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Archive for the ‘psychology’ Category

I drove out of the village, as I have done countless times, and I noticed a bloom of poppies in a field of wheat.

I’ve noticed these poppies each day for several days, and I remember noticing them at this time last year too.

But this time, I pulled over onto the grassy verge and stepped out to have a better look. I looked at one or two of them up close. I crouched down and looked at them against the wheat, then against the sky. I stood up and gazed over the whole extended scene. Then I took some photos.

When we travel along familiar roads and paths, both physical paths from one place to another, and mental paths, or habits of thought, we slip easily into automatic mode. Automatic mode makes it easy to get from one place to another, or to complete a task with a minimum of effort, but it by-passes reality.

When we stop, hit the pause button, take a moment to turn our attention to what’s here and what’s now, then we immerse ourselves in reality.

That attentive focus slows the heart, calms the body and stills the mind as we allow the five senses to present us with the world around us. For a little moment the flood of memories and imaginings, the stuck loops of thought, the anxious repetitions of what-ifs, ebb away, to be replaced with colour, light, sound, and sensations of smell, touch or taste.

I find that when I do this, the world becomes a more and more wonderful place, filled to overflowing with beauty, novelty and presence.

I recommend it.

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Look at this! I mean, just look at this! I know, it’s not one of my best, my sharpest photographs, but I was in the garden the other day and I heard this deep low buzzing sound. It wasn’t as deep as the humming-bird moths which will arrive when the buddleia bushes bloom later in the year, but it was a lot deeper than the various species of bees and wasps I usually hear in the garden. Luckily, when I turned to the sound I saw the source. This inch long jet black bee with iridescent blue wings. I quickly got my iPhone out of my pocket and did my best to snap a shot before the bee flew away. I have never seen anything quite like this. There were two or three of them buzzing around the flowers but they just never settled long enough to be able to focus a camera and take a nice close up (not yet anyway – I haven’t given up!).

I looked it up online and it seems this is a “violet carpenter bee”. Never heard of such a creature. What a thrill! What a delight! Made my day!

There’s an important lesson to learn here. I’m sure you’ll have come across “mindfulness”. It’s quite the thing these days. Mostly the term is used in relation to certain meditation practices and they are good ones. It seems that mindfulness meditation can have a lot of benefits, from easing depression and anxiety, to stimulating “neuroplasticity” (that’s the phenomenon of how the brain changes and develops itself). But even before the meditation practices were popularised Ellen Langer researched mindfulness in everyday life. She claims we can either go through life mindfully or mindlessly. Seems a clear choice, huh? How do we lead a more mindful life? Search for the new.

By new, she means what’s new to you. The trick, you see, is that every day is new. You have never lived this day before. Nobody has ever had, or ever will have, the same experience as you are going to have today. Once you are aware of that you can set out to be aware of what’s new.

Iain McGilchrist points out in “The Master and His Emissary” that our left cerebral hemisphere has a preference for what is familiar, whilst the right hemisphere thrives on curiosity – it leads us to seek out what’s new. His larger thesis is that we have become very left brain dominant in our present society and that some deliberate change of focus to the right brain might bring about a much more healthy, more integrated level of brain function.

I recently read a book by French author, Belinda Cannone, “S’émervieller”, which explores many of the ways we can bring a heightened sense of wonder and awe into our everyday lives. Bottom line is the same as Langer and McGilchrist say – seek out what’s new. And that’s exactly the experience I had the other day when this violet carpenter bee turned up amongst the garden flowers. Cannone gives various different examples of the places, times and activities which seem most likely to stimulate “l’émerveillement” (“amazement”) and the strongest one is “Nature”.

The thing is the natural world, especially the world of living forms, is constantly changing. Pretty much any time we spend in natural environments will be likely to gift us the delights of something new.

Let me just clarify what I mean by “new” in this piece. I mean it’s anything you haven’t seen before, heard before, smelled before, touched or tasted before. It’s also the newness of the present moment. You have never ever lived this present moment before, so what do you notice? Right here, right now. It’s also the encounter with anything you don’t know or don’t understand. These are the experiences which stimulate our curiosity and our drive to learn. They are the every day experiences of adventure and discovery.

From the Japanese art of forest bathing, to Richard Louv’s claim that we are suffering from “Nature-deficit disorder” which can be treated with a good dose of “Vitamin N” (Nature), to l’émerveillement, to mindfulness and neuroscience, it’s clear that one of the best ways to develop a healthier brain is to spend some time in Nature – whether that’s a forest, a beach, a park, or a garden. I recommend it.

You’ll be amazed.

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I suspect a lot of us have a lot of music in our heads. Sometimes we start to hum a tune or sing a song and only after we’ve started do we become aware that we’re doing it. Then we might pause to wonder “why did that particular song, or tune, come into my head just now?”

I find that when I look at some images something similar happens. Take this for example. I took this photo of an old couple sitting in a public park in Limoges a few weeks ago. They are both engrossed in their books. Their body positions and their physical closeness tell us they are close, that they are connected, as well as the fact that they are both enjoying reading in the park.

As I saw them, and as I looked at this image again just now, certain songs popped into my head and I could hear them as clearly as if I was playing them on a stereo.

This because of the line “You read your Emily Dickinson and I my Robert Frost. We mark our page with bookmarkers which measure what we’ve lost”

And, by the same musicians….

 

“sat on a park bench like bookends”

OK, so that example was a pretty obvious one, but sometimes the music which starts to play in our heads is not so easy to nail down. Sometimes we just enjoy that it’s there without even wondering “why this music?” “why now?”

I know I can use music to match or create mood, but this phenomenon of the music just seeming to appear has all the quality of somebody else hitting the “play” button. Even if that somebody else is also me!

What music started to play in your head today, and do you know why?

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Walking through the town of Rochefort the other day I chanced across this man sitting on a park bench in amongst the trees with his smartphone attached to his laptop. He was wearing a sunhat suggesting he wasn’t here entirely by chance (there’s some evidence of forethought) and I wondered if this was a favourite spot of his. I also immediately thought “What a great place to choose to work”. I know we talk about flexible workspaces these days, so this got me wondering “what’s the best place to work?”

Of course the answer depends on the questions of what work you need to do, but I just wonder how aware you are of how the environment you are working in affects the work itself.

Here’s a photo I took from a high rise hotel in Tokyo –

Well, obviously this is a different kind of “outside working” – if your job is to clean windows, you’re not going to be short of work here! But I got to thinking of the people on the other side of the glass. In a big city like Tokyo you see thousands and thousands of office windows. When you look at night time you can see white shirted people sitting at row upon row of desks. That’s quite a work environment. I wonder how often the office workers look out the window and if they do, do they see the sky above, the thousands of windows opposite, reflecting their own windows, or the tiny cars and people rushing by on the roads way, way down below. Do window cleaners look down? Ha! I guess not everyone could do that particular job.

“Working outside” reminded me of what I think was a student in Aix en Provence one evening.

I’m not sure if this was his job, if he was studying, or if he was performing. I only noticed him because I heard his voice. He was reading his book out loud and I had to look up to find the source of the voice. When I was a medical student in Edinburgh my most favourite place to study was the Botanic Gardens. But I didn’t read the textbooks out loud!

One more image came to mind while I was on this subject. Years ago we had a flat in a chateau just outside Aix en Provence and one week the proprietor was having roofing work done. One thing you quickly become aware of is that in France everyone stops for a lunch break. Arriving back from town one lunch time I found one of the workers having a post-prandial nap.

Now, I’ve always claimed that sleeping is one of my core skills. I think all those nights on call both in hospitals and in General Practice gave the opportunity to develop the skill of falling asleep quickly and waking up quickly. I, too, have fallen asleep in some surprising places, but never inside a wheelbarrow!

Well, back to my original question –

Where do YOU find you do your best work?

Do you have any particularly favourite places or environments?

 

 

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I’ve noticed there is a phase of consciousness between sleep and waking up, a kind of half-asleep/not-quite-awake phase. It’s different from being asleep and it’s different from being awake. Maybe it’s a time of surfacing which sways between those two distinct states. Whatever it is the other morning, in that phase, I became aware of a number of different things “coming to my mind”….an image, a memory, an idea, a bit of a conversation, some things on a list to remember to do….it was really quite a mixture. At about the same moment I became aware of the feeling that I wasn’t in control of any of this. Whatever images, words, thoughts, ideas, memories there were, it was if they just appeared, or as if they were flowing by and I was just noticing them.

It got me to wondering where the contents of the mind come from, how many there are, and how, probably, the ones we notice are just the tips of an iceberg.

I remembered a number of occasions when I’ve stood on a bridge (like the one in the photo above) and looked down at the water as it flows towards, beneath or away from me.

This experience of noticing the contents of the mind flowing past reminded me of those times.

Sometimes what would catch my attention from the bridge would be movement. Like the flow of the water over the rocks, or leaves on the trees in the banks of the river blowing in the wind, or birds darting down to catch an insect or even a fish, or even a fish swimming in the water. Movement catches our attention. Change catches our attention. Something appears….like a branch or some leaves tumbling over the rocks to be carried away by the river. We notice that.

Sometimes my attention would be broad rather than narrow. I wouldn’t zoom in on any particular element but just gaze upstream and take in the whole scene. Seeing the general colours, the shapes of the rocks and the falling water, the patches of turbulent white and the still, dark pools…all at once.

Meditation is a bit like that. You sit and watch to see what turns up, then, after just noticing it, you choose not to interact with it, or hold on to it, but just notice it floating on by. Images pop up and then disappear, a thought half forms and then unravels, a memory emerges and then fades……

And it’s not always rushing and tumbling either. Sometimes what comes to the fore does so quite slowly and gently….

I thought of a number of bridges I’d stood on. The ones over the waterfalls, the ones of the gently flowing rivers, the ones over the big city rivers, the ones over little ponds in Japanese gardens. Each one was a vantage point. Each one allowed me to take a few minutes to stand and gaze and notice and to turn my attention towards something, then let my focus drift over to something else. Never getting stuck, never staying the same, always bringing something different, something new…….

It’s a nice metaphor for the interaction between the conscious and unconscious regions of our minds.

But, wait. I’ve got more big questions now.

Where is the bridge?

Who is the me, the observer, who is standing there watching the flow of mental content?

Where is the mental content coming from and where is it going to?

Strange how hard it is to pin down this idea of the “self”. Two things pop into my mind right now…….Mary Midgley, the philosopher, who tackles the idea that the self doesn’t exist at all…it’s an illusion….in her book, “Are you an illusion?”, where she asks the question – if the self is an illusion, who is it who is having this illusion? And Dan Seigel, who in “Mindsight” and other books, defines the mind as “an embodied, inter-relational, process of regulation of energy and information flow”.

And something else pops up now…my training in TM. Sitting, repeating the mantra, noticing words, thoughts, ideas, images and memories bubbling up and just gently returning to the mantra, letting them all flow on by.

Well, one thing at least is pretty clear to me. The origins of all this mental content are multiple. Sometimes they are a response to an external stimulus, a sound, a light, noticing something. Sometimes they emerge from memory, from imagination, or from whatever area of the mind we use for gnawing away at things….problems, worries, things to do, things we want to say. But wherever they come from, I really don’t think we have much control over that flow. What we can do is to notice, to become aware. Then we can begin to choose where to direct our attention and decide how which ones we want to follow and which we want to let go off.

 

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Yesterday I posted about the leaves appearing on the mulberry tree in my garden.

The day after I looked at these unfurling little leaves unfurling from the swollen ends of the woody twigs I took another look. I noticed something strange about the leaves now. They had strange tufts of what looked a bit like green hair now. Then when I looked closer I realised that these new forms were the beginnings of the fruit.

These are mulberries, or, maybe its more accurate to say these are “becoming mulberries”.

Aren’t they the strangest looking creatures?

Over the coming days and weeks they will swell and change colour ripening as a dark, dark red, almost black fruit. The first year I lived here was the first time I’d seen them and I didn’t actually notice them until they were ripe. My initial impression was that they were little bugs on the tree but I quickly discovered that they were in fact fruit. The second year there were hardly any at all. But this year it looks as if almost every single leaf has its own fruit. I’ve never seen so many.

I know that this fruit doesn’t quite undergo the metamorphoses of butterflies whose life stages seem to belong to different creatures. But seeing this fruit at such an early stage makes me think of how we all change so much throughout our lives.

This is one of the reasons I have that byline at the top of my blog – becoming not being. Living creatures are so hard to pin down. They never stop changing, growing, and developing. And we can never understand anyone by just considering one small part of their life, one small timespace of their life.

We are all unique in so many ways. Seeing the unfolding emergence of an individual over the course of a whole life is one of the greatest, most exciting, gifts anyone could have. I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to get to know and work with so many patients over the course of medical career.

How amazing Life is!

 

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Last November I was invited to address the Faculty of Homeopathy at their Congress in Belfast. I prepared a talk entitled “Images of Health. Pictures and stories” based around some of my own photographs and covering the key principles of health which guided me through my career as a doctor.

Here’s the video of that talk. I hope you enjoy it, find it interesting, or even inspiring. (by the way, if Google pops up any ads along the bottom of the video, just click the “x” box to make them go away 😉 )

I wrote a book to accompany this talk. It’s called “Escape to Reality” and I’ve published it (so far) only as a Kindle e-book. You can find it on Amazon.

 

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