Archive for the ‘narrative’ Category

I took this photo at noon one January 1st.

You might think its pretty much just a photo of some grass, so, hold on, let’s look more carefully, and consider the contexts. If it was simply a photo of a patch of grass it wouldn’t be particularly interesting but what caught my eye wasn’t the grass, it was the interplay of shadow and light.

Despite it being noon, the Sun is still pretty low in the sky. Well, it’s taken in the wintertime in Scotland, so that’s normal. But, normal or not, the effect of the low sunlight streaming through the trees is spectacular. The angle of the light makes the shadows SO long and the spaces between the trees show frosted grass sparkling brightly.

I love the forms and the patterns of the shadows, the light, the frost and the grass. It takes all of them together to create the scene.

Here’s another scene –

This is a huge puddle which is there more often than it’s not in this particular field. I once saw swans swimming on it! But today, what makes this image so beautiful is the trees and their reflection. Without the trees, the clarity of the light and the stillness of the water, this just wouldn’t be the same. It has echoes of the previous photo but it’s completely different. However, both photos were taken within minutes of each other, the flooded field lying just a short walk along the road from the shadowed park.

I’m struck by how important the contexts are in these photos. If I’d “abstracted” just one element in each – a grassy patch, a section of the puddle, a single tree – I’d lose all the context. It’s the interplay of all the elements which makes these images more than the sum of their parts.

Life is like that.

When we focus too narrowly, when we consider only a part in isolation, we achieve only a partial understanding. It’s the whole experience, in all it’s contexts and environments, with the story which holds them together, and the remembered subjective experience of being there which makes them so unique, so particular to me.

So, if I am to share any of that with you, I need to show you, and tell you, at least some of the contexts. That way, you’ll come closer to experiencing what I experienced.

That was my everyday working reality. Every single patient who came to see me had a unique story to tell. If I were to understand them I had to hear their story. I had to try to have some experience of their experience, to feel what they were feeling, to know what they knew, if I was to understand, diagnose and help them.

But it’s the same for all of us. If we are to understand anyone, friend, relative, colleague, stranger, we have to hear their story, and try to experience some of their experience.

It’s always partial. It’s never fixed. It’s never completely knowable. But there’s no substitute.

Read Full Post »

When I stepped out to close the shutters on the windows a couple of nights ago I looked up and saw Venus and the Moon shining so brightly they were almost dazzling. When I looked closely I could see the full black disc of the moon with just a thin silver crescent on the lower right edge. Above the Moon sat Venus, like a queen on her throne.

Both Venus and the Moon are symbolically and mythologically linked with the feminine. And, oh how we need that energy now. Actually, oh how we are seeing the flourishing of that energy now.

Taking a perspective from myth, symbol and spiritual experience, I have always found it helpful to think of two energies, two streams or channels of flow, within each of us at an individual level, within our societies, and, within Life. We call these two forces the masculine and the feminine. I’m not talking about gender or culturally determined social roles for men and women here. I’m thinking instead of something much deeper, something more fundamental.

I wear a yin-yang symbol around my neck. I’ve worn it for decades. Although I was born in Scotland and brought up in the Church of Scotland during my childhood years, by the time I was a teen I discovered Buddhism and Taoism. I bet the way I came across those schools of thought is pretty unusual. It was in reading the novels of Jack Kerouac. Books like Dharma Bums and Satori in Paris. I guess we all have our own particular paths and stepping stones which we’ve followed to develop our beliefs and values. I have never called myself a Buddhist or a Taoist but I’ve read a lot of books about these and other Asian philosophies. They are a constant source of inspiration for me.

Probably the single most powerful and useful concept I learned in those readings was idea of yin and yang. The feminine yin and the masculine yang, sometimes referred to the receptive and the active principles. I don’t intend exploring these ideas in detail here but when I look up at the Moon like this I immediately think of the yin-yang symbol.

Interestingly, when I looked up a couple of night ago and saw what I’ve photographed in that image at the start of this post, I saw vastly more yin than yang.

That seems appropriate. I see signs of a strengthening feminine energy all around.

I’m sure there are whole books exploring these two forces but one simple version which I’ve found helpful is to think of the male energy as “provide and protect”, and the female as “nurture and nourish”. Remember, I’m not talking gender or gender-based social roles here. I think these two forces exist in all of us and an imbalance produces illness and dysfunction at both the levels of the individual and of society.

In the UK Thursdays at 8pm have become the time for people to get to their window or front door and “Clap for the Carers”. This is an astonishing new level of recognition and collective expression of support and gratitude. It’s not only happening in the UK. It’s happening around the world. And it extends out from front-line nursing, medical and care staff to all kinds of workers who are now seen as “essential” – all the people without whose daily efforts society would collapse. I saw a photo online today of someone’s garden gate in a French town. The person living there had made a variety of posters, covered them in plastic to protect them and pinned them up on their gate post. One said thank you to the refuse collectors. One said thank you to all the health workers. One said thank you to the postie.

I’m seeing those sentiments expressed every day now. I’m seeing and hearing people say thank you to others every day now. Saying thank you and declaring support. Showing appreciation. How ironic, you might think, given how under-valued these very jobs are. Often they are poorly paid with precarious job contracts and work which is under-resourced. If there is one sliver of silver lining (like at the edge of that moon up in the sky just now) then I hope its a re-evaluation of what is important in society and how we resource and reward those who make life possible.

How often are women the ones who are the carers – both from nursing and caring professions, but also in child care, teaching, in nurseries, and on the checkouts in the supermarkets? This is a strong feminine energy and these new “heroes” we are asked to clap for, are more often “heroines”!

Of course, there are many, many men who are doing essential jobs too, from the refuse-collectors to the lorry drivers, delivery men, farmers, emergency services and those who keep the power supplies and communication systems flowing. Employment and work activity is too gendered. Are we ready to recognise that more clearly?

There’s much to think about and discuss about the economics of work and social life, and I do really hope this pandemic is shining a light on the dysfunctions which have made us more vulnerable as well as laying out new paths to follow as we go forward.

I think there is a surge of the yin – we are seeing an increased emphasis on the importance of relationships, of caring and of collaboration.

Can that surge flourish? Can it change the landscape? Can it move us away from acquisition, consumption and competition? Can we build a new world by pouring our energies and resources into nurturing and nourishing…not just bodies, but minds and spirits too?

Venus and the Moon…..your time has come!

Read Full Post »

This little chameleon hugging the stalks of grass wasn’t easy to see. From the distance he was, to all intents, invisible. He’s designed to have that as his core quality.

We think of chameleons as creatures which are brilliantly camouflaged. Their colouring perfectly matched to their surroundings.

Many of we humans have that tendency too. We like to “blend in”. We like to be “one of the crowd”. Even in the earliest years of school, children will pick out the one who is different. And, often, that’s not a good thing. They’ll be singled out for insults or blows.

There’s a message there – it doesn’t pay to be different.

Conform! Keep your head down! Don’t attract attention!

There is a tendency in human communities to demonise “the other”. A new inhabitant might be treated as “an outsider”, or “an in-comer”. “You ain’t from round here, are you?” The more different they are, the more they are likely to arouse suspicion and prejudice.

It’s not very appealing, is it?

But this little chameleon….he’s pretty appealing, isn’t he? Clearly there is something potentially valuable in the strategy of blending in, and hiding, of not getting noticed.

There’s a safety in being “normal”, “one of the crowd”.

But it’s not enough, is it?

We need quite the opposite.

From the moment a baby is born they demonstrate their core skill – attracting attention! They scream and yell when they are hungry, when they are thirsty, when they are uncomfortable and when they want company. Failing to attract attention would be fatal. Literally.

None of us want to be ignored or passed by. None of us want to be unseen and unheard. Well, most of us don’t, anyway.

There are many paradoxes at the heart of being human and this is one of the biggest ones – how do I fit in, or belong, and at the same time, get noticed (at very least to avoid being neglected)?

There’s no one right way here is there? It’s not a binary choice. We need both.

As I became aware of paradoxes like these I developed a mantra – “And not or”.

That has become my core mantra. It’s a perspective of understanding, of tolerance, and of humility. It lets me open up to the views, beliefs and values of others. It allows me to avoid opting for reductionism and simplicism. I prefer to explore the whole, and the complex.

It’s NOT about “having your cake and eating it”. We have to make choices. But it does mean accepting that every decision should be made as best I can at the moment when I make it, knowing that, pretty quickly, things will change, my understanding and knowledge will change, and I might need to make a different decision next time, in the light of all that.

It means nothing is fixed in stone. Everything is fluid and uncertain. Does that scare you? Does that offend you, even?

And not or.

Can I suggest you just explore it? Play with it? Try it out? See if it helps you to navigate the world better than the binary, good/bad, right/wrong, abstracted and reductionist approach does. I find it’s more human.

But, seriously, explore it. That’s what I’m doing. And I would love to hear your experiences and thoughts about it.

Comments on this blog are “fully moderated”. That means I need to deliberately share them to make them public, so you can send me a comment, and tell me you don’t want it made public, and I’ll respect your wish. We can have a conversation privately. In fact, if you would like to start a conversation with me about anything on this blog, just comment on one of the posts, asking me to get in touch, and including your email address. I’ll reply from mine, and I won’t publish your comment or your address.

See, I welcome comments which people want to share with each other. I’ll publish those. But I also welcome personal conversations. I won’t publish those. And not or!


Read Full Post »

What do you think when you look at these lemons?

Do you think some of them look lumpy and ugly? Does it bother you that some of them are really small, and others really big?

I think they look beautiful. I love their diversity. The fact that some are very nobbly whilst others are smooth fascinates me. I love the shades of yellow and green in their skins. I adore seeing the small ones cradled amongst the large ones. I’m fascinated by their shapes.

In this one basket you can see that every single lemon is unique.

It’s harder to see uniqueness if the producer, or merchant, sets standards with a narrow range, stipulating limits on the degree of diversity he will accept.

The practice of setting “norms”, “standards” and narrow expectations tends to obscure uniqueness, but uniqueness is still the essence of reality.

Diversity reveals uniqueness to us.

It shows us that every single lemon, every single flower, every single creature, every single human being is unique. Each one comes to life at a particular time in a specific place. Each one has its own unique experiences as it grows….experiences differences in weather, climate, interaction with other forms of life.

I think we humans have obscured the fact of uniqueness in two ways.

Firstly, through “mass” anything….from mass production to mass consumption. A focus on the mass blinds us to uniqueness.

Secondly, we tend to confuse “individuality” with “uniqueness”.

We all want to be treated as individuals, don’t we? I know I do. But a focus on individuality carries a danger of fragmentation. It separates us. Mary Midgely, the English philosopher wrote about the phenomenon of “atomisation” very well. She warned of the dangers of failing to the see the whole when we examined something only in its parts, or its “atoms”. And, in particular, she objected to the neoliberal idea that there is no such thing as society, that the best way to structure a society is for everyone to pursue their own selfish interests in a free marketplace. Those ideas have destroyed communities.

I don’t want to be “just an example of a group”. I don’t want to be treated as “just a number”, as a statistic. I want to be seen, known and treated as an individual. How do I square that circle? By focusing on uniqueness.

Our individuality is often defined by listing our differences from others, our separateness from others.

But our uniqueness combines our differences with our commonalities.

How so?

“No man is an island”

I don’t exist separate from something called Nature. I don’t exist apart from something called The Earth. I don’t exist disconnected from other human beings. I don’t exist separate from other forms of Life.

It’s taken the universe 14 billion years to make YOU. It’s never created YOU before. It will never create YOU again.

“Be yourself, everyone else it taken”

When you meet someone, when you make a new friend, when you get together with your family, you tell your story. You tell the story of where and when you were born, of the events and experiences of your life and how they shaped you.

That story is unique.

Just like everybody else’s.

It’s the circumstances, the contexts, the environments, the specifics of time, place, and experience which create our uniqueness, and the uniqueness of our story.

As a doctor, nothing gave me greater delight than to have the privilege of hearing unique human stories every single day of my work.

I love diversity.

I love uniqueness.

I find it beautiful.


Read Full Post »

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.


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)

Read Full Post »

What colour is the sea?


Like the sky?


Like grass?


Like clouds?

What colour is the sand?


Like lemons?


Like stone?


Like the sky?

Here’s one thing I’ve found….the more I pay attention to the particular, the more I see (or hear, or smell, or taste, or feel)

We use our left cerebral hemispheres to focus on parts or aspects, label them, categorise them….which is all useful of course, but if we leave it at that we stop seeing reality as it really is.

We need to reintegrate that information into the right cerebral hemisphere to see its contexts, its connections and relationships to everything else. Only then do we experience the particular, the uniqueness of all that is real.

I found that in my work with patients. It was never enough to apply the diagnostic label and think of the patient as just an example of that – whether that be a “diabetic”, an “asthmatic”, or whatever. I had to pay attention to the specifics, to this particular patient’s unique story. Only then could I experience the reality of who they were and understand what they were experiencing.

So, here’s something to try today. Slow down and take your time to pay attention. Explore, as much as possible without labelling. Or, actually, it’s pretty tough not to label, so once you apply the label, just say to yourself, ok, this is an apple (or whatever it is you are exploring), but then, what colours do I see, what textures do I feel, what scents do I smell, what sounds do I hear as I interact with it (turning it over in your hand, running your fingertips over its surface, biting into it…..only if you are exploring something edible of course!)

You get the idea?

Pick anything you like. An object, a song, a view, a flavour, a scent, a sensation. Slow down, pay attention, notice the labels which pop into your head, then continue to explore.

Allow yourself to experience the diversity of the unique.

Read Full Post »

There’s no doubt this is a very challenging time for very many people. This pandemic is shining a bright light on many problems which we’ve collectively tolerated or ignored.

For me, perhaps THE most impressive feature of this crisis is how human beings are connecting and caring about each other. I know, you might think that’s an odd thing to say when we are all being told to “self-isolate” and practice “social distancing”, (I don’t like either of these phrases, preferring “physical distancing” for the latter, and “sheltering” for the former) but you’ll have seen people on balconies singing, shouting to each other, clapping to salute the health care workers. You’ll have seen people offering their talents and creativity online with free lessons, concerts, publications. You’ll have seen hundreds of thousands of people volunteering to make sure neighbours are safe and nourished. You’ll have seen health care workers, drivers, emergency workers, people who work in the food production and supply chain, and many, many others giving 100% to keep others safe, to heal, to nourish, to support.

You’ll have seen that scientists and researchers around the world are publishing and sharing their work freely and widely without barriers between nations and peoples. We human beings are absolutely brilliant at learning from each other.

We all live on the shoulders of giants.

There is an outpouring of love, of care, and of compassion. Maybe more on a global scale than I’ve seen at any other time in my life.

I’m not naive. I know there’s a lot of evil, cruelty, injustice and selfishness too. But I just want to a take a moment today to celebrate our human ability to make connections, to care, to love, to learn from each other, and to collaborate.

I hope we build the next phase of our lives together on those principles.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »