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Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

There’s a tiny, beautiful little village on the coast about an hour’s drive west from here. One day while wandering down its medieval streets I saw this sign on a door.

It says, (in my translation), restaurant recommended by the Club of those who life a good life. Actually in French it’s much more elegant than that, but I had trouble translating “vivants” – “livers” would seem the obvious word but that looks like an organ in the body! “lifers” on the other hand makes you think of prisoners! “living beings” is closer, but doesn’t feel quite right, so I’ve opted for “those who live a good life”.

I immediately wondered about this “club” and looked it up online later. It seems to be a restaurant recommendation website in France. Perhaps not terribly exciting!

But I loved the name, and it stimulated my imagination.

Philosophers have wrangled with the question “what is a good life?” for hundreds of years, and it’s something which feels simple and obvious, but when you stop to consider it, it seems impossible to pin down.

I also suspect that we might all give different answers to the question. So, I thought I’d pose it for you today –

How would you describe “a good life”?

I was going to add something myself here, but I’ve decided to just leave this as a prompt for now…….for two reasons. Firstly, I think we can all benefit from taking a little time now and again to contemplate this question. It gets us thinking about our values, our beliefs and our desires, and it also challenges us to consider to what extent we are already living a good life, or whether we think that one day we will. If you think you’re already living it, how would you describe it? What makes your life a good one? And if living a good life is something you hope for one day, what do you imagine it will look like? Because if you don’t know what it will look like, you might not recognise it when it arrives!

Just answer this for yourself after reading this, or discuss it with friends or family. Or, if you like you can tell me – either by leaving a Public comment here, or, privately, by emailing me at bobleckridge@gmail.com

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Look at this amazing pattern left on the sand by the action of the water after the tide has gone out again at the beach.

When you look at this you know immediately that the sand has been shaped by the water, although, to be honest, I don’t understand how water manages to make such intricate patterns like this on the sand. Maybe somebody does!

There are other striking patterns on the wet sand at the beach, some clearly made by plant material, seaweed I expect, and some obviously from the imprints of shells, some little worm-shaped piles caused by burrowing creatures throwing up the sand behind them, and often many footprints of birds which have run across the beach.

What impresses me most about all these patterns is that they are the traces left by some activities which occurred a little while ago. They are the evidence of the past imprinted on the present. That reminds me of how we are shaped by the events and experiences of our lives. Our encounters with others change us. Our experiences don’t just create memories, they set up patterns of chemical, electrical and cellular response in our bodies.

We can become aware of some of that in bodily changes, from tightenings of muscles, to changes in heart rate and breathing, to sweating and trembling, and so on, usually before we are even aware that we reacting to something.

I spent much of my career working with patients who had chronic, long-standing illnesses, and we could often make some sense of what was going on by teasing out the threads and themes which ran through their stories over many years. It certainly wasn’t always the case, but sometimes the actual disease and its precise location in the body was clearly related to the body’s responses to events or experiences long forgotten.

It’s pretty clear to me that just as the movement of the water shapes the sand in the way you can see in this photo, so do our experiences and relationships shape us. Realising that makes me want to be more aware of my own actions and words. It makes me want to choose to spread constructive, supportive and creative waves in the world. After all, whatever we do, whatever we say or write, has effects far beyond the limits we could imagine.

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Sometimes you come across a stone that just demands to picked up, turned over, contemplated and brought home. That was the case with this one which I still have with me. I like it partly for its almost heart shaped form, but I like it most for the pattern you can see on it.

When I look at this, I see a number of lines of varying breadths and lengths, criss-crossing the surface and I think of each of them as a representation of a path, or a journey.

When I trained in Medicine, we were taught “how to take a history”. While I developed a bit of discomfort around the use of the verb “to take” there, I kept the concept of the history. In fact I’d tell people a large part of my work was about enabling people to tell their own personal history…..or their story. I used the idea of “story” a lot in my work. I’d ask people to tell me about their present experience in the light of past events and within the scope of their fears and hopes for the future. The traditional life story has a clear timeline, starting at birth and ending with the person’s death. Except, I quickly discovered, that in order to understand a person well I had to explore the family stories too….in other words to hear what happened before the patient was even born……as well as exploring the stories of many of the others (brothers, sisters, other relatives, friends and colleagues) whose stories intersected with the patient’s story.

So, I was quite surprised when I read a small article in “Philosophie” magazine about maps – they described how the French philosopher, Giles Deleuze said that our “subjectivity” was created from our movements, from our meetings, and from the relationships we had with other beings, other things, and other places. He said the map was an imprinting of all these movements, encounters and relationships which was laid down in our psyche, and so, when analysing ourselves we had to explore more as a geographer than as a historian.

Now, as you know, I’m a great “and not or” person, so I wouldn’t replace the work I did, or the way I make sense of my life with a geographical approach instead of an historical one, but I find that notion incredibly appealing.

What if, next time you are exploring your life, your experience, and your “self”, you make a map – a map of the journeys you’ve taken, the places you’ve gone, the experiences and encounters you had there, and the relationships with people, other living creatures, things and places which you’ve woven into your soul as you have lived?

What might that map look like?

It strikes me that adding this geographical approach to my life opens up new insights because it reveals and highlights the interactions, relationships, encounters and experiences of my life. The historical approach, of course, can reveal the characters, the events and the chronology of a life, but this shift of focus from my “story” to my “map” has, I think, loads of potential.

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We have a tree paeony in the garden. It’s quite a tall plant now, and it produces a glorious flower once every year. I think in its best year it produced three flowers, but most years, it just produces one. That rarity makes the flower even more special. How amazing is it to wait a whole year, anticipating the swelling of a bud, seeing the curled petals emerge then unfurl in the sun to fully open up to the world for a few days. Look at the abundance of pollen. There’s so much it has spilled out all over the white petals. The flower lasts for only a few days, then the petals fall off and the paeony gets into creating and distributing fertilised seeds again. That transience also enhances the sense of awe I have when I see this beautiful flower.

In Japanese aesthetics transience ranks very highly. They celebrate the cherry blossom every year by reporting it on the nightly TV news and splashing photos across the front pages of the newspapers. I’ve seen cherry blossom maps on TV in Japan which are the equivalent of weather maps but instead of showing the weather track the progress of the cherry blossom across the country from the south to the north.

I remember going to see a “millennium plant” once in the Royal Botanic Gardens….one of those creatures which only produces flowers once every hundred years or so. I can’t remember the proper name of the plant, but I felt so privileged to witness its flowers in full bloom.

We have a similar response to eclipses, and to unusual conjunctions of planets or stars in the night sky, and to the appearance of comets. Their rarity makes them more special, and we then experience these events as more significant.

Awe and wonder. The more I experience awe and wonder, the higher I rank the quality of my life. In France there is this word, émerveillement, which is one of my most favourite French words. It means “wonder”, “amazement”, “awe”, “marvel”, and various other English words, because in English there isn’t a direct equivalent single word. “L’émerveillement du quotidien” is one of my most favourite French phrases. It means to find this wonder and awe in daily life.

Well, I guess it’s pretty easy to find wonder and awe in the face of the unusual, the long anticipated, the rare and the peculiar. But actively seeking amazement, awe and wonder in the everyday takes life to a new level. Will you find some every day if you are looking? My answer would be “probably”. I do. But even if you don’t having the intention, having the goal if you like, every day of seeking out what’s awesome and marvellous, will open your mind and your heart to the exactly those possibilities.

I think the conscious intention to seek “émerveillement” opens us up in the way this tree paeony flower has opened up in this photo I’m sharing with you today. And when we do that life becomes just a bit more special, just a bit more magical.

Try it for yourself.

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I reckon we pretty much expect trees to grow straight up, then branch a bit, then grow further, still straight up. But, actually, of course, this is seldom the case. Trees, even their main trunks often veer off this way and that, or bend in one direction, only to turn in a totally different one a few metres further on. I confess I don’t know what makes a tree take the twists and turns that it does.

Look at this one for example, not only has it swerved around an almost 90 degree angle but it seems to have entwined itself on the neighbouring tree. What do you think? These trees are lovers? They’ve entangled themselves in each other’s lives forever?

It looks that way to me.

So maybe some of the shape of this tree can be understood in relationship to the other tree. Now how often is that the case with we humans? Do we ever reveal our character in any other way than by responding to what we encounter and by acting in response to the others in our social world? Can you really understand anyone without understanding their place in a family, in a community, a society? Can you really understand anyone without seeing how they respond to others, without exploring the nature of their relationships? I don’t think so.

A belief in the uniqueness of every single human is at the core of my world view and my practice as a doctor. But I never attempt to understand a person solely in isolation. I can only get an idea of who they are by hearing the stories of their experiences and relationships, and by observing how they respond to others….including myself.

I’ve no doubt that all our interactions with others change us. I would not be who I am today without having been changed by all the doctor-patient relationships I experienced in my life. You could say patients made me who I am. Not only patients of course, you also have to take into account the others in my life, family, friends, colleagues, even those who challenged me, or disliked me.

Our lives are entangled.

That’s just how it is.

But we can make choices, and we choose both who and how. We can choose to pay attention to certain people, to care for them, to engage with them, to collaborate with them, or to compete with them. All of those choices weave our unique, personal web of inter-relationships. And that constantly evolving cloth forms the very tissue of our being…..or should I say of our “becoming”.

When I look at this photo today it leads me to contemplate the people in my life, those who are no longer present, those who I’m actively relating to, and those who played significant roles in fashioning my experiences and creating the memories I have. You could say, it leads me to consider the characters in my life story. Who they are, who they were, what experiences we had together and how we become entwined and entangled.

I am grateful to them all. We made each other who we are…..together.

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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’?

T S Eliot. Choruses from The Rock

Is there any greater social creature than the human being? Our offspring are more dependent on us, and for longer, than any other living organism. Babies just wouldn’t make it to adulthood without the intense and dedicated parenting and care they need. Even the very structure of the brain of those who are deprived of love and attention in the first few months of life is poorer than the brain of a child who has been cared for. They develop less brain cells and less connections between the cells they have.

Children learn much faster than adults, but we all learn through strong social bonds. We learn by mimicry, by copying others, by adopting the attitudes, values and behaviours of those around us.

Ideas and insights spread like wildfire around the world. So do emotions, whether they be fear and despair, or joy and celebration. Emotions are infectious.

Think of the experiences you’ve had in large groups – whether are a spectator/fan at a sporting event, or a member of an audience at a concert, or festival. The experience of collective excitement and joy is transcendental. It is deeply moving.

Solitary confinement is the cruellest, hardest form of punishment meted out on human beings.

We need to belong, we need to connect, we need to form relationships. We need to love and be loved.

Not one of us would last long without the contributions and actions of countless others.

So why do we “huddle close together” as Eliot’s Stranger asks? Maybe it’s not because we all love each other. We don’t. Maybe it’s not “to make money from each other”, although that seems a strong possibility!

I think it’s because we are born into communities, and we live our lives in them. Back in the depths of history people lived in tribes, then they settled with the development of agriculture, and created larger and larger communities in towns and cities. The last couple of hundred years has seen an acceleration in urbanisation and more of us now live in mega-cities than at any point before. Yet, cities don’t hold that well together, do they? They all seem to have wealthy, privileged areas, and vast tracts of poverty and deprivation.

In the last few decades it’s become easier and easier to communicate over distances and now we have “virtual communities” which don’t share geographical territory together but are often much more cohesive and close than the “physical communities” we find in cities.

This pandemic has forced us from the physical into the virtual. It’s driven us into asynchronous communications of messaging and emails. It’s connected us through connected screens, and forced us out of shared workplaces and shared physical spaces of entertainment and recreation.

We’ll start getting back together in our towns and streets soon.

But I still like Eliot’s challenges from the Stranger. I think it’s a great idea to reflect and ask ourselves – what kind of communities do we want to build and/or belong to? And why?

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We planted a little fig tree a few years ago. It grew very quickly, didn’t produce much fruit the first year, produced more the next year, and here we are this year with what looks like is going to be bumper crop.

Abundance.

Maybe that’s not a word we think of on a daily basis, but maybe we should. For many reasons we are in the habit of living with a scarcity mindset. We feel we never have enough, we are always lacking something.

Whole economic systems and societies have been constructed on the foundation of the scarcity mindset. Already, even before this pandemic is over, you’ll read economists and politicians saying what we need now is to get people out to the shops and start buying. Buying what? Stuff. Doesn’t matter what. Just consume more, buy more, get more, have more.

And then what? All will be well?

Advertisers stir up discontent and desire, trying to convince us that unless we buy what they are selling our lives will be empty, devoid, incomplete. Trying to convince us every day that we lack…..

What do we lack?

Whatever they are selling.

But what if we lived with an abundance mindset instead? What if we realised that the universe had created the ideal conditions for Life to emerge? What if we realised that Planet Earth has evolved to allow Life to proliferate?

The issue isn’t one of scarcity. It’s one of uneven and unequal access. We could create societies where everyone had access to clean air, clean water, healthy food, comfortable homes, caring relationships, satisfying work.

Couldn’t we?

I just don’t believe the issue is scarcity. Because the universe didn’t just create the conditions for Life to emerge. It sustains Life. It develops Life. It proliferates Life.

I find that when I get in touch with an abundance mindset, I feel more gratitude. And gratitude is good for both mental and physical health. It’s one of the easiest and best things we can do – start a gratitude journal, and note down two or three things daily for which we feel grateful.

I find that when I get in touch with an abundance mindset, it opens my heart to others. It makes me more likely to be generous, kind and tolerant.

I find that when I get in touch with an abundance mindset it’s easier to enjoy the present moment, anxieties and fears start to settle, and creativity begins to flow.

I know that there is a lot of poverty, hunger, violence, cruelty and greed in this world. But I believe it can be different. Not least because we live in an abundant universe.

Is it hard to imagine a better world? Is it hard to believe we have the skills, the abilities, the knowledge and enough love in our hearts to make it happen? What do we need to make it happen? Intention, desire, determination and patience? If we bring those to bear with an abundance mindset, who knows what we could achieve?

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One of the most beautiful things to see in any garden is the unfurling of the petals of a flower. That phase where the bud opens up and the gorgeous coloured petals unfurl themselves captures an essence of Life for me.

I see this and I think “becoming not being” – you’ll have noticed that phrase at the top of my blog? I wrote that as a subtitle because it is the most fundamental lens through which I see and understand the world.

The difference between those two words is movement…a particular kind of movement…..movement of change from one state to another.

Everything is in the process of becoming. It’s easy to see that in living organisms. The trillions of cells which make up the human body are in constant process of birth, growth, maturing and dying. They are replaced at different rates according to their type (blood cells living much shorter lives than bone cells for example), but none of them stay the same for the whole lifetime of the person.

When we look at an old school photo we might recognise ourselves, but when we compare that to one taken a decade later, then another and another, we see very, very images of the same person. All might be photographs of me, but all look utterly different.

This process of growth and development is a key characteristic of health for me. When I was working as a doctor, it was important for me to have a positive definition of health. I wanted to to help people to become healthy, and healthy, I think, is a positive state in its own right, not just an absence of symptoms or disease.

When I used to look out of my window in Central Scotland I could see the mountains, and the distinct shape of Ben Led always caught my eye. It amazed me that every day it looked different. Of course, I wasn’t close enough, or around for long enough, to see the physical structure or the surface of the mountain change (though change it did, over millennia). But my daily experience of the mountain was created more than rocks and earth. It was created by the light, the clouds, the sun, and the seasons. And all that changed all the time.

Nothing is fixed.

That’s my point.

Nothing can be understood in isolation from its environment, from its network of connections and relationships, or from its unique history and potential.

Stories….narratives….are always in the process of becoming….because stories weave together the past, the present and some possible futures, into one beautiful cloth. A dynamic cloth, which is always unfurling, always becoming, not being.

This image stirs all of this for me. I love how the “becoming not being” lens makes every day so much more alive!

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I love a blue sky. It lifts my spirits and warms my heart.

A plain dull grey sky has the opposite effect.

But wait, the sky isn’t featureless. Even a horizon to horizon cover of grey cloud is never completely homogenous. There are always variations there. There are thickenings, patches where the sun almost breaks through, or lighter patches which are backlit by the sun. There are swirls and lines and sheets and all kinds of forms. You just need to slow down, pay attention and notice.

I think the richness of features in the sky are partly down to the water molecules which make up the clouds, partly down to the light from the sun, partly down to the temperature changes and air currents, but it has another layer of richness added by the human imagination. We are the pattern seekers, and pattern creators par excellence.

Look at this sky for example.

There’s the silhouette of the edge of a tree on the far right of the image. Let your gaze drift across leftwards from there. What do you see?

I see the shape of an eye. The way I’d start to draw an eye by marking two lines in the shape of connected ellipses. There’s no sign of an eyeball, so this is either a closed eye, with the darker edge of the lower lid representing eyelashes, or it is the eye-shaped hole we often see in masks.

Once I’ve seen this I can’t un-see it.

Isn’t that strange?

It takes the imagination to “see” an eye in the sky, but once it’s there it has an impact. I feel watched. I feel seen. I can understand how ancient peoples believed that multiple gods and spirits lived with them. And even if those gods and spirits don’t seem real any more. There was a time when we humans had an awareness of a shared cosmos. They experienced wholeness and connections in their everyday. They didn’t have to question or analyse it, reality just seemed to be that way. Everywhere they looked they saw patterns, told stories, made sense of the phenomena of the ordinary day. Everywhere they turned they brought their imagination to bear and saw connections, discerned meanings, and drew upon what they learned to create art, to find their way across the planet, and to learn how to adapt to the changes and the seasons.

I don’t think there is any way to go back to those times, and I also believe that we have learned a lot since then, that we have deepened our understandings, broadened our knowledge. But I have a nagging feeling that we live in more superficial times now. That life seems somewhat thinner without that rich imaginative layer of stories, shapes, forms and patterns.

But, hey, none of that has gone away. We are able to slow down, to pay attention and to activate our imaginations any time we want. We can see more than a passing glance will reveal. We can make connections of greater depth and significance. We can new stories of the wholeness of Gaia, of the interconnectedness of all beings, of the constantly changing evolution and development of forms and diversity.

We can enrich our lives with art, poetry, stories, music, dance, ritual and loving relationships.

Well, why not?

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One summer day, three years ago, we were sitting out in the garden having lunch. Here in the Charente there is a particular variety of melon – the Charnetais melon. It’s the perfect size to cut in half, scoop out the seeds, and fill the middle with Pineau (a local drink produced by the surrounding vineyards). An easy and delicious dish.

We have several Buddleia bushes in the garden and they attract a lot of butterflies and humming-bird moths.

On this particular occasion, this butterfly decided to join us for lunch, and flew down onto the melon my daughter was about to eat (she seems to attract butterflies even better than the buddleia bushes do, by the way). The butterfly took its time and enjoyed the Pineau – can you see how its proboscis is disappearing down into the alcohol?

This little episode made the lunch experience even better. It added to our pleasure, our delight and our senses of wonder and joy.

As I look at this image again today I’m struck by how the key theme seems to be sharing.

We were happy to share our lunch with the butterfly. More than that, sharing our lunch made the lunch even better.

Isn’t that often the case with sharing? Isn’t a drink, a coffee, a meal, enhanced when we share it with those who we love?

This has been one of the greatest challenges of the pandemic so far, and I suspect it’s going to remain a significant issue for many months to come. Because of enforced distancing, lockdowns, experiences of deaths of loved ones, we’ve been living more isolated lives. Yes, probably we’re all using messaging apps more, using video links more, maybe making more contact over all than we did before but it’s different isn’t it? Yes, we can have a “video party” together and it can be fun. Yes, we can share a “video apero” with friends and catch up. But there’s a lot of everyday, ordinary sharing which we did together that has been put on hold.

However, isn’t one of the most striking features of this pandemic the extent to which so many human beings are prepared to look out for other people, to care for other people, to even put their lives on the line to heal other people?

Isn’t one of the most striking features how scientists around the world have shared their knowledge, ideas and research results with each other?

Isn’t one of the most striking features how governments and their central banks have suddenly discovered they can find the money to support individuals and businesses during these enforced closures?

This is where my hope lies. I know the forces of greed and privilege are still as active as ever. I know the forces of prejudice and injustice are as active as ever. But we have a chance to blow on these positive embers of sharing and see if we can make them glow brighter.

We don’t need to go back to competitive, selfish, hyper-individualistic ways of living. We can build on what we’ve learned – that we share this one world. That we are all interconnected and we can share the problems and the solutions. We can be generous. We can look out for others, care more, share more. We can build on what we have in common, and delight in working together, creating together and sharing together.

Can’t we?

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