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Archive for the ‘health’ Category

Every year I’m amazed to watch the butterflies appear in the garden the very same day the buddleia bushes flower. I’m convinced they both appear at exactly the same moment. No idea how that happens! Are the butterflies just hanging out around the corner somewhere waiting for the blossoms to appear, then zip round as fast as they can the moment that happens?

However it happens, it’s a delight to see so many varieties of butterfly (and the hummingbird moths, which are incredible creatures!), to watch how they fly in such utterly unpredictable directions, how they spread their wings in the sunlight, or close them up so they look like little leaves.

But here’s one thought which comes up for me time and time again when I see butterflies….they make me more aware of the cyclical nature of life. These little creatures have such different life stages, so different you wouldn’t realise they were stages of the same life. Do we think of them as having a beginning and an end? Starting with an egg, progressing through their caterpillar stages, becoming a chrysalis, then emerging as a butterfly which lays eggs, then dies. Is that the life?

I suppose we do all think of ourselves as having a beginning and an end. But where do we begin, and where do we end?

It depends on whether or not you want to reduce a person to just a physical body. My physical body began with a single fertilised egg and this body will die.

But what about ME?

Do I really think I’m only a physical body? Don’t I have a sense of something immaterial too? A consciousness? A sense of Self? A personality? Characteristics, behaviours, values, beliefs, creative acts, destructive acts? Is there anything I can do which doesn’t ripple out into the world beyond me?

When I look at Rodin’s “The Kiss”, or “The Thinker”, what do I see? The product of the imagination and creative skill of the man called Auguste Rodin. When I listen to music composed and performed by people who are long since dead, isn’t there something I’m sharing there which only they could have created? Aren’t these great works of art the ongoing ripples of unique human beings? Or do you think these are just their footprints? (It doesn’t seem that way to me….these works seem full of life and the potential to continue to create and send out ripples into the universe)

And what about those characteristics, quirks or tendencies that I have which others in my “family tree” also exhibited, even perhaps before I was born? Anyone who explores their genealogy encounters remarkable “coincidences”, talents, life events, behaviours which echo down through the generations. Weren’t those threads present even before the egg which became me even existed?

I think it’s inadequate to narrow a person down to a physical body.

But even if we did, there is still the fact that the body changes continually. It never stops. There is a constant turnover of cells, new beginnings, new endings, every hour of every day. There is a continuous exchange of energy, materials and information between my body and my environment, and we all share the same environment, the same atmosphere, the same air, water…..we are all made from the same molecules, all created from the same “star stuff”.

So it seems to me that beginnings and endings are everywhere……wherever, and whenever, we happen to look.

But it also seems to me that they are nowhere. They just don’t exist. We all emerge from, and dissolve into, the great cycles of the universe.

Beginnings and endings are just where we choose them to be. But we can always make a different choice. We can always take a broader view, a bigger view, a longer view, a more holistic view.

I’m reminded of a song from my school days….it’s by Jeff Beck, and it’s called “Hi Ho Silver Lining” – he sang this truth right there in the opening line of this song…in the first five words……

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I see this sort of thing a lot when I look at old buildings in either France or Spain. This one is in Segovia.

What’s the first thing you notice?

The window?

Or the window in an arch?

See, when I look at something like this I really get to wondering….how did this come about? Did the original builders build a nice big entrance way, two verticals and a horizontal? Building a frame like a picture frame for an entrance? Maybe not….well, maybe not exactly anyway, because it looks like exactly the same bricks have been used to make the archway and some of the bricks seem to run between the two frames….the square frame and the arched frame. So maybe the original builders built an arched entrance and surrounded the arch with a frame?

But then it looks like somebody decided not to have an entrance there after all and filled in the space.

Then somebody else thought, hey, wait a minute, I’d like a window here and put in the window….but did they fit bars around the window at the same time?

So, has this window, this barred window, emerged over many years from a wall which was built in the space formed by an arched doorway?

And what was the thinking behind each of those steps in the development?

Make an entrance, an attractive, obvious entrance…..then block it up…..then make a window, but not one for letting that much light in, and certainly not one somebody might climb into, or out of…..was that, is that, a problem around here? People climbing in and out of windows?

Bear with me here but because I worked as a doctor for almost forty years this image sparks my thinking about patients and the problems they talked about in the consulting room. They’d bring the equivalent of this window….let’s say they’d talk about a pain (instead of a pane….ha! ha! sorry!)…..and I’d ask about the pain, asking them to describe it….its features, its characteristics, its exact location, what surrounded it, or accompanied it……and then I’d want to know how it arose. Tell me when it wasn’t there. What was there before it? What was happening when it began? And so, gradually, what a first glance might be a simple symptom turned into a unique, never before told, story…..and that’s where I began to understand what the problem might be.

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I was in Segovia last week and I noticed quite a few towers had stork nests on them, and the nests had adult storks as well as chicks

Then as I looked one of the adults (the mother?) brought home some food

Wow! Amazing, huh?

There’s been something rattling around in my head for a while. It’s related to the ideas of the left and right hemisphere ways of engaging with the world, as described by Iain McGilchrist, but also to the ancient traditions of yin and yang, of the divine masculine and the divine feminine, of the Emperor and the Empress in the Tarot Majors, of alchemical and spiritual practices of bringing together two halves to make a whole…..and to my thoughts about two fundamental forces of the universe.

Here’s what’s been cropping up – (NB this is thinking about the psyche not about gender…..whilst our societies might ascribe clearly different tasks and roles to men and women I believe for each of us to be whole we need to integrate the male and female within us all – the anima and animus if you wish (I know that’s not quite the same) )

There are two pairs of behaviours, functions, activities which we ALL need to access….not just farm out one pair to someone of the opposite sex while keeping the first pair for ourselves!

The two pairs are –

Provide and Protect

and

Nourish and Nurture

I think we all need all of these behaviours in the adults around us or we won’t grow into healthy adults ourselves. And when I look at these storks in Segovia I see the incredible, huge structures of the nests, built to provide a home and shelter, built up high to protect from predators. And I see this adult feeding the chick directly – providing nourishment and nurture both at the same time (food and loving attention)

Maybe each of us specialise in, or concentrate on, one of these pairs – we are the providers and protectors OR we are the nourishers and nurturers – but I feel it’s becoming clearer to me that all of us need to develop both of these pairs….that with only one, we are not whole.

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I was in Saint Jean de Luz last week and the colours of the lichens and mosses on this old bridge caught my eye. Then I noticed the ruler and I wondered if the river had ever reached the “59”, or even higher? And if it had, that would have been written down somewhere and compared to the water levels in previous months and years. Maybe “59” was a record. Maybe it’s only ever reached “49” or even less. Whatever the numbers, people would have their stories to tell. There would be stories of “the great flood”, of rooms, shops, maybe even whole houses submerged under the water. Stories of desperation, of fear, of rescue, of heroism and of hope. Then the waters would have receded again, down to a lower number, and once cleaned up and dried out, the townspeople would “return to normal”. (Whatever a phrase like that can ever mean!)

For me, the beauty in this image lies in the stones, the green and orange life growing on the surface, in the shape of the arch (with most of it left implied), and the dark river running beneath. But it’s the ruler that I return to and I wonder how we choose what to measure and what those measurements mean to us.

In health care we carry out lots of measurements. There is even a movement of people dedicated to recording figures for many of their daily bodily functions. “The Quantified Life”. Does that appeal to you? Can we adequately capture the experience of being healthy with a data set?

All these measurements, these figures, that data…..it gives us the sense of “having a handle on” something….even “having the measure of something”. And we use the numbers to rank experiences and events. The warmest day, the highest river level, the least rainfall. Is that how we remember our past? Is that how we tell our individual stories to others? Recounting the records, telling the numbers, reading out the data? Or by sharing the stories of our experiences?

Thing is, for me, there’s so much more in a life of qualities, than quantities. So much more to tell of beauty, of love, of wonder and amazement. So much to make sense of, to try to understand the meaning of, the purpose of. So much to experience, moment by moment, without a ruler in sight.

But you know, when I return to this image I see again that I have both. The qualities and the means to record the quantities. And isn’t that how to live a full life? To use both halves of the brain? The side which measures, and the side which experiences? The side which concentrates on the parts, and the side which pays attention to the “between-ness”, the connections, the whole?

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There’s an old ruined tower in the middle of one of the vineyards nearby. The other day there I went inside it, looked up, and took this photo.

My first thought was, wow, what a beautiful blue sky! How perfectly framed!

Then I thought, whoah, wait a minute, this is a metaphor isn’t it?

Because I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how we define who “we” are. I’ve been getting disturbed with all the xenophobic comments flying around the world these days. The people who say they don’t like “foreigners” and want them “to go back to their own countries”, or want to “close the borders” to protect “us” from “them”.

See, there’s at least two questions there. There’s how shall we live together? And who is included in that classification “we”?

Imagine you live in that tower. How big does your world appear? Where are your boundaries, your walls? If “we” are the people inside these walls, then “they” are the ones who live outside.

And don’t we all set our walls?

Don’t each of us feel similar to certain others, and maybe even connected to certain others, or maybe even in relationship with certain others?

Are those just the people who live in the same house as us?

Or those in the same street, the same town, or city, or nation state?

Or do we set the walls around those who are similar to us in some other way? Same sex, same religion, same ethnic group, born in the same nation state?

Isn’t the kind of world do we create for ourselves at least partly down to where we set those walls? How narrow we create our perspective? Or how wide?

How do you feel when you broaden your perspective? When you can see further, see wider, see deeper even?

I don’t know about you but I feel I breathe more easily. I feel my body, my mind, my soul, is nourished by the broader, more expansive view.

Let’s take this a wee step further and look at the famous “earthrise” image.

The earth rising over the horizon of the moon.

What if we think of “we” as being all of us who live on that beautiful, small, blue, white and green planet?

Because we do.

Every single atom in your body has previously been shared with other people, or other animals, or other plants, or other rocks or gases in this one small planet.

Every breath you take, draws in molecules from the same atmosphere as every other living, breathing form of life.

Every breath you breathe out contributes to that very same atmosphere.

We all share the same air.

We all share the same water.

We all share the same sunlight.

Don’t we all share the same earth?

Why divide it artificially into boxes? Little boxes marked “my country”, “my race”, “my family”, “my religion”?

If we are going to divide this planet up into these little boxes, then we still have to answer the question of how we can best live together – box to box. From within my walls, to you, within yours.

Here’s two short videos which changed my perspective on these questions…..

 

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I’ve noticed there is a phase of consciousness between sleep and waking up, a kind of half-asleep/not-quite-awake phase. It’s different from being asleep and it’s different from being awake. Maybe it’s a time of surfacing which sways between those two distinct states. Whatever it is the other morning, in that phase, I became aware of a number of different things “coming to my mind”….an image, a memory, an idea, a bit of a conversation, some things on a list to remember to do….it was really quite a mixture. At about the same moment I became aware of the feeling that I wasn’t in control of any of this. Whatever images, words, thoughts, ideas, memories there were, it was if they just appeared, or as if they were flowing by and I was just noticing them.

It got me to wondering where the contents of the mind come from, how many there are, and how, probably, the ones we notice are just the tips of an iceberg.

I remembered a number of occasions when I’ve stood on a bridge (like the one in the photo above) and looked down at the water as it flows towards, beneath or away from me.

This experience of noticing the contents of the mind flowing past reminded me of those times.

Sometimes what would catch my attention from the bridge would be movement. Like the flow of the water over the rocks, or leaves on the trees in the banks of the river blowing in the wind, or birds darting down to catch an insect or even a fish, or even a fish swimming in the water. Movement catches our attention. Change catches our attention. Something appears….like a branch or some leaves tumbling over the rocks to be carried away by the river. We notice that.

Sometimes my attention would be broad rather than narrow. I wouldn’t zoom in on any particular element but just gaze upstream and take in the whole scene. Seeing the general colours, the shapes of the rocks and the falling water, the patches of turbulent white and the still, dark pools…all at once.

Meditation is a bit like that. You sit and watch to see what turns up, then, after just noticing it, you choose not to interact with it, or hold on to it, but just notice it floating on by. Images pop up and then disappear, a thought half forms and then unravels, a memory emerges and then fades……

And it’s not always rushing and tumbling either. Sometimes what comes to the fore does so quite slowly and gently….

I thought of a number of bridges I’d stood on. The ones over the waterfalls, the ones of the gently flowing rivers, the ones over the big city rivers, the ones over little ponds in Japanese gardens. Each one was a vantage point. Each one allowed me to take a few minutes to stand and gaze and notice and to turn my attention towards something, then let my focus drift over to something else. Never getting stuck, never staying the same, always bringing something different, something new…….

It’s a nice metaphor for the interaction between the conscious and unconscious regions of our minds.

But, wait. I’ve got more big questions now.

Where is the bridge?

Who is the me, the observer, who is standing there watching the flow of mental content?

Where is the mental content coming from and where is it going to?

Strange how hard it is to pin down this idea of the “self”. Two things pop into my mind right now…….Mary Midgley, the philosopher, who tackles the idea that the self doesn’t exist at all…it’s an illusion….in her book, “Are you an illusion?”, where she asks the question – if the self is an illusion, who is it who is having this illusion? And Dan Seigel, who in “Mindsight” and other books, defines the mind as “an embodied, inter-relational, process of regulation of energy and information flow”.

And something else pops up now…my training in TM. Sitting, repeating the mantra, noticing words, thoughts, ideas, images and memories bubbling up and just gently returning to the mantra, letting them all flow on by.

Well, one thing at least is pretty clear to me. The origins of all this mental content are multiple. Sometimes they are a response to an external stimulus, a sound, a light, noticing something. Sometimes they emerge from memory, from imagination, or from whatever area of the mind we use for gnawing away at things….problems, worries, things to do, things we want to say. But wherever they come from, I really don’t think we have much control over that flow. What we can do is to notice, to become aware. Then we can begin to choose where to direct our attention and decide how which ones we want to follow and which we want to let go off.

 

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Richard Louv once coined the expressing “Nature Deficit Disorder”, arising from not spending enough time in Nature and proposed a treatment – “Vitamin N” – a dose of Nature. In Japanese research there have been discoveries showing positive chemical changes in the human body in relation to the immune system and a settling of inflammation when practising “forest bathing”, which consists of spending some time in a forest.

I like those ideas and so, last week, on a sunny day, we took a trip into the Limousin, found a nice forest, and had a walk.

Do you do that from time to time? I thoroughly recommend it. I mean, who really cares about the biochemical markers of immunity and inflammation when spending a bit of a day amongst the trees is just such a treat anyway? But it’s good to know the benefits are so deep.

Le Monde group has just launched a new publication entitled “Sens et Santé” – I like how French words often have several meanings all at once – “Sens” can mean “sense” or “meaning” but also “direction” (“santé” is health). One of the larger, beautifully illustrated articles in the inaugural issue focuses on “forest bathing”, describing how you can take time to become aware of the sounds, the sights, the smells, the feel of the trunks of the trees, and even, if you are so disposed, to spend a little time meditating.

Of course, I wouldn’t go without my camera, but that’s just my personally favourite way of raising my level of awareness. I notice more when I have a camera in my hand and an intention to take photos.

Look at this particular tree. I posted about a strange shaped tree a few months back, wondering what had happened in its life to bring about its peculiar shape. Well, here’s another one to stop me in my tracks and get me wondering….what on earth happened here?

And immediately another thought pops up – what resilience! What an incredible power to overcome what looks like it could have been a fatal event, to grow again, not just a new trunk, but six of them! Wow! There’s an inspiration!

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