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Archive for the ‘life’ Category

This is one of my most favourite photos. Here in the Charente we are blessed with incredible sunsets. There are, of course, all different kinds of sunsets, but one that I love most is the “immersive” kind. That’s where the entire sky changes colour. You know, watching a large disc of red sun sink below the horizon, is wonderful, but when the entire sky turns an infinite range of reds and purples it’s really something else.

When you are witnessing a scene like that, you are IN that scene. You are a part of it. You feel absorbed by it, entranced by it, enchanted by it. It’s a real world magical experience.

This particular evening I crouched down behind the old well in the garden and took this photo. I love the silhouette of the old iron bowl on its chain, suspended over the hidden depths of the water in the well, with the vibrant, glowing, fiery sky behind and above it.

That well has water in it. It’s over 20 metres down. We measured it using a ball of string with an old key tied on the end. 20 metres looks a long way down. When you peer into the well, (which is normally closed with a padlocked metal lid), you see a long dark vertical tunnel with a flicker of light in its very depths. Looking more closely you can make out shapes and colours which you know are the reflections of the sky, and of you. It’s a bit like looking into a kaleidoscope and recognising yourself.

This old iron bowl looks rather like a cauldron to me, which also inspires me to think of magic. It adds to the whole experience of being enchanted. So, maybe it’s not a surprise that what comes flooding into my mind when I look at this image are thoughts of alchemy…..of how we humans learned to work with both fire and water. Where would we be without either of these elements? Where would we be without having learned some of the secrets of fire and water?

Mind you, we’ve still got a LOT to learn! Do we really understand fire and heat and how to interact with it, how to live with it, how to thrive with it? Do we really understand water?

Of course there is a third element to consider when we experience a sunset like this……the observer, the one who is experiencing, the subject. It’s you, it’s me, it’s us. The truly astonishing alchemy of this is when we, as conscious, living, human beings, perceive and experience the fire and the water, and blend our memories and imagination to fashion an expression of those lived moments.

There is definitely a kind of alchemy in photography.

There is definitely a kind of alchemy in being human.

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Just below the long bridge from the mainland to Ile d’Oleron, at low tide, you can see lots of people out gathering seafood, digging up the shells from the mud. I like this photo I took of them one day. I like the blue colour of the scene and the way people are scattered across the beach. I imagine they almost look like notes on a musical stave.

There’s a growing understanding of human beings, human behaviour and character which comes from taking an evolutionary approach. I think that sometimes it’s a bit overdone, but there are significant insights to be gained by taking this perspective.

For example, one way to understand the brain is to use the “triune” model – the idea that you can see three, distinct, regions or parts – the brain stem, the limbic system and the cerebral cortex. Taking an evolutionary perspective we can see that the vital life-sustaining functions of the brain stem are shared with many creatures much further back along the evolutionary tree than human beings. Then we can see the functions of social connection and the emotions which seem to be the domain of the limbic system….functions shared with other mammals. Finally, the cognitive functions of the cerebral cortex, and the development of the frontal regions in particular, are shared with higher primates. This model can help you to get a handle on brain function but it falls down when you take a too reductionist approach to it…..a common problem with a lot of neuroscience which, at worst, degenerates into a kind of phrenology. The brain is a much more complex, massively interconnected, distributed network. It can’t be so easily divided into three separate parts.

Psychologists often explain to people about the alarm function of the amygdala and how it developed to keep us safe as hunters and gatherers but that now that we live in urban environments, pretty free of daily predators, those ancient circuits have a tendency to alert us to imaginary existential threats, rather than real ones.

Last year I read “The Emotional Mind. The Affective Roots of Culture and Cognition” by Stephen Asma and Rami Gabriel which brilliantly places emotions in a central role in human behaviour by tracing the evolutionary path of affect. It wasn’t an easy read, and I was glad I’d read so much about neuroscience and evolutionary psychology before I came across it, but it really has helped me understand the emotions as “adaptive strategies”…..something I’ve explored in my book, “And not or”

As I was looking through my photo library I found this photo quite close to the one I’ve shared at the beginning of this post –

See any similarities?

Ha! Sometimes I think it helps to remind ourselves that we humans are part of Nature, not apart from Nature. We have a lot in common with all other forms of Life as we mutually strive to survive and thrive.

If remembering our hunter gatherer origins helps us to remember that, then it’s a good thing!

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This is one of those “Are you a glass half full, or glass half empty, person?” images. When you look at this I’m guessing you’re either going to be thinking “Yikes! Look how BLACK that cloud is! There’s a storm coming!!” or “Look how pretty and soft those clouds look just above the vines! Better weather is coming!”

And not or.

I’m neither glass half full, nor glass half empty. I can be optimistic some days, and pessimistic others. But what pleases me most is a sense of wholeness. I love the contrasts, polarities, and their dynamic relationship with each other. So, in fact, this is just the kind of image which really appeals to me.

I love how the blackness of the storm cloud is echoed in the blackness of the vineyard (which only happens because I exposed for the bright blue sky and white, fluffy clouds). That makes this image a bit like a yin yang symbol for me, and you know how much I like that!

I was reading some articles in the French Press about what kind of world might lie ahead for us after this pandemic. They use the term “L’après” – in English we’d use the phrase “The After World”….or, more likely, “the world afterwards”, but just using the term “The After” in the French way conjures up connections with that other “after” term – “The After Life” – which traditionally relates to life after death, doesn’t it? Well, many of the articles are in fact about the “after life” but not in that traditional sense. They are about life after the pandemic…..or how could/might/should we live in the light of what we have experienced?

That’s a really ancient question, isn’t it? “How to Live?” It’s one of my favourite questions, and I think its interesting that we humans have been wrestling with it for centuries. There are, of course, a myriad of answers based on different world views and beliefs, but, somehow, I find, it’s not answers I’m looking for…..what thrills me is the hunt….the enquiry….the exploration. Maybe one of my strongest drives is curiosity. That and wonder. And I find both of those incredibly satisfying.

So, I’m drawn to the “whole”. I’m drawn to dynamic change. I’m drawn to “émerveillement” (wonder and amazement – or “enchantment” perhaps?). I’m drawn to explore, to understand and to learn. As I move forwards through 2020 and beyond those will be my foundations – along with love and care.

Do you remember the two words I picked for this year? Based on two books I received for Christmas?

Émerveillement and Bienveillance.

How about you? What values are going to help you to navigate the weeks and months ahead?

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I saw this a few years back in the town of Saintes, about a half hour drive from where I live. You have to agree this is a pretty impressive attempt to bar the door! There was nobody going to go through there easily!

The trouble is, as we can now see, that the rest of the building fell down. And there’s not much value in a locked door when the other three walls have disappeared! There’s definitely a story here, but I don’t know it. I mean, who went to such great lengths to bar this door? And why? And what happened to the whole building? Setting all that aside though, I think this image inspires a couple of streams of thought.

You know the phrase about barring the barn door after the horse has bolted? Well, that’s the first thing that came to mind when I looked at this photo today. Throughout this pandemic authorities have been playing catch up. Some countries have been slower than others, (and, goodness me, some countries still haven’t got a grip!), but everyone has been trying to learn as we all live this thing. Still, it’s often felt that lockdowns have come too late, or have been too sloppy, that there hasn’t been enough Personal Protective Equipment for those who need it, that testing and tracing have been slow to get off the ground, and so on, and so on.

What does that tell us?

Well, partly that our societies have been way more vulnerable than anyone has admitted, and partly, that this is life…..that life emerges, continuously evolving and developing into the unknown. We can’t live life backwards, and we are never going to be able to accurately predict the future, so maybe we need to learn how to make the present the best we can make it instead?

The other thought stream which this image set off for me, is that one about dealing with life, and, in particular, health, holistically. It’s just never going to be a successful long term strategy to focus on short term, narrow solutions. We don’t just need well defended front doors. We need strong walls, healthy buildings, safe, clean and secure places to live and work. We need them in the present…..not just once a crisis is upon us, and it’s too late!

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Like yesterday, I’ve found two images that I want to use together. Unlike yesterday, they don’t represent a single phrase. Instead, I think they demonstrate a single concept.

We try to make sense of the world by focusing on bits of it. A bit like looking through a keyhole, or catching sight of what lies through a gateway.

Our left cerebral hemisphere seems to have evolved to develop this skill to the great heights we now experience. It drills down. It focuses. It abstracts elements from the whole to analyse them, categorise them and label them. In both physical and mental senses of the word, it helps us to “grasp” things.

“Things”. That’s an important word to use here, because this is what this type of narrow focus does. It turns whatever it grasps into objects. It separates “objects” out from each other, and from their contexts. This can work pretty well when we are dealing with material forms, but it starts to go wildly astray when we are dealing with living creatures, with non-material reality such as feelings, thoughts, beliefs and relationships, or, even, I would claim, when dealing with illness.

We often hear illnesses described as if they are objects or entities – “stand up to cancer!”, “conquer heart disease!”, “defeat dementia!” etc. But illnesses are not objects, and neither are they entities. They are more like processes, dysfunctions and disorders of complex networks of relationships.

There is no doubt that zero-ing in on some phenomena helps us to recognise them, classify them, and, yes, grasp them. But the job is only partially done at that point. The normal function of the brain involves the left hemisphere handing back to the right hemisphere the results of its analysis, where the contexts, environments, connections and relationships are re-created. This is how we better understand what we are dealing with….by seeing the whole, by seeing the flows of materials, energy and information, by spotting the dynamic movements, the constantly changing web of connections and relationships. And, in so doing, “objects” often turn out not to be “things” after all.

These two photos remind me of that.

They remind me of the value of peeking through the keyhole, but also the need to step through and into whatever we are observing, in order to know better, to understand more deeply, to more fully grasp….

Looking through the keyhole, turning the key, unlocking the door, approaching the gate…..these are all just a beginning. They invite us to enter, to experience, to explore.

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Unusually, I’ve decided to start my post today with two images, instead of one. I’m steadily working my way through my photo libraries of pictures I’ve taken over the last couple of decades. I have, literally, tens of thousands of them. In fact, I’ve always been utterly daunted by the size of my image libraries and haven’t made any attempt to edit or organise them. But then the lockdown kicked in and I decided to create and share a post every single day. I reckoned that was one of the best things I could do in this current situation. There is so much uncertainty, fear, and negativity about that I thought one of ways I could respond to that was create and publish positive, inspiring and encouraging posts. My thinking was, and is, that the deliberate dissemination of positive waves might contribute to others, might provide some support and reassurance in these difficult times.

Two of the things I do a lot is take photographs and write. It’s a long time now since my blog evolved to have this consistent structure – each post created around one of my photos, plus an associated written reflection.

My experience of doing this continues to delight me. These daily posts have become something of an addiction. I’d find it difficult to miss a day now! Every day I edit and organise some photos in one of my photo libraries, and I download one of two of them which inspire me to write something. Then, each day I choose one of those downloads, pop it into a new post, take a little time to contemplate and reflect, then I write. From time to time, I hear from one of you, sending me a message of gratitude for a post I’d published and that, too, delights me, because it confirms for me that positive ripples can, indeed, travel right around the world.

Today I was thinking of using one of these two photos but wasn’t sure which one, then……guess what? Yep, I decided “And not or“, and popped them both in, because together they make a small sentence. Ok, not quite a sentence, but a small phrase…..

Whole hearted.

The half frosted leaf struck me as a natural yin yang symbol when I saw it, and it still has that power over me. Because the left half is frosted and white, where the right half has warmed up, lost its frost, and revealed its brown colour again, it really does speak to me of contrasts, opposites, and polarities, and of how all such things exist only in connection with their partners. The yin yang symbol is such a great symbol of wholeness. Of dynamic wholeness. I love it.

The shape which has appeared on this tree is typical of the way we draw a symbolic heart. I know we humans are good at spotting, or seeing, faces everywhere, but I think we are equally good at spotting, or seeing, hearts. The heart is a symbol of love, of soul, of deep feeling and commitment for us, isn’t it? “Heart felt”, “heart to heart”, “broken hearted”, “the heart of the matter”, are all phrases which reflect the place of the heart in the human psyche.

But, perhaps my favourite heart-connected phrase is “whole hearted”. That idea of “going all in”, of “fully committing”, of generosity, of love, of passion, of enthusiasm and desire. I’ve long since thought “why do anything in a half-hearted way?”

This is how I want to live my life.

Whole hearted.

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Look at the sand. Look at these lines. They look like waves, don’t they? Except sand doesn’t really do waves, does it? We know, when we look at this, that the sand has been shaped by some other force. We know that that force was water. Well, not really water, although water was involved. It’s been shaped by the forces which shaped the water.

Water often looks like this. Whether it’s the surface of a pond, a lake, or an ocean, the surface of the water breaks into long peaks and troughs which we call waves.

Nothing remarkable there?

Well, actually, it is. Because those waves in the water are movements of energy. You can’t capture a wave and examine it under a microscope.

A wave is more a verb, than a noun.

A wave is more a process, than an object.

The forces which create the wave are invisible to us. The shapes they make in the water are not.

So, when we look at the sand and see a pattern like this, we are seeing a kind of symmetry. We are looking at sand, fashioned into similar shapes to the water. But underlying both the sand and the water are these invisible forces which are doing the shaping.

Or, rather, the invisible forces are doing the shaping by interacting with the water and the sand. It’s a sort of collaboration.

I often wonder about the invisible forces which interact with the material world to produce the patterns, shapes and forms which we see around us.

I wonder about the invisible forces which interact with each of us to shape our experiences and our lives.

There is one particular quality in this kind of pattern which really captures my attention and imagination – transmission. When we see a wave move across the surface of a body of water, or we see how the sand has been shaped, then we realise we are witnessing something moving, something dynamic, something which is carrying particles, energy and information from one place to another.

That’s how I see the world now. A myriad of transient forms produced by continuous flows of materials, energies and information. Nothing exists in isolation. Nothing is fixed. Everything exerts influences which spread far and beyond the here and the now.

Everything, and everyone.

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This is a photo I took many years ago, just using my phone. It’s taken in Edinburgh at night. The purple light of the underside of the bridge caught my attention. It was only once I’d uploaded the shot to my computer that I noticed the person walking along the pavement. At that moment I realised the scene was greatly enhanced by the human presence. It became a much, much more interesting image.

I believe this is a fundamental principle and value which I have. I don’t share the views of some people who think the human species is bad. I believe that we humans are not separate from Nature, we are a part of Nature. We are, in fact, an inextricable part of Nature. I can’t understand a human being without knowing them within their webs of connections, without exploring the flows of materials, energy and information through those networks, without considering them within their contexts and multiple environments, physical, social and cultural.

Yes, we humans have done, are doing, and will do, a wide range of harms to each other, to other creatures, and the one, small, blue marble, planet which we share with all other forms of life, and we need to learn how to live in greater harmony with each other and within this Nature that we are part of. But in four decades of face to face, person by person, patient by individual patient, work as a doctor, I never met a single human being I didn’t value.

I’ve found that as I get older, and in particular, since I retired and moved to live in the French countryside, that I value the rest of Nature, more and more. As I opened the shutters the other morning I looked out and saw two birds…..a Hoopoe drilling down into the grass for some breakfast, and Little Owl, sitting up on the highest point of the wall, spinning his head around surveying his territory. And I thought, well, how amazing is this? I’m more aware of the phases of the moon now, and the rhythm of the seasons. I’m more aware of sprouting seeds, the rate of growth of pumpkins, the cycles of leaves, flowers and fruits. As I garden, I feel in touch with a bond of care, attention and nurture, in this phenomenon we call Nature. But I sure wouldn’t want a world without human beings in it.

There’s something else this image does for me. It sparks the creative, story-telling part of me. Here’s something else which is uniquely human. The ability to perceive, interpret and invent. The ability to make sense of, to apply values to, and to create narratives from, our daily experiences. We are a creative species. We have a driving need to make sense of our lives. I can’t help but wonder about this solitary person, making their way through the streets of Edinburgh at night.

Maybe we just need to learn to shift the balance of our actions and efforts, away from harm, consumption and destruction, towards more harmony, more humanity, and more life-enhancing care. Maybe this pandemic has given us an opportunity to hit the reset button, and do just that.

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I’m fascinated by carved objects on buildings. Often they are above a door or a window. Other times they are under a roof overhang, or somewhere in a garden or building. Certain buildings, like churches, are often highly embellished with these works of art. This owl is on a church wall. I know most of the carvings on churches relate to saints and important people in the Christian faith, but many of them are really not so directly related (think of all the gargoyles!). Who chose them, and why?

When I’ve traveled around Japan I’ve seen lots and lots of statues and statuettes….particularly buddhas.

However, it’s not at all uncommon to find figures like this for sale in Garden Centres here in France and I’ve noticed them a lot in French people’s gardens and houses.

There’s also quite a controversy raging just now about statues, with calls for the removal of statues of famous people whose actions and values communities no longer wish to celebrate (although maybe they were never celebrated, despite standing there for decades).

All this got me thinking about the symbolic power of objects. I wonder if you have any in your house? Or your garden? I wonder which ones you notice in your Public spaces?

Maybe we should assume that they are intended to exert some influence over us. For example, I think many people with the buddha statues often see them as objects to help them to remain calm. One of the first phrases I encountered here, in the Charente, was “Soyons zen” – “Let’s be “zen” – or calm”.

I have quite a lot of owls in my house. I feel an affinity with them and I think they help me access reflection, contemplation and wisdom.

A common “device” over doorways is a heart.

I can certainly see the point of that! In fact, I think I’d quite like having a house where there was a heart over the doorway. Maybe it would help everyone who entered to remember the importance of “seeing with the heart”.

There’s a really interesting mythical one in this part of France (and I believe elsewhere in Europe too) – Melusine.

Half woman, half serpent (or dragon), with wings, there are a number of variations of the Melusine myth. Here’s a passage from wikipedia about her

One tale says Melusine herself was the daughter of the fairy Pressyne and king Elinas of Albany (now known as Scotland). Melusine’s mother leaves her husband, taking her daughters to the isle of Avalon after he breaks an oath never to look in at her and her daughter in their bath. The same pattern appears in stories where Melusine marries a nobleman only after he makes an oath to give her privacy in her bath; each time, she leaves the nobleman after he breaks that oath. Shapeshifting and flight on wings away from oath-breaking husbands also figure in stories about Melusine.

I wonder what influence her presence has on the people who live with her likeness on their walls?

One of the things which makes we human beings so unique is how we handle symbols and metaphors. We don’t just see objects as “things”. We attach value and meaning to them. They provoke emotions in us. They provoke our memories, stimulate our imaginations.

The objects to which we attach symbolic value, either individually, or as part of a culture, or society, have an influence on us. We often choose them exactly for that reason.

What symbolic objects are there around you in your daily life? And are you aware of the influence they have upon you?

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The river Charente which flows through this region has a reputation for being calm and steady. At least, here in Cognac, and in this photo I took in nearby Jarnac, it pretty much always seems to be flowing with no fuss. It’s a total contrast to the tumbling, rushing, foaming waters falling down the rocky hillsides in Scotland, although, I must confess, the River Forth which meandered around Stirling where I was born, was also pretty smooth….it’s just that it seemed to swell and overflow frequently, which I haven’t seen happen in the Charente.

Local people claim the easy, relaxed attitude of the river influences their state of mind, and their behaviours. I’ve lived here for coming up on six years now and it isn’t stress free, but the values of ease and taking your time are really prominent here. Hey, it’s no surprise that the symbol of the Charente is a snail! And that’s not because they are a local delicacy – they aren’t!

On the particular day when I took this photo the water was astonishingly green. That was pretty unusual. I was walking along a riverside path shaded by trees and I came across this box which someone had placed here as a seat. I was struck by just how attractive this spot was for taking a pause, slowing down, and savouring the day.

As I look at this photo again now I am yet again astonished by the green-ness of it! Isn’t it lush? The overhanging tree, the river itself, and the far wooded riverbank are all completely different shades of green. Wonderful!

I don’t know about you but I definitely associate green with Life. This image seems full of Life to me. I’d be hard put to decide what colour is my favourite colour because I adore the blues in the sky and the sea, and I love the reds, yellows and goldens of autumn, but green, in particular seems to be the colour of Life for me.

I suppose when I stop to think about it, its the chlorophyll in the plants which gives us most of the green around us, and without that chlorophyll, there would be no life….at least, not as we know it.

I believe there is a power in Nature. A power of healing. A power of presence. A power of Life. And this green image exudes those powers. Surely we humans need to live amongst green spaces?

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