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Archive for the ‘narrative’ Category

Does the sky ever surprise you?

That’s a trick question really, because if it doesn’t, I have a hunch that you’re not looking!

The sky often surprises me. Sometimes it catches my attention because it is blue from horizon to horizon, or it is covered in fast moving, rapidly shape-shifting clouds, or because it catches fire and turns crimson as the sun sets. But other times it’s because something appears which I’ve never seen before.

This sort of rainbow is one of those. Two of them appeared at the same time, but in different parts of the sky, a couple of days ago. I guess it’s not really a rainbow because it isn’t a bow and it wasn’t raining! Perhaps it is more like what you would see if light is passed through a prism.

Given the age I am, it might not surprise you that when I think of light passing through prisms I think of the cover of Pink Floyd’s album, “Dark Side of the Moon” (google it, if you don’t know it)

I have a fascination for kaleidoscopes and one day I was in Kyoto and it started to rain quite heavily. We noticed that the building we were passing was called “The Museum of Kaleidoscopes” so we dashed in to get out of the rain. When we signed the visitors book and put our country of origin as “Scotland” the staff all gathered around and excitedly welcomed us. It turns out that the inventor of the kaleidoscope was a Scotsman, Sir David Brewster. Ha! Who knew? Not us! Well, I’ve never seen so many different types of kaleidoscope in my life, and if you ever visit Kyoto, I recommend a visit to that museum. I bought a couple of different types while I was there and I still enjoy looking through them, watching the patterns change before my eyes.

Well, those are some of the thoughts which came up for me as I looked at this colourful, but pretty subtle, display in the sky.

As I look at the image again now it seems that the colours are pouring out of a spout-shaped cloud – and one of my friends said it looked like a rainbow genie escaping from a bottle!

Ooh, I love that! So, have a look at this rainbow genie and make a wish. Let’s see this as a good omen, a symbol of hope, a sign of better days ahead.

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At one point in my life I was reflecting on what I was trying to achieve as a doctor. Maybe that seems an odd statement to you, but I think we fall very easily into routines and paths which we then “live” largely unconsciously. That’s what’s behind my “heroes not zombies” blog title. Whether it’s about saying “an unexamined life is not worth living”, or it’s simply about wanting freedom and autonomy, I’m wary of the automatic pilot approach to life. I want to be aware, to understand and to consciously choose, as much as I can. I want to move from being a zombie, controlled by hidden, and some not so hidden, forces, to being the hero of my own story – the main character, the subject, the one who is living this life.

I’m sure we all go through cycles and phases of self-reflection. For many people there is a peak of this around the age of 40, but, really it can happen any time and at any age. I believe it’s a good thing to pause and reflect from time to time. I think that’s essential to our personal growth.

So, as I reflected on that question which would appear to me from time to time – “what does a doctor do?” – I looked at a spider web like the one above, early one morning as the dew drops sparkled on it, making it all the more beautiful, and revealing both its presence and its structure. What struck me was that whilst there were many elements coming together to make this web appear as it was, that morning, one element, light, suddenly seemed the one I wanted to focus on.

As I played with the words we use which are based on light, I hit upon three which I thought captured some of the most important aspects of my job.

Lighten. In all cases, I saw my job as trying to lighten other’s load. Maybe this was the first, and most important, part of all that I did. My job was to alleviate suffering. When someone left my consulting room, their life should feel a little lighter than it was when they entered. Certainly, it shouldn’t feel darker, and it shouldn’t feel heavier. Even when I’d had to give news of a serious disease. Giving news wasn’t enough. I needed to lighten the burden of that news by increasing how much the person understood, helping them to make more sense of what was happening, and helping them to realise that they were cared for, that they weren’t alone with this.

In fact, “diagnosis” is a big part of that. To me, diagnosis is not simply an act of labelling and categorising. It’s an act of understanding. It’s taking the messy chaos of experience and saying “I recognise this pattern” “I know what’s going on here”. What I found, time and time again, was that the very act of diagnosis lightened the load. Almost universally people start to feel better once they have a sense that they know what they are dealing with. Understanding, in my experience, shines a light.

Brighten. But then I thought, that’s not enough. Well, maybe it’s enough for some people who will go off with their new understanding and deal with it in their own way, but for many patients, I could do more. I could start to relieve the suffering, but I could also begin to help them build the positives in their life. I could help to actually brighten their days, both by giving reasonable hope, and by establishing an ongoing relationship of care focused on identifying and supporting their inner strengths, and teaching, coaching and enabling them to begin to grow in the light of this illness. This was a kind of turning a negative into a potential positive, because I’d find that for many of us, an illness was telling us something. It was suggesting that we should change something. And that required a development of strengths and skills.

Enlighten. In some cases, that work went to a whole other level. Someone would get nothing short of a revelation. They would suddenly understand the origins of their suffering, and they would gradually become aware of their own thought patterns, their own behaviours, and of the conditions in which they were living which were impacting on them so adversely, and they would say “That’s it. I’m changing.” Not just they would change some habit or other, but they would change direction. Get out of a toxic relationship. Leave a soul crushing job. Enter into education or training, or take the leap to begin something their heart had longed for, for many years. It was like they had a sudden enlightenment and said “I’m not going to live my life this way any more. I’m going to choose this other path instead”.

So, there I had it. My three light-based verbs. Lighten, brighten and enlighten. And of course, what happened from there? I applied those same three verbs to myself. That’s how I made the biggest changes in my life…..seeking some understanding which would lighten my load, turning towards positives, strengths, and emotions like joy, awe and wonder to brighten my days, and thinking outside the box I’d built, to change direction in the bright light of enlightenment.

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Look at this amazing pattern left on the sand by the action of the water after the tide has gone out again at the beach.

When you look at this you know immediately that the sand has been shaped by the water, although, to be honest, I don’t understand how water manages to make such intricate patterns like this on the sand. Maybe somebody does!

There are other striking patterns on the wet sand at the beach, some clearly made by plant material, seaweed I expect, and some obviously from the imprints of shells, some little worm-shaped piles caused by burrowing creatures throwing up the sand behind them, and often many footprints of birds which have run across the beach.

What impresses me most about all these patterns is that they are the traces left by some activities which occurred a little while ago. They are the evidence of the past imprinted on the present. That reminds me of how we are shaped by the events and experiences of our lives. Our encounters with others change us. Our experiences don’t just create memories, they set up patterns of chemical, electrical and cellular response in our bodies.

We can become aware of some of that in bodily changes, from tightenings of muscles, to changes in heart rate and breathing, to sweating and trembling, and so on, usually before we are even aware that we reacting to something.

I spent much of my career working with patients who had chronic, long-standing illnesses, and we could often make some sense of what was going on by teasing out the threads and themes which ran through their stories over many years. It certainly wasn’t always the case, but sometimes the actual disease and its precise location in the body was clearly related to the body’s responses to events or experiences long forgotten.

It’s pretty clear to me that just as the movement of the water shapes the sand in the way you can see in this photo, so do our experiences and relationships shape us. Realising that makes me want to be more aware of my own actions and words. It makes me want to choose to spread constructive, supportive and creative waves in the world. After all, whatever we do, whatever we say or write, has effects far beyond the limits we could imagine.

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Sometimes you come across a stone that just demands to picked up, turned over, contemplated and brought home. That was the case with this one which I still have with me. I like it partly for its almost heart shaped form, but I like it most for the pattern you can see on it.

When I look at this, I see a number of lines of varying breadths and lengths, criss-crossing the surface and I think of each of them as a representation of a path, or a journey.

When I trained in Medicine, we were taught “how to take a history”. While I developed a bit of discomfort around the use of the verb “to take” there, I kept the concept of the history. In fact I’d tell people a large part of my work was about enabling people to tell their own personal history…..or their story. I used the idea of “story” a lot in my work. I’d ask people to tell me about their present experience in the light of past events and within the scope of their fears and hopes for the future. The traditional life story has a clear timeline, starting at birth and ending with the person’s death. Except, I quickly discovered, that in order to understand a person well I had to explore the family stories too….in other words to hear what happened before the patient was even born……as well as exploring the stories of many of the others (brothers, sisters, other relatives, friends and colleagues) whose stories intersected with the patient’s story.

So, I was quite surprised when I read a small article in “Philosophie” magazine about maps – they described how the French philosopher, Giles Deleuze said that our “subjectivity” was created from our movements, from our meetings, and from the relationships we had with other beings, other things, and other places. He said the map was an imprinting of all these movements, encounters and relationships which was laid down in our psyche, and so, when analysing ourselves we had to explore more as a geographer than as a historian.

Now, as you know, I’m a great “and not or” person, so I wouldn’t replace the work I did, or the way I make sense of my life with a geographical approach instead of an historical one, but I find that notion incredibly appealing.

What if, next time you are exploring your life, your experience, and your “self”, you make a map – a map of the journeys you’ve taken, the places you’ve gone, the experiences and encounters you had there, and the relationships with people, other living creatures, things and places which you’ve woven into your soul as you have lived?

What might that map look like?

It strikes me that adding this geographical approach to my life opens up new insights because it reveals and highlights the interactions, relationships, encounters and experiences of my life. The historical approach, of course, can reveal the characters, the events and the chronology of a life, but this shift of focus from my “story” to my “map” has, I think, loads of potential.

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I reckon we pretty much expect trees to grow straight up, then branch a bit, then grow further, still straight up. But, actually, of course, this is seldom the case. Trees, even their main trunks often veer off this way and that, or bend in one direction, only to turn in a totally different one a few metres further on. I confess I don’t know what makes a tree take the twists and turns that it does.

Look at this one for example, not only has it swerved around an almost 90 degree angle but it seems to have entwined itself on the neighbouring tree. What do you think? These trees are lovers? They’ve entangled themselves in each other’s lives forever?

It looks that way to me.

So maybe some of the shape of this tree can be understood in relationship to the other tree. Now how often is that the case with we humans? Do we ever reveal our character in any other way than by responding to what we encounter and by acting in response to the others in our social world? Can you really understand anyone without understanding their place in a family, in a community, a society? Can you really understand anyone without seeing how they respond to others, without exploring the nature of their relationships? I don’t think so.

A belief in the uniqueness of every single human is at the core of my world view and my practice as a doctor. But I never attempt to understand a person solely in isolation. I can only get an idea of who they are by hearing the stories of their experiences and relationships, and by observing how they respond to others….including myself.

I’ve no doubt that all our interactions with others change us. I would not be who I am today without having been changed by all the doctor-patient relationships I experienced in my life. You could say patients made me who I am. Not only patients of course, you also have to take into account the others in my life, family, friends, colleagues, even those who challenged me, or disliked me.

Our lives are entangled.

That’s just how it is.

But we can make choices, and we choose both who and how. We can choose to pay attention to certain people, to care for them, to engage with them, to collaborate with them, or to compete with them. All of those choices weave our unique, personal web of inter-relationships. And that constantly evolving cloth forms the very tissue of our being…..or should I say of our “becoming”.

When I look at this photo today it leads me to contemplate the people in my life, those who are no longer present, those who I’m actively relating to, and those who played significant roles in fashioning my experiences and creating the memories I have. You could say, it leads me to consider the characters in my life story. Who they are, who they were, what experiences we had together and how we become entwined and entangled.

I am grateful to them all. We made each other who we are…..together.

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One of the most beautiful things to see in any garden is the unfurling of the petals of a flower. That phase where the bud opens up and the gorgeous coloured petals unfurl themselves captures an essence of Life for me.

I see this and I think “becoming not being” – you’ll have noticed that phrase at the top of my blog? I wrote that as a subtitle because it is the most fundamental lens through which I see and understand the world.

The difference between those two words is movement…a particular kind of movement…..movement of change from one state to another.

Everything is in the process of becoming. It’s easy to see that in living organisms. The trillions of cells which make up the human body are in constant process of birth, growth, maturing and dying. They are replaced at different rates according to their type (blood cells living much shorter lives than bone cells for example), but none of them stay the same for the whole lifetime of the person.

When we look at an old school photo we might recognise ourselves, but when we compare that to one taken a decade later, then another and another, we see very, very images of the same person. All might be photographs of me, but all look utterly different.

This process of growth and development is a key characteristic of health for me. When I was working as a doctor, it was important for me to have a positive definition of health. I wanted to to help people to become healthy, and healthy, I think, is a positive state in its own right, not just an absence of symptoms or disease.

When I used to look out of my window in Central Scotland I could see the mountains, and the distinct shape of Ben Led always caught my eye. It amazed me that every day it looked different. Of course, I wasn’t close enough, or around for long enough, to see the physical structure or the surface of the mountain change (though change it did, over millennia). But my daily experience of the mountain was created more than rocks and earth. It was created by the light, the clouds, the sun, and the seasons. And all that changed all the time.

Nothing is fixed.

That’s my point.

Nothing can be understood in isolation from its environment, from its network of connections and relationships, or from its unique history and potential.

Stories….narratives….are always in the process of becoming….because stories weave together the past, the present and some possible futures, into one beautiful cloth. A dynamic cloth, which is always unfurling, always becoming, not being.

This image stirs all of this for me. I love how the “becoming not being” lens makes every day so much more alive!

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I love a blue sky. It lifts my spirits and warms my heart.

A plain dull grey sky has the opposite effect.

But wait, the sky isn’t featureless. Even a horizon to horizon cover of grey cloud is never completely homogenous. There are always variations there. There are thickenings, patches where the sun almost breaks through, or lighter patches which are backlit by the sun. There are swirls and lines and sheets and all kinds of forms. You just need to slow down, pay attention and notice.

I think the richness of features in the sky are partly down to the water molecules which make up the clouds, partly down to the light from the sun, partly down to the temperature changes and air currents, but it has another layer of richness added by the human imagination. We are the pattern seekers, and pattern creators par excellence.

Look at this sky for example.

There’s the silhouette of the edge of a tree on the far right of the image. Let your gaze drift across leftwards from there. What do you see?

I see the shape of an eye. The way I’d start to draw an eye by marking two lines in the shape of connected ellipses. There’s no sign of an eyeball, so this is either a closed eye, with the darker edge of the lower lid representing eyelashes, or it is the eye-shaped hole we often see in masks.

Once I’ve seen this I can’t un-see it.

Isn’t that strange?

It takes the imagination to “see” an eye in the sky, but once it’s there it has an impact. I feel watched. I feel seen. I can understand how ancient peoples believed that multiple gods and spirits lived with them. And even if those gods and spirits don’t seem real any more. There was a time when we humans had an awareness of a shared cosmos. They experienced wholeness and connections in their everyday. They didn’t have to question or analyse it, reality just seemed to be that way. Everywhere they looked they saw patterns, told stories, made sense of the phenomena of the ordinary day. Everywhere they turned they brought their imagination to bear and saw connections, discerned meanings, and drew upon what they learned to create art, to find their way across the planet, and to learn how to adapt to the changes and the seasons.

I don’t think there is any way to go back to those times, and I also believe that we have learned a lot since then, that we have deepened our understandings, broadened our knowledge. But I have a nagging feeling that we live in more superficial times now. That life seems somewhat thinner without that rich imaginative layer of stories, shapes, forms and patterns.

But, hey, none of that has gone away. We are able to slow down, to pay attention and to activate our imaginations any time we want. We can see more than a passing glance will reveal. We can make connections of greater depth and significance. We can new stories of the wholeness of Gaia, of the interconnectedness of all beings, of the constantly changing evolution and development of forms and diversity.

We can enrich our lives with art, poetry, stories, music, dance, ritual and loving relationships.

Well, why not?

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This cut crystal really hits the spot for me – firstly, I see it and I think it is really beautiful. The beauty of it delights me. Secondly, I’m amazed by it. The craftsmanship involved in imaging then fashioning a piece like this utterly astonishes me. Thirdly, it fascinates me. I gaze at it and look at the way the light travels through it. I see how each facet acts like a lens through which I can see the other facets, and how all the facets act as lenses on the window and the rest of the room.

I can have that blend of responses to many of the photos I have and I think that’s got a lot to do with my decisions about which to gather together into my “best photos” folder. Beauty, amazement, wonder and fascination. Altogether they bring me joy. And, without falling into the habit of ranking and creating hierarchies, I think joy is one of the most emotions we can have in our daily lives. Joy activates a whole set of physical and psychological changes in us. And, it just feels GOOD.

But this image does one more thing for me, the thing I really look for in my special collection of best of the best images – it inspires, stimulates thought, curiosity, wonder, and a potentially infinite web of threads of thought.

This idea of a multi-faceted interface gets me thinking about how we humans are like this. Whenever a patient told me their story, as we explored different themes, events and experiences, I’d see them shining like this – each aspect, each theme, each way of behaving, of experiencing, of engaging with the world glimmering like one of these facets. There are many selves within each of us. In 1977 the Scottish psychiatrist, Miller Mair, described a model of the “self” coining the term “community of self” – his idea was that none of us can be reduced to one simple set of characteristics, behaviours and qualities. Each of us exhibits a different self in different contexts – for example, there would be differences in how I was with patients, from how I was with my family, with colleagues and with friends. But that each of these selves were not separate, at least, if we were mentally healthy. Instead, they would all be integrated into one – into one community where they all interacted to give us the sensation of a unitary, or single, self. I liked that model. It opened up the possibilities of exploration of different aspects of a person, often contradictory or opposing aspects, while allowing every one them a place where they could be accepted.

This idea also makes me think of Indra’s Web – that beautiful idea of the universe consisting of an infinite be-jewelled web, where everything is connected, and every gleaming jewel reflects all the other jewels. I think that’s a great model for understanding the world in which we live.

It also makes me think of how we use multiple lenses through which to see, and understand, the world. In fact, if we reduce ourselves to seeing everything through just one small lens or window we find that we tumble into division and conflict with others who don’t share that single lens. But when we embrace the multiplicity of lenses through which we can see the world we can find points of connection with others.

That’s my final thought for today – not only are we all like this multifaceted cut crystal, but when one of our facets lights up in connection with one of someone else’s facets, then we don’t just make a connection, we can brighten each others lives.

I hope this lens, this shining small facet, here today, brightens your life today, and that you, too, feel the stirrings of joy, of wonder, of delight and of connection.

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I love spirals. I find them quite captivating. My attention is caught by them and I’m drawn close to contemplate them. I’m not sure what it is that makes them just so beautiful, but, to me, they are amongst the most beautiful shapes in the universe. You can see them around you in many places of course….in plants, especially climbers which use this method of finding places to hook onto, then pulling tight to hoist themselves upwards. But also in ferns, and in plants which throw out creepers and tendrils which stress across the ground. We humans often create spirals in our art. Maybe it’s because I’m Scot, because like most Scots I’ve been steeped in the traditional Celtic and Pictish complex knots, three armed spiral shapes which we call the triskele, and intertwined ribbons which swirl around each other. However, I suspect it’s not just those of us with Celtic backgrounds who like spirals.

One of the things I like best about the spiral is that it seems to me that a person’s life story often has that sort of trajectory. There are issues, problems, difficulties which we meet, attempt to address, or run away from, which just keep spiralling back again and again. In fact, human development too seems to have a spiral path.

I don’t think time flows in a straight line. It loops, and it spins, slows down, pauses, runs forward. The past and the future both have their part to play in my ability to make sense of the present. They don’t exist in three separate, sequential boxes, but rather, they loop, cycle and spiral together to create the intricate patterns of the tapestry of a life.

There’s a special thing about this photo. You have to look a bit more closely to see it. Right in the middle of the main spiral in this photo you can see the world clearly – it’s as if you are looking through a lens.

Isn’t that magical?

It reminds me that if I really do want to see the world clearly, then the lens of the spiral can be a pretty good way to do that. What do you see more clearly about your life, when you consider it through the lens of a spiral?

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The pine forest at the “Côte Sauvage” in the Charente Maritime, the “Foret des Cedres” in Provence, the deciduous forest around the Bracklinn Falls in Central Scotland, the maple forests around Kyoto……these are some of my most memorable forests. They delight me.

It’s many years since I learned about the Japanese practice of “forest bathing” – which simply means spending some time in a forest – well, actually, not so much just passing some time there, but immersing yourself in it, really engaging with it, listening to the sounds of birds calling, of the branches swaying in the wind, breathing deep the scents of pine, cedar, and other trees, watching the play of sunlight through the leaves as together they create whole performances of light and shade, of shape and shadow – you get the idea.

We have learned a lot about forest bathing in recent years. We’ve learned of the benefits it brings to everything from a sense of well-being to a boost in some of the chemicals and cells involved in our immune system, to a calming of the harmful chronic inflammatory activities inside our bodies which occur as a result of stress. It’s just GOOD for you! And that’s a sweet spot for me – finding what is BOTH good for me and just utterly enjoyable – health boosting and happiness boosting – result!

We’ve also learned a lot about the lives of trees and forests in recent years. We’ve learned that trees don’t live in isolation, that they are in constant communication with each other, sending out warnings when they are attacked or vulnerable, sharing nutrients, and supporting each other. They do this both by sending out chemicals through the air, and by an astonishingly complex network of root systems intertwined with microfibres of fungi creating what has been termed “the wood wide web”.

Here are some of the main books I’ve read which have taught me what I know about how trees and forest demonstrate inter-dependency, how they communicate with each other, and how they behave as one complex adaptive organism. “The Hidden Life of Trees“, by Peter Wohlleben, subtitled, “What they feel, how they communicate: discoveries from a secret world”; “Gossip from the Forest” by Sara Maitland, subtitled, “The tangled roots of our forests and fairytales”; “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which blends “indigenous wisdom” with “science and teachings of plants”; and, the novel, “Overstory“, by Richard Powers. You can probably add your own favourites to that list, but if this is something you want to explore, you could do worse than start with any of those books.

This fairly new knowledge of forests is part of a much wider trend in science – the attempt to understand connections. I think this is a radical, and much needed, shift. The reductionist science of understanding parts has led to an explosion of knowledge, but too often, we fail to really understand the real world because we fail to see that every single part only exists as an embedded, inextricable element of the whole. The fabulous improvement in that approach mirrors a shift in the use of the left hemisphere of the brain which engages with the world by separating it into parts to analyse and categorise, towards the use of the right hemisphere with engages with the world as a whole, and focuses our attention on connections and relationships.

We are now looking much more at whole environments, whole webs of inter-relationships. We see such networks everywhere, from the activity of micro-organisms in our guts (the “microbiome”), to the “neural networks” within the brain, the inter-relationships of species within ecological “niches”, or “biomes”, and in world wide cycles of movement of water, gases, and other molecules.

One concept which is useful in all these areas is the one of the “connectome” – this is the activity of mapping out the interactions and relationships within whatever we are studying. In terms of the brain it can be helpful to imagine that every single thought has the “neural correlate” of a “connectome” of nerve cells. Apparently we have so many neurones in our brain, and each of them is so massively interconnected, that if you were to consider all the potential permutations of activity of little networks within the greater network, then that number would be greater than the number of atoms in the universe! Well, I don’t know how anyone works out something like that, but suffice it to say, the potential for our imagination, for our cognition, for our memory, for our ability to visualise, conceptualise, analyse, synthesise and create, is pretty damn close to infinite!

There’s something else interesting about all these “connectomes” – they are related to each other. Each one is nested into several others, and each one of them sets up resonances and harmonies with other ones. Perhaps that partly explains how we feel what other people feel, how we come to think what other people think, and, maybe even how our inner environments are affected by our external ones.

Amazing what a walk a forest can do for us, huh?

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