Posts Tagged ‘the good life’

All within the context of the daily reality, finding much to marvel at, to be amazed by, to be in awe of, in the present, in the here and the now

I think the French words “emerveillement” and “quotidien” say so much about how to live.

I capture the amazing in the everyday with my cameras.

Here’s a set of a just a few of my favourites


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To imagine actively, creating, expressing, dreaming and playing

To see the invisible
Imagination allows us to see the invisible. Saint-Exupery’s fox tells the Little Prince, “Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”. We know that, don’t we? Love, passion, purpose, happiness, enlightenment……all experiences we have, all experiences that are important to us, but none of which can be seen, known or experienced by another, except by using our imaginations. Ian McEwan, the author, wrote after 9/11 that the biggest failure of the terrorists was a failure of imagination. If they could have imagined the lives of the people on the planes, and their families on the ground, they couldn’t, he argued, have committed their heinous crimes. I’ve always remembered reading that. I thought it was incredibly powerful and it’s true. Compassion emerges when we combine love with imagination. I’ll return to that in another post, but the important point for now, is that without imagination we cannot “see” what someone else is experiencing. Without imagination, compassion just wouldn’t exist.
We mustn’t mistake the invisible for the unreal however. There’s nothing unreal about love, or any of our subjective experiences. They are real, as real as physical objects. There’s a very common failure in contemporary societies which regards only the physical as real, or only the physical as important. It leads to that criticism of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. It leads to a distorted view of science which dismisses subjective, first person experience as, at best, a bias, and, at worst an irrelevance. That’s a failure of imagination. However, complexity science concepts such as emergence are beginning to address that failing.

To see the possible
Imagination allows us to see the possible. Human beings are great at invention, at problem-solving, at making things. All of these abilities stem from the imagination. Everything human beings make begin in the imagination. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a chair, or an aircraft carrier, a mug or a spaceship, none of them would exist had someone not imagined them first. If nobody can see the possible, then the possible doesn’t come into existence. We are creators. You could argue that the real Truth revealed in the claim that we are made in God’s image, is that we are creators. We ceaselessly create, continuously solving problems, inventing, making objects, expressing ourselves through stories and through art. If you stop to think about it, you’ll realise that there aren’t two kinds of people – those who are creative and those who are not. We are all creative. It’s an inescapable part of our make-up. The differences come in what we choose to do with that creativity and how we choose to manifest it.
Is it possible to achieve anything in life without having goals? And what are goals other than our imaging the possible? How do we grow without imagination? How could we change anything about lives without imagination?

To see the impossible
Imagination allows us to something else pretty amazing. It not only allows us to see the invisible and to make the possible probable, but it allows us to envisage the impossible too. In magic, fantasy and science fiction, we encounter the impossible and take it on board as if it were real. We can immerse ourselves in such stories and change our perspectives so that the boundaries between the possible and the impossible shift. Before the invention of aeroplanes, for example, anyone who imagined human beings could fly was imagining the impossible. Without imagination, this would never have turned into the possible, and further from the possible into the actual.

How imagination changes the world
Look at this –


The surrealists were masters at provoking us to think about reality. Here, Magrite doesn’t just make us stop and think, “Well if it isn’t a pipe what is it? Oh, a drawing of a pipe!” He gives us the experience of creating reality through representation. He teaches us something profoundly important about the creative nature of perception and reality. We have a fabulous ability to create symbols and metaphors, both of which would be impossible without the imagination. This ability profoundly enriches our lives. It changes, what Robert Solomon would call a “thin” experience into a “thick” one. Here’s an example. Imagine someone buys a pottery mug. It’s just a mug. Maybe they associate the colour or the shape of it with some other mug they once handled, but maybe not. However, if this particular mug is a gift given to his loved one, and if later they sit together happily drinking from this very mug, lovingly sharing the one cup, then, at some other time, the person who bought the mug finds that it isn’t just a mug anymore. He can imagine his lover’s lips parting as she drinks from it. He can imagine her delicate fingers and her soft hands as she cups them around it. He now experiences that very same mug quite differently. In fact, using his imagination he can even do that when the actual mug is nowhere to be seen, just by calling it up in his mind.
Our living with objects, our experiencing and sharing the world with others, involves our imagination. Our imagination enables us to see the invisible connections. John Berger describes this beautifully by giving the example of the constellations. He says we look up at the stars scattered apparently randomly over the night sky and see invisible lines connecting some of them to each other to make constellations. The invisible lines are created and revealed through stories. We learn the stories of the stars and that allows us to name the constellations.
We change the world through the stories we create about it.

The danger of imagination
Imagination is a bit like passion. It’s a good thing, but not always. There’s a paradox in imagination, just like there’s a paradox in passion. Our imagination allows us to imagine death, disease, and all kinds of threats and dangers. Sometimes our minds get stuck on what we’ve been imagining, so that death, or cancer, or being robbed, or whatever, becomes the most important possibility in our lives and we make all of our choices in the light of that. This can really limit our lives. We can become paralysed by the fear which is the consequence of what we imagine.
And there’s another way in which imagination can be dangerous. Too much imagination can detach us from the real world. Mental illnesses which involve hallucinations and delusions, psychotic illnesses, are distressing and dangerous not only to the person who is suffering, but potentially to others too. We treat, by suppression, the diseases of the imagination. Of course, whether or not they are actually diseases, depends on a cultural, a social understanding. In some cultures a particular experience might be described as a spiritual one, whilst in another it would be interpreted as a sign of disease. Within the particular cultural contexts however too much imagination, or particular uses of the imagination can produce suffering.

Nurturing imagination
How can you improve your faculty of imagination to become more creative, and to experience a richer life? Through play, through art and through stories. Think of the rich imaginative world of children and how that is both manifested and nurtured through encouraging creative play. Childhood doesn’t last very long, and one of the forces which brings it to an end is anti-play. We insist that they become more serious, taking that as a sign of maturity. We replace play with work and responsibilities. In so doing, there’s a danger we inhibit the development of the imagination.
Art, in all its forms, is a way of activating and nurturing the imagination. Both the experience of art, and the creation of art. Experiencing art can profoundly provoke the imagination, whether we are looking at a painting in a gallery, listening to a performance in a concert or witnessing a play or an opera.
We create a sense of self through the stories we tell ourselves and others. Stories can provoke our imaginations and help us to not only have a rich, meaning-full life, but which can change the reality of our world.

In all their forms, play, art and stories, can stimulate and develop our ability to imagine, and consequently, to develop our capacity to see the invisible, the possible and even the impossible.

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To engage wholeheartedly, to be passionate about, absorbed in, immersed in activities

passionate red

Animate. Animation. Animal. Those words all share a common root – “anima”. Anima means “the life principle” or the “soul”, amongst other things. What is this “life principle”, this “soul”? Well, whatever your beliefs, I think you’ll agree that you instinctively know about “soul”. For example, most of us know soul music when we hear it. In fact, most of us know when any song is sung with “soul”. It’s something akin to passion isn’t it? It’s a song sung wholeheartedly, powerfully, movingly.

What does it mean to “animate”? It means to make it move, doesn’t it? A computer animation creates moving images, moving images which make the objects or characters seem alive. There is something very important here. One of the key characteristics of a living organism is one of movement. Think of the beating of your heart, the flow of air in and out of your lungs, the constant activity of all the organs of your body. When all that movement ceases, life has ended.

This constant movement can be thought of as some kind of flow. In some countries there is a concept known as “Chi” – in fact, acupuncture is a therapy which claims to be able to influence the flow of this mysterious “chi”. However, in all cultures, I think, we experience this “flow” as energy. This energy we experience is quite a mysterious phenomenon. Think of a scale of 0 to 10 where 0 is the lowest energy you can imagine experiencing and 10 is the greatest energy you can imagine. Where are you right now on that scale? The vast majority of people can answer that in an instant. You don’t need time to figure it out. We do it intuitively and holistically. We can break it down though. What about mental energy? Or physical energy? Or emotional energy? Many people are able to report quite different figures for each of those “energies” in the same moment. I don’t understand exactly how we make those assessments but I’m pretty sure we’re becoming aware of the “flows” inside and that’s what we’re reporting.


The psychologist Csikszentmihalyi has conducted a lot of research on the mental characteristics of this “flow”. He describes a flow experience (by which he means something optimal) as being when you are in the process of achieving a challenge you’ve set yourself. Reaching the top of a mountain you are climbing would be one example, playing a challenging piece of music on an instrument would be another. Both the physical and the psychological senses of flow can be understood as passion. When we are passionate about something, we can be totally absorbed by it, we can lose ourselves in it; we feel energised, buzzing, our hearts beat faster, our breath quickens. This feeling of passion is a basic need. It’s the need to feel, and to know, that we are alive.

But passion at its fullest is neither good nor bad, at least, not in a moral sense. Think of the French “crime of passion” verdict for example. It’s almost a kind of insanity, where the passions have overwhelmed the reasoning mind. Spiritual practices have traditionally aimed at teaching people how to manage or to control these “passions”.

But not all passion is this kind of an overwhelming phenomenon. It’s not always so dramatic. An aspect of passion is wholeheartedness – to do whatever it is that you are doing wholeheartedly, with commitment and attention and focus. All such activities which stimulate your passion in this sense, are absorbing. These are times when time itself flies past, where you feel temporarily out of the world and totally into your own world. On the other hand they can feel like transcendent experiences where you are so in the flow that you lose that sense of boundaries, of the margins between you and other or between you and the world, where you step into the full flowing river and you feel like you become that river.

in the flow

We need passion in life.

We need passion to feel alive.

The more you engage with life wholeheartedly, the more you will feel in the flow. The more you are passionate about something or someone, the more significant and important that activity or person will be for you.

Perhaps passion is not a simple good but without passion, or flow, how do you know you’re alive?

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To understand, to make sense of

We are meaning seeking, meaning creating creatures. We are constantly trying to make sense of our experiences, to understand our lives, our selves and others. We are always on the lookout for patterns, connections between events and experiences, for explanations.

The physical world

Let’s consider this from the perspective of evolutionary biology and from the science of complex systems. Look at the qualities and the characteristics of increasingly complex organisms. Think of the flow of life from the relatively simple to human beings, the most complex organisms in the world. From single cell creatures such as bacteria and viruses, through plants with their astonishing diversity and rich patterns and lifestyles, to animals which have developed high degrees of cellular differentiation, developing tissues, organs and whole body systems, to the animals with a nervous system and a brain, to, ultimately (so far!), the rich complexity of the human mind and body. At each stage of complexity we see the emergence of new and unique characteristics and abilities, not shared with simpler organisms, so by the time we consider the human being, we see the emergence of consciousness, of memory and imagination, with the capacity to develop language, to be able to create and handle metaphors, enabling us to communicate, to see patterns, to collaborate and connect and to develop deep and rich levels of understanding. It’s quite something. And we need this ability to make sense of things because these characteristics of consciousness, memory and imagination make us acutely aware of a number of problems. We become aware of our own mortality. We can imagine not existing any more. And that’s scary. We need some way to handle that, to understand it. And we become aware of the essential paradox which everyone has to wrestle with – that we need to know that we are unique, separate and individual but that at the same time we are connected, we share and we belong. Those two issues – the awareness of mortality and the awareness of the paradox of separateness and belonging – are at the heart of much distress and pain. Making sense of these issues and the effects of these issues in our lives goes a long way to making life a better life.

The relationship world

Let’s consider it now from the perspective of narrative. Richard Kearney, in his “On Stories”, says a lot about how we use stories to understand our lives, our selves and others. He says “Every life is in search of a narrative. We all seek, willy-nilly, to introduce some kind of concord into the everyday discord”. And Robert Coles in “The Call of Stories”, says of doctors, that “The people who come to see us bring us their stories. They hope they tell them well enough so that we understand the truth of their lives. They hope we know how to interpret their stories correctly. We have to remember that what we hear is their story.” Stories need an author and a reader, a teller and a listener. Stories are a shared activity. They are the way we create understanding and meaning together. Karen Armstrong in “A Short History of Myth” shows very clearly how certain kinds of stories are powerful tools for making sense of the deep paradoxes of life. Owen Flanagan in his “Really Hard Problem” puts forward a fascinating concept of “spaces of meaning” and shows how because we all have our own unique perspectives on the world that we create shared understandings by entering into “spaces of meaning” with each other. In a much simpler and more artistic way, Saint-Exupery makes the same point in his “Little Prince” who shows us how we all live on different worlds (when was the last time you said to someone “What planet are you on?!”) and that what connects us are our stories (and love!)

The spiritual world

Spiritual in the sense of that feeling of being connected to something greater than ourselves, or that sense of purpose and meaning in life. The spiritual way of looking at life is about taking a larger perspective, seeing ourselves in the flow of life, of history, of a planet circling a sun in a vast universe. Spiritual practices can be about experiences, experiences of transcendence for example, but they are also fundamentally practices of meaning creation. We understand, we make sense of, we create meaning through our values, our attitudes, our beliefs, our attractions and repulsions. Spiritual practice can be amongst the most powerful ways of understanding life.

Different ways of understanding

There are different ways to understand. The physical way can be seen in science which, as Deleuze says, is a way of thinking about function, a way of trying to understand how things work. The relationship way is seen in storytelling and in philosophy, and that leads to the third way, the spiritual, which is a way of understanding the connectedness to that which is greater than the self. There is no one right way. We really all are unique. Our views, our memories, our consciousness are all unique and individual. But we are also connected. We share environments, we collaborate, we compete, we form and break relationships. We share. What we all do is try to make sense of our lives, of the world and of our daily reality. We need to understand, to see patterns, to grasp that reality. When we don’t do that, we feel scared, confused, alone. We are meaning seeking, meaning creating animals. Nihilistic thought, randomness, chance and powerlessness can be overwhelming, can become unbearable, closing doors, squeezing out hope and leaving us lonely and in pain. Why me? What have I done to deserve this? What’s happening? What’s going to happen? We’re full of questions, and always seeking answers. We do that by using our ability to understand.

But we mustn’t forget that our understanding is always unique and personal, and the we need to negotiate, in our spaces of meaning, to create our communal visions, our shared purposes. With understanding comes humility, a humility which should prompt us to ask others What sense do you make of this? What does it mean to you?

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To love and be loved

Do I need a randomised controlled trial to prove that love is an important part of a good life?

Can science show me the Truth about the value and importance of love?

I don’t think so.

I think a poem will be more convincing.

Late Fragment. (by Raymond Carver)

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.

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What makes life a “good” life?

This seems such an easy question to answer…….until you start to try and answer it! In fact, it’s puzzled philosophers and other thinkers for centuries. You can read the views of Confucius, Seneca, Aristotle…..and on down the line of Eastern and Western philosophers, and then there is the whole body of religious and spiritual teaching through the ages.

One clear thread that runs through most of the literature on the subject includes some consideration of “eudaimonia” – what is often translated as “happiness”, but which is, I think, more usefully translated as “flourishing”.

My daily work as a doctor is about not only trying to help patients to suffer less, but also trying to help them to “flourish”. That, naturally, leads me to read a lot about this subject, and to think a lot about it too.

I’m not claiming I’ve got new insights, or even to have nailed this issue down, but I have reached the point of achieving some clarity about it which I’d like to share.

Here’s what I think. A good life doesn’t just happen. It’s an active process. It involves individual choices and what constitutes a good life for one person would not necessarily be a good one for someone else. It’s a dynamic, constantly changing phenomenon. Like life itself.

And it’s a creative process. We create the flourishing in our own lives. That’s not to say that others have no part to play, or that events outside of our control don’t have an impact. Of course they do. But as Viktor Frankl and William Glasser, amongst others, have said, what’s important is how you respond to the situations you find yourself in. You can’t always choose the situations but you do have some choice about your responses and your next actions.

Here’s one way to think about it. If it’s a creative process then what do you need on your palette? What paints do you need to create your good life?

The GOOD Life – the palette

  • Love
  • Understanding
  • Passion
  • Imagination
  • In the amazing here and now.

The GOOD life – a summary

To love and be loved

To understand, to make sense of our lives

To engage wholeheartedly, to be passionate about, absorbed in, immersed in activities

To imagine actively, creating, expressing, dreaming and playing

All within the context of the daily reality, finding much to marvel at, to be amazed by, to be in awe of, in the present, in the here and the now

I’ll post about each of these in turn, but this is my key, these are my elements, my building blocks, the colours on my palette from which to create my experience of a good life.

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