The nature of art

Ducks at Erddig

A teacher friend of mine recently told me a story about a school inspector who when visiting a primary school, found the children copying pictures of ducks out of a book when a duck pond was in full view outside the window. This got me thinking about the importance of art in our lives and how it is influenced by nature.

We tend to think of nature and art as unrelated experiences. One is outside, the other is inside. Yet the way we as humans experience nature and art goes way back to our Neanderthal ancestors and their cave paintings.

Nature has inspired more great works of art than we can imagine.

Whether we are inside an art gallery admiring a colourfully painted landscape or traipsing through woods noticing the way the light filters through the canopy of trees, art gives us a partial understanding of nature and vice versa.

Engaging with art, whether we are viewing it or making it ourselves gives us a visceral experience and this aesthetic emotional experience can be a great way to engage with nature. Imagine if the school children had visited the pond, engaged with the ducks, laughed at their antics, and then used the book as a guide.

Ever since we as humans began to make art, nature has been the dominant theme. It is the palette through which artists reflect on the human experience.

Art is integral to making sense of the natural world. It is also largely inspired by it.

Art and science also go together with art providing the user-friendly translation for many scientific ideas. Scientists can benefit from art.  DaVinci, Galileo and Michelangelo were all visionaries whose art informed science.

My father was a chartered engineer, he designed fire engines. I remember his beautiful paintings of the fire engines as they would look going down the road. His artwork then got more and more intricate as he drew the designs for the engineers to work to and actually build the engines. I still have this picture he painted as a child in school when he had already developed his fascination with vehicles and transport. 

Train Painting

Imagine a child, who, through art, becomes fascinated with something in the natural world and then goes on to study the scientific aspects of the subject.

A picture really can be worth a thousand words.

An environmental project could be overwhelmingly complicated yet sometimes a single image can cut through all the facts and make a person actually feel something - happy, sad, even positively inspired.

An artful interpretation of nature can, and has, inspired some of our greatest actions. And, whether we come to these moments of understanding and virtue by way of art or nature first, it’s in connecting these experiences that we get the greatest benefit.


What we see in others is a reflection of ourselves

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Sitting in A&E with an unwell relative and the prospect of a four-hour wait gave me time for thinking and reflection.

In the packed waiting room my eyes came to rest on a lady who appeared to be drunk but most of the time she sat with her head on her knees not bothering anyone. She was obviously known to the staff and I felt annoyed that she was rudely spoken to by both the hospital and ambulance staff. They made it clear that they felt she was wasting their time.

A man positioned himself by the intercom button. He was probably in his 50s, overweight, and he walked with a stick. He pressed the button. He wanted to know how much longer he had to wait. Told he had at least another two hours to wait he launched into a tirade, “I’m diabetic, I need to be seen quickly. I hope she…” he pointed to the inebriated lady in front of him “...isn’t in front of me. Her condition is self-inflicted”.

I mused on the fact that he obviously didn’t see his own condition as self-inflicted. Overweight and unfit he was fairly typical of someone prone to diabetes.

“Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol or morphine or idealism,” said Carl Jung. We could also add food, or sugar to this quote.

I went to the vending machine and got a coffee and handed it to the lady with a few kind words of support. When the man aggressively said, “I don’t know why you’re helping that drunk – she’s wasting everyone’s time!” I calmly pointed out to him that whilst some people self-harm with alcohol, others self-harm with food, cigarettes, or lack of exercise. “We are all equally wise - and equally foolish - and we must all wait our turn,” I said.

Lost for words he sat down and didn’t utter another word until his name was called to go through.

Carl Jung also said that what annoys us about others is telling us something about ourselves. Perhaps he was annoyed with her because she reminded him of some of his own shortcomings and weaknesses. But then I became aware that I felt annoyed at him for being annoyed with her.

I realised it was time for a little self-reflection. What could I, like the Jung quote says, learn about myself here?

The first thing I realised was that someone who used anger as a way of intimidating people annoyed me. But when I looked deeper I saw that beneath the anger, fuelling it was a fear of being powerless.

I felt empathy for the woman because she was vulnerable and I had felt that way myself before (minus the alcohol) and people like this man had taken advantage because they thought I was weak. I realised that he was someone I would be afraid to stand up to, and, initially, he probably thought that I was weak because I wasn’t calling him out about his behaviour, or maybe, and this worried me more, he thought I agreed with him.

In essence, I was playing out a storyline in my head that didn’t have much to do with the reality of the situation.

The truth was he was probably worried about his blood sugars. Or maybe he was just an aggressive bully. Either way, his behaviour wasn’t a statement about me.

I realised that in all situations we find ourselves in we should try and view what is happening from a less personal place. I decided that from now on I will ask myself, “What is really going on here?” I will check in with my values and decide whether it is a time I should stand up for either myself or for someone else, or whether I should just quietly mind my own business.

My hope is that I can get to a place where if I decide I need to speak up again, I can approach the situation from a calm but firm place, minus any indignation or aggression. If I feel I have a reason not to speak up, I hope I can let the incident go, and move on.

The action I take is less important than the emotional place I am coming from. Either way, I want to remain calm and centred.

Through this process of reflection, seeing what is happening in myself, and letting old storylines drop, I am allowing a triggering situation to be an opportunity for growth.

It can be hard facing up to our own internal demons and we can’t heal overnight. But the benefits are great. I am learning the skill of staying calm in the storm of my emotions.

Image: Fotolia.com


My friend Norman

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I have an invisible friend. His name is Norman. His job is to help me do things I might struggle to do myself. For example, I’m in my car and driving into town. It’s busy and it could be difficult to park. But, I never have any problem getting a parking space because I send Norman ahead and he has a space cleared for me by the time I get there.

One Saturday just before Christmas, as we headed towards a busy car park, I was telling my daughters about Norman. They thought I was mad. I assured them that I had sent Norman ahead and he had saved me a space in the second lane from the end, four spaces down on the right. As we drove up the lane in the car park all the spaces were taken. My daughters laughed and one said “Perhaps it’s because you drive too fast…maybe he walked” and “You’re crazy Mum”. As I got in front of ‘my space’ the lights flashed on the black Range Rover parked there, I reversed, the Range Rover pulled out and the lady driving put her hand up and smiled. I smiled, raised my hand in return, and pulled into the space. “Who on earth was that?” asked my daughter. “Oh, that must be Norman’s wife. He must’ve been held up and asked her to come instead” I said. Inside the car was silent. However, now whenever we are going somewhere they always say “ask Norman where to park”.

Now, what Norman really does is he shuts down the voices in my head that say “It’s too busy!” “I’m never going to be able to park.” “It’s not worth trying.”

Beliefs can influence our actions in a way that makes those beliefs actually come true.

Years ago I owned a horticultural business and I would sell and deliver plants all over the country. I would often take brief directions over the phone, have a quick look at a map, and away I’d go. I thought nothing of driving to the north of Scotland, London, Spaghetti Junction, or anywhere else orders took me.  I very rarely got lost. Whenever anyone asked me how I did it I would tap Puggy’s steering wheel (Puggy was my Peugeot) and say, ”Oh, the car knows its way.”

More recently I was asked to do a seminar at Old Trafford in Manchester. Because it had been a while since I had driven through the city I decided to try using a sat nav. It got me close. I could see the venue but I was stuck in a dead end on the edge of a housing estate. I should have trusted Norman (he was with me of course) when he told me to go right when the sat nav told me to go left.

Norman can help with all sorts of things.

Imagine, for example, you were going for an interview and you sent Norman ahead to tell the interview panel what a great person you are, how good you are at your job, and how worthy you would be of this position. Your feelings of not being good enough would dissipate.

I always know when someone doesn’t have a Norman to smooth the way for them. If someone comes to me to ask for something I can tell whether they think they will get it or not. It might be the way they walk, the way they look around, or their attempt to engage me in useless conversation…

It seems ironic to think that what we’re so afraid of or don’t want can become reality. However, at times our actions function as if they were calling them to happen.

Thank goodness I have Norman to help me.


Why losing control can be a good thing

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I’ve always enjoyed horse riding. When I was younger I particularly enjoyed pony trekking when we would ride all day. In the summer there would often be forty or more of us saddling up and heading into the Berwyn Mountains.

One day, when I was a teenager, there was a shortage of guides. The owner of the farm asked me if I would lead that day’s trek.

“But I won’t be able to remember the way,” I replied, worried about leading all the other riders astray. Although I had ridden it many times before, I had not memorised the route and was afraid of going the wrong way.

“That doesn’t matter,” he said, “The horse knows the way. There will be two points where he will hesitate and when he does, the first time guide him to the left, the second time guide him to the right.”

Sure enough, the horse hesitated at two intersections and I simply guided him the right way.

I often think back to that day and think how easily we can create problems that aren’t there and make life far more complicated than it needs to be.

The great hypnotherapist Milton Erickson once shared a story about a horse that wandered into his family’s yard when he was a young man.

The horse had no identifying marks. Erickson offered to return the horse to its owners. In order to accomplish this, he simply mounted the horse, led it to the road, and let the horse decide which way it wanted to go. He intervened only when the horse left the road to graze or wander into a field. When the horse finally arrived at the yard of a neighbour, several miles down the road, the neighbour asked Erickson, “How did you know that horse came from here and was our horse?”

Erickson said, “I didn’t know- but the horse knew. All I did was keep him on the road.”          From: My Voice Will Go with You: Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson

Erickson became a famous psychotherapist and he liked to tell this story to his students, telling them that therapy was a lot like riding that horse. In beginning a course of therapy it is often helpful to go back to the beginning of the real road. Whatever ideas you have about the best path for your client to take, you stand more chance of success if you tap into the wisdom of the unconscious mind – both the client’s and your own. “You can trust the unconscious,” he used to say. He would encourage his students to let go of their preconceptions – about therapy, about clients, about human nature – and to trust their unconscious mind to come up with creative solutions to their problems.

I’m not saying there isn’t any value in making plans and applying what you know. You have to start somewhere.

But whenever you set out to do something extraordinary, there comes a point where, like Erickson on the horse, you have to choose between trying to control everything – or letting go and getting carried away by something bigger and more powerful than yourself.

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The river of life

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.

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“By the time it came to the edge of the forest, the stream had grown up, so that it was almost a river, and being grown up, it did not run and jump and sparkle along as it used to do when it was younger, but moved more slowly for it now knew where it was going, and it said to itself, “There is no hurry. We shall get there someday”. But all the little streams higher up in the forest went this way and that, quickly, eagerly, having so much to find out before it was too late.” AA Milne. 

At the edge of Big Wood, I stood on the riverbank, gazing down into the water of the Clywedog. Recent rainfall had made it deeper and faster than usual.

A flowing river speaks to me about the journey of life. At its origin, the river is small and insignificant compared to what it is to become. Who would believe looking at the Clywedog now, or the Dee which the Clywedog flows into further on, that their source is a tiny trickle that you could step over?

From its humble origins, the river begins a journey of challenge and excitement. Each drop of water that bubbles forth at its source knows not what lies ahead. But from the moment it emerges, it becomes part of an inevitable, uncontrollable flow that leads it forward. Its whole life lies before it, and it begins a journey that will take it through various stages and directions of its life.

 An individual drop of water cannot flow by itself. For it to flourish and survive it needs other drops of water to join it on its journey. It needs to be fed by rain that falls from the sky. Encounters with other streams allow it to be nourished and grow. Every chance meeting contributes to its growth and maturity as a river. Just as it cannot reach its destiny without receiving from others, it gives as well as takes. It enriches the land and crops; it gives life to fish, amphibians, birds and humans.

Despite its power, kindness and generosity, its flow is not without difficulties. No river ever flows straight to the sea. It meets obstacles, diversions, challenges. Heavy rain might cause it to rush and roar ahead along a narrow channel, a long hot summer might rob it of its resources and take it back to a trickle.

 Its mood alters with its circumstances. There are times for rushing ahead and times for peacefully trickling along just trying to survive.

It meets obstacles – the fallen tree it has to negotiate, or the rockfall that means a change in course.

In its infancy, the river is joyful and dancing, in its adolescence more purposeful. In maturity, it broadens and shares its experience and wisdom.

Its pace slows as it continues its journey to the sea. On meeting, they become one, not just with each other but with all the other rivers and waters on the planet. The warmth of the sun evaporates the water. It gathers in the clouds, is deposited back in the hills, and so the journey of another river begins.

The river gives us a sense of permanence, a feeling of eternity that would outlive our mere fleeting existence. But in its permanence, there is also something temporary. The river is constantly changing, adapting, the molecules of water constantly changing.

The river begins at Source, and returns to Source, unerringly. This happens every single time, without exception.

We are no different.

It is the rivers constant, ever-changing nature that makes it a classic metaphor for all of life’s journeys.  

‘Go with the Flow’ is the foundation of River Philosophy.

You drown not by falling into a river, but by staying submerged in it. Paulo Coelho.

 In the water, the current determines what is needed from us at any given time.  When approaching a rapid, the river demands our attention, forces us to plan our route, to prepare for change and have the physical strength to keep our course.  When the water is still, we are allowed to rest and enjoy the scenery or prepare for the next rapid.  No amount of wishing, fighting, crying or demanding will change the river’s current. We must accept it for what it is, choose our course and do our best.

The river is constantly turning and bending and you never know where it's going to go and where you'll wind up. Following the bend in the river and staying on your own path means that you are on the right track. Don't let anyone deter you from that. Eartha Kitt.

Clywedog


Have faith in yourself

After about three hours climbing Snowdon along the Pyg Track, the coffee and rest at the top were greatly appreciated. I decided to head back down the Miners’ Track but felt that the challenging walk was made even more difficult by the burden of my heavy backpack. Like many things in our lives, it weighed heavily on my shoulders. More than once I wished I’d left it at home as I clambered down the rocks and steep path.

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Yet, as there are two sides to every coin, there were aspects of my burden that I needed. It carried my camera, water for me and the dogs, snacks, and extra clothing. I thought about the amazing photographs I had taken, how much I needed that warm fleece in the bitter cold on the top. No, I would not choose to be without them.

As I plodded down the mountain, the two dogs on their leads in case they ran over a steep edge, I could feel the effects of a tough day on my body and limbs, and it restricted my joints and my gait.

My backpack weighed heavily and my knees and ankles were suffering from the concussive impact of each deliberately placed footstep. My mind turned inwards, focusing on my burdens and pain. Briefly, I would be distracted by the sun catching a distant mountaintop or a small hardy plant and I would get my camera out, but it wouldn’t be long before I was back in the thoughts of my own misery and wishing I wasn’t so far from the car.

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Then, my attention was captured by a noise from behind. There was a sound of laughter and merriment from a group of walkers behind me. Though we were walking the same path there was a vast difference in our mood and manner.

They carried loads which were much heavier than mine and with much greater ease: big backpacks with camping gear and supplies.

Ahead of them ran two dogs agilely jumping down the rocks. As the walkers passed me they talked and laughed as they traversed the trail like mountain goats, leaping from stone to stone. I watched their light, fast movements. They were walkers who were familiar with the path and obviously with carrying heavy loads, so surely there's was an example to follow. I adopted them as my model, let the dogs off their leads and started to replicate their gait. ‘Spring rather than plod. Move lightly’ became my mantra. And the results were rapid. The pains in my knees and ankles began to ease.

Then I let fear resume its grip. What if I went over on my ankle? What if I stepped on a loose rock and fell? What if… In fear, I again slowed my pace, deliberately watching each footfall. As I did so, I felt the full weight of my burden, and the concussion of each firmly planted step brought the pain back into my joints. My dogs, meanwhile, agilely traversed the path like the dogs ahead now that they were free.

The laughter of the walkers ahead drifted up from below. “Surely”, I thought, “My eyes are capable of seeing the path ahead. My legs have supported me well through life so far and know how to move. I just need to feel confident in the abilities I already have. Somehow, reminding myself at a conscious level what I already knew at a deeper level freed my body to move comfortably and lightly. Permitting myself to be in touch with long-held capabilities allowed my feet to travel easier. As I traversed the stumbling blocks of my mind, I moved over the ground with great ease, and the weight of my bag wasn’t so heavy and burdensome. Every now and then I stopped, a little worried again. If I started to worry about falling, I felt myself become tense, and I wasn’t able to move freely. When I reminded myself that what I wanted was well within my capabilities, I felt the worry fall away and my gait became freer.

All I needed was to trust my inner mind to do what it was already capable of doing.

When the burden of life becomes heavier, when it starts crushing our shoulders with all its might, it is time to be stronger! Mehmet Murat Ildan.

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Sometimes a change is all you need

Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken. Warren Buffett.

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If you do what you have always done, you will get what you have always got.

Julie reminded me of the truth of that statement. 

Julie was feeling depressed. She worked in admin in the local hospital and every workday she set her alarm for 7 am. She’d make a pot of tea and would drink two cups every morning followed by a bowl of cornflakes. While she had breakfast her husband would have a shower and then she would shower while he had breakfast. She would leave the house at 8.10 am to drive her Ford Fiesta to work, arriving half an hour early so as to set a good example.

She told me that she had worked in the same hospital in the same department for nearly twenty-five years. She didn’t enjoy her job and was looking forward to her retirement even though it was nine years away. Every lunchtime at 1 pm she would go to the staffroom and eat the cheese sandwiches that she’d brought from home, along with a cup of coffee. She’d leave work at 4 pm and arrive home an hour before her husband. She would cook dinner and he would do the washing up before they settled down to watch television for the rest of the evening.

I asked her about her weekend routine. Julie said that her husband always set the alarm for 7.30 am on Saturdays so that they could have a lie in. After the regulatory pot of tea, and showering, they would go out shopping, always to the same town. In the afternoon they would potter around the house and garden cleaning and catching up with the washing and ironing.

“What about Sundays?” I asked hopefully.

“Oh, we always go out on a Sunday,” she replied. I thought, at last, there might be something interesting that they do.

“Where do you go?” I asked.

“To my husband’s favourite café” she answered. “We have fish and chips and a cup of coffee. It very good value and my husband always says that it saves me cooking.”

I was hardly surprised that Julie felt depressed. She clearly illustrated the principle that if you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got.

We began to explore how she could change her routine and change how she was feeling. Julie felt hesitant, fearful even, which was perfectly natural, for what she had been doing was not only familiar but it also kept her life balanced and stable. Her lifestyle limited the risk of the unexpected but it also limited the possibility of enjoyment.

We started to talk about what small steps she could take to facilitate this change. To start with it was small things like taking a different route home from work, sitting at a different table in the café, or eating different food. Ideas such as trying a different café or town were rejected at first. I later found out that Julie’s husband had been resistant to any change at all and he would become angry at even the smallest change in their routine so at first, it was things that only affected Julie that were changed.

Julie began to look at whether she was really enjoying what she was doing and, if not, how she could do things differently. As she introduced more change into her life so she began to experience more positive emotions. Soon she was meeting friends to try out new coffee shops and go for walks. She stopped watching so much television and had signed up for an evening class plus joined a local wildlife group.

Her husband refused to change his routine at all and he disliked his wife having new ideas and interests. Soon Julie realised that they needed to separate and they did.

Sometimes change can seem difficult and frightening, but Julie learned that making gradual changes at your own pace soon opens up opportunities for new experiences and new possibilities.

She has remarried now and she and her husband have opened an art gallery and café. They regularly travel abroad to unusual places and Julie’s depression is a thing of the past.

Julie adapted the quote at the beginning and printed it to put on her wall. It reads:

If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got, and you’ll always feel what you always felt.

Feb16

My stories about clients and patients are just that – stories. Clients inspire me, but they are not included in my posts.