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Archive for the ‘science’ Category

Points. When I look at this photo of a bifurcation of a railway track into one to the left and one to the right the first thing which comes to mind is playing with an electric railway set as a child. A single oval track which just went round and round was no fun. Once you added a set of points the whole thing became far more interesting. There was more than one route your train could now take, and you were the one who decided which way it would go, just by flicking a little lever.

The second thing which comes to my mind is a flood of memories of many, many delayed train journeys to and from work due to “points failure”, almost always in exactly the same place. Over the years I often wondered why they couldn’t fix those particular points for good. I wonder if they’ve done it now.

But then my mind goes off down some different tracks altogether…..the tracks of decisions, FOMA, and singularities.

Decisions – we are faced with many decisions to take every single day. The first time I visited a coffee shop in America many, many years ago, the wall behind the counter was covered with descriptions of all the options. At that time, all I had known in Scotland when it came to coffee choices was “black or white”! I heard customers in front of me ask for their favourite coffees choosing size of cup, type of coffee, type of milk, amount of foam, various toppings or additions…..my mind was boggled! Since those early days, this kind of coffee choosing has become routine. I don’t even think about it any more. That’s one thing about decisions…..we make the repeat ones easier by turning them into habits, and then we don’t even realise we are choosing any more. Think of the number of automatic decisions you are taking every day in this way. Choosing when to get up out of bed, choosing the various elements of your morning routine, choosing your commute to work…..and on it goes. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t make our lives easier by turning repeat choices into habits. I’m just saying it’s interesting to pause sometimes and become aware of some of our automatic choices. It’s only when we do that, that we discover there are other ways to do things, other decisions which can be taken.

FOMA – first time I saw this acronym I had to look it up! Fear Of Missing Out. It’s apparently a big thing! Sometimes we decide to do, or to have, what everyone else is doing or having, because we are afraid that, if we don’t, then they’ll all be benefiting from something and we won’t. I guess this is a variation on the age old “keeping up with the Joneses”. This is a manifestation of the power of social connectedness which has evolved in the human species. We really are intensely connected into our webs of social relationships and they influence our decisions enormously. Advertisers play on these fears to manipulate us and influence us to choose their products or services. Instagram, Tik tok, Facebook……they all ramp this one up to the max!

Singularities – I’m no expert on quantum physics but as I understand it scientists current understanding of how the universe works involves something like this – there is an infinite number of possibilities in front of us – as best I understand it, this is like the philosopher, Giles Deleuze’s idea of “the virtual” – all these possibilities, collectively can be described as a “multiplicity of singularities”. In quantum physics, at the moment of observation, this infinite multiplicity collapses into “the actual”. At that moment, all the other options disappear. They’re gone. Some suggest they play out in the “multiverse” which is the idea of an infinity of parallel universes, each one following a different path. Not sure what I think about that, and, hey, its kind of hard to prove, isn’t it? Well, I find, that whether I’m coming at this from the quantum physics angle, or from a philosophical one, reality seems to be that the moment we decide, the moment we choose, all the other options or possibles are gone – at least for me in my one, unique, single life. I like this idea of a “singularity” – of the one unique actual which emerges from the vast web of possibles or “the virtual” every moment of every day. It reinforces my feeling that the present is special.

My goodness…..wasn’t expecting to go wandering down those tracks when I saw this photo!

How about you? What comes up for you when you see a bifurcation of the ways ahead like this?

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If you look carefully at any flower, the chances are you’ll see at least one insect there. Often it’s a bee, our best known pollinators, sometimes a butterfly, but, on this occasion it’s a ……. (can anyone help me out here and tell me what this is??)

The first thing that struck me in this photo was the symmetry, or echo, between the shape of the head of the insect and the ends of the pistil and the stamen. That resonance of form seems to emphasise the type of relationship which flowers have with such insects.

There are, of course, some startling examples of really high degrees of resonance between shapes of flowers and pollinators, and we know that in many cases the relationships are highly specific – one particular species of flower existing really only because of the presence and actions of one particular species of insect…….and vice versa. The one could not exit without the other. At very least, not in this manner, but, in reality, not at all.

This, it strikes me, is the fundamental basis of reality and Nature.

Relationships.

It’s like that word “ubuntu”, which, if I understand it correctly, means “I am because you are”.

Not a single living creature in this world, not a single human being, exists in any way other than in constant relationship with a myriad of others – others of the same species and others of utterly different species. These relationships are active ones. They change both beings constantly.

I am changed in my interactions with you, and you are changed in your interactions with me.

We are better understood as a community of subjects, than as a collection of objects.

Life is an experience and every individual is constantly evolving, developing and growing. That’s why I have that byline at the top of my blog – “becoming not being”.

Becoming not being – all of us, are fully becoming who we are, moment by moment, experience by experience, in a vast, interconnected web of others beings, also in the process of becoming.

Is that a radical idea? Not really, but it sure shifts our consciousness and attention away from the reductive, materialistic, atomistic, quantifiable aspects of life towards the whole, the subjective, the experiential, the flow, the movement and the interactive nature of relatedness.

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I stumbled across these two photos today and was immediately struck by the similarities between them. The one on the left shows a flower with a fabulous array of stamens, spreading out like whiskers, each one just waiting for its pollen to be collected, then hopefully used to fertilise some new seeds. The one on the right shows a single seed with its wind catching fibres reaching out, again, just waiting to be collected and transported somewhere else.

In both cases there is something astonishingly passive about these important features. I suppose passivity is much more obvious in plants than it is in animals, but looking at these images reminds me just how much of Life is dependent on chance and good fortune. But is this really passivity? Or is it maximising their chances?

The plants have no way of ensuring either their fertilisation, nor the successful dispersal and future growth of their seeds, but they have invested all their energy and evolutionary development into maximising their chances.

I’m struck by the rise of uncertainty in recent times, by how nobody seems to know for sure what’s going to happen next in this pandemic, or even how best to respond to it. And, yet, alongside that heightening of uncertainty there seems to be an increase in the numbers of people claiming certainty……whether it’s government ministers claiming that at all times they are taking, and have taken, the absolute best decisions, or it’s experts confidently predicting what’s going to happen next.

Maybe uncertain times increase dogmatic, authoritarian voices to meet the unmet need – the need we all have for a degree, at least, of certainty and predictability in our lives. But surely another way is possible. Surely we could opt for transparency, honesty and humility?

In several spheres at once…..Public health, the environment and climate, the economy, politics and society…….we are more acutely aware of uncertainty and unpredictability than ever before. So, maybe instead of seeking false reassurances we’d be better investing our time and energy in developing resilience and adaptability.

Isn’t that a better way? Like these flowers we can do our best to maximise our chances of both surviving and thriving…….not by seeking certainty, but by focusing on the underlying principles of Nature – diversity, adaptability, flexibility, and making “integrative” connections (mutually beneficial bonds between diversely different parts).

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I took this photo in Ueno Gardens in Tokyo. It’s the centrepiece of a peace memorial and I think it’s utterly beautiful. I love the design of the dove whose curves suggest the flowing shapes of the yin yang symbol and the little flame flickering in its heart, or soul, is very moving. Isn’t it wonderful?

When I look at it, it stirs feelings of peace in me, but there’s more than that, which I think comes down to the nature of the little flame. It looks vulnerable. It’s not a raging fire. It’s a flickering light. It looks as if it could be blown out by not too strong a gust of wind. That moves me too.

That small, flickering flame, contains two polar opposites for me…….the energy which is at the heart of all Life, in other words the power of Life, and, on the other hand, the vulnerability and transient nature of every individual life.

When my daughter was small and had an illness which seemed to flatten her I told her to imagine a small candle flame inside her which would grow in brightness and strength as she paid it attention. That helped her to recover and it’s a practice we’ve used at other times as we’ve needed it.

There used to be a belief in an entity called “the Vital Force” which was an invisible spirit-like force which kept us healthy and restored us when we were ill. “Vitalism” fell out of favour a long time ago, even if it is kept alive in certain healing traditions. As far as I know there is no such entity, but the concept remains a good one. As I understand it now, human beings are “complex adaptive systems” which have the capacity to be “autopoietic” – what all that means is that biologically our systems and responses enable us to protect ourselves on a daily basis…..our immune systems are a part of this natural defence. And we have systems which enable us to repair any damage which occurs….our inflammatory systems are part of that. We also have the abilities to learn, change and adapt. Putting all that together, we have something which isn’t a “thing”, something which we can’t see, can’t measure and can’t pin down which is like an inner flame – it’s the flow of Life energy which pulses through our whole being from conception to death.

In short, we have the capacity to self-heal, and all “treatments”, in every stream of healing tradition, work, only if they support and/or stimulate that capacity. There is no artificial healing. There is only the ability of the living organism to heal itself. We can learn to nurture that, to support that and to stimulate that. That, for me, is what Medicine should be about.

Some philosophers have described human beings as “symbolic beings” – because we are only the creatures which seem to create and handle symbols. Symbols are a powerful tool for us. They help us to connect with each other, to communicate and to learn. They can help us to thrive. In fact, I believe, they can help us to survive.

So this work of art, in Ueno Gardens, works for me as a powerful combination of symbols – ones which activate the forces of both Peace and Life.

I hope this works for you too.

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This photo has always fascinated me. At the time I took it the sunlight reflecting on the blue waters as they nestled at the foot of the wooded cliffs was what caught my attention. The whole scene is beautiful and it evokes a sense of peace and contentment in me. But from the first time I looked at it on my computer, what has struck me most has been that line on the surface of the water. Do you see it? It’s pretty much right in the middle of the image. It’s like a path, a blue path cut through the glistening white of the sunlit waters on either side of it. It is shaped like a bow, curving round from just over half way along its length to head towards the cliffs. The surface of the water in the path seems calmer than that on either side….it’s smoother somehow.

Clearly this is the trace left by a boat, but there is no sign of the boat. So when did the boat sail this way? A few minutes ago? An hour ago? Longer?

I suppose it could be caused by something which lies beneath the surface rather than by a boat, but what would run a length like that and have such straight parallel edges? No, I think it’s a trace, not something sitting below the surface.

I find that pretty amazing. If there was a boat at the leading edge of it I might not be so impressed, because all boats leave a wake, don’t they? But this is like a wake without a boat…..or a visible wake left by an invisible boat!

I always think of how we humans change the planet by living in it when I look at this photo. Just by moving from one place to another we change the surface, leaving a trail, leaving a trace. It reminds me of Robinson Crusoe finding a human footprint in the sand on what he thought was a deserted island. These traces say “you are not alone”, and that can be both a reassurance and somewhat unsettling.

Of course, this particular trace won’t last very long. It won’t be there tomorrow, or probably not even later today. But other traces we leave change the landscape for decades. Whether through deforestation, through mining, agriculture, or be the creation of living spaces, we change whole landscapes forever…..well, if not forever, then at least for generations. I’d argue it’s forever, because the changes don’t go away.

Changes don’t go away? Surely they do? Well, I’m not so sure. It seems to me that changes just change into something else. Time doesn’t reverse and we don’t return anything in the world to how it was before…….how it was before has gone, so the changes, if they do disappear, only do so by changing into something else. You know what I mean? Landscape changes produce biosphere changes, which cause further changes in the landscape. I see change as more a ripple than an event. I don’t see changes with definite beginnings and endings, but as emerging differences which cascade outwards through the infinite web of inter-connectedness.

Not all changes are as visible as the ones we see on surfaces, or in landscapes, of course. I know I change all the time. My consciousness changes all the time. My emotional state changes all the time. I think, I act, I communicate, I respond and react. Those waves of change ripple out through my connections. Like the one I have with you. When you stop by to read this today, some of what I’ve been thinking, some of what I’ve been feeling, or something that I’ve seen and shared with you today induces some change in you. Maybe a different thought, maybe the start of a different feeling, or the deepening of an existing one. Maybe this experience you are having reading this post, will ripple out into conversations you have today, or into what you choose to do, or, maybe even what you notice as you live your own life in the days ahead.

Of course, I don’t know.

But I’m aware of the possibility. And that awareness is at the heart of why I create these posts. My intention is to share some of my wonder, my amazement and my delight in daily living. To share from my heart with positivity. I hope this leaves a trace, or sets off some waves to ripple out into our shared and wonderful life together.

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What strikes me about this photo is that I can see two completely different kinds of threads which bind. There is the wire wound round and round the wooden poles to create a fence, holding the cross posts tight to the upright. And there is the web.

I like the words entwined and entangled, because I think they highlight an often invisible aspect of reality. We are, all of us, inter-connected. We all exist in vast webs of relationships. You can’t really see a relationship. It isn’t measurable, but it is still the basis of reality. We are constantly exchanging materials, energy and information with others. Our relationships are between us and other humans, between us and other creatures, and between us and the planet.

Perhaps the most fundamental characteristic of our relationships is that they change us, and we change the others. It’s never one way. We absorb, are stimulated by, penetrated by, elements, molecules, and organisms. We exist in energy waves which penetrate us, changing our own energy patterns as they do so. We live in a continuous flow of information, picking up signals, responding to signs, symbols and stimuli, moment by moment. At the same time we send out molecules in our breath, in our body fluids, from our skin. We emit energies produced by the beating of our heart, by the activity of our brain, and by the rhythms of our cells. We send out information, signals, and signs all the time.

This reality of inter-connectedness underpins our inter-dependency. Not one of us could exist without the entangled webs and ecosystems in which we live. There’s a strange fantasy about space travel…..that you could take a human being, build them a house on the Moon, or on Mars, and start to create a new place to live. But human beings live as only one of hundreds of inter-dependent species on planet Earth, and take one species out (if such a thing were possible – it’s not – you exist with more micro-organisms than you do with ancestral cells), and then see how it can survive, let alone thrive. It’s a fantasy.

We don’t choose most of our entanglements. Not consciously. We are born into many of them, nurtured within them, and live within them. We are so unaware of the rest of Nature that we think of ourselves as outside, apart from, separate from, all of existence. We aren’t. We all exist inside, a part of, integrated within Nature, and Nature is a vast, complex, interconnected web of ties, of bonds, of connections and relationships. We are so unaware of Society that we think of ourselves as separate individuals, as if nothing others do could affect us, as if nothing we do could affect others. But we exist socially, culturally, economically, in one vast, interconnected system.

But we can choose some of our entanglements. We can become more aware of our day to day reality, and, then, when we pause to reflect, and observe, we can learn, see, hear and know more. Only then does conscious choice have a chance. Only then can we develop responses on top of all our reactions. (reactions being automatic)

There’s something to think about – what are my entanglements? How and with whom am I entwined? How do those connections and relationships change me, influence me, move me? And how do I change, influence and move them?

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In my photo library I’ve named this “waterfalls”. Yep, plural. And when I looked at it again this morning I thought it seemed a great image to stimulate thought about working together…..in fact, “flowing together” was the phrase which popped into my mind. I slowed down the shutter speed for this photo so the water would blur like this. I think the whole sense of movement and flow is captured better that way. There’s a power in this scene, and that power lies in the water itself. Or, at least, that’s how it seems at first.

So I look at this and think, this is what we are like together…..when we flow together…..when our energies, our focus and our direction all align. Isn’t that beautiful?

I’d almost be happy to leave it at that. Just to put this image in front of you and hope that you’ll think of the power and the beauty of harmony, resonance and alignment.

But, then I wondered why I’d called the photo “waterfalls”, plural. Isn’t it just one waterfall? After all most waterfalls don’t have a single stream of water falling over a specific rock. Rather, most waterfalls are made up of multiple paths where different amounts of water channel through particular spaces, and tumble over specific rocks. We don’t look at a waterfall which has six streams of water falling and think, oh look at those six waterfalls, do we? Or maybe we do.

So that’s where my mind went next. It went off to reflect on our very human capacity to separate out whatever we are looking at. To break the whole down into parts. There are a number of words for that – abstraction is one. Abstraction is where we abstract, or remove, something from its context. Our left hemisphere is brilliant at doing that. Indeed it seems that’s the normal process……the whole flows into the right hemisphere which hands off some of that flow to the left so it can abstract the components, the parts, the pieces……abstract them, label them, categorise them. And, yes, what’s supposed to happen next is that the left passes the results of that analysis back to the right for it to re-contextualise it. It’s just, if Iain McGilchrist is right, that this process has broken down and we have developed the habit of giving priority to the work of the left hemisphere…….too often we see only the parts, and forget to re-contextualise them.

If we don’t allow ourselves to use our whole brain, then we see two waterfalls here, where, seeing the whole would mean we see just one.

I don’t know what works best for you, but I’ve had a lifetime of work refusing to rest with reductionist abstractions, and always striving to see and hear the unique whole person every time. Yes, I’ve had to focus down onto parts, perhaps listening to someone’s lungs or heart, perhaps measuring the level of a component in their blood, but, I’ve always preferred to re-contextualise whatever those abstractions reveal.

I think we need to do more of that.

I think we need to see the whole, to see the contexts, to seek the connections and relationships, and to realise that every experience we have changes us…..just as this beautiful waterfall constantly changes, moment by moment, month by month, year by year.

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When I look at this photo the leaves seem like pieces of gold at first. Perhaps golden coins. But then I quickly see that they are fallen autumn leaves, with gold, brown, yellow and even green ones. The rock they have landed on, or stuck onto, seems like a collecting point, or a resting point. Maybe the leaves fell here from overhanging trees, but, in fact there weren’t any trees directly overhanging this rock, so maybe they were blown onto this rock. Alternatively, maybe they were swept downstream on the fast flowing water. Whatever their origin and mode of transport, they stuck to this wet rock.

Here’s what comes up for me as I reflect on this image……

Life flows past fast. It rushes by, moment by moment, day by day, even year by year. It never stops. Life is continuous and full of movement, just like this tumbling highland stream. There are places, however, where we can pause. Places or moments where we can step out of the rush and flow of things for a moment and take a breather. It’s important to do that.

When we do step onto the rock, which represents the time out moment, we find that there is some gold there. We find that stuck onto that place of rest there are some golden moments, and some of the gifts from golden moments, from the past. This reminds me of gratitude practice. Many people have demonstrated the benefits to our mental health and wellbeing of doing regular gratitude practice.

Quite simply, there is much to gain from taking a pause, a few moments, and either writing down some of the experiences, events, relationships, gifts for which we are grateful, or even calling them to mind, re-creating them in our imagination, and stirring the benefits of those special times all over again.

The rock, in these musings, becomes a place in the mind. A place where I rest, stand apart for a moment, create what Iain McGilchrist calls “the necessary distance” which allows us to reflect, to set new perspectives, and to see the whole. It’s a place of integration……where I reinforce the mutually beneficial bonds between me and “the other”.

Then I step off into the stream again, and flow off onto the next part of the journey.

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I walked into the courtyard of a temple in Kyoto one day and saw this display of flowers. Well, actually, this first photo is what I saw once I got closer to the display which had caught my attention.

When you look at these flowers, all you see is some flowers. It’s not possible to see the pattern which is revealed only from a distance.

This is what you see when you stand back…

Isn’t this amazing?

Actually, whether you encounter the full image first, then get closer in order to realise that it is constructed from hundreds of flowers, or whether you start close up seeing only the flowers, and gradually stand back to see the full image, the two positions are a huge contrast, aren’t they?

These are the two perspectives we bring to everything. We use the left cerebral hemisphere to zoom in on individual elements. To do that it focuses on parts and identifies them, matching them up to whatever we have previously encountered and categorising them. In this case, it identifies the objects as flowers and labels them according to their colour. But at the same time, we use the right cerebral hemisphere to take in the whole picture, to see whatever we are looking at within its contexts. To do that it focuses on the connections and relationships, and, at the same time brings a heightened awareness for novelty – it homes in on whatever is new, whatever is unique, whatever is special.

You’ll know already from my writing that I believe the principle of “and not or” is a good one in life, and that’s in no small part due to the fact that this is exactly how we have evolved. We don’t have only one way of looking at things. We have multiple ways, and we throw them into the complex mix of reality so that we can do more than perceive the world in which we live, we explore, play, learn and create. We adapt, we grow and we evolve.

I’m very wary of black and white, rigid, fixed, narrow views of reality. The world is richer than any of us can conceive. The universe has more potential than any of us can imagine. And there is much to gain from diversity and tolerance.

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This pandemic has hit the pause button around the world. Who’d have thought that so many habits, so many routines, so many automatic choices would have become as disrupted as this? While the climate crisis has been demanding that we think more carefully about our use of fossil fuels, along comes a pandemic which massively reduced travel by plane and by car. Having got used to seeing the sky above streaked with plane trails most of most days, now it’s a surprise to see one. The numbers of deaths and injuries sustained on the roads in France is a fraction this last year of what it’s been in recent years.

But will everyone just rush back to doing exactly what they used to do now that restrictions are easing?

Maybe not. Many of us have become wary of crowds and of sharing time and space with many strangers in confined places now. Many people have discovered that working from home gives them more time with family and friends, and less time crowded onto commuter transport and are keen to maintain at least some element of that now. “Flexible working” is one of the commonest phrases around just now and how that’s going to impact on city centres and vast office complexes, who knows?

Health care is creaking at the seams with exhausted, over-worked staff asking themselves if they can carry on. Education has been massively disrupted and it’s not at all clear how to get it back on track.

Many people haven’t been buying nearly as much “stuff” because the shops have been closed (or they’ve changed their buying habits to buy online now instead).

But how many of these changes have been based on our personal, conscious, choices?

I think it would be a shame to pass up the incredible opportunity this enforced pause has given us. We can take a few breaths, reflect, and ask ourselves – where do we want to go from here?

I know many people are already doing that. There is a surge of demand in France for houses with gardens now, as city dwellers trapped in apartments for weeks on end are thinking, “I don’t want to be stuck inside like this again.” Connect that to the remote working or “teletravail” and people are thinking – we don’t need to live stuck in small apartments, breathing polluted air and spending our days in crowded offices. We can find a place with a garden about an hour from a city centre, enjoy working from home for part of the week, and travel in to the city for face to face work when we need to.

I got thinking about all of this when I came across this old photo yesterday. It’s a ship’s compass and steering wheel (there’s probably another name for a ship’s steering wheel but I can’t think what it is at the moment!). I’m wondering now – what about my own life? My personal life? Do I want to look at my navigation maps, set a new direction on my life compass and steer my way in a new direction?

Well, you could argue that that is exactly what we all do every day. Except we tend to do it on autopilot – our direction is set by employers, advertisers, politicians and authorities. But what I’m wondering about is how to shift the balance now – away from zombie to hero – to more conscious, more deliberated choices.

I just had a birthday too, and I think when birthdays come around I often find myself doing a bit of reflecting…..thinking back over the previous year and asking myself what I want to change now, and in the year ahead.

Are you doing that too?

Are you reflecting on the quality of your every day? Are you reflecting on your habits and priorities? Are you thinking of changing direction?

I reckon this is a good time for collective change too – it’s a time for us to ask the question – “Am I a good ancestor?” It’s a question I’ve come across a few times in recent weeks. How am I living – yes, me personally, but also me, collectively – and will this way of living be likely to create a good world for my grandchildren, for my grandchildren’s grandchildren? Will they look back and reckon that we have been good ancestors?

I do think it’s time for us to change direction – away from consumption and money grabbing – towards more compassion, care and collaboration – towards a better way of living with the rest of Life on Planet Earth.

So, here’s a place to start – David Attenborough has a book out – “A Life on Our Planet” – you can read it, or you can listen to it as an audio book. Or you can watch the film version on Netflix. I recommend it. His work is pretty much always inspiring but this is perhaps his clearest description of what’s happened over the last 90 years he’s lived on this planet, and ends with huge hope and optimism, really inspiring us to change direction.

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