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Archive for the ‘psychology’ Category

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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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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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I named this blog “heroes not zombies” because we humans have a tendency to go about the world on autopilot. As we walk through the day the thoughts which fill our heads are often ones from the past or the future. We go over what people said or did, recall events and circumstances which made a big impact on us….even the ones which seemed quite inconsequential to others. And we go over and over what might lie ahead and worry about it. All these thoughts squeeze out our attention to the present. I’m sure you’ve had that experience of traveling from one place to another, maybe even driving a car, only to arrive and realise you were so preoccupied with something you are surprised you’re at your destination already.

There’s something else which prevents us from experiencing the here and now. We become habituated. We are creatures of habit and when we stay within the bounds of the familiar we have a tendency to become oblivious to the detailed differences of the every day.

And there’s another thing. People who want power over others, whether that be politically, socially or commercially, pressurise us to conform and be compliant. Difference is singled out as a negative and suppressed. Governments, institutions, authorities, corporations want to control us a mass. The Romans did that through the provision of “bread and circuses”, but maybe now its “sugar and screens”.

Living in a zombie-like autopilot submissive way means we lose touch with reality. Reality is the here and now. Reality is uniqueness. Reality is diversity. Reality is freedom, opportunity and change.

The alternative is to become the authors and main characters, or heroes, of our own life stories. We can co-create our daily reality and claim this one wild and special life as our own.

OK, so how did I get all that from that photo today?

The other day I was walking a route I’ve walked thousands and thousands of times over a lifetime. It’s autumn here in the northern hemisphere and the colours of the leaves on the trees this year is particularly eye catching. In fact I think to walk amongst trees is one of the best ways to draw yourself and your attention into the here and now. So I was stopping every now and again and taking a photo. Then, I don’t know quite why, but I looked up from the base of a tree towards the sky and took this photo.

It wasn’t just the colours which caught my eye, it was the shape and form of the branches. As I look at it now my imagination kicks in and I’m more and more convinced I just managed to glimpse the legs of one of the spirits of the forest as they leapt over my head in the canopy of the trees.

Well, I did say my imagination had kicked in……

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gate to cloister toledo cloister small cloister alhambra cloister simple cloister

I can’t remember when I first encountered a cloister or an inner courtyard. Part of me thinks it was in Marrakech where I stayed in a restored ryad. I loved how you could walk around the sheltered edges of the square, how there were places to sit, and how there were two other, what I think are essential, features – trees and water (either a fountain, or a well).

So, here are a number of photos from my trip to Spain last week. There are three kinds of courtyard/cloister here – very Christian, very secular, and very Islamic. Isn’t it interesting how these three different traditions have the same core features whilst they are distinctly different?

I think one of the reasons I adore these spaces so much is that induce a desire to slow down, pause for a while, and turn within.

Of course we don’t need these types of spaces to do that. I often recommended Julia Cameron’s “artist’s date” practice to patients – scheduling some time to spend by yourself doing something you don’t have to do.

When I came back home I listened to the latest episode of Onbeing, an interview with Mirabai Bush, about the importance of contemplative practice. During that interview there was a mention of the “tree of contemplative practices” which brilliantly illustrates the diversity of contemplative practices through the varied traditions in the world. I hadn’t realised there were so many.

We all need to find some way to be still and become aware. Maybe you have your own favourite ways, favourite places, or practices. Or maybe you’d like to explore some by clicking through on the links in this post……or maybe you’d just like to sit and gaze at one of these photos for a while and see where that takes you?

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