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Archive for the ‘perception’ Category

I drove out of the village, as I have done countless times, and I noticed a bloom of poppies in a field of wheat.

I’ve noticed these poppies each day for several days, and I remember noticing them at this time last year too.

But this time, I pulled over onto the grassy verge and stepped out to have a better look. I looked at one or two of them up close. I crouched down and looked at them against the wheat, then against the sky. I stood up and gazed over the whole extended scene. Then I took some photos.

When we travel along familiar roads and paths, both physical paths from one place to another, and mental paths, or habits of thought, we slip easily into automatic mode. Automatic mode makes it easy to get from one place to another, or to complete a task with a minimum of effort, but it by-passes reality.

When we stop, hit the pause button, take a moment to turn our attention to what’s here and what’s now, then we immerse ourselves in reality.

That attentive focus slows the heart, calms the body and stills the mind as we allow the five senses to present us with the world around us. For a little moment the flood of memories and imaginings, the stuck loops of thought, the anxious repetitions of what-ifs, ebb away, to be replaced with colour, light, sound, and sensations of smell, touch or taste.

I find that when I do this, the world becomes a more and more wonderful place, filled to overflowing with beauty, novelty and presence.

I recommend it.

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Spotting this little creature on the petals of this flower hooked me. I stopped, looked closely, drawn by the beauty of the sunlit metallic green colour, particularly against the red petals.

I was more than drawn to it. I was engrossed by it. It caught my attention and for a few moments I revelled in it.

I savoured the moments.

Then, of course, because this is what I do, I took a photograph.

This is one kind of attention.

It’s the kind of attention of the senses. It might be visual, as it was in this case. It might be a sound, like a bird song, or the chirping of a cricket. It might be a scent, like the honeysuckle bush I passed on my walk, or might be the taste of the fresh, juicy gariguette strawberries in the market, or the feeling of the cool morning grass on the soles of my bare feet.

There’s something that happens to the heart with this kind of attention….it slows down. And as it slows down, the “parasympathetic nervous system” becomes active (actually it’s not as linear as that. The world isn’t as cause and effect as we think), and the whole body relaxes, the pupils in the eyes dilate and softly focus. There’s a feeling of peace, joy, delight, ease.

It’s wonderful.

There’s another kind of attention which is the type associated with mental effort. The kind we need when we work with mathematics and logic. In that second kind of attention quite the opposite occurs in the body. The heart speeds up, adrenaline quickens the body, sharpens the mind, produces a very narrow, focused concentration.

We need both these kinds of attention, but sometimes, I think, we rely too much on the mental effort type, and not enough on the kind that melts us into the rest of the universe.

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Many years ago I discovered the writings of a French philosopher called Gilles Deleuze. I found some of his writing really hard to understand but several of his basic ideas and concepts completely changed the way I saw the world. That “becoming not being” phrase at the head of my blog is one of them. That shift from seeing the world as a collection of separate objects to seeing that everything is connected and always changing was a radical shift for me.

One of the other concepts was exploring the difference between trees and grass….what he termed “arboreal” vs “rhizomal” thinking.

You know the basic shape of the tree….a single stem or trunk which bifurcates again and again producing more and more branches and twigs as it grows upwards, and more and more roots and rootlets (is there such a word?) as it grows down into the soil, the one a kind of mirror image of the other.

This tree like form is everywhere. It’s the shape of our circulatory system as arteries branch out into smaller arteries which branch out into capillaries. It’s the shape of our lungs as the trachea bifurcates into bronchi which bifurcate into smaller bronchi, bronchioles (there is such a word!) and ultimately into alveoli.

We use it as a way of ordering and organising what we see in the world. It’s the most fundamental way of categorising and classifying the world. Everything is ultimately connected back to the single trunk or stem….the same original root, but everything exists in a separate category way out along the furthest branches, each ultimately distinct from, and separate from, everything else.

Grass is a rhizome. It doesn’t grow in this branching way from a single root. You can’t find the original stem or root of the grass. It’s like it has multiple points of origin, and each blade is connected to roots which then connect to other roots in a vast web or network. This rhizome structure is everywhere too. Because there is nothing which isn’t connected. The connections are multiple, diverse and ever increasing.

Two things became clear to me when I compared these two phenomena.

One was that the tree like view was produced by a sequence of “or” choices – at each division we say this is either this or that. The rhizome view is produced from a sequence of “and” choices. We don’t say “I’ll use either Facebook or Twitter”, we’ll use them both and connect them to each other. That’s what I do when I started to blog. I created my blog on WordPress but automatically connected every post to a tweet and a Facebook post. That way I could write once and share on several different platforms, for different audiences.

The other thing, which came after I read “The Master and His Emissary” was discovering how well adapted our left hemisphere is to the “arboreal” view of the world, and our right is adapted to the “rhizomal” one. We use the left to discriminate, categorise and classify. We use the right to see the whole by focusing on the relationships and connections.

How amazing that we have evolved this incredible brain with its ability to engage with the world in both tree-like, and grass-like, ways simultaneously.

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Look at this! I mean, just look at this! I know, it’s not one of my best, my sharpest photographs, but I was in the garden the other day and I heard this deep low buzzing sound. It wasn’t as deep as the humming-bird moths which will arrive when the buddleia bushes bloom later in the year, but it was a lot deeper than the various species of bees and wasps I usually hear in the garden. Luckily, when I turned to the sound I saw the source. This inch long jet black bee with iridescent blue wings. I quickly got my iPhone out of my pocket and did my best to snap a shot before the bee flew away. I have never seen anything quite like this. There were two or three of them buzzing around the flowers but they just never settled long enough to be able to focus a camera and take a nice close up (not yet anyway – I haven’t given up!).

I looked it up online and it seems this is a “violet carpenter bee”. Never heard of such a creature. What a thrill! What a delight! Made my day!

There’s an important lesson to learn here. I’m sure you’ll have come across “mindfulness”. It’s quite the thing these days. Mostly the term is used in relation to certain meditation practices and they are good ones. It seems that mindfulness meditation can have a lot of benefits, from easing depression and anxiety, to stimulating “neuroplasticity” (that’s the phenomenon of how the brain changes and develops itself). But even before the meditation practices were popularised Ellen Langer researched mindfulness in everyday life. She claims we can either go through life mindfully or mindlessly. Seems a clear choice, huh? How do we lead a more mindful life? Search for the new.

By new, she means what’s new to you. The trick, you see, is that every day is new. You have never lived this day before. Nobody has ever had, or ever will have, the same experience as you are going to have today. Once you are aware of that you can set out to be aware of what’s new.

Iain McGilchrist points out in “The Master and His Emissary” that our left cerebral hemisphere has a preference for what is familiar, whilst the right hemisphere thrives on curiosity – it leads us to seek out what’s new. His larger thesis is that we have become very left brain dominant in our present society and that some deliberate change of focus to the right brain might bring about a much more healthy, more integrated level of brain function.

I recently read a book by French author, Belinda Cannone, “S’émervieller”, which explores many of the ways we can bring a heightened sense of wonder and awe into our everyday lives. Bottom line is the same as Langer and McGilchrist say – seek out what’s new. And that’s exactly the experience I had the other day when this violet carpenter bee turned up amongst the garden flowers. Cannone gives various different examples of the places, times and activities which seem most likely to stimulate “l’émerveillement” (“amazement”) and the strongest one is “Nature”.

The thing is the natural world, especially the world of living forms, is constantly changing. Pretty much any time we spend in natural environments will be likely to gift us the delights of something new.

Let me just clarify what I mean by “new” in this piece. I mean it’s anything you haven’t seen before, heard before, smelled before, touched or tasted before. It’s also the newness of the present moment. You have never ever lived this present moment before, so what do you notice? Right here, right now. It’s also the encounter with anything you don’t know or don’t understand. These are the experiences which stimulate our curiosity and our drive to learn. They are the every day experiences of adventure and discovery.

From the Japanese art of forest bathing, to Richard Louv’s claim that we are suffering from “Nature-deficit disorder” which can be treated with a good dose of “Vitamin N” (Nature), to l’émerveillement, to mindfulness and neuroscience, it’s clear that one of the best ways to develop a healthier brain is to spend some time in Nature – whether that’s a forest, a beach, a park, or a garden. I recommend it.

You’ll be amazed.

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I suspect a lot of us have a lot of music in our heads. Sometimes we start to hum a tune or sing a song and only after we’ve started do we become aware that we’re doing it. Then we might pause to wonder “why did that particular song, or tune, come into my head just now?”

I find that when I look at some images something similar happens. Take this for example. I took this photo of an old couple sitting in a public park in Limoges a few weeks ago. They are both engrossed in their books. Their body positions and their physical closeness tell us they are close, that they are connected, as well as the fact that they are both enjoying reading in the park.

As I saw them, and as I looked at this image again just now, certain songs popped into my head and I could hear them as clearly as if I was playing them on a stereo.

This because of the line “You read your Emily Dickinson and I my Robert Frost. We mark our page with bookmarkers which measure what we’ve lost”

And, by the same musicians….

 

“sat on a park bench like bookends”

OK, so that example was a pretty obvious one, but sometimes the music which starts to play in our heads is not so easy to nail down. Sometimes we just enjoy that it’s there without even wondering “why this music?” “why now?”

I know I can use music to match or create mood, but this phenomenon of the music just seeming to appear has all the quality of somebody else hitting the “play” button. Even if that somebody else is also me!

What music started to play in your head today, and do you know why?

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Out walking I was attracted to the shape of this plant. I’m no botanist but I think this type of plant used to be known as an “umbellifera“, although I believe the classification system has been changed and botanists don’t use that term any more. Still, I quite like the name. It came from the observation that the form of this flower was of “umbels” which is from the Latin for parasols.

They look like the skeletons of upturned umbrellas.

In fact, each single “umbel” looks a bit like a starburst to me, and isn’t that one of the commonest, most pleasing forms we see in Nature? Who wouldn’t want a Life which shone like stars?

It reminds me of the Sun.

It looks like it’s reaching out in several directions at one.

It’s expansive, growing, developing, reaching out to the rest of the universe.

Then I looked a little more closely as I focused my camera and saw this tiny snail shell on the top left. See it? At about the 10 o’clock position?

And there, in that tiny shell, I see another of my most favourite forms – the spiral.

Oh, how I love spirals.

Is that my Scottish heritage, with its mix of Celt and Pict? I think of the Celtic knots, the triskeles, the Pictish stones. I think of the cup and ring markings at Achnabrek

But most of all I think how life stories are like that – how the path of a life is so much more like a spiral than a straight line.

Here, in this one little image, I see two of the most common, most beautiful of natural forms – the star and the spiral.

The shapes of Life? Or the shapes which give life its form?

 

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There’s an old ruined tower in the middle of one of the vineyards nearby. The other day there I went inside it, looked up, and took this photo.

My first thought was, wow, what a beautiful blue sky! How perfectly framed!

Then I thought, whoah, wait a minute, this is a metaphor isn’t it?

Because I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how we define who “we” are. I’ve been getting disturbed with all the xenophobic comments flying around the world these days. The people who say they don’t like “foreigners” and want them “to go back to their own countries”, or want to “close the borders” to protect “us” from “them”.

See, there’s at least two questions there. There’s how shall we live together? And who is included in that classification “we”?

Imagine you live in that tower. How big does your world appear? Where are your boundaries, your walls? If “we” are the people inside these walls, then “they” are the ones who live outside.

And don’t we all set our walls?

Don’t each of us feel similar to certain others, and maybe even connected to certain others, or maybe even in relationship with certain others?

Are those just the people who live in the same house as us?

Or those in the same street, the same town, or city, or nation state?

Or do we set the walls around those who are similar to us in some other way? Same sex, same religion, same ethnic group, born in the same nation state?

Isn’t the kind of world do we create for ourselves at least partly down to where we set those walls? How narrow we create our perspective? Or how wide?

How do you feel when you broaden your perspective? When you can see further, see wider, see deeper even?

I don’t know about you but I feel I breathe more easily. I feel my body, my mind, my soul, is nourished by the broader, more expansive view.

Let’s take this a wee step further and look at the famous “earthrise” image.

The earth rising over the horizon of the moon.

What if we think of “we” as being all of us who live on that beautiful, small, blue, white and green planet?

Because we do.

Every single atom in your body has previously been shared with other people, or other animals, or other plants, or other rocks or gases in this one small planet.

Every breath you take, draws in molecules from the same atmosphere as every other living, breathing form of life.

Every breath you breathe out contributes to that very same atmosphere.

We all share the same air.

We all share the same water.

We all share the same sunlight.

Don’t we all share the same earth?

Why divide it artificially into boxes? Little boxes marked “my country”, “my race”, “my family”, “my religion”?

If we are going to divide this planet up into these little boxes, then we still have to answer the question of how we can best live together – box to box. From within my walls, to you, within yours.

Here’s two short videos which changed my perspective on these questions…..

 

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