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One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began

 

One day I was walking in a forest and I came across this signpost. Clearly, this was the way to go….

I followed the path strewn with blood red petals, but I didn’t know where it would take me.

Mary Oliver, in The Journey, the beginning of which I quoted above, continued her journey…

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

I turned a corner, and there before me I saw…..

…red petals cascading down a slope, and rising high up into the canopy of the trees. Maybe this is what I came to see? But I carried on….

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do –

determined to save

the only life that you could save.

 

Eventually, I found this….

…the heart of the wood.

So, this is how it is, isn’t it?

We don’t need a “goal”, or an “outcome”. We don’t need to “get” or “consume” anything in particular.

What we need to do, is find our heart.

This is as good a time as any to listen, and find out if you can hear what your heart is telling you.

We have access to more than one kind of intelligence. Not just the rational intelligence of the analytic left cerebral hemisphere in the brain, but the emotional intelligence of the heart.

You think that’s fanciful? Or just a nice metaphor?

I don’t think so.

It turns out we have a network of neurones, yes, neurones, the specialist kind of cell you find in a human brain, around the heart. There is a neural network around the heart. Apparently, the nerve connections between the brain and the heart are not just about the brain regulating the heart, they are two way. Our heart informs our brain.

And emotions? Those deep, intense embodied rivers of information and activity which course through the depths of our very being…..are they something supplementary? Are they something inferior in some way to our thoughts?

I don’t think so.

Our emotions are the organising, adaptive strategies which have evolved to enable us to survive and to thrive.

As the fox said to the Little Prince – “what is essential is invisible to the eye”.

Here’s Mary Oliver’s poem, The Journey, in full –

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

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You know I think that, especially in times like this, we think of life as being incredibly fragile. It’s easy to see it as transient and fleeting, subject to being extinguished in the blink of an eye.

All that might be true, but there is an opposite equal truth.

Life is an incredible power.

Maybe life is one of the most, or even, THE most powerful force in the universe.

At one time this planet which we all share had no life on it all. Now you can find it everywhere.

Some of the most successful life forms are micro-organisms. They have spread into pretty much every single ecological niche you can think of. You find them in volcanoes. You find them on the deep sea bed. You find them under metres of ice.

There’s even a theory that single celled creatures like bacteria got together to create multicellular organisms – including, eventually human beings. Did you know that there perhaps ten times as many bacteria in your body than there are “your” own cells? Each of us is actually a symbiotic community of cells.

Astonishing (and a bit creepy too somehow!)

There are regions of the world where there is a huge diversity of plants. The Fynbos in South Africa is one of those. Periodically fire burns through that region destroying all the flowers, but the heat from the fire stimulates the germination of seeds in the soil which then spring up as flowers. Some of the species of flower which appear haven’t been seen for decades. Some were thought to have become extinct. But no, they come back to life (or maybe the were never dead?)

Albizia Julibrissin, the Persian Silk tree, taken to London in 1793 was thought to have disappeared but after the German bombing of London in 1940 its seeds germinated and it began to grow again – 147 years later!

I’m sure we’ve all lots of experiences of flowers popping up in the most unlikely places!

The photo I’ve shared at the beginning of this post, of the little flower appearing in the forest floor, reminded me of all that.

Yes, life is delicate and fragile, but it is also THE most incredible force in the universe. We would do well to remember that.

I think that’s partly why I don’t like all the war language which is being used during this pandemic. We are not at war with corona virus. We are, I hope, learning how to live with it. There are already scientists telling us these pandemics arise because we haven’t learned to live with all the life forms on this Earth, that our destruction of habitats and environments, our pollution and urbanisation, are the root causes of the emergence of this particular pandemic and will remain the cause of the future ones unless we learn to respect Life and to learn to live together, learn to adapt to life together on this little blue planet.

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This is probably one of the most familiar shapes you know. We humans evolved from a life in the trees and both individual trees and whole forests hold a lot of meaning for us. In fact, you could probably argue that these are such familiar forms that we pass them by, almost, or even completely, un-noticed.

Trees are the lungs of the Earth. They capture the carbon dioxide in the air, extract the carbon, and push oxygen out into the atmosphere. See this shape? Inside your lungs you can see pretty much the same pattern. The difference is that trees produce individual leaves along their smaller branches, but our lungs end in what look like little bunches of grapes. Both these structures are designed to present the maximum surface area to the air. This particular form maximises exchange. In the trees it maximises their ability to capture carbon dioxide and sunlight, and to send out oxygen. In humans it maximises our ability to get oxygen out of the air and into our blood, and to get carbon dioxide out of the blood and into the air. Nice symmetry, huh?

We use this same tree-like structure to organise our knowledge too. Think of genealogy, using what we even call a “family tree”. Or of any system of classification, which breaks the whole field down into ever bifurcating, diverging parts. You’ll have used that too when you make an outline to help you plan a document, each chapter divided into sections and each section divided into subsections and so on…

But there is a limitation to this model. It is based on separation. At every stage there are more and more divisions. By the time you get out onto the twig at the end of a branch it seems to be connected only by traveling back along the twig, branch and trunk, retracing the divisions to bring the flow together – just like you see as the many streams and little rivers flow together towards an estuary.

This separation is true. It’s a fundamental characteristic of reality. But there’s another form just as fundamental, which maybe we neglect.

The web of nodes and links.

In networks we see a different way of connecting. The human brain has more specialised cells (neurones) than anyone can count….it’s billions – can you imagine what billions of anything look like? It’s pretty hard. But wait, it gets even more mind boggling than that. Every single one of these neurones establishes direct connections (synapses) with thousands of others. Thousands. That means the total number of connections in the brain is in the trillions…..nope, I can’t imagine what that looks like either!

There are networks everywhere in Nature. From inside our bodies and brains, to local ecosystems, to the entire “biosphere” of planet Earth.

I’m fascinated by networks and I’ve written a few posts which gather together some of the most influential books I’ve read on this subject. Have a look at this, at this, or this.

The thing is the tree-model isn’t the only one which helps us to understand Life, the network model is needed too. I find that a lot. It’s not a matter of “either/or” it’s a matter of “and”.

That’s become my mantra – “And not Or”.

It helps me to focus on the connections, to understand what holds opposites together, and to keep returning to the perspective of the whole…..whether that is a whole, unique patient, or a whole, unique Earth.

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One of the strongest characteristics which human beings have is our ability to make links.

We connect what we see to what we have already seen and to what we imagine we might be able to see.

There’s a lot in that sentence, but I’m not going to unpick it right now….suffice to say we blend the perceptions of the present with memory and imagination.

That is an incredible power.

It helps us to discern patterns which we use to recognise what we are perceiving and to be able to make reasonable assumptions about the future.

For example, as a doctor I learned how to diagnose. Diagnosing involves listening to a person’s description of their experience and to their telling of their story, examining them physically if needed, then conducting certain tests if still not in a position to make a good diagnosis. A diagnosis enabled me to do two things – firstly, to recognise both the likely disease or pathology underlying the patient’s experience, and secondly, to gain an understanding what that meant in this person’s life. Yep, diagnosis is more than naming a disease. It’s about arriving at a level of understanding – an understanding of this illness in this person’s life.

Once I had a diagnosis I could then decide how to act. I could decide what to do and how quickly I had to do it. At that moment I’d be imagining certain futures. If I do this, then what might happen, and if I do that instead, what might happen? How quickly might those possible futures become real? To answer those questions I needed a knowledge of the patterns of disease – how is this disease likely to develop based on what we have all seen so far?


I picked this image today to reflect on our ability to recognise patterns around us, AND to apply those patterns widely. When we look at something, we don’t just “see it as it is”, because everything we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, sets off chains of memory and imagination.

So when I look at this particular tree I see these three enormous swirls. They look like whirlpools and water eddying around hidden rocks. A while ago I learned about complexity science and it really opened up my understanding of the world.

There are certain characteristic features of complex systems and one of them is the existence of “attractors”. “Attractors” are kind of organising points. They are part of what creates the differences within any given system or object. I’ve seen some scientists describe reality as “lumpy” rather than “smooth” and although I don’t really like that language I understand what they mean.

The universe is not uniform.

The phenomena of the universe are not distributed uniformly.

There are three common kinds of attractor –

Point attractors – these organise the surrounds around a single point. These three knots in this wood look a bit like three point attractors.

Loop attractors – this is where there are two centres of attraction acting together as one. They produce what looks like an infinity loop, or a figure or 8. They are a way of seeing polar opposites as part of the same system.

Strange attractors – also called complex attractors. This is where there are a number of centres of attraction all interacting within the same system. It can be hard to see any patterns here but we can recognise them when we seem the whole system. In other words, if we zoom in too close and focus only on certain parts we can’t see the way this system as a whole behaves. But when we stand back, zoom out, climb the hill, “take the view from on high”, or however else you want to describe it, we see that all the apparently separate parts are actually interconnected and working together.

I think as you encounter the world, you’ll see examples of these three kinds of attractor everywhere. See how many you can spot this week.

Ok, so, let me be clear. This is MY interpretation of these things. I’m not a complexity scientist. I just wanted to share how I make sense of my life and the world I live in.

I hope that there might be something here which sheds a light on things for you too.

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I took this photo in Gijon, Spain a while back. I’ve returned to look at it many, many times.

There’s something hear which captures my attention and provokes my thoughts.

I’ve always been struck by two things in this image. The first is the solitary nature of the fisherman. It reminds me how we humans are constantly addressing two apparent opposites. We are highly social creatures. We need relationships. We need to connect. We want to share. On the other hand, every one of us is unique. Every one of us experiences this universe from the position of the subjective self. There’s no alternative to that. We need to know that we exist, that we are seen and heard, that we can exert our will and make a difference in the world. We all need some time alone. Alone with our thoughts, our memories, our sensations and experiences. And, yes, it’s also great to share.

The other thing is the distance between this fisherman and the water (and therefore the fish!). It looks a LONG way down. I can’t see his fishing line but I can see that the rod he is using seems huge. There does seem to be a man-made ledge at the top of this cliff so I’m guessing it’s a good place to fish. And as I’ve never fished in my life, I know nothing about fishing, but I’m going to guess that a good place to fish is where you catch fish. There would be little point in standing there dangling a line into the sea far below if you never caught a fish, would there? (Or maybe there would. Sometimes I wonder if the main pleasure from fishing comes from the solitude, not from catching anything. But maybe some of you do go fishing and you can tell me)

As I look at this image again today, well into our third week of lockdown in the midst of this pandemic, I see a third thing – hope.

Hope?

Yep, hope.

Here is a man, a solitary man, standing far above the source of what he hopes for (fish?), but with sufficient hope to actually stand there.

I think that’s one of the things we need at this point – hope.

I hope for an end to this pandemic and its deaths and confinements.

I hope for a re-evaluation of the world we live in.

I hope we carry forward our new-found admiration and respect for all the people in under-valued jobs who keep our societies going – the health workers, the carers, the cleaners, the food producers, the transporters, the cashiers, the shelf-stackers, the teachers, the people who keep the water flowing, the lights on, the heating working, the researchers and innovators……has this list got an end? I’m sure you are already thinking of other workers whose importance to us all is suddenly coming to the fore.

I hope we shift our focus and our energy away from competition and control towards co-operation and helping.

I hope we learn from this experience.

I hope that what we learn leads us to make different choices.

I hope we take forward this valuing of human beings and relationships and build it into our new societies.

What do you hope for?

Let’s begin to imagine what kind of world we want to build together in the light of what we know now.

(My list of hopes is by no means complete. I only hope I can inspire you to start to make your own list)

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I love the places where one element meets another. The places where constant change is right in front of my eyes.

These are borderline places, zones of transition and transformation. There’s a word for spaces and regions like these – liminal spaces.

This first photo today is of one such area. You can see its coastal and that the tide is out revealing rocks, plants, seaweed, and rock pools. I love the colours in this photo and how you just know that, despite this being a single, still, image, it is already changing and won’t look exactly like this in a few moments time. I see some ships in the distance too and wonder about the people onboard, making a journey, transitioning from one place to another, from one life perhaps to another.

Here’s my second photo

Staying at the coast for this one….an image which is almost entirely composed of shades of blue. You just know that this apparently blue sand is wet, and that as it dries it will turn golden. There are no hard edges in this photo. Just gentle curving lines where the sea turns to surf, and the water bubbles up with escaping air. This is a calming image to me. I see it and I can hear the rhythm of the waves breaking on the shore. I can smell the fresh, invigorating sea air (and hope it won’t be TOO long before I’m allowed out to experience it again).

Number three…

Take in Scotland one winter this one shows either the spreading ice on top of the loch, or maybe it was receding….who knows? I can’t remember. But again you can almost see this changing before your eyes. There are edges here which are highly reminiscent of the ones in the second image….of the sea breaking on the shore. Although this time it is ice breaking on the water, or water eroding ice. The bonus in this image is the reflection. You can see the trees on the slope of the hill, but they are much darker on the surface of the water, which seems kind of dream like to me. A glimpse into the Earth’s unconscious.

Finally…..

The low morning mists at the foot of Ben Led seem to mimic the shape of the hills above them. The mist rises and falls the way the land rises and falls. There is clear ground between me and the misty zone, and clear ground rising above it, creating a very special kind of mysterious liminal space I think. Beautiful.

Here we all are. In the midst of this pandemic. Nothing is the same. Everything has changed and, often frighteningly, continues to change so quickly we can’t even see what’s coming. But this pandemic will end. And what then? What kind of world will we live in together after this? Sure, there will be forces which try to get right back on exactly the same track as we were on before, but something else seems to be emerging in this liminal space….a re-evaluation of what’s important in life, of relationships, of the kind of work different people do, of how we are so inter-dependent, so connected. Of how we share this one single planet on which Life exists without borders.

Let’s use this space, this region, this zone, to reflect and to think. After all, many of us the time to do so now. Let’s use this time to imagine how we humans might better live on planet Earth. Together.

What do you hope will be different afterwards?

What do you imagine the post-pandemic world might look like?

How might health care change? How might work change? How might education change? How might economics and politics change? [add your own question here…..because everything might change]

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What a combination! Sunlight and flowers!

I’ve a number of photos of this type. I like to get down on the ground with the sun above and in front of me, and photograph the petals of a flower as the sunlight makes them glow.

It looks like LIFE to me.

And it reminds me of how Richard Feynman once said that trees are made from air, which, of course, shocks you when you hear him say that. We think surely trees are made from the soil? But no, not so much. They capture carbon dioxide from the air, capture the sun’s rays and then they use them to break the carbon dioxide down to get that building block of organic life – carbon, and in the process push out the oxygen they’ve released into the atmosphere. He was asked…but what about water? They need water and that comes up from the soil through their roots. Aha, he said, well, yes, but where does the water come from? The air.

Of course he was exaggerating to make a point because trees are made of a lot more than carbon and water. But did you know that the roots of trees are covered in micro-organisms, little fungi which reach into the tree roots and outwards into the soil. These tiny creatures gather up and transfer into the tree nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, magnesium and other micro-elements which the tree needs to survive and to grow. They also help the roots gather up water and form part of a kind of immune defence against pathogens for the tree. In return the tree transfers up to 60% of the sugars it makes to feed these little fungi.

Amazing, huh?

A real lesson in co-operation, collaboration, and symbiosis. In fact a principle we’d do well to learn from. How can we live better on this Earth? In more symbiotic ways, which turn out to be more creative than our consumption and destruction methods which produce “waste” (something which doesn’t exist in Nature)

Did you know that researchers tried treating some flowers with antibiotics and found that their lovely scent disappeared? Turns out than in many cases the scent of a flower is actually produced by the population of bacteria which lives in it symbiotically.

Huh! Turns out this symbiosis thing can be pretty damn beautiful!

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