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Archive for the ‘perception’ Category

When I looked out of my window the other day I saw a butterfly sunning itself on the wall. I carefully took my phone out of my pocket and photographed it through the glass. Then I opened the window carefully to try for a better shot, and the butterfly flew off. Gone.

So, here’s the photo I took. It’s not going to win any wildlife photographer of the year awards but look carefully…..you can see the shadows of the butterfly’s antennae.

Isn’t that amazing?

Maybe I’ve seen this before but as far as I can remember this is the first time in my life that I’ve seen the shadows of a butterfly’s antennae.

I’m struck by the sense of delicacy and fragility in this image. A butterfly’s life is not a long one, but a butterfly’s shadow is even shorter! A cloud just has to pass over the sun and the shadow has gone. The butterfly just has to do what butterflies do….flit off somewhere else….and it’s gone.

This sense of impermanence coupled with the delicacy of the tiny slim antennae of the small fragile butterfly combine to make this a very special moment.

It’s one of those intense fleeting experiences of “first and last”. It’s the first time I’ve seen this, and could be the last – both in general terms, and, of course, this is the one and only opportunity to see this specific, this unique butterfly in this particular place at this particular time.

Life if full of these moments. If only we can be aware of them.

Here’s something else I think about this…..in the midst of all this impermanency,  all this transience, all this fragility, I see the vibrant, colourful, intense flow of LIFE – the LIFE that flows through every living creature, every moment of every day. The Life Force. The “green fuse that drives the flower”. Spinoza’s “conatus” – by which he meant the “striving to survive” which separates the living from the inanimate.

It never fails to astonish me. It never fails to stimulate my sense of wonder, of marvel, of “émerveillement du quotidien“.

Life is full of these moments. If only we can slow down and pay attention to them.

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See this large rock just above the harbour in Biarritz? How does the sea make it to the shore when this rock is in the way?

The most obvious way is to go around it.

And that’s what most of the water does. It makes it way towards the shore, and back out to sea again by breaking against the rock and flowing around each side of it.

That’s one way to deal with an obstacle, with something standing in your way…..find a way around it.

But, wait, look at this…..

…the water has found another way as well.

It goes THROUGH the rock!

I suspect this has taken a very, very long time for wave after wave to make its way through a small crack in the rock, widening the gap slightly every time it passes through. But look at it now. Sometimes when a more substantial wave hits the far side of the rock it flows directly through the gap. Doesn’t happen every time. Just when the waves are big enough.

So, there’s the other solution. Keep going. Keep pushing up against the obstacle, looking for a gap, an opportunity, a way through, and once you find it, come back again and again. Each time, it’ll get easier. Each time the gap will get wider, the way will become broader.

Something else…..this is just beautiful to watch. Mesmerising even. Over the course of a few minutes you can see how the rock and the sea sculpt each other. It’s a delightful relationship.

Oh, and something else……Michel Serres, a French philosopher who died recently, used to describe human beings as “anticipation creatures”. I recently listened to an episode of one of my favourite podcasts, Onbeing, where the science journalist, Erik Vance, talked about “the drugs inside our head”. He was discussing the poorly understood but fundamentally important phenomenon known as the “placebo effect”, and one thing he said was that our brains are “prediction machines” (well, I hate the metaphor of “machine” applied to living organisms, but you get the point…).

Both Serres and Vance are talking about our incredible ability to spot patterns, so that we can predict the future. OK, not too far into the future, and not with 100% accuracy, but we don’t just notice the world, we anticipate it.

As I stood watching this phenomenon of the white surf gushing out of the mouth in the rock, I was quickly captured by the experience of anticipation, watching the swells on the surface of sea further out, trying to predict which would turn into waves big enough to pour through the rock.

It was hard to stop.

It was delightful.

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We humans are pretty good at making maps. We do it all the time. Dr Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, describes the three commonest maps we make in the frontal cortex of the brain – a “me” map, a “you” map, and a “we” map. You might wonder about the use of the term “map” there, arguing that we create “images” rather than maps, but let’s not get bogged down on that one. I like both terms (one of my favourite principles in life is “and not or” – 🙂 )

The thing about a map is that it shows contexts and connections. It shows us where we are, where we might want to go, and helps us to imagine how to get there.

I was in Tordesillas, in Northern Spain, recently and visited the “Treaty House” which displays a number of ancient maps. Here’s one set which particularly grabbed my attention.

It’s a set of panels describing the known world at the time – the world of the “Occident” followed by a set describing the unknown world – the world of the “Orient”. Take a look –

In this first section you can clearly make out Britain (although Scotland hasn’t really become known yet!) and you can see the areas we now call Portugal, Spain, France, Scandinavia and so on.

The next one extends the first one to show Italy, Greece, Turkey, “The Middle East” and also more of the North African coastal countries.

For a medieval map it’s surprisingly accurate. It might even have helped people to find their way from one place to another.

But then check out these two panels of the “unknown”, “Orient” –

At first there are elements we recognise – The Nile, The Caspian Sea, but the further East we go, the more the map becomes an expression of a creative imagination.

Isn’t that fascinating?

I’ve never thought of mapping out what I don’t know before. After all, where would I stop? The older I get, the more I realise how much I don’t know – how much WE (we humans) don’t know. But it might be a fun idea, don’t you think? To sketch out some maps of the unknown…..

The personal maps of “me”, “you” and “we” are constantly being updated, constantly evolving, and we create them from both what we know, and what we don’t know…..from our memories, our present day experiences, and our imaginations.

Map making turns out to be a dynamic and fundamental ability. I wonder how aware we are, on a day to day basis, of the maps we have made, the maps we are making, and the influence they have on our lives.

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Here’s a common experience I have.

I’ll be sitting in my garden reading and I hear a very high pitched, very distant bird call. I recognise it immediately now, even though I’d never heard it before moving here five years ago. It’s a buzzard. Although the call is quite faint, it catches my attention every time. I’m sure that’s helped by how often it’s silent here surrounded by the vineyards. (Although on other days the machines of viniculture create quite a racket, and a nearby airbase sends up training flights some days more than others)

When I hear the call of the buzzard I look up and peer into the sky to try and locate the bird. It’s not always easy because very frequently they fly so high they appear as just small black dots.

I saw this particular one and whilst often the buzzards circle and swoop on invisible highways in the air, this one appeared to be completely still. It was just hanging there, the way I often see the kestrels do, although they do that much closer to the Earth than the buzzards do.

So I took a photo with my phone.

Can you spot the buzzard?

Hey, it’s a bit like a competition I used to do with my dad. One of the newspapers would print a photo from a recent football match but with the ball removed from the image. You had to place a cross right on the dead centre of where you thought the ball was. The person who got closest won the money. It was called “Spot the Ball”. Well, this is “spot the buzzard”.

Answer at the end of the post ………..

Once I found the buzzard I started to wonder how it could just hang like that in the air. I started to wonder how it could fly with such apparent little effort. I started to wonder why it cried that particular call. I started to wonder what the world looks like from up there. How much detail can the buzzard see? Why does it fly SO high in the sky?

Wonder.

Everyday wonder.

I’ve referred a number of times to the French phrase “émerveillement du quotidien” which I love so much. It pretty much means “the wonder of the every day”. I find that when I get one of those moments, those moments of wonder, that my day feels a better day.

I find that the wondering connects me to awe.

I feel awe….astonishment, delight in, admiration for, whatever it is I’m wondering about. Not least because the wondering doesn’t have any immediate answers for me. Well, obviously, sometimes, the wonder drives curiosity and I later go searching online or in books for more information about whatever it is I’ve been wondering about. But that’s something different, isn’t it? Curiosity and knowledge-seeking. There’s just something delightful, uplifting even, about the process of wondering which doesn’t immediately drive knowledge-seeking, but, instead, creates a feeling of awe.

And here’s what happens next. When the wonder blends with awe I feel myself “taken out of myself”. I have an experience of transcendence…..what Arthur Koestler described as an “oceanic” feeling. I feel an increased, and deepened, connection with whatever is “outside” me, whatever I’m paying attention to. I feel an expansion and a loosening of boundaries. I feel a diminishment of separateness and an enhancement of oneness.

So, I wasn’t surprised when I read yesterday about “spiritual emotions”, especially as they were listed as follows –

  • Wonder
  • Awe
  • Transcendence

What sets off the spiritual emotions for you?

 

Oh, and, yes, as promised, here’s how to find the buzzard………

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Striking bird, huh? I’d never seen a “hoopoe” until I came to live here in the Charente. I still find them very exotic. It’s as if the bring a touch of far away into my garden.

Every Spring a couple of them turn up, then a little later, I’ll see them together, mum, dad, and a rather large offspring. I don’t know where they nest so I don’t see the young bird till he or she arrives in the garden hopping quickly here and there to wherever mum or dad find a worm or a grub. Beak open astonishingly wide to receive the newly discovered food.

At first, the young bird just seems to hang around watching and waiting, but after a few visits begins to drill that long beak down into the grass searching for food itself. Never seems to find any though! So still rushes across to the parents every time they strike lucky – which they do with amazing regularity.

Then a time comes when the young bird is there in the garden by themselves, drilling down here, drilling down there. I’ve seen them do this for literally hours without seeming to find a single thing. The first time I saw a day like that I got worried that maybe the young bird would never learn the skill of finding food….and then what?

But you know what? They stick with it, and, finally, start coming up with the goodies. I’ve no idea how they do that. Seriously, if you’re a bit of an expert in birds, can you tell me? How does the hoopoe know where to drill down into the earth for food? Clearly it’s not random. Well, actually, I think for the young bird, that at first, it is pretty random. But then they learn. I wonder what they learn? I wonder what they sense and how they develop that sense?

Well, yesterday was the First of September, and the weatherman said it was the first day of Autumn here. He explained that meteorologically July is the month with the hottest average temperatures, so that’s considered the height of summer, making June, July, August the summer months. January has the coldest average temperatures, so that’s the depth of winter, making December, January, February winter. Spring and Autumn fit in between those two trimesters. The Equinox, when the number of hours of daytime exactly matches the number of hours of night, falls on September 23rd. That’s when it will usually start to feel like autumn here.

Still, after a week of blue skies and warm days, the 1st September was grey and a bit rainy. As if to say “I told you so”. (Although, the sun is back out again today, the 2nd)

One change I’ve noticed though, is that the hoopoes have gone. Haven’t seen them for two or three days now and I suspect they’ve headed south. They spend the winter months in Africa before coming back here next Spring. By the way, how do they do that?? How do they find their way to Africa then back to the same garden here in the Charente? How much energy does it take to fly all that way? Honestly, I’m finding Life more amazing every day. It’s just full of things to wonder about!

So this feels like a marking of a new cycle right enough.

If you’re reading this in the Southern hemisphere of course, you’ll be seeing winter fading away and the early signs of Spring appearing. Isn’t that amazing too?

These rhythms feel ancient, deep and fundamental to me. There is something so pleasing about these natural cycles. It seems important somehow to be aware of them, and to adjust, to adapt, to tune in, to get in harmony with them. Doing so seems to add to the feeling that life is good.

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In a recent article about advances in microscopy, a truly incredible innovation, the ability to look inside living cells will give us (according to the journalist who wrote the article)

Seeing the shape and structure of biological molecules is important because they are the cogs and wheels that make living things work. They work inside and between cells, which are the building blocks of human life.

“cogs and wheels”, huh?

See that photo at the start of this post? That’s a photo of cogs and wheels. You don’t see these inside cells. Living creatures are not “built” from “building blocks” – walls and machines are.

Here’s a machine.

Would you ever be fooled into thinking this was a living creature?

I don’t think so.

In fact, in the footage from this imaging technology that I’ve seen so far, the most amazing and striking thing is that everything you see is on the move. The inside of a cell is full of bustling activity and movement. Not cogs. Not wheels. More like even smaller creatures inside the living creature we call the cell. They seem more like what we see outside of the cell – in whole organisms, like in our own bodies – teeming communities of tiny creatures which we call cells, co-operating and collaborating to function as a whole.

The biologist, Lynn Margulis, developed the theory of endosymbiosis, which described how bacterial sized organisms may have evolved together to become the highly specialised structures inside each, and every, living cell.

In 1966, as a young faculty member at Boston University, Margulis wrote a theoretical paper titled “On the Origin of Mitosing Cells”. The paper, however, was “rejected by about fifteen scientific journals,” she recalled. It was finally accepted by Journal of Theoretical Biology and is considered today a landmark in modern endosymbiotic theory. Weathering constant criticism of her ideas for decades, Margulis was famous for her tenacity in pushing her theory forward, despite the opposition she faced at the time. The descent of mitochondria from bacteria and of chloroplasts from cyanobacteria was experimentally demonstrated in 1978 by Robert Schwartz and Margaret Dayhoff. This formed the first experimental evidence for her theory. The endosymbiosis theory of organogenesis became widely accepted in the early 1980s, after the genetic material of mitochondria and chloroplasts had been found to be significantly different from that of the symbiont’s nuclear DNA.  [wikipedia]

We are not machines. Machines are not alive, and they don’t evolve. Crucially, machines don’t show “emergent properties“. They are predictable because they are not alive, and they don’t develop new, impossible to predict, behaviours and characteristics.

I think we do Life a huge disservice when we think of creatures as machines.

We are actually infinitely more complex, more amazing, more puzzling, more wonderful than anything that tired old metaphor can come up with.

So, can we move on please? And talk about Life without reducing it to something inferior – a machine.

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I took this photo a long time ago up at the Bracklinn Falls in Scotland. As you walk through the woods from the car park, you hear the roar of the water long before you can see it. Once you reach its banks, or stand on the bridge, the “new” bridge from 2010, the “old” one having been washed away by the power of the water in a storm some years before, you can hardly hear each other speak for the noise.

There’s a hint about the power of water in the volume of the noise. There’s another hint when you learn the history of the bridge, see the height of it, and wonder about the day the stream turned into a torrent and destroyed the old one. I’m old enough to remember standing on the old, iron, one. I never imagined it could be washed away. The new bridge, is, I think, even more beautiful than the old one.

What caught my eye in that first scene, was the shape of the rock.

It looks like there is a giant mouth opening up to swallow the water.

In fact, many of the rocks here smoothly sculpted by the power of the water. They are beautiful. The water itself does not run smoothly over this section of its path. It is never still, never quiet, and constantly breaks into foam and bubbles. It’s sort of counter-intuitive to think that water can shape rock, yet it’s obvious too because we see that all around us, whether we are looking at cliffs along a coast line, the rocks along the banks of a river, or even stones which lie at our feet.

One of the things which so delights me about these scenes is realising how the rock has become the shape I’m looking at only by interacting with the water.

It hasn’t grown to that shape all by itself.

Because it reminds me that nothing is the way it is all by itself. Everything we see, everything we are, emerges from an infinity of experiences to become the way it is today.

When I look at these beautifully fashioned rocks I see a relationship. I see a history of water and rock. I see continuous motion.

Which isn’t what you’d expect to see when you look at a rock!

Wow! We live on such a creative planet don’t we?

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