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Archive for the ‘psychology’ Category

See this large rock just above the harbour in Biarritz? How does the sea make it to the shore when this rock is in the way?

The most obvious way is to go around it.

And that’s what most of the water does. It makes it way towards the shore, and back out to sea again by breaking against the rock and flowing around each side of it.

That’s one way to deal with an obstacle, with something standing in your way…..find a way around it.

But, wait, look at this…..

…the water has found another way as well.

It goes THROUGH the rock!

I suspect this has taken a very, very long time for wave after wave to make its way through a small crack in the rock, widening the gap slightly every time it passes through. But look at it now. Sometimes when a more substantial wave hits the far side of the rock it flows directly through the gap. Doesn’t happen every time. Just when the waves are big enough.

So, there’s the other solution. Keep going. Keep pushing up against the obstacle, looking for a gap, an opportunity, a way through, and once you find it, come back again and again. Each time, it’ll get easier. Each time the gap will get wider, the way will become broader.

Something else…..this is just beautiful to watch. Mesmerising even. Over the course of a few minutes you can see how the rock and the sea sculpt each other. It’s a delightful relationship.

Oh, and something else……Michel Serres, a French philosopher who died recently, used to describe human beings as “anticipation creatures”. I recently listened to an episode of one of my favourite podcasts, Onbeing, where the science journalist, Erik Vance, talked about “the drugs inside our head”. He was discussing the poorly understood but fundamentally important phenomenon known as the “placebo effect”, and one thing he said was that our brains are “prediction machines” (well, I hate the metaphor of “machine” applied to living organisms, but you get the point…).

Both Serres and Vance are talking about our incredible ability to spot patterns, so that we can predict the future. OK, not too far into the future, and not with 100% accuracy, but we don’t just notice the world, we anticipate it.

As I stood watching this phenomenon of the white surf gushing out of the mouth in the rock, I was quickly captured by the experience of anticipation, watching the swells on the surface of sea further out, trying to predict which would turn into waves big enough to pour through the rock.

It was hard to stop.

It was delightful.

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We humans are pretty good at making maps. We do it all the time. Dr Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, describes the three commonest maps we make in the frontal cortex of the brain – a “me” map, a “you” map, and a “we” map. You might wonder about the use of the term “map” there, arguing that we create “images” rather than maps, but let’s not get bogged down on that one. I like both terms (one of my favourite principles in life is “and not or” – 🙂 )

The thing about a map is that it shows contexts and connections. It shows us where we are, where we might want to go, and helps us to imagine how to get there.

I was in Tordesillas, in Northern Spain, recently and visited the “Treaty House” which displays a number of ancient maps. Here’s one set which particularly grabbed my attention.

It’s a set of panels describing the known world at the time – the world of the “Occident” followed by a set describing the unknown world – the world of the “Orient”. Take a look –

In this first section you can clearly make out Britain (although Scotland hasn’t really become known yet!) and you can see the areas we now call Portugal, Spain, France, Scandinavia and so on.

The next one extends the first one to show Italy, Greece, Turkey, “The Middle East” and also more of the North African coastal countries.

For a medieval map it’s surprisingly accurate. It might even have helped people to find their way from one place to another.

But then check out these two panels of the “unknown”, “Orient” –

At first there are elements we recognise – The Nile, The Caspian Sea, but the further East we go, the more the map becomes an expression of a creative imagination.

Isn’t that fascinating?

I’ve never thought of mapping out what I don’t know before. After all, where would I stop? The older I get, the more I realise how much I don’t know – how much WE (we humans) don’t know. But it might be a fun idea, don’t you think? To sketch out some maps of the unknown…..

The personal maps of “me”, “you” and “we” are constantly being updated, constantly evolving, and we create them from both what we know, and what we don’t know…..from our memories, our present day experiences, and our imaginations.

Map making turns out to be a dynamic and fundamental ability. I wonder how aware we are, on a day to day basis, of the maps we have made, the maps we are making, and the influence they have on our lives.

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Here’s a common experience I have.

I’ll be sitting in my garden reading and I hear a very high pitched, very distant bird call. I recognise it immediately now, even though I’d never heard it before moving here five years ago. It’s a buzzard. Although the call is quite faint, it catches my attention every time. I’m sure that’s helped by how often it’s silent here surrounded by the vineyards. (Although on other days the machines of viniculture create quite a racket, and a nearby airbase sends up training flights some days more than others)

When I hear the call of the buzzard I look up and peer into the sky to try and locate the bird. It’s not always easy because very frequently they fly so high they appear as just small black dots.

I saw this particular one and whilst often the buzzards circle and swoop on invisible highways in the air, this one appeared to be completely still. It was just hanging there, the way I often see the kestrels do, although they do that much closer to the Earth than the buzzards do.

So I took a photo with my phone.

Can you spot the buzzard?

Hey, it’s a bit like a competition I used to do with my dad. One of the newspapers would print a photo from a recent football match but with the ball removed from the image. You had to place a cross right on the dead centre of where you thought the ball was. The person who got closest won the money. It was called “Spot the Ball”. Well, this is “spot the buzzard”.

Answer at the end of the post ………..

Once I found the buzzard I started to wonder how it could just hang like that in the air. I started to wonder how it could fly with such apparent little effort. I started to wonder why it cried that particular call. I started to wonder what the world looks like from up there. How much detail can the buzzard see? Why does it fly SO high in the sky?

Wonder.

Everyday wonder.

I’ve referred a number of times to the French phrase “émerveillement du quotidien” which I love so much. It pretty much means “the wonder of the every day”. I find that when I get one of those moments, those moments of wonder, that my day feels a better day.

I find that the wondering connects me to awe.

I feel awe….astonishment, delight in, admiration for, whatever it is I’m wondering about. Not least because the wondering doesn’t have any immediate answers for me. Well, obviously, sometimes, the wonder drives curiosity and I later go searching online or in books for more information about whatever it is I’ve been wondering about. But that’s something different, isn’t it? Curiosity and knowledge-seeking. There’s just something delightful, uplifting even, about the process of wondering which doesn’t immediately drive knowledge-seeking, but, instead, creates a feeling of awe.

And here’s what happens next. When the wonder blends with awe I feel myself “taken out of myself”. I have an experience of transcendence…..what Arthur Koestler described as an “oceanic” feeling. I feel an increased, and deepened, connection with whatever is “outside” me, whatever I’m paying attention to. I feel an expansion and a loosening of boundaries. I feel a diminishment of separateness and an enhancement of oneness.

So, I wasn’t surprised when I read yesterday about “spiritual emotions”, especially as they were listed as follows –

  • Wonder
  • Awe
  • Transcendence

What sets off the spiritual emotions for you?

 

Oh, and, yes, as promised, here’s how to find the buzzard………

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Sometimes when I look out over the vineyards I can see the rain coming. Like a swathe of grey chiffon dropping down from clouds in the sky to soak the green vines below, or like the wet fingers of the rain gods lightly stroking the face of the Earth.

It’s quite beautiful.

It’s like change manifesting itself, the future showing its hand.

Of course it means it’s time to take the washing in from the line, or to head indoors until it passes, but sometimes, it just appears, then disappears again. I can see it just there on the other side of the vines, then within a few minutes it’s gone, never having come this way at all.

It’s a daily reminder that the future is not predictable.

The French philosopher, Michel Serres, wrote that human beings are creatures which anticipate. He said we are always looking ahead, imagining what might be there, what might be coming our way. I think there’s a lot of truth in that. I know that if I stop to watch my thoughts for a while, some of them are memories, some are old patterns of thought passing through again. But often they are anticipations, thinking ahead to later today, to tomorrow, to next week, month or even the years ahead. None of which exists yet. None of which I can be sure of.

In fact, I’d say that even when I am practising a focus on the present I discover that much of the here and now content of my mind is anticipation – planning, expecting, wondering what if this, and what if that, anxieties or fears, hopes, desires or longings.

Isn’t it strange that we give such attention to the unknown, and unknowable, future?

Yet, isn’t that perhaps one of our greatest strengths? The one which gives us not only the ability to plan, but the power of creativity? The one which enables us to imagine another world? Isn’t that where we get our ability to be prepared, as well as our ability to be active agents of the future?

Wondering what’s coming next isn’t necessarily all about worry and fear. It can enable us to cope, to adapt. And it can allow us to manifest our own creations.

 

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See this little bird? She’s a redstart. There are a pair of them who spend a lot of time in my garden in the summer months. I first spotted a male a few years back and was struck by his distinctive call. I even got to imitating it and “having some conversations with him” – well, I know, that’s pushing it a bit far. I’ve no idea what he was telling me and I suspect he had no idea what I was telling him. After all, I’m not even sure, myself, what I was telling him! He disappeared over the winter and then reappeared the falling Spring. I heard him before I saw him, and I had a hunch he recognised me.

Can wild birds recognise individual human beings? I read a report of a study recently which suggests that they can. I can’t say that surprised me. I have a strong feeling that we have become familiar to each other.

Since then he’s come back every summer and this summer, in particular, his partner has been about a lot too. I find that pretty much any time I go out into the garden to sit and read, that within a few minutes one of the pair, or occasionally, both of them, turn up nearby, watch me for a bit, then hop down onto the grass, getting ever closer, before nabbing a fallen mulberry or something and flying off.

This photo here is a rare success. As I sat with my book I noticed her on the fence post and slid my phone from my pocket to grab a quick shot. Then she flew off.

Now, I have no idea how much of this is my imagination but I do get a good feeling when one of these little birds comes to join me for a few minutes. And that got me thinking about the importance of relationships in life. How important it is for us to form and experience bonds, not just with other people, but with other living creatures, whether they be birds, trees or flowers!

I think these bonds we form have a special quality. They enhance life, they add flavour to the ordinary day, they “enchant” us. Literally. So how do they come about? Well, I’ve got a theory.

They come about through a particular kind of attention – “Positive Intention Attention” (PIA) – I think when we pay attention with positive intent that we create bonds, bonds of mutual benefit, “integrated bonds”, healthy, life-sustaining, life-enhancing bonds. That’s what I mean by “positive intent” – an intention to create bonds of mutual benefit.

So, I’ve decided that’s what I want to do more of, every day – pay Positive Intention Attention to the experiences, events and phenomena of the every day – and, by doing that, I have a hunch, the every day will become just that bit more extra-ordinary…..

 

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One of my most favourite cities is Segovia, in Spain. Perhaps its most striking feature is the Roman aqueduct. It begins as a pretty average sized wall, then column by column, arch by arch it gets bigger and bigger and bigger, straddling the town below until it reaches the old castle.

In this first part houses have been built on each side of it. I don’t think I’ve ever come across such an astonishing structure running right down the middle a street!

One of the first of the town’s squares lies at the foot of the aqueduct just as it reaches its greatest height.

I find this SO inspiring! Here’s what it got me thinking last time I was there…..

Throughout my career as a doctor I saw time as linear. Perhaps because the second half of my working life was in a specialist centre for people with chronic (long term) conditions, I commonly heard patients tell me of the traumas which they had experienced prior to becoming unwell.

I was never someone who bought into a mechanical, linear view of human beings, or of life. Every patient I met convinced me that all these chronic ailments are multi-factorial. You could never say that “this” caused “all that”. But there was one question I frequently found revelatory.

“When were you last completely well?”

Sounds an easy question, huh? But, actually, it was often difficult, and took some time and conversation to find the time, perhaps even several decades ago, when the patient last felt completely well. I’d then ask about the year the patient moved from wellness to illness.

“Tell me about that year”.

It was often a year of significant trauma, or the culmination of many traumas. I don’t think that meant that the patient’s illness could all be attributed to that trauma, but it was a starting point in making sense of their experience and beginning to find the way forward.

Sometimes patients were clearly stuck with these unresolved hurts. Again and again they’d think about those times, feel bad about them all over again. Others were so traumatised that they were living lives of fear, continually looking ahead and wondering “what if….?” “what might happen?” “how will I cope if….?” and things like that.

In both of these scenarios I’d draw a straight line – and say, the left hand point of this line is your date of birth, the right hand, the date of your death. We know the first, and have no way of knowing the second. But right now, today, you are somewhere along that line. Where is your attention? Where is your focus? Because if it’s to the left of today, it’s in the past, and that doesn’t exist any more, except in your memory. If it’s to the right, it’s in the future, and that only exists in your imagination. You can’t have your attention in more than one place at a time, so what if you draw your attention into the present instead? How might that feel? And we’d then explore ways of living more in the present reality, than in the past traumas and future fears.

I think it was often helpful, but now it seems somewhat simplistic to me. Because I now see time is not as linear as I thought. In fact, seeing cycles and seasons of time makes rather more sense to me now. As I experience a place like Segovia I realise that the past doesn’t go away. It doesn’t disappear into memory. (and memory is not an artificial place anyway….it’s no dusty filing cabinet with the drawers all locked)

Rather the past is always present, always here, and always now. It fashions our every day. It colours our every experience. It sets the tone of today. It constantly challenges us to respond to it, to adapt. In fact, that’s how we learn isn’t it? By having an awareness of the past in the present? If we forgot and discarded everything we experienced how could we learn anything? We adapt by carrying with us the past into the present.

And although this is even more challenging, the future is here now too. Not least because the future is, in one sense, a “multiplicity of singularities” – a set of possible paths, which are, at least in part, fashioned by this present moment, and by each and every decision and action.

I don’t think the past goes away. I don’t think the old “time heals” is true in the sense that it makes the past go away. Instead I think we learn to adapt to it. When we become aware of the past in our everyday we have the opportunities to create new responses, new strategies of living under it’s influence.

OK, so, this is not where I thought this post would go when I pasted in those photos of the aqueduct! But here’s a related thought – how does the presence of the past in today, as we see in this colossal aqueduct stretching over Segovia, shape, fashion, influence, inspire, challenge, stimulate the thoughts, feelings and actions of the people living there?

And so, of course, even when the past isn’t as obvious as this aqueduct, how does it’s presence today influence our experience of today?

Here’s the final part of that story – we don’t heal just by shifting our focus, we heal by becoming aware, aware of the past AND the future IN this present day, and realising we can change how we respond to that. Realising our current patterns aren’t fixed. We can alter them.

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Every year I’m amazed to watch the butterflies appear in the garden the very same day the buddleia bushes flower. I’m convinced they both appear at exactly the same moment. No idea how that happens! Are the butterflies just hanging out around the corner somewhere waiting for the blossoms to appear, then zip round as fast as they can the moment that happens?

However it happens, it’s a delight to see so many varieties of butterfly (and the hummingbird moths, which are incredible creatures!), to watch how they fly in such utterly unpredictable directions, how they spread their wings in the sunlight, or close them up so they look like little leaves.

But here’s one thought which comes up for me time and time again when I see butterflies….they make me more aware of the cyclical nature of life. These little creatures have such different life stages, so different you wouldn’t realise they were stages of the same life. Do we think of them as having a beginning and an end? Starting with an egg, progressing through their caterpillar stages, becoming a chrysalis, then emerging as a butterfly which lays eggs, then dies. Is that the life?

I suppose we do all think of ourselves as having a beginning and an end. But where do we begin, and where do we end?

It depends on whether or not you want to reduce a person to just a physical body. My physical body began with a single fertilised egg and this body will die.

But what about ME?

Do I really think I’m only a physical body? Don’t I have a sense of something immaterial too? A consciousness? A sense of Self? A personality? Characteristics, behaviours, values, beliefs, creative acts, destructive acts? Is there anything I can do which doesn’t ripple out into the world beyond me?

When I look at Rodin’s “The Kiss”, or “The Thinker”, what do I see? The product of the imagination and creative skill of the man called Auguste Rodin. When I listen to music composed and performed by people who are long since dead, isn’t there something I’m sharing there which only they could have created? Aren’t these great works of art the ongoing ripples of unique human beings? Or do you think these are just their footprints? (It doesn’t seem that way to me….these works seem full of life and the potential to continue to create and send out ripples into the universe)

And what about those characteristics, quirks or tendencies that I have which others in my “family tree” also exhibited, even perhaps before I was born? Anyone who explores their genealogy encounters remarkable “coincidences”, talents, life events, behaviours which echo down through the generations. Weren’t those threads present even before the egg which became me even existed?

I think it’s inadequate to narrow a person down to a physical body.

But even if we did, there is still the fact that the body changes continually. It never stops. There is a constant turnover of cells, new beginnings, new endings, every hour of every day. There is a continuous exchange of energy, materials and information between my body and my environment, and we all share the same environment, the same atmosphere, the same air, water…..we are all made from the same molecules, all created from the same “star stuff”.

So it seems to me that beginnings and endings are everywhere……wherever, and whenever, we happen to look.

But it also seems to me that they are nowhere. They just don’t exist. We all emerge from, and dissolve into, the great cycles of the universe.

Beginnings and endings are just where we choose them to be. But we can always make a different choice. We can always take a broader view, a bigger view, a longer view, a more holistic view.

I’m reminded of a song from my school days….it’s by Jeff Beck, and it’s called “Hi Ho Silver Lining” – he sang this truth right there in the opening line of this song…in the first five words……

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