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Surrounded by mystery

What we see of the world is only a sliver of what’s “out there”….Like our senses, every instrument has a range. Because much of Nature remains hidden from us, our view of the world is based only on the fraction of reality that we can measure and analyse. Science, as our narrative describing what we see and what we conjecture exists in the natural world, is thus necessarily limited, telling only part of the story….We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery.

Marcelo Gleiser

I love that phrase, “surrounded by mystery”. Do you? Or do you find that frustrating, hoping for more certainty than ever seems achievable?

When there’s too much uncertainty around us, we start to feel lost and anxious, but people who are too certain, too convinced of the correctness and completeness of their own view are pretty scary too!

I’ve always had a preference for someone like Montaigne, who will throw in the occasional “que sais-je!” (What do I know?), and for those who clearly understand that no matter how sure they are about their knowledge and analysis, they remain ready to change and adapt at a moment’s notice, because there will always be more to know.

I always felt that although I could often reach a good understanding of what a patient was experiencing, make a good diagnosis, that there would always be more to hear, more to learn….that always, always, always, I was grasping “just a sliver”.

Politicians, economists, scientists, doctors, teachers….it’s always good to remain aware of the limitations of our knowledge and analyses. There’s nothing worse than those who don’t even know that they don’t know!

So what do I look for instead? Transparency, openness and accountability. That’s a start. Non judgemental listening and compassion are both good additions. All of those values trump the desire to be “right” and “certain”.

Beyond that I’m happy to know we will always be “surrounded by mystery”.

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The uncountable counts

Have you noticed how we use the word “count” in two very different ways? We use it to describe numbers….we can count the number of leaves on a seat, the number of patients on a waiting list. We can count what can be measured. But we also use “count” to describe what matters, what we can rely on… “I can count on you”, or “That doesn’t count”.

These two uses slip into each other and give us the impression that only what can be measured, matters. Here’s Iain McGilchrist….

“Problems began only when science started to categorise whole swathes of experience as inadmissible evidence. What can be measured was alone henceforth real. This is obviously untrue: love, merely to take one example, is both real and immeasurable.”

It just won’t do to dismiss the entirety of individual narrative and subjective experience as “anecdote”, as if actual human life doesn’t matter.

This is a problem I came up against again and again at work. If we take a purely materialistic approach, we focus only on disease, on pathology….what can be measured. But time and again patients present with their highly individual experience of illness, with all kinds of invisible and unmeasurable symptoms, from pain, to fatigue, dizziness, nausea etc.

Iain McGilchrist is right to give the example of love which isn’t measurable, but surely should “count” when we try to understand what’s real.

When it comes to human beings I’m a lot more sceptical of numbers (measurements and statistics) than I am of what they tell me, of their personal descriptions of subjective experience, of their narratives.

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Swimming together

We can’t see it. Most of the time we are completely unaware of it. But just as these fish swim in the same water, we live in the same air. The same air, the same water, the same Earth.

Nation states can’t build borders for their citizens to live behind, separated from and unaffected by, the rest of the world. Borders have always been both invisible, temporary and impermeable.

Even within a single country, a single town or a single neighbourhood, we breathe the same air, drink the same water, eat food grown in the same soil. There is no separate air. There are no unconnected water cycles. There is just one Earth.

There are other, mostly invisible, environments which we share, which fashion our daily lives, and which work below our ordinary awareness – cultural, social, familial relationships which influence our moment to moment feelings, thoughts, choices and actions.

I think we often forget just how massively interconnected we are, just how much we affect, and are affected by, the lives of others.

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I don’t speak Japanese, and I can’t read it either, so I’m taking a bit of a gamble posting this photo which I took many years ago in the grounds of a temple in Japan.

There were dozens and dozens of these hearts hanging in this particular garden, each one with an inscription and many, like this, with a kiss. Maybe they are romantic messages from lovers, I don’t know, but clearly they are an outward expression of love.

We could do with more love in this world.

More kindness, more gentleness, more compassion and care. Loving relationships work well for everyone. They support and enhance us. They build – they create cooperation and collaboration. They make the world a better place.

We’ve tried a system built on hatred and fear. We’ve tried selfishness, greed and competition. We’ve tried inequality and injustice.

How’s all that going?

Let’s try something different. Love.

What would society look like then? What would health care look like then? Education? Work? Community? Families, neighbourhoods, friends and lovers? If we made the foundation, the touchstone and the core of all we do together, love.

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Seeing and feeling

This little plant stopped me in my tracks. I’m sure it was the glistening of the sunlight on the millions of water droplets – my goodness, have you ever seen so many on a single leaf?

I think it’s particularly good at catching the water because its leaves feel like velvet…..at least when they are dry!

This is a plant I always want to touch. It’s soft and delightful. I wrote yesterday about gentleness and this is a plant which encourages you to be gentle, I find. It seems to want to be stroked, to have you lightly run your fingers over it.

As I thought about this I was struck by our two uses of the word feeling – one for the physical sensation of touch, and other for that subjective experience of emotional tone, which nobody can see but which creates the foundations for all of our daily experiences.

Funny we should use the same word, but then we do that a lot with language don’t we? For example, I use the word “touch” to describe the action of running my fingers over this leaf, but we also talk about “getting in touch”, or “keeping in touch”, when we mean communicating with each other, even when, or especially when, we are in very different, physical locations.

As Lakoff and Johnson describe in their “Metaphors we Live by”, almost all of our metaphors are embodied, and much of our language uses metaphors – after all it’s hard to speak of subjective experience objectively isn’t it?

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Doucement in English translates to gently, and douce, means gentle. These are two of my favourite French words.

I integrated homeopathy into my medical practice throughout my entire career, first as a GP, then as a Specialist at Glasgow Homeopathic Hospital, which became the NHS Centre for Integrative Care. Homeopathy is often described as a form of “complementary medicine” in English, but in French the term for all such therapies (including acupuncture, herbalism, hypnotherapy etc) is “Medicine Douce” – or “gentle medicine”.

I’ve always liked the French term because somehow it conveys the important point that these techniques are intended to stimulate the body’s natural healing processes, not to attempt to control or exert power over the body.

There’s no doubt that our modern drugs and surgical techniques are incredibly powerful, at best life saving, but they also have the power to kill. But they aren’t so great in chronic illness, and they rarely produce actual cures. It turns out only the body can cure itself, only the complex adaptive processes of a living organism can enable someone to heal, in the broadest sense of the word. I’ve always thought we can benefit from both approaches working seamlessly together – that’s what “integrative medicine” is about.

But I’m not wanting to argue a case for a particular approach or method here. We are all different, and one of the clearest lessons I learned from my career is that one size does NOT fit all.

I’m inspired to write about gentleness here because I read the following lines in Wordsworth’s poem, ‘Nutting”,

Then, dearest maiden, move along these shades
in gentleness of heart, with gentle hand
For there is a spirit in the woods.

Gentleness of heart – with a gentle approach comes kindness and care. With a gentle hand touch suggests a loving, care filled connection from one to another.

How different is this language from the war metaphors used so much in orthodox medicine where diseases are presented as invaders, as enemies to be defeated, as malevolent entities to be cast out?

Don’t we need more care, more understanding, more connection to walk with others, to hold a hand, to soothe a pain or fever with a gentle, loving touch?

It makes me think of indigenous peoples in North and South America, whose whole approach to life is respect, care and an attempt to live in harmony with Nature…..again a very different language from control, exploit, and conquer.

There are times we need a real toughness, need to draw on our power, but my sense is that we paid more attention to gentleness and kindness we might rediscover that “spirit in the woods”, the poet writes about.

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The bigger view

This is one of my favourite autumn photos taken many years ago in “The Sma’ Glen”, a little valley in the middle of Scotland.

At this time of year the sun is lower than the hills on each side of the glen, so most of it is in deep shade.

This is one of those “view from on high” perspectives which lets us see not only the darkness of the valley floor, but the brightness of the blue sky above and in the distance.

The hills beyond the glen are glowing almost golden in the sunlight, and if you look carefully you’ll see the blue sky, and some bare trees, reflected in the water which lies between the hills.

I find this a beautiful and intriguing image. It draws me in, takes me deep, lifts me up, pulls me onwards to explore what lies in the distance.

There’s an old philosophical, or spiritual, practice taught by the Ancient Greek philosophers….taking the view from on high.

Literally, it refers to how you can see more of the land when you survey it from a height, but it’s actually a mental exercise, a thought experiment where you stand back from whatever it is that you are contemplating, take a pause, and consider the contexts, the environments and the circumstances.

In other words, it’s a call to broaden your focus and take a more holistic perspective.

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Autumn is a beautiful season, filling the world around us with glorious shades of yellow, gold and red.

Then the leaves start to fall from the trees, leaving bare branches to face the winter chills and winds, scattering dead leaves across the garden, and down the street.

The leaves decompose, breaking down and adding nourishment to the soil. We might feel driven to “tidy up” some of them, but it’s best to allow nature to make the most of her well developed process of change, rest and growth. Even if it’s good to sweep up some of the leaves so we don’t slip on paths and steps, it’s good for gardeners to collect them and allow them to turn into rich mulch.

Nature doesn’t produce waste. Well, only we, the human part of Nature does. It’s one of the worst characteristics of our species….that we live, produce and consume in ways which creates waste which is toxic to the rest of the planet.

The plastics we have created and thrown away can be found on even the most remote beaches, are everywhere in the oceans killing sea-life. The chemicals and radiation we have created find their way into every living being, including ourselves, combining and interacting to produce who knows how many chronic diseases.

Can’t we find a better way? Can’t we learn from what Wordsworth called our greatest teacher…..Nature?

We need to live more like the other species on the planet, at least in relation to how we produce and deal with waste. Short term, blinkered, narrow thinking prevents us from seeing the connections which exist. It stops us from understanding the cycles and seasons of the planet.

But living with no thought to the damage our way of life causes all of Life is coming back to bite us, our children and our grandchildren.

Don’t we need to take a bigger, broader, deeper view? Don’t we need to become much more aware of how everything is connected and to live more sustainably, more gently, on this little blue planet?

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Heart to heart

How often have you had “a heart to heart” with someone? What does that really mean? Is it just a metaphorical use of “heart”? As in how we use “heart” to mean the “core” or the “centre”? Something important. Something authentic and true?

Or do we mean “heart” as “love”, so a “heart to heart” is a loving exchange?

It’s all that and more.

Because we know now that the heart has a network of specialised nerve cells around it, and that the heart physically processes and produces information for us. Exactly what kind of information isn’t clear but it’s not the same as “thinking” in any conscious or rational way. It seems it’s more like intuition, more like feelings.

But there’s more. Because the heart is rhythmic it produces waves. Waves of energy which radiate throughout the body, brain, and beyond. We know from heart resonance studies that two people, sitting close to each other, can find their heart rhythms begin to synchronise. They get in tune with each other. They connect along the same wavelengths.

So a “heart to heart” is both a physical and a metaphorical experience. We know what it feels like. We know when we have been heard, even felt, by another person, because we’ve connected heart to heart.

Just one more thing…the heart, of course, doesn’t work in isolation. It is massively interconnected within the body, and embedded in multiple feedback loops. When we experience a “heart to heart”, it’s more than our hearts which connect. It’s our whole being, our mind, spirit and soul.

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Between us

I love bridges. They connect. They open up new ways to go. They leap across boundaries and barriers. They make possible what previously appeared impossible. But I especially like that they symbolise betweenness – the relationship between you and me, between us and the other.

I love autumn too. It’s a season of coming to fruition, a season of change. The colours of the leaves transfix me, turning the average walk into a visit to a gallery. I love it for its beauty. But I especially like that it symbolises betweenness – transition and transience and emergence.

Together in this photo, the bridge in autumn, inspires me to contemplate betweenness and relationships, becoming not being, how life is made of experiences and events, and how what matters most is the quality of our relationships.

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