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Purpose and direction

The teleology of the universe is directed to the production of beauty

Alfred North Whitehead

Is the universe moving in a particular direction? Does the cosmos seem to evolve towards some destination? Or, better, perhaps, if not a destination then, at least, in developing it reveals a purpose?

Is that purpose beauty, as Whitehead suggests? Beauty, which Iain McGilchrist describes as “gloriously superfluous and unnecessary, its nature is that of a gift.”

I can’t see a destination, or a pre-imagined purpose – at least, I don’t see it from any utilitarian perspective. I don’t see that the universe exists as a tool to achieve the completion of some hidden task.

Rather, I’m more convinced by those right hemisphere understandings of the direction being towards beauty and ever greater interconnected complexity, and the purpose as the daily celebration of Life, of creativity, of difference, uniqueness and diversity.

I enjoy the idea that the universe exists as a celebration rather than as a tool, and that the direction of travel, or of the “flow”, towards ever more beauty, creativity and uniqueness is exactly my “touchstone”, my “values and principles” with which I want to orientate my life.

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Machine or melody

“A machine has an extrinsic purpose – not its own but that if the person who made it. It exists purely to achieve an and: another being’s end. By contrast, a melody has an intrinsic purpose: it’s hardly pointless, but it has no other point than itself.” – Iain McGilchrist in The Matter with Things

Despite the fact that we can now understand reality through the lens of complexity science, the mechanistic, materialistic model remains the dominant one. I hope that will change soon.

We are not machines. We are not “machine like”. Machines are built by someone to serve a purpose set by whoever built them. To consider a human being, or indeed, any other living creature as a machine reduces them. It dehumanises people, devitalises Life. It sets up societies where individuals are reduced to cogs in a machine, replaceable, dispensable, having value only when they deliver for whoever hires them.

We are more like music than we are machines. Every one of us sings a unique melody, the melody we instantly recognise because every individual is unique.

I often refer to how everyone has their own unique story to tell…the one which allows them to know who they are, to make sense of life, and to communicate their inner experience to others. But this passage comparing machines to melodies makes me realise that we don’t just tell unique stories, we sing our singular songs.

Think how we use metaphors such as “singing from the same hymn sheet”, or of “working in harmony”, being “in tune with each other”.

Isn’t life a performance of a beautiful composition, one which we create and share as we live, day by day, moment by moment?

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What colour is the sea? Is it sea green?

Is it deep blue?

Is it dark grey?

Is it fiery red?

Of course the answer is – all of the above – and more.

I’m not a fan of labels. I understand the value of classification to organise our thoughts or our filing cabinets, but labels hide so much more than they reveal.

We develop a mental habit based on re-cognition – we say, I know what that is, I’ve seen one like it before. It’s an incredibly useful skill, and we can’t really function without it. But the danger is that we use this ability to stop instead of seeing it as a start.

Yes, it’s really helpful to recognise something and put it in a box with a label on it (literally or metaphorically) but we never fully see, so never completely know, anything or anyone. So, recognition is a good starting place, but we have to be ready to let go of those initial assessments as we start to see more detail, start to see the particular, not just the general.

I was taught this as a core skill – taught to make a diagnosis by recognising certain signs, symptoms and patterns, but always exploring further to move from seeing the disease to seeing the person who was ill.

I often think of this when people divide others into groups, dismissing them because they have put them in a particular box labelled with a political party, a religion, a skin colour or a sexual orientation.

There’s enormous danger in recognising, classifying, labelling and generalising. It leads to all kinds of prejudice (pre-judging) and, frankly, to the de-humanising of individuals.

I always want to know more about someone than I already do. I always want to be surprised as I discover that nobody fits neatly into any labelled box.

There’s a teaching from the “General Semanticists” – “Judgement stops thought” – which alerts us to the danger of using labels.

Everyone and everything is richer, deeper, more nuanced, more multifaceted than first appears.

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In Ian McGilchrist’s The Matter with Things he says we need to discover (or re-discover) the truths which unite us.

That sentence really leapt out at me and I immediately thought, yes, it seems that divisions have become deeper, that social media is used to set people against each other, to create echo chambers which exclude “the other” and that there is an unprecedented level of deception and lying.

I don’t know if the election of seemingly pathologically narcissistic politicians has brought to prominence people who either deliberately lie with ease, or who actually are unable to know they are lying.

So, yes, we could do with finding truths which can unite us.

But then I thought….you never, ever get absolutely everyone to agree what seems to be true. In a world of conspiracy theorists, religious fundamentalists and people with vested interests in power and wealth, how do we find truths which unite us all? Well, we probably can’t. But surely that’s not the point. Surely we can find truths which are more likely to unite than divide, truths which bring more of us together – in other words truths which turn the tide the opposite way and carry us towards greater togetherness.

Then I began to wonder what those truths might be….and, so far anyway, I’m thinking they mainly exist in Nature and the Cosmos.

We all look up at the same night sky, see the same Moon, see a particular set of constellations depending on where in the world we are when we look up (which reminds us that we can change what we see by putting ourselves in the shoes of others)

We all live on this one small planet, sharing the same air, water and soil. When we change the air, water or soil around us, we change what others will breathe, drink, and eat.

We see the cycles of Nature, seasons, which remind us that change is the only certainty, that transience can be beautiful, and that “this too shall pass”.

We see that, in Nature, living organisms don’t just co-exist, they interact, and often become interdependent.

We learn that all of Life on Earth depends on a wonderful synthesis of competition and collaboration.

How’s that for a start? Aren’t those truths which might unite us?

What do you think? What truths do you think can unite us?

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Heart and soul

Dear God! The very houses seem asleep
and all that mighty heart is lying still.

William Wordsworth

Luckily, I’m not up much during the night anymore, but when I was a General Practitioner I was out and about in Edinburgh through the night pretty regularly. Much of the city was eerily quiet in the middle of the night, with hardly any traffic, or pedestrians, and just the occasional window lit in a few houses. I thought of those nights again when I read these lines by Wordsworth.

That’s exactly what night time felt like to me when I was out – the city was sleeping. But more than that, you could feel its heart lying still….by still, I don’t mean not beating, I mean that slow, calm relaxed beat which we can all experience, although some of us only experience it during sleep.

There’s a huge overlap for me between heart and soul. I don’t understand soul as an entity lurking somewhere hidden in the body….it’s more like a state, a condition, which we discover in what Iain McGilchrist calls the “betweenness”. Just as music can’t be reduced to a set of individual notes, but works because of melody, rhythm and harmony which all depend on the betweenness – between the notes….in the “movements”.

But I don’t consider the heart as an entity either. It is an entity more clearly than soul is, because you can see, touch, even hold the organ we call the heart in your hands. I’ve done that. No, you can’t reduce the human heart to what you can hold in your hands. The live, beating heart, surrounded by its own special neural network, emanating complex waves of electromagnetic radiation which influence the whole body, and even the bodies of others.

We humans use metaphors with great power. They’re a kind of magic. They turn what could otherwise seem merely mechanical and utilitarian into something enchanting and profound, something which gives us access to feelings and the unconscious.

We do need to still our beating hearts from time to time, to steady ourselves, to quieten down our inner and outer worlds.

And when we do we discover we can live a more full life, a life of heart and soul.

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Soul growing

In The Matter with Things, Iain McGilchrist writes, “we can grow a soul – or we can snuff it out”.

Soul is a difficult concept but I suspect we all know it – maybe we can’t describe it, measure it, even point to it, but we know it.

We know what it’s like to have a soul mate. We know what soul food is. We recognise soul music, which is not just a musical genre, but any music which touches us deep in our soul.

I’ve made many visits to Kyoto in Japan, a really remarkable city studded with dozens of shrines and temples. The whole city feels soulful to me. Even though I practice neither Shinto nor Buddhism, I feel the soul energy as I walk into any of the gardens or buildings in the grounds of one of these holy places.

I feel the same stepping into a stone circle in Scotland, or tracing the cup and ring markings on the ancient stones.

I feel it faced with the cave wall art deep underground in France.

There are places which touch the soul.

Iain McGilchrist asks how we might grow our souls and suggests the use of symbols and rituals amongst other things.

In the temples and shrines of Kyoto there are symbols everywhere, and at every turn there are people practising the ancient rites and rituals.

Our industrialised, materialistic societies have been killing off souls. They’ve taken the heart out of life, reduced life to the useful or mundane. I saw a report yesterday that the clear majority of people in the U.K. no longer believe in, or practice, any religion, and who knows if that’s a good or bad thing? But it seems to have accompanied a disenchantment with the world and with life. There seems to be more mental illness, more unhappiness and certainly a lot more anger in the world. Our systems and organisations literally dehumanise us, reducing work to tasks, people to units of consumption and production….they are killing our souls.

So how can we grow our souls? I’m sure as an individual I can seek to spend more time with soul mates, eat food which reaches my soul, listen to the music which touches me at my core, spend time in the places where I feel my soul growing. I can slow down, savour the day, immerse myself in the wonder and awe of the here and now.

But I think we need to do more together to create communities and societies of love, care, compassion and creativity….in other words to prioritise the conditions, economic and social, which grow peoples’ souls.

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Compelling sunsets

I don’t think I’ve shared a sunset photo with you for a while, despite the fact I have a LOT of sunsets in my photo library. It’s partly because I moved house a year ago and the landscape around this house and the previous one is quite different. Now I’m surrounded by trees in every direction, which helps create the feeling of a comfortable, protected, niche, which is really tranquil and where the commonest sounds to hear are birdsongs. Before I was on the edge of a village in the heart of cognac country, surrounded by vineyards as far as the eye could see.

Both environments have their advantages and their disadvantages. Probably the one thing I miss is seeing the wide open, big sky sunset of the previous house. At certain times of year evening after evening I was compelled to go outside and marvel at an astonishing sunset. This photo is one I took exactly four years ago today.

We humans are instinctively drawn to both the rising and the setting sun. The glorious colours can cover the entire sky giving the impression of walking into the heart of a work of art…..which is what we do every day. This astonishing planet with its abundance of diverse, glorious forms of life, is indeed a work of art.

Sunrises and sunsets have the potential to take the Earth’s beauty to another level. They are, frequently, literally, irresistible.

If you want to experience awe, a sunset is an excellent opportunity, and I find that my sunset photos re-inspire me every time I look at them.

I’ve mentioned this before, but here it is again – a sunset is not really the Sun setting. The Sun isn’t moving over the sky, it’s the Earth which is turning. So a more accurate name for this phenomenon is “Earth rise” as the planet spins and the horizon rises towards the Sun. I don’t know about you, but when I read that my mind was somewhat boggled! And it still is! Amazing, huh?

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It’s raining at the moment. After months of record drought in France we’ve had a couple of weeks or so of rain every day. According to the weather forecast this is the last day of rain for a week. “On verra”…..which is French for “we’ll see”.

I use “on verra” quite a lot, not least because predictions of all kinds are so unreliable. I suppose it’s a phrase you’d also use for “don’t count your chickens until they’re hatched”. At least, it’s something that helps me to let go of trying to force the future to conform to my wishes!

In the time it’s taken me to upload this photo, and write those first two paragraphs the rain has stopped and I see blue sky again, which reminds me of that other old classic saying “this too shall pass”.

The only certainty is change.

But while it was raining I looked out of the window at this puddle and couldn’t help slipping into a contemplation of the beauty of the patterns made by the rain drops falling on the surface of the water. Aren’t they wonderful and fascinating?

I remember learning about “interference” in Physics class at school and it’s one of those lessons which has remained vivid throughout my whole life. Each rain drop sets off little waves on the surface of the water and as the ever increasing circles meet each other they co-create these wonderful interlocking patterns.

Sometimes I wonder if this simple, “ordinary” phenomenon was the inspiration for both Celtic and Japanese art….the interlacing patterns and knots drawn by the Celts, and the simple, gorgeous little wave patterns drawn onto pottery and raked into stone gardens in Japan.

Watching these patterns emerge as the little splashes interact (and “interfere”) with each other, I find my mind doubling down on the reality of constant, unpredictable change.

I am entranced. I am enchanted.

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Art and feeling

I see a chance of giving a felt impression of what I see.
Not always literally exactly – rather never exactly – for one sees nature through one’s own temperament.

Vincent Van Gogh

Isn’t this what art does? Each work of art is the creation of a person who was seeing and feeling something. It’s the result of an individual, unique experience which conveys something perceived and something felt.

As Van Gogh writes, we see nature through our own temperament. I’m sure you’ll have had experiences like that. An upset, a grieving, a sadness, a hurt which colours every waking moment and permeates every dream. In that “temperament”, nothing pleases, nothing seems beautiful or wonderful. Or, the reverse, where we are in a state of joy and security and delight, where we find beauty everywhere and even the mundane seems enchanted.

So this is what art does – the great artist (painter, sculptor, musician, writer, poet) turns their experience into a work of, what Deleuze referred to as, sensation. A sensation so filled with precepts and affects that many years later the viewer, listener, reader, can be touched by that very sensation and, perhaps see the world in some way like the artist did, but most importantly will feel something of what the artist felt.

I think it was the psychiatrist, Dan Siegel, who wrote about a patient who didn’t say, “thank you, I was listened to”, but “I felt, felt”. We want to be understood, to be seen and heard, but at a deeper level, what really counts, is feeling….when we have that experience of sharing a feeling we know we have touched something deep, something deep. We know we’ve made a soul connection.

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The philosopher, Mary Midgley, wrote “Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what would we do if the stars came out only once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would create new religions overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television.”

Have you ever been out in the countryside on a clear night? Far from city lights. The sky looks amazing. It is astonishing. To see the Milky Way, our home galaxy, spread across the black sky above our heads, to identify “the plough”, “Cassiopeia”, the “seven sisters”, a planet or two…..it is ALWAYS a thrill. It’s one of the best ways I know to be amazed, to slip into wonder, to feel your boundaries dissolve as you experience the reality that All is One, and One is All.

Patrick Curry writes, “Wonder, enchantment, astonishment, delight, joy – these are experiences that are not, and cannot be, simply willed into existence or manufactured on demand. They are not under control, not something we do but something that happens to us…..It cannot be tested, evaluated, improved, rolled out or developed, and there can be no system or method to achieve it.”

Wonder, love, joy…..all delivered to us by the universe when we live with open hearts, ready to receive.

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