(A review of Joanna Macy’s Coming Back to Life)
There are wise, multicultural, insightful books…books that urge profound strategies of awakening to change our culture’s current course. And there are books among these that have – I believe – miss a vital piece of the picture.
Joanna Macy’s Coming Back to Life, I believe, is such a book. Detailing experiential workshop processes that Macy and others have been using since the 1980s, the book aims to awaken the ecologically unaware to a connection with nature, other species, and their fellow humans. Reading it as our world stands at the tipping point of global warming and climatic disaster, however, I simply felt frustration?… irritation?…annoyance? Call it what it is – anger – at what I saw as fruitless emotionalizing.
As I read the book while tending to my mother in her last weeks and days, Macy’s approach seemed tantamount to moaning and wailing over Mom’s impending death and the loss that our family would experience, blaming ourselves for all that was failing in her body…all the words ever spoken in anger, all the telephone calls never made…all the emotional blows that her heart had taken through the forty years she had spent fighting her genetic inheritance of coronary disease. To clarify: not standing at her bedside, engaging in the painful yet comforting interactions of mutual apology, forgiveness and blessing, but retreating to another room to stage cathartic psycho-performances focused on her worsening physical condition and our own self-blame.
What a horrible, futile way to spend the precious last days that were ticking remorselessly on.
Instead, our family chose to spend her last days in appreciation – after all the medical measures had been tried and had failed, simply to spend the time as lovingly and caringly as humanly possible, enjoying and appreciating our time together in the face of death. When we had our last deep conversation, she turned aside my apologies for actions not taken, and instead affirmed her love and blessing for my path…which was so vastly different from the spiritual tradition she had espoused all her life. I have felt her spirit reaffirm this blessing many times since her death.
Nearly two years before, I had taken another approach with my husband as he lay drugged and unconscious, fighting massive sepsis two months following heroic heart surgery: I refused point-blank to believe at any time that death was a possibility. When the drugs could do no more, the doctors’ urging to turn off life support was like reaching a sheer drop-off at the end of an elevated expressway …I was still racing ahead, but with nothing beneath me…falling, instead, through open air. There could be no conversation, no exchange of forgiveness and blessing – only my repeated “I’m sorry” between sobs as I watched his heart monitor slow, then flatline. It took months to come to terms with the reality of his passing. I still struggle to connect at a deep level, inwardly bracing myself for loss yet again.
But these were the deaths of single human beings…not the death of massive numbers of individual humans, plants and animals, entire species, ecosystems, even potentially life as we know it on Earth.
How do the two connect? As I see it, faced with death, we have four basic options:
- To despair, blaming self and others, wallowing in the expectation of loss
- To relentlessly and remorselessly oppose the inevitability of any ending
- To value life more highly and live more intensely, resisting death as long as possible while seeing it as the wise advisor who gives meaning to life
- To connect with a larger picture in which nothing happens in isolation and everything is connected, in which death may be the gateway through which an individual’s influence and impact transcend the body…as I came to see it was for my mother and husband.
It is easiest, least risky, least painful, to choose the first two, focusing on the patient as subject or victim, focusing on the external body, disease process, and overwhelming physical needs, imagining and projecting the patient’s experience (or distancing oneself with the platitude “I can’t imagine what you must be going through”), or worse, speaking of the patient as if s/he were an empty, unaware thing in the bed, rather interacting directly with the whole person as a total mind/body/spirit entity.
It is terrifying to engage with another human being as they stand with their toes curled at the brink of the unknown…hanging ten at the drop edge of yonder …how much more terrifying to engage directly with a planet whose compromised ecosystems are in similar condition…especially when this whole culture is based on the belief that the Earth is an unaware, unconscious object?
This is the problem I saw with Macy’s book: while she briefly references the third option of living life more intensely with death as the constant companion, by far the bulk of the book, I believe, is focused on the first, which she calls “despair work.” And enlightened as Macy’s intent is, while she recognizes the awareness of other beings, she appears still to be limited by the beliefs of this culture. There is a great deal of discussion around connecting with other humans about the Earth, but no actual direct connection with the awarenesses of the Earth.
The book presupposes that workshop participants already experience a level of despair for the destruction…that as beings of the Earth we inevitably feel pain for the Earth, and that “the problem…lies not with our pain for the world, but in our repression of it. Our efforts to dodge or dull it surrender us to futility – or in systems terms, cut the feedback loop and block effective response.” Macy lists the consequences of our repression: among them, fragmentation and alienation, avoidance of painful information, and sense of powerlessness.
She speaks of the Earth as a “presence in our consciousness, not unlike the presence of gods and goddesses in the lives of our early ancestors,” and writes with reverence of the “shamanic traditions of …indigenous peoples…(whose) voices find a hearing because they tell us – as the natives of the late Industrial Growth Society – what we want to know once again: that as kin to the animals and plants, rocks and airs of this sacred world, we can tap its powers, take part in its healing.”
She presences this reverence by invoking the presence and wisdom of the ancestors and succeeding generations in one exercise; invites participants to experience seeing themselves in natural objects in the Mirror Walk, and in the Council of All Beings, invites participants to invoke the awareness of the being they portray. But that is all she says about connection with the awarenesses of the Earth: the rest is focused on participants’ personal awareness, experience and projection. The Earth, through most of the book, remains a subject to be defended, projected and acted upon, without consultation or invitation for input.
My experience: reading a hospice handbook on the dying process – even doing a guided visualization on death — is very different from standing at a loved one’s deathbed with eyes and heart open. Reading of a rainforest being slashed and burned is very different from sitting in sacred space and hearing a single tree being felled by loggers, or struggling through deep muddy tire tracks and crushed underbrush to touch the stumps and shreds of trees taken. Reading even the most heart-wrenchingly written fundraising letter on the death of our watersheds is very different from standing on the cracked earth of a dried-up streambed and bearing witness to its failing ecosystem.
The wisdom of the imagination is very different from the wisdom of the heart and spirit connecting to the wisdom of the Earth – in the moment, on the spot. Macy’s beautiful, profound, and poetic visualizations cannot – I say – replace the direct experience of the living Earth, the green, feathered, furred, finned, scaled, crawling, and two-legged beings, and the unseen energies and awarenesses of the Earth. Offering a workshop of “practices to reconnect ourselves, our world” – that does not involve direct connection with the Earth – is like offering a kayaking practicum without the river.
What results from this distancing, I ask? Consciousness can be righteously raised in theory with no resulting actual action, personal cost or long-term outward effect. How will these visualizations achieve real, lasting change in people who may never have personally experienced the wholeness of the Earth …or those who are only now beginning to awaken to the damage being done? What actions, if any, will result from use of these experiential exercises involving no direct experience – what kind of real change will ensue? What kind of change has ensued in participants of these workshops, six months, twelve months, five years down the road?
The phenomenon of workshop addiction is recognized in psychological circles; I have experienced it myself as both an observer and addict. From years of experience in personal growth communities, I have witnessed that only a fraction of those who spend weekends examining their souls in workshop settings actually emerge with anything more than a brief emotional high or passing insight, soon to be overwritten with the day-to-day concerns of home and work. Only a fraction of those attenders will actually achieve deep behavioral changes over the long term, or sacrifice routine and convenience to strategically pursue a new workshop-generated mission. Laden by my own experience of workshop highs followed by quick-fading resolutions, I had burned out from process work years before, choosing other paths toward personal change.
There are those who say that the brain does not know the difference between reality and ritual (or process)…while this may be true for some, I have not experienced this beyond a very limited degree. A guided visualization or process, like divination – I say – is necessarily limited by the inward filters of the person visualizing…unless support is given to weaken those filters and facilitate an opening to new insights.
I remember my husband sharing stories of inconspicuously using Lodge medicines and prayers to invoke spiritual protection and support during the transformational workshops associated with the Lodge he served…how the processes supported in this way went deeper and achieved greater change than those that were not. And from staffing experience in workshops that did not use – that actively discouraged – -such forms of support in its workshops, I can vouch for the difference made by this absence.
My experience: where only human energies are specifically invited, only human energies, in all their limitations, will contribute.
I say – for Pity’s sake – stop asking participants to visualize from their memories and limiting filters, go out to the woods and the water, and invite the awarenesses of the Earth to speak for themselves in sacred space! To invoke the words of Chief Seattle, without experiencing the context of direct, sacred Earth-connection and Earth-communion from which those words arose, is to empty them of their soul.
By the time I reached the last chapter of Coming Back to Life, I had set the book aside several times in anger. To offer experiential trainings that include no direct experience, I told myself, is simply to feed a cultural workshop addiction and the easy belief that “well, I’ve attended a workshop on XYZ, I’ve had my emotional display and catharsis, I’ve produced a personal vision, therefore I am officially enlightened on the topic.” The certificate goes on the wall, the reference in the resume, and that’s the end of the matter.
There is no time now for such easy outs…any more than there was time for engaging in self-recriminations at my mother’s bedside. There is only time for action.
To be fair, Macy does address the question of action, and in the last chapter provides a format to inspire participants to bless one another and move forward in acting on their insights. Earlier in the book, there is even a suggestion of ways to continue the bonds forged in the workshop.  But here again, there is no recognition of direct connection with the awareness of the Earth: the patient remains an object to be discussed but not engaged in interaction.
While I have noted the prevalence of the first possible response to the inevitability of death in the book, I believe the fourth possible response believe is what is needed at this time: To connect with a larger picture in which nothing happens in isolation and everything is connected, in which death may be the gateway through which an individual’s influence and impact transcend the body. To seek direct, humble and loving partnership with Earth Mother and the non-human beings of the Earth, seeking their answers to the destruction. I believe that this approach offers a healthy and effective means of moving through emotional pain to achieve inspired action to protect life on Earth.
 Unless otherwise noted, all references are drawn from Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown, Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World (Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers, 1998).
 Carlos Castaneda, Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan (New York: Washington Square Press, 1972) 34
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