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Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

Do you do that “word of the year” thing? Where you choose a word at the beginning of each year, a word which will be some kind of touchstone, theme or “north star” for you?

This year, I’ve decided to choose two…….because I received two books as presents for Christmas and it immediately struck me that between them they lay a foundation for a way of living I highly value.

These are French books, so here’s another innovation for me…..up until now my Word of the Year has been an English word, but, hey, I’ve been living in France for the last five years and I’ve read a LOT of French, so, I reckon it’s high time I choose a couple of French words.

Here’s where things start to get interesting, because I can’t find direct, single word translations of these two words into English. Perhaps, more accurately, I should say I can’t find any direct translations into English which I find satisfying. I think that’s a great example of how learning a second language can both widen and deepen your world.

If you’ve read other posts on my site here you’ll have come across my use of the term “émerveillement” already. The first time I read the phrase “l’émerveillement du quotidien” I was entranced by it. It sort of means “the wonder of the every day”. The word “émerveillement” captures my core value of curiosity, of amazement, of awe and of wonder. I adore those moments when you notice something and it stops you in your tracks, where you pause, savour, and reflect. The more that happens in my life, the better my life seems to me. To really experience “émerveillement” you have to be open minded. You have to be curious, aware and non-judgemental. So the pursuit of “émerveillement” every day brings along with it a whole set of other attitudes and behaviours which I value.

Here are a couple of pages from the book which give you a flavour of why it entrances me –

The second word is “bienveillance” which could be translated as “well-meaning” but again, that direct translation doesn’t quite cut it for me. It is used to cover well-meaning and well-wishing, but also kindness, gentleness and care. So, another set of values and behaviours I really rate and aspire to every day.

Here a couple of pages from that book which might stir the same feelings in you. If they do, then, yet again, a picture will have proven to be worth a thousand words.

That quote in the middle image is from the poet Felicia Herman and it translates as “Happiness doesn’t grow in the gardens of anger”, which is an interesting line to consider in these days of conflict and polarisation.

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I was out looking at a particularly spectacular sunset the other evening then I turned around to look in the opposite direction and saw the birch tree at the other end of the garden.

Look at the colour of it!

Yes, the colour of the sky is pretty gorgeous too, but look how the normally almost black and white birch tree has turn shades of pink and violet.

If you’ve been reading my posts for a while you’ll know it’s pretty common for me to have two main streams of experience in relation to my photos. The first stream is beauty. I just love this for itself. It’s what someone might describe as “uncommonly beautiful” because it’s beautiful AND it doesn’t look like this on most days. When I see something like this, it stops me in my tracks. I had turned around to head back into the house but I stopped walking when I saw this, took a photo, then stood for a while just admiring what I was looking at. It seemed to me that this part of the world had momentarily been transformed by a Celestial Painter. I think what I’m trying to say here is that sometimes I am entranced by the beauty of the world I live in. Not just that I’m in admiration of it, or even that I’m having one of those moments of “emérveillement” that I keep mentioning here. I am “entranced” by it. It’s beauty like this, moments like these, which re-enchant the world for me, and I think that’s something we could all do with – more experiences of enchantment.

The second stream starts up when I’m at my computer, looking through the photographs I’ve taken. Slowly. When I got to this one I had the following thought-stream start up –

You know that phrase “seeing the world in a new light”? Well, usually it’s used when we have a new insight, a different, deeper, understanding of something or someone. But this literally looks like “the world in a new light”! So what? Well, when we have an insight, or a revelation, a lot changes. Not only does the world seem different now, but we are changed too. We’ve changed our perspective perhaps, or we’ve changed our opinions, our beliefs or even our values? Maybe not changed them from something into something else, but changed them in their intensity, their prominence, their power.

The truth is the world is in a new light every day. There’s been much talk these last few days about this being the beginning of a New Year, 2020, and the beginning of a new decade. I wonder if it feels like that to you? I do have a heightened sense of change underway….change in me as well as change in the world.

Isn’t this reality?

That today is a day which has never occurred before. That today is a day you are going to experience for the very first time. That today is a day which will never be repeated (Groundhog Day being a fiction). I think it’s very, very easy to forget that. When we get caught up in the “stuff” inside our heads, the repeat loops of ruminations and fears, we just don’t see reality any more.

Our internal fantasies mask our lived realities.

So, sometimes we need something remarkable to happen. I like that word, “remarkable” – something which induces comment, inspires us to make a “remark”, to pause, to reflect, and then to share that experience with others. Something which prods us into noticing.

Look! This is new! You haven’t been here before, in this very place at this particular moment. Savour it. Enjoy it. Then reflect.

The world looks different in the light of awareness.

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It’s almost the end of the year and a few days I go something caught my eye when I walked out into the garden here in the Charente – daisies!

I don’t know why, but I’ve always associated daisies with the summer, and I don’t remember ever seeing them flower around the time of the winter solstice, but, who knows? Maybe they do! Perhaps if you’ve more botanical knowledge than I have you’ll be able to enlighten me. However, what I’m saying is this is the first time in my life that I’ve been aware of daisies flowering in the winter time.

So what, you might ask?

Well, here’s why this interests me……

I find that when I notice something different, something new to me, that it slows me down, draws me into the here and now, makes me more present. I felt compelled to turn around, get my camera, then go back out and take some photos of these daisies. I enjoy getting down in the grass to take a close up of the small flowers which grow there, and for a few moments, as I frame and focus, I lose myself in this action. Lose myself in the sense of interrupting the almost chaotic nature of the endless flow of thoughts which seem to occupy my busy brain, and focus for a bit, on looking, on discovering, on photographing these little flowers.

So, there’s the first thing. They take me to another place, to another pace.

Second, as is often the case when I slow down, notice, savour and become absorbed by something, I find a sense of wellbeing, of joy, and of transcendence occurring. I feel nurtured by that.

Third, I start to think about what I know about this family of plants – the daisy family – what I know about them is that they have been used by humans, for hundreds of years, to treat injuries. They have a reputation for stimulating and encouraging repair and recovery. Bellis perennis (this common lawn daisy), Chamomilla, Calendula, Echinacea, Millefolium, Arnica, are all members of what we now call the Asteraceae (the daisy family). And they are all members of Nature’s Pharmacy of healing plants, used particularly in the treatment of injuries. There’s an interesting quality which many of the flowers share which relates to this repair-ability they seem to have – when you walk across the grass, standing on daisies as you go, if you stop and look back, it’s hard to see which ones you stepped on – they have great resilience, great ability to withstand and recover from trauma. Isn’t that interesting?

Fourth, and this is because of what I’ve learned over the years about these little plants, as I wander around the garden, crouching down to take the photos, I start to wonder about resilience. How resilience, which incorporates both an ability to withstand trauma, and an ability to recover from it, is much neglected in Medicine. Even in the treatment of injuries, I wasn’t taught much at Medical School about resilience or how to stimulate and nurture it. But isn’t this an essential part of all healing? This poorly understood phenomenon of self-defence, self-regulation and self-repair. I know now it’s a common feature of all “complex adaptive systems“. But that’s not something taught at Medical School either…..

Fifthly, and, if you are familiar with my thought from other posts on this site you’ll see this one coming, I feel humbled. I feel humbled by the astonishing phenomenon of the lives of these pretty flowers. I feel humbled by the realisation of the limits and partial nature of all human knowledge, and, certainly my own! I feel humbled to be in touch with the natural phenomenon of resilience, and ponder what I can do, what we can do together, to stimulate and support the resilience of ourselves, our loved ones, of other living creatures, of ecosystems, of Nature, of our planet Earth.

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I’ve seen many fabulous sunsets in my five years here in the Charente, and I never, ever tire of them. A glimpse out of the window, catching sight of the fabulous colours spreading across the sky from the western horizon, always, always gets me up for a better look. I either open the window and lean out to see more of the sky, or, more frequently, I step outside, with, or without a camera in hand. I took this photo of one of the sunsets I saw this week. It was one of the longest, deepest, widest sunsets I’ve ever seen and I took many photographs. But I also stood for a while simply watching it.

The more I watched the more absorbed I became. It really felt as if the glow in the sky was being replicated with an inner glow. As if my heart, my soul, was resonating with the setting sun as it painted the sky with fabulous pinks, reds and purples.

I also noticed, as you can, that there was a sliver of the Moon up there, and at just about the 11 o’clock position to the Moon was Venus.

We humans have at least two astonishing characteristics. We create and handle symbols, and we tell stories.

Venus and the Moon are symbols of feminine energy, and amongst the many other themes, nurturing and nourishing are two of the fundamental themes of femininity for me. They represent the Mother, who creates and gives birth to her children, who feeds them with her milk, feeds them with the food she prepares, and who nourishes not just their bodies, but their minds, their hearts and their souls. So, when I see this combination of Venus and the Moon in the sky it stirs my gratitude for, and my awe at, the creation of Life in this Universe, the nurture and nourishment which literally grows each baby’s body, brain, heart and spirit, and for the incredible importance of Love in bringing Life into being, in sustaining, and developing each living being.

It’s beautiful. And it’s easy to remember the stories of Venus, the Goddess of Beauty and of Love, who we embed into our every single week by naming one of the days “Vendredi” (or, “Viernes”) although in English, we’ve disguised that connection by switching to the Norse goddess, Frigga, and calling that day “Friday”. It seems incredibly apt to be experiencing the resonances between the beauty of the setting sun and the Goddess of Beauty.

Doesn’t the experience of beauty so often stir our feelings of love?

But there’s more, because the silhouetted tree in this photograph is a plum tree without its leaves. The Moon, which constantly changes, which constantly measures and influences the cycles of the tides and which has given we humans a sense of time cycling rather than running along in a straight line, is sitting there above the plum tree, in its winter phase. Seeing them both together turns my thoughts to rhythms, to seasons, to the constantly changing nature of time, to the cycles of activity and dormancy, to the cycles of hibernation and growth and flourishing. And, that, is beautiful too.

My point is, however, what about you?

What do you see when you look at this image?

What feelings, thoughts, memories, hopes, and desires does it conjure up?

Because the truth is, no two of us ever have exactly the same experiences. This moment, this image, this experience, will be unique for each of us because every one of us brings a unique response. I know, there are shared themes, common aspects, to the experience, but when we slow down, allow our personal thoughts, feelings, images and stories to rise to consciousness, then it becomes something incredibly special.

What a gift it is to be alive. How astonishing it is to be a human being living in this immense universe.

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I came across a Royal College of General Practitioners document recently – “Fit for the Future” – It is a vision of General Practice in the UK for 2030. There is a lot in it that I’d support but one of the statements is this –

An overhaul of the GP-patient record into a personalised ‘data dashboard’, accessible by healthcare professionals across the NHS, and that will draw on data from the patient’s genomic profile and wearable monitoring devices.
Now, maybe you read this and it excites you, but it made me stop and think “Hang on a minute! A ‘data dashboard’?”
I remember a line from the English philosopher, Mary Midgely, in her book, ‘Wisdom, Information and Wonder’.
One cannot claim to know somebody merely because one has collected a pile of printed information about them.
She wrote that back in 1989, and it’s clear that, since then, we have, to some extent, replaced the piles of printed information with hard drives full of data. But the point remains the same – you won’t know somebody just by looking at data.
One of my roles when I worked at the ‘NHS Centre for Integrative Care’ in Glasgow was to train young doctors in holistic practice. They’d be allowed to spend as long a consultation as they wanted with a patient then they would come to “present the case” to me. In other words, they’d consult their notes (often several A4 pages of notes) and tell me what they’d learned about the patient. At times what they actually communicated to me were detailed descriptions of the patient’s symptoms. Sometimes so many symptoms in such detail that the amount of information was quite overwhelming. By the time they’d finished I would find myself saying “Well, you’ve told me a lot but I don’t know who this person is'” I had no picture of the patient, their life, how illness came into it, how they’d coped, or the effects the illness had had on them, their family and their friends. A holistic case history is not a “pile of printed information”.
Data, or information, as Midgley pointed out, makes “much better sense when [it has] a context”. The context is revealed by the story. I don’t see how you fully understand a person without hearing their story.
Yet, one junior doctor told me she was being taught elsewhere “Never believe patients. They lie all the time. You can only believe the data” (meaning the results of investigations). That appalled me. What kind of Medicine can we practise if we think “patients lie all the time”? What kind of Medicine can we practise if we distrust their personal, unique stories, but trust only in “data”?
Now, I’m not saying that data isn’t useful. It can be. It would be daft to ignore that. But putting data up front and centre to the point where it replaces the relationship and the story? That’s my fear. That someone will think, “all we need is good algorithms and they will deliver all the right answers once we feed the data in.”
I’m sceptical. It doesn’t seem rational to me. It doesn’t seem realistic to me. And it risks shoving aside human values and the crucial importance of relationships.
Then, just yesterday the UK Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, put forward an aspiration for every newborn child in the UK to have their genome sequenced.  Interestingly, a poll of doctors revealed – “>2000 responses. Only around 10% of doctors would find genetic data more useful than postcode in planning the care for a newborn baby.”
I think we have to claim the ground for the importance of the unique human story. If, as doctors, we fail to consider the environments and circumstances of an individual life, we will fail our patients.
Data without contexts has some use, but it is not a full understanding of, or even a “knowledge of”, a patient.

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I took this photo over five years ago but it’s still one of my favourites. One of those photos I return to and spend some time with. It does more than please me. It brings back memories of that day. It activates connections I have deep inside. It inspires me.

What do I notice?

Well, the largest part of the image is taken up with rock, and just look at that rock! It flows and it folds as if it is pliable. But, take it from me, that rock feels as hard as ….. well, rock! It must take aeons to shape it like this. What shapes it? I’m not a geologist but it seems pretty obvious to me that the major creative force here is water. See the river rapids just beyond it? That lively, foamy, energy-charged flow of water? That’s the main sculptor here. Moment by moment, day by day, year by year, era by era, it persists, crashing against the rock, flowing over it, caressing it, smoothing it, shaping it.

There’s something else in that interaction of rock and water which is not so obvious from this image…..the water and the rock change each other. The content of the water is changed by the elements washed out of the rock. The direction, the speed and the force of the water is changed by their encounter.

The look directly in front of the rock at the log…..this log which is the remains of a tree which fell who knows how long ago and who knows where? It looks like it has been carried downstream to here. Is this where its journey ends? It too has been shaped by the river. It brings its own structure, its own patterns, but it now reflects the flow of the water and the markings on the rock it lies next to.

Each of these, the river, the rock, the tree, are interacting with each other, exchanging atoms and molecules, intermingling their energies, influencing and shaping each other.

In front of the tree is more water, this time less energetic, less white and foamy. This time pooling more peacefully, almost resting between the tree and some smaller rocks. And look at that rock in the front of the photo….a striped rock, a history of millennia running right through its middle, reminding us just how ancient this world is.

When I look at that striped rock I see a hint of a baby elephant. Now there’s one creature which has never been known to stroll through the forests of Scotland! But that’s how we function, we humans, isn’t it? We are continually being influenced by and interacting with everything we see, everything we hear, smell, taste and touch, and by all those invisible flows of microbes, molecules, and energies that continuously shape us, just as we shape them.

That’s what this image leads to, for me ……. a sense of the Life Force, the Creative Force of the Universe …… active, dynamic, flowing, shaping, influencing and interacting.

That delights me.

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What do you see here?

Autumn leaves? Some turned partially red, some now brown and dusky, others as white as bones…..

People talk about leaves falling at this time of year, but do they fall, or are they pushed? Or do they jump? I’m not a botanist and I don’t know the answer to that question but I do wonder about it….especially when I look at this wonderful “Boston Ivy”, or “Faux vigne”, which covers the huge wall along one side of the garden.

Isn’t it glorious when it’s at the peak of the transition?

Well, I’ve seen hundreds of photos of red, yellow, golden and brown leaves over the years but I never get tired of them. Like sunsets and rosy dawns they are magnets for me. They draw me outside to have a better look. But look what happens next with this particular plant…..

These are the stalks which connected each leaf to the rest of the plant. A few days on, and these stalks will be lying on the ground in heaps. How does that happen? How do the leaves leave the stalks, and then, the stalks leave the vine? I don’t know. It amazes me. I’ve lived here for five years now this month, and every year this unfolding sequence of leaves changing colour, leaves falling to reveal all the stalks, then stalks falling to reveal ……..

…purple berries on bright red stalks……well, I just love it.

If you go back to the first photo in this post you’ll see a couple of purple berries lying there in amongst the leaves…and, remember, each of those berries contains the seed/s of new plants, so in that one image I see something like the alchemical image of the snake which swallows it’s own tail (the Ouroborus)

Nature, seen, this way, isn’t linear…..the past, the present and the future all there in the one moment, the one image…I feel the rhythms, see the cycles, experience the connectedness of everything.

As T S Eliot wrote, in The Four Quartets –

 

Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

 

(read the poem here)

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