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Archive for the ‘perception’ Category

Taking pictures is one of my favourite ways of improving the quality of my life.

I’ve taken photographs, on and off, at different stages of my life, and I’ve used several cameras over the years. Nowadays, most of us have a perfectly decent camera on our mobile phones. What do I mean by a perfectly decent camera? One that we have easy access to, are likely to use, and which can create images of a quality which we find pleasing. I know that “serious photographers” and professionals have different standards and needs and will have much more expensive, technologically developed equipment which will meet those needs for them. However, I’ve never had a really expensive camera and as well as several albums of prints, I’ve got a library of tens of thousands of digital images I’ve taken over the years.

Here’s why I like to “think take a picture” on an ordinary day –

  • First of all, having the intention to take a photograph today heightens my awareness of the here and now. It improves my ability to notice what is around me. Whether I am carrying a camera, or my smartphone, in my pocket, having the thought “take a picture”, puts me “on the lookout”. It just helps me to notice what might otherwise pass me by.
  • Second, taking a photo requires me to frame a shot. It involves paying attention to composition – to the elements, colours, shapes, and their inter-relationships. That “framing the shot” adds to my simple “noticing”. It engages me with my surroundings. I look this way and that, focusing in on this then that, re-framing, re-focusing, until I find an image which pleases me. Then I might look at the photo I’ve just taken, and revise it by picking out, selecting, or re-framing to make another image.
  • Third, as you can probably tell, from the second point, taking photos slows me down. It’s too easy to whiz through life on auto-pilot, never stopping to actually be present. Taking photos helps me to counter that. It literally slows me down and draws me into the immediate here and now. There’s an enormous benefit from slowing down and many ways to do it, but taking photos is one of the ways for me.
  • Fourth, when I review photos on my computer later, I see things I never saw at the time. I notice elements, juxtapositions, aspects of the scene, that I just didn’t see as I took the photo. This enhances my pleasure further – it’s a second bite of the cherry. It doubles, or more, the delight, the wonder, the awe, or whatever comes up for me as I look at the image.
  • Fifth, my images are my main source of inspiration and reflection. You’ll have noticed that my posts here all have one of my photos in them. More than that, every single post starts with one of my photos. I do that for two reasons – because I like to share the joy my photos bring, and because I don’t know what I’m going to write until I select the photo. It’s the photo which is the creative spark. It’s the image which sets off my memories, thoughts and imaginings. It’s the picture which is my creative muse. My inspiration.

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This pandemic with its lockdowns (or “confinement” as we call it in France) has been, and continues to be, tough for a lot of people for many reasons. It’s the biggest global disruption of our way of life that most of us have ever experienced. So many “normal”, “everyday” and “routine” activities and experiences disappeared over an incredibly short period of time. Apart from the disruptions of work, family and social life, we’ve seen an end to “mass” everything – no crowds of spectators at sporting events, no theatre or cinema audiences, no music concerts, no festivals…..well, I’m sure you can add to that list.

However, there have been two positive developments which I’ve read that many people have experienced – one inner, and one outer which enhances the inner. Pardon? Let me explain.

With the shrinking of our horizons, physical and social, many of us have been spending more time in contemplation – yes, maybe deliberate meditation or other such exercise, but, also a more general reflection. A kind of reassessment and revaluing. It’s given us the time and space to become more aware of our habits and routines and ask if we want to re-establish them when the time comes (when the pandemic is over).

What patterns of behaviour, what modes of living, what activities have been disrupted that I don’t want to re-establish? That I want to let go off.

What new patterns, rituals, activities do I want to create instead? What new ways of living do I want to begin?

This un-asked for, and, frankly, pretty unwelcome, pause, is a real opportunity for both awareness and change. You don’t need to have a meditation space, like the man in this photo, to do that, but maybe there’s something inspiring in this image anyway? Maybe it would be good to create, if possible, a place, a space, which we find is conducive to contemplation and reflection? Or maybe we can do that wherever we are?

That’s the inner – this is an opportunity to develop our inner selves – to pay some more attention to our physical and mental health and our lifestyles. To become aware of our habits of thought and feeling and ask ourselves if we want to develop along different paths now.

The second is about what we call “Nature”. You know, I’m a bit uncomfortable about talking about “Nature” as if Nature is a thing, and more than that, as if “it” is a “thing” “out there”. We are part of Nature, not apart from Nature. But then, we’ve sort of forgotten that, as a species, and maybe that’s one of the problems which has brought us to this pandemic. So, maybe this is a great time to reconnect, to re-engage, to re-orientate ourselves with regard to the “natural world”.

I’ve found that noticing the cycles of the flowers, the vegetables, and the trees, has become something I am much more aware of now. I’ve found that I’ve noticed many more species of birds in the garden. I’ve noticed that when I’ve had the chance a walk in vineyards, in amongst some trees, or along a sandy beach on the Atlantic coast, then I feel a huge boost. That shouldn’t be a surprise. I’ve written before about the recognised benefits of spending time in the natural world – to the extent that some people now talk about “Nature Therapy“.

There is something truly life enhancing about becoming more aware and more engaged with “the natural world” and from “forest bathing” to spending time in open spaces we know that such activities boost the chemicals in our bodies and minds which influence our immune system, our moods and our thought patterns.

So, connecting better to the “outer” enhances the “inner”.

Again, you don’t need a beautiful Japanese garden like the one in this photo, (although, isn’t that gorgeous?) – but I recommend taking advantage of this time and space to develop your inner self, and your connected self, by grabbing or creating every opportunity you can get to do so.

Contemplation and Engagement with the Natural World.

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I took this photo of a path in a Japanese garden because I’d never seen wavy tiles like this before. In fact, having seen this one, I then came across several more. Although, many years on, I’ve never seen paving tiles, or stones, like this, for sale anywhere in Europe.

Maybe some of you will look at this and feel a bit unsteady, or dizzy, because they give the impression of flowing water, and you know how it is when you stand at the edge of the ocean and after crashing onto the sand, the water runs back between your feet, back to where it came from. It can feel quite destabilising. So, I think these wave forms have the power to communicate the sensation of movement, of flow, of change, and, yes, even of direction.

But I didn’t find them at all destabilising when I walked on them, rather I felt like I was walking/surfing/skiing/sailing over the surface of the Earth…..or maybe, rather, over the surface of the oceans. I love how this simple shape laid out in this repeating pattern captures the sense of life and movement. It felt completely different from walking over a pretty featureless tarmac, or over square, right angled, hard edged, separate slabs.

The other thing I thought of as I walked along this path was the story that Susan Jeffers tells in her famous “Feel the Fear” book, where she describes how a plane traveling from A to B spends only a tiny percentage of its time actually heading in the exact direction which would be a straight line between the two points. Rather the pilot is constantly adjusting the direction of the flight of the plane, a little bit to the right, then a “correction”, to the left, then back again, and so on. It’s a lovely metaphor for the need to be flexible and adaptable. It shows us how we need to proceed by going a little bit this way, then a little bit that way, all the time. It’s a counsel against so called “perfection” – as if there is “only one right way”. There never is.

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In many ways this is a very simple photograph. What do you see?

Having ignored the “rule of thirds” in my composition, I’ve put the cherry blossom bang, smack in the centre of the image. It’s literally right in front of your eyes. It’d be pretty hard to respond to the question “what do you see?” without referring to the cherry blossom, don’t you think.

But I’ve long since had a fascination for appreciating the whole over the parts, and in this photo, I think it’s equally difficult to ignore the presence of the “background” – the bamboo – even though I’ve blurred that background for the purposes of contrast.

When I look at this I definitely see “cherry blossom in front of a bamboo forest” – well, I was there at the time, and I remember that. You might not be aware that the bamboo is part of a whole bamboo forest, but you can certainly see bamboo stretching in all four directions to every edge of the image.

This insistence on seeing both the foreground AND the background to have full appreciation of the scene, is consistent with my desire to always take into consideration contexts and environment when I encounter anything. For example, in my work as a doctor, a patient would “present” to me their symptoms, and with my knowledge, plus any relevant physical examination, and, if necessary imaging or tests, then I would make a diagnosis – probably the diagnosis of a “disease”. A “pathology”. But that was never enough. I had to see the presence of this foregrounded disease in the context of the backgrounded personal life story. I had to “situate” the disease into the time, place and meaning of this individual’s life. If I wanted to understand, not just the “illness” as the whole experience of the patient, but how it came about, what impact it is having, and how it might change this person’s perception of themselves and their life, then I had to see them “whole”, not limit my focus to the the “presenting” parts.

I think this same principle applies throughout the whole of life. If I want to understand anything about my life, about others, about this planet we all live on, then I need to see the “whole”. It’s not good enough to reduce reality to a data set, a package of characteristics and elements. I always need to consider the connections, the relationships, the contexts and the multiple layers of environment and meaning. I know that doesn’t sound as quick and easy as focusing just on a part or two, but, hey, who said reality could ever be reduced to what was quick and simple without losing all understanding? Not me.

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Apparently we are the only creatures on the planet to create works of art. I know, you’ll have seen some painting done by a chimpanzee or an elephant, but they aren’t exactly spontaneous acts of self expression or interpretation are they? No, Art is something unique to being human. There are many examples of “wall art” or “cave art” in France, discovered in recent years but painted some tens of thousands of years ago. It seems that even way back when our ancestors were nomadic hunter gatherers supposedly spending most of their days on the survival needs of food, water and shelter, they still had time to create astonishingly complex art, and, for some reason, often carried them out in the most difficult locations deep underground.

I’m using the term “art” here as broadly as I can, but I mean the kind of art which included drawing and painting. I’m not excluding the fabulous arts of sculpture, of music, of storytelling, poetry, dance, and so on, but, for today, I’m focused on visual art.

For me, Art is an experience. I don’t regard Art as an object, or a collection of objects. It’s an event. It’s an engagement. It’s a moment where we connect to what is greater than ourselves. It stirs our emotions, sparks our imaginations, and stimulates our empathy……we connect to the artist and/or the world as experienced by that artist.

Every work of art was created in a particular place at a particular time, and I mean that not just in the externals of geography and history, but in the internals of a personal life story, an individual, subjective, lived experience. So when we encounter that work of art at some other time, in some other place, we experience a (sometimes) powerful connection with the artist, with the life of the artist. I put “sometimes” in brackets there because it’s certainly not the case that all art has a powerful effect, and I’m not even clear about what it is that makes the difference. I do know, however, that the power of art is dependant on both the person creating the art, and the person experiencing it.

All this came to mind when I looked at this old photo I took in Japan many years ago. It just looks like a work of art to me. It reminds me of the classic traditions of “Still Life” (which I find such an odd term because no life is still), or, as it is called in French “Nature Morte” (which translates as “Dead Nature” – nope, can’t say I like that any better!). The twig, the leaf, the petals and the stone all look as if they have been arranged in the most beautiful way.

But here’s the thing….I don’t think this was created by human hands. I just stumbled upon some fallen parts of plants, lying on a stone in a garden, crouched down, framed it, and took this shot. OK, so maybe I’m the artist. Maybe the work of art is the photograph. But what I mean is that so much of everyday Nature looks like a work of Art. Creation, the cycles of birth and death, the seasons and the weather, the light, the water and the air, the myriad of diverse lifeforms everywhere, all adds up to an infinite number of opportunities to encounter deeply moving Art.

Because this moves me, this image. Yes, I know, I have a set of memories connected the to event of taking the photograph, which you don’t have, but there’s something about the colours, shapes and nature of the elements in this arrangement which I find deeply moving……which stir in me, memory, imagination and wonder, which provokes joy and delight, which makes me amazed to be alive in this, this most astonishing, small blue planet, we call Earth.

In an image like this, the artist I connect to is Planet Earth.

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It’s interesting how we use the verb to light in English. This photo is of a full moon, but what it shows best is the foliage of the tree through which I took the photo. I like the effect very much.

The Moon has no light of its own. It’s not like the Sun. It doesn’t generate any physical light, but, rather reflects the light of the Sun. That makes the light of the moon a completely different kind of light than that from the Sun. For a start we can gaze directly at the Moon for as long as we want, but we daren’t even stare directly at the Sun for a second without running the risk of damaging our eyes. I suppose that makes it easier to contemplate the Moon than it does the Sun.

The Moon’s light is a softer, gentler light, but on a clear night with a Full Moon you can still find your way around in the dark. It’s enough to give us a hint about what is around us in the world. But the colours aren’t there, and neither is the clarity which daylight brings. So, it almost demands that we use our powers of imagination and creativity more. After all, vision is a creative process. You know that, right? Our brain doesn’t contain something like a movie screen for us to watch the moving images. In fact, light itself doesn’t even get into our heads. Instead our eyes convert the light to electrical signals which are passed along a vast network of nerve cells in the brain and the brain does the job of analysing all the signals, and somehow creating clear images for us to perceive – images without any gaps in them, despite the fact that the back of the eye has a “blind spot” where no light can be detected. We literally create the images we see moment by moment.

Creativity involves an interplay of memory and imagination with the current information being received by the sensory system. It’s a true, continuous blending of the present, the past and the possible futures.

I think that by moonlight, without the clarity of colour and forms, we demand more of the imagination and our creative powers to enable us to see our way in the world.

Moonlight also works through symbolism and story – is it possible to contemplate the Moon without thinking of Venus, of Love, of Romance, of the Divine Feminine? It is, but it’s not nearly as rich an experience when we ignore all that. We associate the Moon with the unconscious, with feelings and with rhythms of tides and hormones. We associate the Moon with a certain wildness of thought – the word “lunacy” meaning madness has the word for “moon” right in there – “luna”. I’m not going to get into a detailed description of the history of madness and psychiatry here, but let’s just say our understanding of the psyche and of “mental illness” is ever changing and we still don’t really understand the more severe forms of disturbance, the “psychoses” which come with “hallucinations” and “delusions”.

So, when I see a Full Moon, or even one of the phases of the Moon, I don’t just see the physical, reflected light of the Sun, but I see a whole world of imagination and enchantment.

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How do you grow a forest?

One seedling at time.

This beautiful little seedling is captivating. I spotted it growing from the moss covered forest floor, the seed casing with its wind driven system of flight and dispersal still intact, but the bright green of new growth clearly visible, and the beginnings of the spiral of unfolding showing us that this little seed has taken root, and is beginning the long journey to become a tree.

It makes me think about the relationship between the tree and the forest, between the particular and the general, between the individual and the group. A relationship I think we tend to get badly wrong. With the rise of statistically driven data collection and analysis, along with the development of algorithms, we reduce the unique person to a point in a set far too often. We pick one, or a handful, of observable, measurable characteristics, categorise them and use them as the be all and end all.

We define people according the group we’ve put them into. In so doing, we fail to see them as unique, individual, human beings. You just can’t know and understand a person from a data set. It’s not enough, and it’s often a fast track down the wrong cul-de-sac.

We make people invisible by reducing them to examples of a group.

All my working life I saw one person at a time…..whether that was in the GP surgery, with a rhythm of one patient every ten minutes or so, or in the specialist referral centre for people with long term intractable conditions, where we’d spend an hour to an hour and half for the first visit, then about twenty minutes for each follow up. In both these settings the rhythm of my day was determined by the scheduled appointments allowing me to give full attention focus to every single individual who came to consult me. I found that a great meditation practice, a great way of continuously coming back to the present moment…..not thinking ahead to who might come next, and not hanging on to the story of the person who has just left the room….but, rather, encountering the crowds, the queues, the “lists”, one person a time.

Of course I learned a lot from all these individuals which informed me about others. But the point is, it was a practice of focusing on the individual, and gleaning the general knowledge from there……not learning the general knowledge and trying to force each person into the right pigeon hole.

I learned from the work of Iain McGilchrist that this was the result of how we use the two hemispheres of our brain. The left hemisphere focuses in, abstracts information from its contexts, labels it and categorises it. It works with sets, groups, and generalities, continuously trying to fit new information into what we’ve learned already. The right hemisphere, on the other hand, focuses on the whole, seeking what is unique and particular in every context, every relationship, every circumstance, endlessly fascinated with what’s novel and what’s particular. As he says in his “Master and His Emissary”, we’ve let the left hemisphere become the dominant one, but evolution never intended that.

It’s time to re-balance, to prioritise the approach to life driven by the right hemisphere and to reap all the potential benefits of the analytic, labelling and classifying left hemisphere by handing those insights back to the right – in other words, by putting whatever we encounter, whatever we understand, back into the contexts and environments in which we found it.

We need to re-learn how to experience life, one seedling at a time. That’s how we’ll grow a healthy forest.

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I took this photo many years ago at a waterfall in Scotland. I’ve long since been fascinated by the interplay between water and rocks in streams, rivers and, especially waterfalls. I suppose in waterfalls the power of the water to sculpt the rocks is at its greatest as the water roars down the hillside.

In this particular photo you can see how the water has smoothed the surface of some of the rocks to the extent that they actually look like water streaming over them. It’s as if the water has fashioned the rock in its own likeness.

One of the other rocks is revealing its multilayered structure in such a way that it, too, resembles, the flow of water, and reminds us of the often hidden depths that lie beneath the surfaces of what we see.

What shape is the water?

That’s a strange question, isn’t it? Because water always seems to assume the shape of whatever contains it. Certainly the rocks, whilst not permanent in their forms, create the boundaries or limits against which the water can flow. When there is no clear, solid container, water evaporates, disappearing into the air, rising upwards to form clouds, or staying close to the earth to make mists and fog. But even then it’s contained within the atmosphere. It doesn’t disappear away out to the rest of the universe (at least not in significant amounts, I don’t think).

So water is the shape of what contains it. But that statement doesn’t quite capture reality does it? It assumes that both the water and the container are passive…..that neither changes the other……but we can see, even in this photo, how the water constantly changes the rock and how the rock constantly changes the water. In fact, that interaction carries on at microscopic levels which we can’t see with the naked eye, as minerals and micro-organisms are exchanged between the water and the rock, changing the actual composition of each moment by moment, year by year, aeon by aeon.

That’s the nature of reality, isn’t it? A constant flow of co-creation. Nothing exists in isolation. Nothing lives outside of everything. Connections, interactions, relationships and co-creation are at the heart of universe. They are the fundamental, inescapable basis of reality.

And that’s both beautiful and wondrous, wouldn’t you agree?

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My consulting room at the Glasgow Homeopathic Hospital had a glass wall, half of which could slide open to let you step out onto wooden decking and from there into the garden. Each of the five consulting rooms in a row had that same design, and each of them were separated outside by a wooden trellis with clematis and wisteria growing up towards the upper level of the building.

A few years after the hospital opened and the gardens were laid, I noticed what this climber had done to the woodwork of the trellis as it wound its way upwards. I was astonished. I knew that climbers had great powers to reach out, connect, hang on even, but I hadn’t imagined that these plant stalks could become both so thick and so powerful. You can see this one has actually broken the wooden straps in several places.

Of course, I didn’t notice it happening. We’re not that great at noticing the reality of the present moment, are we? But I sure noticed it this day…..still don’t know why….don’t why it was this particular day and not one of surely many others which preceded it where I might have noticed. Oh well, you can see why I use “heroes not zombies” as my blog title, can’t you? We really do pass through life on autopilot, reacting to overt and covert stimuli which move us this way and that, allowing our attention to be grabbed by the loud, the dramatic, and the shocking. Living, but not fully.

It doesn’t have to be like that, does it. We can wake up, become more aware of the here and now, more mindful, more conscious of life and being alive. We can notice when our attention is caught, when our passions are stirred, and we can choose what we want to do with that knowledge. We can write a new story, our own, unique story, with ourselves as the main character……moving from a zombie existence to a hero one.

When I do that I find that the so called “ordinary” day is filled with what seems to me to be quite “extraordinary”. I mean, just look again at this photo. Think of the Life Force, of the drive to exist, to survive, to grow and to thrive which runs through every living being. And look how it overcomes every flimsy structure, every material object, which we humans fashion and build.

I’m sure you’ve noticed something similar in the surprising appearance of a wild flower, or “weed”, pushing its way up through a pavement, cracking apart the tarmac, or concrete.

Isn’t it astonishing, this “Life Force”?

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I love to photograph light….sunbeams, dawn, sunsets, moonlight, you name it. But I am especially drawn to scenes where there is a lot of contrast. I just love an image like this with the dark land before me, the grey clouds above, the grey sea below, and then, there on the horizon, at the far edge of the scene, is a display of sunbeams stretching down to the make the sea shine, and turn the grey clouds, blue.

Maybe it’s the yin and yang thing that attracts me. That’s been my favourite symbol for most of my life, and I have worn a rose gold/yellow gold version of it around my neck for decades. I love that statement of reality which isn’t just that there are always opposites, but that neither can exist without the other. I also love what that symbol says about the constancy of change.

Or maybe we are all drawn to images of sunlight on far horizons. Maybe they spark our imaginings and our longings for what might lie ahead, and give us hope as we journey towards it.

What do you think?

Are you also drawn to both the light….and the dark?

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