Archive for the ‘perception’ Category

I like photos like this one. At first glance it’s a scattering of petals on the ground, but on closer inspection they are spread across both gravel and water, and when we look at the surface of the water we see more than the petals….we see the reflection of the sky, of clouds and of a tree.

Once we’ve taken that in we are able to see something of how those petals got there.

So what, you ask?

Well, I’m pretty sure none of us think petals just appear out of thin air, or out of the ground, do we? We know they came from a tree, and we know the wind was likely involved in blowing them to the ground, just as it blows the clouds across the sky. We know that the clouds dropped rain and the rain formed the puddles that now hold the delicate petals on its surface. We could follow any of threads in any direction. We could choose to explore the life story of the tree. We could follow water molecules through their global cycle between oceans, sky, mountains, rivers and sea again. We could explore the soil at the edge of the puddle, that same soil in which the tree is spreading its roots. And so on…..

In other words, petals are not the result of spontaneous combustion. They don’t appear “out of thin air”. And that’s the same for everything. Here we are in a middle of a pandemic and we are so focused on the virus that we are in danger of understanding why the pandemic is unfolding this way.

This virus seems to cause no symptoms in 80% of the people who it infects. But it makes some so sick they need to be treated in hospital, it kills a proportion of them, and it leaves another proportion with debilitating symptoms for months.

Why the difference? A number of factors have been identified so far….it hits hardest at the elderly, the frail, those with chronic health conditions such as diabetes, obesity, heart and lung diseases, and so on. It hits BAME groups harder. It hits the poor harder.

So, the widespread and severe disruption and damage occurring during this pandemic can only really be understood if we explore the contexts….if we follow the threads, study the environments in which it spreads. It’s not all about the specific potentials of a particular virus.

There are some things we can do as individuals to reduce our chances of suffering from this virus, but, ultimately, we’re going to have to act together to change the underlying vulnerabilities of our whole society.

It seems to me that this pandemic is shining a bright light on a whole number of weaknesses and failings in our current system – the effects of poverty and inequality; the effects of poor quality overcrowded housing; the effects of fragile work contracts in conditions which cause stress and harm; the effects of making schools too big, with class sizes too large; hospitals too big, with too little staff; of insufficient health care and long term care of the elderly; of discrimination and injustice; of poor diets and of societies built on consumption rather than creation.

I could go on……..

Do you agree? Shall we make a start together?

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I love a view like this. These cliffs are shaped like water. The layers and folds look like currents and waves. This isn’t a coincidence is it? We see these echoes and resonances everywhere we look. I’m not a geologist so I can’t tell you exactly how these rock forms are created, but it’s pretty obvious that when land meets the sea, they co-create their shapes…..the shape of the land is fashioned partly by the sea, and the shape of the sea is fashioned by the land.

They also change the content and nature of each other, with the minerals and micro-organisms in the rock washing into the sea, and those in the sea soaking into the rock.

Nothing exists in isolation in this world. Everything exists within its own environments an contexts. The apparent boundaries and barriers are more fluid and more porous than we realise. Everything is influencing everything else through a vast, complex network of connections and relationships.

We humans are like that too. We are constantly exchanging materials, energy and information with everyone and everything else. That’s why I find it more helpful to think of the flows of reality and to focus on the connections more than on the so-called “parts” or “entities”.

The truth is that the way I live, the way I behave, communicate, and connect with others influences and changes them, and vice versa…..everyone else influences me.

We are nothing less than the co-creators of reality.

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When I looked towards the Western horizon late in the evening I saw this glow.

Isn’t that interesting? I didn’t notice the vineyards, the village of Salles d’Angles on the hill. I didn’t see the Sun, because it had already slipped below the horizon. What I noticed, and what I’m struck by again, is the glow.

First of all, it is just stunningly beautiful. It reminds me that our attention can be caught by beauty, by wonder, awe and amazement……even if a lot of the time these days we find our attention caught by threats. Have you come across the term “doom scrolling”? Where you keep scrolling down through your social media, be it Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or a newsfeed, and you glance at story after story, image after image, which unsettles you. You find yourself becoming more anxious, angry, despairing, and fearful.

That’s not by chance. It’s by design. Whether it’s advertisers trying to seduce us, or scare us, into buying somebody’s products or services, or it’s power-mongers trying to manipulate you into supporting them, or pressing your buttons to try to control your behaviours. There are a lot of people trying to get into your headspace – in their interests, not in yours.

But we can still choose to invest our attention in beauty, wonder, awe and amazement. We can still choose to invest our attention in whatever nurtures us, integrates us (remember that integration is the creation of mutually beneficial bonds between well-differentiated parts), whatever promotes our growth and well-being.

Second, this glow that I see on the horizon is a radiance of light from the Sun. But we all radiate. We all glow. We give out vibes. We send out signals. We create waves which influence, or impact on, others. So, that makes me wonder……

……what kind of glow am I radiating today? A glow of beauty, joy, delight, love? Or a glow of fear and hatred? Huh! It’s not binary, is it? Chances are we send out waves from the entire spectrum every single day!

So, maybe the question is, what colours am I going to consciously include in my glow today?

The colours of love, beauty and wonder? The colours of delight and joy? The colours of “Bienveillance” and “Emerveillement”? (My two French words of the year – roughly, and inadequately, translated as “well wishing” and “wonder”)

Yes. Those are the colours I want to choose from my palette today.

How about you? What colours are in your glow? What are you radiating out into the world today?

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There are three elements in this image which inspire me to explore an underlying theme. The elements are the leaf, the stone, and the sand. The underlying theme is change.

The leaf changes quite fast. Over the course of a single year it grows from a tiny bud, to a full sized green leaf powering the tree, capturing the energy from the sun and the carbon, oxygen and hydrogen from the air, to create the solid substance of the tree. Then as autumn comes the metabolism changes. We can’t see that directly but we can see the effects….a change in colour from green to yellows, browns and golds. Then the leaf falls from it’s stalk to the ground. Once on the ground, the change continues as it biodegrades into the soil. Nature wastes nothing. The leaf nurtures the soil.

The stone changes more slowly. If you look carefully you can see several different seams of colour, each a different combination of minerals. These minerals came together over many, many years, and it has taken a long, long time for the stone to split from a much larger mass, and centuries and centuries of wind, rain, and sun to shape it.

The sand that both leaf and stone are sitting on has taken even longer to form. It always astonishes me when I come across fragments of shells and fossils of sea creatures high up in mountains, far away from the sea. It reminds me that the history of the planet is immense and that change in the surface shape of the Earth occurs so slowly it can seem unchanging.

Three rates of change. The more complex the structure, the faster the rate of change. Which brings me to the fourth element in this photo….the photographer. That’s me in this case! Well, my life changes faster than the sand, the stone or even the leaf. Every cell in my body changes minute by minute. All my tissues and organs are renewing themselves daily. It’s quite mind boggling, and it’s why I like to think in terms of “flow” instead of in terms of “objects” or “parts”.

We are all transient manifestations of being in the One great Flow.

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A couple of years ago I saw this image on the front of a shop in Copenhagen. Uniqueness is an important quality for me. Every single patient I ever treated was unique. Every single one had a unique story to tell me. I feel unique. I see you as unique.

So, what makes someone unique?

Is it your DNA? That’s part of it. There are no two human beings with identical genomes. Is it your face, your eyes, or your fingertips? That’s part of it too. There is scarily effective face recognition equipment already deployed everywhere from airports to security cameras. You can even get access to your phone by having it recognise your face. Iris recognition technologies have been around for some time allowing restricted access to closed spaces, and fingerprinting has a long history in detection work.

So, each of these characteristics can be said to be unique to you, but none of them captures your uniqueness, because YOU can’t be reduced to your fingertips, your eyes, your face, or your DNA. Maybe these features can help to name you….to tell others how to identify you from within a crowd, or a group.

But is this the same as “identity”?

I don’t think so. The reason why I don’t think so is that identification has spilled over from the capture of these physical features to encompass a whole person.

You are not reducible to any of these features, just as you are not reducible to any other “characteristics” such as country of birth, ethnicity, gender, religious belief, height and weight, or hair colour.

You are a person, and a person has a subjective reality, a life of memories, experiences, imaginings. A life of emotions, thoughts and beliefs. A unique, and singular story to tell, which is not, and never can be, the exact same as anyone else’s story, past, present or future.

Our uniqueness isn’t found in our characteristics or our features. It’s found in our connections….the connections which connect the past to the present, the present to future, our selves to other people, our unique set of experiences and life events, the contexts and environments of our existence. It’s found in the invisible nature of our subjective reality, with our own consciousness, our own unconscious being, and our ever changing, ever developing sense of self and person.

I abhor the reduction of a human being to a data set.

Because every human being is unique.

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From the perspective of complexity science an “attractor” is an area of organisation within what otherwise appears as a chaotic system. Think of the phenomenon of a “Black Hole”. It’s like a sink hole where everything, even light, disappears into it. It’s like a point in the universe which pulls everything within its reach into its centre. A “Black Hole” is a sort of attractor.

An attractor appears around a focus, and once it is there it exerts this kind of “gravitational” or “magnetic” pull on anything which comes close to it. But the simplest way to think about it is the emergence of a consistent pattern in the midst of chaos. If there weren’t these points of organisational focus in the universe then space would be even, smooth and featureless. But space isn’t like that. It’s full of features, full of phenomena, of areas and points of organisation.

You can see something similar happen in the brain where distinct networks of neurones which “fire together”, “wire together”. There are examples of brain imaging which show the thickening of neural pathways when something is repeated…for example, when practising the piano (where you can see a thickening of the brain nerves used to control the fingers). It’s sort of a neural equivalent to what happens to muscles when someone practices body building.

The same thing happens with our habits of thought and emotion. The loops which start to fire in relation to particular thoughts or emotions have a pulling power. Many years ago I read a book by the psychologist Edward de Bono, “Water Logic”, where he described this tendency for thought patterns to become embedded in our brains by likening them to the way water makes its way down towards the sea from the heights of a mountain. The rain falls pretty evenly over the high lands, but starts to run together to form streams, rivulets, rivers and finally estuaries into the oceans. The next rain which falls tends to follow the paths already carved out by the previous rain.

I thought that was a pretty powerful image and I shared it with many patients over the years. It helped explain phenomena like flash-backs, compulsions and addictions to some extent. But I always thought it was only part of the story, and it wasn’t until I discovered “attractors” that I realised what the other part was.

So, it seems to me, that events which are accompanied by strong emotions can make new attractors in our minds. They can be traumatic events, accompanied by fear, anger, shame, or pain. Or they can be life-enhancing events like joy, wonder, tranquility, or a sense of one-ness with the world.

When we recall one of those events we are drawn back into the same original pathways and loops. Or when something new happens which is pretty similar to one of those attractors, then the whole thing kicks off quickly and powerfully once more.

Once I understood this I realised we can actively create our own new attractors, by having, and/or re-creating, the kinds of experience which we want….the ones of love, joy, belonging, tranquillity, awe or transcendence.

Attractors, it seems, are not fixed entities. They need to be fed to keep them growing, and neglect makes them likely to wither away. The more attention we give them, the more powerful they become.

I was thinking about this today when I looked at this photo of mine, taken in a zen garden in Japan. What I like about this image is not just the spiral, which is indeed very attractive, but the wider scene – how there are different flows, paths, bends, loops and spirals across the whole expanse of the stones. Can’t we do this with our minds? Create our own unique inner landscapes of pattern by becoming aware of existing attractors, and actively creating new ones?

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I’m pretty keen on biology….as you might imagine for a doctor! I’m interested in how the body works, the way the different cells, organs and tissues all function so beautifully together. I’m interested in discovering the connections within us with all the incredible feedback loops and cascades. I find it all fascinating.

But it was very clear to me from very early on in my work as a family doctor that human beings can’t be reduced to biology. There’s more to us than biology can explain. I often refer to the three flows which pulse through our very beings every moment of every day – the flows of materials, energy and information. Biology is pretty good at shining a light on the first two flows, but its the third one where things start to get so uniquely interesting when thinking about human beings.

One of the aspects of information flow is art. Now, I don’t mean to reduce art to information, or at least, not in the sense that information is “data”. I mean information as signals, not simply data. Information as meanings. So language, music and visual art all connect with us, and our whole being responds. You can blush because someone says something to you. Your heart can race because you hear a certain song. You can catch your breath, or feel a range of emotions, from disgust to delight, when you see a work of visual art.

Our lived environment is not just physical. We imbue it with meaning. We react to particular colours, designs, patterns, sounds, scents and physical touch. A particular taste can set off a cascade of memories….one of the most famous examples being Proust’s “madeleines”.

I think both street art, and advertising, affect us deeply. The images trigger certain responses within us…..maybe certain emotions, certain thoughts, or particular memories. But whatever they do, they change us. And because we are not compartmentalised, those changes ripple through our entire being. We don’t keep them in our heads.

I think we’re often quite unaware of the images and art around us. They often exert their influence in sub-conscious ways. But I like to be aware of them. I like to notice them, stop, and reflect.

In this photo I’ve captured both street art and advertising. What do you feel when you see them? What do you think when you see them? What effect do they have on you? (If any….because of course we are all affected differently by different images)

We co-create our lived reality, we humans. We do it collectively and we do it as individuals, creating and publishing, or “showing” our creations. We do that whether we are artists, or writers, or whether we simply talking to each other. We change the lived environment by constantly changing our behaviour, our language and by using our creative powers.

What kind of reality are you going to co-create today?

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Maybe one the most important concepts at the base of all my understanding of people, of Life, and of the world, is that everything is connected. Nothing exists in isolation.

If I want to understand a patient, a friend, a relative, or myself, I have to follow as many of the threads which create the rich tapestries of Life as I can. I can never know them all. The daily judgement is deciding that I know enough to act, keep an open mind and awareness, and watch to see how things change after the act. I don’t really know any other way to live.

In scientific terms we humans are “open systems”. That means we don’t have impermeable walls or borders which separate us out from the rest of existence. It is just not possible to know an individual in total isolation. Our whole being is continuously immersed in flows of materials, energies and information which change us as we change them. We are influenced by, and impacted by, the environment in which we live, the food and drink we consume, the behaviours and emotions of other human beings, and the experiences of all non-human life every day. And vice versa……everything we do, what we consume, what we discard and excrete, how we act towards other humans and other forms of life changes the planet we share every day.

I loved hearing the stories patients had to tell me. Every single story was unique. Every story was a story of events, experiences, and change as a result of interactions between the person and their vast interconnected webs of environment and relationships.

I was taught that good medical practice is based on making a good diagnosis. A diagnosis is an understanding. It was my job to listen to the story, examine the patient, and, if necessary order some tests, to discern the patterns within their experience which I had been taught to recognise. In my early years as a doctor those patterns were almost exclusively pathologies, or diseases. Over time I came to understand that diagnosis, or “understanding”, needed to be both deeper and wider than that. It wasn’t enough to name the disease. A doctor had to learn to see and understand the person who was experiencing the disease. That shift from pathology to person involved teasing out the threads, exploring the influences, the impacts and the personal responses.

Each of us have distinct patterns which occur and re-occur throughout our lives. Patterns of thoughts, emotions, behaviours run through our stories. Patterns of memory, experience and fantasy cycle and spiral across whole lifetimes.

They are amazing. They are remarkable. They are astonishing. I can’t see a time will come when I’m done with this. It seems to me that every day there are new patterns to discern, threads to follow, new connections to find and to create.

What a life! What a remarkable, awe-inspiring, wonderful phenomenon is Life.

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I find that the turning points of the year are a good time for some reflection. We’ve just passed through an equinox last week and, here in France, the summer heat has gone, and autumn has most definitely begun. Autumn is one of my favourite seasons (I have three other favourites! Ha! Ha!) and I’m looking forward to the leaves starting to turn golden, yellow, red and orange….gorgeous. But just as New Year is a like a gate to path through, watched over by Janus, the one with two faces, one looking forward and the other looking back, I think all these turning points are like gates.

Well, what a year 2020 has been so far! I know that Life is truly unpredictable but we sure didn’t see this coming, did we? For me, there are other factors in play which have turned 2020 into a bit of a waiting game. I find I’m constantly waiting for something….when is the virus going to go away? When are the restrictions going to be lifted? When can I travel again? Will there be a vaccine? Will there be new effective treatments for people who catch the virus? When are the Brexit trade negotiations going to be completed? How is that going to affect currency exchanges and therefore my income? When are the new regulations on residency coming in here in France, and when will my application for permanent status be approved? I could go on…….

You’ll have your own list, but do you notice something? Those are all about the future? They are all about what might happen, what is said to be going to happen but hasn’t happened yet…..and so on. So, let’s take a moment to turn the other way and look back. Let’s take a moment to reflect.

I think this pandemic is having impacts which are both personal and collective. It’s provoking many of us to think about how we live our lives. It’s making us think about what’s important. It’s a brake on that human tendency to take things for granted. I’ve read a couple of articles in the French Press recently taking another look at Sartre, and what he said about freedom during the time of the Nazi occupation. There’s something about living more consciously within limits and constraints which changes what we think about freedom, and which heightens the value of conscious presence. So, I’ve found that. That now, more than ever, I’m repeatedly drawn back to the here and now. I’m becoming more aware, making more conscious choices.

Let me give you an example or two. I’m more conscious now of what I eat, wanting to have a diet which encourages health and resilience. So, I’ve discovered new places to buy locally produced foods (which haven’t been shipped from half way across the planet) and I’m actually delighting in shopping trips for fresh fruit and veg, for locally sourced foods like honey, small farm meats and dairy and so on. I have also researched supplements and started boosting my levels of Vitamins C and D, and my levels of Zinc. The top three I identified as being important in immune health. I’m also more conscious, you might even say wary, about going anywhere. I don’t just pop out anywhere unthinkingly any more. I make a more conscious, deliberate choice.

Another positive change for me is a deepening of my connection with the natural world. I’m living in a house on the edge of a village in the heart of cognac-making vineyard country. The house has a garden with a fabulous mulberry tree right in the middle. The tree has grown enormously since we came to live here. I’m convinced we like each other! So, I spend as much time outside as I can. I’ve noticed that the days have been much quieter. Not all days, but there are certainly more days which sound like Sundays. And I’m hearing more bird calls and conversations than ever before. I’ve read about others having similar experiences…..as if humans stepping back a bit has allowed other creatures to step forward. I’m also convinced that spending time in the open air is good for, and time engaged with Nature is even better.

Collectively I think this virus has brought us an enormous opportunity to see things more clearly and to speak up for change. It’s clear that our health services have been inadequate and precarious. We shouldn’t have to be exhorted to “Protect the NHS” – the NHS is there to protect US! It’s clear that huge swathes of society are living precarious lives…..the poor, the long term sick, black and ethnic minorities, and so on. It’s clear that care of the elderly is inadequate and vulnerable. It’s clear that millions of people carry out vitally important jobs but they are undervalued and underpaid. It’s clear that globalisation in favour of capital has made whole countries less resilient, with elaborate distant supply chains breaking down. It’s clear that education is a mess and stuck in some very old ways of working. It’s clear that mass spectacles, mass tourism, mass anything really, just aren’t such a clever idea.

So what? you might ask?

Well, in my work as a doctor, I always thought that everything hinged on making a good diagnosis. If I didn’t see clearly what the patient was experiencing and couldn’t make sense of it, then treatment was going to be partial at best, and useless or harmful at worst. So I think we need to start by making some good diagnoses here….and diagnosis, for me, involves a kind of reflection.

Imagining, creating and spreading the possible solutions comes next. But we’d better start doing that soon!

How about you? What comes up for you as you reflect on your own life and our collective lives in the light of the 2020 pandemic so far?

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We change the world every day. Just by living. Here’s a photo of a path. It shows a distinct gathering of seeds, leaves and other plant materials in a curving line. You know, instinctively, or because you’ve seen something like this before, that water has passed this way. Sure, maybe an artist did it. Maybe someone like Andy Goldsworthy, the sculptor, who creates fabulous works of arts from natural materials, but, no, somehow we just know, this particular trail was not created by any human hand.

One of the things which fascinated me when I came across this was the fact that the creator of this “natural art”, or, more mundanely, if you wish, of these marks, was water. Water carried these seeds, leaves, etc then it seeped away, leaving them in its wake.

I look at this and I think….this is what we do, we humans. Day by day, moment by moment, actually, we change the world, we leave our traces, we gather some things together, and discard them, or set them aside. We metabolise what we take into our bodies, and we excrete the products of that metabolism. We change the world with every breath.

This is happening on such a massive scale now that some scientists refer to this present time as the “anthropocene” – because human beings are now producing large scale changes to the very geology of the planet (and certainly to the biology of the planet!)

I don’t think we can avoid this. We change the world by existing. But we can become more aware. We can, individually, and collectively, try to understand just what changes we are bringing about. We can use that understanding to ask ourselves if we want to make other choices, if we want to try to make different changes.

And yes, I think that can be applied at all kinds of scale. If we develop more inter-disciplinary, integrated sciences and arts, then I believe we have the chance to reach better understandings, and make different choices. The key, I believe, lies in exploring the trails, seeking the connections, discovering the influences and factors involved in any change, and shifting our focus from trying to control to trying to understand reality.

How does the world change when we concentrate on competition and consumption? How does the world change when we concentrate on co-operation and sustainability? How does the world change when we prioritise quantities, data and statistics? How does the world change when we prioritise qualities, experiences and relationships? How does the world change when we prioritise money? How does the world change when we prioritise health? You get the idea….feel free to add, or to choose, your own.

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