Adapted from Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World, by Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown (New Society Publishers, 1998).
This exercise may be used as part of a community gathering about a social problem or as a stand-alone experience for a group of people who are already informed about the problem and its implications. The purpose of the exercise is to enable people to look at perspectives other than the one that dominates their individual experience. It is especially appropriate for social activists, bringing, in Joanna Macy's words, "wisdom, patience, flexibility, and perseverance." In her own description of this practice, Joanna says that "The name of the exercise is taken from Rilke's poem in his Book of Hours, that begins: 'I live my life in widening circles/ that reach out across the world'..." The exercise requires 60-90 minutes, but may be shortened by using just one or two of the four perspectives.
Participants sit in groups of four, facing each other. The facilitator asks them to bring to mind an aspect of the problem that concerns them, allowing a moment of silence. Invite each person, in turn, to describe the issue from each of four perspectives. (This occurs simultaneously in each group of four.) The four perspectives:
- From their own experience and point of view, including feeling;
- From the perspective of a person whose views on the issue are very different, even adversarial, introducing themselves and speaking as this person, using the pronoun "I" and the present tense of verbs;
- From the viewpoint of a non-human being that may be impacted by how we deal with the issue;
- In the voice of a future human whose life will be directly affected by the choices and actions we take now on the issue.
The facilitator announces each perspective when the time comes in the exercise, rather than all of them at once, and instead of posting all of them where they can be seen. The perspectives are repeated in the same sequence for each of the following speakers. It is best to allow three minutes for each perspective. Signal the time with a verbal cue ("take another moment to finish") and then with a bell or chime to end that step. Allow for silence between each step and after each person finishes.
At the conclusion, allow time for people to share in their small groups what they felt and learned. If the size of the whole group is large, and time permits, you may wish to invite brief reports from volunteers .
Note to the Facilitator from Joanna Macy
"To speak on behalf of another, and identify even briefly with that being's experience and perspective, is an act of moral imagination. It is not difficult to do: as children we know how to "play-act." Use an uncharged, almost casual tone in your instructions; you are not asking people to "channel" or be omniscient, but simply to imagine another point of view. Allow some silence as they choose for whom they will speak and imaginatively enter that other's experience, so they can respect it and not perform a caricature of it. It is a brave and generous act to make room in your mind for another's experience and to lend them your voice; let the participants appreciate that generosity in themselves and each other."
To order Coming Back to Life, contact New Society Publishers at 800-567-6772 or on the web at http://www.newsociety.com.