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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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I wonder how much the sky influences our lives. I don’t just mean how a blue sky lifts our spirits, and a heavy grey cloud cover can dampen them. I’m not only thinking of the reds, tobacco browns, and goldens of a setting sun. I’m thinking about the evening sky, like this one, and the night sky which you know, looking at this, is only a few minutes away.

I don’t share this photo because it’s a great photo of the Moon and Venus in a twilight sky. I share it because it sets off a train of thought in my mind. It gets me thinking about the rhythms of our planet, and how, for millennia, we humans have learned to understand some of those rhythms by looking at the night sky. I know there are stories of how ancient peoples navigated by the stars and worked the Earth by the progress of the constellations. I know that even now, there are farmers and gardeners who plant, cultivate and harvest according to the phases of the Moon. I know I get a lift in my heart when I see Orion appear for the first time on the Eastern horizon, knowing that I’ll be able to see him make his journey to the West every night until Spring comes again, knowing that Orion is a winter companion in this part of the world.

But I also look at a sky like this and am struck by both the Moon and Venus, and, instantly I’m thinking of the Divine Feminine, as both the Moon and Venus are associated with goddesses. I wonder if they evoke the anima in me. I wonder if they start me thinking about intuition and beauty.

Actually, I don’t wonder that at all. They do. For sure. I look at this scene and I am entranced, I am enchanted, I am absorbed in feelings, thoughts and images of intuition and beauty.

Have you ever wondered how much the sky influences your life?

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I’ve just finished reading Madeline Miller’s superb “Circe”. I can’t tell you just how much I enjoyed it. I found it a great read. I am a bit familiar with some of the Greek myths and legends, including the story of Odysseus, but this way of telling Circe’s story let’s Madeline Miller tell you some of those myths from a new perspective. I just loved it.

Last night I read a passage which made me think “Yes! I must share this!” Here it is –

When I was young, I overheard our palace surgeon. He said that the medicines he gave out were only for show. Most hurts heal by themselves, he said, if you give them time. It was the kind of secret I loved to discover, for it made me feel cynical and wise.

I have long believed exactly that. I used to say to patients something like “If you break a leg, the surgeon will apply a plaster to your leg to hold it still. The plaster doesn’t repair the fracture. It just holds the ends together while your body gets on with doing what it does – healing – or, in this case, repairing the fracture.” Or I’d tell someone “This antibiotic isn’t going to cure your bladder infection. What antibiotics do is to kill bugs. That’s a good thing. But your bladder wall is all inflamed because of the infection, and it’s that inflammation which is causing your symptoms. The antibiotic will have no direct effect on your inflammation. But it will reduce the number of harmful bugs in your bladder to allow your body to get on with doing what it does – healing.”

Does that seem unnecessarily pedantic? I don’t think so. I think it reinforces the patient’s belief that their body can self-heal – which is exactly what all “Complex Adaptive Systems” do – all living creatures have these abilities to self-regulate, self-defend, and self-repair. It’s what they do.

That’s the wisdom part.

But in Circe’s telling this knowledge also brings a certain cynicism, and for me, that’s always been about the place of drugs in health care. There isn’t a drug on the market which is designed to directly promote and/or stimulate self-healing and self-repair. Each drug attempts to redress an imbalance, or to suppress some symptoms or pathologies. The business of the body doing what the body does – self-healing and self-repair is left to be a hopeful sort of side-benefit at best.

There are ways to work more in harmony with the body’s natural powers, but, in my opinion, those ways aren’t taken seriously enough. Targeting pathology/disease and/or symptoms remains the dominant model. But I do dream of a time when the balance tips towards targeting health/healing and/or powers of self-repair, and self-healing. The present types of drugs and treatments will then be seen as the potentially useful adjuvants that they really can be. They will no longer be seen as enough by themselves.

Oh, by the way, “Circe” isn’t a book about health or disease. It’s a telling of some of the Greek myths. It’s just that passage really resonated with me so I thought I’d share it. And, on reflection, don’t those myths have something to tell us about disease and illness, and how we cope, heal and grow?

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I love stories. I always looked forward to hearing the stories patients would tell me, and I’m sure a significant part of my work was to be an active co-creator of stories. It would be common for a patient to sit down next to me for the first time, and I’d begin “Tell me your story”. Quite often that opening would be met with surprise or even some puzzlement, but I’d just stay quiet, maintain eye contact, and show I was waiting with undivided attention. Sometimes people would ask “Where will I start? How I am now, or what went wrong first?” I’d suggest there wasn’t a right or wrong place to start so just choose to start wherever they like.

The first part of the story would be up to the patient, but then I’d ask certain questions to explore particular aspects of the story, or to open up other areas which hadn’t been covered. So, together, we’d enable the telling of a unique story, a life story, with a certain focus – health and disease. Because, I am a doctor after all.

Now when I see this photo of threads beginning to be woven into a tapestry I think that rather than “focus” in that last paragraph, maybe I’d be better using the word “thread”. Because often the life story of health and disease is a story which needs unravelled, untangled, to identify the important threads, colours, textures, and images, or the important events, themes, experiences and patterns.

Maybe, in fact, the life story of health and disease is just one of the tapestries we create from all the threads and colours which allow us to create and experience our one, unique, and singular life.

So, threads, tapestries and images turn out to be as important for me as stories.

Where do the threads come from? The ones we weave into our personal experience? Some come from our genes. There are threads of lineage which run through each of us. Some come from our birth experience, and our response in those first few seconds to the cutting of the umbilical cord. Others come from our experiences, from the events of our lives and both our reactions and responses to those events. Yet others come from our relationships and from the physical environments in which we live.

Then there are other kinds of threads which we pick up and make our own. The threads of myths and legends. The threads of other peoples’ stories, beliefs and values. The threads of culture, music and art. In other words, the threads of our collective imagination.

Finally, as well as threads, the weaver has to have some idea of what they want to create. They have to have a vision, have imagination, maybe even have a pattern or a plan to follow.

I wonder what threads you can find in your life. I wonder what visions, thought patterns, feeling patterns, behaviours and influences create what you do with those threads…..

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Have you ever grown any beans? You know there’s something really wonderful about choosing different kinds of beans from a seed supplier, planting them, watching the little green plants poke up through the earth, then following their incredible climb all the way up to the top of a wall, or a fence, then seeing the long skinny pods form and hang down. Breaking open the dry pods to scoop out the beans is such a thrill.

Here are a few beans from just two pods. First of all, don’t you think they are beautiful? They are like tiny works of art. Second, isn’t it incredible that every single one of them is different? The particulars of the patterns on each bean are unique. Is this always the case? I don’t know. But it kind of looks like each bean is as unique as a fingerprint. Have you ever tried to find even two completely identical beans which are patterned like this? I mean, imagine, this level of uniqueness and diversity in beans! How much more amazing are the depths of uniqueness and diversity in human beings (or human beans if you like ๐Ÿ˜‰ )

Thirdly, do you know that it is impossible to tell which of these beans is alive? There isn’t a single scientific test which can correctly tell if a particular seed is alive or dead. There is no way to know that this one will germinate and grow, but that one will just decompose. There are some statistical methods which can attach a figure suggesting the chances of a certain portion of seeds in a batch being “viable”, but no way to tell for each single, unique seed. Don’t you think that’s astonishing?

But I guess Life and Death have always astonished me. I’ve been present at the births of many children, and I’ve been present at the deaths of many people too. But that first breath a baby takes, and that last breath a dying man or woman takes, astonish me every time. Both these events seem mysterious to me. When does life begin? And when does it end? You’d think those would be simple questions, but they are not.

Then what about levels of consciousness? After all, aren’t many of these beans sort of sleeping, just waiting to wake up and start to grow when the time, the place and the conditions are right? How do we humans change consciousness every night and every morning? How do we slip from being awake to being asleep? And how do we wake up when we do?

I expect a lot of people are finding they don’t need their alarms to wake them up in the mornings any more, during these periods of lockdown. When our daily routines have been put on hold, for many of us, our patterns of sleeping and waking have changed too. Maybe for you, you are waking now without an alarm? What wakes you, and when? Sure, sometimes it’s a noise, isn’t it? Even though we are sound asleep, we are still aware of our environment somehow. I remember waking one summer morning in an apartment we rented in Carcassonne. As I woke I heard a nearby church bell ringing the hour. I counted, “seven, eight, nine”, then the bells stopped. I checked my phone and, yes, it was nine o’clock. How did I do that? How did I wake up thinking “seven, eight, nine”? When did I think “one, two, three, four, five, six”? I had absolutely no awareness of the first six bells. Well, not absolutely no awareness of course, but no conscious awareness and no accessible memory of them. I find that astonishing.

So these are still quite miraculous to me – these moments of coming to life, these moments of dying, these moments of falling asleep and those of waking.

Maybe that’s ok. Maybe that just keeps me curious. And maybe it actually adds some quality to everyday life to be aware of the mysterious, the unexplained, and the wonderful.

Hey, isn’t it amazing where a handful of beans can take your mind? How did that happen?

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