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Archive for the ‘from the reading room’ Category

This pandemic is giving us a really clear experience of living within limits. We experience that as a series of constraints. It’s frustrating and uncomfortable. We want to be free, don’t we? Free to do whatever we want, whenever we want, without a care in the world.

Wouldn’t that be bliss?

But, wait, isn’t that kind of naive? Because there is no such thing as living without limits. We are never free to do absolutely anything we could imagine or desire. That’s a fantasy. Or even a delusion.

I found myself thinking that as I looked at this old photo of a thin layer of cloud hugging the contours of Ben Ledi.

I have just read “Ou suis-je?” by Bruno Latour where he describes some of the limits we live. One of those is what scientists call “the critical zone” – which is the space in which Life can exist. It’s an astonishingly narrow space. You can probe down into the Earth about ten kilometres and you’re down to rock where nothing lived, and you can soar up into Space about ten kilometres and beyond that the atmosphere becomes so thin nothing can live there.

The actual numbers aren’t that important. What is amazing is that all of Life exists within a very, very narrow zone. I don’t know if you’ve seen a photo of the Earth from Space which captures the thinness of the atmosphere. Let me find it for you.

There you are.

Well that’s the image which came to my mind as I looked at my photo of Ben Ledi.

We all live within these very narrow limits. We share, with every other living organism, this astonishingly thin “critical zone”.

The fact that living with limitations has become such an intense experience for so many during the pandemic has woken us up. We live in One interconnected world, a world of precious and limited resources. Now we have to learn to change the way we live – to change away from consumption and destruction to sustainability and creativity.

The pandemic has also shone a strong light on inequality showing us, perhaps more clearly than ever, that too many people are struggling to live with financial and social limitations which make them most vulnerable to serious illness and death.

So maybe now is a good time to think about the reality of living with limits and start to make the changes which increase the chances of better lives for more of us, rather than keeping our eyes closed and hoping for the impossible.

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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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I have to go back about forty years or more to remember a collection of short stories I read. It was called “Strange News from Another Star”, by Hermann Hesse. Those stories made a big impact on me….so big, I remember most of them even now. Oddly, I haven’t re-read them over the years, but I did read them more than once back in my student years.

One of the stories from that book is entitled “Iris” and I always think of it when I see a flowering iris like this one. I remember the boy Anselm describing how he could follow the little yellow stalks as if they were a picket fence marking a path which led deep down into a secret garden. That image of looking at a flower really close up and losing yourself in the depths of that one flower has stayed strong in my memory and imagination. It feels like a description of one of those moments when you lose your boundaries and connect with another living creature so completely that you begin to experience the reality of the wholeness of everything.

Here’s a passage from that story (I looked it out today to write this post)

Iris smiled at him as he stood there at a loss, rubbing his forehead with his hand. “I always feel the same way,” she said to Anselm in her light, birdlike voice, “whenever I smell a flower. My heart feels as though a memory of something completely beautiful and precious were bound up with the fragrance, something that was mine a long time ago and that I have lost. It is that way too with music and sometimes with poems – suddenly there is a flash for an instant as though all at once I saw a lost homeland lying below in the valley, but instantly it is gone and forgotten. Dear Anselm, I believe we are on earth for this purpose, for this contemplation and seeking and listening for lost, far-off strains, and behind them lies our true home.”

I mean, how magical is that? Do you believe we are on this earth for a purpose? Do you agree that at least part of that purpose is “contemplation and seeking and listening….”? Because I’m pretty sure that those three things….contemplating, seeking and listening…..open us up to see more than what just flashes before our eyes.

Isn’t that ability to weave stories into our experiences of everyday encounters one of the key ways in which we make this a more enchanted life?

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When I looked up and saw these black and white clouds I immediately thought of the yin yang symbol….that brilliant representation of wholeness, the union of opposites, and the permanency of change.

I think those are three of the most significant principles I return to again and again to make sense of the world, of life, of other people and of me.

Wholeness because all reduction, every move to separate and isolate, every attempt to disconnect, to abstract, to re-present, is fraught with the potential for delusion. There are no separate, isolated, disconnected phenomena in Nature. All our abstractions and re-presentations which we carry out with our left hemispheres are a step away from reality. Which is not to say they aren’t useful. They are. But you can’t rest there. You have to re-contextualise, to hand back the analysis to the right hemisphere to understand what you are looking at as only an aspect of the whole.

The union of opposites because we humans, Nature, Life and the Universe are full of opposites….dark and light, heat and cold, attraction and repulsion, organisation and disintegration. In fact it seems that there is no universe without opposites. We are tempted to construct the myths of competition and conflict from that fact, but we must not miss the deeper understanding – that all of existence emerges from the integration of opposites, not from the elimination of one pole by another, not from the unchallenged dominance of one over another.

The permanency of change because that’s the nature of reality. There is nothing fixed, nothing which is not in the process of growing, or adapting or degenerating, whether we see that as three Gods, or as the natural cycles of the biosphere and of the seasons.

So when I look again at these clouds, these beautiful black and white clouds, I am captured by their beauty and entranced by the teaching they can give me.

Read more about this in my book, “And not Or”. You can get it from Blurb at https://www.blurb.co.uk/b/10155078-and-not-or

There’s also a Kindle version – https://amzn.to/2UozjIw – if you are in the UK. If you are not in the UK, go to your local Amazon site and search for “Leckridge” – you’ll find it quickly that way (let me know if you don’t!)

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This time of year it’s not uncommon to wake up and find that the vineyards have disappeared. They are hidden in dense morning mist. Just like in this photo here.

I can almost see some of the trees. I can see the nearest vineyard but I know there are several others beyond this one. I can’t see the next village.

The fog brings the horizon much closer. I can only see what is close to me. I’m reminded of a passage by the late, great John O’Donohue –

Today the light is very low so the fog is covering the mountains. When the fog is there, half of them are missing. But, in some sense, that is the duty of the imagination: to help us connect with that which is invisible but is actually very close.

What a great reminder that we need our imagination to “help us connect with that which is invisible but is actually very close”.

How do we see the invisible? Well, Saint-Exupery told us

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I’ve just finished reading Madeline Miller’s superb “Circe”. I can’t tell you just how much I enjoyed it. I found it a great read. I am a bit familiar with some of the Greek myths and legends, including the story of Odysseus, but this way of telling Circe’s story let’s Madeline Miller tell you some of those myths from a new perspective. I just loved it.

Last night I read a passage which made me think “Yes! I must share this!” Here it is –

When I was young, I overheard our palace surgeon. He said that the medicines he gave out were only for show. Most hurts heal by themselves, he said, if you give them time. It was the kind of secret I loved to discover, for it made me feel cynical and wise.

I have long believed exactly that. I used to say to patients something like “If you break a leg, the surgeon will apply a plaster to your leg to hold it still. The plaster doesn’t repair the fracture. It just holds the ends together while your body gets on with doing what it does – healing – or, in this case, repairing the fracture.” Or I’d tell someone “This antibiotic isn’t going to cure your bladder infection. What antibiotics do is to kill bugs. That’s a good thing. But your bladder wall is all inflamed because of the infection, and it’s that inflammation which is causing your symptoms. The antibiotic will have no direct effect on your inflammation. But it will reduce the number of harmful bugs in your bladder to allow your body to get on with doing what it does – healing.”

Does that seem unnecessarily pedantic? I don’t think so. I think it reinforces the patient’s belief that their body can self-heal – which is exactly what all “Complex Adaptive Systems” do – all living creatures have these abilities to self-regulate, self-defend, and self-repair. It’s what they do.

That’s the wisdom part.

But in Circe’s telling this knowledge also brings a certain cynicism, and for me, that’s always been about the place of drugs in health care. There isn’t a drug on the market which is designed to directly promote and/or stimulate self-healing and self-repair. Each drug attempts to redress an imbalance, or to suppress some symptoms or pathologies. The business of the body doing what the body does – self-healing and self-repair is left to be a hopeful sort of side-benefit at best.

There are ways to work more in harmony with the body’s natural powers, but, in my opinion, those ways aren’t taken seriously enough. Targeting pathology/disease and/or symptoms remains the dominant model. But I do dream of a time when the balance tips towards targeting health/healing and/or powers of self-repair, and self-healing. The present types of drugs and treatments will then be seen as the potentially useful adjuvants that they really can be. They will no longer be seen as enough by themselves.

Oh, by the way, “Circe” isn’t a book about health or disease. It’s a telling of some of the Greek myths. It’s just that passage really resonated with me so I thought I’d share it. And, on reflection, don’t those myths have something to tell us about disease and illness, and how we cope, heal and grow?

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I’ve got a lot of photos I’ve taken which are of this type. They are examples of Islamic art in Spain. Actually there are several different types in my collection, one of which is tiles, like these ones.

I adore these repeating, interconnected, geometric patterns. I love the stars you can see in them. There are small six pointed stars, small eight pointed ones, and small twelve pointed ones. Can you find examples of all of those? Then as the lines spread out from each star, they create hexagons, squares and diamonds.

What I see most clearly when I look at an image like this is a representation of the fundamental connectedness of creation – I see nodes and bonds – an intricately, inter-laced network where nothing exists in isolation and every part emerges from the creation of the web of connections.

Here’s a somewhat different example. Now, I’m not a scholar of art history, but I do know that there are elements of different cultures in this particular image. There is a hint of Islamic art, a thread of Celtic art, and across the middle there are three chimerical creatures – perhaps a “manticore”, a “mermaid” and a “centaur”?

I love seeing these interwoven influences of different cultures, and it isn’t hard to find examples in Spain which has such a rich history of different peoples living there at different, and even overlapping, times.

These chimerical creatures are really strange to our modern eye and they are often seen as imaginary beasts or monsters, but when I see them here in this panel embedded in webs of inter-locking links and lines, I wonder if they actually represent something of an origin story. Do these half man/half lion, half woman/half fish and half man/half horse actually remind us of our shared origins – we humans and the rest of creation?

We have such a tendency to see human beings as separate from Nature. In fact there is a long tradition in the West in particular of seeing “Man” as superior to “Nature” and even having a God-given duty to subdue and control all the other creatures and forms of Nature on the planet. There are strains of religious teaching in there, but there are also roots in the origins of the “scientific method” and, in particular in a certain strain of darwinism (not put forward by Darwin himself).

We lose a lot when we separate ourselves from the rest of the planet we co-habit with all other forms of Life. We distance ourselves from other creatures and that seems to free us up to treat them with contempt and cruelty. There’s something deeply mistaken in thinking of all non-human reality as “resources” to be “exploited”.

But there is another way. I’m aware of at least three strands of knowledge which contribute to a more holistic, more inter-connected, and, I believe, healthier model.

I start with complexity science, and in particular the concept of the “complex adaptive system“. When I view myself, others, or any phenomenon on the planet through this lens, then the whole of Nature is one inter-connected organism. Nothing exists in isolation. Every action, every thought, every behaviour is influenced by, and influences the actions, behaviours and thoughts of others.

Next I am fascinated by genetics and embryology. It has always been a source of complete wonder and amazement to me that a single egg cell can be fertilised by a single sperm, then divide over and over and over again, differentiating the cells as it grows, to create the billions of cells which make all the tissues, organs and cells of the human body. And all in the right place! It continues to astonish me that all of our cells can be traced back to just two cells – one from each parent. But on top of that, it’s been amazing to see the incredible degree of “overlap”, or perhaps more correctly, of shared origin in the genomes of humans and other creatures. It’s pretty mind boggling to discover how many genes we have in common with earthworms for example!

Thirdly, I’m convinced about Lynn Margulis’ “endosymbiotic theory” – the idea that all multicellular creatures have evolved not only from unicellular ones, but that the individual cell components of nucleus, mitochondria, ribosomes, perhaps chloroplasts, were all originally separate creatures which evolved to live together and form these more complex structures of animal and plant cells. Each cell can be thought of as a little community, and each cell exists as a member of a larger community. This places co-operation, collaboration and symbiosis at the very heart of reality.

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We often look at the world this way….just a peek through a narrow gap. We can see a bit this way. It’s a way of being focused. If we narrow our gaze we can ignore everything except what’s in the target zone of our attention.

You know we have “two brains”, right? I mean the recognition that we have a cerebral cortex which is divided into two, non-symmetrical parts. Why do you think the brain is like this? Why not just have one, whole brain? Why did evolution prefer to develop the cortex in two significantly different hemispheres?

Well a lot of people have tried to claim that the right half does these things, and the left these other things….like the right is what we use to “do art” and the left is what we use to “do logic”. But we know that’s not true. The brain is not like a clock, a car, or a computer. It doesn’t function with one part doing “this” all by itself whilst other parts do “that”.

But Iain McGilchrist figured it out. In his “The Master and His Emissary” he lays out what I find to be a convincing thesis – each hemisphere engages with the world differently – in other words, each hemisphere gives us a different way of approaching, understanding and interacting with, the world.

What the left hemisphere allows us to do is like what you see in this image. We use it to narrow our gaze. We use it to focus in on “parts”, to analyse them, label them, categorise them, in order to try and “grasp” and manipulate them. The right hemisphere, on the other hand (see what I did there?), is used to enable a broad gaze. We use it to focus on the connections, to explore the bonds and relationships, to discover what’s new, and to see things in the broader view, or in “the whole”.

What amazes me about this is that we use both halves simultaneously pretty much all the time. They are in constant interaction, giving us the ability to “integrate” and “synthesise” what they focus on.

The trouble comes when we fail to pay enough attention to one of the halves – actually, in our modern world, it’s the right hemisphere we fail to attend to sufficiently. We get stuck in our world view of seeing reality as composed of separate parts which we can label, categorise and control. We get hooked on a mechanistic model. And, well, reality is not like that. That picture is incomplete and can lead us astray.

So, we do need these abilities to focus narrowly, to separate out elements, analyse them and organise that knowledge, but we ALSO need to be constantly aware of the big picture. We also need to see the contexts, the connections and the circumstances. It’s this that enables us to see uniqueness.

When it comes to this pandemic, we need to understand and analyse the COVID-19 virus. It will be a real boost to us to discover how to improve our treatment of people who are infected with it to try and reduce the potential damage they might suffer. But we need to use that other half of the brain too and see what the circumstances are in which this pandemic has arisen. We need to join up the dots. We need to see the connections and the contexts.

Isn’t it clear that one reason why this pandemic is so damaging is that we don’t have enough good health care? I think this issue is the same whether you live in the UK, France, the US, Spain, Belgium….you name it. It’s not the sheer number of people who are suffering from significant effects of this virus – after all, it seems about 80% of those who catch it don’t even get any symptoms. It’s that the small percentage of people who DO suffer serious effects from it still constitute numbers potentially too big for our health services to cope with.

Why do you think there is this constant message about “protect the NHS” in the UK? The NHS shouldn’t need “protecting” from sick people! It’s very purpose is to treat them. But the truth is there aren’t enough staff, there aren’t enough hospital beds, there isn’t enough equipment, there isn’t enough PPE, there aren’t enough testing materials, or laboratory resources.

There isn’t enough decent, safe social care available for the elderly. There isn’t sufficient support for people whose incomes are hit by forced closures of their workplaces. There isn’t enough decent housing. There isn’t enough decent nutrition because the current model of industrialised farming and processed food production is feeding both obesity and nutritional deficiencies of important vitamins and minerals which are needed for healthy immune systems.

And so on……

Unless we use our whole brains and address the underlying weaknesses, vulnerabilities, insufficiencies and injustices in our societies we will find not just this pandemic hard to handle, but we’ll set ourselves up for more of the same.

It’s time to change.

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