Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Yesterday I shared a post about two forms of growth….unfurling (unfolding, opening, flourishing or blossoming) and connecting (reaching out to make bonds, relationships and links).

Today I came across a couple of photos from my garden which show both of these processes occurring at the same time. In this first photo you can see how the tendril or creeper which is reaching out is doing so in a kind of spiralling or un-spiralling way. It doesn’t consider that a straight line is the shortest distance between any two points! Perhaps there is something to learn from this – a sort of melange of meandering and spiralling around.

But what really struck me was this photo because I took a close up of these beautiful spirals and because I was focussing on the near distance the background has gone nicely blurred (something photographers call Bokeh I believe!) – but, wait! Look more closely! Look at the centre of the spiral which is in the bottom left corner of this image!

Through that spiral the distance suddenly becomes clear as crystal.

I don’t know what you think, but that reminded me of my favourite “And not or” theme – when you take BOTH of these processes of growth together suddenly you can see the world more clearly!

If you’re interested to read more about “And not or” check out my book.

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I’m writing a book just now about “and not or”.

“And not or” is a concept I’ve been exploring for some time and I thought it was time to start writing down some of my discoveries more systematically because I thought that would help me to think and, hopefully, take my understanding to a new level. Well, I’m in the midst of all that and, so far, what I can is…..I’m really enjoying it! Hey, that strikes me as a pretty good reason to write….to enjoy it. When I say I enjoy it, I don’t just mean it is pleasurable. I mean I feel it adds value to my life and helps me to make more sense of it. It’s fulfilling.

I’ve also been browsing through some old digital photo libraries of mine and re-discovering images I haven’t thought about for years. I think that because I’m so immersed in the “and not or” idea of my book that I’ve developed a different perspective from the one I had when I took these photos, so now I contemplate them through that new lens. I think this particular image is a good example of that.

What do I see when I look at this photo?

I see two hills. One is dark and the other light. I immediately think of the yin yang symbol, with its dark half and its light half. Isn’t that pleasing? To see BOTH the dark and the light hills in the same scene?

I see the reflections of the two hills in the astonishingly calm surface of the loch. Clear, clear reflections, one dark and one light. Isn’t it delightful to see the objects and their reflections in the same scene? I think of the connections between the conscious and unconscious parts of our minds. How what lies below our consciousness, emerges into consciousness as a kind of reflection, at night, in dreams, and in the waking hours, in our emotions and thoughts.

I see within the reflections two boats. A black boat with a light cabin in the middle of the reflected dark hill, and a white boat in the reflected image of the light hill. Each boat has its own beautiful mirror image beneath it in the water. This symmetry of reflections reminds me of the fractal nature of the universe, with patterns and images cascading through time and space.

I see brightly lit sky and heavy rain-laden clouds above the loch, and I see the dark shoreline, grassy, and mossy and earthy, in the foreground. I love this spread of earth, water, air and light and this one image.

I see the activities of humans, the little boats, some for fishing, some for pleasure, and the machinery on the raft in the middle of the loch. And towering over these little boats and equipment, are the magnificent, rocky hills, standing like quiet giants, watching what lies at their feet.

This is like a kind of meditation for me. As I explore this AND that AND these AND those and see the connections, the reflections, the symmetries and patterns, my mind and my heart slow down to match the pace and the rhythm of the scene.

I hope you get a similar experience.

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Day Three of the Twelve project – 12 images, one for each month of 2016, used to create 12 posts, one each day for the 12 days of Christmas.

In March 2016, I visited Marqueyssac gardens in the Dordogne. This wonderful place has several, vastly different areas, from woodland scattered with art works, to winding rocky paths on the edge of a cliff, to this astonishing area of topiary.

I’ve seen lots of topiary elsewhere but usually its the odd bush shaped like an animal, or a small planting of bushes shaped into pyramids or spheres, but here…..well, for a start there are more shaped bushes here in one space than I’ve ever seen before, and, more interestingly, they retain a fundamentally organic form. They don’t just look like bushes fashioned to appear like something else. They retain the diversity you usually associate with Nature. The way they grow together also gives a strong impression of a community, or, from a little further back, a whole organism.

This was my inspiration this year for my writing about the two universal forces – whether we think of them as the forces of chaos and order, of wildness and discipline, or of flow and structure, we find them at work everywhere. And here, in Marqueyssac we see how something utterly entrancing emerges when we get a true integration of these two forces.

This has been such a year of divisions. Dualistic, or binary, thinking seems to be on the rise – you have to choose sides. One is good, the other is bad. You can choose science or art, reason or emotions, right wing or left wing….and so on. When we do that with the fundamental forces we end up emphasising order and control at the expense of freedom and wildness, or we choose structure over flexibility, but actually, in the universe, the greatest beauty, and the release of the greatest potential comes when we aren’t forced to choose one at the expense of the other.

I think the clearest way to think about integration is to consider the relationship between our heart and our lungs. They are completely different organs, grown from distinctly different (“well differentiated”) cells. The heart works best as a heart, and the lungs work best as lungs. Neither would do so well if our body chose between them and supported only the heart, or only the lungs. Turns out that the heart can’t be at its best without the lungs, and the lungs can’t be at their best without the heart. They work together for their own, and for each other’s mutual benefit.

That’s the definition of integration which I like best – the creation of mutually beneficial bonds between well differentiated parts.

And that’s what I see when I look at Marqueyssac gardens – discipline and wildness, structure and chaos, beautifully integrated.

Even without any of these thoughts, these gardens would have been wonderful to visit. Take your time. I spent about three or four hours there and could probably have spent longer (if I’d started earlier!) What an experience! It stays with me, not simply as a memory, but as an inspiration, a series of images, a stimulus to my imagination and my thought.

Places like these are the special places on the Earth – they act as our muses. They lift our spirits, and reach deep down into our souls.


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I recently came across Rebecca Solnit’s contemplation of the colour blue through the Brainpickings site.

The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever lies underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue. For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains.



If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed? For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, by acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond. Somewhere in this is the mystery of why tragedies are more beautiful than comedies and why we take a huge pleasure in the sadness of certain songs and stories. Something is always far away.

I got to thinking about a couple of photos I took recently in Spain, one in Grenada and one in Segovia.



She talks about how artists used the colour blue, and cites the following classical paintings amongst her examples –





Isn’t the blue of distance in these paintings really beautiful?

Here are another few examples from an old French book which we have at home –




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In “Deux Idées de Bonheur”, Luis Sepúlveda says that he’s come to understand that happiness and wellbeing are a web or network of relationships, between ourselves and others, between ourselves and what is around us, between ourselves and Nature.

I like that. It seems very true to me. We all exist with an intricate and infinite web of connections. None of us exist without any relationships. We all have, or have had parents, we’ve all encountered many, many others over the course of our lives, people we’ve been taught by, looked after by, friends, rivals, people we are related to through genes and marriages. We all live our every day lives in a web of others who produce, transport, prepare and sell the food we eat. Others who make the clothes we wear, who make every object we handle in an ordinary day. We live with others with whom we share our stories, co-create our values, our purposes, our reasons to get up every morning.

And we are in an intimate and unceasing relationship of exchange of energy, information and substances with the natural environment. The air, the water, the soil, the way we work the land, change the landscapes, warm the atmosphere around the Earth.

The other dimension of these vast webs is time. Our lives are all like stories….we are continually describing and telling the present as it emerges from our personal and our shared past, and which, moment by moment, is already in the process of becoming the future.

Happiness and wellbeing are not states, not independent, self-sustaining, isolated characteristics or “data points” to be measured. They are experiences which emerge out of a web of moments, within a network of connected people and events.

They are qualities of life, not permanently present, but always in the process of creation, like an intricate cloth of threads woven across lifetimes.

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What is good or bad for me?

Let me ask “what is good or bad for you?”

Are the answers to those questions going to be identical?

I don’t think so. We could get into a big discussion about what “good” and “bad” even mean, but without disappearing down that rabbit hole I’d just like to express the opinion that no-one can know you better than you can. No-one is better placed to know how you should live than you are.

We forget that in our increasingly controlling autocratic societies.

Here’s Montaigne

Tiberius used to say that whoever had lived twenty years should be responsible to himself for the things that were harmful or beneficial to him, and know how to take care of himself without medical aid. And he might have learned this from Socrates who, advising his disciples, carefully and as a principal study, the study of their health, used to add that it was difficult for an intelligent man who was careful about his exercise, his drinking, and his eating not to know better than any doctor what was good or bad for him.

Socrates who lived almost 2500 years ago……his teaching on health?

Take care about exercise, your drinking and your eating.

Wow! Public Health advice has come such a long way! (hmm….)

But the main point Montaigne is making is one I agree with.

I’d be astonished if anyone claimed they knew better than I did what was good for me, or bad for me. Take the relatively common place circumstance of pain. Can anyone tell me better than I can whether or not a treatment I take for pain reduces my pain? No, they can’t. Only my personal experience will tell.

What better advice than to be aware, to be reflective and to learn about yourself?

Without that you end up swallowing the advice of someone who isn’t living your life.

(Oh, and what about today’s photo? It’s a fig. It’s a fig which grew and ripened on the tree we planted in our garden and it tasted….mmmmm….words fail me…delicious! Like no fig I’ve ever tasted before. Are figs good for me? Well that one certainly contributed towards my pleasure in being alive that day, and I’m looking forward to more figs growing next season. Are figs good for you? You’re the better judge of that one!)

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He’s back. The robin who hangs around my garden. Here is up taking up position in the most-favoured tree at the south-western corner of the garden. He’s looking east as the sun rises and the warming rays are making both his red feathers and his eyes shine.

Bright eyed, and looking to the dawn of a new day. Watching over his familiar ground  and singing loud and long.

I don’t know where prayers go,
or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it
crosses the street?
The sunflowers? The old black oak
growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
along the shore or under the trees,
with my mind filled with things
of little importance, in full
self-attendance. A condition I can’t really
call being alive
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep. Maybe not.

While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don’t know why. And yet, why not.
I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don’t. That’s your business.
But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be
if it isn’t a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.

Mary Oliver. I Happened to be Standing.

Whether it’s a wren or a robin or another species of bird entirely, we need to hear these prayers, these hymns, to Life.



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Marcel Conche says this about thoughts –
To meditate is to be waiting, like lying in wait, for thoughts that are going to surprise us, bringing sudden clarity.
and he quotes Heidegger –
“We will never succeed in having thoughts, they come to us,” said Heidegger
This reminded me of what Liz Gilbert describes in her “Big Magic” about how ideas come to us. She suggests we think of ideas as living their own lives, wandering around the world looking for a partner to work them in order to bring them to fruition. I liked that concept. It’s maybe a stretch of the imagination to think of ideas as entities living their own lives, but then, maybe thoughts are a bit like that too?
Here’s Conche again –
We anticipate, with variable probability, the result of an action, and it is for this reason that we act. Yet we don’t anticipate thoughts. The philosopher is, in this regard, similar to the artist. Thought is “work of a poet,” said Heidegger.
Again and again he suggests the approach of the artist – not least because he sees Nature as a continuous creative process.
Liz Gilbert says we need to turn up every day prepared to do the work. She describes what others have called the “discipline” of the writer, but that’s not a word that’s ever had much appeal to me! Maybe we could call it a habit? (or what I’d tell patients about making better dents!)
Conche says that what we need to encourage thoughts to come to us is a kind of ease (an absence of anxiety), and setting aside any preoccupations with our selves.
What is required so that thoughts come to us? First, the soul must reach “freedom from anxiety” (ataraxia), serenity, a sort of negative happiness that we can call “wisdom”—a wisdom that is not the aim of philosophy, but its condition. Then and correspondingly, preoccupation with oneself must be absent.
Ha! Did you ever watch the movie “What about me?” by 1 Giant Leap?

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September’s issue of Philiosophie magazine has an interview with the Japanese author, Kenzaburô ôe who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1994.

It’s a fascinating and striking article. He has been a controversial figure in Japan because of the subject matter of his novels, one of which challenges the official version of what happened in Okinawa at the end of the Second World War. Officially, 100,000 Okinawans committed suicide claiming loyalty to the Emperor rather than be over-run by the invading Americans. Kenzaburô says this is a lie. He says the Imperial Army massacred the Okinawans and they died called for their mothers, not swearing loyalty to the Emperor.

He has also shone a clear light on the reality of life for those who survived the blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Telling their stories shows how these particular bombs didn’t just kill and wound when they were dropped, but continue to damage those who survived right into the present day.

It’s no surprise then to read that since Fukushima he actively campaigns for the abandonment of nuclear power in Japan.

A big part of the story of his life is the birth of his son in 1963. Hikari was born with a severe brain defect and his parents had to decide to either let him die, or have an operation which would likely leave him severely mentally handicapped. They chose the latter. In addition to his severe handicap he has autism and he didn’t speak until he was six.

His first words were actually a sentence. The family was walking in the forest and at the sound of a particular bird call, Hikari said, in exactly the same way a radio presenter of a nature documentary would, “that is the call of the (such an such bird)” – and it was! After that his parents started buying bird song CDs and Hikari learned them all. They moved on to music, playing him Bach and Mozart, and were astonished to find, as he got older, that he could transcribe into musical notation perfectly any piece of music after hearing it just once. More than that, he went on to compose his own music.

Kenzaburô says his son has never expressed any emotion but his music is deeply emotional. His first CD sold 400,000 copies in Japan.

Here’s a video clip of one of his pieces.

Kenzaburô’s daily life is spent in his study reading and writing, while his son sits by him listening to, and writing, music.

A remarkable man.

Right at the end of the interview he says of creative work that it is important to find your own voice, or your own style – to be careful not to “get lost in the universal”.

I like that a lot. Too often we lose our singular uniqueness by trying to be accepted, or to fit in, or to be popular. Isn’t it more important to be the one unique person who only we can be?

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The movie version of “Le Petit Prince” has just been released in France and, perhaps because of that, I stumbled on what turned out to be a French translation of an English language article in “The American Interest” last year – in it the author compares the two princes – Machiavelli’s and Saint-Exupéry’s.

The key difference lies in how the two books present the social urge that drives human political interactions. Machiavelli penned the incipient modern view that puts fear at the center of political order, turning politics into the craft of fear management. And it is a craft, properly speaking, not a science; yet the flavor of early modern times helped give rise to what we optimistically call today political science. The French aviator’s short book, on the other hand, describes the deep human desire to be social out of love toward others, not from fear of them. For the former, fear of others is the source of social cohesion; for the latter, the source is the need for others. The former would repel others, the latter attract them.

What the author is highlighting is the acute difference between these two authors in their view of their fellow human beings.

The modern approach to politics—one given to us in distilled form in The Prince and more elaborately in the Discourses, and is then expanded by later authors such as Thomas Hobbes—starts from the assumption that we humans do not enjoy each other’s company. Rather, we relentlessly compete with each other for things and for thoughts, for safety, and for status. It is a dim view of men, “ungrateful, fickle, pretenders, evaders of danger, greedy for gain” (The Prince, XVII). The outcome is a constant clash that often degenerates into the war of all against all. As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in Huis Clos (“No Exit”) in the same year that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry plunged into the sea: “L’enfer, c’est les Autres.”

Well, this certainly rings a bell. We are force fed a daily diet of fear – fear of terrorism, crime, disease, immigrants…..you name it!

Le Petit Prince presents a very different picture. The Little Prince from a distant asteroid is also a keen observer of human affairs, but less jaded than the retired Florentine diplomat and his modern followers. He is a gentle soul in search of others whom he can befriend and love. In one of the many moving moments in this quirky little book, the lonely and somewhat sad Little Prince who had just landed on earth screams from a mountaintop: “Soyez mes amis, je suis seul.” Deriving apparently little pleasure from his loneliness, the Little Prince seeks others, not to dominate them but simply to be with them and engage them in conversations. As he says to a fox, “Come and play with me. . . . I am so sad.” (Ch. XXI).No Principe, no man in Machiavelli’s world, can fathom the idea of seeking others simply to enjoy their company. La tristezza of the Prince leads him to fear others; la tristesse of the Little Prince leads him to seek others.

If one of the key differences is the creation of a society based on fear vs one based on friendship, then the other key difference this author notes is between the quantitative and the qualitative.

Another crucial and related difference between the two Princes revolves around a question that is apparently limited to epistemology, but that has significant political consequences. The Little Prince observes that human interactions are not, and cannot be, based exclusively on visible, calculable features. As Saint-Exupéry famously puts it, “L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” For Machiavelli instead, “Men in general judge more by their eyes than by their hands, because seeing is given to everyone, touching to few. Everyone sees how you appear, few touch what you are” (The Prince, XXVIII). Measurable appearances are more important in the life of the Prince than what is invisible to the eyes, but they are useless for the Little Prince. In anthropologist James Scott’s words, in order to function the modern state requires its citizens to be “legible”: to have a clutch of numbers citing address, age, and income, coded and used to place individuals in various categories. The Little Prince would find the very idea of legibility puzzling and inhuman, and Saint-Exupéry himself would not have been the least surprised to learn, had he lived long enough, that the Nazis tattooed numbers on the arms of their victims. The Little Prince’s criticism of the grown-ups, or us moderns, is that we approach others by focusing on calculable appearances. To know something or somebody, we measure it. When we introduce a friend to an adult, he asks: “How old is he? How many brothers does he have? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?” Similarly, when we try to describe a house, its price is one of the first features that we use to convey its beauty. “You have to tell them [grown-ups], ‘I saw a house worth a hundred thousand francs’. Then they exclaim: ‘What a pretty house!’” This is our scientific approach, another essence of our modernity: By counting and measuring, we think we assess the other side as rival or friend, we think we grasp his potential behavior, and, above all, we think we can manufacture benign social arrangements on this basis.This is not real knowledge, and consequently it cannot generate real order. The questions one ought to ask are different. Knowing the price of a house pales before a description of it as a “beautiful red brick house with geraniums at the windows and doves on the roof.” Similarly, if you want to get to know somebody, ask: “What does his voice sound like? What games does he like best? Does he collect butterflies?” Only by asking such questions can one start the long process of “taming.” The development of true social bonds is possible only when based on this deeper, yet far more elusive kind of knowledge. Knowing how much money one makes may be helpful to manage the Prince’s mechanism of fear, but it does little to develop true friendship and lasting order.

I’ve quoted pretty extensively from Jakub Grygiel’s article but I do think it really merits a full read – you can find it here.

Maybe this will whet your appetite to either go out and buy a copy of “The Little Prince” by Saint-Exupéry, or to go see the movie. Delight, pleasure and food for thought if you do!

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