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I have a shelf in my bookcase where I collect some of the books which have made the biggest impact on my thinking and understanding. On that shelf sits a first edition of Iain McGilchrist’s “The Master and His Emissary”. If you’ve been reading these posts for a while you’re bound to have come across my references to his description of how our two cerebral hemispheres engage with the world in different ways.

When I came across this old photo from Marseilles the other day I immediately thought of the “left brain” view of the world. The left cerebral hemisphere is utterly brilliant at focusing in on whatever we are considering. It helps us to see the trees in the wood. It picks out elements, features, characteristics or parts. Then it helps us to analyse, label and categorise whatever it is that can be recognised.

It needs to have a narrow focus to be able to do that. It zooms in. It hones our attention. It separates and abstracts by blanking out the connections, the contexts and the environment.

This long corridor of arches looks very much like that kind of focused attention to me.

But there’s more. At the end of this passageway what do we see? It’s kind of hard to make out, isn’t it? What you are looking at here is an installation of irregular, angled mirrors. So you aren’t seeing a complete picture. Rather you are seeing a number of disconnected views or parts.

Our left brain is pretty good at doing that too. Its preference is for the parts, not their connections.

How the brain is supposed to work is that the after the left side does this focusing, separating, labelling and categorising, it’s supposed to pass this information back to the right side to have it contextualised. In other words, after seeing and recognising the pieces, the left passes over to the right to recreate the whole picture, to help us to understand whatever it is we’ve “grasped” by seeing how it connects to everything else.

Iain McGilchrist’s thesis is that this natural flow has become rather disrupted. The left brain has a tendency to hang on to what it grasps, and to convince us that whatever it has analysed is “correct”. Over the centuries we’ve evolved a complex society and civilisation which has encouraged us to prioritise the left brain over the right.

That’s a big mistake. That’s only using half a brain. To rectify this we have to learn how to use the whole brain again, and to practice doing that as often as we can. That’s going to involve deliberately returning again and again to the right brain functions – seeing the connections, discovering the particular, appreciating the whole, and weaving together the multiple threads to enjoy the entire tapestry of the world.

I don’t know about you, but that excites me!

I love that this idea is not about abandoning our left brain functions but re-integrating them into the right brain ones. How satisfying!

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Looked at from a certain perspective, a particularly narrowed one, it can look like we live alone. It can look like we are unconnected. It can seem as if we are separately autonomous and independent. Such a view is consistent with a model of society which looks to “great men” and “great women” to lead and succeed. The “champions” of society look like they get to the top all by themselves.

But is the world really like that?

Does anyone “succeed” all by themselves? We are social creatures, we humans have evolved to survive and thrive through co-operation and collaboration. We all “stand on the shoulders of giants”, in that we all enter the world helpless and dependent. We wouldn’t make it to adulthood without many other people looking out for us, supporting us, nourishing, nurturing and protecting us.

One of the features of this pandemic has been a theme of gratitude to “essential workers”, not just health and care staff, but producers, transporters, cleaners and food shop staff…..the list goes on. Why does the list go on? Because we all live in this vast interconnected, interdependent web of society.

“No man is an island” – and no island can exist in isolation. It turns out we really are all part of one huge team.

But wait, I hear you say, isn’t competition the engine of Life and Evolution? Didn’t Darwin show us that?

Aren’t there always going to be winners and losers?

I think it would be naive to deny the reality of competition. It’s just that I think we’ve way over-emphasised it, right up to the point that we in danger of deluding ourselves into thinking only individuals can win, and only “the best” individuals at that.

But think for a moment of any award ceremony, whether in sport or the arts, who do the winners thank? Just themselves for being so brilliant and managing to rise to the top with only their own talent, power and fabulousness?

No, they don’t. They, often very tearfully, thank a host of people. At our best we know we achieve what we achieve within a vast, interconnected web which sprawls through time and place.

The latest developments in evolutionary science tell a different story from the old “survival of the fittest” one. They tell the story of the most socially developed, collaborative, co-operative species on the planet – Homo sapiens.

Maybe this would be a good time to shift our emphasis and our priorities, from individualism and competition, to kindness, care, compassion and co-operation.

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At the port in Marseilles there is a hug mirrored roof over an open area. It provides people with some shade, but also attracts people to gather underneath it and look up – to see the world upside down.

Looking at the world upside down can be very revealing.

Think about this current pandemic. We are told there is this COVID-19 virus sweeping across the surface of the Earth, seeking out victims to slaughter. Several governments have used war metaphors accusing the virus of being an invisible, cunning and evil enemy. The answer, if this is your perspective, is to “beat” the virus, to “crush” it, “flatten” it, or “eliminate” it.

In the absence of treatments which kill the virus, the authorities pin their hopes on better defence – by which they mean immunisation – a mass vaccination programme to increase each individual’s ability to “resist” infection by this particular virus.

But, what if we turn our view upside down? What if we look at ourselves instead of the virus? Who gets sick when they catch this virus? Mainly the elderly, those with ongoing chronic health problems, the poor, and ethnic minorities. Why can’t either Public Health or the hospital services prevent the deaths of tens of thousands? (I mean reduce the number of actual deaths, not save the lives of an imaginary number who haven’t got sick)

What if we addressed these problems by making them the central target of our efforts? That would need our societies to deal with inequality, poor and overcrowded housing, poverty, low waged precarious contract work, racism and discrimination, under-resourced health and social care. We would need to invest in the creation of resilient well-resourced Public Health services including laboratory testing, contact tracing and the supply of safe place, supported isolation of the infected. We would need to invest in the resources of the clinical health services to have enough beds, nurses, doctors, equipment and personal protection for staff. We would need to address under-staffing in the health and care sectors so that too few workers didn’t have to look after too many people in too many different locations, so spreading the virus.

In other words, if we look at this pandemic from an upside down view, we might avoid future pandemics by creating healthier, more resilient, stronger societies…..no matter what the next virus is.

OK, I’m sure you’ll be thinking “but we need to treat all the sick, kill the virus which is overwhelming them, and reduce the current spread through hygiene and distancing measures”. All probably true. But none of those measures are enough. Remember my favourite phrase?

“And not or”.

We need to do both. Treat the sick, try to reduce the spread of the virus through the community, AND deal with the problems in society and the economy which have made us this vulnerable in the first place.

Sometimes it helps to add the upside down view.

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This collection of mailboxes in the hallway of a building in Marseilles caught my eye. I was really taken by the diversity of the collection and the uniqueness of each box. Usually mailboxes at the entrance to a building look pretty much the same. Often they are an array of identical boxes, distinguished only by numbers, or, slightly better, nameplates. But here it seems everyone chose and placed their own box.

This image says something similar to the ones I used yesterday, the ones of a meadow of diverse, glorious colourful flowers. But it brings something else to the table. There is a clear element of individual expression here. Not only has each person chosen their own style of box, but everyone has labelled and/or decorated them according to their own preference. By doing that they are presenting something of their uniqueness, their singularity, to the world.

It was only much later that another thought occurred to me – maybe these are not functioning mailboxes at all. I mean, look at the large wooden one with the label, “Galerie Accord” on it. Does it even have a slot to post mail into? Maybe it does. Maybe it’s in the top where I can’t see it, but noticing the got me wondering. The box declaring “Osteopathe”, for example, seems to have a bell push under it. That’s a bit unusual, isn’t it? But the one at the bottom, marked “B Aegerter” says – no advertising materials please – so, it’s definitely a mailbox.

Well, whether they are functioning mailboxes, or fancy nameplates, it does strike me that this is a great example of the diversity of human expression. Which got me wondering – what “face” do we present to the world? And, how do we present that “face”?

How about you? How do you present yourself to the world? I’m not just thinking of the way we present an “image” or a “front”. I mean more than that. I mean how do you express yourself to the world? Do you think you don’t? Well, the truth is, you do. We all do. We do it through our behaviour, our actions, our words, our choices and preferences, the way we dress, how we furnish, decorate and live in our homes, the way we eat. If you are alive, you are expressing yourself. Do you ever stop to think about that? To wonder what you are “putting out there? To wonder what impacts your life is having on the world? To wonder what ripples of information, energy and substances you are sending out, just by the way you live?

It also makes me think about how we connect. How we choose to connect. There are so many ways now, aren’t there? Not many people communicate only by letter any more. Although in a recent critique of the difficulties which have emerged during the pandemic in France, there was a description of how the two main, most devolved parts of government here, the “Prefecture” and the “Mairie” (I won’t go into the technical details of who does what here), the relationships between the people in these two organisations are described as “epistolary” – they write each other letters. The article quoted mayors (who are elected to work in the town hall, or “mairie”) as saying they had never ever even spoken to the “prefect” (who runs the “prefecture”) on the telephone, let alone having ever met. Kind of astonishing really. Yet the government claims the duo of the “mairie-prefecture” is apparently the key to the delivery of national policies in local areas.

However, not many of us only communicate through letters now, and postcards have all but disappeared (apart from on the stands outside newsagents) – do people still buy them? Do they send them, or collect them in a box? Or do they just take photos with their mobile phone and share them online now?

How do you like to connect to the world?

Phone calls? Text messages? Video calls? WhatsApp? Messenger? What about Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr? Facebook or Twitter? TikTok or Youtube? Goodness, that’s only scratching the surface, isn’t it? But I’m not focussing on the exploration of tools here. I’m wondering about how we present ourselves to the world, and how we connect. I’m wondering if we present different aspects of ourselves when we use those different tools? I know all us have a “multiplicity of selves”, that we assume different roles in different situations and relationships. But how is that translating into the world now, with this explosion of channels and tools?

Do you present and/or express yourself differently through different channels? If you do, (and I’m going to bet that you DO), can you see the over all picture? Can you imagine what your “wall of mailboxes” would look like if it was a collection of they ways you present and express yourself? Your WhatsApp here, your Facebook there, your Twitter here, your Instagram there….and so on.

I don’t have answers to these questions. I’m just wondering….

But as I wonder about it, what about “feeds” and “streams”? I know there are ways to collect various feeds and streams to scroll through them as a collection, (I use Flipboard for example), but is there a similar kind of service or tool for expression and connection? Rather than for just “consuming”?

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Diversity catches my eye. I look across a field and see a multiplicity of plants and colours and I think, “How beautiful!”

Even when I look closer the diversity and beauty remains.

Maybe there is something intuitive, or innate, in us which makes diversity so appealing and beautiful. Maybe we don’t all value diversity to the same degree. However, it’s a strong value preference for me. I don’t find monocultures and sameness attractive. Perhaps that’s because I spent my working life relating to patients, one at a time, and finding that every single one of them was unique. Or maybe it was the other way around. Maybe my preference for variety and diversity led me into the particular strain of Medicine which required one-to-one working?

It’s funny how the mind gathers various bits and pieces from different sources to create its own connections and syntheses. I’ve been bothered a bit recently by the UK’s new immigration rules, and, in particular the policy of charging “essential workers” who were born somewhere other than the UK several hundred pounds to access the NHS despite the fact they are paying National Insurance and Income Tax. That doesn’t seem a fair rule to me. I don’t see why those particular workers are treated differently just because they were born somewhere other than the UK.

I also have a pattern of waking up some mornings with a phrase or a sentence in my head. I’m not sure if the particular words come up in dreams then I wake with them, or my sleeping brain creates them from my waking amalgam of thoughts and images, but, the actual phrase or sentence is usually crystal clear. The most recent one has been –

Where you live now matters more than where you are born.

When I look at images of healthy, vibrant diversity like the ones in this post, that phrase pops back into my mind. It actually matters little where each of these flowers came from. Maybe some came from this field or nearby fields. Maybe some were scattered by birds and animals which had carried them across great distances. Maybe some were even imported by seed-gatherers from far away lands. It doesn’t really matter all that much. For them to survive and thrive every single one of them needs to adapt to the environment it finds itself in. Each and every one of them grows in inter-dependent relationship with the soil, the other plants, the bacteria, fungi and the climate where it is living now. That, it strikes me, is true for all of us.

I was born in Stirling, Scotland. I went to university in Edinburgh, spent a working life as a doctor in a handful of towns and cities across Central Scotland. But when I retired six years ago I sold up and moved to France, where I live now. I did that because I wanted to spend a part of my life fully immersed in a different place. A different geographical place, a different climate, and a different culture…..a different language even. I thought it would create the conditions for my ongoing growth and development. That is exactly my experience of these last few years.

I am a Scot. I spent my first 60 years in Scotland and can trace back my ancestors to different parts of Scotland over three centuries at least. I’m not trying to become French. But I am now an “inhabitant” of France. I live here. I rent a house here. I buy my food and drink here. I’ve learned to speak French and read French newspapers, magazines and books. I have conversations with French people. I bought and drive a French car. I’ve adapted my diet and eating habits in the light of thriving local markets and a tendency for certain foodstuffs to be presented seasonally here. I look forward to the first asparagus of the year, the first “gariguette” strawberries, the first Corsican clementines, the first “Charentaise” melons. I’m delighting in the harvest of the cherries and the figs from the trees in my garden just now, and will look forward to harvesting the courgettes, tomatoes and pumpkins later in the year. I never did any of those things in Scotland. So what matters most to me these days? The fact I was born in Scotland or the fact I’m living in France? Maybe you’d argue that’s a false choice, and I have some sympathy for that argument because I’d say I am still a Scot, just one who lives in France now.

So what? you might ask.

Well I think this informs my values, beliefs and thoughts. I think every country should treat all its inhabitants equally. Same laws, same freedoms, same rights, same responsibilities, same opportunities.

I don’t think there should be different laws, freedoms, rights, responsibilities or opportunities dependent on where an inhabitant was born.

Note – I am VERY carefully choosing that word – inhabitant.

I think that’s the key. It’s not about “citizenship” for me. Or “nationality”. Or “tax payer”. Or “consumer”. Or whatever other terms are used to set rights and freedoms. It’s “inhabitants” – the people who live in a shared place, a shared community, a shared society, at the same time.

I know, I know, that’s all a bit utopian and there isn’t a nation state on the planet where that principle applies. But I still wish it did. Because where we live now matters more than where we were born.

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Continuing my little series of patterns to look for, today I’m going to share circles with you. I know, there’s probably a bit of overlap between spirals and circles, but I’m going to try and stick with the more obvious circles and not wander down the spiral path!

There’s an old tower near me, up in one of the neighbouring vineyards. I don’t know its history and I don’t know what it was used for, but it’s now just a circular stone tower with a doorway, a couple of spaces where windows used to be, and no roof. When I step inside it and look up, this is what I see! I’ve loved this photo from the day I took it. The circle itself is hugely appealing, and the blue sky sure adds something. I often look at this image (in fact I have it on the lock screen of my iPad) and it reminds me of my limits. I know I can only see within the parameters of my beliefs, values and personal experience. I know too, that I can never know EVERYTHING there is to know about ANYTHING – including about any of patient I ever saw, about any friend or relative I ever knew, and about myself. I like to remind myself of that. Isn’t it kind of odd that I use a circle to remind myself of that, because a circle, traditionally represents wholeness or completeness. Somehow I’ve done something quite different with it.

This is a round window in a little house in a village just outside of Kyoto. Well, is it a window? Or is it a lamp? It’s on the outside wall, but you can’t see through it. It’s also got a lamp, or a bulb, behind it, so that it is shining out onto the street. Why is it there? I’ve no idea. But, again, I’ve loved this image from the day I saw it. I satisfies me enormously.

This particular circle is, of course, one I see every month. I am unceasingly fascinated with it. I love to follow the phases of the Moon over each 28 day cycle, but I especially love the full moon. The Moon stirs the energy of the Divine Feminine for me. It reminds me how we all have both of those universal energies coursing through our lives. Maybe it’s because I am a man, but I feel the Moon completes me somehow. It makes me feel more whole.

Most stones are not circular. They are not spheres. So when I come across one like this I am struck but how entrancing it seems to be. With the patterns of the lichen on its surface, this looks like a small planet to me. A whole world mapped out right before me.

There’s something magical about a circular bowl filled with water, reflecting the sky, and the forest which surrounds it. This conjures up the image of Galadriel’s mirror (from Lord of the Rings) for me. I have an ancient well in my garden. It’s got a metal lid, locked with a padlock to keep it safe. But if you open the lid and peer down, more than twenty metres in the dark, you can glimpse lights and movement on the round surface of the deep water. I think of those things when I see this circle. It excites me, stirs my imagination, provokes thoughts about magic and divination.

I saw this circular window at a temple in Japan. Of course, some of you will look at this and say, “It’s not whole. It’s got a piece cut off the bottom!” but that’s the typical Japanese aesthetic, never seeking to present “prefection” as something complete, but preferring the dynamism implied by asymmetry and “incompleteness”. Well I love it. And I’ve wondered ever since why we don’t have more circular windows in our buildings. Wouldn’t it be great to have a circular window in your house? (Maybe you’ve got one!)

Finally, here’s the setting Sun. I have seen SO many spectacular sunsets in my life. I see LOTS of them here in the Charente. And I never, ever tire of them. I am entranced by the setting Sun. If the Moon is the Feminine Principle for me, the Sun is the Masculine one. I love to connect to both.

Once I read that the Sun doesn’t actually set. It’s we, on planet Earth who are moving, not the Sun moving in relation to us. So, a better term for this time of day would be “Earth Rising”, because that’s what is happening. The horizon of the Earth is lifting up into the sky as the Earth turns, giving us the sensation that the Sun is setting.

Well, whichever way you think of it. It is utterly entrancing, isn’t it?

Have you got any favourite circles to contemplate?

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“There are no straight lines in Nature”

I don’t know where this teaching comes from, but it’s not true.

There are plenty of straight lines in Nature. OK, maybe they don’t cover great distances in the way manufactured lines do (I’m thinking railway lines and Roman roads) but they are everywhere, all the same.

One typical expression of straight lines is “radial” – they start at a centre point and radiate out in many directions from there. This poppy bud in the image above is an example of that.

Not straight enough for you? Well, how about this?

Do you know what that is? Let’s look from the other side….

Plants show this “radial” spread of straight lines too.

As do shells…

and spider webs

Seeds designed to be carried by the wind use this pattern of radiant straight lines from pointed origins too.

We pick up on these patterns and use them in our art and architecture.

Have a look around today and see where you can spot this pattern. When you do find it, do you think it is beautiful?

One of the things I really like about these “radiant” straight lines is that each line has a beginning and an end, just like a good story. You can see where it has come from and you can see where it is going. It reminds me of a concept from Deleuze and Guattari, which they named “lines of flight”. When I read about this I saw its relevance to complex systems. You might have read elsewhere on this site about “complex adaptive systems” (if not, why not pop that phrase into the search box on the top right of the page and see what comes up?). The complex systems model does more than explain living organisms, it reveals a lot about the underlying structure and function of the universe.

Complex adaptive systems tend to move towards “far from equilibrium” zones. This is what gives them their dynamism, their points of growth and their ability to change. But how do they get there, to those “far from equilibrium” zones? By following particular “lines of flight”.

One of the reasons I liked that so much was it helped me unravel the stories my patients told me. One of my most favourite questions to ask was “When did you last feel completely well?” It often took patience and time to get a clear answer to that question, but time and time again it revealed that the chronic ailment from which the patient was suffering, began either after a particularly severe trauma, or from a phase of life where the traumas piled up on each other, one by one. I wasn’t trying to prove causation, but following the narrative line from that time forwards to the present often revealed both the nature of the traumatic impacts, and, crucially, the adaptive strategies the person had employed (probably mostly sub-consciously) to cope.

Lines of flight, and radiant lines, are typically multiple, and they are also highly unlikely to exist in isolation. However, unravelling what they are, where they intersect, and how they influence each other, is, I believe, at the heart of understanding a person and their life.

I’ll leave you today with another depiction of lines – well, two pictures actually, and neither taken by me –

On the left is the image of Mumbai at night, photographed from a satellite. On the right and image of neurones in a section of a brain. Interesting to think how this structure of intersections and nodes connected by straight lines scales up and down through the levels and dimensions. But I’m taking the original idea of straight lines a step further now, by seeing them in their context.

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