Archive for the ‘psychology’ Category

When I lived in Scotland the first snowdrops to appear each year always caught my attention. These small white flowers hang like little bonnets, which gives them the appearance of being discrete. They aren’t showy, or majestic, but they are obvious all the same. I think it would be hard not to notice them.

Here in France we don’t have snowdrops. Well, not in this part of France anyway. I’ve never seen them growing wild, and I’ve looked many times in nurseries and garden centres for the little bulbs so I could try growing some in my own garden, but I’ve never found them. Somehow, that makes them even more precious, and, perhaps, somewhat obviously, it gives them a new significance for me. I see them now as emblematic of the country of my birth.

Snowdrops don’t appear for long but they are one of those flowers which marks the cycle of the seasons. There are many other flowers which do that, of course, but the snowdrops seem to manage to break through the winter soil, push up their thin, delicate, green stalks, and unfold their beautiful white petals before most of the other flowers do. In that sense, they are like the beginning of something for me. I know that after I see the first snowdrops, the crocus flowers won’t be far behind, and already I find I’m starting to look forward to the daffodils and tulips.

Every flower is new, of course.

No individual flower repeats itself. Every year each unique, particular bulb wakes up, pushes upwards and shares the beauty of its own petals in its own time, its own place, and its own way. That reminds me of the classical spiritual practice of approaching every day as if for the first time……because that’s the truth…..this day has never been lived before. Everything you see, everything you hear, everything you smell, taste and touch, everything you feel, everything you do, will be for the first time today. It might be a lot like yesterday, but, actually, it’s different.

Starting your day with the knowledge that this day is a new day, and that every experience and event which occurs will happen for the very first time, opens up your potential to wonder and to learn. It opens up your curiosity and your consciousness, filling your day with discoveries, delights, and wonder.

All of that is good for the health of your right cerebral hemisphere – this is the part of the brain we use to discover novelty, to see things in their singularity, to appreciate the holistic nature of reality. And just as we develop muscles by exercising them, so we develop mental functions and neurological structures by exercising them.

New every time – a great way to increase the quality of your life, a great way to encourage growth, a great way to become enchanted again by this world we live in.

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Stone circles, dolmens, single standing stones, cairns and burial mounds…….I have a fascination for all of these objects. There are a lot of them in Scotland (like this one at Lundin Farm) and there are a lot in France.

I was born, grew up in, lived and worked in Scotland. I emigrated after I retired from the NHS in 2014. I now live in the Charente, near the town of Cognac….a small town with a big reputation, not least due to the spirits made and exported around the world from here.

I had an intention to come and live in France for a long, long time. I wanted to live at least a part of my life in a different culture, a culture fashioned in a different language. I feel this move has widened and deepened my experience of life. But I don’t feel I’ve lost my Scottishness. It’s fascinating to live that weave of two languages, and two cultures. It really does give me the sense of an enriched, enhanced life.

I think we humans all share the same small planet. We all breathe the same air, drink water from the same water cycles, eat food grown in the same biosphere. Frontiers are artificially drawn lines on the globe. We all came from the same nomadic first tribes. We are all descended from the same first humans. When I come across these ancient neolithic structures I feel connected…..connected vertically back down a family tree to the past, and horizontally around me to everyone, and everything, else currently sharing planet Earth with me.

There’s an old classical spiritual exercise about standing back from your immediate surroundings. You can think of it in the same way as looking at the world once you’ve climbed a hill. You can think of it in the same way as those images from space which show our blue and green planet spinning slowly. When you look “from on high” then you get a different perspective. You see something whole. You see something inter-connected. You see the flows of clouds in the atmosphere, the flows of water in the oceans, and you realise you are a small, but unique, individual in a much greater whole.

Well, I think something similar happens when you encounter a stone circle. I’ve often had the sensation that I feel different inside the circle from what I do on the outside. I don’t mean that in any spooky way, but I just mean that the action of stepping inside one of these ancient structures, created surely with immense effort by men and women with rudimentary tools, lets you have a different perspective. You can feel connected, not just to multiple generations of ancestors, but to those deep currents which run through every human being – the desire to create, to interact with what is around you, to make something new, something special, to make a work of art, a work of the spirit, a work of quality.

We human beings don’t just survive. We change the world as we live in it. We create the world as we live in it. We discover and we make meaning. We create experiences, and the opportunities to have experiences, for ourselves and for others.

What kind of world are we creating now? What experiences are we making for ourselves and for others? What opportunities to enhance and enlarge life are we making and seizing?

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I reckon one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life is the importance of context. There’s a huge tendency to “abstract” elements from reality – to take things to pieces and examine the pieces; to reduce the whole to a selection of parts; to consider only a single episode or moment in a life story; to pull a single thread from the entire matrix and try to follow just that; to measure what can be measured and disregard the rest. This tendency to “abstraction” is coupled with a tendency to “generalise”, so all is labelled, categorised and filed away; to give precedence to the “average”, the “norm” and the “typical”, over the “individual”, the “specific” and the “unique”.

Our left hemisphere is the champion of all that. Abstraction, labelling, categorisation and generalisation are at the heart of the way it engages with the world. All that can be useful. It can help us to “get a grip”, to “grasp” things, to make predictions and exert some control over the future (at least in small ways for short periods of time).

But it isn’t enough.

Throughout my decades of work as a doctor I interacted with people one-to-one, one after the other, always encountering a unique human being in a specific situation with a particular life story. I never saw two identical people in two identical situations with two identical life stories.

To make a diagnosis, to achieve a better level of understanding, and to establish a personal bond with each patient demanded that I brought my right hemisphere into play. I had to seek the connections, make connections, discern the meaning from the contexts, the contingencies and the uncover the unique, singular story. Only by doing that could I understand this person, in this situation, at this point in their life.

I got thinking about all that again this morning as a I looked at this photo. I mean, at first glance it’s a photo of someone in traditional Japanese dress. At second glance they are standing in front of a statue of Hume, the Scottish philosopher, dressed as a classical Greek scholar. Well, there’s a combination you don’t see every day! I have seen lots of people in traditional Japanese dress, but mainly when I’ve been visiting Kyoto. Not in Scotland. I’ve walked down the High Street in Edinburgh countless times past this statue of Hume

Only once did I see someone wearing a kimono, standing having their photo taken next to it.

So it’s the context of these two figures which makes this photo what it is. Either character by him or herself might tell a different story. But seeing them together here is a sort of “satori” – a “kick in the eye” – it makes me stop, take note, and reflect.

It inspires me to reflect about the importance of contexts and connections, of juxtapositions and synchronicities. And it inspires me to reflect on the two great traditions of philosophy and thought – the Eastern, Taoist/Confucian/Shinto/Buddhist with the Western, Enlightenment/Rationalist/Greek and Roman.

That’s an incredibly rich source of inspiration!

Follow your own special way through the thought chains and connections which unfurl, unravel, and open up before you when you look at this.

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One of my most favourite sculptors is Anthony Gormley. Many years ago he created one of his works in London, placing his distinct iron casts of a man standing on various roof tops around the city. It caused quite a stir as several people thought they could see real men who looked like they were about to jump from the heights. I never saw it that, thinking more of Wim Wenders’ angels in Wings of Desire (or the City of Angels, American remake of that classic) where you could see the angels sitting or standing high up above the city watching down on the people below. At the same time as Gormley placed these figures around London he had an exhibition in the South Bank Gallery and that’s where I took this photo.

One of his works in the exhibit was a large glass box, the size of a whole room. The glass box was filled with mist, so dense that you could hardly see your hand in front of your face. You could walk around inside the box, dimly making out other visitors who appeared and disappeared continuously in the thick mist. As you walked around the box on the outside you could make out the occasional figure temporarily appearing in the midst of the mist as they walked around inside the box. As I passed someone reached their hand up to place it on the glass, and as I snapped the photo, I noticed the glass wall was reflecting one of the figures high up on a roof outside the gallery.

That lucky moment gave me this image which has kind of haunted me ever since. As I look at it again today, in the context of this surging wave of the pandemic and trying to cope with yet another month of sundays in lockdown, this image seems to have a new meaning and a new poignancy.

It makes me think of this world we are all living in now, hidden behind invisible barriers, or, sometimes, all too visible ones! How we are connecting by email, texts, zoom calls and so on, but how we can’t quite reach out and touch anyone else.

I know that this will pass. Everything does. Nothing remains the same. And maybe this experience of “distancing” which we are experiencing is giving us the opportunity to become more aware of what’s really important to us. Maybe, like me, you’re finding that you are deepening relationships with even more communication that you “normally” do. Maybe you’re making new friends, encountering the kindness of strangers in other lands. I guess I’m saying, it’s not all bad. But I don’t mean in a way which would dismiss the challenge and the struggle.

What better can we do today, tomorrow, and the next day, but reach out and tell our loved ones how much we love them, and extend the hand of kindness to strangers?

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It’s many years since I was walking around Aix en Provence and came across this ball lying against the kerb. I could have just walked by. After all, what’s so remarkable about a ball just lying in the street? But I didn’t. I crouched down at the side of the pavement and took this photo.

The ball is the centre of attention. I know about the “rule of thirds” in relation to picture composition but I decided this time to make the ball sit pretty much in the middle of the shot. But it’s not just a picture of a ball. It’s a ball in a totally empty street……which really gives the impression of an abandoned ball. I don’t know if the ball had been abandoned or if some kid had just left it outside their house while they had their lunch, but in this particular framing this image still captures a real sense of abandoned play for me.

At this point in our pandemic (it’s January 1st 2021 as I write this) a street like this looks like the “new normal”. I’ve been seeing streets like this for about nine months now. So, now that I return to this old photo it has a new, topical relevance.

But I want to return to the ball itself today, because what is the purpose of ball like this, other than to be something to play with?

I know we are going to have to develop new behaviours, make different choices, change our lives in the face of this pandemic, but I’m going to suggest to you today that one of the behaviours we could do with a bit more of is “play”. I don’t mean that in a trivial way. In fact, I think play is greatly under-rated. Babies and children learn and develop most of their key, lifetime skills, through play – they explore, they press what they can press, push what they can push – I saw a little video of my smallest grandchild opening his first ever Xmas present. He’s not a year old yet. But he immediately spun whatever would turn, pushed whatever buttons would go down, popped a ball into a hole……he just constantly tried out everything. It’s this kind of play we need to cultivate I think and that is going to require –

Wonder – if you can keep in touch with a sense of wonder, not only will every day have something in it to delight you, but you’ll remain curious, you’ll keep wanting to explore. We will find new ways of living through our capacity to wonder. Lose the sense of wonder, lose the ability to invent new ways to live, lose the ability to make sense of this world.

Humility – getting down to a child’s level is a way of having a “beginners mind” – a way of countering any arrogance of knowing it all. We never know it all. That’s just not possible. Unless we retain a sense of humility and acknowledge that we can always learn from our experiences then we just aren’t going to progress. One of the things that frustrates me most about this pandemic is what seems like a systemic inability of politicians to admit they didn’t get things right, to acknowledge that they could have made different choices. Without the ability to do that, they can’t make better choices next time around.

Joy – how much do you let joy guide your actions and choices? Researchers into the neuroscience of emotions, and many philosophers over hundreds of years have shown us that joy is one of the most powerful emotions and drivers in the human psyche. You can see that easily in children. If it’s not bringing them joy, they soon let you know! And, yes, I know, joy is not the only emotion, and can’t be your only guide. I’m just suggesting that there’s a benefit in becoming a bit more aware of brings you joy, understanding why that is, and then feeding that into your decision making.

Imagination – I sometimes think this our superpower. We are literally the co-creators of our daily lived experience and there is no way we could do that without excercising our imaginations. We can’t think ahead without it. We can’t experience what anyone else is experiencing without it. We wouldn’t have memories without it. We couldn’t create without it.

I’ll leave this post with those four things. I think these are four things related to “play” and I think we are going to need them all in spades as 2021 unfurls……

  • Wonder
  • Humility
  • Joy
  • Imagination

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Look at these two images.

I took this photo at Achnabreck in the Kilmartin Glen in the West of Scotland many years ago. The Kilmartin Glen has hundreds of cup and ring marked rocks, standing stones and cairns dating back 5000 years to prehistoric times.

As I wandered around the rocks, taking photos, on a typical showery day in Scotland, I noticed that when I looked at some of the water filled indentations that they looked concave, but when I moved to the other side of the rock the water now seemed to be convex. I’m no expert in optics so I could’t explain the phenomenon but when I got home and uploaded this photo, I noticed that if I flipped it 180 degrees I was able to replicate what I’d seen.

So those two photos above are just one photo – with the one flipped 180 degrees to the other. I find this quite mesmerising…….whatever the, probably simple, optical/physical explanation. Every single time I look at these two images side by side I am inspired to think about how different “the same” world looks when we change our perspective.

Maybe this is a variation on the old “glass half full, glass half empty” idea, but in this case, sunken vs swollen water in indentations.

Actually, just by itself this is one of my favourite photos of all time. First of all, if it hadn’t been raining then the cup markings wouldn’t have filled with water and would have looked very, very different. Something else which highlights the contingent nature of all of our experiences – every event, every experience is unique, because no two sets of time, place, weather, environment, mood, mental state, place in a personal narrative are ever identical. Secondly, how on earth did people with just stones as tools make these marks? And isn’t that one which isn’t a circle, a footprint? A footprint in rock?? Thirdly, why did they make these marks? We don’t know. There are amazing spirals and loops and spirals with tails scattered on rock surfaces throughout this valley – but nobody knows why. Are they maps? Do they tell a story? Are they the marks of particular tribes? Are they symbols of spiritual signficance? Are they art? Are they doodles?? We don’t know. And why here? Why in the Kilmartin Glen (I’ve found that not many people I’ve met know about the Kilmartin Glen but it’s one of my most favourite, most special places in the whole of Scotland)

Here, in the last couple of days of 2020, with yet another wave of the virus on the up, and vaccination programmes just beginning to be rolled out, I’m sure we’ll all be taking some time to reflect on this most unusual year, a year we will never forget.

As I reflect, I’m hoping to do two things – acknowledge the losses and the difficulties of this year, then affirm the gains and opportunities – because this, maybe more obviously than most years, is a year when so much has happened and so much has changed that it feels a year of special significance – perhaps a turning point, perhaps a year of revelation, perhaps a year of re-evaluation, perhaps a year of enlightenment – because this year surely seems a year when we human beings were given the opportunity to change direction.

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In my two previous posts I’ve considered how our experience is altered by the frames through which we live – through which we perceive and engage with daily reality. These frames, psychologically, are fashioned out of our beliefs, our values, our habits and our memories.

This photo is of a picture frame at a stall in an antiques market in the middle of Aix en Provence. What always strikes me first when I see this photo is how the frame is the dominant source of colour in the image. I’ve actually looked at this and wondered if it was a black and white photo with only the picture frame coloured later on, but it isn’t. I haven’t edited or changed anything from the original shot. When you look more carefully you can see plenty of colour to the right hand side of the image. Still, that contrast between the golden frame and the pretty monochrome pavement, tree and the left hand side of the background really, really makes the frame stand out.

So, I got to thinking a bit more about this idea of the frame, fashioned from our beliefs, values, habits and memories, and how that plays such a role in our lived reality. The first thing that came to mind was the way in which our two cerebral hemispheres engage with the world differently. The left focuses in on parts and details, emphasises objects, measurements, and data. The right is more focused on the whole, on the connections, relationships, the “between-ness” of everything, and on the particular, the unique and the specific. Along with that goes a predilection for mechanisms and machines with the left hemisphere and a predilection for nature and human beings with the right. At least, that’s one way of summarising some of what Iain McGilchrist describes in “The Master and His Emissary”.

The question then is which hemisphere are we in the habit of using most? And I think, again agreeing with McGilchrist, that there is no doubt the left hemisphere approach to the world has become the dominant one. We live in a world where we give priority to data, measurements, objects, control and grasping, to machines and computers, to industrialisation and automation. But this pandemic has shown us the importance of understanding how everything connects, of the importance of the human, and the unique, of our need for care and for each other. So, maybe one way we need to move forward into 2021 is by building the strengths and powers of the right hemisphere “frame” of values, beliefs, and habits. Maybe our way forward is going to require more imagination, more flexibility, more adaptability than the dominant “frame” the left hemisphere has provided for us?

The next thing that comes up for me is about our shared values, beliefs and habits – our structural ones which have produced modern day capitalism, our exploitative relationship to “Nature” which we see as something outside of us, something to be dominated. What if we tackled those two issues together?

What if we explored a different kind of economics and politics which would reduce inequality, reduce exploitation and injustice? What if shifted from having money as our god to Nature as our god? To see Nature as something we are a part of, not apart from. To see Nature as a source of infinite wonder, of an enormous resource, not to be consumed but to learn from? What would the world look like through that frame? How would that change our values, beliefs and habits?

Well, that’s what I want to explore in the months ahead. I want to learn more, understand more, and share more about the real world, the real world seen through the frame of connectedness, uniqueness, diversity, equality, kindness and wonder.

How about you? What values, beliefs and habits do you think dominate the frames through which you engage with the world? And which of those do you think are shared with others? Is there anything there you’d like to change?

In fact, more than that, what if you were to imagine your “golden frame”? Your ideal, your dream, frame? The way you’d most like to engage with the world and the shared beliefs, values and habits which you’d like to spread most widely? What would that look like?

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Yesterday I wrote about the difference between viewing a garden from the perspective of inside a building, to that of viewing it as you walk around the garden itself.

The photo I used for the first perspective showed a traditional rectangular shaped doorway, all straight lines and 90 degree angles between them. So I thought I’d contrast that today with this photo, taken at a different temple, but again showing a garden viewed from the perspective of inside the building.

This time it’s a round window. Now, before I say anything more what do you feel as you look at this image? Isn’t there something particularly attractive about the round frame, instead of the rectangular one? Isn’t it somehow less aggressive, less harsh? Even if you didn’t think the other window frame really had those qualities before you looked at this one.

But there’s something else about this frame…..the circle is not complete. There is a section missing at the floor level. This is, as I understand it, another characteristic of Japanese design aesthetics. The idea is that if you leave something “less than perfect” or “incomplete” then it does two things – it stimulates the observer to use their imagination to “complete” the shape, and it contains a kind of latent dynamic quality – it is in the process of “becoming”. It isn’t “fixed” or “dead”.

All that makes me wonder about the kinds of frames we use to engage with everyday life. Because there is no doubt that our values, beliefs, memories and habits all exert powerful effects on what we notice, what impact those observations and experiences have upon us, and what sense we make of them.

Do you agree?

If so, I think that’s why it’s good to stop now and again, to reflect and to try to become more aware of just what values, beliefs, memories and habits we access most frequently. One simple way to do that is Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages” exercise. It’s just writing non-stop, stream of consciousness writing to fill three pages of a notebook every morning. My experience of this is that it works best when you don’t re-read what you’ve written until some time later – say at least a month or so – so, here’s my proposal – are you up for doing “Morning Pages” every day of January? Then reading over what you’ve written once we reach February?

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I’ve read before that one of the major differences between Japanese and English garden design is that in Japan the emphasis is on what the garden looks like from inside the house, whereas in England the garden is designed from the perspective of the observer actually in the garden.

I think that’s probably an over-simplification and as with pretty much all generalisations it should be taken with a pinch of salt.

However, here’s an example of a Japanese garden. I took this photo form the interior of a temple, and you can see that the garden pulls your attention towards it. Not only does the window seem to create a frame for a beautiful picture, but the wooden flooring leads you out of the room towards the fence inviting you to enter the garden…..but only to the edge.

Maybe that’s partly where this idea comes from that the aesthetic in Japan is to create the experience for the observer standing just a little bit outside of the garden.

But, now, look at this next photo, which I took during the same visit to the same garden.

This isn’t a garden just to be looked at from the outside. Look at these winding paths, the stone lantern, the opening between the trees, the well trimmed low shrub, the grey rocks. This is all absolutely begging you to get out onto that path and experience this garden as it unfolds around you! This is a garden to be experienced from the inside of the garden itself.

How do I reconcile these two views and these, at face value, conflicting sets of design value?

And not or“.

Here’s some of the true genius of Japanese aesthetics, in my humble opinion…….a resolution of polarities to create something greater than either of the poles can achieve by themselves.

This is a garden created to be beautiful and inviting from inside the temple, AND to be beautiful and inviting once you are in the garden itself. Both of these experiences are so memorable, and dovetailing the two perspectives into one takes the entire visit to a whole other level.

I find this incredibly inspiring. It inspires me to connect to, to seek out, and to create, beauty. It inspires me to break down the artificial boundaries between perspectives – to bring the view from outside the garden into the view from within the garden. It inspires me to create curiosity and intrigue as well…..because don’t you just want to walk along that path and have a closer look at those rocks, that shrub, that stone lantern? Don’t you just want to walk along that path and “bathe” in that gorgeous forest of colour? Don’t you just know in your bones that this is the kind of thing which is “good for you”, which will nourish your soul, stimulate your body and your mind, enrich your life?

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When we look up the world looks very different.

This is not the view of a tree which you’d usually see in a photo, and I think it stands out all the more because of that.

In “Metaphors we live by”, Lakoff and Johnson make a convincing case for the embodied nature of the metaphors which underpin the meaning of so much of our speech. We take these metaphors so much for granted that we don’t even notice them. They give many, many such examples in their book, but the one which comes to mind as I write this is the one I used for the title today – “Looking up”.

Looking up is something we do physically, as you see in this view of a tree. “Looking up” also refers to our position in the physical world. We’d have to be very tall to look down on most trees! We look up to see what is above us…..or to raise our eyes from the ground if we happen to be walking around with our gaze fixed somewhere just between our noses and our feet.

The important insight about the embodied nature of our metaphors is that we can find clues in the language we use which can point in two different directions – they can indicate something about our emotions and our behaviours, but they can also indicate something about our bodies.

Once I learned that insight I became even more alert to the exact language a patient would use when describing their symptoms and experiences. Sometimes the words and metaphors they chose were the clues to finding their pathologies, and the way in which they were unconsciously trying to adapt to those pathologies. But that’s for another day.

Today I just wanted to highlight how physically “looking up” can actually link us in to the emotions, values and behaviours of “optimism”, of “looking forward” and of looking ahead with some flavour of brightness or expectation. Because it seems to me that we are pretty desperately needing a bit more positivity just now.

So, here’s my thought……maybe if we go out and deliberately, consciously, look up more, it will influence our mental state at a deep, unconscious, and emotional level and work as a kind of “reset” to enable us to engage with our lives more positively in the year ahead. And maybe if we do that, then as the active co-creators or reality, we will actually begin to build a better world.

As you raise your glasses at the end of the year, here’s to a time when things begin to “look up”!

Another world is possible.

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