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Most people are trying to shape their lives amid more uncertainty than they can handle: co-creative skills make this easier. It’s about finding solutions with other people’s needs, with apparent obstacles, with uncertainty, balancing them with your own needs and hopes. This is the fourth, central principle in my Seven Seeds of Natural Happiness, and it will help you with all of them.

I moved straight from directing a large business to starting an organic farm. It was a massive shock. An organic farmer’s work is like driving a tractor without a steering wheel: he or she can’t make anything happen. It’s a continuous juggle between the realities of the weather, the soil, and what you’d like to achieve. Magdalen Farm was my biggest teacher of co-creative ways.

You probably know the idea of fight or flight: the co-creative approach is a third way: I call it dancing with the problem, or listening for alternatives. When I teach co-creative approaches, people like the idea, but find it elusive in practice. Here are some guiding principles:

  • Use and explore tensions constructively: for example, between your wishes, and the realities. Learn to live with conflicts and use the stress to move you forward.
  • Harness all the wisdom available: for example, by some form of dialogue with the apparent problem, whether that’s a person or a situation.
  • Find ways to integrate both analytical, logical skills, and your intuition. The Diamond Process is one way to do this, see link below.
  • Give the whole process time: in particular, relaxing, letting go of the issue consciously, so that your subconscious has space to contribute.
  • Access wider sources of insight: including other people and the natural world.

Tension and uncertainty often provoke a fight-or-flight response, an urge to find a quick solution or walk away. The co-creative response to tension or a setback is to relax into it and explore it. There are many ways to do this: deep, relaxed breathing is a good one to try. Review your own needs, feelings, ideas. Switch to exploring those of the obstacle or the person who seems to be blocking you.

One way of developing co-creativity is through harnessing the left and right sides of the brain. The talents of the left side include logic, reasoning, the ability to analyse a complex situation. The right side of the brain offers intuition and imagination. While the left brain can dissect a complex situation, break it into smaller parts by analysis, it is the right side that gives us creative vision, the fresh combination of parts to move us forward. The Diamond Process can help you use both sides together: for a detailed description, see this section in Resources on my website.

Play, dance and dream with your problems

All kinds of creativity can help in your co-creative toolkit. Here are a few I can recommend:

  • Fun: Use play and humour to get new insights. Where’s the funny side in the situation? How would Spitting Image depict it?
  • Reality shift: If your problem is someone you find difficult and scary, change perspective. Imagine waltzing with them and having a cosy chat. Or picture them with a long warty nose: they won’t seem so scary.
  • Reverse thrust: Ask yourself the question, and even brainstorm, how to achieve the opposite of the intended outcome. For example, ‘how could I make this hospital as unwelcoming to patients as possible?’ Reversing the ideas generated should yield some fresh approaches to the desired goal.
  • Role playing: Imagine the positions of various people involved with a situation, and then play each role in turn, imagining what constructive solutions each of them would suggest. You can use this also to represent different aspects of yourself: for example, your ambitious aspect, your inner critic, and so on.

How Nature helps co-creativity

Nature contact is a crucial antidote to screen time, which sucks up our attention and seriously limits our creativity. Your Brain on Nature is a book by two doctors at Harvard Medical School which gathers extensive research evidence on the problems of screen world, and how Nature can offset them. Directed Attention Fatigue (DAF) describes the mental drain and stress which arise from a sustained effort of giving our attention to a task or situation. Imagine how often your attention is distracted by new information from text messages, emails and so on.

A common way to cope with complexity is to simplify, to polarise it into two apparently opposed positions. Even my co-creative material risks suggesting that you need to resolve tension between just two positions: your wishes, and the situation you face. However, we ourselves may have various, conflicting opinions and feelings. The situation, or the other people, may well be complex too. Plus, there’s fake news, and social media confusing the picture and trying to manipulate us for profit.

Consider your experience of gardens: they are dynamic, living ecosystems which need to be considered from a variety of viewpoints. And a gardener needs to engage a range of energies (physical, emotional, mental, inspirational), and skills to handle this complexity: such as observation, patience and intuition.

Another way that the garden metaphor can help us here is with the idea of listening for insights from non-human sources. Tuning in to hear the ‘voice’ of your garden, of a tree, of a vegetable bed, is important to many gardeners. I use this method with all my work: listening to insights from the ‘voice’ of a work team, a project, a problem.

I hope that you enjoy applying co-creative skills to your problem situations: see this as an invitation to dance, play, and imagine!

This is adapted from Chapter 4 of Alan’s planned book, Natural Happiness: the Gardener’s Way.