Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

I love this photo of a tree in winter. Without its leaves you can see how the tree has a classic structural pattern – a pattern which we call “branching” – no doubt in reference to where we see this most – in trees!

This is a pattern we see in many, many places. You can see how water runs down the mountainsides in small streams which gather together into larger streams, then rivers, until one big river makes its way down to the sea. You can also see it at the coast where rivers form an estuary. You see it in root structures under the ground, as well as in bushes and trees above ground. And, perhaps more for me because of my lifetime work as a doctor, you see this pattern throughout the human body – in our circulatory system, in our lymphatic system, in our urinary system, nervous system, our liver, and especially in our lungs.

So when I see an image like this I see something “universal” – something fundamental. It gives me a glimpse of some of the underlying structure of the world. And I find it beautiful. I love how seeing this in the tree brings to mind all those other locations – out in the countryside and within the human body – so that the single tree elicits a broader and deeper reality.

Mind you, we mustn’t get carried away and think that this is the only kind of structure we find in the universe. Of course it isn’t. It’s just one of THE main ones. Equally, or maybe even to a greater extent, we uncover the patterns of networks and webs.

And in those places where we find a beautiful merging of both of these core forms.

Deleuze and Guattari clarified this best for me when they described these two structures as “arboreal” and “rhizomal”.

Take a look around you and see where you can spot them. It’ll help you to become more aware of how often you use these structures when you think, and when you try to make sense of your world.

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When I look at this photo I think “This is what life feels like, and this is what life really is”.

What I mean is this – look at those bubbles (I’m going to guess that when you looked at this photo the first thing you noticed were the bubbles). Each one looks perfect, and perfectly separate from the rest. Each bubble is distinct, different in size, different in location, different in the exact way it reflects the light, and also, although you can’t see this in a still photo, each moving along its own distinct, and different path (there are hints of that in the flows of water currents which you can see creating that marbling effect between the bubbles).

We feel like this. Separate, distinct, different. We feel, and we are, unique. There are no two of us with identical characteristics, identical stories, living in exactly the same time and place having exactly the same experiences. We have a membrane which seems to separate us from the rest of the world. On the outside, that membrane is our skin. On the inside it’s mucous membranes lining our lungs, our digestive system and our urinogenital system. Inside, and within, that, is our immune system, a distributed network of cells and chemicals which recognise “foreign” substances and protect us from their potential harm.

But actually, we are not separate. Those membranes are porous. They are not impermeable. And that’s for a very important reason. They enable us to connect. They enable us to interact with others and with the rest of the planet. They enable us to ingest nutrients, inhale oxygen, expel waste materials and exhale carbon dioxide, amongst many other exchange processes. So, to see them as simple barriers or borders is wrong. They do distinguish what is “me” from what is “not me”, but they enable my life by enabling these, and multiple other connections and flows.

Look again at these bubbles. Where do they come from and where do they go? They emerge from the water itself, and they dissolve back into the water they emerged from. So do we. We emerge within the rest of this “natural” world, come into existence for a brief period of time, then we dissolve back into the great web of being from which we came. In the part between birth and death, that part we call life, we don’t disconnect from that great web. We live in communion with it. We live as part of it, not apart from it.

Life is flow – flow of molecules and chemicals, flow of energy, flow of information. Our existence is a delicate but distinct dynamic interplay of those flows, creating the appearance of separateness and difference, but never disconnecting from, or existing apart from, the whole.

Our lives are distinct and beautiful, but they are not separate.

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Why do we open up? Why do we “unfurl”? As I wrote the other day, my word of the year is “√©panouissement” – which means to flourish, to blossom, to fulfil – we follow that path by uncurling, unfolding, unfurling, just like these ferns. And why do we do that? Because, just like these ferns suggest – it enables us to connect.

Opening up, vastly increases our chances of making meaningful, healthy, nourishing connections. Closing down does the opposite.

There are times we need to enfold ourselves, to close down, curl up like a hedgehog for defence, but actually, much, much more, we need to do the opposite. Because without making connections we die.

We do not exist in isolation. Even if it feels like we are being asked to do exactly that during this pandemic, what we’ve discovered is that it isn’t possible. None of us can live without the vast world wide web of others…..without whom we wouldn’t have shelter, food, water, comfort or care. It’s the natural state of affairs – connectedness. And connections aren’t worth much unless they act as channels of exchange – of materials, energies and information.

When I look at this photo, I don’t just see two ferns unfurling, opening up, but I see two ferns touching gently, almost as if they are having their first kiss.

Isn’t this what we need to grow in our world? Not grow our consumption of “stuff”, nor grow our production of waste. We don’t need to grow our destruction of ecosystems. We’ve been doing that all too well. It’s time to change course, isn’t it? To grow our connections, our “integrated” connections – the ones which enable mutually beneficial relationships to thrive. We need to grow our capacity for care and creativity. We need to grow our passion for love, tolerance and acceptance. And to do all that we need to open both our minds and our hearts.

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My word for 2021 is a French word – √©panouissement. Translated into English it has various connotations but basically it means “blossoming” or “opening up”. It’s also used in psychology to refer to the development of the personality, or the self – it means “fulfilment”, or, more specifically, “self-fulfilment”. It can also be used in the description of someone’s face, as when their face “lightens up”. You get the idea?

This peony which I saw in Ueno gardens in Tokyo many years ago captures this notion for me by somehow conveying motion within a still image. Because the beautiful petals are unfolding and opening up in a spiral manner, this looks a bit like one of those little windmills you might have played with as a child. As a physical pattern this spiralling, whether in an opening up, or a closing up, speaks to us of movement. It’s not as static as some other geometric patterns appear.

That element of motion conveyed by this flower’s petals is, I think, an essential part of the whole concept of “√©panouissement” – in other words, it’s always a work in progress. It’s not a goal, at least not as an end point, or an “outcome”. It’s a ongoing, growing, developing, evolving, ever-changing phenomenon. And that’s exactly what I think the development of the Self is like.

We are not fixed entities with identities held in aspic. We are not separate, not unconnected, not static. Rather we emerge from within the vast web of Life, never leaving that web, but developing a coherent sense of Self within it, a sense of Self which never stands still, and which, ultimately ebbs back into the great web itself.

Here’s the exciting extra part that you and I can access – consciousness. We have Will and we can make choices. We are “agents”. We are the “co-creators” of reality. We can do that consciously, and deliberately, or we can drift, reacting rather than responding to every change and signal which comes our way. When we wake up, become more aware, then we can choose how to respond, moment by moment, day by day, year by year.

So, here we are, still in the throws of this pandemic, but we have not stopped changing. The thing is – we are now more aware of our inter-connectedness, our inter-dependence, not just with other human beings across the entire planet with all of Life, all of Nature, all of The Earth, as active, living members of Gaia.

So what does that mean for our “√©panouissement”? For our “unfolding”, our “self-fulfilment”, our “flourishing”? How are we going to blossom now?

Those are some of the questions that float around in my head these days. These feel to me to be some of the most important questions for me to answer now. This pandemic has challenged our values, our aspirations and our modes of living. How do we want to evolve all three of those? Our values; our aspirations; our modes of living.

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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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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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Ok, so I’ve called this post “The hidden connectors”, but as you can see, there’s nothing hidden about this one! This is an astonishingly beautiful specimen from that Kingdom of Nature that we mostly don’t talk about and mostly aren’t even aware of – fungi.

Fungi are fascinating lifeforms. They aren’t animals, they aren’t plants and they aren’t minerals…..although this particular one looks awfully like a piece of agate. You can see examples of parts of them when they appear on the surfaces of trees, and the soil. The kind you will be most familiar with are the little toadstools and mushrooms which appear on the ground, especially in forests. But you also see them a lot growing on fallen logs in the forests.

Fungi play an important role in decomposition…..they are the essential, often invisible, link between what has lived and what is about to live. They are the recyclers, the processors, which break down the dead and dying cells of animals and plants and release nutrients to nourish emerging plants. They are the connection between the generations past and the generations to come. I’m sure you’ll have read that Nature doesn’t produce waste. There are no “land fill sites”, “incinerators” and “toxic dumps” in Nature – they are all human inventions. Nature transforms everything which has existed into everything which is about to exist. Fungi are one the key elements in those cycles of birth, death and re-birth.

But fungi are also the secret connectors which make the forests living, intercommunicating, interactive communities of individual trees. Every tree has vast root systems hidden underground, and fungi form astonishingly large and complex networks amongst and between the tree roots, carrying and exchanging nutrients, substances and information between the trees. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to compare them to the neural networks in our brains – totally different in structure and form of course – but vast threads of interconnection which create what some biologists have fairly recently termed “the Wood Wide Web” – which transforms a forest from a grouping of individual trees into a much larger, living being.

Isn’t it amazing how these creatures, these forms of life, fill that liminal space between – between trees, between life and death, between generations?

We live in a completely interconnected world. Maybe this pandemic has shown us that more clearly than ever before. But all our artificial boundaries and separations, all our arbitrary states, borders, our constant dividing of reality into “us and them”……it’s just not real. It fails to show us how inseparable we are from each other, how intertwined we are with each other and with all the other species and biosystems of Planet Earth.

Isn’t it time to insist on the importance of what we share? Isn’t it time to insist on our inter-dependence and inter-connectedness, instead of these false divisions and separations? Isn’t it time we understood that we ALL live on the same planet, with the same air, the same water, the same resources? Isn’t it time to remind ourselves how whatever we do, as individuals or as societies, has ramifications and impacts which spread way, way beyond what we can control?

I think we can all choose to become conscious connectors, building positive relationships, integrating our unique differences to create mutually beneficial bonds. I think that’s how we will change our world.

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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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