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Archive for the ‘perception’ Category

I had never even heard of a hummingbird moth before I came to live here in the Charente. I’d never heard of a hoopoe bird either.

Look at them – aren’t they amongst the most unusual creatures you’ve ever seen?

You know the hummingbird moth is around from the noise of its wings. They emit a deep, bass, tone, quite unlike that of any other flying insects. They love the buddleia plants, just as the butterflies do. I love to watch them hover in front of the plant, and slip that long, skinny proboscis down into each flower to drink up the nectar. They make their way from tiny flower to flower. I can’t imagine just how little nectar they must get from each single flower, but they just keep going, making their way, their special, apparently totally random way, from flower to flower, and bush to bush.

You know the hoopoe is around from its distinctive call – which sounds like, well, you guessed it, “hoo-po, hoo-po”. I think when I first heard it I thought it was perhaps a cuckoo or a dove, but I’ve learned, now, to recognise it as the hoopoe. Isn’t he the most unusual shape? With that long, long beak, he runs around across the grass, stopping to drill down into the soil and come up with a grub, or a worm. I have absolutely no idea how he does that. The movements, like those of the hummingbird moth, seem completely random. Yet, time and again, he comes up with food. Can he hear what’s going on under the soil? Can he smell his prey? Does he detect movement beneath his feet? I really don’t know, but I love to watch him. Once the chicks are born, you can see them follow a parent around as the search for food. The little ones drill down again and again and rarely seem to come up with anything to eat. Their parents feed them at first. Then one day they’ll turn up by themselves and sometimes I’ve thought, oh no, this little bird is never going to find any food, but they keep at it, running this way and that and stopping to peck, apparently randomly. Then after a while, they crack it, and come up trumps as often as their parents do.

These are two creatures which were so strange to me, and, in fact, I still find them exceptionally strange, but they’ve become familiar to me. I look forward to the first one of the season arriving in the garden, and I never tire of watching how they live.

Isn’t it strange how the unfamiliar can become familiar, without losing its distinctive uniqueness?
That’s what these photos make me think. How every day is unique, how every person is unique, how every living creature is unique. And what delight that brings me.

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When I came across this window the light drew me towards it. The window itself is a pretty standard, rectangular shape. I like the squared paper effect, but I don’t like the iron bars on the outside. I know that in some countries bars on the windows of houses are very common place, but they tend to put me in mind of prisons. I just don’t like them.

So there were elements in this window which appealed to me, and those which I found somewhat off-putting. However, it was the quality of the light itself which really appealed to me and I decided to photograph the light. That’s why I stepped back from the window and took this photo.

Having taken the photo, from the first time I reviewed it on my computer, and every time since, I’ve been struck by the presence of the seats in the foreground.

Why are those seats there?

Not to sit and look out the window at the garden or whatever you can see “out there”. Because the window is opaque. You can’t really see through it all.

So why sit there?

To see the light.

To experience the light.

To enjoy the light.

It’s a funny thing but it’s this window, and a couple of other ones I’ve encountered, shift my focus away from what I can see “out there” through the window and replace that with a focus on the quality of light streaming through “into here”.

Does that sound like it isn’t much? Maybe it does, but, you know, I think when we look out of a window to see what’s “out there” then the window itself disappears. It’s a frame, and lens, and as such, it contains, and filters what we are seeing. And I think a lot of the time, we are not very aware of the frames and lenses which colour and alter our view of reality. But when we shift the focus to our experience of the light, then something different happens.

Is this the shift between grasping something, (the main way in which we “exploit” the world), and simply experiencing the present moment (the main way we “explore” the world)?

Is this the shift between a utilitarian approach, asking “but what is the window for?” to something more playful, something which has value in its own right, not just to act as a tool to achieving something else?

Huh, suddenly I’m reminded of an essay by C S Lewis about observing a shaft of light in his shed, then moving to be within the light itself, something which he used to think about the difference between observing and experiencing. I wrote about it once…..ah, yes, here it is, if you’d like to read it.

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In order to learn and grow we need two, apparently opposite, behaviours. We need to do, or discover something different, something new, or else we’d be stuck where we are. We need to move out of our comfort zones, and to try new things, if we want to develop.

But we learn nothing well, if we never repeat things. Have you ever tried to learn a new language, or acquire any new knowledge? It’s a lot easier if you go over the new words, new concepts or information, again and again. In fact, a key insight from learning theory is to re-present to you, at timed intervals, whatever it is you are trying to learn. There are many pieces of software which facilitate this, and language learning programmes use this technique as well. They present you the words you’ve just learned and test your learning. If you pass, the item is shown to you again after a longer interval than it is if you fail. So the items you haven’t quite learned yet are repeatedly presented to you over a short period until you’ve got them into you brain.

At university, studying Medicine, we had to acquire a lot of new knowledge. I remember being presented with three volumes of a manual of human anatomy before we started dissection class, and I asked the tutor, “Which bits of this do we need to learn?” His reply was “Which bits of a human being do you hope to treat once you qualify?” OK, I got it. It was ALL of it! Everything described in those three volumes! And that was just human anatomy.

Well, we all pretty quickly created our methods to learn and retain all these new facts, writing notes in notebooks, copying out the notes into other notebooks, turning some of the information into flashcards and shuffling those packs time and time again until we got them all right.

Our right cerebral hemisphere is great for seeking out and learning what’s new. It seems to have a real predilection for novelty. Our left hemisphere on the other prefers what it has already encountered. It loves to repeat again and again, rehearsing and refining everything which the right hemisphere presented to it. That’s why it’s good to use the whole brain – we need to encounter the new, and we need to repeat and revise to learn.

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Water and rock. Two very different forms of matter. The one flowing, moving, changing, restless. The other solid, steady, firm and enduring.

What happens when these two forms meet, as they are doing so vividly in this image?

Just look at the water amongst the rocks. I’ve zoomed in to focus on this area but you can see the ocean beyond the rocks and it looks pretty quiet and peaceful in comparison. In this zone, where the water is bounded by the rocks, it is seething. There is turmoil. There is action. There is an abundance of energy. You can see that, hear that, feel that.

In fact the water and the rocks are in a relationship. They are constantly exchanging atoms and molecules with each other. The rocks set a boundary for the flow of the water, giving it a shape, the shape of a roiling cauldron. The water leaches minerals out of the rocks. The water dissolves the surface of the rock. So, just as the rocks shape the water, so does the water shape the rock.

This exchange of materials goes both ways. There are molecules and substances deposited onto and seeped into the rock as the water crashes over it, again and again.

I look at this photo and I see the creative power of difference. When different energies, different materials, different thoughts and ideas crash against each other, and constantly interact freely with each other then they release a creative power.

If every day feels the same, if all our days are filled with the same mindless habits and routines, if we only ever exchange with the same people, comfort ourselves with our social media echo chambers, then our energy starts to sag. The mundane, the apparently unchanging, the monotony, are all energy sapping, and without energy there is no creation, no growth, no life.

I think it’s one of the most important things to do in life – make new connections, discover new things, new places, make new relationships and friends, read about new ideas, listen to new music, read new poetry……you get the idea.

I heard a psychologist talking about children recently, explaining how children’s brains seem to work differently from adult brains. She drew from both psychology and computer research to describe – the “explorer/exploiter” duality. We are all born as explorers and young children are in that mode all day. Everything is an adventure. Every day is filled with discovery and learning. Then as we get older we begin to prioritise the exploiter mode, learning to how focus, make plans, and how to fashion the things around in into objects and goals we want to achieve.

Well, the truth is, we need explorer mode a lot more than we use it. So why not start today? Discover, do, experience the creative power of difference.

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I came across these two works of art at very different times, and in very different places. One is on the gable end of a city centre building in the middle of Malmo, Sweden, and the other is in a church in the little town of Saint Savin, in France. Both are by contemporary street artists. I really like both of them.

One of the things that strikes me about these two image is the position of the woman’s hands. In the Swedish one her left hand loosely holds a rosary or some other religious object, whilst her right hand is upturned and a lit candle rests on her palm. In the French one both hands are held upturned and in their palms there is a puff of smoke, or a breath, perhaps a suggestion of a spirit. Both of these images are spiritual. The Swedish one has imagery from more than one religion, whilst the French one, which is in a church, is more Christian.

I’ve often looked at these images since I captured them and maybe they will bring you some peace, some joy, or some sense of connection to what’s greater than any of us if you spend some time with them, too.
I love this upturned hand gesture. Try this for yourself. Clench your right hand into a fist. Squeeze tight, and ask yourself what you are feeling. Now open your hand and turn it, palm upwards, and ask yourself what you are feeling.

It’s different, isn’t it?
The clenched fist feels tight and tense. There a sense of trying too hard to grasp something, of preparing to strike out and fight. The open handed gesture feels exactly that…..open. It feels light, comfortable and expansive.

The one feels ready to hold on, and the other feels ready to let go. The first puts us in the place of seizing or fighting, whilst the other opens our hearts and our minds to be ready to receive. I guess we need all of these functions in our life, but I have a strong feeling that the closed fist tends to go with closed hearts and closed minds. And I think what we all need now is to open our minds to new ways of living together, open our minds to new ways of organising our societies. I think we need to open our hearts to others, to feel the flows of love and care which course through this world……do they? Yes they do! We’ve seen plenty of examples during this pandemic.

Oh, yes, of course, there is still plenty grabbing and seizing going on, but what has struck me so much more this last year or so is the awareness that many of us now have of being interconnected. Hasn’t this tiny, invisible, little virus show us that? That we live on One Earth. That we are so deeply interconnected and interdependent that our barriers and boundaries count for little. If the open handed gesture goes with open minds and open hearts, which I believe it does, then this is what we need more.

We are opening our hearts to others, we are opening our minds to new ways of living, we are opening our hands to receive an awareness of the Spirit. In both these works of art, what the woman holds on her upturned hand is a symbol of Spirit, of Soul, of what is invisible, and what is greater than any of us.

Oh and one more thing…..it’s no coincidence that these are both images of women, perhaps even of the Divine Feminine. And isn’t that exactly what we are needing now? A shift away from the Masculine Dominant societies and cultures back towards what we humans once knew…..the importance of the Divine Feminine.

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As best I understand it, the latest discoveries about the nature of the universe suggest that everything which exists comes into being within an infinite field. The “field” is a beautiful concept. You might also think of it as a network or a web, but part of the reason why I like the “field” metaphor is that it works at the level of energy. We know that electromagnetic energy exists as a field. It doesn’t really fit to see it as a beam, or as building blocks, because it washes over, around and through everything. Think of how you can pick up radio signals anywhere within the field of transmission, and think of how different radio signals can “interfere” with each other.

Interference patterns are one of the things I remember from schoolday science. I remember learning about them in Physics class and finding them beautiful and intriguing even then. Watching one set of ripples encounter another set, and seeing the new patterns emerge as they interact with each other was, and still is, a delight.

I thought of that when I saw the concentric rings around this duck sitting on the water. I’ve returned to this image many times and one of the things which draws me in is the fish – they really seem to be arranging themselves around these circles of influence which the duck is emitting. I’ve wondered if they are just keeping their distance from the duck, but although ducks do eat fish, I’m not sure they eat these ones.

However, it’s the pattern which captures my attention because the duck is just sitting there. It isn’t swimming around. It’s just being. And I think that all of us continuously interact with, and affect, whatever is around us, just by being.

For example, researchers at the Heartmath Institute, have studied the electromagnetic waves and fields set up by the beating of the human heart. Did you know that your heart rhythm can influence the heart rhythm of someone standing next to you? It seems that the actual rhythm sets up a field which can harmonise with the rhythms of other fields within a couple of meters or so…..an effect enhanced by actually touching each other. Ever since I read about that I’ve wondered if that’s the basis of the feelings and intuitions we get about others. How often have I thought about how some people just seem to be “on my wavelength” and others never are? I know there are many other ways we signal to others and many other signs and influences we can detect, but I’m pretty sure these heart waves are a significant part of it.

That’s where I find my thoughts returning to when I look at this image. I realise that I send out energies and information all the time….just by the way I live. I send out vibes from my heart, my mind, perhaps even my soul. And I know most of that occurs below the level of consciousness. I’m not aware of it. But surely it’s a good idea to become more aware and to choose more deliberately what kinds of energies I’m sending out into the universe?

And surely it’s also a good idea to become more aware of the influences on me which come from the vibes and ripples sent out into the world by others? That’s partly why I choose to direct my attention towards what is loving, what is beautiful, what is creative and curious and amazing. Because I want to magnify all of that. And why I choose to direct my attention away from negativity and hatred – and I don’t mean by that to ignore them – I mean to deliberately shift the balance so that they don’t overwhelm me, so that I can adequately defend myself, and, more than anything, so that I can refuse to be a repeater – magnifying and sending on those destructive energies to others.

It’s tricky, huh? But it’s inescapable. As this duck shows we affect the world around us just by being. The only choices we have are how aware we want to become, and then how we want to respond to what we become aware of. And finally, what we then choose to magnify with our attention.

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This cut crystal really hits the spot for me – firstly, I see it and I think it is really beautiful. The beauty of it delights me. Secondly, I’m amazed by it. The craftsmanship involved in imaging then fashioning a piece like this utterly astonishes me. Thirdly, it fascinates me. I gaze at it and look at the way the light travels through it. I see how each facet acts like a lens through which I can see the other facets, and how all the facets act as lenses on the window and the rest of the room.

I can have that blend of responses to many of the photos I have and I think that’s got a lot to do with my decisions about which to gather together into my “best photos” folder. Beauty, amazement, wonder and fascination. Altogether they bring me joy. And, without falling into the habit of ranking and creating hierarchies, I think joy is one of the most emotions we can have in our daily lives. Joy activates a whole set of physical and psychological changes in us. And, it just feels GOOD.

But this image does one more thing for me, the thing I really look for in my special collection of best of the best images – it inspires, stimulates thought, curiosity, wonder, and a potentially infinite web of threads of thought.

This idea of a multi-faceted interface gets me thinking about how we humans are like this. Whenever a patient told me their story, as we explored different themes, events and experiences, I’d see them shining like this – each aspect, each theme, each way of behaving, of experiencing, of engaging with the world glimmering like one of these facets. There are many selves within each of us. In 1977 the Scottish psychiatrist, Miller Mair, described a model of the “self” coining the term “community of self” – his idea was that none of us can be reduced to one simple set of characteristics, behaviours and qualities. Each of us exhibits a different self in different contexts – for example, there would be differences in how I was with patients, from how I was with my family, with colleagues and with friends. But that each of these selves were not separate, at least, if we were mentally healthy. Instead, they would all be integrated into one – into one community where they all interacted to give us the sensation of a unitary, or single, self. I liked that model. It opened up the possibilities of exploration of different aspects of a person, often contradictory or opposing aspects, while allowing every one them a place where they could be accepted.

This idea also makes me think of Indra’s Web – that beautiful idea of the universe consisting of an infinite be-jewelled web, where everything is connected, and every gleaming jewel reflects all the other jewels. I think that’s a great model for understanding the world in which we live.

It also makes me think of how we use multiple lenses through which to see, and understand, the world. In fact, if we reduce ourselves to seeing everything through just one small lens or window we find that we tumble into division and conflict with others who don’t share that single lens. But when we embrace the multiplicity of lenses through which we can see the world we can find points of connection with others.

That’s my final thought for today – not only are we all like this multifaceted cut crystal, but when one of our facets lights up in connection with one of someone else’s facets, then we don’t just make a connection, we can brighten each others lives.

I hope this lens, this shining small facet, here today, brightens your life today, and that you, too, feel the stirrings of joy, of wonder, of delight and of connection.

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A human being is a part of the whole, called by us, “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.”

Albert Einstein

This is foam on a beach. As the waves break, turn white, and crash onto the sand, sometimes they make bubbles…..lots of them. If you look closely you’ll see all different sizes of bubbles and as they catch the sunlight they show us all the colours of the rainbow. They are like delicate, precious gems. However, like all bubbles, they don’t last very long. As you watch, they pop and disappear before your eyes, disappearing back into the rest of the surf, back into the great ocean which they never actually left.

Einstein says our sense of being separate is an optical illusion. We have these functions we call consciousness, ego and self…..what are they? Where can we find them? Where do they come from and where do they go to?

I am convinced that each of us is unique. I spent my working life meeting, getting to know and to understand, thousands of people, one person at a time. I never found any two people who were identical. I find it’s easy to judge people when you don’t know them. It’s easy to make loose assumptions about individuals when you only “know” them as members of a group or a category. But when you take time to listen without judging, when you actively build a relationship of care, I find that everybody has something amazing to tell. Everyone has the ability to astonish you. The hearts, the desires, the longings, the hurts and the struggles of others create utterly unique life stories, and remarkable people.

But I’ve never thought that we are separate. As you start to follow the threads in a person’s life story, it’s hard to find a starting point. In fact, we doctors are taught to explore a patient’s family, their social, work and personal relationships, as well as their particular body and mind. Holistic practice demands that we follow the threads in as many directions as we can. Frequently, patients would tell me they had never told anyone else what they had told me and that I must know them better now than anyone else does. Yet, I knew I spent only a few short hours over a number of months with them, so how could I really know them? I knew how I’ve never got to the point where I think I know and understand everything about myself, let alone about anyone else.

Well reality is like that. We encounter individuals on particular occasions. Like these bubbles in the foam we can see them, recognise their uniqueness, but they are never separate. We are all connected. We all emerge from the same ocean, from the same atmosphere, from the same ecosystems. We have all evolved from the same beginnings. As we live our lives, our short, transient lives, we build an infinite number of connections and relationships. Everything and everyone is always changing.

I think that’s the most amazing and thrilling aspect of life – that we have the ability to separate out, to see each bubble as it is, to know each person as they are, whilst at the very same time knowing that whatever it is, whoever they are, this appearance of separateness is a delusion.

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I love spirals. I find them quite captivating. My attention is caught by them and I’m drawn close to contemplate them. I’m not sure what it is that makes them just so beautiful, but, to me, they are amongst the most beautiful shapes in the universe. You can see them around you in many places of course….in plants, especially climbers which use this method of finding places to hook onto, then pulling tight to hoist themselves upwards. But also in ferns, and in plants which throw out creepers and tendrils which stress across the ground. We humans often create spirals in our art. Maybe it’s because I’m Scot, because like most Scots I’ve been steeped in the traditional Celtic and Pictish complex knots, three armed spiral shapes which we call the triskele, and intertwined ribbons which swirl around each other. However, I suspect it’s not just those of us with Celtic backgrounds who like spirals.

One of the things I like best about the spiral is that it seems to me that a person’s life story often has that sort of trajectory. There are issues, problems, difficulties which we meet, attempt to address, or run away from, which just keep spiralling back again and again. In fact, human development too seems to have a spiral path.

I don’t think time flows in a straight line. It loops, and it spins, slows down, pauses, runs forward. The past and the future both have their part to play in my ability to make sense of the present. They don’t exist in three separate, sequential boxes, but rather, they loop, cycle and spiral together to create the intricate patterns of the tapestry of a life.

There’s a special thing about this photo. You have to look a bit more closely to see it. Right in the middle of the main spiral in this photo you can see the world clearly – it’s as if you are looking through a lens.

Isn’t that magical?

It reminds me that if I really do want to see the world clearly, then the lens of the spiral can be a pretty good way to do that. What do you see more clearly about your life, when you consider it through the lens of a spiral?

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This is one of the most unusual windows I’ve ever seen. I spotted it during a trip to Segovia, Spain a few years ago.
Have you ever looked through a window which has really old glass in it? The glass has structure and shape. It often has twists, curls or waves in it, so that whatever you are looking at through the window is completely changed by the window itself.


We are used to having factory produced smooth, “flawless” glass in our windows. It’s so unobtrusive that we don’t even really notice it at all. In fact, some places put red discs, or notices on the glass to stop people from trying to walk through it. But I like that older, hand-fashioned glass. Those patterns and shapes don’t seem like flaws to me, and I rather enjoy seeing the results of the creative fusion of whatever is on the other side of the glass, the glass itself, and my own act of observation. It reminds me just how actively creative perception is. Other wise I tend to think of it like a camera lens with the image of the “outside” cast precisely onto the screen after flipping upside down twice, once as it goes through the lens, then a second time, to “correct” it, as it passes through a prism. See, even that apparently more direct way of seeing, isn’t as direct as we first think, is it?

As well as reminding me of the active creative processes involved in perception, because it makes me more aware of myself as the viewing “subject”, I’m also reminded of how every one of us experiences the universe from our own unique perspective.

This particular window magnifies that idea for me. You could imagine that each of these circles is a unique lens through which a different person sees and experiences the world. Each one a bit different from the others. But, actually, all of the circles are connected……you see those connecting lines in the glass?

Because that’s a bit like how it is for us, isn’t it?

I view the world from this place of a “self”, whatever that is, this particular place which I cannot share with any other living being. No two of have identical experiences of what we perceive. We bring our unique memories, values, beliefs and imaginings to bear on it all. But that doesn’t mean we are completely separate looking at totally different worlds. We share a lot….we share a lot of atoms and molecules, we share time and space, we share stories, beliefs and traditions…..whatever we see and experience is not entirely disconnected from what others see, experience and feel, after all.

It’s a tricky one, that. It’s a constant dynamic balance, an integration of what’s different and what’s shared. Pretty amazing, huh?

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