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Archive for the ‘psychology’ Category

When I commuted to work in Glasgow I’d often squeeze my way through the hundreds of people spilling off the trains onto the platforms and make my way to one of the coffee outlets, joining a pretty fast moving queue to buy a coffee in a disposable cup with a plastic lid and sip it as I continued down the stairs to catch my second train. By the time I reached my workplace I’d be ready to drop the empty container into one of the bins on the platform, or, sometimes, I’d finish it as I walked up the path to hospital door and discard it in a bin at reception.

That’s one way to have a coffee. Here’s another.

In France, you choose a seat at one of the tables in front of the cafe. You can sit at one of the sunny ones, or go for a bit of shade. Settle yourself down and look around. You’ll likely have time to take in the blue sky, the architecture of the old buildings around you and start to notice the passers-by. Or you might get out the book you’re reading, the morning paper you just bought, or the notebook or diary you write in.

There’s an interval between sitting down at one of the tables and someone coming to take your order. I don’t know what determines the length of that interval but at first it felt a lot longer than I was used to. Is it longer than the time taken to get to the front of the queue in Queen Street Station? I don’t know, but when I first experienced this different coffee experience I’d start to feel impatient or irritated. I could even convince myself I was being ignored. But you know what? Those feelings have melted away. I don’t feel that any more. I’ve adjusted, or adapted. Now I sit and enjoy the moments until someone takes my order.

“Un café” – in France, “a coffee” is an expresso. You can make other choices, but the default is an expresso.

There’s another interval until the coffee arrives, easily filled by chatting to your partner, your friends, or your colleagues, by reading your book or newspaper, or jotting down your ideas or lists in your notebook.

Look at this little coffee. Look at the little porcelain cup. I love the feel of it between my fingers. I love the weight of it in my hand. Look at this little saucer, with its dimple in the middle comfortably waiting to receive the cup so that they sit perfectly together. Look at the blue writing, “Caffe Diemme”. Caffe Diemme is the name of a coffee company. The French love to play with words. You can’t see that without hearing “Carpe diem” (“seize the day”) in you head, can you?

The taste is intense and express. A couple of sips and it’s gone. Look around. There’s a young woman reading a novel. There’s a couple talking intimately, delighting in each other’s company. There’s the business man with his laptop. There’s an old man taking in the ebb and flow of people.

You leave your coins on the table or on the little plastic tray  with the bill folded onto it, which the waiter left with the coffee.

You get up, gather your belongings, and continue off into your day.

All this can take only a few minutes…..or several. You choose. Nobody is going to hurry you.

I’m not a great fan of seizing or grabbing, but I do believe life is better when you consciously savour it.

Savour the day.

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Oh, I wish I could share the scent of these astonishing flowers with you. How the sense of smell conjures up such vivid memories and experiences. Hyacinths are the only flowers which provoke my mind to recall poetry. I’m not saying I don’t think of lines from poems in other circumstances. It’s just that hyacinths, specifically, start a passage of poetry in my mind every single time….in much the same way as a few notes of music will transport me back to a particular time and place.

Here’s what I hear in my head when I smell the hyacinths –

‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;

“They called me the hyacinth girl.’

_ Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden,

Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not

Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither

Living not dead, and I knew nothing,

Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

Do you know that poem?

I’ve never seen her, the hyacinth girl, her arms full and her hair wet, but I swear I have. Yet I couldn’t describe her to you. I’ve never seen her physically…and that’s what’s most interesting about this for me. I have a deep knowledge of seeing her, but I’ve never seen her. I have the feeling of the experience of seeing her, but I’ve never seen her.

But I have seen the hyacinths….and every time, they still my soul and I’m “looking into the heart of light, the silence.”

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dscn8059

Here’s an example of the type of photograph I enjoy so much. At first glance it’s pleasing. It delights me. I can sit and gaze at it for ages, enjoying its beauty. But it stimulates my thoughts too.

I see this and I think about ways of engaging with the world. Iain McGilchrist shows us in his Master and His Emissary that our two cerebral hemispheres allow us to simultaneously use two different types of focus….narrow and broad.

The left hemisphere separates out whatever we are looking at from the contexts in which it exists. It allows us to set a kind of frame around what we are looking at, to distinguish it from the whole. That lets us label it, put it into a category, and so grasp it. Literally. Get a handle on it so we can manipulate it. It’s a narrow focus, one which drills down to separate out and analyse aspects or components.

The right hemisphere focuses on the connections rather than the parts. It lets us see the broad view, the over view. It helps us to see whatever we are looking at in the fullness of its context. We don’t see the separate parts, we see the connectedness of everything. In the terms of classical philosophy, it helps us to take the “view from on high”.

The view from on high lets us do something else too….it allows us to stand apart from whatever we are looking at. It lets us put a little distance there…a distance in space, and/or a distance in time…a pause, or a moment to reflect and consider.

Some people argue this is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of human beings, this ability to create a distance which allows us to choose responses rather than simply react in programmed or patterned automatic ways. But I think it is equally characteristic of human beings that we have this huge cerebral cortex divided into two distinctly different hemispheres allowing us to focus on the world in two such distinctly different ways.

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tree-vine-fog

As I was opening the shutters yesterday morning I caught sight of some swirls of mist lying amongst the vines towards the next village. I took a few photos. Here’s one of my favourite ones. It pleases me. Enormously. There’s an entrancing beauty to it. And it’s one of those photos which stimulates all kinds of thoughts for me.

I look at this and I think of two of the fundamental forces of the universe – the ones which Thomas Berry called “wildness” and “discipline”. The large tree in the centre of the image grows wild. It grows naturally and it spreads out above and below ground creating this ever branching structure which looks like its reaching out to the world. It looks like it’s stretching upwards and outwards to feel the sky and the moist air. In front of it are rows and rows of vines, trained and pruned by human hand, disciplined to grow along the wires. The vines form a complex web of life. As I look at them now it’s hard to discern where one plant stops and the next one begins.

When I think of these two forces, I think of the two hemispheres of the brain, each with its distinctive style of engaging with the world. The right hemisphere exploring, seeking the new, making connections. The left hemisphere exploiting, grasping, structuring. Iain McGilchrist writes in “The Divided Brain“, that the right hemisphere characteristically seeks to care, it seeks to engage with “the other” empathically. The left hemisphere seeks to control, seeking to deal with “the other” by categorising, labelling and separating.

How we see these forces at work in the world today!

 

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Twelve project Day eleven.jpg

On a wall which runs the full length of one side of my garden grows a plant which isn’t like any other plant I’ve ever seen. It’s name in English is “Boston Ivy”, and its a kind of vine. One of my friends calls it “mile a minute” referring to its speed of growth.

One of the things I like most about it is its complexity. At different times of year its shape, colour and appearance is completely different. Right now in the winter when it’s lost all of its leaves it is a web of stems, creepers and woody trunks. In the height of the summer its lusciously green and is literally a-buzz with bees while providing protected hidden spaces for blackbirds to build their nests. There’s a point in the summer where the seed pods all pop and the sound of millions and millions of the pod shells falling through the leaves to the ground sounds for all the world like a waterfall. The first time I heard it I actually went to look for where the water.

But it’s in the autumn when the leaves turn these glorious shades of red, yellow and gold. It’s breathtakingly beautiful. Then once the leaves fall the plant reveals its gorgeous little bluish black berries on bright red stalks. The birds come in their dozens for those!

Having lived here for two years now I see every one of these phases in the context of the ones which came before and the ones still to come. It’s a very physical experience of the reality of stories, or better, of storied reality.

 

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twelve-project-day-eight

Day eight of the Twelve project takes me to August 2016 (I’ve selected one image for each month of 2016 and I’m posting one a day for twelve days). The big thing for me in August was my first ever visit to Spain. The Spanish border is just four hours drive from where I live in France so you can leave first thing in the morning and have lunch in Spain. I’m not going to write about that whole trip and all the places I visited here but I’ve selected this one image because it captures one of the main threads of that story.

This photo is taken in the Alhambra in Grenada. If you’ve ever thought of making a “bucket list” of places you want to visit before you die, then I highly recommend putting the Alhambra on that list. It’s best to buy your tickets in advance (here’s the official site for buying them online) and you have to select both the date and the time you want to visit. There are a limited number of tickets for each half hour period of the day to manage the flow of visitors. Here’s the number one tip – buy tickets for the 0830 entrance – its the first entrance of the day before it starts to get too busy and way too hot.

This one photo reminds me of several of the things I loved best about my visit.

The shapes of the windows and doors. There are so many in the Alhambra and Generalife site. You can wander from room to room as you wish, unless you are on an organised tour in which case you have to go with your chosen crowd. I prefer to explore freely. Every room you enter has beautiful, enticing windows and doors. You’re drawn to them, both to look through to see what’s on the other side, and to pause and admire their shape, design and decoration.

The decoration – there are just the most astonishing patterns in the stonework and the plaster everywhere. They reminded me of the Celtic knots and Pictish patterns on the ancient stones in Scotland but they are different from both of those. One glance at them captures you. They are beautiful at that very first look, but then you’re drawn into them, exploring more of the detail and noticing how the patterns both repeat and evolve. If you look at the walls, archways and frames in this photo you won’t see a single area left unadorned. The whole place is like that. Room after room. But look down too under the double window and to the left of it….see the mosaic pattern of the tiles? That’s the other major design feature here, the tiles. There are so many different tiles creating so many different patterns in so many different combinations…..the diversity, the creativity, the workmanship….breathtaking.

Through the double window here you can glimpse a garden and that’s one of the things I loved best about the Alhambra….the courtyards and gardens, with trees, flowers, bushes, fountains, pools, paths and benches. The fact that the windows and doors are all wide open to the outside spaces breaks down the boundaries between the inner and outer parts of the palace.

Light and shade – the shadows, the reflections, the contrasts of light and shade are as varied as the patterns on the tiles and walls. I don’t know if they designed the place to give you that experience of light and shade but I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else.

I know there are many, many, beautiful places to visit in the world. Too many for any of us to experience in one lifetime. But despite the crowds the Alhambra made a huge impact on me. A lot of my photography is of Nature  but this was one of the places where it was the unique creativity of human beings which was almost overwhelming.

We humans really can create the most beautiful, varied, delightful world when we work together with focus and determination.

Patience and persistence – I’d say these are two of the skills I learn to practice every day living in the Charente – and those are the very two skills needed to create beauty. Slowing down, paying attention to the details and enjoying every single moment to the full.

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gathered-leaves

In this season the leaves begin to fall and one of my daily activities is to rake them up. Before I moved to France I lived in a second floor apartment so leave raking wasn’t part of my life. I’ve found that I really enjoy it. It gives me great pleasure. I know it’s not the same as a zen monk raking his stones, but there is something of that quality to it. I don’t rush it and the sweeping movements with the rake feel strangely relaxing. It’s also really pleasing to gather the leaves into a heap, then to scoop them up to take them away to the “déchetterie” for composting another day.

I am constantly amazed by the variety of shapes, sizes and colours, and often pause to look at a leaf more closely, to turn it over in my hand and feel its texture.

Once I’ve finished raking it feels like having tidied up, or cleaned a room. It’s satisfying. You can immediately see the results of your efforts.

The other morning I opened the front door, unlocked the shutters and stepped outside to see what I’ve captured in this photo. During the night the wind had worked differently from usual. Instead of scattering the leaves everywhere it had gathered them together into this heap under the tree. I hardly needed the rake that day. I just had to scoop up the leaves with my hands.

I remember years ago I used to read an American magazine entitled “Wired”, and they had a regular column of “new words”, neologisms which people were starting to use. One which really impressed me at the time, and has stayed with me ever since, was the word “pronoia”. You know the word “paranoia”? Which means the delusion that the world is conspiring against you. Well “pronoia” means the delusion that the world is conspiring to help you out!

I had a real sense of pronoia the morning I took this photo……

As I sat down to write this post I remembered a thought which has been attributed to Einstein, although I believe there is no record of him ever having actually said it.

“I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves. For if we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly and I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves as well in this process. If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially ‘playing dice with the universe’, then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning. But if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives. God does not play dice with the universe,”

Well, even if he never actually said it, it’s still an interesting thought to turn over in your head for a bit, isn’t it? So many people live as if the universe is harsh and hostile and they need to struggle against it, to overcome it. Yet others believe the universe couldn’t care less and that everything that occurs is completely random and meaningless, even an individual life. But there is this third option, which is that the universe is actually a creative, “friendly” place. If you think that way, then every day becomes filled with wonder and delight. Every day you encounter something, or someone, astonishing.

I prefer the third stance. I think there is too much beauty and elaborate complexity in the universe for it all to come down to either malign intent or apathy. There’s something amazingly wonderful about a leaf, a season, an ecosystem, a bird, a person…..I’ll never tire of being amazed by, and trying to understand, my daily life.

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