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Archive for the ‘life’ Category

Did you ever come across an ancient Chinese philosophical concept, “Li”? I’m no scholar of Chinese philosophy but the sense I make of this idea is that there are invisible patterns, structures and forces throughout the universe which shape the forms that we see. (If you understand this better than me, and you think I’m mis-representing “li” please explain in the comments section)

It does seem to me that there are certain patterns in Nature which seem pretty widespread. This one which is a “honeycomb” pattern in rock in the West of Scotland is one of these, and, for me, it’s one of the most fundamental.

It’s a bit like a web, or a net, and really it’s simply connections and points of connections. The connections are the thin almost thread like pieces and the points of connection are where two or more of these pieces meet. This is the basis of all networks – we call the points of connection, “nodes”, and the lines represent the ways in which nodes influence each other.

Simple nodes receive information, energy or materials from other nodes, and pass them on. More complex nodes do some processing, so that the exact information, energy or materials which it receives, leave it in somewhat different form.

One of the places we see this structure is in our brains – we have billions (yes, billions) of special cells in our brain. We call them “neurones” and their main purpose is to transfer information from one place to another. The neurones all meet up with other neurones at specialised junction points called “synapses”. Every single neurone is connected this way to several thousand (yes, several thousand) other neurones. You can imagine pretty easily that the permutations of firing, communicating neurones, neuronal pathways and neural networks in the brain might not be infinite, but it’s so gobsmackingly (is that a word?) large that we literally can’t actually envision it in its totality. I’m sure I once read someone say that the number of whole brain states, determined by which neurones are firing is greater than the number of visible stars in the universe. Well, don’t know if that’s quite right, but it sure gives you a way of imagining the immensity of it.

Another place we see this structure is in the human body. Think of each of your several billion cells as a node, and once you realise that every single one of those cells lives in constant relationship with all the others (either directly or indirectly, cos that’s the way a network works) then you get a good understanding of why we need to think of our health and wellbeing holistically. None of our parts live in isolation. In fact all our cells, all our tissues and all our organs, are continuously, dynamically relating to others by establishing and maintaining “integrative” relationships – that is “Mutually beneficial bonds between well differentiated parts”. There’s a key point to see here – the most fundamental kind of relationship in the universe is collaborative, integrative and co-operative.

Yes, competition exists. Of course it does. But we have been duped into believing that competition is THE key relationship in the universe…….THE driver of evolution. It’s important and it’s real, but by itself competition could not produce evolution, could not produce Life, cannot describe reality. We need relationships which are essentially integrative, fundamentally well-meaning, mutually supportive, collaborative, to do that.

I don’t know about you, but I think we could all benefit from this simple shift of understanding – we need to put “collaborative, integrative, co-operative” relationships at the heart of our decision making.

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I’m pretty keen on taking photos of webs, especially on a misty morning or after it’s been raining.

This is one of my most favourite photos of a web. Actually you can hardly see the strands of the web itself, which makes it even more interesting……it’s like the underlying structure which gives shape to the whole image is invisible, or almost so. And I think life is like that. There are underlying structures, forms and shaping forces to everything, but mostly that’s all invisible!

What we see most in this photo is a myriad of water droplets – each one of them acting as a prism or a lens. Look closely at any of them and you can see that they are showing you an upside down image of the surrounding world. Isn’t that fascinating as well as beautiful?

Because what that makes me think is how each of us is like one of these droplets. Each of us has our own unique perspective upon the world. Every single one of us sees and experiences the world from our individual and different subjective point of view.

But we are all connected. And we are all living in the same world. So most of what we see in any of these little lenses is the same. We live shared lives. We experience shared phenomena.

That takes me back to my favourite – “and not or” – we are at the one and the same time having unique, individual experiences, AND shared, common, connected ones.

It’s not a matter of choice.

If we forget either one of these apparent polarities then we fail to grasp reality. Reality is a vast, inter-connected, largely invisible web of unique, individual events and experiences, constantly changing, constantly interacting, always astonishing and, utterly beautiful.

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I took this photo because I liked the look of the boat with the distant hills on the horizon but ever since I uploaded it to my photo library every time I look at it I think “What’s that boat doing on that side of the wall?” Because the sea is on the other side of the wall!

But actually this is no accident. The boat has been placed here, high up above the water line and behind this wall, for protection.

As I look at it again today I’m seeing it in the context of the new variant Covid, the exponentially rising rates of infection in many countries and a new round of restrictions and lockdowns coming into effect around the world. All of which gets me thinking about protection.

Really, as best I understand it at this point, there is only one way to catch this virus – you get it from somebody else. The more people you share space and time with each day, the greater your risk of getting infected. The more you share space and time with others indoors and with poor ventilation, the greater your risk. All that isn’t really rocket science. So, at a personal level, protection involves avoiding contact with other people as much as you can.

OK, so that’s just not possible for many, many people who have to work to keep us all alive and/or to keep themselves alive, which is why many people ask our governments to financially support those whose places of work are being closed down, and why the authorities have to work hard to make workplaces as safe as possible for those who do have to work. Of course, we can all help protect those who have to work by driving down the community infection rates just by restricting our own personal contacts.

I’m not going to get into the details of other measures in this post, but, more than ever, isn’t it clear now that our societies need to change? We are too vulnerable. Or to put it another way, we are not protecting populations well enough. We need to do better – that, not any technical fix, is our only “way out”, our only real lasting “protection”.

So, I just want to say again – lets massively improve our health care services – we do not have enough facilities, enough nurse, enough doctors. Let’s start training the next generation of staff now – it’s going to take at least five years to get them ready. Let’s recruit and train the teachers and trainers to train the doctors, nurses and other health care professionals we desperately need. Because we have all been living with inadequate health services. Every country could do better.

And, secondly, let’s start NOW to address the underlying vulnerabilities – lets deal with poverty, poor housing, inequality, prejudice, and the environment – including our agriculture, our food supply chain and the issue of clean air.

That would all be a START. What would you add?

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There’s a tradition around Kyoto of climbing the hill to the Fushimi Inari temple in January. There are the most amazing Tori gates there….thousands of them winding through a forest on top of a hill. It’s one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever visited. The tradition related to the start of the year is about wishing for a “good harvest” or, in more modern times, wishing for good luck and well being I suppose.

The reason I return to these photos and think of Fushimi Inari every January is because of the gates – because January is the month of the threshold, of the gate, of the place where we step forwards into the New Year looking ahead with some hope and good wishes, and looking back at the old year just gone, remembering some of our main experiences. In fact “January” gets its name for the God “Janus”, the one with two faces, one looking forwards and the other looking back.

But there’s an additional reason I return to these particular photos in January – because the Inari shrine with its long winding passageways of Tori gates isn’t just about look forward and back. It is utterly, wonderfully, beautiful just as it is. In other words, as you walk through these gorgeous bright orange tunnels of gates, with glimpses of bamboo and forest all around you, you become completely entranced by the present – by the here and the now.

So there you have it – January – really a wonderful month to take the time to reflect on the year just ended, to look ahead with hope and wonder to the year ahead, and to remind yourself of the “√©merveillement du quotidien” – the every day wonder of this one, unique, and special day which is unfurling before you right here, right now.

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One of my most favourite sculptors is Anthony Gormley. Many years ago he created one of his works in London, placing his distinct iron casts of a man standing on various roof tops around the city. It caused quite a stir as several people thought they could see real men who looked like they were about to jump from the heights. I never saw it that, thinking more of Wim Wenders’ angels in Wings of Desire (or the City of Angels, American remake of that classic) where you could see the angels sitting or standing high up above the city watching down on the people below. At the same time as Gormley placed these figures around London he had an exhibition in the South Bank Gallery and that’s where I took this photo.

One of his works in the exhibit was a large glass box, the size of a whole room. The glass box was filled with mist, so dense that you could hardly see your hand in front of your face. You could walk around inside the box, dimly making out other visitors who appeared and disappeared continuously in the thick mist. As you walked around the box on the outside you could make out the occasional figure temporarily appearing in the midst of the mist as they walked around inside the box. As I passed someone reached their hand up to place it on the glass, and as I snapped the photo, I noticed the glass wall was reflecting one of the figures high up on a roof outside the gallery.

That lucky moment gave me this image which has kind of haunted me ever since. As I look at it again today, in the context of this surging wave of the pandemic and trying to cope with yet another month of sundays in lockdown, this image seems to have a new meaning and a new poignancy.

It makes me think of this world we are all living in now, hidden behind invisible barriers, or, sometimes, all too visible ones! How we are connecting by email, texts, zoom calls and so on, but how we can’t quite reach out and touch anyone else.

I know that this will pass. Everything does. Nothing remains the same. And maybe this experience of “distancing” which we are experiencing is giving us the opportunity to become more aware of what’s really important to us. Maybe, like me, you’re finding that you are deepening relationships with even more communication that you “normally” do. Maybe you’re making new friends, encountering the kindness of strangers in other lands. I guess I’m saying, it’s not all bad. But I don’t mean in a way which would dismiss the challenge and the struggle.

What better can we do today, tomorrow, and the next day, but reach out and tell our loved ones how much we love them, and extend the hand of kindness to strangers?

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It’s many years since I was walking around Aix en Provence and came across this ball lying against the kerb. I could have just walked by. After all, what’s so remarkable about a ball just lying in the street? But I didn’t. I crouched down at the side of the pavement and took this photo.

The ball is the centre of attention. I know about the “rule of thirds” in relation to picture composition but I decided this time to make the ball sit pretty much in the middle of the shot. But it’s not just a picture of a ball. It’s a ball in a totally empty street……which really gives the impression of an abandoned ball. I don’t know if the ball had been abandoned or if some kid had just left it outside their house while they had their lunch, but in this particular framing this image still captures a real sense of abandoned play for me.

At this point in our pandemic (it’s January 1st 2021 as I write this) a street like this looks like the “new normal”. I’ve been seeing streets like this for about nine months now. So, now that I return to this old photo it has a new, topical relevance.

But I want to return to the ball itself today, because what is the purpose of ball like this, other than to be something to play with?

I know we are going to have to develop new behaviours, make different choices, change our lives in the face of this pandemic, but I’m going to suggest to you today that one of the behaviours we could do with a bit more of is “play”. I don’t mean that in a trivial way. In fact, I think play is greatly under-rated. Babies and children learn and develop most of their key, lifetime skills, through play – they explore, they press what they can press, push what they can push – I saw a little video of my smallest grandchild opening his first ever Xmas present. He’s not a year old yet. But he immediately spun whatever would turn, pushed whatever buttons would go down, popped a ball into a hole……he just constantly tried out everything. It’s this kind of play we need to cultivate I think and that is going to require –

Wonder – if you can keep in touch with a sense of wonder, not only will every day have something in it to delight you, but you’ll remain curious, you’ll keep wanting to explore. We will find new ways of living through our capacity to wonder. Lose the sense of wonder, lose the ability to invent new ways to live, lose the ability to make sense of this world.

Humility – getting down to a child’s level is a way of having a “beginners mind” – a way of countering any arrogance of knowing it all. We never know it all. That’s just not possible. Unless we retain a sense of humility and acknowledge that we can always learn from our experiences then we just aren’t going to progress. One of the things that frustrates me most about this pandemic is what seems like a systemic inability of politicians to admit they didn’t get things right, to acknowledge that they could have made different choices. Without the ability to do that, they can’t make better choices next time around.

Joy – how much do you let joy guide your actions and choices? Researchers into the neuroscience of emotions, and many philosophers over hundreds of years have shown us that joy is one of the most powerful emotions and drivers in the human psyche. You can see that easily in children. If it’s not bringing them joy, they soon let you know! And, yes, I know, joy is not the only emotion, and can’t be your only guide. I’m just suggesting that there’s a benefit in becoming a bit more aware of brings you joy, understanding why that is, and then feeding that into your decision making.

Imagination – I sometimes think this our superpower. We are literally the co-creators of our daily lived experience and there is no way we could do that without excercising our imaginations. We can’t think ahead without it. We can’t experience what anyone else is experiencing without it. We wouldn’t have memories without it. We couldn’t create without it.

I’ll leave this post with those four things. I think these are four things related to “play” and I think we are going to need them all in spades as 2021 unfurls……

  • Wonder
  • Humility
  • Joy
  • Imagination

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Many years ago I came across this little pool of water with oil spread across its surface. I was entranced by the beauty of it, and I still am. It looks like a colourful map of the atmosphere, or of temperature flows over the surface of the Earth. It immediately reminded me of one of the very first experiments we did in Chemistry class at High School – the lesson was entitled “A little goes a long way”. First we put a few grains of potassium permanganate into a huge glass tub filled with water and watched in amazement as the purple rapidly spread from a tiny dot to colour the entire tank of water. Then we were given talc to sprinkle on top of the water in another big glass tub. It quickly spread out to cover the entire surface with a thin film of greyish white powder. We then dropped a single drop of oil onto the talc and in an instant the oil pushed every grain of talc out to the edges of the tub instantly “clearing” the water’s surface. You can tell how impressed I was…..this was when I was 12 years old and I’m 66 now!

In the years since I was at school, and even in the decade and half or so since I took this photo, we’ve become much more aware of climate change and the impact of carbon consumption on the whole planet. So, now I look at this beautiful image and I see an addiction. The addiction of industrialised humanity to oil. I think you’re probably aware by now of just how much countries have subsidised the big oil companies and how they continue to do so. You’re probably also aware of the massive lobbying efforts of Big Oil to persuade politicians to continue to support them, and to resist calls to reduce carbon consumption. Here in France a couple of years ago a government proposal to slightly increase the tax on petrol and diesel led to an outpouring of anger and the creation of the “Gilets Jaunes” movement, with roundabouts occupied throughout the country, motorways blocked, toll stations burnt to the ground, and refineries blockaded. The Saturday city demos continued right up until Covid struck. The protestors complaints spiralled in all directions but it was the increase in the price of oil which sparked the whole movement.

Clearly we are not going to be able to kick our oil addiction unless we simultaneously address poverty, low wages, inequality and economic insecurity. But we are also going to have to develop and spread non-carbon or low-carbon alternatives as quickly and as much as we can. I suppose that’s at the heart of the proposals in many countries for a “Green New Deal” – at least in principle.

I’m a big fan of “biomimicry” which is the creation of technologies which emerge from learning about how things work in Nature. Nature, after all, does not create waste or pollution. Trees absorb the carbon dioxide from the air, and send out oxygen for us all to breathe. We need to learn how to be more like the other creatures and living organisms on the this planet…..thriving without creating pollution or destroying the ecosystem.

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Look at these two images.

I took this photo at Achnabreck in the Kilmartin Glen in the West of Scotland many years ago. The Kilmartin Glen has hundreds of cup and ring marked rocks, standing stones and cairns dating back 5000 years to prehistoric times.

As I wandered around the rocks, taking photos, on a typical showery day in Scotland, I noticed that when I looked at some of the water filled indentations that they looked concave, but when I moved to the other side of the rock the water now seemed to be convex. I’m no expert in optics so I could’t explain the phenomenon but when I got home and uploaded this photo, I noticed that if I flipped it 180 degrees I was able to replicate what I’d seen.

So those two photos above are just one photo – with the one flipped 180 degrees to the other. I find this quite mesmerising…….whatever the, probably simple, optical/physical explanation. Every single time I look at these two images side by side I am inspired to think about how different “the same” world looks when we change our perspective.

Maybe this is a variation on the old “glass half full, glass half empty” idea, but in this case, sunken vs swollen water in indentations.

Actually, just by itself this is one of my favourite photos of all time. First of all, if it hadn’t been raining then the cup markings wouldn’t have filled with water and would have looked very, very different. Something else which highlights the contingent nature of all of our experiences – every event, every experience is unique, because no two sets of time, place, weather, environment, mood, mental state, place in a personal narrative are ever identical. Secondly, how on earth did people with just stones as tools make these marks? And isn’t that one which isn’t a circle, a footprint? A footprint in rock?? Thirdly, why did they make these marks? We don’t know. There are amazing spirals and loops and spirals with tails scattered on rock surfaces throughout this valley – but nobody knows why. Are they maps? Do they tell a story? Are they the marks of particular tribes? Are they symbols of spiritual signficance? Are they art? Are they doodles?? We don’t know. And why here? Why in the Kilmartin Glen (I’ve found that not many people I’ve met know about the Kilmartin Glen but it’s one of my most favourite, most special places in the whole of Scotland)

Here, in the last couple of days of 2020, with yet another wave of the virus on the up, and vaccination programmes just beginning to be rolled out, I’m sure we’ll all be taking some time to reflect on this most unusual year, a year we will never forget.

As I reflect, I’m hoping to do two things – acknowledge the losses and the difficulties of this year, then affirm the gains and opportunities – because this, maybe more obviously than most years, is a year when so much has happened and so much has changed that it feels a year of special significance – perhaps a turning point, perhaps a year of revelation, perhaps a year of re-evaluation, perhaps a year of enlightenment – because this year surely seems a year when we human beings were given the opportunity to change direction.

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In my two previous posts I’ve considered how our experience is altered by the frames through which we live – through which we perceive and engage with daily reality. These frames, psychologically, are fashioned out of our beliefs, our values, our habits and our memories.

This photo is of a picture frame at a stall in an antiques market in the middle of Aix en Provence. What always strikes me first when I see this photo is how the frame is the dominant source of colour in the image. I’ve actually looked at this and wondered if it was a black and white photo with only the picture frame coloured later on, but it isn’t. I haven’t edited or changed anything from the original shot. When you look more carefully you can see plenty of colour to the right hand side of the image. Still, that contrast between the golden frame and the pretty monochrome pavement, tree and the left hand side of the background really, really makes the frame stand out.

So, I got to thinking a bit more about this idea of the frame, fashioned from our beliefs, values, habits and memories, and how that plays such a role in our lived reality. The first thing that came to mind was the way in which our two cerebral hemispheres engage with the world differently. The left focuses in on parts and details, emphasises objects, measurements, and data. The right is more focused on the whole, on the connections, relationships, the “between-ness” of everything, and on the particular, the unique and the specific. Along with that goes a predilection for mechanisms and machines with the left hemisphere and a predilection for nature and human beings with the right. At least, that’s one way of summarising some of what Iain McGilchrist describes in “The Master and His Emissary”.

The question then is which hemisphere are we in the habit of using most? And I think, again agreeing with McGilchrist, that there is no doubt the left hemisphere approach to the world has become the dominant one. We live in a world where we give priority to data, measurements, objects, control and grasping, to machines and computers, to industrialisation and automation. But this pandemic has shown us the importance of understanding how everything connects, of the importance of the human, and the unique, of our need for care and for each other. So, maybe one way we need to move forward into 2021 is by building the strengths and powers of the right hemisphere “frame” of values, beliefs, and habits. Maybe our way forward is going to require more imagination, more flexibility, more adaptability than the dominant “frame” the left hemisphere has provided for us?

The next thing that comes up for me is about our shared values, beliefs and habits – our structural ones which have produced modern day capitalism, our exploitative relationship to “Nature” which we see as something outside of us, something to be dominated. What if we tackled those two issues together?

What if we explored a different kind of economics and politics which would reduce inequality, reduce exploitation and injustice? What if shifted from having money as our god to Nature as our god? To see Nature as something we are a part of, not apart from. To see Nature as a source of infinite wonder, of an enormous resource, not to be consumed but to learn from? What would the world look like through that frame? How would that change our values, beliefs and habits?

Well, that’s what I want to explore in the months ahead. I want to learn more, understand more, and share more about the real world, the real world seen through the frame of connectedness, uniqueness, diversity, equality, kindness and wonder.

How about you? What values, beliefs and habits do you think dominate the frames through which you engage with the world? And which of those do you think are shared with others? Is there anything there you’d like to change?

In fact, more than that, what if you were to imagine your “golden frame”? Your ideal, your dream, frame? The way you’d most like to engage with the world and the shared beliefs, values and habits which you’d like to spread most widely? What would that look like?

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Yesterday I wrote about the difference between viewing a garden from the perspective of inside a building, to that of viewing it as you walk around the garden itself.

The photo I used for the first perspective showed a traditional rectangular shaped doorway, all straight lines and 90 degree angles between them. So I thought I’d contrast that today with this photo, taken at a different temple, but again showing a garden viewed from the perspective of inside the building.

This time it’s a round window. Now, before I say anything more what do you feel as you look at this image? Isn’t there something particularly attractive about the round frame, instead of the rectangular one? Isn’t it somehow less aggressive, less harsh? Even if you didn’t think the other window frame really had those qualities before you looked at this one.

But there’s something else about this frame…..the circle is not complete. There is a section missing at the floor level. This is, as I understand it, another characteristic of Japanese design aesthetics. The idea is that if you leave something “less than perfect” or “incomplete” then it does two things – it stimulates the observer to use their imagination to “complete” the shape, and it contains a kind of latent dynamic quality – it is in the process of “becoming”. It isn’t “fixed” or “dead”.

All that makes me wonder about the kinds of frames we use to engage with everyday life. Because there is no doubt that our values, beliefs, memories and habits all exert powerful effects on what we notice, what impact those observations and experiences have upon us, and what sense we make of them.

Do you agree?

If so, I think that’s why it’s good to stop now and again, to reflect and to try to become more aware of just what values, beliefs, memories and habits we access most frequently. One simple way to do that is Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages” exercise. It’s just writing non-stop, stream of consciousness writing to fill three pages of a notebook every morning. My experience of this is that it works best when you don’t re-read what you’ve written until some time later – say at least a month or so – so, here’s my proposal – are you up for doing “Morning Pages” every day of January? Then reading over what you’ve written once we reach February?

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