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Archive for the ‘narrative’ Category

I took this photo about twenty years ago. I’m not brilliant at organising my photos, so I’m not totally sure where this is. I think it’s Genoa. Well, it sits between photos taken in Florence and others taken in Genoa and it looks a lot more like Genoa than Florence to me. Either way, it’s definitely Italy.

What I love about this photo is that isn’t static. You know I’m a great fan of “becoming not being”. I love the concept of the constantly changing, every evolving, moment. I love the experience of the present emerging from the streams of the past, and fashioning the possible futures in every lived moment.

I have many photos of paths, and when I look at a path, I feel pulled towards it, to go exploring and discover what lies along that path…..not just where the path might lead, but what I might find as a follow that path. This street adds another level of dynamism, in my opinion, because of the steps. The steps entice you to climb, or to pause, and look back to see where you came from.

The first thing I notice in this image are the two people, a woman wearing a white shirt, and striped skirt, carrying a bag in her right hand, and a young man, dressed in black, hands jammed into both pockets of his not quite full length trousers, his black dog keeping so close to him that at first I didn’t even spot the dog was there! Both of these characters are heading towards the archway, but haven’t quite got there yet.

Above the archway is a statue of, I presume, the Madonna. Her gesture catches my attention. It looks as if her arms are positioned to hold or caress an infant, but there is no infant there. So I see her, I interpret her gesture as caring, and I see a void, a space waiting to be filled? Maybe that’s one of those half glass of water events – is she preparing to care for a child, or has she just lost one? Either way, I find the statue surprisingly emotional. Well, that’s what art can do.

The next thing I notice is that this seems a residential street, with many apartments in all the surrounding buildings, each painted in, what is for me, the typical colours of the North of Italy and the South of France (more Italy than France). I see the washing hanging out of one of the windows, and, again, I’m on the Med…..at least, that’s where I remember seeing washing hanging from the windows of old city apartments.

So, I don’t just feel physically drawn to move up or down this stepped, narrow street. I feel my heart stirred. I feel my curiosity provoked. I feel the rising of my desire to hear what stories these people have to tell.

This might, at first, seem like a static, urban landscape shot, but, pretty quickly it becomes something which declares and demonstrates life and movement.

It provokes the movement of curiosity, of wonder, of the heart.

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I think this skeleton of a leaf is beautiful. For me it reveals the often hidden, or difficult to see structures which underpin reality. But what it does most is make me think about the two forces of the universe….

The flowing force – the energies which vibrate throughout the entire cosmos. And the structuring force – which gathers some of the flowing forces together to make patterns, shapes, forms and objects.

I like this way of thinking. It’s definitely not new! The yin and yang forces of Chinese thought are sometimes described as “active” and “passive” and I can see how that relates to “structuring” and “flowing”. Others translate these forces into “masculine” and “feminine” and while I do love the ancient myths and legends, the rich symbolism of art throughout the ages, a lot of people find it difficult to apply gender to these forces, and, sadly, once you add in hierarchies and male-dominated culture, then the “feminine” seems to lose out to the “masculine”, so, for me, thinking of the “flowing force” and the “structuring force” is more helpful.

Clearly we need them both to be working in harmony, or in an “integrated” way with each other if we are to have the reality which we experience.

One of the key books I read which helped me understand these concepts was “The Crystal and the The Dragon” by David Wade. I highly recommend it. He uses the crystal as the symbol of the structuring force, and the dragon as the wild, flowing force. But “the universe story” as described by Thomas Berry in “The Great Work” is a brilliant, engaging, description of this same idea. Thomas Berry calls them the forces of “wildness” and “discipline”.

Whatever the metaphors, symbols and words you find work best for you, I think it really helps to understand and be amazed by the reality of every day life, if you raise your awareness of these two fundamental forces.

Try it, and see what you think…..

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I reckon one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life is the importance of context. There’s a huge tendency to “abstract” elements from reality – to take things to pieces and examine the pieces; to reduce the whole to a selection of parts; to consider only a single episode or moment in a life story; to pull a single thread from the entire matrix and try to follow just that; to measure what can be measured and disregard the rest. This tendency to “abstraction” is coupled with a tendency to “generalise”, so all is labelled, categorised and filed away; to give precedence to the “average”, the “norm” and the “typical”, over the “individual”, the “specific” and the “unique”.

Our left hemisphere is the champion of all that. Abstraction, labelling, categorisation and generalisation are at the heart of the way it engages with the world. All that can be useful. It can help us to “get a grip”, to “grasp” things, to make predictions and exert some control over the future (at least in small ways for short periods of time).

But it isn’t enough.

Throughout my decades of work as a doctor I interacted with people one-to-one, one after the other, always encountering a unique human being in a specific situation with a particular life story. I never saw two identical people in two identical situations with two identical life stories.

To make a diagnosis, to achieve a better level of understanding, and to establish a personal bond with each patient demanded that I brought my right hemisphere into play. I had to seek the connections, make connections, discern the meaning from the contexts, the contingencies and the uncover the unique, singular story. Only by doing that could I understand this person, in this situation, at this point in their life.

I got thinking about all that again this morning as a I looked at this photo. I mean, at first glance it’s a photo of someone in traditional Japanese dress. At second glance they are standing in front of a statue of Hume, the Scottish philosopher, dressed as a classical Greek scholar. Well, there’s a combination you don’t see every day! I have seen lots of people in traditional Japanese dress, but mainly when I’ve been visiting Kyoto. Not in Scotland. I’ve walked down the High Street in Edinburgh countless times past this statue of Hume

Only once did I see someone wearing a kimono, standing having their photo taken next to it.

So it’s the context of these two figures which makes this photo what it is. Either character by him or herself might tell a different story. But seeing them together here is a sort of “satori” – a “kick in the eye” – it makes me stop, take note, and reflect.

It inspires me to reflect about the importance of contexts and connections, of juxtapositions and synchronicities. And it inspires me to reflect on the two great traditions of philosophy and thought – the Eastern, Taoist/Confucian/Shinto/Buddhist with the Western, Enlightenment/Rationalist/Greek and Roman.

That’s an incredibly rich source of inspiration!

Follow your own special way through the thought chains and connections which unfurl, unravel, and open up before you when you look at this.

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Webs fascinate me. They are such beautiful structures woven each by a single spider. How do they do that? Spiders have far more rudimentary neurological structures than mammals, but they certainly have brains which enable them to create these webs. Exactly how they know how to spin a web is a mystery. I also think it’s pretty incredible that the actual material from which the web is made is created in the spider’s body.

I wrote yesterday about the underlying structure of reality which is built upon the concept of a network – nodes with connections. In a spider web, the nodes are where the threads meet and the threads are the connections. The fact that the entire web is inter-connected is what enables the spider to detect the movement of a fly when it is caught on the web, and to know exactly where to find it.

But as that example hints, webs exist, not as separate entities, but in complex dynamic relationship with other creatures and with the environment in which they are created.

This photo is of a complex of wind-borne seeds stretched between several stalks of a plant. I don’t know if there is a spider web hidden in the middle of these seeds. I couldn’t see one. But it is reminiscent of the web I’ve shared at the top of this post. But there needn’t be a web inside this seed group. Perhaps they just all attached onto each other as they were released by the plant, and have formed a structure that looks just like a web, because each seed is connected to several other seeds through those fine filaments which are designed to carry the seed on the wind.

However this structure came about it shows how nothing exists in isolation. Not only are these seeds connected to each other, but they are connected, both physically and historically, to the plants which produced them, and so on back in time to the seeds from which these particular plants grew, connecting back over decades, centuries, aeons. They are also connected to the visible and invisible surrounding environment in which they exist. They interact with the wind, with passing creatures, and with other plants.

When you pause to consider anything from the perspective of its connections, you find yourself following trails which extend both back and forward in time, as well as connections to other objects, creatures, energies, physical and environmental phenomena. Really, if you were to attempt to tell the story of a single seed from the moment you encounter it back beyond its origins, and forward into the rest of its life story, then you’d find yourself lost pretty quickly. There seem to be no limits to the chains of connections and relationships we can uncover for any single object, creature or person.

So, really, nothing is completely knowable. There is always more to discover. There are always paths, connections and relationships which change our understanding of what we see in this present moment.

I think that fact keeps us humble, and stokes the fires of our wonder.

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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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When we look up the world looks very different.

This is not the view of a tree which you’d usually see in a photo, and I think it stands out all the more because of that.

In “Metaphors we live by”, Lakoff and Johnson make a convincing case for the embodied nature of the metaphors which underpin the meaning of so much of our speech. We take these metaphors so much for granted that we don’t even notice them. They give many, many such examples in their book, but the one which comes to mind as I write this is the one I used for the title today – “Looking up”.

Looking up is something we do physically, as you see in this view of a tree. “Looking up” also refers to our position in the physical world. We’d have to be very tall to look down on most trees! We look up to see what is above us…..or to raise our eyes from the ground if we happen to be walking around with our gaze fixed somewhere just between our noses and our feet.

The important insight about the embodied nature of our metaphors is that we can find clues in the language we use which can point in two different directions – they can indicate something about our emotions and our behaviours, but they can also indicate something about our bodies.

Once I learned that insight I became even more alert to the exact language a patient would use when describing their symptoms and experiences. Sometimes the words and metaphors they chose were the clues to finding their pathologies, and the way in which they were unconsciously trying to adapt to those pathologies. But that’s for another day.

Today I just wanted to highlight how physically “looking up” can actually link us in to the emotions, values and behaviours of “optimism”, of “looking forward” and of looking ahead with some flavour of brightness or expectation. Because it seems to me that we are pretty desperately needing a bit more positivity just now.

So, here’s my thought……maybe if we go out and deliberately, consciously, look up more, it will influence our mental state at a deep, unconscious, and emotional level and work as a kind of “reset” to enable us to engage with our lives more positively in the year ahead. And maybe if we do that, then as the active co-creators or reality, we will actually begin to build a better world.

As you raise your glasses at the end of the year, here’s to a time when things begin to “look up”!

Another world is possible.

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Here’s what Nature does. She reaches out.

Here’s what Life does. Life expands.

There are many stories of the Universe, many Creation stories. We discover the Universe in those stories. We tap into Creation. We uncover the themes, the characteristics, the features, the behaviours and the phenomena of reality in those stories.

One of those stories is the story of Evolution. It’s the story of Life on Earth. In this story there is one particularly striking feature – there is always more life. Life creates life. Life replicates, reproduces, expands, connects, complexifies, diversifies, multiplies.

Look at these two photos – on the left, a plant with two sunbursts of seeds held up as high into the air as it can. Reaching for the sky, reaching for the Sun, reaching for the wind, reaching out for other creatures, birds and other animals, to come along, to help her spread her seeds, to send her offspring far and wide, seeking new places to settle, take root, and to thrive. On the right a tree in the middle of a forest, a tree with branches reaching out in every direction. Every year adding rings to its trunk, every year sending out new branches to hold leaves closer to the sunlight, closer to the other trees, inviting birds, insects and other creatures to come and find home, to make their nests, to find shelter, in order to nurture their own.

We used to think of forests as collections of individual trees, but we know now that forests are not quite like that. Instead every single tree has multiple connections through a hidden root system interwoven with a myriad of fungi creating a “wood wide web” of connections. Each tree learns to find its share of sunlight and holds back from interfering with its neighbours. Each mother tree protects her young, nurtures them, in ways we never knew before.

Every year there is more Life on Earth than there was the year before. Yes, we have species loss, and we lose habitats. But from the beginnings of the Earth until now, Life has spread to every nook and cranny, adapted to every possible environment, diversified, evolved and spread.

It’s something which evokes wonder and amazement in me. After all, we know that when it comes to elements, the elements we have ordered in the Periodic Table, that pretty much all the atoms of all the molecules which exist on this planet, have been here since the beginning. The Earth doesn’t make more gold, more silver, more lithium. All the elements we know were created in the great furnaces of distant stars, and all came together here to form this little planet. But Life isn’t like that. Life expands, doubles, multiplies.

From the time Life emerged this direction of travel hasn’t stopped.

Life, it seems, makes life out life.

I think that’s pretty amazing.

It strikes me that if I want to be in tune with the planet, if I want to live in harmony with Life, then I need to pay attention to this characteristic of reaching out, connecting, expanding…..I need to focus my energies on nourishing and nurturing, on protecting and providing, this living planet. What does that tell me about the choices I should be making, the directions I should be following, as 2021 rises above the horizon?

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I have to go back about forty years or more to remember a collection of short stories I read. It was called “Strange News from Another Star”, by Hermann Hesse. Those stories made a big impact on me….so big, I remember most of them even now. Oddly, I haven’t re-read them over the years, but I did read them more than once back in my student years.

One of the stories from that book is entitled “Iris” and I always think of it when I see a flowering iris like this one. I remember the boy Anselm describing how he could follow the little yellow stalks as if they were a picket fence marking a path which led deep down into a secret garden. That image of looking at a flower really close up and losing yourself in the depths of that one flower has stayed strong in my memory and imagination. It feels like a description of one of those moments when you lose your boundaries and connect with another living creature so completely that you begin to experience the reality of the wholeness of everything.

Here’s a passage from that story (I looked it out today to write this post)

Iris smiled at him as he stood there at a loss, rubbing his forehead with his hand. “I always feel the same way,” she said to Anselm in her light, birdlike voice, “whenever I smell a flower. My heart feels as though a memory of something completely beautiful and precious were bound up with the fragrance, something that was mine a long time ago and that I have lost. It is that way too with music and sometimes with poems – suddenly there is a flash for an instant as though all at once I saw a lost homeland lying below in the valley, but instantly it is gone and forgotten. Dear Anselm, I believe we are on earth for this purpose, for this contemplation and seeking and listening for lost, far-off strains, and behind them lies our true home.”

I mean, how magical is that? Do you believe we are on this earth for a purpose? Do you agree that at least part of that purpose is “contemplation and seeking and listening….”? Because I’m pretty sure that those three things….contemplating, seeking and listening…..open us up to see more than what just flashes before our eyes.

Isn’t that ability to weave stories into our experiences of everyday encounters one of the key ways in which we make this a more enchanted life?

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Aix en Provence is a city of fountains. There are dozens of them throughout the town. This one, in the Cours Mirabeau, is a simple bubbling up of water in the middle of a round basin. It’s not a dramatic spray or jet of water, but I love it. I can sit and watch the patterns on the surface of this water for ages. They are mesmerising.

At first, you could have the impression that there is one main point of activity, where the water emerges from the bottom of the basin, sending out concentric rings of ripples towards the outer edges of the fountain. They look like the rings inside a tree, and they remind me of how a small action spreads its effects over the whole body of water.

But, you don’t have to look terribly closely to notice that there is more than one centre of action in this fountain. I’ve zoomed in on just one of the several points where the water bubbles up onto the surface. Up in the top left of the image you can see some of the ripples which are clearly coming from another source. Those ripples interlace themselves with the ones from the centre focus, reminding me of a lesson I learned in school when we were studying waves – it’s called “interference” – two concentric circles of waves meeting each other, with two peaks creating a big peak, two troughs creating a deeper trough, and peaks and troughs cancelling each other out when they meet in the same time and space. It’s a beautiful pattern and you’ll be familiar with it.

This image of “interference” from two sets of ripples already demonstrates the beauty of interaction and complexity. It reminds me of the “attractors” we see in all complex systems, and also reminds me that “attractors” do not necessarily pull everything towards them the way the pole of a magnet does. Rather, they are organisational centres, influencing the structures and patterns of the environments in which they exist.

But, wait a moment, we aren’t done. Look a bit closer and you see a number of smaller circles dotted across the larger pattern of the concentric circles. Each of these is caused by a drop of water falling from higher up in the fountain, or from a splash which releases a few water molecules from the mass, a few molecules which fly through the air, then fall onto the surface a short distance from their origin. Look how each of those circles enhances the beauty and complexity of the overall pattern.

In the real world, in the natural world, there is no such thing as simple cause and effect. Everything which happens, occurs within an interconnected web of events, influences and forces. There is always this interplay. There is always this complex beauty which renders the future unpredictable.

What we experience, our health, our illnesses, our joys, delights, our sorrows and pains, are always multi-factorial, always complex in origin, always multiply connected. We pull out some of the threads, focus on some of the events and factors, and create a story which helps us to make sense of what we experiencing. that story is necessarily always complex, always changing, always developing.

I read a passage written by Umberto Eco the other day –

Per ogni problema complesso esiste una soluzione semplice. Ed รจ sbagliata. (For every complex problem there’s a simple solution. And it’s always wrong.)

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I tend to associate new growth with the Spring, but, these crocus plants popped up from under the soil through the month of December. I took this photo on December 24th last year, and so far, on the 6th December, as I write this, there is no sign of them yet.

But that just reminds me – that creation is going on all the time. The phase, or season, or time of new and emergent growth is not limited to the Spring. It’s not limited to any single season, any particular month, or even any specific day.

We have a great tendency to chop the flow of life into pieces. We did that when we invented measured time – by making clocks and “time pieces” with their minutes and their hours. We weren’t even satisfied to stop there, but chopped the minutes into seconds, driving everything faster and faster, measuring this thing we call time in ever shorter, ever smaller units.

The thing is – those units are a human invention. Time flows in Nature. It flows continuously, the way a river does. Time is experienced by each of us in different ways. It flies past when we are enjoying ourselves, drags when we are bored, can’t pass quickly enough when we want to escape. However, the one constant is…..time is continuous. And so is creation.

The other thing this image provokes in my mind is how much is going on that we just don’t see. Are these crocus bulbs lying sleeping, unmoving, unchanging under the dark soil, then in a flash they turn into green shoots stretching towards the Sun? Nope, it’s not like that. But life often seems like that to us because we invent disconnections. In reality change, growth, development, maintenance, on the one hand, and dis-integration and dying on the other, are happening all the time, and all at once. They don’t fall into nice neat boxes. Nothing in life does.

I like the feelings which arise when I think of this – I like the focus on flow, on continuity, connectedness, on the whole, on change, and on invisibility. They bring me joy, delight, and wonder. Hey….so do little crocus plants shooting up from under the black earth!

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