Are We in a Crisis of Imagination?

A South African friend of mine, Toby, recently raised a concern while we shared a cup of tea in his front garden. “I find myself continually thinking I’m missing something,” he confided. “Like there is something more I should be doing to help contribute to a better way of life for my community. I’m a very artistic person but I feel like my imagination is blocked. How can I learn to become more creative? How can I learn to problem solve better? I feel like I’m in a crisis of imagination.”

Many organizations have approached me with similar questions. Cultivating creativity and creative problem-solving is a great intention. The problem is in how most people go about it.

Clearly, a lot is changing in our global world and technological advancements are occurring at an exponential rate. Much of what we currently know, as well as our usual way of going about things, simply no longer works or holds true. But how exactly do we move beyond what we know, and the limited possibilities we have been given, in order to create something new? Like Albert Einstein famously said, “we cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking that created them.”

In my experience, the key to approaching problems creatively is actually not to think our way through them at all, but rather to learn how to feel our way into them.

I always strive to be a humble student of nature and of animals. What I notice is that animals in nature are constantly navigating a world of chaotic change and evolving in harmony along with it, whether it’s changing weather conditions, changing food and water resources, or unexpected fence lines and human structures. Animals have a way of maintaining a connection to their own needs and desires and they do this not by coming up with complex intellectual ideas or theories but by following an instinctual language of feeling.

Nowhere is this more dramatically illustrated than in stories of natural disasters like tsunamis. Far before people realize what is going on, the animals in that area sense something, sometimes hours or days before the actual event, and intuitively move to a new location to meet their need for safety. How did they know what was coming? They didn’t have technological monitoring systems or public warnings. They were simply listening to their environment and responding to the feelings it created in them.  

Have you ever craved a certain food and discovered later that your body was finding a way to balance its internal chemistry? Or were drawn to talk to a particular person at a dinner party and discovered that their area of expertise was in the exact subject you had recently become curious about? These are small examples of how the language of feeling can show up and guide us in our daily lives. This is precisely the dialogue animals are naturally engaged in moment to moment and rely on to navigate their environment.

As I reflected on Toby’s struggle, I thought it might be helpful for him to get more specific. “What is the feeling that you’re wanting to change?” I asked him.

“I don’t like this feeling of inequality,” he shared. “It seems to be a part of South African culture, but it feels wrong. Everyone I know wants to change it, but we don’t know what to do. I live a privileged life and yet there are so many people around me who don’t have access to the same opportunities or resources that I have. Take for example the people who help me care for my home and children. I want to remedy that somehow, but I don’t know what to do or where to start.”

I reflected back to Toby that it sounded like he had been trying to tackle the problem logically with his thinking mind, but that it might be helpful to approach it instead through a feeling state. “I think that what you are really seeking is to feel a sense of connection to those around you and to feel a sense of equality between yourself and others regardless of their financial, educational, or culture background.”  

“Yes!” Toby said. “That’s exactly it.”

I asked him for the time being to forget about trying to think up a solution. I’m not saying that addressing inequality doesn’t also require systemic structural approaches or tangible interventions, but I believe they are much more powerful when generated out of a state of deep connection and kinship, rather than guilt and disconnection.

“Let’s focus on cultivating how you can personally engage with others in order to foster a feeling of equality and connection in your relationships,” I offered.

“Sounds great, but how do I do that?”

“Well, when do you feel connected to others in your life?” I asked.

“I guess I feel connected when I am just talking to them and not stressing out about it. Like talking with you now, I feel connected and curious.”

“Great. So maybe when you see the people who work in your home, slow down and notice what feelings come up, maybe guilt or disconnection. Instead of letting those create a barrier between you, approach the person and engage them in conversation. Ask about their life or family or interests, just like you do with me. Maybe you invite them to sit with you and enjoy a cup of tea and make an effort to share about yourself, too. Of course not everything will cultivate a feeling of closeness, but you won’t know what works until you try.”  

Toby liked these ideas and promised to give them a try.

It has been my experience, in my own life and in working with others, that the more we can cultivate new feeling states, the more we create room for new insights and creative ideas to rise naturally to the surface of our consciousness. This is the intelligence of the heart, which in my opinion far surpasses the intelligence of our logical thinking minds!

I’m curious what it is you might yearn to feel. What feeling state do you long to cultivate in your life?

I want to share an exercise that I have found helpful. Once you identify a specific feeling— such as belonging, acceptance, safety, joy, connection— imagine it in your mind and allow yourself to turn your full attention to the subtle sensations that the feeling evokes in your body. What does joy feel like inside of you? Does it evoke a lightness and generosity of spirit? Does it feel like floating or expanding? Mapping these subtle feeling states are key to tracking your way forward into the unknown. As you engage with the world, notice what activities, people and thoughts bring you closer to this feeling and what takes you further away. As you consciously track your relationship to the feeling, you might be amazed to discover what new ways of seeing begin to reveal themselves to you.

I checked in with Toby a few weeks after our conversation. He had embraced the activities we discussed and reported feeling more connected to the people who worked in his home. He took time to engage them in conversation and even took his children to visit their nanny at her home in a nearby village. She shared photos of her family with him and he was able to learn more about her life and story that he hadn’t previously known. Now, instead of just being someone who works for him, he feels a greater kinship and connection between them, grounded in their shared humanity. He may not have solved structural inequality in South Africa, but if we could all feel our way into that state of kinship, I wonder just how differently our world would look and what new solutions to old problems might suddenly present themselves.