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Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

Whether you use your phone or a camera to take photos, standing straight holding your device at face level and pressing the capture button isn’t the best way to get great shots.

We have a mulberry tree in the garden and this year, our third year here, it is producing an abundant crop of mulberries. I don’t think I’d ever seen a mulberry in real life till I moved here, but over the last couple of years I’d become aware the tree could produce these strange, almost insect-like red fruits. Until they turn black they have virtually no taste. But this year they are literally dropping off the tree every day. And they’re sweet and juicy!

I decided to take a photo of how we are finding them in the grass but as I looked through my viewfinder the scene was decidedly underwhelming. So I got down on my knees in the grass and took these photos (the one above and the one below)

 

I know they don’t show dozens of fruits lying in the grass but don’t you think these shots are more engaging?

The first one is of two mulberries and you get an idea of the scale from the size of the daisies in the background. The second image is just of one mulberry in all its strange and beautiful ripeness.

What do you think? Try for yourself next time you’re out taking photos. Don’t you think changing YOUR position before you frame your shot opens up a whole other, more interesting, world?

Thought for the day – I think this applies in life too.

When we change OUR position to look at anything from another angle, we see MORE, and can understand more deeply – whether that’s changing our physical position, travelling to see the world (other towns, other countries, other cultures) from other perspectives, or trying to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes to gain a better understanding of what life is like for them.

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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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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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Irises are the most astonishingly beautiful and attractive flowers. Whenever I see them I think of the story ‘Iris’ by Herman Hesse where he wrote this –

He had a great love for this flower and peering into it was his favourite pastime; sometimes he saw the delicate upright yellow members as a golden fence in a king’s garden, sometimes as a double row of beautiful dream trees untouched by any breeze, and between them, bright and interlaced with living veins as delicate as glass, ran the mysterious path to the interior. There at the back the cavern yawned hugely and the path between the golden trees lost itself infinitely deep in the unimaginable abysses, the violet vault arched royally above it and cast thin, magic shadows on the silent, expectant marvel. Anselm knew that this was the flower’s mouth, that behind the luxuriant yellow finery in the blue abyss lived her heart and thoughts, and that along this lovely shining path with its glassy veins her breath and dreams flowed to and fro.

oh, I loved that the first time I read it and it’s stayed with me for over forty years now.

Iris, in Greek mythology, was the messenger of the gods. Her symbol was the rainbow, which in many cultures is the symbol of hope. But her main role was in carrying messages from one to another. She connected the sea to the sky. She was a bridge builder (not literally but in terms of making connections).

When I thought of her role in facilitating connections I thought of flow, of the to and fro of communication and I thought how much do we need that now? In a time where politics has become more about hate than love, where there are calls for more walls when we need more bridges, when there are demands to close down, isolate and see the ‘other’ as an enemy or a competitor to be defeated.

Oh, how we need Iris, to open peoples’ hearts and minds and to facilitate communication between them.

How we need her, the idea of her, the energy of her, the meaning of her, to create mutually beneficial relationships between different peoples with different ideas, different world views. To make the case for constructive co-operation rather than destructive competition and division….

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I listened to an interview with Yuval Noah Harari recently. I read his “Sapiens” some time ago and mostly enjoyed it, but I haven’t been tempted to read his more recent “Homo Deus”. This latter book looks ahead to consider how things might go as artificial intelligence and robotics develops apace. He argues that our technology could give us incredible powers, so that we may end up more like gods, but he also says things could go the other way and create an increasingly large class of people he labels as “useless”.

That “useless class” terminology is certainly a way of getting attention, but when he specifies what he means by it, there’s a lot in it –

“I choose this very upsetting term, useless, to highlight the fact that we are talking about useless from the viewpoint of the economic and political system, not from a moral viewpoint,” he says. Modern political and economic structures were built on humans being useful to the state: most notably as workers and soldiers, Harari argues. With those roles taken on by machines, our political and economic systems will simply stop attaching much value to humans, he argues.

He goes from there to imagine a future where this class spends its time on drugs and Virtual Reality games machines. Depressing, huh?

So, two things struck me immediately. Firstly, this connects to some of the debate about “Universal Basic Income” – the idea that every citizen should receive a monthly allocation because we are heading towards a system which will be “post-work” – robots and algorithms will take over most of the jobs and the increased automation will increase unemployment. Our current economic system will either be adapted to take account of that, or human beings will have to adapt to the current economic system. Or not. It’s this “or not” that Harari explores by describing the “useless class”. One question then is what do we value in society and how do we allocate resources to what we value? As a society.

The second thought was, what, if people don’t have jobs in factories, shops or offices, the only thing they’ll be able to do is take drugs and play VR games? What popped into my mind straight away were caring and creating.

Human beings are great at caring. Sure, we don’t do nearly enough of it, and we could sure do with developing our capacities to care, but take, as one example, the response to an earthquake, a storm, a flood, a terrorist attack. In all of those situations we hear story after story of human kindness, human sacrifice and human caring. With declining infant mortality and increasing life expectancy more and more people in the world are living longer and in need of more care. We won’t run out of opportunities to care for others.

Human beings are great creators. We are problem solvers, scientists, home makers, gardeners, cooks, and artists of all kinds – writers, sculptors, painters, musicians, dancers. We won’t run out of opportunities to create.

Thirdly, I’d argue, human beings are great learners. We have whole neural circuits primed to seek out what’s new or different. We have whole systems dedicated to learning skills, acquiring knowledge, understanding and making sense of things. We won’t run out of opportunities to learn.

So, when I visited the town of Blaye recently, I saw this artwork in a car park. Isn’t it beautiful? Simple, and beautiful. Doesn’t it capture something about the human ability to care and to create.

Isn’t there an opportunity at this point in civilisation to change our focus away from grabbing and consuming, to caring and creating? And learning!

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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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