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Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

What strikes me about this photo is that I can see two completely different kinds of threads which bind. There is the wire wound round and round the wooden poles to create a fence, holding the cross posts tight to the upright. And there is the web.

I like the words entwined and entangled, because I think they highlight an often invisible aspect of reality. We are, all of us, inter-connected. We all exist in vast webs of relationships. You can’t really see a relationship. It isn’t measurable, but it is still the basis of reality. We are constantly exchanging materials, energy and information with others. Our relationships are between us and other humans, between us and other creatures, and between us and the planet.

Perhaps the most fundamental characteristic of our relationships is that they change us, and we change the others. It’s never one way. We absorb, are stimulated by, penetrated by, elements, molecules, and organisms. We exist in energy waves which penetrate us, changing our own energy patterns as they do so. We live in a continuous flow of information, picking up signals, responding to signs, symbols and stimuli, moment by moment. At the same time we send out molecules in our breath, in our body fluids, from our skin. We emit energies produced by the beating of our heart, by the activity of our brain, and by the rhythms of our cells. We send out information, signals, and signs all the time.

This reality of inter-connectedness underpins our inter-dependency. Not one of us could exist without the entangled webs and ecosystems in which we live. There’s a strange fantasy about space travel…..that you could take a human being, build them a house on the Moon, or on Mars, and start to create a new place to live. But human beings live as only one of hundreds of inter-dependent species on planet Earth, and take one species out (if such a thing were possible – it’s not – you exist with more micro-organisms than you do with ancestral cells), and then see how it can survive, let alone thrive. It’s a fantasy.

We don’t choose most of our entanglements. Not consciously. We are born into many of them, nurtured within them, and live within them. We are so unaware of the rest of Nature that we think of ourselves as outside, apart from, separate from, all of existence. We aren’t. We all exist inside, a part of, integrated within Nature, and Nature is a vast, complex, interconnected web of ties, of bonds, of connections and relationships. We are so unaware of Society that we think of ourselves as separate individuals, as if nothing others do could affect us, as if nothing we do could affect others. But we exist socially, culturally, economically, in one vast, interconnected system.

But we can choose some of our entanglements. We can become more aware of our day to day reality, and, then, when we pause to reflect, and observe, we can learn, see, hear and know more. Only then does conscious choice have a chance. Only then can we develop responses on top of all our reactions. (reactions being automatic)

There’s something to think about – what are my entanglements? How and with whom am I entwined? How do those connections and relationships change me, influence me, move me? And how do I change, influence and move them?

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In my photo library I’ve named this “waterfalls”. Yep, plural. And when I looked at it again this morning I thought it seemed a great image to stimulate thought about working together…..in fact, “flowing together” was the phrase which popped into my mind. I slowed down the shutter speed for this photo so the water would blur like this. I think the whole sense of movement and flow is captured better that way. There’s a power in this scene, and that power lies in the water itself. Or, at least, that’s how it seems at first.

So I look at this and think, this is what we are like together…..when we flow together…..when our energies, our focus and our direction all align. Isn’t that beautiful?

I’d almost be happy to leave it at that. Just to put this image in front of you and hope that you’ll think of the power and the beauty of harmony, resonance and alignment.

But, then I wondered why I’d called the photo “waterfalls”, plural. Isn’t it just one waterfall? After all most waterfalls don’t have a single stream of water falling over a specific rock. Rather, most waterfalls are made up of multiple paths where different amounts of water channel through particular spaces, and tumble over specific rocks. We don’t look at a waterfall which has six streams of water falling and think, oh look at those six waterfalls, do we? Or maybe we do.

So that’s where my mind went next. It went off to reflect on our very human capacity to separate out whatever we are looking at. To break the whole down into parts. There are a number of words for that – abstraction is one. Abstraction is where we abstract, or remove, something from its context. Our left hemisphere is brilliant at doing that. Indeed it seems that’s the normal process……the whole flows into the right hemisphere which hands off some of that flow to the left so it can abstract the components, the parts, the pieces……abstract them, label them, categorise them. And, yes, what’s supposed to happen next is that the left passes the results of that analysis back to the right for it to re-contextualise it. It’s just, if Iain McGilchrist is right, that this process has broken down and we have developed the habit of giving priority to the work of the left hemisphere…….too often we see only the parts, and forget to re-contextualise them.

If we don’t allow ourselves to use our whole brain, then we see two waterfalls here, where, seeing the whole would mean we see just one.

I don’t know what works best for you, but I’ve had a lifetime of work refusing to rest with reductionist abstractions, and always striving to see and hear the unique whole person every time. Yes, I’ve had to focus down onto parts, perhaps listening to someone’s lungs or heart, perhaps measuring the level of a component in their blood, but, I’ve always preferred to re-contextualise whatever those abstractions reveal.

I think we need to do more of that.

I think we need to see the whole, to see the contexts, to seek the connections and relationships, and to realise that every experience we have changes us…..just as this beautiful waterfall constantly changes, moment by moment, month by month, year by year.

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When I look at this photo the leaves seem like pieces of gold at first. Perhaps golden coins. But then I quickly see that they are fallen autumn leaves, with gold, brown, yellow and even green ones. The rock they have landed on, or stuck onto, seems like a collecting point, or a resting point. Maybe the leaves fell here from overhanging trees, but, in fact there weren’t any trees directly overhanging this rock, so maybe they were blown onto this rock. Alternatively, maybe they were swept downstream on the fast flowing water. Whatever their origin and mode of transport, they stuck to this wet rock.

Here’s what comes up for me as I reflect on this image……

Life flows past fast. It rushes by, moment by moment, day by day, even year by year. It never stops. Life is continuous and full of movement, just like this tumbling highland stream. There are places, however, where we can pause. Places or moments where we can step out of the rush and flow of things for a moment and take a breather. It’s important to do that.

When we do step onto the rock, which represents the time out moment, we find that there is some gold there. We find that stuck onto that place of rest there are some golden moments, and some of the gifts from golden moments, from the past. This reminds me of gratitude practice. Many people have demonstrated the benefits to our mental health and wellbeing of doing regular gratitude practice.

Quite simply, there is much to gain from taking a pause, a few moments, and either writing down some of the experiences, events, relationships, gifts for which we are grateful, or even calling them to mind, re-creating them in our imagination, and stirring the benefits of those special times all over again.

The rock, in these musings, becomes a place in the mind. A place where I rest, stand apart for a moment, create what Iain McGilchrist calls “the necessary distance” which allows us to reflect, to set new perspectives, and to see the whole. It’s a place of integration……where I reinforce the mutually beneficial bonds between me and “the other”.

Then I step off into the stream again, and flow off onto the next part of the journey.

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The Fushimi Inari temple just outside Kyoto is quite unlike any other place I’ve visited. It’s an experience which was unique and which remains vivid in my psyche many years later. You follow a path through a forest, up a hill until you get to the top. The path has hundreds of these “Torii” gates enclosing much of it.

You’ve probably seen photos of these types of brightly coloured gateways from Japan. I think they are amazing. They are simple, beautiful and magical.

As you walk up the path you pass under one gate after another, and it never becomes “same-y”. It seems that you can experience the uniqueness of each gate, one at a time, and, of course, if you stop, look ahead, turn round and look back, then you see these long snaking tunnels…..because although the gates are clearly separate from each other, as you look at a number of them extending into the distance, the spaces disappear and they seem to form a continuous arch.

Maybe the closest thing to this in Europe would be a cloister with multiple arches, but, even that is not quite the same.

If I stand here and look back, I see a trail of events and experiences represented by each of the gates. Each event was unique, every experience changed me. Some of them stand out in my memory and I can see them clearly, others have fused with the ones around them to create a longer period of my life which I remember with only some representative details.

If I stand here and look forward, I see a cascade of events and experiences lying before me. Not fully formed, and not realised until I reach that point in my path. The ones closer to me lie in my immediate future and I see them fairly clearly. The further out ones are hard to distinguish, hard to know in their details.

Both of those orientations seem right to me. Both of them influence and inform the point where I have reached, the present time and place, under this one torii gate we call this moment.

As I reflect on my life this way, I realise that every event has its unique context, every experience comes into being as I live it, and transforms me, and my life. I realise I can’t see very far into the future, that the future is not lying fully formed ahead of me, but that some aspects of the future are already in place, waiting to create my next, singular, and special experiences of what will become “now” when I reach them.

I can reflect on the larger scale this way too, looking back over the last 18 months of this pandemic, remembering some of the events which changed me, and straining to look ahead, having, yet again, that feeling of uncertainty, of doubt, and wonder……knowing that none of us know, but that we have a pretty good idea of how the near future will look, all the same.

Perhaps this is not the most creative way to think about the past and the future, but I like it. It brings together the connectedness of events and experiences. It reminds me how every one of them changes me. And it reinforces my understanding that I need to be humble, flexible, and adaptable, responding to each gate as I reach it.

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I have a life long love affair with books. My grandpa used to read to me when I was young, working his way through books like “Tales of a Grandfather” by Walter Scott, and collections of myths and fairy tales. I’ve always been intensely curious and had a fascination for both the local “reference library” and for story books from the “lending library”. Goodness knows how many books I’ve bought in my life, and I really don’t know how many I still have. I do know that most people who have come to my house seem surprised by just how many books there are, so I guess I have more than most people do.

I love bookshops, old and new, and I adore browsing around the booksellers at fairs and markets. It was a market like the one in this photo which caught my imagination whilst on holiday in France many years ago, and probably seeded my idea to retire when I did, and come to live in France. I had decided I wanted to live part of my life not just in another physical part of the world with a different geography, climate and history, but I wanted to live in a different culture. In particular I wanted to immerse myself in the language and literature of France…..it seemed to offer both different ways of seeing and understanding the world, and to open up whole areas of thought and observation which was unknown to me.

But I didn’t switch away from English to French. I still read a lot more English than I do French. I’ve been here just over six years now and it’s fulfilling all I’d hoped for. Of course, with the pandemic even bookshops were closed, and certainly markets and fairs were cancelled, but that hasn’t slowed down my reading.

There are a couple of very famous French books I’d recommend to anyone – they are so famous that they’ve been translated into many languages so chances are you won’t need to learn French to be able to read them. They are “The Little Prince” by Saint Exupery. It’s a brilliant, thought provoking story, beautifully illustrated. Many, many years ago I found a book in a bookshop in Aix en Provence. It’s called “Donner un sens à l’existence” by Jean-Philippe Ravoux. He’s a professor of philosophy in Aix, and the subtitle is “ou pourquoi Le Petit Prince est le plus grand traité de métaphysique du XXe siècle” – so, it’s, roughly, “Making sense of existence” – “or why The Little Prince is the greatest work of metaphysics in the 20th century”. It’s a brilliant little book, which draws on Saint Exupery’s story to enable the reader to explore a philosophy of life. I love it. Sadly, I don’t think it’s ever been translated into any other languages. However, don’t despair, just read The Little Prince. I really, really recommend it.

The second very famous French book which I recommend is Montaigne’s Essays. OK, the full collection is HUGE, and the original in Old French, beyond me. But I have copies in both French and English. However, what I’d recommend to absolutely anyone is Sarah Bakewell’s “How to Live. A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer”. It’s brilliant. It’s really an easy read and I think it makes an utterly fabulous introduction to the life and work of Montaigne. The man was a genius and his essays have been translated into many languages and still stand the test of time.

If I really get into recommending books I’ll never stop! But I thought I’d just share these two works with you today – because they continue to be my favourites, I have never stopped re-reading them, and you are likely to be able to find translations into your own language.

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At the edge of the sea where the waves break onto the sad, sometimes you find an area like this, filled with pebbles and bubbling, foaming water. The hissing sound of the water as thousands of bubbles burst, and the clattering sound of the pebbles as they are tumbled back and forth by the waves is a beautiful sound.

When I look at this image I see the contrast between the foam and the stone. The foam lasts seconds, maybe a couple of minutes at most. The stones look permanent. They seem unchanging. But of course, they’re not. The reason that they are so smooth and rounded and glistening is due to the fact that they are undergoing constant transformation by the water. As they are washed and soaked by the water and rattled over each other by the waves, they change all the time, losing atoms to the sea, having their rough surfaces smoothed, and gradually, gradually, being reduced to sand.

The big difference between the foam and the stone is one of duration. Both are impermanent. Both are constantly changing. It’s just that the water does all that much more quickly than the stone does. In fact, the stone does it so slowly that we are mislead into thinking that the pebbles are permanent, eternal, unchanging. They’re not.

The other thing which strikes me when I look at this photo is how it reveals the fundamental truth that everything that exists is constantly being transformed by the encounters it makes with other things. We tend to think of the world as being made up of separate, easily identifiable, different objects – whether they are stones, trees, lakes or creatures.

But what about thinking about the world as made up of subjects, not objects? If everything (I really need to find another word for “thing” because just by using that I turn the world into a collection of objects!) which exists is in constant relationships with others….similar others, and totally different others…..and if those relationships change each of the partners through their encounters and experiences then maybe its better to think of the world as a community of subjects.

The world – not a collection of disconnected objects which can be standardised and replicated, but a community of subjects who co-inhabit the same planet and who resist standardisation through the perpetual transformations of being which emerge from their encounters.

Becoming, not being.

A finite, temporal world of encounters and experiences.

When I think of life this way I find a feeling of resistance arise in me – a resistance in the face of commodification, objectification, standardisation and control. It drives my desire for freedom, feeds my curiosity and opens me to the formation of new relationships and the experience of new encounters, every, single, day.

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Why don’t I just keep my photos in albums which I flip through from time to time?

Why don’t I just write my thoughts and ideas in a personal journal which nobody can read but me?

Because I’m driven to share.

We humans have developed as intensely social creatures. We haven’t evolved to survive as independent, isolated creatures. We have one of the longest dependent infancies on the planet. The little birds I see hatching in nests in the mulberry tree go from looking like small bald dinosaurs with open beaks, to feathered individuals which fly from the nest, successful on first flight, within days. It takes babies many months to walk, to speak and to be able to feed themselves with the food which they have no ability to find by themselves.

You know what I mean. We are created with the social means, the relationship-forming means, to survive and thrive.

Look at these wee girls. I don’t know what they are sharing but you can tell just from their body language how enthusiastically they are sharing. This is a basic, fundamental, necessary drive in all humans.

OK, I know, some people prefer to be more private, to limit their sharing to one or two, or a small handful of, people. But if we have no-one to share with, then, over time, that becomes a problem. We feel alienated, separated, lonely or abandoned. Depression sets in as a kind of implosion obscuring our view of others and of the rest of the world. When I worked at the Centre for Integrative Care in Glasgow, we would sometimes take a patient into the garden and sit with them noticing…..seeing the flowers, the bushes and trees, hearing the birds, spotting the squirrels and the fox. Those times enabled people to safely take the first steps out of the dark hole of depression. Their attention was captured by the natural world and their energy and focus began to flow back into a positive form of connection.

I made a commitment to write a post every day when the first lockdown came in here in France. I suppose, like all of us, I had no idea how long this pandemic would last, and so, it’s something of a surprise to find I’m still creating these daily posts. My thinking was to share one of my photos and also some of the thoughts and feelings which came up within me when I looked at particular images. The main reason to do that was that I find these photos and the reflections they elicit, a source of joy, wonder, delight and positivity.

So, this was my original thought – what if I shared something positive every day? What ripples might that set off? Whose lives might they touch? Might the joys, the wonders and delights become magnified in the sharing? I think they do. Because that’s the really fascinating thing about sharing – it’s not giving away – it’s not losing something that somebody else gains – it magnifies its positive effects on both or us. My life feels better at least in part because of this daily sharing. And I hope yours does too.

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What makes this photo special?

For me, it’s the sort of symmetry you can see here between the rows of vines covering the hillside and the rays of sunlight shining down through the gaps in the cloud.

There’s a resonance there. A sort of harmony which catches my attention. I think “as above, so below”, which is an old esoteric teaching about the way in which this physical world and the spiritual world are connected….or, if you prefer, how the Earth is connected to the Sky or Heavens.

Our brains are brilliant at spotting patterns. In fact, we don’t just spot patterns in the way that a mirror might reflect what stands in front of it, we create patterns. We learn patterns. We remember patterns. Think of the night sky, for example. Once you’ve been taught to see the invisible lines between some of the stars you call them constellations. And then you can find them again much more easily in the millions and millions of stars shining down on a clear night. But someone imagined those lines. They aren’t the same as the threads which make up a spider’s web, or the lines of minerals running through stones you find when you are out for a walk. Our ancestors created those patterns, and told stories so that others would be able to see them and share them.

So we are brilliant at spotting “similars” – we see patterns and attempt to match them to ones we know already, or others we can see, or create in the same moment. When we spot a similar it’s exciting. It’s “remarkable” – it’s attention grabbing and potentially meaning-creating – because that’s something else we are great at – making experiences and perceptions meaning-full. We constant attempt to make sense of the world we are living in, and to connect our experiences to a sense of purpose.

Some of these matches, these “similars” are like resonances – and this is one of those. Resonances are like harmonies. They delight. They spark a little joy, set off some feelings of awe or wonder. They are special.

This is one of the ways in which we can live a more “enchanted” life. A more “meaningful”, “rich”, “deep”, life. A life of soul. A life of spirit. A connected, “integrated” life. A healthy life. A life of flow and movement.

What patterns do you notice today? And what resonances, or similarities, do you see between those patterns, both between them and ones you already know, and between them and the others around you today?

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I saw this woman yesterday standing outside a supermarket in the middle of town. I was struck by the size of the books she was holding, and which she couldn’t resist opening and starting to read. It turns out they are a trilogy of YA fiction by a famous French author, the third volume having just been published, which is maybe what inspired this woman to buy all three.

I understand this compulsion. I’ve always had way too many books on my shelves….well, way too many in the sense that I couldn’t read them all in one lifetime. But that doesn’t stop me buying new ones. Suffice it to say I read a LOT!

I’ve had a fascination for stories all my life. In my earliest years I remember my Grandpa reading to me – he read me all of Walter Scott’s “Tales of a Grandfather” and he read me collections of myths, legends and fairy stories which he bought for me when I was born. My mum used to have a photograph hanging on the wall of her living room. It was a black and white print showing my Grandpa reading in the local library. I guess I got that gene!

I’ve told countless people that when I worked at the NHS Centre for Integrative Care (which I did for the latter two decades of my career), I used to look forward to meeting a new patient every Monday morning because I knew they would tell me a unique story – one I’d never heard before. In fact, story was the very heart of my engagement with these patients who, largely, suffered from long term conditions which had failed to respond to drug treatments.

Did it surprise me that they had failed to respond to drug treatments? Nope. Because there aren’t any drugs for people, there are only drugs for diseases and drugs to suppress symptoms. Drugs don’t heal. At best they create an environment conducive to healing. It turns out it’s people who heal, not drugs. It’s people with self-defending, self-repairing, self-balancing, self-creating and growing interwoven complex systems who heal.

I found that stories were the way to understand a patient. Not symptoms.

I read a piece about a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, Karl Deisseroth, yesterday, and in that interview he said

Anybody can read a diagnostic manual and see a list of symptoms, but what really matters to the patient is a different story

see it here

which reminded me of a passage by the English philosopher, Mary Midgely, which I read many years ago –

One cannot claim to know somebody merely because one has collected a pile of printed information about them.

Wisdom, Information and Wonder. Mary Midgley

and of this passage from philosopher Richard Kearney

Telling stories is as basic to human beings as eating. More so, in fact, for while food makes us live, stories are what make our lives worth living.

On Stories. Richard Kearney

In fact, that latter passage came into my head as I took this photo – here’s a woman absorbed in stories, standing next to empty supermarket trolleys and with her back to the stalls of food laid out in front of the shop.

Stories, I found, weren’t just the way to understand a person (to make a diagnosis even), but they were also the way to heal. By helping someone create a new story, I could stimulate that complex of healing systems within them, and spur them on to more than relief from suffering…….More than? Yes, to more self-awareness, more self-compassion, and to a re-evaluation of their life choices, habits and behaviours.

Stories can set us free.

Mind you, it’s also true that we can get trapped by stories – the stuck, multilayered ones we’ve been taught as children, or been brainwashed into believing by others. But even then, the answer, the release, the movement forwards, lies in the creation of new stories……our own, unique stories which allow us to realise our hopes, express our singularity, and live the life we want to lead.

Stories, you see, have a magnetic pull. We don’t live without them.

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There are a few stories circulating which I find really disturbing. Stories of EU citizens being detained at the UK Border when attempting to visit the UK for a holiday or to visit family or friends….detained then being refused entry and sent back home because the Border Guards didn’t believe what they were being told about the visitor’s intention. There are so many such stories now that some EU citizens are saying they’ll never try to visit Britain again. The Home Office response is to say that the vote for Brexit was one to make it more difficult for EU citizens to enter into Britain so they are are just doing what “the people” voted for. I’m not sure even the minority of UK voters who voted for Brexit really wanted stop young people from Europe visiting family and friends in the UK.

What especially bothers me about these stories is that they fit with the harsh rhetoric used against asylum seekers and immigrants. I think it was Theresa May who started the “harsh environment” policy which has been developed into this present form. “Harsh environment” – make life difficult for certain people – what a starting point! What a sad, hardening of hearts

Another group of stories which are disturbing me is about the daily abuse and threats directed at doctors, nurses, health care staff, and paramedics. The British Medical Association say a majority of their members receive abuse or threats daily, and England is currently considering fitting body cameras to all paramedics to try to protect them from abuse and violence, or to catch the perpetrators of such actions.

In my four decades as a doctor, half of them as a GP, I don’t remember a single episode of abuse or threat directed at me, at any of my colleagues, or at our staff. What a tragedy!

Isn’t that also part of a de-humanisation, or de-personalisation of care? A hardening of hearts? The entire health care system has been reformed along lines consistent with managerialism – it’s now the language of consumers, customers and clients, of targets, financial “efficiencies” and of tasks – the language of people has got a bit lost. Yet health care is surely based on the doctor-patient relationship – where the people involved – the doctors and the patients – should be paramount, not the protocols, the processes and the financial constraints.

I could go on…..we see a harsh language and deliberate cruelties inflicted on the most vulnerable who need State help. The Ken Loach film, I, Daniel Black, described very well the sad, and unnecessarily mean ways in which the poor and the sick are treated in society. Harsh environment seems to have spread to the treatment of the poor as well.

I can’t help thinking this is a loss. A loss of quality of life and loss of decency, kindness and justice.

Maybe its the result of the wrong “-isms”? Of the financial and economic wrongs wrought by “capitalism”, of the wrong-headed priorities set by financial-ism, and the dehumanising nature of materialism and managerialism. Maybe you could add a few -isms that you think are contributing to this?

I guess what I’d like to see is a rise in “people-ism” – in actions, policies, strategies and behaviours which put people first – people before profits, and before processes.

I’d like to see some softening of hearts as we allow ourselves to be curious about everyone, and to find out just how inter-related and inter-dependent we all are on this little planet Earth.

I’d like to see more priority given to open handed-ness, to open hearted-ness and to kindness.

Is that an unreasonable ask?

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