“In our present state of affairs, the very survival of humankind depends on people developing concern for the whole of humanity, not just their own community or nation.” The Dalai Lama offers this message in Coming Back to Life, a new book charting a course we can follow to develop such concern.
Coming Back to Life is a book to be used as well as read. Authors Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown present an analysis of the troubles facing our world and detail methods for enlivening our responses to them. They offer their extensive knowledge of systems theory, deep ecology and spiritual practice. They also describe concrete means to help us cut through individual experiences of pain and isolation by showing us ways to acknowledge and move through our feelings with others. Macy and Brown draw on two decades of experience in guiding thousands of people through this type of work.
Central to Coming Back to Life is the concept of “The Great Turning,” a courageous choice to build a “Life-sustaining Society.” We currently live in an “Industrial Growth Society” whose economy depends on an ever-increasing consumption of resources. We can see the consequences in the growing gap between the very rich and the poor, global warming, the shortages of water in many countries, and the pervasiveness of malnutrition and hunger in the world. “Dire predictions notwithstanding,” the authors write, “we can still act to ensure a livable world.” We can choose to support a life-sustaining society by acting to slow the damage to Earth and its beings, analyze the structural causes of the damage and create alternatives, and shift our worldview and values. We have a tremendous opportunity to choose life, but in order to avail ourselves of it we must cut through the apathy and numbness that make it impossible to respond.
In 1982, I attended a weekend “Despair and Empowerment” workshop Macy led in Boston, my first experience of the type of group work described in Coming Back to Life. This workshop enabled me to see how overwhelmed I had become by news about nuclear weapons the U.S. was producing and sending to Europe. Afterwards, I formed a support group with two other women who had attended the workshop, and we began encouraging one another to find ways of expressing our concern for the world through activism. Macy’s 1983 book Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age soon became a dog-eared companion as I developed my own skills in leading despair and empowerment work with groups.
Coming Back to Life expands on Macy’s earlier book by weaving in a wider focus on ecological and social problems and including systems theory and deep ecology. Many new exercises have been developed and old ones updated. These offer both new and experienced group facilitators clear instructions for leading exercises and guided meditations that enable us to explore our painful feelings about the world and reconnect with our energy and vision to take action. Activities make use of poetry, art, music, and movement. They draw upon many spiritual traditions; some derive from Buddhist teachings such as the Four Abodes or the Shambhala Prophecy. The book also includes an excellent bibliography for readers who want to delve more deeply into the ideas that influenced Macy and Brown.
Coming Back to Life is a powerful antidote to gloom and discouragement, helping us open to the pain and the joy of being fully alive.