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Archive for the ‘from the reading room’ Category

I have a life long love affair with books. My grandpa used to read to me when I was young, working his way through books like “Tales of a Grandfather” by Walter Scott, and collections of myths and fairy tales. I’ve always been intensely curious and had a fascination for both the local “reference library” and for story books from the “lending library”. Goodness knows how many books I’ve bought in my life, and I really don’t know how many I still have. I do know that most people who have come to my house seem surprised by just how many books there are, so I guess I have more than most people do.

I love bookshops, old and new, and I adore browsing around the booksellers at fairs and markets. It was a market like the one in this photo which caught my imagination whilst on holiday in France many years ago, and probably seeded my idea to retire when I did, and come to live in France. I had decided I wanted to live part of my life not just in another physical part of the world with a different geography, climate and history, but I wanted to live in a different culture. In particular I wanted to immerse myself in the language and literature of France…..it seemed to offer both different ways of seeing and understanding the world, and to open up whole areas of thought and observation which was unknown to me.

But I didn’t switch away from English to French. I still read a lot more English than I do French. I’ve been here just over six years now and it’s fulfilling all I’d hoped for. Of course, with the pandemic even bookshops were closed, and certainly markets and fairs were cancelled, but that hasn’t slowed down my reading.

There are a couple of very famous French books I’d recommend to anyone – they are so famous that they’ve been translated into many languages so chances are you won’t need to learn French to be able to read them. They are “The Little Prince” by Saint Exupery. It’s a brilliant, thought provoking story, beautifully illustrated. Many, many years ago I found a book in a bookshop in Aix en Provence. It’s called “Donner un sens à l’existence” by Jean-Philippe Ravoux. He’s a professor of philosophy in Aix, and the subtitle is “ou pourquoi Le Petit Prince est le plus grand traité de métaphysique du XXe siècle” – so, it’s, roughly, “Making sense of existence” – “or why The Little Prince is the greatest work of metaphysics in the 20th century”. It’s a brilliant little book, which draws on Saint Exupery’s story to enable the reader to explore a philosophy of life. I love it. Sadly, I don’t think it’s ever been translated into any other languages. However, don’t despair, just read The Little Prince. I really, really recommend it.

The second very famous French book which I recommend is Montaigne’s Essays. OK, the full collection is HUGE, and the original in Old French, beyond me. But I have copies in both French and English. However, what I’d recommend to absolutely anyone is Sarah Bakewell’s “How to Live. A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer”. It’s brilliant. It’s really an easy read and I think it makes an utterly fabulous introduction to the life and work of Montaigne. The man was a genius and his essays have been translated into many languages and still stand the test of time.

If I really get into recommending books I’ll never stop! But I thought I’d just share these two works with you today – because they continue to be my favourites, I have never stopped re-reading them, and you are likely to be able to find translations into your own language.

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I think I first became aware of research suggesting that even a view of natural surroundings could be good for us in the paper about recovery times after surgery. The findings showed that post-op patients required less painkillers, had less post-op complications and required shorter stays in hospital if their bed had a view outside to a natural environment (as opposed to no view, or a view of a wall).

Then I came across the Japanese concept of “forest bathing” and work from a university in Tokyo which showed that spending a few minutes in a forest could increase the levels of helpful immune chemicals in the blood.

Today I read a paper about “Attention Restoration Theory” suggesting that spending time in nature improves the concentration levels of children with ADHD. This “ART” concept describes two kinds of attention – an easy, effortless, “bottom up” (neurologically speaking) attention to the environment, and an effortful, focused “top down” attention which we use when deliberately concentrating on something. We use the former when gazing out of a window to the natural environment, and the latter when trying to do a difficult mental task. The research study I read split children into three groups, putting one group in a classroom with no windows, one in a classroom with windows looking out onto a bare, built environment, and a third group in a classroom with windows looking out onto nature. They gave them all the same difficult lesson, took a five minute break where they stayed in their classroom, then tested their concentration after the break. Only the third group, the one in the classroom with a natural view, improved their concentration.

One of the things I like about this paper is that it showed two things – that turning our awareness towards the natural world is good for us, and, that the way to improve concentration wasn’t to “concentrate harder” but to build in a break where the mind could drift into a more natural state of open awareness.

Well, you know, I don’t really need any scientific research or “evidence” to convince me I like to have a view of nature from my window, or that I enjoy walking in forests, parks or along beaches, but, hey, it’s still good to learn about some of the measurable effects of open awareness and engagement with natural environments.

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The phrase “The Floating World” is a beautiful one. I thought it was quite magical the very first time I came across it. I think where I first read it was in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, “An Artist of the Floating World”, a book which I still think has the ability to put me into an entirely different state of mind.

The original Japanese term for “The Floating World” is Ukiyo.

Ukiyo means “floating/fleeting/transient world”.

In the past it referred to a “pleasure seeking” urban culture but in modern usage

“the term ukiyo is used to refer to a state of mind emphasising living in the moment, detached from the difficulties of life.”

I really like the phrase and, in particular, I like the modern usage of the term. Living in the moment, detached from the difficulties of life, sounds pretty appealing to me. But there’s a strange paradox there, isn’t there? From one perspective I think the advice to be present, to be really aware of the time, place and circumstances which we call “here and now” is the only way to really engage with reality. After all, if our minds are busy wandering off down memory lane, or busy creating fantasies and fears about the future, then life, itself, is passing us by.

But on the other hand, what’s this “detached from the difficulties of life”? Is that a good piece of advice? Is that not escapism? Well, I suppose it could be escapism. T S Eliot said humans beings couldn’t bear too much reality after all. The entertainment industry and the psychoactive drug industry are both heavily focused on detaching people “from the difficulties of life”. Didn’t the Romans say the way to rule a people was through “bread and circuses”? In other words, make sure they aren’t hungry and keep them distracted with entertainment. Well, seems to me that’s still the most used strategy by those who wish to wield power over others in this world – whether they be politicians, businessmen or members of the 0.01%.

But isn’t there also a long, well established teaching about the power of non-attachment to reduce suffering in the world? Actually, I don’t think “non-attachment” and being “detached” are the same thing, but I won’t go into that in any more detail here.

My dilemma is how to be fully present, fully engaged with my life, moment by moment, yet not drown under the weight of difficulties, my own, those of others, or those of society.

Well, here’s where the floating world idea comes back strong. Look again at the ways of translating “ukiyo” – floating, fleeting, transient. Let me pick up that last word first. I have no doubt at all that an awareness of transience heightens my senses of delight and wonder. I relish the seasons of the new fruits and vegetables. I’m glad that those seasons don’t last all year round. I love to see the migrating birds arrive in my garden, and knowing that they will only be here for a few weeks before the fly south again, somehow, intensifies my delight in seeing them. I’m already looking forward to the hummingbird moths and the different coloured butterflies which will be attracted to the buddleia bushes in the garden once they flower. Knowing that we don’t live forever makes it all the more important to engage with life every single day…….not to run away from it, or pretend it doesn’t exist, but to fully engage with it.

Ultimately, this idea of a floating world is a counsel to “flow” through life, and that, I would say, is one of my highest aspirations. I want to experience the flow of Life through the cells and fibres of my being. I want to experience the flow of Nature, of existence, of the Universe, through the creation of every single unique moment and experience of my life.

I like it. This notion of a “floating world”.

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This is another of my most favourite photos. I took it one day from where I was living back then, just outside of Stirling, in Central Scotland. The largest mountain here, whose peak is hidden behind the dense, black cloud, is Ben Ledi. I’ve taken many, many photos of Ben Ledi because when I lived there and looked out towards it every morning I realised it didn’t look the same two days in a row, and that surprised me. I suppose I thought of mountains as unchanging, or, at best, as changing very, very slowly over millennia (although maybe they formed over extremely short periods of time as the Earth’s crust heaved and shook, and deep layers of ice flowed down from the North Pole).

When I was struck by just how different Ben Ledi appeared to me every single day, I realised that “the mountain” wasn’t just a piece of rock sticking up above the rest of the land. I realised that my experience of looking at the mountain was formed by all the elements…..the rocks, the plant life, the sunlight, the rain, the wind and the clouds. That realisation brought about a new understanding for me about the embedded nature of everything that exists. We don’t see “any thing” in isolation. We see whatever we are looking at in its dynamic, complex web of interactions and relationships with the rest of the world in which it exists. And we see whatever we are looking at within a relationship too – the relationship between me and the mountain – and that as I changed each day, so did my perception of the mountain.

This particular day we had pretty dramatic weather. You can tell from the colour and density of that cloud which fills the top half of the image that it was a day of rain and storms. The cloud base, as you can see, was low. It completely obscured the top of the mountain. But then suddenly the Sun broke through and sent these searchlight beams of intense, vivid light, below the cloud, and yes, even below the mountain……It looked as if the ground itself had caught fire!

How unusual – to see the sunlight BELOW the mountain! To see the sunlight BELOW the heavy black clouds!

That inversion of the normal reminds me of the famous image printed on the classic tarot cards – the image of the “Hanged Man”. I’ve read that some think that image relates to the Norse myth of Odin hanging upside down. Here’s a passage I remember about that myth (from Rachel Pollack’s commentary on Haindl’s paintings)

As an older and wiser version of the God Odin, the Hanged Man sacrifices the Emperor’s desire to dominate the world around him. He reverses his previous beliefs, and so gives up what other people find important: success, power, pride, the ego’s sense of being unique and special and separate from the rest of the universe. He gains understanding, peace, union with the Earth, the joy of life.

It also reminds me of the Leonard Cohen line – “there’s a crack, a crack, in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Finally, as I thought of a title for this post, I came up with “The Sun under the Mountain”, which immediately sounded like a hexagram from the I Ching. I looked it up – “Ken” is the trigram for the mountain, and “Li” is the one for the sun or fire. Ken over Li gives the hexagram number 22 – which goes by the name – “Grace”.

Isn’t that fabulous?

Maybe this image brings up other stories, lines from poems or songs for you. Maybe it evokes other memories or sensations. Does it?

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There’s a bird reserve near Nimes, in the South of France, where you can see flamingos. I’ve visited it several times, and each time I take a host of photos. They are SUCH beautiful creatures!

I’m reading Gary Lachman’s “Lost Knowledge of the Imagination” just now, and this morning read these lines about beauty –

We perceive beauty, the Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus said, when we perceive something that is in accord with our soul.

Knowledge of beauty is knowledge of soul. It is self-knowledge, and when we discover beauty we are discovering part of ourselves.

The knowledge we receive in this way is not of fact but of quality, of value and meaning.

We perceive beauty, are open to its presence, through a change in the quality of our consciousness. Only like can know like. We must have beauty within ourselves to see it in the world.

I hadn’t thought of beauty this way before. When I read it I thought about the old adage of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” which always seemed to me to be a statement that beauty was in fact a matter of taste. But this perspective from Gary Lachman describes that sort of third way interpretation which I like so much. It’s not that beauty is “outside” us, as some kind of measurable object. I think we all know that. Beauty can’t be reduced to data, can’t be captured by mere facts. But neither is it just a matter of taste, as if it is entirely an experience of the individual rendering the rest of the real world unimportant.

The third way is that beauty is a resonance. It’s a harmony. And therefore it emerges in the lived quality of an experience, of an engagement, of a relationship. We need both parts of the relationship to be present…..something “within” us, let’s call that “the soul”, and something “outwith” us, let’s call that “the other”.

We know instantly when we find something, or someone beautiful. We don’t need to way it up, analyse the inputs, stimuli and signals. We just know. We know because our inner being resonates with whatever it is we are looking at….or it doesn’t. When it does, we have the sensation of joy, delight, and gratitude which accompanies all engagements with beauty.

Beauty, I reckon, is good for us. It’s good for our souls. It’s good for our consciousness. It’s good for our health.

So, here you are, a few photos in this post, all taken during one visit to the flamingos. I find them beautiful. I hope you do too. And I hope that appreciation of their beauty nourishes your soul, warms your heart, adds some positive quality to this present moment.

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“Special” – there’s a difficult word – when someone claims they are special they might be claiming that they are the exception which should be respected – that they don’t need to follow the same rules as the rest of the community. This “exceptionalism” is the root of a lot of trouble in the world. The danger with “special” is that others are seen as “not special”.

But I am a great fan of this word, and I think we fail to grasp it enough. This Robin is special to me. He lives in “my garden”. I see him almost every day. We know that Robins are territorial birds and I don’t ever, ever see a flock of Robins in my garden. I can’t be sure that the Robin I see today is the exact same Robin that I saw yesterday, but I assume he is. There are other birds like this near me. There’s a “Little Owl” who lives under the roof of my neighbour’s barn. He often sits on the roof at dusk and watches me as I close the wooden shutters over the windows of the house. He doesn’t fly away when he sees me. I’ve become familiar to him. You could say that we have become special to each other. There’s also a Redstart which returns to this garden every Spring and flies away for the Winter. We have had several back and forth whistling conversations together, the Redstart and I, and when I hear his call again in the Spring I know that Winter is over. When my grand-daughter hears him she says “There’s your friend, grandpa”.

In “The Little Prince”, the boy claims that his rose is “special”, that she is different from all the other roses. He cares for her more than he does for all the other roses. And there’s the key – what makes that one rose special is the attention and time he has invested in her, watering her, protecting her from the grazing sheep, and so on. It’s the time, attention, and emotional investment which makes this rose genuinely “special” for him.

I think everyone is “special”, and contrary to what I wrote above about exceptionalism, in my experience, in the consulting room, one to one, with patient after patient, I found that it was way, way too common for people to fail to realise just how special they are. In fact, they might have been bombarded with messages which have said the exact opposite for years – “you are nothing”, “you are worthless”, “you don’t matter”.

Those messages are cruel and they are wrong.

Every single human being is special, in the sense that they are unique. There are no two of us with identical bodies and minds, no two of us born in identical places, at identical times, to identical families. There are no two of us with identical life stories. In all my four decades of work as a doctor I never heard the same life story twice.

“Special” works when we embrace the paradox of “special” with humility. But there’s something else, and it comes back to what makes us unique – what makes us unique is our connections. Not our differences. I am not special because I am different from everyone else. I am special because of the particular, vast, complex web of connections and relationships that I have, that I’ve had, and that I will have.

One more thing to add here – love.

It’s not just our relationships which make both you and I special. It’s the relationships which we invest with love and care which make both you and I special.

Have you ever noticed that? Just like The Little Prince, the more we care, the more we love, the more compassion we have, the more special others become.

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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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