Despair and Empowerment Work

Apocalyptic expectations about nuclear war, environmental or infrastruture collapse, technologies gone wild, economic meltdown, etc., can make us afraid, depressed and numb. Intense emotions like this can wipe us out -- to a point where we can't act effectively. But it turns out there is a gift hidden at the core of these emotions, a gift that gives us power.

But first a bit of history.

During the 1980s some peace activists realized that their fellow citizens were paralyzed by fear and powerlessness in the face of the threat of nuclear war. They observed people lost in denial, trying to go about their lives as if the threat didn't exist. Wanting to learn more abouit this phenomenon, these activists listened carefully to these haunted people - and searched their own hearts, as well. They discovered that under everyone's denial was a deep caring for their lives, their children's future, and the fate of their world. From that insight, these activists developed a number of emotional and spiritual approaches to help people in groups break through their denial and despair to contact that deep caring. Once they got in touch with their shared feelings and stories and passion for life, such groups often found a new vitality and determination to do something about the problem. Buddhist scholar and systems thinker Joanna Macy, one leading pioneer in this work, called it "despair and empowerment work."

A number of people who were involved with that work a decade or more ago, are now evolving new forms which they are applying to threats such as ecological collapse and the socioeconomic collapse that could be triggered by our dependence on technology.

John Steiner of Boulder CO, writes of the method he's working with: "We are finding how important it is to do fear and empowerment workshops on new issues related to technology. A group of us have done several afternoons on all the assaults from nuclear war on down that we are facing and then going deeply into our fears and then coming out the other end with a sense of power and vision." Here's an outline of the approach he and his friends are using:

First, before a meeting, people read some shared written material and/or watch a video and/or listen to a tape, etc., about one or more major threats. Then a series of actions are done - in one or more sessions - as follows:

#Everyone lists all the possible assaults they can think of on the environment and life as we know it, including the threat featured in the introductory material. #They are asked: What are your greatest fears about these threats? They go around the circle at least once -- and more if required. #They are led through a guided visualization designed to evoke their dreams and hopes. #They explore "What is your life purpose?"

At that point, most people are ready to move into operational mode.

This may be enough.

Of course there are many other emotions (anger, grief, despair, etc.) that can be explored -- as well as many spiritual issues.


Two seminal books on this approach can give you insights to help you create such activities for your own friends, groups and community.

Joanna Macy, Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age (New Society Publishers, 1983)

Chellis Glendenning, Waking up in the Nuclear Age (Beech Tree/Wm. Morrow, 1987)





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see where we are also listing similar practices

  --Michel Bauwens (Not signed in).....Sun Jan 31 00:53:33 -0800 2010

The Bohm Dialogue, especially Collective Reflection has significance for me in terms of artistic critique and dialogue.

If one wanted to connect this to Jungian thought I'd relate to that.

  --Srule Brachman (Not signed in).....Mon May 21 17:09:16 +0000 2012





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