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July 4th 2002 text download this article
Bringing Research
to Life

From survival and recovery
to flourishing
a residential co-operative inquiry

The Ardèche, France May 1998
text text


High in the sky a short-toed eagle floats effortlessly, as though the silence thickened the air and made flight easier. Under the stone archway bathed in early morning sunshine, two women weave a garland for a birthday celebration.

000 In the hills nearby are etched the corrugations of terracing that once carried the almond and olive orchards of a self-sufficient and still hidden valley. Mulberry trees, the green debris of a once thriving silk industry nestle against stone walls.

000 Beneath us and around us is the land, ancient, prolific with the ruthless mysteries of life. By night a land under the silent gaze of the Milky Way, wearing a silence the colour of bullfrogs, distant dog fights; wild boars digging for roots and nightingales. By the bright light of day, a land sown, tended and harvested by countless generations.

000 In a few minutes, honey from the surrounding hillsides, coffee and fresh baguettes and butter and spill out onto the table courtesy of the breakfast crew.

000 Gradually the scene accumulates eight, then nine, then ten people as the long distance runner returns from her exertions and the naturalist puts away his binoculars.

000 We eat.

000 We are gathered to carry out research. Action research. Participatory research. Co-operative Inquiry. Research with people not research on people.

000 That this land has been lived with for a least 300 centuries, frames our task in ways that keep us close to our research topic. This is a Co-operative Inquiry into Human Flourishing. What does it mean to flourish? Is it an impossible dream? And especially, what does flourishing mean for those of us with some experience of psycho-practice. As our brochure for the event put it, 'what if, for all their value, mainstream therapy and counselling proved irrelevant and even an obstacle to moving on from survival and recovery into flourishing - creating the life you want'.

000 If there is such therapeutic mindset is it not likely to be be fed by conventional research methods. and their illness-based medical antecedents? To find out seems to require that we break '.....the ancient mould, still upheld by the majority of researchers today that only an expert elite know how to acquire real knowledge, and how to apply it. (Heron 1996). Co-operative Inquiry provides a way of contradicting, even supplanting, the top down way that knowledge is commonly generated and shared. It can even provide a forum where, as in this event, both clients and practitioners can participate. This matters because, participation is a essential political process.

000 (Participation) honours the basic right of people to have a say in forms of decision-making.....institutions need to enhance human association by an appropriate balance of the principles of hierarchy, collaboration and autonomy, deciding for others, with others and for oneself....... The challenge is to design institutions which manifest valid forms of these principles and to find ways in which they can be maintained in self-correcting and creative tension (Heron, 1989,1993a) (from Heron & Reason 1995)

000 Co-operative Inquiry is such an institution, it provides a way of doing research into the human condition that incorporates what we know about feeling and emotion and the exercise of power; and that challenges the belief that domination, and particularly male domination, commonly expressed through over-valued intellect, is 'natural' and inevitable. But I am getting ahead of myself.

000 I have been describing a nine day residential event with a total of ten people housed in Mas Marguerite, a large sixteenth century farmhouse in the Ardèche départment of France, about 6o miles north of Avignon. Despite its remoteness, it is a surprisingly accessible venue, high speed trains through France mean that you can leave London (or Brussels or Barcelona) at breakfast time and be in these foothills of the Massif Central by late afternoon.

000 In the library, the sun streams in, drawing a bright patch on the carpet. At the other end of the room D. sits, his hands dancing over the keys of the piano. As he plays, the soft rhythmic pulse of the blues reaches out to a handful of listeners.

000 In the kitchen, a huge square stone-floored room, stands C. giving instructions to one of the lunch team. Or rather struggling out of giggling failure, to find the words for instructions and commands, from a mind more familiar with deference and pussy-footing.

000 Leaning over a table over-flowing with the purple thread and fragments of cloth of an appliqué picture, B. is practicing ruthlessness. Ruthlessly not anticipating other people's sensitivities, ruthlessly contradicting her belief that the world expects her to takes care of them, to be available. Ruthlessly doing what she likes.

000 Upstairs S. clicks away at her Powerbook computer, 'From time to time along the road, animal or bird bodies were strung up on overhanging boughs; these were the work of hunters who hunted as their forefathers had always done, with bow and arrow, trap and snare and these over-hanging boughs were their refrigerator, show window and advertising leaflet'. The stone-age African scenes of her first short story brought to life under the ancient black oak beams of the room under the roof.

000 Co-operative Inquiry rests on a participative view of the world, a world not of separate things but of relationships which we co-author. (Heron & Reason 1995)

000 Annie Spencer my co-initiator and I have a long and varied experience of co-operative inquiry. As initiators , both of us have long sought a way of approaching what it means to be human that would allows us to articulate and bring into being the spiritual, the transpersonal and the political, (including the ecological) We want to be able to do this in ways that are congruent with, and incorporate, the emotional, transmutational and body work necessary for well-grounded action.

000 Flourishing is a metaphor that provides a promising start for this task. It seems to carry enough of the qualities of well-rootedness and environmental rapport to keep the project earthed particularly if both individal and community are kept in the flourishing focus.

000 In a secondary but relevant way it challenges the restrictiveness and ineffectiveness of 'mainstream' therapies that support recovery and survival but provide poorly, or not at all, for flourishing or thriving. Most therapeutic modes, spell-bound by the medical 'illness' model, take clients to the threshold of flourishing and then make great play of 'ending', leaving clients sadder possibly, wiser hopefully, poorer certainly.

000 In this inquiry, (and the annual events that I hope will follow it), we delineated and explored this new territory of flourishing, honouring the problem-solving of survival and recovery but seeking to move on from them to 'creating', creating the life we want.

000 This particular inquiry was unique in its combination of an awareness of the importance of power in human flourishing and support (and challenge) for the flourishing theme itself from its setting-kilometres of wilderness, populated by wild boars and richly carpeted with dozens of varieties of wild flowers.

000 How can I flourish as an individual? How can a community flourish? Is flourishing a mode of being with its own identifiable character, plus theory and practice?

000 The variety of Co-operative Inquiry that Annie Spencer and I introduced to pursue these questions has two easily learned components; an inquiry cycle and running parallel, a set of validity checks.

000 The inquiry cycle begins with propositions that enable flourishing, our chosen theme, to be looked at. These range from the generic 'whoever takes on the task of cooking gets to decide what is cooked', to the particular, 'wine is OK with the evening meal but not before then'.

000 These lead to actions which test, shed light on, raise awareness of, these propositions. For example, some participants prepare and present meals.

000 A third, review phase evaluates these actions and the propositions that precede them. We reviewed the timing and presentation of the meals and how well they met our needs, and out of this review modified the original proposition a little before putting it into action again.

00 Parallel to this inquiry cycle, which can be both macro and micro in form and short or long in time scale, is the second component, a series of validity checks through which the participants can keep the inquiry on track. Is there enough variety in what we are doing? Are we making enough sense? Are we meeting our needs as inquirers? Has everyone internalised the inquiry method? Has there been enough chaos? What might we be avoiding? Is distress due to the topic or process interfering with the inquiry?

000 Intrinsic to CI is an awareness of power in human relations. Deference to real or imagined authority and letting others set priorities runs very deep in us. How we perceive, experience and deploy our own power can be a window into what enhances or inhibits our flourishing.

000 In this CI as in others, as the co-operative basis for it sank in, that it was co-operative, several people felt very unsettled, frustrated, impatient and uncertain. As initiators should we have done more to ease the transition from leading to co-operation? Perhaps, but as the group learned the inquiry method and began to apply it, everyone seemed to find their feet. A turning point came with the decision, after characteristically awkward negotiations, on how we would co-operatively make decisions. Following the dissolution of our role as leaders/initiators, we began to sink into the rich and often chaotic mix of self-direction and negotiation and community participation that characterises CI.

000 How did the Inquiry compare with my expectations?

000 I felt I flourished through it, I had the idea for it and promoted it for twelve months, it came in on budget and participants found that it strongly supported their individual flourishing

000 One of the things that quickly became clear to me was that I couldn't directly know much about what other people in the inquiry were up to. I found that I had a deep connection with three or four other people around their individual flourishing issues but little sense of what other people where actually doing.

000 This bothered me for a little while. As the days passed I began to see several strands of activity. Yes, there was intense and sometime very highly charged individual inquiring going on and this was complemented by the community inquiry, grounded initially in how to manage the household and moving on to looking at how a community can flourish.

000 Was this enough? I had an appetite then and still as I write, for wider, deeper, more grand realisations about flourishing and the CI could be criticised I feel, for perhaps not being convergent enough, for not making enough sense of its deliberations. But is this true? I went back to my notes and gathered the headlines of what seemed to be, or point to, the fruits of our inquiry, or at the time, seemed worth recording. These tell a different story.

000 Here are a selection of them A few are my own, most are gathered from our reviews and discussions and dinner conversations.

  • flourishing requires participation in community.

  • flourishing is fun

  • flourishing involves creating something that doesn't exist - order - relationship -- connection

  • flourishing requires that we (occasionally) dance chaos thoroughly

  • flourishing means recovering lost intentions

  • flourishing is undermined by fear

  • flourishing is about identifying, owning and naming our inner inklings

  • flourishing implies ruthless focus

  • flourishing requires courage. It is being yourself in the moment and going for what you want with your whole beings all the time using your will to be alive. To regain your joy over and over again, however dire the circumstances

  • flourishing is about taking care over whether, and how, we name our experiences

  • flourishing is about grounding your dream

  • flourishing depends on an ability to dance between distinctness and whole-hearted participation.

  • pre-requisites for flourishing include preparation, rooting, support, opportunity, climate, good psychic weather, nourishment

  • flourishing is a value, a direction in life, an orientation, a myth to live by

  • flourishing may be expected to be intermittent

  • when we see others flourishing we don't see the rest of the iceberg of life and preparation or the courage or the origins that precede it.

  • flourishing arises in a life that is awarely created

  • the grain of our flourishing may run parallel to, or be congruent with early learning, or maybe in a different direction altogether, even in a different psychic universe

  • flourishing may not apply to all, or even much of life, but it reminds me of the possibility that I can extend flourishing to more and more of my life

  • flourishing is dancing on the edge of precipices

  • flourishing is hopping about

  • flourishing is daring to be different

  • flourishing is knowing what I want and seeing who congregates around it.

  • flourishing requires planning, the minimum needed to take us forward to the next choice point.

  • flourishing is a cyclic process. The iris bulb, invisible in the bog, becomes the flower we see, and the scattered seed, following which it shrinks back into its bulb. If we are connected to this flourishing cycle then we won't despair at being in the dark quiescent part of the cycle.

  • life lived as an inquiry would really loosen up life.

00 So much for my feeling that we were not making enough sense of what we were doing.

000 One of the items on this list says that flourishing requires that we take care with whether, and how, we name our experiences. I want to conclude with an example of this from the Ardeche.

000 I have never much fancied long distance walking, so choosing to join a three hour walk across the hilly wilderness of shrub oak and box tree to meet the rest of the group for an evening meal felt quite risky for me. It produced an example of how naming and/or framing experience affects flourishing.

000 After more than two hours climbing the trail to the top of a ridge over-looking the next valley, we descended very steeply, to discover that between us and the restaurant was a roaring torrent of storm water. 13.5 cm of rain had accompanied fourteen hours of thunder and lightning two days earlier.

000 We found a concrete ledge over the torrent just wide enough to scramble across only to discover that the road from the bridge to the restaurant was flooded, it had become a shallow river of clear, very cold mountain water. At that point in time, the promise of food and drink did not balance the excruciating pain of walking the three hundred metres on the cold sharp gravel of the flooded road required to reach it.

000 How we name such an event is likely to give to, or detract from, its value. I had begun the walk feeling that it was a test of endurance, the task was to keep going, this perception shifted sharply to one of potential nightmare when the bridge appeared broken, i.e. dusk was falling and we faced a three hour walk back through the forest. The walk through the water was very painful indeed but at least the meal afterwards was amply and deliciously French.

000 That was the experience. As a person co-operatively inquiring into how I flourish, how might I handle this event? What did I bring to it? This is always a point of choice but one that I guess, well greased by habit, I often slip through. As I reflected on it, the feelings of 'near nightmare', 'never again', 'not my kind of thing', were in the foreground. Then as I heard informally how others felt about it, the aversive naming that was becoming installed around the event shifted to a more flourishing description, as I realised that I could call it 'an adventure'.

000 Co-operative inquiry is an adventure too. It starts from the known, the familiar; it is likely to include both pain and delight; it calls for self-confrontation with our pre-dispositions and deficiencies; it may enable us to create new strategies for flourishing in ways we have painted over, or in ways previously unimaginable.

Heron, J. The Facilitators' Handbook London Kogan Page 1989
Heron, J. Group Facilitation: theories and models of practice Kogan Page 1993
Heron, J. Co-operative Inquiry: Research into the Human Condition London Sage 1996
Reason, P., Heron, J. 'Co-operative Inquiry', in J. A. Smith, R. Harre and L. van Langenhove (eds) Rethinking Methods in Pychology London Sage 1995

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