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Archive for the ‘health’ Category

In my photo library I’ve named this “waterfalls”. Yep, plural. And when I looked at it again this morning I thought it seemed a great image to stimulate thought about working together…..in fact, “flowing together” was the phrase which popped into my mind. I slowed down the shutter speed for this photo so the water would blur like this. I think the whole sense of movement and flow is captured better that way. There’s a power in this scene, and that power lies in the water itself. Or, at least, that’s how it seems at first.

So I look at this and think, this is what we are like together…..when we flow together…..when our energies, our focus and our direction all align. Isn’t that beautiful?

I’d almost be happy to leave it at that. Just to put this image in front of you and hope that you’ll think of the power and the beauty of harmony, resonance and alignment.

But, then I wondered why I’d called the photo “waterfalls”, plural. Isn’t it just one waterfall? After all most waterfalls don’t have a single stream of water falling over a specific rock. Rather, most waterfalls are made up of multiple paths where different amounts of water channel through particular spaces, and tumble over specific rocks. We don’t look at a waterfall which has six streams of water falling and think, oh look at those six waterfalls, do we? Or maybe we do.

So that’s where my mind went next. It went off to reflect on our very human capacity to separate out whatever we are looking at. To break the whole down into parts. There are a number of words for that – abstraction is one. Abstraction is where we abstract, or remove, something from its context. Our left hemisphere is brilliant at doing that. Indeed it seems that’s the normal process……the whole flows into the right hemisphere which hands off some of that flow to the left so it can abstract the components, the parts, the pieces……abstract them, label them, categorise them. And, yes, what’s supposed to happen next is that the left passes the results of that analysis back to the right for it to re-contextualise it. It’s just, if Iain McGilchrist is right, that this process has broken down and we have developed the habit of giving priority to the work of the left hemisphere…….too often we see only the parts, and forget to re-contextualise them.

If we don’t allow ourselves to use our whole brain, then we see two waterfalls here, where, seeing the whole would mean we see just one.

I don’t know what works best for you, but I’ve had a lifetime of work refusing to rest with reductionist abstractions, and always striving to see and hear the unique whole person every time. Yes, I’ve had to focus down onto parts, perhaps listening to someone’s lungs or heart, perhaps measuring the level of a component in their blood, but, I’ve always preferred to re-contextualise whatever those abstractions reveal.

I think we need to do more of that.

I think we need to see the whole, to see the contexts, to seek the connections and relationships, and to realise that every experience we have changes us…..just as this beautiful waterfall constantly changes, moment by moment, month by month, year by year.

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When I look at this photo the leaves seem like pieces of gold at first. Perhaps golden coins. But then I quickly see that they are fallen autumn leaves, with gold, brown, yellow and even green ones. The rock they have landed on, or stuck onto, seems like a collecting point, or a resting point. Maybe the leaves fell here from overhanging trees, but, in fact there weren’t any trees directly overhanging this rock, so maybe they were blown onto this rock. Alternatively, maybe they were swept downstream on the fast flowing water. Whatever their origin and mode of transport, they stuck to this wet rock.

Here’s what comes up for me as I reflect on this image……

Life flows past fast. It rushes by, moment by moment, day by day, even year by year. It never stops. Life is continuous and full of movement, just like this tumbling highland stream. There are places, however, where we can pause. Places or moments where we can step out of the rush and flow of things for a moment and take a breather. It’s important to do that.

When we do step onto the rock, which represents the time out moment, we find that there is some gold there. We find that stuck onto that place of rest there are some golden moments, and some of the gifts from golden moments, from the past. This reminds me of gratitude practice. Many people have demonstrated the benefits to our mental health and wellbeing of doing regular gratitude practice.

Quite simply, there is much to gain from taking a pause, a few moments, and either writing down some of the experiences, events, relationships, gifts for which we are grateful, or even calling them to mind, re-creating them in our imagination, and stirring the benefits of those special times all over again.

The rock, in these musings, becomes a place in the mind. A place where I rest, stand apart for a moment, create what Iain McGilchrist calls “the necessary distance” which allows us to reflect, to set new perspectives, and to see the whole. It’s a place of integration……where I reinforce the mutually beneficial bonds between me and “the other”.

Then I step off into the stream again, and flow off onto the next part of the journey.

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

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

Because I’m driven to share.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What makes this photo special?

For me, it’s the sort of symmetry you can see here between the rows of vines covering the hillside and the rays of sunlight shining down through the gaps in the cloud.

There’s a resonance there. A sort of harmony which catches my attention. I think “as above, so below”, which is an old esoteric teaching about the way in which this physical world and the spiritual world are connected….or, if you prefer, how the Earth is connected to the Sky or Heavens.

Our brains are brilliant at spotting patterns. In fact, we don’t just spot patterns in the way that a mirror might reflect what stands in front of it, we create patterns. We learn patterns. We remember patterns. Think of the night sky, for example. Once you’ve been taught to see the invisible lines between some of the stars you call them constellations. And then you can find them again much more easily in the millions and millions of stars shining down on a clear night. But someone imagined those lines. They aren’t the same as the threads which make up a spider’s web, or the lines of minerals running through stones you find when you are out for a walk. Our ancestors created those patterns, and told stories so that others would be able to see them and share them.

So we are brilliant at spotting “similars” – we see patterns and attempt to match them to ones we know already, or others we can see, or create in the same moment. When we spot a similar it’s exciting. It’s “remarkable” – it’s attention grabbing and potentially meaning-creating – because that’s something else we are great at – making experiences and perceptions meaning-full. We constant attempt to make sense of the world we are living in, and to connect our experiences to a sense of purpose.

Some of these matches, these “similars” are like resonances – and this is one of those. Resonances are like harmonies. They delight. They spark a little joy, set off some feelings of awe or wonder. They are special.

This is one of the ways in which we can live a more “enchanted” life. A more “meaningful”, “rich”, “deep”, life. A life of soul. A life of spirit. A connected, “integrated” life. A healthy life. A life of flow and movement.

What patterns do you notice today? And what resonances, or similarities, do you see between those patterns, both between them and ones you already know, and between them and the others around you today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

see it here

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

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

Wisdom, Information and Wonder. Mary Midgley

and of this passage from philosopher Richard Kearney

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

On Stories. Richard Kearney

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

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

Stories can set us free.

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

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

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I 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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There are a few stories circulating which I find really disturbing. Stories of EU citizens being detained at the UK Border when attempting to visit the UK for a holiday or to visit family or friends….detained then being refused entry and sent back home because the Border Guards didn’t believe what they were being told about the visitor’s intention. There are so many such stories now that some EU citizens are saying they’ll never try to visit Britain again. The Home Office response is to say that the vote for Brexit was one to make it more difficult for EU citizens to enter into Britain so they are are just doing what “the people” voted for. I’m not sure even the minority of UK voters who voted for Brexit really wanted stop young people from Europe visiting family and friends in the UK.

What especially bothers me about these stories is that they fit with the harsh rhetoric used against asylum seekers and immigrants. I think it was Theresa May who started the “harsh environment” policy which has been developed into this present form. “Harsh environment” – make life difficult for certain people – what a starting point! What a sad, hardening of hearts

Another group of stories which are disturbing me is about the daily abuse and threats directed at doctors, nurses, health care staff, and paramedics. The British Medical Association say a majority of their members receive abuse or threats daily, and England is currently considering fitting body cameras to all paramedics to try to protect them from abuse and violence, or to catch the perpetrators of such actions.

In my four decades as a doctor, half of them as a GP, I don’t remember a single episode of abuse or threat directed at me, at any of my colleagues, or at our staff. What a tragedy!

Isn’t that also part of a de-humanisation, or de-personalisation of care? A hardening of hearts? The entire health care system has been reformed along lines consistent with managerialism – it’s now the language of consumers, customers and clients, of targets, financial “efficiencies” and of tasks – the language of people has got a bit lost. Yet health care is surely based on the doctor-patient relationship – where the people involved – the doctors and the patients – should be paramount, not the protocols, the processes and the financial constraints.

I could go on…..we see a harsh language and deliberate cruelties inflicted on the most vulnerable who need State help. The Ken Loach film, I, Daniel Black, described very well the sad, and unnecessarily mean ways in which the poor and the sick are treated in society. Harsh environment seems to have spread to the treatment of the poor as well.

I can’t help thinking this is a loss. A loss of quality of life and loss of decency, kindness and justice.

Maybe its the result of the wrong “-isms”? Of the financial and economic wrongs wrought by “capitalism”, of the wrong-headed priorities set by financial-ism, and the dehumanising nature of materialism and managerialism. Maybe you could add a few -isms that you think are contributing to this?

I guess what I’d like to see is a rise in “people-ism” – in actions, policies, strategies and behaviours which put people first – people before profits, and before processes.

I’d like to see some softening of hearts as we allow ourselves to be curious about everyone, and to find out just how inter-related and inter-dependent we all are on this little planet Earth.

I’d like to see more priority given to open handed-ness, to open hearted-ness and to kindness.

Is that an unreasonable ask?

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Wow! Just look at this poppy which has opened up in the garden a couple of days ago. I went in close to take this photo because I think when you look really closely you see an astonishing creation.

This is like a work of art. In fact, who would have imagined something like this if they hadn’t seen a flower before? I was thinking, what if an alien landed on Planet Earth and encountered this poppy, wouldn’t they be utterly amazed?

Actually, I’m not an alien here on Planet Earth but I am totally amazed by this. Look at the details! As well as the gorgeous red petals, right in the centre we can see this rich, dark array of structures which make up the reproductive system of this flower. The thirteen stripes on the seedhead – what are they? And why are there thirteen? Don’t you think thirteen is a strange number?

Honestly, I think you can lose yourself in contemplation of a glorious flower like this. On single plant, one single blossom, totally captivating.

And it won’t be here for long. Within a few days, all the petals will fall to the ground, ultimately only leaving the seedhead behind. I think it’s amazing. I’m transfixed! In fact, a simple, astonishing, utterly beautiful, intricately complex flower like this, can make me lose my sense of boundaries and separateness. I can experience transcendence in moments spent with a flower like this.

I guess we humans have been, and continue to be, pretty blasé and unthinking about the plant kingdom. But without it, none of us would be here. It’s the plants which capture and transform the Sun’s energy. We can’t do that. We eat the plants, or eat the animals which eat the plants, so existing a bit further along that chain of energy transformation to get what we need to survive and thrive.

It’s not just that there is an emerging consensus that plant-based diets are best for us in terms of health, they are best for us in terms of the planet too. I’m not vegan. I’m not even vegetarian. But I don’t eat meat every day, and in all the studies I’ve read over the years, time and time again, the conclusions seem to be, if you want a healthy life, and if you want a long life, you could do worse than to limit your meat consumption and move towards a plant-based diet.

There are many many studies now which also show us the benefits to our immune systems, to our inflammatory systems, and to our mental health, of spending time in, and connecting with, the natural world. Primarily, that’s the plant world of trees and flowers. So, it’s not just about seeing plants as a source of nutrition. Engagement with the plant kingdom is good for us every day – noticing, stopping, gazing, contemplating, wondering about, and, especially caring about, flowers, plants, trees is one of the best ways I know to increase the quality of everyday life, and to set yourself up to live as healthily as possible.

Glory to the plant world!

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I was sitting in a cafe in Kyoto, looked out of the window and noticed that the reflection of one of the lamps was sitting right in front of one of the trees outside, so I took this photo.

Right from the start this has seemed a metaphorical photo to me.

I know the light is not “in” the tree but the image seems to capture that idea.

Every time I look at it I start to muse about “the light within” which is in us all. Sometimes I think of that light as being a manifestation of Life, of the presence and flow of the life force. It’s a strange thing, that life force. In fact, it’s not really a “thing” at all. It can’t be directly observed. It can’t be measured. But it’s a concept or phenomenon that few would deny.

I’ve seen people die right in front of me. I’ve seen some go suddenly, and others fade away over longer times. I’ve had to examine the newly dead to confirm that they are indeed dead, and to issue the “death certificate”. But death has always been a mystery to me. I don’t fully grasp it. I know about the shutting down of body systems and of organs ceasing to function. I know about “brain death” and I know that heart can just stop beating. But there is a distinct boundary between life and death. One moment someone is alive, and a few minutes later they are dead. It can be pretty straightforward to know which of the two states they are in. But I get caught up in a sort of Zeno’s paradox as I try to discern exactly the moment someone has moved from life into death. There is no “off and on” switch, yet sometimes it seems instantaneous. Organs fail, but more often than not, they do so over a period of time…..years, months, weeks, days, or even minutes. But our bodies are not machines and life doesn’t disappear the way a machine switches off, or a computer hangs.

So, many times I’ve wondered what brings about this “presence of life” which seems to shine like a bright light, and which goes out? Where does it go? If it isn’t even an “it”, does the question even make sense?

When I studied homeopathy I learned that Dr Hahnemann described something we call “the vital force”. He lived in days before we knew what we know now, and the objectification of “the vital force” into a material reality which nobody ever managed to find, directly observe or measure, led to the dismissal of the concept. But it still seems to me that there is indeed a “vital” phenomenon, a living “presence” or “flow” which we only find in those who are still alive.

Is this light within a sort of energy? There’s another hard word to pin down – energy. We can identify certain clear energies in physics, and even measure them. But the energies we humans experience are harder to define.

Not to know, but to define.

What do I mean by that? Well, imagine a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 represents the lowest energy you can imagine experiencing, and 10 represents the greatest amount of energy you can imagine experiencing. Tell me, right now, what number would you apply to represent your current energy level?

You managed to do that didn’t you? I have never met someone who couldn’t come up with a definite number when asked to do this.

But here’s my question, whether you said “5” or “8” or “2” or whatever you said, how did you do that?

You didn’t measure anything. You didn’t check your blood pressure, your oxygen saturation levels, or you blood sugar level did you? In fact you neither selected out a single organ or system of your body to assess, nor did you use any kind of measuring equipment at all, but you did it. You holistically, intuitively, know what your current energy state is. Nobody else can do that for you.

Let’s expand that idea and apply the scale now to “mental energy”. What number would you give for that currently? Is it the same number, or a different from the previous one? What is mental energy? Where might you find it? How could someone else measure it for you?

Challenging, huh? But, at another level, not challenging at all…..in fact, it’s utterly straightforward and easy to do. In fact, sometimes we can even pick up the energy level of someone else, can’t we? We can know that someone is “not on form”, is in a state of “low energy”. How do we do that? Not by using any measuring equipment either.

So sometimes this “light within” seems like the presence or the flow of Life to me, and sometimes it seems like an energy.

But I think there’s a third path to consider. Something to do with brightness. I don’t mean intelligence. I mean brightness – alertness, awareness, presence. You know that old saying that “the lights were on but there was nobody in”?

There’s a light in your eyes tells me somebody’s in

And you won’t come, the cowboy with me.

…..sang Kirsty Maccoll

So, this light apparently shining from the middle of this tree sets me off on all this routes – the life force, subjective energy and presence.

All subjects which I have dealt with almost daily, all subjects of which I am very, very familiar, and all subjects which I still don’t fully understand!

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I took this photo in a tea house when visiting Japan a number of years ago. That tea house was one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been, and I think part of what made it feel such a positive, healing place, was that they slid back the paper screens over the windows to reveal a terrace with an awning, and then all you could see were trees, bushes, and grass.

I was very fortunate to spend almost half my career working in Glasgow Homeopathic Hospital, which became the NHS Centre for Integrative Care once it moved into new, purpose built premises. Although the location of the new build was at the back of a major hospital site, just next to the railway station, the architect designed the L-shaped building around a garden. All the patient care rooms and spaces faced into the enclosed garden, which could be accessed by stepping out onto decking once you’d slid aside the French windows. Everybody commented on it. Patients and staff. We all felt the peace, the calm, the comfort, and the security which seemed to come from such closeness to green nature.

There’s pretty famous research into that phenomenon in the world of architecture. We know that patients recover more quickly, with less complications and less need for painkillers post-op if their hospital room has a view of green nature (as opposed to having no window, or a view of a wall).

We know, too that there are social as well as health benefits from the “greening” of cities.

But the other thing which occurred to me when I was remembering my trip to the tea room, was that those moments of peace which we all need, don’t have to involve learning any special techniques. There’s no doubt that various forms of meditation, and of cognitive behavioural exercises can be helpful, but there’s something powerful, even necessary, about just taking a pause.

Maybe not even just pausing by sitting and looking, which I’ve recommended before, but sitting with a cup of tea, or coffee, or some other favourite beverage, sipping, gazing, and contemplating freely.

I think it add to the quality of life. It’s a way of slowing down.

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