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Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World

Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World by Joanna R. Macy and Molly Young Brown

I imagine that future generations will look back on this period and call it the time of the “Great Turning.” It is the epochal shift from a self-destructive industrial growth society to a life-sustaining society.

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As Ed Ayers, editor of World Watch, writes in a recent editorial,2 The greatest destruction in our world is not being inflicted by psychopathic tyrants or terrorists. It’s being done by ordinary people—law-abiding, churchgoing, family-loving “moral” people—who are enjoying their sport-utility vehicles, their vacation cruises, and their burgers, and are oblivious to where those pleasures come from and what they really cost. Oblivious not to what those things cost at the store, but to what they cost when all the uncounted effects of their production and use are added up.

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The work presented in this book is a precise antidote to the collective self-deception of our industrial growth society. Helping Joanna to write this book has been a precise antidote to the communal deception of my childhood, and the confusion I have carried from it for most of my life. I am profoundly grateful for the experience.

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Let us borrow the perspective of future generations and, in that larger context of time, look at how this Great Turning is gaining momentum today, through the choices of countless individuals and groups. We can see that it is happening simultaneously in three areas or dimensions that are mutually reinforcing. These are: 1) actions to slow the damage to Earth and its beings; 2) analysis of structural causes and creation of structural alternatives; and 3) a fundamental shift in worldview and values. Many of us are engaged in all three, each of which is necessary to the creation of a sustainable civilization.

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Not waiting for our national or state politicos to catch up with us, we are banding together, taking action in our own communities. The actions that burgeon from our hands and minds may look marginal, but they hold the seeds for the future.

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The second dimension of the Great Turning is equally crucial. To free ourselves and our planet from the damage being inflicted by the Industrial Growth Society, we must understand its dynamics. What are the tacit agreements that create obscene wealth for a few, while progressively impoverishing the rest of humanity? What interlocking causes indenture us to an insatiable economy that uses our larger body, Earth, as supply house and sewer?

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I. “Holding actions” in defense of life on Earth These activities may be the most visible dimension of the Great Turning. They include all the political, legislative, and legal work required to slow down the destruction, as well as direct actions—blockades, boycotts, civil disobedience, and other forms of refusal.

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II. Analysis of structural causes and creation of alternative institutions The second dimension of the Great Turning is equally crucial. To free ourselves and our planet from the damage being inflicted by the Industrial Growth Society, we must understand its dynamics. What are the tacit agreements that create obscene wealth for a few, while progressively impoverishing the rest of humanity? What interlocking causes indenture us to an insatiable economy that uses our larger body, Earth, as supply house and sewer?

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III. Shift in perceptions of reality, both cognitively and spiritually These nascent institutions cannot take root and survive without deeply ingrained values to sustain them. They must mirror what we want and how we relate to Earth and each other. They require, in other words, a profound shift in our perception of reality—and that shift is happening now, both as cognitive revolution and spiritual awakening.

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All honest forecasts are for rough weather ahead. Because the Industrial Growth Society depends on accelerating consumption of resources, it is unsustainable. It cannot last, for the simple reason that it is inexorably and exponentially destroying itself. In system terms, it is on “runaway.” As its distant markets and supplies dry up, and its interlocked financial institutions collapse, the shock waves wash over us all, tumbling us into fear of chaos.

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For many years Americans demonized the Russians and the Communists, and now deprived of those foes, we cast about for new enemies within our own borders on whom to vent our suspicions and anger. We blame illegal immigrants, welfare recipients, jobless and homeless people, and other more or less disenfranchised groups for our troubles. The upsurge of racist and sexist resentments, the recent spates of church burnings and painted swastikas, hate crimes, and diatribes on radio talk shows against gays, feminists, and other “deviant” minorities all evidence an unacknowledged and

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Self-reflexive consciousness, which requires a high degree of integration and differentiation, does not characterize the next holonic level, the level of social systems. Though an “esprit de corps” can be sensed in organizations with strong allegiances, it is too diffuse to register and respond to all the feedback necessary for its survival. The locus of decision-making remains within the individual, susceptible to all the vagaries of what that individual considers to be of self-interest. And our present modes of decision-making seem simply too slow and too corruptible to respond adequately to the survival crisis produced by our Industrial Growth Society and its technologies. Could this very crisis, confronting us as it does with destruction of the bases of complex life forms on Earth, engender a collective level of self-interest in choice-making—in other words, self-reflexivity on the next holonic level? Fearful of fascism, we might well reject any idea of collective consciousness. It is important to remember that genuine, systemic self-organizing requires diversity of parts in spontaneous, unconstricted play. A monolith of uniformity has no internal intelligence. The holonic shift in consciousness would not sacrifice, but instead require, the uniqueness of each part and its point of view. It would begin, almost imperceptibly, with a sense of common fate, and a shared intention to meet it together. It would start to emerge in unexpected behaviors, as individuals in countless settings meet to speak and reflect on what is happening to their lives, their world. It would manifest in an unpredictable array of spontaneous actions, as people step out from their private comforts, giving time and taking risks on behalf of Earth and their brother-sister beings. It would include all the hopes and changes that give reality to each dimension of the Great Turning. And given the dynamics of self-organizing systems, it is likely that as we reflect and act together, we will soon find ourselves responding to the present crisis with far greater confidence and precision than we imagined possible.

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The holonic shift in consciousness would not sacrifice, but instead require, the uniqueness of each part and its point of view. It would begin, almost imperceptibly, with a sense of common fate, and a shared intention to meet it together. It would start to emerge in unexpected behaviors, as individuals in countless settings meet to speak and reflect on what is happening to their lives, their world. It would manifest in an unpredictable array of spontaneous actions, as people step out from their private comforts, giving time and taking risks on behalf of Earth and their brother-sister beings. It would include all the hopes and changes that give reality to each dimension of the Great Turning. And given the dynamics of self-organizing systems, it is likely that as we reflect and act together, we will soon find ourselves responding to the present crisis with far greater confidence and precision than we imagined possible.

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Western psychology has virtually ignored our relationship to the natural world. Our connection to the source of life does not figure in its definition of mental health, nor is our destruction of our life-support system included in its list of pathologies. It has failed to ask Paul Shepard’s rather obvious and haunting question: “Why does society persist in destroying its habitat?” Now the new discipline of ecopsychology addresses this failure and studies the human psyche within the larger systems of which it is a part. It explores how our cultural alienation from nature engenders not only careless and destructive behavior toward our environment, but also many common disorders such as depression and addiction.

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Within Christianity, clerics and theologians alike break through superstructures of dogma to find at the core of their faith a celebratory vision of our true nature and calling, consonant with the latest findings of science. This vision is not new: Nicholas da Cusa, a fifteenth century mathematician and cardinal, perceived God as “an infinite circle, whose circumference is nowhere, and whose center is everywhere.”

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The bodhisattva, the Buddhist hero figure, is one who knows and takes seriously the dependent co-arising of all things. That is why he also knows that there is no private salvation, and that is why she turns back from the gates of nirvana to reenter samsara, the world of suffering, again and again to minister to all beings until each, to every blade of grass, is enlightened. Here is revealed the compassion that blooms naturally when we open to our condition of profound mutuality. Since that condition pertains to us all, whether or not we acknowledge it yet, we are all, in a sense—the Scripture tells us—bodhisattvas.

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These teachings, practices, and images have, like systems theory, inspired and shaped “the work that reconnects” presented in this book. For the Buddha’s core teaching of dependent co-arising, we sometimes use a new word, coined by a Vietnamese Zen master of today. It recalls the term “interexistence” used by some systems theorists to characterize the relationship of open systems, but is less of a mouthful. The word made popular and potent by Thich Nhat Hanh is “interbeing.”

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The body-politic is much like a neural net, as Karl Deutsch asserts. Like the brain, society is a cybernetic system which only functions well with unhampered flows of information. That is how our mind-bodies work. When you put your hand on a hot stove, you rapidly withdraw it, because feedback tells you your fingers are burning. You wouldn’t know that if you began censoring your body’s reports.

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Self-governance requires the free circulation of information necessary to public decision-making. In the present hypertrophied stage of the Industrial Growth Society, however, even governments that call themselves democracies suppress information unwelcome to corporate interests.

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This institutionalized secrecy is understandable in terms of protecting vested interests, but it comes at a high price. For any system that consistently suppresses feedback—closing its perceptions to the results of its behavior—is suicidal.

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Anthropocentrism means human chauvinism. Similar to sexism, but substitute “human race” for man and “all other species” for woman…

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The central purpose of the Work that Reconnects is to help people uncover and experience their innate connections with each other and with the systemic, self-healing powers in the web of life, so that they may be enlivened and motivated to play their part in creating a sustainable civilization.

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These two weapons of the Shambhala warrior represent two essential aspects of the Work that Reconnects. One is the recognition and experience of our pain for the world. The other is the recognition and experience of our radical, empowering interconnectedness with all life.

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Our culture, including mainstream Western psychology, tends to reduce our pain for the world to personal maladjustments. This leads people to suppose that feelings of personal despair must be resolved and eradicated before feelings of social despair can be considered legitimate. “First I’ve got to work through my relationship with my mother…or with my addiction….” The notion that one must find enlightenment, undergo transformation, or get one’s head straight first, before dealing with social despair, keeps many otherwise intelligent people in a state of moral infantilism.

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The work generally unfolds in four successive movements: 1) affirmation; 2) despair work; 3) a perceptual shift; and 4) preparing for action. As we plan and conduct a workshop, we attend to this dynamic flow, and order the group’s activities in ways which invite it. Our awareness and attention to this spiral is more important than the particular methods we employ.

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1. Affirmation: coming from gratitude. To begin with simple, ordinary thankfulness for our existence grounds all the work that will follow. To take time to express our love for life on Earth, in brief and concrete terms, opens the mind and heart—and serves as context for the pain we will also acknowledge and share.

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2. Despair work: owning and honoring our pain for the world. Here we confront the realities of our planet-time, including the degradation and suffering of Earth and her beings, and let ourselves experience our responses to these realities.

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3. The shift: seeing with new eyes. Here we trace our pain for the world to its source, the larger matrix of our lives. At this turning point of the work, we see our pain and our power as rooted in our interconnectedness. We explore our connectedness to past and future generations, and to the more-than-human world, drawing upon them for strength and guidance.

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4. Going forth. In the last stage, we explore the synergistic power available to us as open systems and apply these understandings to our work for social change. We develop visions and plans that will help each participant take concrete steps appropriate to his or her situation.

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Despair work may reemerge at any point in a workshop. Workshop facilitators learn to be comfortable with this, and are prepared to change planned activities if needed to make room for it.

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Greet participants individually, if only for a moment. Joanna has a practice of making brief physical contact with each person as she introduces herself and hears their names.

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We are here to use this time and space together. It is a unique opportunity. Our bodies are here; let us allow our minds to arrive also…. Many of us hurried to get here, perhaps leaving some chores undone and some calls we needed to make. Let’s look at these bits of unfinished business in our mind’s eye…and now let’s put them up on a shelf and leave them there until five o’clock .

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Molly sometimes warns the group that she will break in about a third of the way around with a reminder about brevity. She may even specify the point in the circle, so when the reminder comes, the previous speaker doesn’t feel criticized.

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Another time-minding method utilizes a watch which is silently passed to the one who is speaking when his time is up—one minute, say, or two. He finishes his sentence and then holds it while the next person speaks, passing it to her after the allotted time, and she in turn does the same for the following speaker. This quiet and easy method shares the responsibility with everyone in the group.

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After a lunch break, a ten-minute group nap, introduced with relaxation suggestions and soothing music, helps participants rest and digest their food, honors the natural drowsiness which often occurs after eating, and builds a sense of group trust. People return to waking feeling refreshed and respected as physical beings.

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As guides, you might acknowledge the courage and caring of those in the circle, and the fact that the workshop is but one step in our collective journey. You can say that the deep responses we have uncovered here together are likely to well up in the days ahead more powerfully than ever before, and that is all right, for we are strong and resilient and not alone. Even though this particular circle may not meet again physically, it will remain part of our lives. You can ask participants to take some moments of silence to look around the circle, reflecting on what they have learned from each other and what they wish for each other in the time ahead. Then you can invite brief words of closing from the group, and end with a song, a sounding, or silence.

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In the Tibetan Buddhist path we are asked to pause before any period of meditative practice and precede it with reflection on the preciousness of a human life.

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Affirmation begins with a warm, personal greeting, welcoming each person to the workshop. When you see each comer as a gift, it helps them feel gladness.

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Breathe deep. Feel the air flow through the body like a blessing, the oxygen quickening each cell awake. Draw in that air that connects you with all being, for there is no one alive in this world now who is not breathing like you, in and out…in a vast exchange of energy with the living body of our planet, with seas and plants. Stretch high and wide to let more air in. Then fall forward from the waist with a forceful exhalation, expelling the tensions and toxins of the day. Let the breath cleanse and open us.

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To bring attention to the body, continue the guidance you began with the breath, using your own words to suggest something like the following: Stretch. Stretch all muscles, then release. Slowly rotate the head, easing the neck with all its nerve centers. Rotate the shoulders, releasing the burdens and tensions they carry. Behold your hand, feel the skin. Feel the textures of the world around you, clothing, arm of chair, tabletop, floor. Your senses are real; they connect you with your world; they tell you what it is like. You can trust them. Come to your senses. Come back to life.

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In the midst of a conference on the nuclear threat, Joanna led a session on despair work. The group was polite and dutifully attentive, though a bit tired after a morning of terrifying films, facts, and figures. She began by inviting people to breathe deeply, close their eyes, and simply listen to their bodies. We have been trying to handle this information with our heads alone—as if we were a brain on the end of a stick—now let’s hear what our bodies have to say… In the quiet that followed, many began to weep, and within minutes this group of relative strangers was sharing fears and sorrows they had seldom, if ever, expressed.

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Start on a positive note, by asking participants to share in one of these ways: As you tell us your name and where you’re from, tell us also something particular that you love about being alive. (Or)…share something you did or saw today that made you glad to be alive. (Or)…tell us about a place you love. (Or)…tell us what makes your heart sing.

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We can move then to our personal responses to the plight of the world. We need to get to this soon, because many people come to the workshop just for the opportunity to express out loud and at last their feelings of apprehension without fear of being seen as morbid, sick, or unpatriotic. To keep that initial sharing vivid, immediate, and concrete, we can say: Let’s go around the circle again and each briefly share an experience of the last week or so that caused you pain for the world. It can be an incident, a news item, a dream…. If tears should come, please share them, too…

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Remember to model the sharing first, including stating your name even though participants know it.

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For liveliness and better learning, let the group itself fill in the features of the Great Turning. A brainstorm is good for this. After the guide has given the central idea and the three main dimensions, she invites the group to unpack them—to cite from their own experience and information the evidence they see of the Great Turning. The guide may choose to focus the brainstorm on one of the dimensions—such as alternative social and economic structures, that are appearing now as harbingers of the Life-sustaining Society. Or he may choose a topic as broad as the Great Turning in its entirety. If the group is sizeable, say over twenty, several sheets of newsprint on the wall and several scribes will be needed, for the contributions come thick and fast.

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An outdoor setting with growing things is most rewarding, but even city streets have served well. Forming pairs, people take turns being guided with eyes closed, in silence. Deprived of sight, they have the chance now to use their other senses with more curiosity and wonder than usual, and to experience trusting another person with their safety. Their partners, guiding them by the hand or arm, offer them various sensory experiences—a flower or leaf to smell, the texture of grass or tree trunk, the sound of birds or children playing—all the while without words. The tempo is relaxed, allowing time to fully register each encounter. Every so often, the guide adjusts his partner’s head, as if aiming a camera, and says, “Open your eyes and look in the mirror.” The ones being guided open their eyes for a moment or two, and take in the sight. Demonstrate with a volunteer as you give instructions. Remind participants to maintain silence, except for the occasional invitation to look in the mirror. After a predetermined length of time, roles are changed. Provide an audible signal when it is time to switch, using a bell or drum or call. At the end of the second shift, each pair forms a foursome with another pair and takes time now to speak of the experience. After ten minutes or so, bring their attention to the larger group and invite a general sharing. “What did you notice?” “What surprised you?” “What feelings came up, in guiding or being guided?” Many will be eager to respond, often with distinctive insights.

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ZEN POET THICH NHAT HANH WAS ASKED, “What do we need to do to save our world?” His questioners expected him to identify the best strategies to pursue in social and environmental action, but Thich Nhat Hanh’s answer was this: “What we most need to do is to hear within us the sounds of the Earth crying.”

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For each person this process entails: • acknowledging our pain for the world (verbally or silently) • validating it as a wholesome response to the present crisis • letting ourselves experience this pain • being able to express it to others • recognizing how widely it is shared by others • and recognizing that it is not “crazy” but that it springs from our caring and connectedness. In despair work you discover that others aren’t afraid of your pain for the world, and you witness theirs. Then you can dare to hope something for humanity and for what we can do together. When we unblock our despair, everything else follows—the respect and awe, the love. That’s why I never state the case for despair in my workshops, but just let people hear it from themselves and each other.—John Seed, rainforest activist

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Sometimes people are reluctant to acknowledge their distress about the situation we are in, for fear of reinforcing negativity and making things worse. This concern seems to come from a misunderstanding of the New Age view that “we create our own reality” and it results in a refusal or incapacity to see what is actually going on. Creating a false dualism between “negative” and “positive” thoughts, it operates in the service of totalitarianism. It diverts attention from the very real world we all participate in, and cuts off the feedback necessary for the system’s healing. If a workshop participant expresses this fear of “negativity,” listen respectfully, then help the person see where it can lead. Often people only need reassurance that it is all right to feel how they feel, and that they will not be punished for it.

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Have people gather in groups of about four (at least three and no more than five). Each person speaks for the same period of time (between five to ten minutes) while the others listen without verbal response. If the speaker finishes early, or pauses for a while, the group should sit in silence until the time period is up. Often the speaker will find more to say. Be sure to review the guidelines on listening in Chapter 5, and introduce them to the group. Themes for the sharing are open-ended and general, such as a recent experience of the condition of the world—when suffering and uncertainty has impinged on your personal life, or a time when you felt pain for the world particularly acutely. Later in the workshop, group sharing might be about people’s experiences in a particular exercise. During the Shift (next chapter), people talk about their recent experiences of power and connection. Midway through a day-long or weekend workshop, invite people to share their responses to what has occurred to that point. Small group sharing can be used at any point to good effect, and is particularly useful near the beginning and during transitions.

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Moving back chairs and cushions to make a large open space in the room, invite people to “mill”—to circulate around the room at a fairly energetic pace, without talking. Model this by walking quickly around the room, weaving through the people. Let your eyes go out of focus; you won’t bump. Soft vision. Use the whole space so we don’t get into a snarl in the middle. Soft vision and you won’t collide. If you find us going in the same direction, turn around and go upstream.

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People sit in pairs, face to face and close enough to attend to each other fully. They refrain from speaking until the exercise begins. One is Partner A, the other Partner B—this can be determined quickly by asking them to tap each other on the knee; the one who tapped first is A. When the guide speaks each unfinished sentence, A repeats it, completes it in his own words, addressing Partner B, and keeps on talking spontaneously for the time allotted. The partners then switch roles. Depending on the material, they switch after each open sentence or, more usually, at the end of the series. The listening partner—and this is to be emphasized—keeps silent, saying absolutely nothing and hearkening as attentively and supportively as possible.

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Here is a sample series of open sentences that we have used a great deal. Feel free to make up your own to address the particular interests of the group, remembering to keep them as unbiased and nonleading as possible. 1. I think the condition of our society is becoming… 2. I think the condition of our environment is becoming… 3. What concerns me most about the world today is… 4. When I think of the world we will leave our children, it looks like… 5. Feelings about all this, that I carry around with me, are… 6. Ways I avoid these feelings are… 7. Ways I use feelings are…

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The Open Sentence format adapts easily and effectively to different time spans and situations. • With groups of organizational or professional colleagues, the sentences can help articulate difficulties without beating around the bush, as well as renew inspiration. For example: 1. What first inspired me to work for the Environmental Protection Agency (or become a physician or canvasser…) was… 2. What I find hard in this work is… 3. What keeps me going in this work is… 4. What I hope can happen for us in this work (or organization) is…

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Instead of the seven-part series given above, Joanna often uses this shorter three sentence format, allowing more time for each response: 1. To be alive now in this time of global crisis, what is particularly hard for me is… 2. What I appreciate about living in this time of crisis is… 3. As I look at my life, it seems that some of the ways I take part in the healing of my world (or the Great Turning) are…

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In working with teens, we face special challenges, for it seems even more difficult for them to talk about their feelings, due to social pressure and their strong need to fit in. When Molly used this exercise in a high school classroom, she had the students complete the sentences first in writing, and then share in groups of three. Writing first helped the students to reflect more deeply, before “going public” with their thoughts and feelings. The written work also provided feedback for the teacher in planning future lessons.

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People sit in a circle. They sit as closely packed as possible for they are, as we often put it, creating a containment vessel, for holding and cooking the truth. The circle they enclose is divided into four quadrants (visible demarcations are not needed), and in each quadrant is placed a symbolic object: a stone, dead leaves, a thick stick, and an empty bowl. Entering each quadrant, the guide holds the object it contains and explains its meaning. Here are some words we use.

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The process unfolds in three concentric circles. At the outset everyone is standing and moving in the outer ring, which is the Circle of Reporting. The next is the Circle of Anger and Fear, and the innermost, a pile of pillows at the center, is the Circle of Sorrow. Behind the outer ring, a corner space is marked off, with a potted plant or two, to create the Sanctuary.

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Choose a word, a theme or phrase—perhaps something that emerged in a previous process—and post it. Have everyone in the group relax as they read it; and have them then take pen or pencil and write—spilling out, pouring out whatever comes to mind. Help them by your suggestions to release themselves from the judge and censor in their mind, and playfully or prayerfully to let come what comes. There is no requirement to read it to others and no requirement for spelling, grammar, or even “making sense.” Suggest that people continue moving their pen or pencil even when nothing comes, just repeating the last word, drawing circles or whatever.

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 “With this dark and painful stuff, our task is to…”

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What, then, is your role as guide? You pause to name what is happening, and by naming, you evoke and validate it. You help the group turn a corner. At that corner, you can look two ways, getting perspective on where you have been and at the same time glimpsing a new vista. Looking back at participants’ experience in the despair work, you name the interconnectedness that is intrinsic to their pain for the world. Looking ahead, you indicate what this interconnectedness can mean for their lives and work to heal our world. Jerry, as you wept for your children’s future… Jan, as you opened to the grief and confusion of your clients… Bill, the rage you feel over the dumping of toxic wastes … Helen, your suffering with the people of Mexico … do you see? These concerns extend far beyond your own personal safety and comfort. They are more than fear of your own death. They come out of the web of life in which you belong. What does this say? Does it say something about your power? What kind of power can we draw from this interconnectedness?

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What, then, is your role as guide? You pause to name what is happening, and by naming, you evoke and validate it. You help the group turn a corner. At that corner, you can look two ways, getting perspective on where you have been and at the same time glimpsing a new vista. Looking back at participants’ experience in the despair work, you name the interconnectedness that is intrinsic to their pain for the world. Looking ahead, you indicate what this interconnectedness can mean for their lives and work to heal our world.

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• The worldview underlying the Industrial Growth Society perceives reality in terms of discrete and separate entities, which relate to each other in a hierarchical and competitive fashion. Hence power has been understood as domination—power over, win/lose. • We now, in the Great Turning, reclaim an understanding of the interdependence of all phenomena. Power is understood as mutual and synergistic, arising from interaction and generating new possibilities and capacities.

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Participants sit in groups of four. Ask them to choose, mentally, a particular issue or situation that concerns them. After a moment of silence, invite them to take turns speaking and listening to each other. Each person will describe the issue from four perspectives in turn: (1) from their own experience and point of view, including their feelings about the issue; (2) from the perspective of a person whose views are very different and even adversarial on the issue, introducing themselves and speaking as this person, using the pronoun “I”; (3) from the viewpoint of a nonhuman being that is involved in or affected by that particular situation; (4) and lastly, in the voice of a future human whose life will be directly affected by the choices made now on this issue. The guide announces these perspectives when the time comes for each one—instead of all at once at the outset—and repeats them in that sequential fashion for the following speakers. Give at least three minutes for each perspective. Signal the time with a verbal cue (“take another minute to finish”) and then with a clacker or bell to end that part. Allow for silence between each part and at the end of each series.

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Widening Circles helps people to see with new eyes an issue or situation which is of great concern to them. Thus they participate in widening circles of identity. It is excellent for environmental activists, bringing wisdom, patience, flexibility, and perseverance.

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Partner A, you begin by asking Partner B, “Who are you?” You listen. You ask again, “Who are you?” Again you listen, then repeat the question, “Who are you?” Rest assured that the answers will be different. You can vary the question, if you wish, with “What are you?” but you say nothing else. This continues for about ten minutes, until I ring the bell.   Then you shift to the second question, “What do you do?” Now, in a similar fashion, you listen to those answers and then keep repeating the query, “What do you do?” You can also phrase it, “What happens through you?”   After ten minutes, when I ring the bell, you will revert to the first question, “Who (or what) are you?” The process will repeat itself once more, taking seven or eight minutes with each question, ending with “Who are you?” for a final five minutes. The bell will signal when to change questions.   This is a strenuous mental exercise. It can produce extraordinary insights, sometimes with bursts of laughter, but it feels relentless. It must be undertaken gently and with respect. Remember, you are not badgering your partner. You’re not suggesting that his responses are wrong; you’re helping him go deeper. You are in service to your partner. The tempo and tonality of your questions will vary; you’ll know intuitively when to ask again quickly and when to pause in silence. Now before you begin, bow to your partner—and to the essential mystery at the core of this being. Partner A bows to B once more when the cycle of questions is over. As the partners change roles, let them stand and stretch, without talking. At the end of the entire exercise, which takes an hour, allow plenty of time for people to digest what has happened for them. Let the pairs relax and chat; then if there is time, bring them back together in the large group so that people can share some of their insights if they wish—which they usually do.

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As humans we have the capacity and the birthright to experience time in a saner fashion. Throughout history, men and women have labored at great personal cost to bequeath to future generations monuments of art and learning, to endure far beyond their individual lives.

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Closing the eyes, they imagine moving forward thirty years in time; from that vantage point and in response to three questions from a child, they look back at the present. Participants, whose age might make another thirty years of life unlikely, are simply asked, for the sake of the exercise, to imagine they’re still around. Brief silence of about a minute follows each of the child’s queries, which focus on: 1) the reality of the dangers we faced “back then” in that time of crisis; 2) how we felt about them; and 3) how we found the strength to respond to them creatively. After returning to the present, participants gather in threes to reflect on their responses to the child, and, when time permits, bring these reflections to the larger group.

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Closing their eyes, participants are invited to journey forward through coming generations and identify with a human living one or two hundred years from now. They need not determine this person’s circumstances, but only imagine that he or she is looking back at them in their present lives. Nonprogrammatic music helps free the mind. “Now imagine what this being would want to say to you. Open your mind and listen. Now begin putting it on paper, as if this future one were writing a letter just to you.”

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Those in the outer circle (facing in) speak for themselves, out of their own experience; they stay seated in the same place. Those in the inner circle (facing out) are people of a future generation (specify a date in fifty to two hundred years, not more). These future ones do not speak (until the end) and do move. After each encounter, they rise, step back to move one place to the right, and sit again. In this way, the inner circle moves slowly clockwise while the outer circle is stationary.

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The four questions, which the guide speaks on behalf of the future ones (and repeats for clarity), are given here in words we tend to use. 1. Ancestor, I have been told about the terrible times in which you lived, wars and preparations for war, hunger and homelessness, the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, poisons in the seas and soil and air, the dying of many species…. It is hard to believe. Was that really true? Tell me. 2. Ancestor, what was it like for you in the midst of that? How did you feel? 3. Ancestor, we have songs and stories that still tell of what you and your friends did back then for the Great Turning. Now what I want to know is this: how did you start? You must have felt lonely and confused sometimes, especially at the beginning. What first steps did you take? 4. Ancestor, I know you didn’t stop with those first actions on behalf of Earth. Tell me, where did you find the strength and joy to continue working so hard, despite all the obstacles and discouragements?

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The intention we start with, and make explicit to the group, is all important. We can phrase it in many ways—to heal our separation from the natural world, or to know our interexistence with all beings, or to find in the web of life the power that will help us act in its self-defense… Having owned that intention, we are then in service to it—not to our own success as guides, and not to the whims of the group, but to our life as Earth.

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The exercise is based on the speech which Chief Sealth, or Seattle as he is now known, delivered to his tribal assembly in 1854.

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This process helps people confront, in their own words, the contrast between attitudes and behaviors endemic to the Industrial Growth Society and the reverence with which our indigenous ancestors cared for the natural world. Reminding us that respect for the web of life is our birthright, it evokes both sorrow for its loss and a yearning for its return. In systems terms, this exercise allows “self-referencing”—that is, seeing ourselves and our actions from the perspective of the larger context.

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Man does not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand of it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

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the Remembering evokes the ecological self and loosens the grip of the anthropocentrism of today’s culture. At the same time it fosters a sense of authority, which we can claim when we act on behalf of Earth; that is, it encourages us to “act our age”—our true age of fifteen billion years—and take part in the Great Turning to a sustainable society.

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It first arose in 1981, at a midnight gathering of several hundred people in Minnesota, in the form of a simple, solemn reading of the list of threatened and endangered species. At its close, people were invited to call out and name other threatened aspects of our common life on Earth; then they expressed their sorrow by the ancient act of keening. Joanna’s poem, The Bestiary, grew out of that experience, although she named only other animals, and did not include trees or plants. In subsequent years, more often than not, the reading of this poem has been used in lieu of the unadorned list of threatened and endangered species.

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The group sits in a circle and listens as the Bestiary (see Appendix B), or selections of a governmental list of threatened and endangered species, is read aloud. Use several voices (four is a good number) spaced around the circle; the pace should be unhurried, as befits a funeral. After the naming of each species, a clacker is struck or a drum is sounded in one strong beat.

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As the names are read, it is easy to feel guilty as a human. So, before the reading, the guide makes clear that this is not the point of the exercise. Guilt tends to close us down. Instead, as each name is read, people should take the opportunity silently to honor the beauty and wisdom of that unique, irreplaceable species. This suggestion helps people to open to the grief that is in them.

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Following a ritual opening, participants allow themselves to be chosen by another life-form, for whom they will speak in Council. They prepare themselves to do this by reflecting on their life-form, often by making a mask to represent it, sometimes practicing moving and speaking as that life-form, and finally gathering in a formal, structured Council to speak of the grave threats faced by nearly all life-forms today.

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let us look at the Work That Reconnects to be clear about what it does not provide us, and what it does. It gives us no dogma or ideology, no panacea for society’s ills, no blueprint for resolving the global crisis—not even a certainty that we can act in time to save life on Earth. Such a guarantee, were it possible, would not be likely to summon forth our best efforts—the leap of courage and creativity that is required of us now.

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Think of some times in your life when something important and good happened because of a choice you made, because of something you said or did, because of the way you were. Choose one of these times…recapture the scene…play it back for yourself…. Now in groups of four, tell that story, taking turns and listening to each other without comment until you all have finished.

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To find our calling is to find the intersection between our own deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger. —Frederick Buechner

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At one workshop, one man still insisted that he experienced no power in his life. “What gives you pleasure?” the guide asked. “Well, I don’t know. I feel good when I ride my bicycle.” “What is that like?” “Well, I tell you now, it feels good when I’m riding home from work and the traffic is jammed. I just speed by all those stuck cars and trucks; they can hardly move and I’m going where I want to go.” “That sounds like a powerful feeling,” said the guide. “You bet!” said Jim beaming. “I guess that is a kind of power, isn’t it?” And he recognized with pride the guerrilla-power of ingenuity and flexibility.

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Our sense of the power that is in us can be hard to convey in words. Close your eyes and breathe deeply for a moment or two…then try to sense what your power is like…. Let images and sensations emerge…. Then take your paper and colors and begin to draw how that power feels to you or appears to you at this moment. Do this quickly, without too much thought.

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This practice helps people to clarify their vision of their part in building a sustainable world, and to bring into focus a specific path or project to pursue (or continue pursuing). It helps them recognize the many, and often unsuspected, resources available to them, and identify immediate steps to take. Because it is done in pairs, it also creates a strong sense of mutual support. Without fail, over the years, we have found this exercise to invigorate people and strengthen their confidence; we make room for it in almost all our workshops.

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People work in pairs, taking turns. In response to questions from the guide, one speaks while the other serves as “scribe,” recording the speaker’s answers on paper. Encourage the speaker to take full advantage of having a scribe, and relax—maybe stretch out to give freer rein to the mind. At the end of each series of questions, the speaker gives the scribe a hand massage, before they reverse roles.

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1. If you knew you could not fail, what would you be doing for the healing of our world? Here is our chance to pull out the stops and think big, with no “ifs” or “buts” getting in the way. An alternative first question is: If you were liberated from all fear and open to all the power available to you in the web of life, what would you do for the healing of our world? 2. In pursuing this vision, what particular project do you want to undertake? It can be a new direction in work you’re already doing, or something entirely new. Here’s our chance to get specific. Think in terms of what could be accomplished, or at least well underway, in a year’s time. 3. What resources, inner and outer, do you now have that will help you do that? Inner resources include specific strengths of character, and relevant experience, knowledge, skills you’ve acquired. External resources include relationships, contacts, and networks you can draw on—not to forget babysitters, rich uncles, computer-savvy friends—as well as your location, employment, real goods, and money in the bank. 4. Now what resources, inner and outer, will you need to acquire? To do what you want to do, what will you need to learn and to obtain? These can run from assertiveness training to grants to contacts among organizations, churches, local merchants, and the support they can give you. 5. How might you stop yourself? What obstacles might you throw in the way of fulfilling your goals? We all have familiar patterns of self-doubt and sabotage. 6. How will you overcome these obstacles? Draw upon your past experience in dealing with these self-imposed obstacles, and perhaps some new ways of moving around them will occur to you. 7. What can you do in the next 24 hours, no matter how small the step—if only a phone call—that will move toward this goal? When both partners have scribed the other’s responses (and exchanged hand massages), the two take turns reporting back to each other from the notes they have taken. Instruct each scribe to use the second-person pronoun: you want to, you have, one way you might stop yourself, etc. And the other is to listen as if hearing, at long last, their orders from the universe. The papers of notes are then exchanged, so that each can take with them their answers, their plans.

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Each pair from the “Goals and Resources” practice now joins with another pair to make a group of four, bringing the notes of their plans.

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You are now provided an unparalleled opportunity. You are offered what money cannot buy: topflight consultants, who are allied with your vision. Take a moment to reflect on the plans you’ve been hatching. Where can you use some excellent advice? Is it to get clearer on your project and what you can achieve? Is it how to find the resources you need, or how to deal with particular obstacles? You each have ten minutes (or fifteen). Refine your questions in your mind, so that you can speak briefly and allow time for the others to respond.

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This rewarding three-part exercise reveals how a group can work together and empower its members, as it moves from a general or abstract goal to steps for immediate and concrete actions. Adapted from processes developed by the Movement for a New Society, it has been equally effective in south Asian villages and American campuses. Description The process unfolds in three stages.

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The exercise is as instructive as it is entertaining. It forces us to discover how well we can think on our feet, what we need to know and say in order to be convincing. Moreover, reversing roles in mid-conversation gives us insight into the thoughts and feelings of the people we are trying to enlist. It breaks us out of polarized we/they thinking, helps us to identify with others, and enhances our confidence and effectiveness.

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Think of someone with whom you find it hard to talk about your concerns for the world and about the actions you want to take. It could be your father or sister, your employer or lover, or even the President or the Secretary of Defense. Assign that identity to your partner along with some clues as to how to play the role, what responses this person might give. Partners, feel free to ask for clarification, and let your intuition guide you, too. Then begin the role-play. Speakers, tell this person what you see and how you feel, and what you feel impelled to do about it. Note the sense of awkwardness, shame, or powerlessness that may arise, and continue nonetheless. Partners, respond in your role, keeping your replies fairly brief, so the burden of communication is on the speaker.

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Here are some guidelines for communicating our concerns, especially with those who hold a different opinion.

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1. Beware of labeling or pigeonholing the other person,

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2. Acknowledge the limits of your knowledge.

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3. Find common ground before examining differences.

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4. Share feelings as well as facts.

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5. Share your personal experience.

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6. Trust the other person’s ability to learn and change over time.

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7. See yourself and the other within the larger context:

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8. Remember to hold the other person with compassion,

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This is a free-wheeling process within a limited time period. Begin it by inviting people to stand at random (“popcorn” style) to announce the plans they have hatched or clarified in the Goals and Resources exercise. Then everyone mingles, gathering together around particular concerns and themes. As an alternative, uses sheets of newsprint on the wall. Ask people, after the Goals and Resources exercise, or the Consultation Groups that follow, to post their projects or areas of concern—say, Education, Recycling, Factory Farms, Global Warming, Multinational Corporations, Nuclear Waste, Forests, Transportation, Homelessness, etc. The posting process itself may result in some groupings. Then as people read and move around, they can gather together around common concerns, and share plans and information.

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An initial meditation on the Buddhist path involves reflection on the twofold fact that: “death is certain” and “the time of death is uncertain.”

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Let us close with the same suggestion that often closes our workshops. It is a practice that is a corollary to the earlier death meditation, in which we recognize how threatened now is each person we meet. Look at the next person you see. It may be a lover, child, coworker, bus driver, or your own face in the mirror. Regard him or her with the recognition that: In this person are gifts for the healing of our world. In him or her are powers that can redound to the joy of all beings.

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This we know. The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected.

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This we know. The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected.   Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the sons of the earth. Man does not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

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As an architect, I am interested in systems theory and how this theory provides ecological understanding in architectural practice. As architectural practice moves from a mechanical worldview based on an industrial growth society to an ecological worldview based on a life-sustaining society, the Council of All Beings offers a bridge to designers.

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Midway through the Council, a human architect stepped into the center of the circle and heard our voices. He was receptive because he needed to hear us. He said he was sorry for all the times he did not listen to us. He had grown short-sighted and numb. Listening is the key. The architect’s perception of the site/region stepped beyond the usual observer/object split to intersubjectivity. His notion of “client” expanded to include our voices of the site/region. Our nonhuman voices are to be at every collaborative design table as part of the feedback loop. We beings are participants in an emergent process, a bridge between ongoing site ecology and the built space.

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