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A sweet spot

A few years ago I was walking through the Southern French town of Bormes les Mimosas and I noticed this little area just outside of a house at the end of a small pathway. It just appealed to me. As I look at it again today, I find it still appeals to me! It’s very simple. There is a small table with two chairs, a pot plant on the table and an old two seat bench just in front of it. The pale blue shutters of a window and a door are standing open and there’s an attractive, irregular, rock wall at the end of the passage. The whole scene is framed by plants giving the area a feeling of nook, hidden away in Nature.

What’s important to me here is the feeling that this scene induces….not the details really. I’m sure every one of us will find particular details appealing and others not so much. But I bet we all have favourite “sweet spots” – particular places we find comfortable, where we can feel content, happy and secure.

I think we all need such sweet spots in our lives.

Where are yours?

Or, if you were to create one, can you describe what it would look like?

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There’s something magical about seeing the sky turn golden, red or pink, isn’t there? Whether it’s last thing at night or first thing in the morning.

I love those scenes in City of Angels where the angels gather on the beach in the morning to watch the sunrise.

I delight in the beauty of a subtly radiant Belt of Venus over the western horizon at dawn.

But I never tire of sunsets.

You’d think that because we’ve all seen so many of them that we’d be so used to them. You wouldn’t be surprised if we hardly noticed them because they were so “ordinary” but here’s the thing, sunsets never become ordinary. They draw me outside to look at the sky, or they stop me in my tracks time and time again.

So I thought I’d share with you one of the many, many sunset photos I have. Like all the rest it stirs a mixture of joy, delight, wonder and awe in me. Sunsets are one of the most common ways to experience “l’émerveillement du quotidien” (the marvel of the everyday) which keeps that sense of specialness so alive in the here and now.

Just one final further comment – ever since I read the idea that a sunset is really an earthrise, because it’s the Earth turning and the horizon lifting towards the Sun, not really the Sun sinking below the edge of a static Earth, I find that word popping into my head every time I see this happen.

Remembering that this is an Earthrise is the best way I know to experience the sensation that this little planet is constantly turning in Space.

And that is truly amazing.

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All alone together?

I took this photo many years ago in the Kelvingrove Gallery and Museum I’m Glasgow.

It’s one of those (many) art installations which have stayed in my mind forever. Every time I look at it, it feels fresh and inspiring.

I suppose a lot has changed in the years since I took this photo, and I find that the particular reflections, thoughts and ideas which are evoked by any image changes according to what I’ve experienced in the past, what I’m experiencing now, and what I’m concerned about in the future.

What I see now makes me think about the opposing world views of separateness and belonging.

I probably have way too many thoughts about this to put in a blog post, but let me just highlight some of the more prominent ones.

I could start by thinking about an economic structure like capitalism, which has become the dominant global model over the years. Or I could start by thinking about the political philosophy of neoliberalism which has been on the ascendant since the middle of the last century. Or I could begin with the way people interpreted Darwinism and turned it into slogans such as “survival of the fittest”. But maybe I could go all the way back to atomism, reductionism and the particular flavour of rationalism which emerges during the Enlightenment. Whichever of these starting points leads me to a seeing this as a collection of entirely separate heads. Probably all autonomous, probably all in competition with each other, where only the strongest, or most powerful, or richest will rise to the top.

Or I could start from seeing the vast web of connections between everything which exists. I could start from the place where the flows of energy, matter and information form relationships through encounters to create temporary, transient entities which continually change. Or perhaps I could start from the new findings of neuroscience which reveal how intensely social we humans are. Or from evolution and developmental science which shows us how no individual exists in isolation to others. Then I see in this image a vast web of interconnected people, each supporting the other, each forming integrated (mutually beneficial) bonds with each other.

In other words I can the representation of atomised alienated competing individuals, and I can see the representation of connected, collaborative societies.

How do you see the world?

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I’ve never really thought of myself as someone who has a method but now I realise that I do.

What do I mean by a method? Well, simply that there are common behaviours that I have in life. Behaviours that developed day after day over many years.

My method has three elements, or three verbs if you like. They generally occur in sequence but it’s a continuous loop, not a straight line with a beginning and an end.

Observe, reflect, respond.

That’s it. Not more complicated than that.

Observe is more than look, of course. We notice most when we use a combination of our senses….sight, hearing, touch, maybe scent and taste.

I was taught to observe at medical school. We learned to listen to patients stories, to look at their bodies, to listen to their heart, and lungs, feel for swellings and organs, and so on. So when I say observe I mean paying attention, noticing, using all the relevant senses.

After observation I like to reflect, taking some time to make sense of what I’ve observed. To understand.

Only after that do I want to act. Action might mean saying something, making a suggestion or, especially when I was a working doctor I would prescribe something. Sometimes however the best action was to wait….to take some more time to learn more.

Well, that was my method at work. Observe, reflect, respond – and then continue on around that loop – observe again, reflect again, respond differently.

I realise this method has become my lifestyle. I think it suits me. It’s feels right.

Do you have any methods? Could you describe them?

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I took this photo many years ago in Edinburgh city centre. I suppose I was becoming aware of the proliferation of security cameras that was occurring back then. From the perspective of today, there were hardly any!

Do you security cameras make you feel safer? I think I’m in two minds about them. I’d like to believe that they might deter some criminality but I don’t know if that’s true. On the other hand, it’s a bit like having lived in places where nobody locked their front door…..that’s just the opposite of having to live in a gated community with security guards and CCTV (although I should be clear….I’ve never lived in a place like that). When you think of those two extremes which one of them feels like it might be a safer place to live?

I live in a small village in South West France. I live in a cul de sac in the village, so the only passing traffic is the occasional tractor making its way onto the vineyards. My elderly neighbour appears out of his garden gate whenever a different vehicle turns up. He’s like a one man neighbourhood watch!

The other thing I wonder when I see a CCTV camera is who is looking at the footage? Is it just recording so it can be reviewed if a crime is committed, or is someone sitting somewhere watching the live feed.

The thing that makes this particular image interesting for me is the placing of the camera just next to the stone carved head. It kind of seems like the stone head is looking through the camera, which, of course, is impossible, but that gets me thinking about all the non-human surveillance we are now subject to.

Whether it’s Facebook, or Amazon, or Google’s algorithms we are under constant surveillance by computers and software. And like the CCTV I expect most of that all goes on with no human “live” involvement, but as best I know it’s all being recorded and someone can analyse all that whenever they want.

None of that makes me feel safer or more comfortable. And now we are moving into a new era of health surveillance. Here in France we’ll need to produce the QR code which shows we’ve been vaccinated before we can get into cinemas, theatres, restaurants and so on, and when it comes to travel across borders you have to subject yourself to testing and give a lot of information about your travel plans….all, apparently, for “public health reasons”.

I think I can see a lot of potential benefit from the more connected world, and I can understand the good intentions behind a lot of the surveillance, but, surely it would help us all to become a bit more at ease if we felt that the data about us was available to us, and that anyone who wanted to use or analyse that data had to get our permission and be open about what they do with that data.

I know, I know, it’s a complex, but, let’s face it, uncomfortable subject, but it’s one we are going to have to tackle sooner rather than later.

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Another world

I took these photos (and many others) a number of years ago when I visited the ochre fields near Roussillon, in the South of France. I’m not sure I’ve ever been in any physical environment which felt so unlike anything I was familiar with. It was the most intense feeling of having stepped into another world.

This is ochre. The shades spread all the way from pale yellow to a rich rusty orange. This is a colour palette I’m very familiar with and I associate it with buildings in the north of Italy and the South of France…..specifically Bologna and Menton…although this colour is used much more widely than that.

But this is the only place in the world where I’ve walked in a landscape like this, which has got me wondering about the “special” places I’ve encountered in my life. I think there are many different factors which can come into play to create an intense, obvious feeling of specialness when we go somewhere.

Sometimes it’s about colour and form, sometimes about art and creation, and sometimes it’s about an experience shared with significant others. At other times it’s story, myth and symbol which makes a place special.

This one is definitely about colour and form for me.

So here are my questions for you today. What are some of the special places in your life? And what makes them so special?

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There are two phrases which come to mind when I look at this photo.

“We are all in the same boat” and “everyone is paddling their own canoe”. I know, I know, this isn’t a photo of a canoe, but bear with me, this is the way my mind works.

The last time I looked at this photo, nearer to the beginning of the pandemic what I saw was the possibility of escape. I guess “running away to sea” was the phrase which popped up. Well, it turns out there’s really not been anywhere to run away to (or if there was they slammed their borders shut to stop anyone joining them).

I reckon that on multiple occasions over the course of this pandemic I’ve felt pretty baffled and unsure, just not really knowing what way it’s going to go next, and what’s the best thing to do. Maybe, in that respect, that’s still where I am. Because the new combination of mass vaccination plus exploding case numbers due to variants takes us, yet again, into “which uncharted waters” (to keep my maritime metaphor going!). In fact, yet again, it feels like the authorities are “up sh*t creek without a paddle)

But back to my first thoughts looking at this image again today.

We ARE all in the same boat. This virus has left no population untouched. Our interconnectedness and interdependence has never been more clear. In good ways we’ve seen really brilliant scientific collaboration in both understanding this disease and coming up with the best ways to treat the sick. In not so good ways we’ve seen how international travel has accelerated the spread and made it really hard to manage it within a single political boundary.

It’s also shone a bright light on many of the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of our global economic/social model. Those who have been hardest have been the elderly, the long term sick and the poor. It’s highlighted the precarious nature of employment, inequality and injustice. It’s shown us some of the frailties of the health care systems, of the care systems and of a vast range of support systems. It’s even highlighted our poor nutrition, our poor relationship with the rest of Nature and poor education.

In the midst of all this we’ve seen countless acts of compassion, kindness and generosity. Countless acts of courage and sacrifice.

But we’ve seen way too much greed and selfishness too.

Which brings me to the second thought of each of us “paddling our own canoe”. Because we’ve been faced yet again with issues of personal responsibility and autonomy. We’ve been challenged by restrictions and controls which seem to wrest all autonomy from us and place the power in the hands of unknown others.

There’s the two sided coin of authoritarianism and conspiracy theories with established authorities seeking to impose their idea of The One Truth and hound and silence any alternative voices. Authorities which act in secret and issue false statements which undermines trust. It’s a powerful, disturbing cocktail which shows deep fractures in our societies.

At one level I believe we are all responsible for own decisions and that difference and variety are healthy. At another level it’s clear that a pandemic is a community disorder which cannot be solved by everyone acting as if only their personal choices matter.

It’s tricky isn’t it? Maybe the best thing to do is to stay humble and critical while doing what seems best for each of us, all living together. Keep the compassion and the kindness flowing and stay flexible enough to adapt.

I guess even if we are all sailing our own boats, we’re sailing them across the same sea.

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I took this photo a number of years during a trip to Italy. I’m often drawn to sculptures and this particular one is pretty unmissable I think you’ll agree. I’ve returned to look at this image many times and, particularly in the light of our new understanding of neurology and how the two cerebral hemispheres engage with the world differently, (thank you Iain McGilchrist) I find this a really powerful statement.

The first thing I think when I look at this is “Look at the size of that head!” It’s massive. See how small the people look in comparison. Every time I look at this it challenges me to consider how we over-represent the human head. How often do we think that “I” am what exists “in here” – in here being inside the skull we point to as we say that. But we know better now. We know that “I” is both an embodied concept – existing within a whole body – and an extended concept – existing within a network of ever-changing, co-influencing relationships with others and with the environment. You could say our more recent understandings have blown the head wide open and set the “I” free! Perhaps like this sculpture?

The second thing I think of that phrase “head over heart” which we use to set rational thinking and decision making against intuitive, feeling-based ways. In fact, we now know that the heart is more than a mere pump used to circulate blood around the body. There is a dense network of the specialised cells we call neurones around it, and the information processed in that network flows more from the heart to the head, than the other way. So we do actually make sense of our lives using our heart (physically and symbolically) as well as using our head. The fact this particular head is so over-sized reminds me of how we tend to give too much emphasis and attention to so called rational and cognitive ways of thinking, and not enough to our embodied, heart-focused, soulful, intuitive ways – which in many ways precede the work of the brain.

The third thing I think of is provoked by noticing that half the brain is missing in this sculpture – although we can’t see the cerebral cortex here, it seems that the right half is missing, even if the left half is still there behind the skull. That reminds me of the imbalance which is the basis of Iain McGilchrist’s thesis as described in such wonderful detail in his “The Master and the Emissary”. He argues that our left and right hemispheres have different world views and each half creates the kind of world it sees on a moment to moment, and historic basis. He claims that the right hemisphere is where all the information flows first (well, most of it does), that the right then hands off some of that information flow to the left, which processes it by analysing it, matching it to what we already know, categorising and labelling it. Then, it should hand the results back to the right, for it to set back into contexts and see it as a whole. As this sculpture suggests, things have gone wrong and we are using the left hemisphere way too much, and the right way too little.

Interesting what can emerge from one sculpture?

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Art attracts

There are many characteristics and features which seem to define what it is to be a human being. Language, storytelling, the use of symbols, pattern spotting, music, poetry, dance, rituals, problem solving abilities and creativity are amongst them.

But I think art has a very special place.

Deleuze described three ways of thinking – philosophy is our way of thinking concepts, science our way of describing functions and art as our way of dealing with “percepts and affects” – that is our sensations, what we perceive and what we feel.

The astonishing cave wall art found deep underground in several parts of France, and the intricate designs of the Picts and the Celts in Scotland are two of the more ancient examples I’m familiar with. But we find examples all around the world, going way, way back to the earliest traces of the human species.

There’s a creative drive in all of us, and we draw on it in very different ways……from day to day problem solving, to inventing, creating methods and technologies, to the creative expression of the varied art forms which exist.

Some of us are mainly drawn to music, others to dance, some to stories and writing, some to poems, others to the visual arts of drawing, painting, sculpture and photography. And, yes, I’ve left out several other alternatives from that list.

But whatever our preference and/or habit, I find that art attracts. We are drawn to it. We desire art. We desire and seek out the experience of art.

Art provides us with ways of engaging with, and understanding, the world which neither philosophy or science do. You know I’m a fan of “and not or” and I’m not seeking to establish a hierarchy here, but I have a feeling that we are slipping into a more utilitarian, materialistic and reduced way of living, and to restore a balance, to make life “more human” I think we need to give more time, energy, attention to art…..in education, in work and in leisure.

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Life’s like this, isn’t it?

It’s messy and entangled. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, which exists on this planet in isolation. Everything is connected. Everything is embedded in multilayered environments and ecosystems. Everything has a history, a presence and a multitude of potential futures.

Yet we create whole systems of thought, of society and of structures as if this weren’t the case. We separate things out, disconnect and disembody them. We reduce the complex web of inter-related reality to sets and collections of interchangeable objects.

We reduce the subject to an object.

I find all that alienating, dehumanising and artificial.

Every encounter, every relationship, is transformative. You see a movement and your body and mind go into a state of alertness. You hear a song and your heart swells, your eyes moisten and your mind fills with memories. You read a story, or watch a movie, and your emotions flow, your physiology adapts, your thoughts and ideas set off in new directions.

It makes no sense to me to do anything other than accept that life is like this….entangled, complex and messy.

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