transformations.

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

Lynne McTaggart writes in her book, “The Bond

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

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

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

The world is not a collection of things, it is a collection of events. The difference between things and events is that things persist in time, events have a limited duration. A stone is a prototypical ‘thing’: we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not stones.

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

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

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I took this photo in a steampunk themed cafe in Capetown a few years ago. There’s no doubting this is a work of art. There is a beauty in technology which we can admire in both some of the latest devices and machines we have available to us, and there’s also a certain beauty in old technologies, which are the source material for these steampunk creations.

But we humans have become almost hypnotised by the machine model of reality. Everywhere we go we see machines. We use the concepts of components, parts, processes with inputs and predictable outputs everywhere. The human body is often thought of as an elaborate, perhaps complicated, machine. But it isn’t.
If there is one big modern myth I’d like to counter it’s the myth of the machine. Life is NOT machine-like. Human beings are not like machines….no not even computers! Animals and plants are not like machines. Reality, in fact, is not machine-like.

Why not?
Because reality, Nature and Life are not assemblages of components. We are not made up of discrete parts which can just be replaced.

Reality, Nature and Life are non-linear and massively interconnected. Nothing exists in isolation and every movement, every behaviour, every birth, life and death makes changes which ripple through the entire world. Life is dynamic, never fixed. Life is emergent….it changes in ways which cannot be predicted at the individual level. Life is adaptive, constantly detecting and responding to changes in the environment and in the vast networks of relationships.

Reality, Nature and Life are inter-dependent. All that exists is implicated in the co-creation of all that exists.
Some scientists have defined life as possessing a quality of “auto-poiesis” – self-making capacity – all living creatures grow, mature, reproduce, replace cells, repair damage throughout their entire lives.
Others define life as having “self-moving capacity” – a stone can’t move itself, but a bacterium can, a bird can, a human can.

In fact, it’s still pretty amazing to look at Biology textbooks, check the index and see if you can find a definition of Life. Let me know if you find any! Similarly, textbooks of Medicine don’t seem to have even index entries, let alone whole chapters, about “health” – it isn’t even defined!

There are many other arguments to consider which make the case for just how UNLIKE machines reality, Nature and Life are. So, why do we persist? Thinking we can deal with reality as if it is a giant machine. Why do we persist in giving such attention to short term thinking and reductionist science? Because the longer the time scale, the less and less machine-like, reality appears.

In the last fifty years or so there have been great advances in our understanding of networks, of systems, and of “complex adaptive systems” in particular. We are waking up to the inter-dependent nature of this little planet we all share. My hope is that these insights will shift the balance and the machine-like model will be put back in the box where it deserves to be – the box marked “machine”. Let’s not put anything else in there!

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Here they come again….the leaves on the mulberry tree.
I have a mulberry tree in my garden. I provides the most amazing shade on hot summer days and its abundance of mulberries feeds many birds, as well as leaving more than enough for us to make crumbles etc. In the autumn it sheds all its leaves and I spend many days raking up the dead the leaves to take to the recycling centre. I actually really enjoy that task. It’s kind of a meditation and the variety of colours, shapes and sizes of the fallen leaves continues to astonish me. Then in the winter time the tree stands bare. It’s grown a lot over the six and bit years we’ve been here and I like to think it thrives because I pay it so much attention!

In the Spring, buds appear, then a few days later, the first leaves…..small, curled and bright at first, then rapidly unfurling and stretching out to greet the Sun. Here are some of the first ones which have appeared over the last couple of days.

The cyclical nature of the seasons is right here in front of my face. I see it every time I look out the window or step out of the front door.

When you live with this it is absolutely clear that time is not a straight line….it’s not “linear”……but, rather, time spirals. It turns around, loops, and eternally returns. There really are no straight lines in Nature.

Thinking about this reminded me of T S Eliot’s “Burnt Norton”

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

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