Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

Sometimes I think I don’t say it clearly enough, so I’m focusing on it today.

Here’s my core belief – I believe love is the strongest force in the universe. I believe that love, in all its manifestations, underpins the creation of Life, the existence of human beings, and the constant movement towards ever greater complexity through the creation of an infinite network of connections.

I believe that it is love manifests as attraction. From the blending together of energies and universal forces, to the binding together of subatomic elements to create atoms, the building up of atoms into molecules, and molecules into complex materials which combine to create living cells, to the desire of cells to live together and form mutually beneficial bonds so creating multi-cellular creatures, right up to the way we humans are fundamentally social creatures where none of us could exist in utter isolation.

That deep intense love a parent feels for their new baby from the moment they set eyes on each other. Without that love, no bond would form, and without the bonds of selfless care, that baby would die. With an abundance of love and care that baby can more than survive, they can develop, grow and excel in becoming the unique individual that only they can be.

I believe it is love for other creatures, other forms of life, for this little planet, Earth, in which we all live, which stokes our curiosity, opens our hearts, moves us towards each other and to towards new discoveries. It’s our love of knowledge and understanding which underpins everything from science to philosophy. It’s our love of beauty which underpins so much creativity and art.

I believe it is our love for justice which drives us to demand it.

As I look around the world in these pandemic times, of course I see lots of evidence of cruelty, unfairness and neglect. But I also see an outpouring of love, of people reaching out to each other, of people caring for each other, of people risking their very lives for each other.

I am attracted to those who have loving hearts and minds. I am repelled by those who are driven by hate and cruelty. But here’s the strange thing, from my experience of a lifetime of work as a doctor working with patients one to one I believe that love has the potential to heal even the most hardened, most hurt, most closed off hearts and minds.

So, let me say it clearly once more.

I believe love is the strongest force in the universe.

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This cut crystal really hits the spot for me – firstly, I see it and I think it is really beautiful. The beauty of it delights me. Secondly, I’m amazed by it. The craftsmanship involved in imaging then fashioning a piece like this utterly astonishes me. Thirdly, it fascinates me. I gaze at it and look at the way the light travels through it. I see how each facet acts like a lens through which I can see the other facets, and how all the facets act as lenses on the window and the rest of the room.

I can have that blend of responses to many of the photos I have and I think that’s got a lot to do with my decisions about which to gather together into my “best photos” folder. Beauty, amazement, wonder and fascination. Altogether they bring me joy. And, without falling into the habit of ranking and creating hierarchies, I think joy is one of the most emotions we can have in our daily lives. Joy activates a whole set of physical and psychological changes in us. And, it just feels GOOD.

But this image does one more thing for me, the thing I really look for in my special collection of best of the best images – it inspires, stimulates thought, curiosity, wonder, and a potentially infinite web of threads of thought.

This idea of a multi-faceted interface gets me thinking about how we humans are like this. Whenever a patient told me their story, as we explored different themes, events and experiences, I’d see them shining like this – each aspect, each theme, each way of behaving, of experiencing, of engaging with the world glimmering like one of these facets. There are many selves within each of us. In 1977 the Scottish psychiatrist, Miller Mair, described a model of the “self” coining the term “community of self” – his idea was that none of us can be reduced to one simple set of characteristics, behaviours and qualities. Each of us exhibits a different self in different contexts – for example, there would be differences in how I was with patients, from how I was with my family, with colleagues and with friends. But that each of these selves were not separate, at least, if we were mentally healthy. Instead, they would all be integrated into one – into one community where they all interacted to give us the sensation of a unitary, or single, self. I liked that model. It opened up the possibilities of exploration of different aspects of a person, often contradictory or opposing aspects, while allowing every one them a place where they could be accepted.

This idea also makes me think of Indra’s Web – that beautiful idea of the universe consisting of an infinite be-jewelled web, where everything is connected, and every gleaming jewel reflects all the other jewels. I think that’s a great model for understanding the world in which we live.

It also makes me think of how we use multiple lenses through which to see, and understand, the world. In fact, if we reduce ourselves to seeing everything through just one small lens or window we find that we tumble into division and conflict with others who don’t share that single lens. But when we embrace the multiplicity of lenses through which we can see the world we can find points of connection with others.

That’s my final thought for today – not only are we all like this multifaceted cut crystal, but when one of our facets lights up in connection with one of someone else’s facets, then we don’t just make a connection, we can brighten each others lives.

I hope this lens, this shining small facet, here today, brightens your life today, and that you, too, feel the stirrings of joy, of wonder, of delight and of connection.

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A human being is a part of the whole, called by us, “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.”

Albert Einstein

This is foam on a beach. As the waves break, turn white, and crash onto the sand, sometimes they make bubbles…..lots of them. If you look closely you’ll see all different sizes of bubbles and as they catch the sunlight they show us all the colours of the rainbow. They are like delicate, precious gems. However, like all bubbles, they don’t last very long. As you watch, they pop and disappear before your eyes, disappearing back into the rest of the surf, back into the great ocean which they never actually left.

Einstein says our sense of being separate is an optical illusion. We have these functions we call consciousness, ego and self…..what are they? Where can we find them? Where do they come from and where do they go to?

I am convinced that each of us is unique. I spent my working life meeting, getting to know and to understand, thousands of people, one person at a time. I never found any two people who were identical. I find it’s easy to judge people when you don’t know them. It’s easy to make loose assumptions about individuals when you only “know” them as members of a group or a category. But when you take time to listen without judging, when you actively build a relationship of care, I find that everybody has something amazing to tell. Everyone has the ability to astonish you. The hearts, the desires, the longings, the hurts and the struggles of others create utterly unique life stories, and remarkable people.

But I’ve never thought that we are separate. As you start to follow the threads in a person’s life story, it’s hard to find a starting point. In fact, we doctors are taught to explore a patient’s family, their social, work and personal relationships, as well as their particular body and mind. Holistic practice demands that we follow the threads in as many directions as we can. Frequently, patients would tell me they had never told anyone else what they had told me and that I must know them better now than anyone else does. Yet, I knew I spent only a few short hours over a number of months with them, so how could I really know them? I knew how I’ve never got to the point where I think I know and understand everything about myself, let alone about anyone else.

Well reality is like that. We encounter individuals on particular occasions. Like these bubbles in the foam we can see them, recognise their uniqueness, but they are never separate. We are all connected. We all emerge from the same ocean, from the same atmosphere, from the same ecosystems. We have all evolved from the same beginnings. As we live our lives, our short, transient lives, we build an infinite number of connections and relationships. Everything and everyone is always changing.

I think that’s the most amazing and thrilling aspect of life – that we have the ability to separate out, to see each bubble as it is, to know each person as they are, whilst at the very same time knowing that whatever it is, whoever they are, this appearance of separateness is a delusion.

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Every connection we make is a bond. Every relationship we have involves an interaction between ourselves and the other which changes both parties in the process.
In Saint Exupery’s “The Little Prince” he describes two key relationships, one which the Prince has with a rose, and one with a fox. In both cases he makes the point that creating the relationship changes how they see each other. In that process they become unique to each other, they start to care about each other, and, in fact, they become responsible for each other.

Lynne McTaggart writes in her book, “The Bond

An entirely new scientific story is emerging that challenges many of our Newtonian and Darwinian assumptions, including our most basic premise: the sense of things as separate entities in competition for survival. The latest evidence from quantum physics offers the extraordinary possibility that all of life exists in a dynamic relationship of co-operation.
All matter exists in a vast quantum web of connection, and a living thing at its most elemental is an energy system involved in a constant transfer of information with its environment.
The world essentially operates, not through the activity of individual things, but in the connection between them – in a sense, in the space between things.

We often have the tendency to think of a bond as a limitation, even something which imprisons us, as if each bond is a chain. But, I prefer to think of bonds as relationships, as connections which, at their best, are “integrative” – that is – mutually beneficial bonds between well differentiated parts. That, after all, is how the body works. Every single cell, every organ, every tissue and every system within the body exists in constant interaction with all the others. It functions because the basis of all these relationships is the creation of mutually beneficial bonds. And as I often think, what happens inside the body, happens outside the body. In other words, what we come to understand about the nature of reality by coming to understand ourselves helps us to understand the entirety of reality.

Carlo Rovelli, the nuclear physicist, advocates a relational understanding of the universe. He says

The world is not a collection of things, it is a collection of events. The difference between things and events is that things persist in time, events have a limited duration. A stone is a prototypical ‘thing’: we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not stones.

Once we shift our awareness away from parts and separate entities towards relationships, connections, experiences and events, we find a whole other set of values develop.

Try it for yourself and see how it seems to you.

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I took this photo in a steampunk themed cafe in Capetown a few years ago. There’s no doubting this is a work of art. There is a beauty in technology which we can admire in both some of the latest devices and machines we have available to us, and there’s also a certain beauty in old technologies, which are the source material for these steampunk creations.

But we humans have become almost hypnotised by the machine model of reality. Everywhere we go we see machines. We use the concepts of components, parts, processes with inputs and predictable outputs everywhere. The human body is often thought of as an elaborate, perhaps complicated, machine. But it isn’t.
If there is one big modern myth I’d like to counter it’s the myth of the machine. Life is NOT machine-like. Human beings are not like machines….no not even computers! Animals and plants are not like machines. Reality, in fact, is not machine-like.

Why not?
Because reality, Nature and Life are not assemblages of components. We are not made up of discrete parts which can just be replaced.

Reality, Nature and Life are non-linear and massively interconnected. Nothing exists in isolation and every movement, every behaviour, every birth, life and death makes changes which ripple through the entire world. Life is dynamic, never fixed. Life is emergent….it changes in ways which cannot be predicted at the individual level. Life is adaptive, constantly detecting and responding to changes in the environment and in the vast networks of relationships.

Reality, Nature and Life are inter-dependent. All that exists is implicated in the co-creation of all that exists.
Some scientists have defined life as possessing a quality of “auto-poiesis” – self-making capacity – all living creatures grow, mature, reproduce, replace cells, repair damage throughout their entire lives.
Others define life as having “self-moving capacity” – a stone can’t move itself, but a bacterium can, a bird can, a human can.

In fact, it’s still pretty amazing to look at Biology textbooks, check the index and see if you can find a definition of Life. Let me know if you find any! Similarly, textbooks of Medicine don’t seem to have even index entries, let alone whole chapters, about “health” – it isn’t even defined!

There are many other arguments to consider which make the case for just how UNLIKE machines reality, Nature and Life are. So, why do we persist? Thinking we can deal with reality as if it is a giant machine. Why do we persist in giving such attention to short term thinking and reductionist science? Because the longer the time scale, the less and less machine-like, reality appears.

In the last fifty years or so there have been great advances in our understanding of networks, of systems, and of “complex adaptive systems” in particular. We are waking up to the inter-dependent nature of this little planet we all share. My hope is that these insights will shift the balance and the machine-like model will be put back in the box where it deserves to be – the box marked “machine”. Let’s not put anything else in there!

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As I walked along this beach I came across a piece of seaweed and shell. But that’s not where my observation ended. So, I stopped and took this photo.

What do you see?

Maybe you see a piece of seaweed and a shell on the sand.

But maybe you see the suggestion of a face? Maybe this piece of seaweed looks like the eyelashes on a closed eyelid, and the shell, a piece of jewellery on the side of someone’s nose?

Well, that’s what I saw. And once I’d seen that I felt more connected to the beach. It was as if the beach was at peace, and lying beautifully in the sunshine. I know that at the beach we often feel pretty relaxed anyway, but as I saw this, and as I look at it again just now, I feel a wave of calm. This image pleases me. It delights me. It brings me joy and makes me feel content. It stirs that deep feeling I have inside that the universe is essentially a friendly place, created with such precise balances between fundamental forces that everything Life needed to come into being fell into place, that the abundance of the universe facilitates both our survival and our thriving…..individually, as a species, and as one of Life’s myriad of forms.

Maybe you look at this image and the seaweed is a sort of smile? Maybe it seems to be a happy emoji? Well, I didn’t see it that way, but if you do, I bet you are aware of feelings of happiness growing inside you.

It’s strange that for many years now we humans have lived with the idea that there is “me” and there is “everything else” “out there”. That somehow we live separate from, and disconnected from a meaningless universe of objects. But that seems to be changing now. The Physics of the 20th and 21st centuries have revealed to us a whole other perspective on reality and our place in it. Gone are the notions of separate, disconnected objects. Everything, it now appears, is connected to everything else. Everything which exists is manifested within a universal energy field. Everything which appears, briefly, or for a number of years, is a manifestation of relationships and connections. The universe, as Carlo Rovelli, the Physicist, says, is made of events and experiences, not things.

And maybe one of the biggest insights we’ve gained is how there is no disconnection between the observer and the observed. We now know that whatever we observe is changed in the act of being observed. And we also know that the observer is changed by what they observer. It’s a two way process.

We humans bring our imagination to bear on what we observe. We bring our memories and our consciousness. We uncover meaning, create narratives, and enrich our worlds with art, with poetry, with stories, music and dance. We interact with the rest of the universe every moment we are alive. Now, we are beginning to realise that.

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One thing which always fascinates me at the coast, is the appearance and behaviour of waves. I love to stand, or sit, and gaze at them, watching the areas of swell in the water turn into obvious waves as their tops break into white surf. It’s amazing to see the ocean unfurling as the waves appear, rush to the shore, turn white, crash, and dissipate into foam and bubbles, before the water rushes back out to the sea again.

This one photo captures something of the complexity of waves at the beach. You can see at least half a dozen different “fronts” here, each one interacting with the others. It reminds me of the experiments we did in Science class at school which taught us about “interference” patterns as one wave interacts with another. I always found that both beautiful and mesmerising.

Another thing we were taught in Science class was about the molecular basis of all substances. I remember the brightly coloured balls stuck to each other with rods which were used to show us the molecular structure of different crystals and other materials. It was only much later that I came to understand that reality isn’t really made up of discrete units like that.

The world isn’t like a lego kit, a jigsaw, or any kind of machine assembled from discrete parts. I know it can kind of look like that, but it’s not how things are. A better way to think is demonstrated for us at the beach. Reality consists of flows – flows of energies, of atoms, molecules, and of information – flows which are in constant interaction with other flows. What we see as separate objects are just some flows which hold together for a time. The world, as the Physicist, Carlo Rovelli, says, is better understood as “relational”.

I sometimes think of that as I watch the waves, imagining how we too are each like a single wave, emerging on the surface of the ocean, but never separating from it, forming complex relationships with others and with the rest of the world, for a time……for moments, for days, months, years, even for what we call a “lifetime”. Then we return to the rest of the universe from which we emerged.

We are not as separate as we sometimes think we are. Even you and I, dear reader, are interacting just now, as you read this. My thoughts are stimulated by the images I’ve captured, then I express some of them as words in this post, and you read it, and look at the photo, and you, too might begin to have some thoughts very similar to mine. Perhaps even some feelings similar to mine.

We do this all the time throughout our lifetime, don’t we? Everything we do, think, create, express, ripples out far beyond the here and now, and flows into the flows of other lives. We affect each other all the time. We influence each other all the time.

That’s why I want to share these images, these words, these feeling of wonder, awe and joy, in the hope that they influence your life a little, and bring some of those positive energies to you.

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I’m standing at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, taking a photo of the wet sand, the dunes and just part of a very long beach. It looks peaceful, doesn’t it? Well, play the video below and turn your volume level up!

This is the sound of the Ocean. Just one minute of video as I stood holding my phone towards the waves.

As I walked through the pine forest from the car park, I could hear that roar of the sea. I could hear it long before I could see it.

Isn’t it wonderful?

I love the sight and the sound of the ocean…..so much more than the estuaries and rivers where you can see the other embankment from where you stand and the whole expanse is bounded in by the edges of the earth. With the ocean you look out and you don’t see an edge.

And that captures an important truth for me – there is only ONE ocean, ONE expanse of water on this Earth. We divide it up artificially and give the parts different names – Atlantic, Pacific, and so on – but you can’t find the dividing lines in Nature. You can’t find any borders or frontiers between “one ocean and another one”. We share not just ONE ocean on this planet, we share a single water cycle, a single atmosphere, ONE Earth.

We are embedded, embodied, emergent, within Gaia, this one, living, beautiful, awe inspiring planet. I wish we lived more with a conscious knowledge of that. I wish we lived more knowing how interconnected and interdependent we all are. I wish we lived more as ONE.

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I took a walk in a pine forest yesterday.

We are still living under significant restrictions, and there are rumours that they might even be tightened later today, so I took the opportunity to drive about an hour west of here to the coast, have a walk in a pine forest, have a picnic, then stroll along the beach at the “côte sauvage” which means the “wild coast”, a stretch of coastline here in South West France where you can stand at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

I took several photos in the forest and down on the sand. Here’s one of them.

This is a single pine cone forming at the end of one stem of a pine tree. The forest floor was covered with pine cones of all shapes and sizes, but this one, still in the process of emerging, caught my eye. It’s a beautiful collection of developing pine seeds, and the long narrow pine leaves radiating out in all directions gave it the appearance of a sort of “starburst” – the very shape of the plant capturing the essence of the behaviour to come, where the seeds will be dispersed in all directions.

When I look at this image I see potential. I see that abundance I mentioned the other day in an earlier post, where each plant produces millions of seeds and scatters them near and far to produce the greatest chance of proliferation yet more plants, yet more pine trees. Because I zoomed in towards the seed head you can’t see the edges of the pine leaves….so every one of them looks like a direction indicator….it heads out in all directions and you can’t see just how far any individual leaf can reach.

So we see potential here – the potential to be more than we can see in this moment, the potential to be more than we can see in this small space. When we look too closely, when we separate out whatever we are looking at from all of its contexts, connections and environments, then we fail to grasp its reality.

To see the whole we need imagination. To see the whole we need to “see” in our “mind’s eye” what the part is attached to, where its come from, where its going, and how it interacts with everything else. I capture an aspect of that in the little phrase at the top of this blog – “becoming not being”. I am always more excited by vibrant, dynamic living forms than I am by artificially disconnected, dead parts.

I pine for Life, for growth, for the realisation of potential, for the expansion of possibilities, for the deepening of understanding.

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There’s a bird reserve near Nimes, in the South of France, where you can see flamingos. I’ve visited it several times, and each time I take a host of photos. They are SUCH beautiful creatures!

I’m reading Gary Lachman’s “Lost Knowledge of the Imagination” just now, and this morning read these lines about beauty –

We perceive beauty, the Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus said, when we perceive something that is in accord with our soul.

Knowledge of beauty is knowledge of soul. It is self-knowledge, and when we discover beauty we are discovering part of ourselves.

The knowledge we receive in this way is not of fact but of quality, of value and meaning.

We perceive beauty, are open to its presence, through a change in the quality of our consciousness. Only like can know like. We must have beauty within ourselves to see it in the world.

I hadn’t thought of beauty this way before. When I read it I thought about the old adage of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” which always seemed to me to be a statement that beauty was in fact a matter of taste. But this perspective from Gary Lachman describes that sort of third way interpretation which I like so much. It’s not that beauty is “outside” us, as some kind of measurable object. I think we all know that. Beauty can’t be reduced to data, can’t be captured by mere facts. But neither is it just a matter of taste, as if it is entirely an experience of the individual rendering the rest of the real world unimportant.

The third way is that beauty is a resonance. It’s a harmony. And therefore it emerges in the lived quality of an experience, of an engagement, of a relationship. We need both parts of the relationship to be present…..something “within” us, let’s call that “the soul”, and something “outwith” us, let’s call that “the other”.

We know instantly when we find something, or someone beautiful. We don’t need to way it up, analyse the inputs, stimuli and signals. We just know. We know because our inner being resonates with whatever it is we are looking at….or it doesn’t. When it does, we have the sensation of joy, delight, and gratitude which accompanies all engagements with beauty.

Beauty, I reckon, is good for us. It’s good for our souls. It’s good for our consciousness. It’s good for our health.

So, here you are, a few photos in this post, all taken during one visit to the flamingos. I find them beautiful. I hope you do too. And I hope that appreciation of their beauty nourishes your soul, warms your heart, adds some positive quality to this present moment.

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