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As I walked along this beach I came across a piece of seaweed and shell. But that’s not where my observation ended. So, I stopped and took this photo.

What do you see?

Maybe you see a piece of seaweed and a shell on the sand.

But maybe you see the suggestion of a face? Maybe this piece of seaweed looks like the eyelashes on a closed eyelid, and the shell, a piece of jewellery on the side of someone’s nose?

Well, that’s what I saw. And once I’d seen that I felt more connected to the beach. It was as if the beach was at peace, and lying beautifully in the sunshine. I know that at the beach we often feel pretty relaxed anyway, but as I saw this, and as I look at it again just now, I feel a wave of calm. This image pleases me. It delights me. It brings me joy and makes me feel content. It stirs that deep feeling I have inside that the universe is essentially a friendly place, created with such precise balances between fundamental forces that everything Life needed to come into being fell into place, that the abundance of the universe facilitates both our survival and our thriving…..individually, as a species, and as one of Life’s myriad of forms.

Maybe you look at this image and the seaweed is a sort of smile? Maybe it seems to be a happy emoji? Well, I didn’t see it that way, but if you do, I bet you are aware of feelings of happiness growing inside you.

It’s strange that for many years now we humans have lived with the idea that there is “me” and there is “everything else” “out there”. That somehow we live separate from, and disconnected from a meaningless universe of objects. But that seems to be changing now. The Physics of the 20th and 21st centuries have revealed to us a whole other perspective on reality and our place in it. Gone are the notions of separate, disconnected objects. Everything, it now appears, is connected to everything else. Everything which exists is manifested within a universal energy field. Everything which appears, briefly, or for a number of years, is a manifestation of relationships and connections. The universe, as Carlo Rovelli, the Physicist, says, is made of events and experiences, not things.

And maybe one of the biggest insights we’ve gained is how there is no disconnection between the observer and the observed. We now know that whatever we observe is changed in the act of being observed. And we also know that the observer is changed by what they observer. It’s a two way process.

We humans bring our imagination to bear on what we observe. We bring our memories and our consciousness. We uncover meaning, create narratives, and enrich our worlds with art, with poetry, with stories, music and dance. We interact with the rest of the universe every moment we are alive. Now, we are beginning to realise that.

Connectomes

The pine forest at the “Côte Sauvage” in the Charente Maritime, the “Foret des Cedres” in Provence, the deciduous forest around the Bracklinn Falls in Central Scotland, the maple forests around Kyoto……these are some of my most memorable forests. They delight me.

It’s many years since I learned about the Japanese practice of “forest bathing” – which simply means spending some time in a forest – well, actually, not so much just passing some time there, but immersing yourself in it, really engaging with it, listening to the sounds of birds calling, of the branches swaying in the wind, breathing deep the scents of pine, cedar, and other trees, watching the play of sunlight through the leaves as together they create whole performances of light and shade, of shape and shadow – you get the idea.

We have learned a lot about forest bathing in recent years. We’ve learned of the benefits it brings to everything from a sense of well-being to a boost in some of the chemicals and cells involved in our immune system, to a calming of the harmful chronic inflammatory activities inside our bodies which occur as a result of stress. It’s just GOOD for you! And that’s a sweet spot for me – finding what is BOTH good for me and just utterly enjoyable – health boosting and happiness boosting – result!

We’ve also learned a lot about the lives of trees and forests in recent years. We’ve learned that trees don’t live in isolation, that they are in constant communication with each other, sending out warnings when they are attacked or vulnerable, sharing nutrients, and supporting each other. They do this both by sending out chemicals through the air, and by an astonishingly complex network of root systems intertwined with microfibres of fungi creating what has been termed “the wood wide web”.

Here are some of the main books I’ve read which have taught me what I know about how trees and forest demonstrate inter-dependency, how they communicate with each other, and how they behave as one complex adaptive organism. “The Hidden Life of Trees“, by Peter Wohlleben, subtitled, “What they feel, how they communicate: discoveries from a secret world”; “Gossip from the Forest” by Sara Maitland, subtitled, “The tangled roots of our forests and fairytales”; “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which blends “indigenous wisdom” with “science and teachings of plants”; and, the novel, “Overstory“, by Richard Powers. You can probably add your own favourites to that list, but if this is something you want to explore, you could do worse than start with any of those books.

This fairly new knowledge of forests is part of a much wider trend in science – the attempt to understand connections. I think this is a radical, and much needed, shift. The reductionist science of understanding parts has led to an explosion of knowledge, but too often, we fail to really understand the real world because we fail to see that every single part only exists as an embedded, inextricable element of the whole. The fabulous improvement in that approach mirrors a shift in the use of the left hemisphere of the brain which engages with the world by separating it into parts to analyse and categorise, towards the use of the right hemisphere with engages with the world as a whole, and focuses our attention on connections and relationships.

We are now looking much more at whole environments, whole webs of inter-relationships. We see such networks everywhere, from the activity of micro-organisms in our guts (the “microbiome”), to the “neural networks” within the brain, the inter-relationships of species within ecological “niches”, or “biomes”, and in world wide cycles of movement of water, gases, and other molecules.

One concept which is useful in all these areas is the one of the “connectome” – this is the activity of mapping out the interactions and relationships within whatever we are studying. In terms of the brain it can be helpful to imagine that every single thought has the “neural correlate” of a “connectome” of nerve cells. Apparently we have so many neurones in our brain, and each of them is so massively interconnected, that if you were to consider all the potential permutations of activity of little networks within the greater network, then that number would be greater than the number of atoms in the universe! Well, I don’t know how anyone works out something like that, but suffice it to say, the potential for our imagination, for our cognition, for our memory, for our ability to visualise, conceptualise, analyse, synthesise and create, is pretty damn close to infinite!

There’s something else interesting about all these “connectomes” – they are related to each other. Each one is nested into several others, and each one of them sets up resonances and harmonies with other ones. Perhaps that partly explains how we feel what other people feel, how we come to think what other people think, and, maybe even how our inner environments are affected by our external ones.

Amazing what a walk a forest can do for us, huh?

One thing which always fascinates me at the coast, is the appearance and behaviour of waves. I love to stand, or sit, and gaze at them, watching the areas of swell in the water turn into obvious waves as their tops break into white surf. It’s amazing to see the ocean unfurling as the waves appear, rush to the shore, turn white, crash, and dissipate into foam and bubbles, before the water rushes back out to the sea again.

This one photo captures something of the complexity of waves at the beach. You can see at least half a dozen different “fronts” here, each one interacting with the others. It reminds me of the experiments we did in Science class at school which taught us about “interference” patterns as one wave interacts with another. I always found that both beautiful and mesmerising.

Another thing we were taught in Science class was about the molecular basis of all substances. I remember the brightly coloured balls stuck to each other with rods which were used to show us the molecular structure of different crystals and other materials. It was only much later that I came to understand that reality isn’t really made up of discrete units like that.

The world isn’t like a lego kit, a jigsaw, or any kind of machine assembled from discrete parts. I know it can kind of look like that, but it’s not how things are. A better way to think is demonstrated for us at the beach. Reality consists of flows – flows of energies, of atoms, molecules, and of information – flows which are in constant interaction with other flows. What we see as separate objects are just some flows which hold together for a time. The world, as the Physicist, Carlo Rovelli, says, is better understood as “relational”.

I sometimes think of that as I watch the waves, imagining how we too are each like a single wave, emerging on the surface of the ocean, but never separating from it, forming complex relationships with others and with the rest of the world, for a time……for moments, for days, months, years, even for what we call a “lifetime”. Then we return to the rest of the universe from which we emerged.

We are not as separate as we sometimes think we are. Even you and I, dear reader, are interacting just now, as you read this. My thoughts are stimulated by the images I’ve captured, then I express some of them as words in this post, and you read it, and look at the photo, and you, too might begin to have some thoughts very similar to mine. Perhaps even some feelings similar to mine.

We do this all the time throughout our lifetime, don’t we? Everything we do, think, create, express, ripples out far beyond the here and now, and flows into the flows of other lives. We affect each other all the time. We influence each other all the time.

That’s why I want to share these images, these words, these feeling of wonder, awe and joy, in the hope that they influence your life a little, and bring some of those positive energies to you.

Living as ONE

I’m standing at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, taking a photo of the wet sand, the dunes and just part of a very long beach. It looks peaceful, doesn’t it? Well, play the video below and turn your volume level up!

This is the sound of the Ocean. Just one minute of video as I stood holding my phone towards the waves.

As I walked through the pine forest from the car park, I could hear that roar of the sea. I could hear it long before I could see it.

Isn’t it wonderful?

I love the sight and the sound of the ocean…..so much more than the estuaries and rivers where you can see the other embankment from where you stand and the whole expanse is bounded in by the edges of the earth. With the ocean you look out and you don’t see an edge.

And that captures an important truth for me – there is only ONE ocean, ONE expanse of water on this Earth. We divide it up artificially and give the parts different names – Atlantic, Pacific, and so on – but you can’t find the dividing lines in Nature. You can’t find any borders or frontiers between “one ocean and another one”. We share not just ONE ocean on this planet, we share a single water cycle, a single atmosphere, ONE Earth.

We are embedded, embodied, emergent, within Gaia, this one, living, beautiful, awe inspiring planet. I wish we lived more with a conscious knowledge of that. I wish we lived more knowing how interconnected and interdependent we all are. I wish we lived more as ONE.

Pining

I took a walk in a pine forest yesterday.

We are still living under significant restrictions, and there are rumours that they might even be tightened later today, so I took the opportunity to drive about an hour west of here to the coast, have a walk in a pine forest, have a picnic, then stroll along the beach at the “côte sauvage” which means the “wild coast”, a stretch of coastline here in South West France where you can stand at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

I took several photos in the forest and down on the sand. Here’s one of them.

This is a single pine cone forming at the end of one stem of a pine tree. The forest floor was covered with pine cones of all shapes and sizes, but this one, still in the process of emerging, caught my eye. It’s a beautiful collection of developing pine seeds, and the long narrow pine leaves radiating out in all directions gave it the appearance of a sort of “starburst” – the very shape of the plant capturing the essence of the behaviour to come, where the seeds will be dispersed in all directions.

When I look at this image I see potential. I see that abundance I mentioned the other day in an earlier post, where each plant produces millions of seeds and scatters them near and far to produce the greatest chance of proliferation yet more plants, yet more pine trees. Because I zoomed in towards the seed head you can’t see the edges of the pine leaves….so every one of them looks like a direction indicator….it heads out in all directions and you can’t see just how far any individual leaf can reach.

So we see potential here – the potential to be more than we can see in this moment, the potential to be more than we can see in this small space. When we look too closely, when we separate out whatever we are looking at from all of its contexts, connections and environments, then we fail to grasp its reality.

To see the whole we need imagination. To see the whole we need to “see” in our “mind’s eye” what the part is attached to, where its come from, where its going, and how it interacts with everything else. I capture an aspect of that in the little phrase at the top of this blog – “becoming not being”. I am always more excited by vibrant, dynamic living forms than I am by artificially disconnected, dead parts.

I pine for Life, for growth, for the realisation of potential, for the expansion of possibilities, for the deepening of understanding.

Twists and turns

This isn’t the only plant I’ve seen which twists and turns a lot, but perhaps this is one of the most striking. I always find myself wondering two things when I look at an image like this one.

The first thing is just how amazingly complex the structure is. When this plant started as a single seed, nobody could have predicted the shape it would achieve today. Even more, at no point in this plant’s life could anyone predict with accuracy the detail of the directions it would take, the exact places where it would turn to the left, the right, head up, or head down. Its shape size and uniqueness at every point are unpredictable in the details. And that’s the same for us in our own lives.

Every individual patient who ever consulted with me had a unique, personal story to tell. Nobody could have predicted the detail of their story from the day of their birth. That truth remains the case day after day after day. What I mean is that whatever treatment I gave someone, the only way I could know whether or not it would help them, and, in particular, just how it would help them, was to have another consultation with them, days, weeks, or months further on and listen to them tell me their unique experience. Only the patient could tell me how helpful the treatment was. I think that, sadly, that’s a bit forgotten in a lot of modern medicine. We can’t know for certain what the outcomes are going to be for an individual patient, no matter what “evidence base” we are aware of.

Secondly, I look at this plant and I wonder about the events in its life. What happened, and when, to produce those particular dramatic significant turns of direction. When I consulted with patients I liked to ask “When were you last completely well?” Then we would explore the emergence of their illness and the contexts of their personal life in which the symptoms appeared. Asking that didn’t just help me make a diagnosis, it helped me and the patient to make sense of their illness and their life. The events of our life play a significant role in the emergence of the illnesses we suffer. But they play a significant role in our growth, our development of character and personality, and in our experiences of joy, love and satisfaction too.

Beauty in the soul

There’s a bird reserve near Nimes, in the South of France, where you can see flamingos. I’ve visited it several times, and each time I take a host of photos. They are SUCH beautiful creatures!

I’m reading Gary Lachman’s “Lost Knowledge of the Imagination” just now, and this morning read these lines about beauty –

We perceive beauty, the Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus said, when we perceive something that is in accord with our soul.

Knowledge of beauty is knowledge of soul. It is self-knowledge, and when we discover beauty we are discovering part of ourselves.

The knowledge we receive in this way is not of fact but of quality, of value and meaning.

We perceive beauty, are open to its presence, through a change in the quality of our consciousness. Only like can know like. We must have beauty within ourselves to see it in the world.

I hadn’t thought of beauty this way before. When I read it I thought about the old adage of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” which always seemed to me to be a statement that beauty was in fact a matter of taste. But this perspective from Gary Lachman describes that sort of third way interpretation which I like so much. It’s not that beauty is “outside” us, as some kind of measurable object. I think we all know that. Beauty can’t be reduced to data, can’t be captured by mere facts. But neither is it just a matter of taste, as if it is entirely an experience of the individual rendering the rest of the real world unimportant.

The third way is that beauty is a resonance. It’s a harmony. And therefore it emerges in the lived quality of an experience, of an engagement, of a relationship. We need both parts of the relationship to be present…..something “within” us, let’s call that “the soul”, and something “outwith” us, let’s call that “the other”.

We know instantly when we find something, or someone beautiful. We don’t need to way it up, analyse the inputs, stimuli and signals. We just know. We know because our inner being resonates with whatever it is we are looking at….or it doesn’t. When it does, we have the sensation of joy, delight, and gratitude which accompanies all engagements with beauty.

Beauty, I reckon, is good for us. It’s good for our souls. It’s good for our consciousness. It’s good for our health.

So, here you are, a few photos in this post, all taken during one visit to the flamingos. I find them beautiful. I hope you do too. And I hope that appreciation of their beauty nourishes your soul, warms your heart, adds some positive quality to this present moment.

Living together

You’ll be familiar with the phenomenon of starlings creating a “murmuration” where thousands of them flock together and create the most astonishing shapes in the sky. I see that around here from time to time, but much more commonly I hear a few hundred, or perhaps a few thousand, starlings flying through the vineyards together. Then they’ll “assemble” on a couple of the biggest trees at the top of the hill. They make such a noise while they do that, that they absolutely catch your attention. Then as they sit on the branches together they sing and call and chatter for a while, making a unique flock of starlings racket.

Suddenly, they all go quiet. It happens over perhaps two or three seconds. The clamour of the flock is replace by silence. Having witnessed this many times I now know what’s going to happen next. They all take off! Just like you can see in this photo. In fact, it’s quite an easy photo to take if you just listen. You just focus the camera on the tree and wait a second, then, whoosh, what you hear next is the sound of a thousand wings beating as one. It’s a rush, a sudden noise of air being pushed aside by the birds. I don’t think I’ve heard exactly that sound anywhere else.

From time to time, I look up from my garden because I hear that rush of wind and I know it’s a flock of birds speeding over the tops of the vines, and settling onto their branches. Then I hear them call to each other, then a bit later, silence occurs, and a moment later….whoosh! They take off into the sky, becoming visible again as they soar over the vineyards.

It’s a delightful sight and sound.

It always makes me think about that balance in the world between competition and co-operation, and the delicate balance between individualism and collectivism. It makes me reflect on the human need for autonomy and a sense of Self, and the powerful human need to belong, to be in relationship, to love and be loved.

I do think we’ve got the balance all wrong over the last few hundred years, and there have been whole books written about that. We can look at the narrowing of consciousness from when humans lived in greater harmony with the landscape and with other creatures, to the present time where whole societies have become atomised and the sense of alienation has shot off the top of the scale. Or we can look at the rise of industrialisation, technocratic modes of organisation and control, and the mass competitive consumption of capitalism. Or we can consider the divided brain thesis of Iain McGilchrist and see that the Emissary (the left hemisphere) has cut itself off from the Master (the right hemisphere) and produced our current patterns of thought and social organisation. There are many ways to approach this same issue…..but the conclusion is……

we have got the balance wrong. We have gone way too far down the road of atomisation, reductionism, generalisation, command and control, consumption and competition. Well, that’s how I see it anyway. I think the world, our hearts, our souls, the World Soul, are all crying out for a shift in emphasis – towards a recognition of the “commons”, of how we all share one planet, one water cycle, one atmosphere, one common genetic heritage. How all of Life is part of the same, single, complex web.

Maybe this pandemic has quietened down the rush and pressure of competitive, busy life, and if we listen carefully we can hear the emerging silence which comes before we take off together with one great “whoosh” and fly higher than we’ve ever done before.

I think we need to move towards more kindness, care and love. Towards the creation of mutually beneficial bonds and relationships. I think we need to do that personally, and we need to do that together. What do you think? Maybe that would be pretty wonderful.

Home

There’s a little bird which makes a nest in the garden each year. I don’t know what the bird is. She’s very shy, and hard to see. What I find strange is that she makes the flimsiest nests I’ve ever seen, and often makes them in what seem pretty precarious locations. Usually, she make a nest out towards the end of one of the branches of the mulberry tree and when the wind blows the nest bounces about crazily. One year, I found about four very young chicks sitting on the grass. They had all fallen out of the little nest, which I saw when I looked up above my head to see where they might have come from. I gently placed them all back into the nest, but the nest was really tiny….it was quite a squeeze! And the construction of the nest was so flimsy that it had almost fallen into two or three separate pieces. However, putting them back worked, and a few days later they had all matured enough to fly off, leaving the tiny, bedraggled nest to the winds.

This year I found the remains of her nest in one of the buddleia bushes. Look at it. Isn’t it tiny? The construction of nests boggles my brain. I am amazed at how birds know how to weave together the little stalks and twigs and other materials that they gather into the shape of a nest. I’m especially amazed when you see them do it for the first time. How do they know how to do this? As best I know they aren’t taught the technique by older birds. They seem to be born with the knowledge. So, finding a nest always evokes my feelings of wonder and awe.

As I looked at this little nest, I was aware that, although I judged it flimsy and precarious, it seems that for the most part, it is good enough. It does the job. It enables an adult female to lay her clutch of eggs, for the eggs to hatch and for the little ones to be fed until they are big enough to fly off and live their lives elsewhere.

These little nests aren’t exactly what we would call home, or are they? What I mean by that is that the birds don’t seem to construct a nest as a permanent home. They don’t build what we humans call “a forever home”. Maybe some species do, but I don’t know enough about ornithology to know if that’s true. What I see in the garden is nests built by different species of birds, all of which seem to use the nest for a single season.

So, what is a home?

I heard someone say “A home is not what you own, it’s where you feel loved”. That’s a nice thought. And maybe for the baby birds, that’s exactly right. Maybe these homes are the places where they are born, where they nourished, nurtured and protected, until they are ready to set off and live a more autonomous life. Maybe they just don’t need the effort and expenditure of energy necessary to build a permanent home. These seasonal, single use, ones seem to fit the bill (if you’ll excuse the pun!)

What do you think? What creates a sense of home for you? How many homes have you had in your life so far? And how many homes do you think you might live in, in the future? How do you create a sense of home?

Do you agree? Is home the place where you feel loved? The place where you feel nurtured, nourished and protected? Surely that’s the basic minimum for a home, and surely, everyone deserves such a place they can they call home? It’s a sad fact that for millions of people, that’s not the case. Surely we can do better than that. Surely we can create a world where everyone has a true home?

Before there was Life on Earth, the Sun shone down on the surface, baking the entire planet. A big step forward in evolution was the emergence of plant life. Plants developed the ability to use the Sun’s energy to capture carbon dioxide and water from the atmosphere, and turn those two molecules into sugars. In a way, plants learned how to tap into the vast, seemingly infinite, reserves of energy which were produced by the furnace of the Sun. As they transformed those two abundant molecules into sugars which they could use to survive and thrive, they produced oxygen almost as a by-product.

As plants proliferated and spread across the Earth’s surface, they changed the atmosphere, enabling a new kind of life to appear….cells which needed oxygen. Actually, before there were plants, there were single celled bacteria which developed this capability to capture carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. One theory of evolution is that all multi-celled organisms evolved from the collaborative and integrative behaviours of single-celled organisms. I find that a pretty convincing story.

Animals evolved later. And we humans belong in the Animal Kingdom. So, without our ancestors of the Plant Kingdom, none of us would exist. It’s not just that none of us would exist because humans wouldn’t have evolved, but none of us could exist now, because without the Plant Kingdom, no animals would have access to the Sun’s energy. It’s only the plants which have learned how to capture the Sun’s energy directly. The rest of us live further along a food chain, getting our energy from the other creatures (plants and animals) which we eat.

This beautiful photo has a lovely symmetry…..the sunbeams are echoed in the rows of the vineyard….and that phenomenon of symmetry, of echo, of resonance, reveals some of the intricate inter-connectedness of all that exists.

In this one image, I can lose my boundaries, and find myself as a unique, embedded, transient part of a vast web of Life.

I find transcendent experiences in the natural, everyday world. It’s in the vineyards, the forest, at the shore beside the crashing waves of the ocean, in my garden as the different birds call and pass through……..It’s no surprise to me that spending time outside, in natural habitats, lowers stress, lowers the human stress hormones, stirs our spirits, nurtures our souls, and is good for our bodies. It’s one of the best things we can do to stay healthy…..connect to the natural world.