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Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

Common sense would tell you the world is made of things. We are objects surrounded by other objects. The left hemisphere of the brain is great at narrowing our focus so we can separate some of what we are looking at from its environment, and its connections. So I can stumble across this beautiful dandelion seed-head and focus the lens of my camera right onto “it”. Isn’t “it” gorgeous?

But then and object, or a thing, needs to have some kind of consistency for us to see it. I mean, look what happens a second or two later, when the wind blows –

It’s changed already! And why did it change? Because something happened. Some of the seeds blew away when the wind blew. So if I want to understand this “thing”, this “dandelion” that I’m looking at, I need to see more than what the first image can show me. I need to know that these plants we call dandelions have evolved a method of multiplying and thriving – they have created these astonishing little means of dispersal of their offspring, of their seeds. So when the wind blows, as it always does, these children of the parent plant will fly away to land somewhere else, maybe far away, maybe close by –

and then the cycle starts again with each seed germinating, pushing its roots down into the dark earth, and it’s leaves and flower up to reach the sun, and the bees and the butterflies and who knows how many other kinds of insects will come along and spread the pollen in the yellow flowers to fertilise them and produce these magnificent seed-heads again.

So this is what this object, this thing, called the dandelion does. And it’s hard to know to where to begin its story, but maybe we begin by following one single seed, blown on the wind. We don’t know which way the wind will blow, how far the seed will travel, whether or not the ground it lands on will enable it to germinate and whether or not it will be able to successfully grow into a green leafed, deep rooted, yellow flower and whether or not the insects will cross pollinate it with its neighbours, whether near or far, and produce seeds of its own.

So many unknowns.

But also, and here’s the point, so many happenings.

So many events.

So many occurrences.

This object, this thing, which we call a dandelion. Is it really reasonable to think of it as a thing? Or is it more useful to consider it as so many happenings.

That’s the point I heard the physicist, Carlo Rovelli, make in his interview with Krista Tippett, in an OnBeing podcast. Have a listen. He puts it more beautifully than I do. He says the universe isn’t made of stones, its made of kisses. (Not things, but happenings)

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As I was out walking the other day I noticed an interesting alignment of places.

Right in front of me was a vineyard, just beyond that, over the high wall, a graveyard, and just beyond that stood the church.

How interesting, I thought. Here’s some kind of representation of Life – the world of the “spirit” (in this case Cognac and Pineau), the world of memories of those who are alive no longer, and the world of the “Spirit” (in this case Catholicism).

The vineyard in this part of the world is more than a job. It’s more than a business. It’s a way of life. All year round the vines and the ground they grow in need tending, need cared for. I wonder what percentage of the land in France is dedicated to producing grapes to be turned into alcohol? I wonder what percentage of the land surface of the Earth is used by human beings to make alcoholic drinks? Wine, beer, whisky, vodka……and so on. I bet it’s a lot. I’m reading a book about the influence of plants in the colonisation of “the Americas” by the Spanish in the past. Actually it’s a book about the influence of the knowledge of plants rather than simply of plants. How the native peoples of what we now call Mexico, Central and South America, had learned what particular plants could do. What influence they had on the human body. And how they used them to treat diseases, to create altered states of consciousness in rituals (to allow them to access the world of the “dead” and of the “Spirit”), and how they used them in the rituals of sacrifice and justice (the poisons). I’m only in the beginning section of the book but already I’m finding it a real eye opener – the two way processes of influence between the “old world” and the “new world”, between native “indian” knowledge and “continental, European” knowledge and how each was changed by the other.

We see the use of wine in the rituals of the Catholic Church. And we certainly see the place of alcohol in drinking to the dead, at their funerals and in their remembrance.

The graveyards here are often surrounded by high walls. This particular one has one gate set in a large archway. It’s often locked. I’m not sure if that’s to keep people out or just to protect the tombstones, some of which are enormous. You can see a couple of them over the wall in this photo. They are like tiny buildings. When there are many of them like that in one graveyard it gives the whole place a feel of a little town. A walled town.

The churches here are mostly Catholic churches. France might be a secular state but the Catholic traditions are well embedded in national festivals and Public holidays. Many of the annual calendars distributed by local businesses or newspapers include the name of a saint on every single day of the year, and the local newspaper has on it’s back page, beside the weather forecast and other useful details, like the times of sunrise and sunset, also which saint’s day it is today. Even if church-going and belief in God has declined a lot here, as it has done in most other European countries, the cultural influence of this tradition remains strong.

Plenty to get me wondering – this triad of vineyard, graveyard and churchyard.

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I’ve noticed there is a phase of consciousness between sleep and waking up, a kind of half-asleep/not-quite-awake phase. It’s different from being asleep and it’s different from being awake. Maybe it’s a time of surfacing which sways between those two distinct states. Whatever it is the other morning, in that phase, I became aware of a number of different things “coming to my mind”….an image, a memory, an idea, a bit of a conversation, some things on a list to remember to do….it was really quite a mixture. At about the same moment I became aware of the feeling that I wasn’t in control of any of this. Whatever images, words, thoughts, ideas, memories there were, it was if they just appeared, or as if they were flowing by and I was just noticing them.

It got me to wondering where the contents of the mind come from, how many there are, and how, probably, the ones we notice are just the tips of an iceberg.

I remembered a number of occasions when I’ve stood on a bridge (like the one in the photo above) and looked down at the water as it flows towards, beneath or away from me.

This experience of noticing the contents of the mind flowing past reminded me of those times.

Sometimes what would catch my attention from the bridge would be movement. Like the flow of the water over the rocks, or leaves on the trees in the banks of the river blowing in the wind, or birds darting down to catch an insect or even a fish, or even a fish swimming in the water. Movement catches our attention. Change catches our attention. Something appears….like a branch or some leaves tumbling over the rocks to be carried away by the river. We notice that.

Sometimes my attention would be broad rather than narrow. I wouldn’t zoom in on any particular element but just gaze upstream and take in the whole scene. Seeing the general colours, the shapes of the rocks and the falling water, the patches of turbulent white and the still, dark pools…all at once.

Meditation is a bit like that. You sit and watch to see what turns up, then, after just noticing it, you choose not to interact with it, or hold on to it, but just notice it floating on by. Images pop up and then disappear, a thought half forms and then unravels, a memory emerges and then fades……

And it’s not always rushing and tumbling either. Sometimes what comes to the fore does so quite slowly and gently….

I thought of a number of bridges I’d stood on. The ones over the waterfalls, the ones of the gently flowing rivers, the ones over the big city rivers, the ones over little ponds in Japanese gardens. Each one was a vantage point. Each one allowed me to take a few minutes to stand and gaze and notice and to turn my attention towards something, then let my focus drift over to something else. Never getting stuck, never staying the same, always bringing something different, something new…….

It’s a nice metaphor for the interaction between the conscious and unconscious regions of our minds.

But, wait. I’ve got more big questions now.

Where is the bridge?

Who is the me, the observer, who is standing there watching the flow of mental content?

Where is the mental content coming from and where is it going to?

Strange how hard it is to pin down this idea of the “self”. Two things pop into my mind right now…….Mary Midgley, the philosopher, who tackles the idea that the self doesn’t exist at all…it’s an illusion….in her book, “Are you an illusion?”, where she asks the question – if the self is an illusion, who is it who is having this illusion? And Dan Seigel, who in “Mindsight” and other books, defines the mind as “an embodied, inter-relational, process of regulation of energy and information flow”.

And something else pops up now…my training in TM. Sitting, repeating the mantra, noticing words, thoughts, ideas, images and memories bubbling up and just gently returning to the mantra, letting them all flow on by.

Well, one thing at least is pretty clear to me. The origins of all this mental content are multiple. Sometimes they are a response to an external stimulus, a sound, a light, noticing something. Sometimes they emerge from memory, from imagination, or from whatever area of the mind we use for gnawing away at things….problems, worries, things to do, things we want to say. But wherever they come from, I really don’t think we have much control over that flow. What we can do is to notice, to become aware. Then we can begin to choose where to direct our attention and decide how which ones we want to follow and which we want to let go off.

 

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We have a large mulberry tree growing in the middle of the garden. It’s huge leaves make a perfect canopy to shade you from the glare of the summer sun.

In the autumn they fall massively giving me ample opportunity to enjoy a bit of “rake-y” – the meditative experience of raking up the fallen leaves. I find that deeply satisfying!

In the winter time the tree is bare, all branches and twigs but its shape against the moon at night is entrancing.

Now in the Spring the new leaves are starting to grow. The first of them began to emerge last week. Look at this one! I could have picked one of several dozen like this but I stopped to photograph this one.

It astonishes me.

Out of the end of this stick of a twig first a swelling green bud appears, then these leaves start to unfold themselves. Really they are so tiny compared to how they will look when fully grown. The biggest leaves will be larger than your hand. But for now, this emerging leaf is so small it’s only just begun to acquire the recognisable shape of a leaf.

Look at the colour of it in the sunshine! That light, bright green, somehow just shouts “I’m alive!”

As I looked at it I remembered the time Richard Feynman asked the question “Where do trees come from?” and shocked the listener by answering “They come from the air”. Here’s an article which includes the video of him talking about this very subject. He says most people would answer “They come from the soil” but he says it is more correct to say they come from the air, because they are made mainly of carbon which they capture from carbon dioxide which is in the air, and from water which comes directly from the sky as rain, or through the soil after it’s fallen from the sky.

Isn’t that an astonishing thought? We humans certainly can’t do that. We can’t make solid massive forms like trees out of the thin air.

 

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I take a lot more photos in the countryside than I do in towns, but I took this one recently while out in Limoges. Like so many French towns and villages there remains a medieval heart which can give you feeling of stepping back into the past. But it’s not like visiting a museum. Oh well, yes, there are dying and almost dead villages in France where it’s hard to get in touch with any sign that you are in the living present. Those places are not so comfortable to visit. Move along now, nothing to see, keep on going. But in places like Limoges the old is inhabited. It’s alive. What I like most about a place like this is a certain character. This isn’t a “high street” of chain stores, replicated like some kind of parasitical virus which replaces individuality and diversity with monotony and sameness. It’s alive with small restaurants, bistros, boutiques, and shops selling art materials or hand crafted works.

This second photo, also taken at night (just for the atmosphere, you see) shows a huge mural covering the gable ends of two buildings near the covered market (‘Les Halles’). This is one of the best examples of this kind of art I’ve ever seen. I love not just its scope and size but the playfulness of the details. Look carefully at the two windows, bottom left, and you’ll see both a model, and an artist painting her.

Why am I thinking about these images of a town at night? Well, in ‘Le Monde’ at the end of last week there was an article about cities. Right at the start of the article they mentioned Wellington Webb, former Mayor of Denver, Colorado, who apparently once said

“The 19th century was a century of empires, the 20th century, a century of nation states. The 21st century will be a century of cities.”

The Huffington post has an article which takes the same quote but talks about “the decade of the city”.

I thought that this idea was pretty interesting, not least because I’ve become increasingly troubled by the rise of inward-looking populist “patriotism” recently. The constant barrage of hatred and negativity towards “the Other”, especially “immigrants”, “asylum seekers” and “foreigners”. The kind of narrative which seems particularly strong in England now as it walks away from its neighbours and colleagues in the rest of Europe. Indeed, some commentators who try to explain how the Leave voters won, suggest it was a particularly English issue. After all Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar all voted strongly to Remain, but the English and Welsh went for leave. This particular take on the issue which is focused on issues of England suggest there is a strong sentiment of patriotism in England which has still to heal their loss of Empire. Whatever you own take is on the Brexit issue, it was this particular thesis which came to my mind when I read Wellington Webb’s analysis.

Yes, indeed, the 19th century was a century of empire for the English (portrayed as the British), and the 20th saw two World Wars of nation state against nation state. But isn’t it true that as the 20th century came to a close and the 21st began, the multicultural, innovate hubs of development and power increasingly became the cities? In fact, isn’t that one of the other critiques of Brexit, and populism….that the populations who live outside of the great cities feel ignored and forgotten by an urban elite? London, for example, voted to Remain, whilst most of the rest of England voted to Leave. Why was that? Was that something to do with the multicultural nature of a big city?

The other thing that popped into my head while thinking of cities, was this poem –

T S Eliot in his “Choruses from ‘The Rock’ 1934” wrote

When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city?

Do you huddle close together because you love each other?’

What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together

To make money from each other?’ or ‘This is a community’?

Well, yes, some people are attracted to a city to make money from other people, but for many it does indeed become “a community”. But aren’t all towns “communities” in the same way? What makes a city any different?

Early in my career I worked as a GP in a small village in Scotland. There were three villages in one valley. The one I worked in, the next one a mile away, and the third one at the top of the valley about three further miles away. All very close in other words. I’ll always remember an old lady telling me that she came from the village a mile away, but when she got married she came to live in my village. “But I couldn’t stand it. I had to move back”. And she did. A mile away, but a BIG difference. And when I left that village to move to Edinburgh to live and work a young woman patient asked me what Edinburgh was like. I was surprised at the question because she was almost thirty years old. Then I remembered that many in the West of Scotland stick with the West of Scotland, so I said, oh you don’t know Edinburgh, maybe you know Glasgow better (about half an hour away)? She said, no, she’d never been there either. I asked her if she’d been to any big towns in her life and she replied that she’d been to one on the coast once for a day trip. (It was a town, not a city).

So I’ve known for a long time that people identify with the places where they are born and many are fiercely loyal to them. People, like Londoners, or Parisiens, or Edinburgers (???) might be intensely loyal to their cities, but are they any more so than those who live in towns and villages?

Well, that’s not really what I got to thinking about actually. What I got to thinking about was the idea that their was something potentially progressive about the idea of an era of empires, then nation states, and now, the cities. What I wonder is whether or not the cities offer us an opportunity to shake off the “patriotism” of “nation states”, many of which in the world are just lines drawn on maps. We don’t put lines around our cities in the same way we do our nations. We don’t give rights to certain citizens in a city but not to others on the basis of whether or not they began their lives in this particular city. Isn’t there something to learn from that? Can’t we all just be human beings living together in a particular place instead of dividing us up arbitrarily into “immigrants”, “expats”, and “citizens”? Couldn’t we say that everyone who lives in the same part of the world is an equal? With the same rights and responsibilities as the others? Do we need to divide the world into “us” and “them”?

Because it’s not that cities are the best way for people to live together, not at all. But maybe there are principles from city living which are distinctly different from those of empire-living or nationstate-living which might help us find ways for us all to share the whole planet in less divided ways?

I don’t know. I’m not proposing any answers here……just wondering.

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While wandering through the old part of Limoges the other day I came across this statue. There are many, many religious statues in France, and mostly they don’t catch my attention for very long. But on this occasion someone (“Dan” or “Dam” “the street poet” according to the signing at the end of the text) added his, or her, own words and, for me at least, enhanced the original work of art. Maybe some people will be offended by the addition of this message to a classic image of “La Pietà” but it does quite the opposite for me. It deepens the sentiment of sadness that I think we all feel when we hear the daily stories of killing from around the world.

I’m only learning to speak to French, and this particular text is the work of a poet so I’m not sure how to translate it literally, but here’s my take on it. (I hope I capture the poet’s sentiment)

We all live on the same planet

Let’s stop shooting ourselves in the head.

Let’s learn to love each other

Or at least, to accept each other.

Maybe if you are French speaker you can do a better translation than me. Maybe if you live in Limoges, you know who wrote this and added it to the statue.

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I was eating some berries at lunch time – strawberries, raspberries and blueberries.

Stopping to take a closer look…….look at the shape of a star on this blueberry.

Well, it turns out this is pretty standard. All blueberries have this element of their appearance.

Have you noticed that before?

Have you seen that little star there before you pop the berry into your mouth?

Noticing is one of the lessons I’ve learned yet again from this little ordinary, everyday experience, but there’s something else here.

That something else for me is a reminder that we are “all made of star stuff”. From the origins of the universe, the time of the energies before the formation of hydrogen and helium, to the evolution of stars, those great powerhouses of fusion producing the first larger elements, magnesium, lithium, carbon….all the way up the Periodic Table to Iron….to the next great leap – the supernovae. As the supernovae exploded they produced all the other known elements of the universe.

From our Sun, to our Solar System, to our precious, tiny Earth, all emerged from these first elements. That carbon, that oxygen, that hydrogen, all the elements you might find in one little blueberry….it all came from the stars.

As best we know, from the beginning of our planet Earth, not a single new natural element has appeared. All of us, from blueberries, to you and me, are made from those original atoms, created by aeons of fusion and fission, of cycles of combining together, and cycles of blowing apart.

Takes my breath away….

And you know what? The blueberries taste great. I enjoyed combining their star stuff into mine…….

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