Archive for the ‘perception’ Category

I walked into the courtyard of a temple in Kyoto one day and saw this display of flowers. Well, actually, this first photo is what I saw once I got closer to the display which had caught my attention.

When you look at these flowers, all you see is some flowers. It’s not possible to see the pattern which is revealed only from a distance.

This is what you see when you stand back…

Isn’t this amazing?

Actually, whether you encounter the full image first, then get closer in order to realise that it is constructed from hundreds of flowers, or whether you start close up seeing only the flowers, and gradually stand back to see the full image, the two positions are a huge contrast, aren’t they?

These are the two perspectives we bring to everything. We use the left cerebral hemisphere to zoom in on individual elements. To do that it focuses on parts and identifies them, matching them up to whatever we have previously encountered and categorising them. In this case, it identifies the objects as flowers and labels them according to their colour. But at the same time, we use the right cerebral hemisphere to take in the whole picture, to see whatever we are looking at within its contexts. To do that it focuses on the connections and relationships, and, at the same time brings a heightened awareness for novelty – it homes in on whatever is new, whatever is unique, whatever is special.

You’ll know already from my writing that I believe the principle of “and not or” is a good one in life, and that’s in no small part due to the fact that this is exactly how we have evolved. We don’t have only one way of looking at things. We have multiple ways, and we throw them into the complex mix of reality so that we can do more than perceive the world in which we live, we explore, play, learn and create. We adapt, we grow and we evolve.

I’m very wary of black and white, rigid, fixed, narrow views of reality. The world is richer than any of us can conceive. The universe has more potential than any of us can imagine. And there is much to gain from diversity and tolerance.

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I think I first became aware of research suggesting that even a view of natural surroundings could be good for us in the paper about recovery times after surgery. The findings showed that post-op patients required less painkillers, had less post-op complications and required shorter stays in hospital if their bed had a view outside to a natural environment (as opposed to no view, or a view of a wall).

Then I came across the Japanese concept of “forest bathing” and work from a university in Tokyo which showed that spending a few minutes in a forest could increase the levels of helpful immune chemicals in the blood.

Today I read a paper about “Attention Restoration Theory” suggesting that spending time in nature improves the concentration levels of children with ADHD. This “ART” concept describes two kinds of attention – an easy, effortless, “bottom up” (neurologically speaking) attention to the environment, and an effortful, focused “top down” attention which we use when deliberately concentrating on something. We use the former when gazing out of a window to the natural environment, and the latter when trying to do a difficult mental task. The research study I read split children into three groups, putting one group in a classroom with no windows, one in a classroom with windows looking out onto a bare, built environment, and a third group in a classroom with windows looking out onto nature. They gave them all the same difficult lesson, took a five minute break where they stayed in their classroom, then tested their concentration after the break. Only the third group, the one in the classroom with a natural view, improved their concentration.

One of the things I like about this paper is that it showed two things – that turning our awareness towards the natural world is good for us, and, that the way to improve concentration wasn’t to “concentrate harder” but to build in a break where the mind could drift into a more natural state of open awareness.

Well, you know, I don’t really need any scientific research or “evidence” to convince me I like to have a view of nature from my window, or that I enjoy walking in forests, parks or along beaches, but, hey, it’s still good to learn about some of the measurable effects of open awareness and engagement with natural environments.

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Does the sky ever surprise you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wow! Just look at this poppy which has opened up in the garden a couple of days ago. I went in close to take this photo because I think when you look really closely you see an astonishing creation.

This is like a work of art. In fact, who would have imagined something like this if they hadn’t seen a flower before? I was thinking, what if an alien landed on Planet Earth and encountered this poppy, wouldn’t they be utterly amazed?

Actually, I’m not an alien here on Planet Earth but I am totally amazed by this. Look at the details! As well as the gorgeous red petals, right in the centre we can see this rich, dark array of structures which make up the reproductive system of this flower. The thirteen stripes on the seedhead – what are they? And why are there thirteen? Don’t you think thirteen is a strange number?

Honestly, I think you can lose yourself in contemplation of a glorious flower like this. On single plant, one single blossom, totally captivating.

And it won’t be here for long. Within a few days, all the petals will fall to the ground, ultimately only leaving the seedhead behind. I think it’s amazing. I’m transfixed! In fact, a simple, astonishing, utterly beautiful, intricately complex flower like this, can make me lose my sense of boundaries and separateness. I can experience transcendence in moments spent with a flower like this.

I guess we humans have been, and continue to be, pretty blasé and unthinking about the plant kingdom. But without it, none of us would be here. It’s the plants which capture and transform the Sun’s energy. We can’t do that. We eat the plants, or eat the animals which eat the plants, so existing a bit further along that chain of energy transformation to get what we need to survive and thrive.

It’s not just that there is an emerging consensus that plant-based diets are best for us in terms of health, they are best for us in terms of the planet too. I’m not vegan. I’m not even vegetarian. But I don’t eat meat every day, and in all the studies I’ve read over the years, time and time again, the conclusions seem to be, if you want a healthy life, and if you want a long life, you could do worse than to limit your meat consumption and move towards a plant-based diet.

There are many many studies now which also show us the benefits to our immune systems, to our inflammatory systems, and to our mental health, of spending time in, and connecting with, the natural world. Primarily, that’s the plant world of trees and flowers. So, it’s not just about seeing plants as a source of nutrition. Engagement with the plant kingdom is good for us every day – noticing, stopping, gazing, contemplating, wondering about, and, especially caring about, flowers, plants, trees is one of the best ways I know to increase the quality of everyday life, and to set yourself up to live as healthily as possible.

Glory to the plant world!

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I was sitting in a cafe in Kyoto, looked out of the window and noticed that the reflection of one of the lamps was sitting right in front of one of the trees outside, so I took this photo.

Right from the start this has seemed a metaphorical photo to me.

I know the light is not “in” the tree but the image seems to capture that idea.

Every time I look at it I start to muse about “the light within” which is in us all. Sometimes I think of that light as being a manifestation of Life, of the presence and flow of the life force. It’s a strange thing, that life force. In fact, it’s not really a “thing” at all. It can’t be directly observed. It can’t be measured. But it’s a concept or phenomenon that few would deny.

I’ve seen people die right in front of me. I’ve seen some go suddenly, and others fade away over longer times. I’ve had to examine the newly dead to confirm that they are indeed dead, and to issue the “death certificate”. But death has always been a mystery to me. I don’t fully grasp it. I know about the shutting down of body systems and of organs ceasing to function. I know about “brain death” and I know that heart can just stop beating. But there is a distinct boundary between life and death. One moment someone is alive, and a few minutes later they are dead. It can be pretty straightforward to know which of the two states they are in. But I get caught up in a sort of Zeno’s paradox as I try to discern exactly the moment someone has moved from life into death. There is no “off and on” switch, yet sometimes it seems instantaneous. Organs fail, but more often than not, they do so over a period of time…..years, months, weeks, days, or even minutes. But our bodies are not machines and life doesn’t disappear the way a machine switches off, or a computer hangs.

So, many times I’ve wondered what brings about this “presence of life” which seems to shine like a bright light, and which goes out? Where does it go? If it isn’t even an “it”, does the question even make sense?

When I studied homeopathy I learned that Dr Hahnemann described something we call “the vital force”. He lived in days before we knew what we know now, and the objectification of “the vital force” into a material reality which nobody ever managed to find, directly observe or measure, led to the dismissal of the concept. But it still seems to me that there is indeed a “vital” phenomenon, a living “presence” or “flow” which we only find in those who are still alive.

Is this light within a sort of energy? There’s another hard word to pin down – energy. We can identify certain clear energies in physics, and even measure them. But the energies we humans experience are harder to define.

Not to know, but to define.

What do I mean by that? Well, imagine a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 represents the lowest energy you can imagine experiencing, and 10 represents the greatest amount of energy you can imagine experiencing. Tell me, right now, what number would you apply to represent your current energy level?

You managed to do that didn’t you? I have never met someone who couldn’t come up with a definite number when asked to do this.

But here’s my question, whether you said “5” or “8” or “2” or whatever you said, how did you do that?

You didn’t measure anything. You didn’t check your blood pressure, your oxygen saturation levels, or you blood sugar level did you? In fact you neither selected out a single organ or system of your body to assess, nor did you use any kind of measuring equipment at all, but you did it. You holistically, intuitively, know what your current energy state is. Nobody else can do that for you.

Let’s expand that idea and apply the scale now to “mental energy”. What number would you give for that currently? Is it the same number, or a different from the previous one? What is mental energy? Where might you find it? How could someone else measure it for you?

Challenging, huh? But, at another level, not challenging at all…..in fact, it’s utterly straightforward and easy to do. In fact, sometimes we can even pick up the energy level of someone else, can’t we? We can know that someone is “not on form”, is in a state of “low energy”. How do we do that? Not by using any measuring equipment either.

So sometimes this “light within” seems like the presence or the flow of Life to me, and sometimes it seems like an energy.

But I think there’s a third path to consider. Something to do with brightness. I don’t mean intelligence. I mean brightness – alertness, awareness, presence. You know that old saying that “the lights were on but there was nobody in”?

There’s a light in your eyes tells me somebody’s in

And you won’t come, the cowboy with me.

…..sang Kirsty Maccoll

So, this light apparently shining from the middle of this tree sets me off on all this routes – the life force, subjective energy and presence.

All subjects which I have dealt with almost daily, all subjects of which I am very, very familiar, and all subjects which I still don’t fully understand!

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What are some of the core characteristics of being human?

Well, this photo reminds me of two of them.

Observe and create.

We are great at observing. When we slow down, take our time, and really pay attention, then we notice details, see connections, discern patterns, understand underlying themes and aspects of reality. I think this is one of our key powers. Yet, too often, we are too busy, or too distracted and life passes us by.

This is maybe one of the best ways I know to improve the quality of every day life – observe – just notice – just pay attention – just become aware. When we interact with whatever we pay attention to, we develop a deeper understanding – a deeper understanding of what we are observing, of reality, and of ourselves.

We have tremendous powers of observation, which entwine perception with analysis, re-cognition and imagination. Observation can spark insights, connect us to meaning, purpose and sense, and so enrich the every day.

We just have to slow down, set our intention, and raise our awareness. And like all strengths and abilities the more we practice those the easier they come to us.

This man is sitting on his traveling chair with paper on his knees, and he is drawing, or painting (I can’t quite remember which). In other words, he is doing more than observing. He’s creating. We are creators. We create all the time. We bring memories and imaginings together to express ourselves, to solve problems, to invent, to make art. We humans have painted on cave walls, constructed great stone circles, and buildings, developed tools and shared our knowledge and skills with each other right from the beginning of our lives on Earth.

I know sometimes we think of creativity as being the reserve of great artists, musicians, poets and so on, but it’s more than that. It’s something we all posses and something we all use every day….whether that’s in cooking, caring, dressing ourselves, nurturing and nourishing, communicating and connecting, or in our ways of thinking. We engage with the world creatively. We make each day, each experience, each moment our own. That takes creativity.

So, here’s a good place to start if you want to increase the quality of your every day life – observe and create.

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I took this photo in a tea house when visiting Japan a number of years ago. That tea house was one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been, and I think part of what made it feel such a positive, healing place, was that they slid back the paper screens over the windows to reveal a terrace with an awning, and then all you could see were trees, bushes, and grass.

I was very fortunate to spend almost half my career working in Glasgow Homeopathic Hospital, which became the NHS Centre for Integrative Care once it moved into new, purpose built premises. Although the location of the new build was at the back of a major hospital site, just next to the railway station, the architect designed the L-shaped building around a garden. All the patient care rooms and spaces faced into the enclosed garden, which could be accessed by stepping out onto decking once you’d slid aside the French windows. Everybody commented on it. Patients and staff. We all felt the peace, the calm, the comfort, and the security which seemed to come from such closeness to green nature.

There’s pretty famous research into that phenomenon in the world of architecture. We know that patients recover more quickly, with less complications and less need for painkillers post-op if their hospital room has a view of green nature (as opposed to having no window, or a view of a wall).

We know, too that there are social as well as health benefits from the “greening” of cities.

But the other thing which occurred to me when I was remembering my trip to the tea room, was that those moments of peace which we all need, don’t have to involve learning any special techniques. There’s no doubt that various forms of meditation, and of cognitive behavioural exercises can be helpful, but there’s something powerful, even necessary, about just taking a pause.

Maybe not even just pausing by sitting and looking, which I’ve recommended before, but sitting with a cup of tea, or coffee, or some other favourite beverage, sipping, gazing, and contemplating freely.

I think it add to the quality of life. It’s a way of slowing down.

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A few years ago, during a visit to friends in South Africa I saw these nests hanging from this tree. They are weaver birds. The nests they build hang like balls from the branches, and the entrances are at the bottom. How strange is that? You’d think that even if they didn’t make open nests like most birds, that they’d have an entrance in one of the side walls, a bit like the nesting boxes you can buy and fix to a post or tree in your garden, but no, these birds build this unique design of a nest with the entrance at the bottom. How they don’t all fall out remains a bit of a mystery to me, but I’m sure some ornithologist could explain it to me.

However, it wasn’t just the unique design of the nest which struck me, it was how many there were all hanging together in the one tree. I’ve found several birds nests in the garden here over the years. The great vine which used to cover the high stone wall (which has since collapsed, taking the vine with it) used to be a bit of a community hub for nests. But the mulberry tree and the buddleia bushes have only ever had single nests in them. There is a noisy flock of sparrows living in a mass of wild creepers and ivy on the wall of an old barn just along the lane a bit, but I haven’t managed to actually see their nests. However, I bet they are in there.

So, I’ve seen different densities of communities of nests and that got me wondering about the whole concept of community.

What communities do we humans live in?

I live in a pretty small village in rural South West France. I used to live in a moderately sized town in Central Scotland, and before that I lived in the great city of Edinburgh. Each of those environments enabled both different lifestyles and the opportunities to belong to very different communities.

This pandemic with all the restrictions in movement, and the months of confinement to our own homes has highlighted a couple of important things about communities, and I was thinking about them when I looked at this photo this morning.

One is that we can think of communities as the active, live, web of relationships in our lives. Whether we’ve been connecting over zoom, messenger apps, email, telephone or by letter, we’ve been more connected recently to our communities of relationships than ever before.

When we live in one place and work in another, our time, attention and energies are divided between different communities by geography. My daily commute on the train between home and work used to take over an hour and I used that time as a sort of personal time between the home/family community and the work one. Maybe there was even a kind of commuter community on the train. Certainly over the years I became familiar with a particular number of fellow travellers, but I didn’t really interact with them, so I probably can’t call them a community.

But that leads me to the second insight which the pandemic has made clear. We all share this one small planet. The virus knows no boundaries, no borders. The decisions taken in one country affect millions of people living in other countries. Scientists around the world began to co-operate more intensely and more openly than perhaps ever before. The scientific community, you could say, helped the scientists to discover new ideas, to learn lessons from each other and to problem solve together at speeds never seen before.

The truth is, that just as the “self” is in fact multiple, so in the “community”. We exist within a multilayered hyper-connected web of communities….plural. Maybe that realisation is a reasonable source of hope for the future. Because if we all retreat into separate, closed communities, we humans, are going to fail. The pandemic could be the least of our problems. If we don’t work together to deal with diversity loss, climate change and pollution, then we aren’t going to survive as any kind of community at all.

Well, in fact, I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful because I’ve seen the distributed global communities of personal and professional relationships thrive during these lockdowns. We can learn from that. Yes, maybe even home-working has started to revive some local, physical communities too, and maybe it’s starting to change the nature of larger communities in cities too, but, in particular I’m hopeful because we’ve rediscovered, or re-valued the importance of our communities of relationships and we now have the tools to enable us to grow them.

Maybe we are on the cusp of major change here…..maybe we are about to learn, or re-learn, the importance of understanding that reality is about us living together….sharing one planet, sharing one planet with all forms of life, sharing one planet with one environment.

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I’ve seen goldfinches flying through the garden from time to time. They tend to appear in noisy, busy, small flocks, making a lot of noise, bringing a splash of bright colours, and after a few seconds, or maybe a minute, they are gone.

So, I was very surprised to look out the window the other day and notice this one sitting in one of the buddleia bushes. I was even more surprised when he stayed there for a long time – I mean, maybe half an hour or more – just looking around, all by himself.

He came again the following day, and sat in exactly the same place.

I haven’t seen him since.

Apparently, in some traditions, a goldfinch is a good omen, a sign of abundance and prosperity. It symbolises diversity, creativity, joy and simplicity.

Interesting, huh?

Whatever the symbolism (and we meaning-seeking, meaning-creating, humans can’t avoid seeing the symbolic values in everything we perceive), spotting this solitary goldfinch, at peace with the world, just taking his time to look around, was a powerful example of that value which I place so highly in my life – “l’émerveillement du quotidien” – the wonder/marvel/amazement of the every day.

What I find is that my life is enhanced by two things – awareness and curiosity. If I notice something, then give some time and attention to it, it often delights me. It also sparks my curiosity – what is that? what’s it doing there? – and sends me off to explore on the internet which deepens my experience and makes it even more meaningful.

I recommend it…….noticing and enquiring.

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Sometimes it’s easy to spot the uniqueness in whatever it is we are looking at. Like this flower here, it is SO unusual to me that I could hardly have missed it. I’ve never seen petals forming this towering, layered shape before. And, of course, the reflection, as always at least doubles the impact of the flower.

In all my years working as a doctor I found that every single patient was unique. Everyone had a singular, personal, different story to tell. No two people had shared the same life, had identical experiences, responded to whatever they’d encountered the same way. No two patients had the same memories, the same imaginings which formed their fears, anxieties, hopes and expectations. Nobody had exactly the same beliefs and values. Nothing was black and white.

Every life was nuanced, shaded differently, shaped uniquely.

But superficially, it wasn’t like that. Superficially, patients were classified and categorised according to their diagnosis. Too often their pathologies were the sole presentation.

I even found that despite having an open, questioning style, when I asked patients to tell me their story, many simply told me their diagnosis, perhaps what treatments they were receiving, perhaps what interventions they had undergone already, but then they stopped. In other words they told me about the shared, common features of the disease they’d been told they had.

It could take a little more prompting to get them to describe their symptoms and their suffering and it could take a little more to get them to tell me who they were, to share with me their life story, their beliefs, values, expectations, fears and memories.

But the more personal the story, the more obviously unique it would be.

Sometimes I have to remind myself of that. It’s easy to judge and dismiss people we don’t know – celebrities, politicians, strangers – to put labels on them and then to look no further. But the truth is, the more we get to know someone, the more unique we realise they are, and the more unique we realise someone is, the more we have the chance to understand them.

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