Archive for the ‘perception’ Category

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began


One day I was walking in a forest and I came across this signpost. Clearly, this was the way to go….

I followed the path strewn with blood red petals, but I didn’t know where it would take me.

Mary Oliver, in The Journey, the beginning of which I quoted above, continued her journey…

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

I turned a corner, and there before me I saw…..

…red petals cascading down a slope, and rising high up into the canopy of the trees. Maybe this is what I came to see? But I carried on….

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do –

determined to save

the only life that you could save.


Eventually, I found this….

…the heart of the wood.

So, this is how it is, isn’t it?

We don’t need a “goal”, or an “outcome”. We don’t need to “get” or “consume” anything in particular.

What we need to do, is find our heart.

This is as good a time as any to listen, and find out if you can hear what your heart is telling you.

We have access to more than one kind of intelligence. Not just the rational intelligence of the analytic left cerebral hemisphere in the brain, but the emotional intelligence of the heart.

You think that’s fanciful? Or just a nice metaphor?

I don’t think so.

It turns out we have a network of neurones, yes, neurones, the specialist kind of cell you find in a human brain, around the heart. There is a neural network around the heart. Apparently, the nerve connections between the brain and the heart are not just about the brain regulating the heart, they are two way. Our heart informs our brain.

And emotions? Those deep, intense embodied rivers of information and activity which course through the depths of our very being…..are they something supplementary? Are they something inferior in some way to our thoughts?

I don’t think so.

Our emotions are the organising, adaptive strategies which have evolved to enable us to survive and to thrive.

As the fox said to the Little Prince – “what is essential is invisible to the eye”.

Here’s Mary Oliver’s poem, The Journey, in full –

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

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You know I think that, especially in times like this, we think of life as being incredibly fragile. It’s easy to see it as transient and fleeting, subject to being extinguished in the blink of an eye.

All that might be true, but there is an opposite equal truth.

Life is an incredible power.

Maybe life is one of the most, or even, THE most powerful force in the universe.

At one time this planet which we all share had no life on it all. Now you can find it everywhere.

Some of the most successful life forms are micro-organisms. They have spread into pretty much every single ecological niche you can think of. You find them in volcanoes. You find them on the deep sea bed. You find them under metres of ice.

There’s even a theory that single celled creatures like bacteria got together to create multicellular organisms – including, eventually human beings. Did you know that there perhaps ten times as many bacteria in your body than there are “your” own cells? Each of us is actually a symbiotic community of cells.

Astonishing (and a bit creepy too somehow!)

There are regions of the world where there is a huge diversity of plants. The Fynbos in South Africa is one of those. Periodically fire burns through that region destroying all the flowers, but the heat from the fire stimulates the germination of seeds in the soil which then spring up as flowers. Some of the species of flower which appear haven’t been seen for decades. Some were thought to have become extinct. But no, they come back to life (or maybe the were never dead?)

Albizia Julibrissin, the Persian Silk tree, taken to London in 1793 was thought to have disappeared but after the German bombing of London in 1940 its seeds germinated and it began to grow again – 147 years later!

I’m sure we’ve all lots of experiences of flowers popping up in the most unlikely places!

The photo I’ve shared at the beginning of this post, of the little flower appearing in the forest floor, reminded me of all that.

Yes, life is delicate and fragile, but it is also THE most incredible force in the universe. We would do well to remember that.

I think that’s partly why I don’t like all the war language which is being used during this pandemic. We are not at war with corona virus. We are, I hope, learning how to live with it. There are already scientists telling us these pandemics arise because we haven’t learned to live with all the life forms on this Earth, that our destruction of habitats and environments, our pollution and urbanisation, are the root causes of the emergence of this particular pandemic and will remain the cause of the future ones unless we learn to respect Life and to learn to live together, learn to adapt to life together on this little blue planet.

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This is probably one of the most familiar shapes you know. We humans evolved from a life in the trees and both individual trees and whole forests hold a lot of meaning for us. In fact, you could probably argue that these are such familiar forms that we pass them by, almost, or even completely, un-noticed.

Trees are the lungs of the Earth. They capture the carbon dioxide in the air, extract the carbon, and push oxygen out into the atmosphere. See this shape? Inside your lungs you can see pretty much the same pattern. The difference is that trees produce individual leaves along their smaller branches, but our lungs end in what look like little bunches of grapes. Both these structures are designed to present the maximum surface area to the air. This particular form maximises exchange. In the trees it maximises their ability to capture carbon dioxide and sunlight, and to send out oxygen. In humans it maximises our ability to get oxygen out of the air and into our blood, and to get carbon dioxide out of the blood and into the air. Nice symmetry, huh?

We use this same tree-like structure to organise our knowledge too. Think of genealogy, using what we even call a “family tree”. Or of any system of classification, which breaks the whole field down into ever bifurcating, diverging parts. You’ll have used that too when you make an outline to help you plan a document, each chapter divided into sections and each section divided into subsections and so on…

But there is a limitation to this model. It is based on separation. At every stage there are more and more divisions. By the time you get out onto the twig at the end of a branch it seems to be connected only by traveling back along the twig, branch and trunk, retracing the divisions to bring the flow together – just like you see as the many streams and little rivers flow together towards an estuary.

This separation is true. It’s a fundamental characteristic of reality. But there’s another form just as fundamental, which maybe we neglect.

The web of nodes and links.

In networks we see a different way of connecting. The human brain has more specialised cells (neurones) than anyone can count….it’s billions – can you imagine what billions of anything look like? It’s pretty hard. But wait, it gets even more mind boggling than that. Every single one of these neurones establishes direct connections (synapses) with thousands of others. Thousands. That means the total number of connections in the brain is in the trillions…..nope, I can’t imagine what that looks like either!

There are networks everywhere in Nature. From inside our bodies and brains, to local ecosystems, to the entire “biosphere” of planet Earth.

I’m fascinated by networks and I’ve written a few posts which gather together some of the most influential books I’ve read on this subject. Have a look at this, at this, or this.

The thing is the tree-model isn’t the only one which helps us to understand Life, the network model is needed too. I find that a lot. It’s not a matter of “either/or” it’s a matter of “and”.

That’s become my mantra – “And not Or”.

It helps me to focus on the connections, to understand what holds opposites together, and to keep returning to the perspective of the whole…..whether that is a whole, unique patient, or a whole, unique Earth.

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I took this photo in Gijon, Spain a while back. I’ve returned to look at it many, many times.

There’s something hear which captures my attention and provokes my thoughts.

I’ve always been struck by two things in this image. The first is the solitary nature of the fisherman. It reminds me how we humans are constantly addressing two apparent opposites. We are highly social creatures. We need relationships. We need to connect. We want to share. On the other hand, every one of us is unique. Every one of us experiences this universe from the position of the subjective self. There’s no alternative to that. We need to know that we exist, that we are seen and heard, that we can exert our will and make a difference in the world. We all need some time alone. Alone with our thoughts, our memories, our sensations and experiences. And, yes, it’s also great to share.

The other thing is the distance between this fisherman and the water (and therefore the fish!). It looks a LONG way down. I can’t see his fishing line but I can see that the rod he is using seems huge. There does seem to be a man-made ledge at the top of this cliff so I’m guessing it’s a good place to fish. And as I’ve never fished in my life, I know nothing about fishing, but I’m going to guess that a good place to fish is where you catch fish. There would be little point in standing there dangling a line into the sea far below if you never caught a fish, would there? (Or maybe there would. Sometimes I wonder if the main pleasure from fishing comes from the solitude, not from catching anything. But maybe some of you do go fishing and you can tell me)

As I look at this image again today, well into our third week of lockdown in the midst of this pandemic, I see a third thing – hope.


Yep, hope.

Here is a man, a solitary man, standing far above the source of what he hopes for (fish?), but with sufficient hope to actually stand there.

I think that’s one of the things we need at this point – hope.

I hope for an end to this pandemic and its deaths and confinements.

I hope for a re-evaluation of the world we live in.

I hope we carry forward our new-found admiration and respect for all the people in under-valued jobs who keep our societies going – the health workers, the carers, the cleaners, the food producers, the transporters, the cashiers, the shelf-stackers, the teachers, the people who keep the water flowing, the lights on, the heating working, the researchers and innovators……has this list got an end? I’m sure you are already thinking of other workers whose importance to us all is suddenly coming to the fore.

I hope we shift our focus and our energy away from competition and control towards co-operation and helping.

I hope we learn from this experience.

I hope that what we learn leads us to make different choices.

I hope we take forward this valuing of human beings and relationships and build it into our new societies.

What do you hope for?

Let’s begin to imagine what kind of world we want to build together in the light of what we know now.

(My list of hopes is by no means complete. I only hope I can inspire you to start to make your own list)

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We’re all trying to peer into the distance.

In the next few days…..what measures will my government introduce? When am I going to run out of food, and when do I need to brave the outside world to go and buy some more? What challenges am I going to face this week?

In the next few weeks……..How many people are going to catch COVID-19? How long will the pandemic last? How long will the lockdowns and shutdowns last? How are we going to get out of these current restrictions?

In the next few years…..what kind of world are my grandchildren going to grow up in? How will society change? How will the economic and political structures change? How will countries and people become more resilient?

We’ve always done that, we humans. We are blessed and cursed with the power of imagination. We can imagine all kinds of wonderful futures, invent, create, plan, innovate. And we can imagine all kinds of terrible futures, paralyse ourselves with fear and anxiety and the interminable….but what if? and what if?

I was thinking of all that as I looked at this old photo I took of Table Mountain (who knows when, or even if, I’ll get to stand at that point on the Earth again?).

I was admiring the beauty of the scene, of the waves breaking on the rocks in the foreground, the rich palette of colours of the water in the mid-ground and the glorious Table Mountain in the distance.

Funny how that got me thinking about the futures we imagine and which seem to inhabit our everyday more and more just now, because, actually, there is no future in this scene. It is all present, all at once. The rocks, the sea, the mountain. I’m not standing there imagining what any of them might look like one day. I’m standing there basking in the beauty of the present reality.

Well, that brought me back to right here, right now.

Nobody can reliably describe a future which doesn’t exist yet.

I know, I know, there are philosophers and physicists who will argue that time isn’t linear and that matter doesn’t really exist, and I understand all that, but even so, it seems to me that we live in an emergent world, one which unfolds moment by moment, inventing itself, constantly creating novelty.

I know we can discern patterns and we use those patterns to predict the future. I know our scientific method has developed along those lines….describe, measure, predict, control…..though I’m not sure that’s been the best way to go. I’ve still got a preference for √©merveillement….for wonder, awe, curiosity and amazement over data and controls. But we are complex adaptive systems, we humans, we life forms, we Earth-creatures, and complex adaptive systems constantly develop, adapt and evolve, sometimes in small steps, and sometimes in giant leaps. We change. Everything changes. The future surprises us all the time because it is novel.

So, I find myself coming back to what I used to explore with patients. What if our human super-power of imagination is trained on fears and anxieties? In what way does that help us? What if our human super-power of imagination is trained on creativity and compassion? In what way does that help us?

Because, you know what? I don’t think it helps to be judgemental. Fears, anxieties, creativity and compassion all exist for a reason. We can make choices. We can decide what to focus on, which “hungry wolf to feed” (do you know that teaching?)

They are seeds inside us, aren’t they? They include fear, anxiety, creativity and compassion.

Which seeds will you nurture today?

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What are the energies which run through us? The ones we interact with and which influence us?

When I look at this photo of water in a fountain I get lost in it. The first thing I see is the bubbles. I mean, look at them! Some of them are pretty damn big. Each of them like a perfect little dome catching a spark of sunlight. I remember sitting by this fountain watching it for awhile.

It seemed to me there was no way to predict where a bubble would form, where it would move to, or how long it would last. I guess there’s no way to predict what size each particular bubble would be either, but are there people in the world who could do that? I suspect there aren’t. Yeah, there are probably people who can tell you about the physics of water and explain how bubbles form, but I bet they couldn’t sit by the fountain and predict where the next bubble would form and how long it would exist.

I was thinking about that again while listening to some officials pontificate on the future course of this pandemic.

I guess it’s hard to describe the future when the future doesn’t exist yet.

The next thing I noticed were the ripples and currents in the water. They remind me of those old books you used to find with their fancy papers inside…..what did they call them again? Oh yes, marbled papers. Funny how we can see such similar patterns on the surface of water and on the surface of stone. I’m sure I’ve lots of photos of stone and rock which look patterned in just the same way as water does.

There’s one! And here’s another two…

This phenomenon of similar patterns occurring in different natural materials is described in Confucianism as “li” – a kind of organising force which patterns flows.

I realise as I look at images like these ones that there are two strong forces which attract me, flow through me and shape my thoughts, my behaviour and my life.

Beauty and curiosity.

I love dwelling on phenomena like these because I find them beautiful.

They don’t have to be useful to me. I just love them for what they are. They are beautiful.

I love them too because they pique my curiosity. They set my mind off running down through memories, thoughts and wonderings. Question after question start to flow through my brain. I’ve always been a curious person. As a child my parents subscribed to two “part works” for me. I’d get one of each every week and add them into the binders you could buy to keep them organised. Each was a full colour magazine full of fascinating facts and phenomena. One was called “Knowledge” and the other, “Look and Learn”. Did you have anything like that when you were young? Do you have anything like that now?

Then when I qualified as a doctor, with my first month’s salary I bought a complete set of Encyclopaedia Britannica. I still have it. Can’t bring myself to throw it out even though it’s been long since surpassed by wikipedia and google.


I’d say that is one of the strongest life forces in my life.


That’s another one. I love to take photographs. I love the beauty of Nature, of landscapes, of buildings, of Art, of people. In fact I think I appreciate beauty every single day of my life.

I’m sure these are not the only two life forces in my life, but they are certainly two of the most dominant ones.

What life forces are you aware of in your life?

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What colour is the sea?


Like the sky?


Like grass?


Like clouds?

What colour is the sand?


Like lemons?


Like stone?


Like the sky?

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

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

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

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

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

You get the idea?

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

Allow yourself to experience the diversity of the unique.

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