Book Review: Coming Back to Life by Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown

 Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World
by Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown
New Society Publishers, 1998
Gabriola Island, BC
223 pages, $16.95 paperback
Buy this book from Powell's, an independent bookstore

In 1986, I was one of 400 people who participated in the Great Peace March for Nuclear Disarmament from Los Angeles to Washington, DC. The sheer terror I experienced while watching the news and its tales of our nuclear stockpiles had brought me to the march, and I was committed to finishing it. However, for one week, I chose to set aside that commitment, borrow a car, and head to a retreat center in Ohio. The reason - I had read a brief article about Joanna Macy and her work with the Council of All Beings and wanted to attend a workshop she was leading.
     Joanna took me on a journey I have never forgotten. In her book, Coming Back to Life, Macy and coauthor Molly Brown offer this journey to readers.
     In the face of widespread conflict, environmental degradation, and extinction of cultures, Macy feels that a profound shift is occurring.
     "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," she writes.
      Together with Brown, Macy wrote Coming Back to Life to help prepare us for the roles we will play in the Great Turning - in healing our world and finding our own place in it. The first three chapters of the book lay out the foundation on which Macy. s work is based - which includes Buddhist, Christian, and indigenous teachings. The rest of the book is filled with exercises that form what Macy calls "The Work that Reconnects." Its purpose, Macy and Brown say, "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."
      The exercises in Coming Back to Life offer a format for exploring the Work with others in a group setting. Macy and Brown propose that people work in groups, rather than alone, as group work can create a safer structure for exploring deep feelings. In one exercise called "Remembering," which I did in the workshop I attended, participants visualize the stages of evolution - from amoebae, to sponge, to amphibian, to land mammal, to monkey, and finally to human. In the "Council of All Beings" exercise, participants take on the aspects of a natural being - a tree, a bird, and other life-forms - and make masks. A few participants sit in the center circle as humans and listen to the birds, trees, and fish describe how humans are destroying their habitats. For example, the "salmon" told us how dams prevent them from returning to their spawning pools.
      Both exercises aim to loosen the hold that the anthropocentric view has on us. I'll admit, when I did these exercises in 1986, they caused a strange and uncomfortable turn of mind for me. I was not quite prepared to give up my human-centered view of the world. But I remember that however my logical mind fought the exercise, Joanna took us to the place where we were no longer the conquerors or even the benevolent stewards of nature, but viscerally aware of our interdependence with nature. This is not an easy place to reach. It is even harder to remain awake to this reality in the rush of human activity and our culture's placement of nature near the bottom of the hierarchy - much lower than God, humanity, and profit.
      Coming Back to Life is a valuable and necessary tool in this time of transformation. The exercises in Macy and Brown's book have caused me to become more alive and connected with my decisions about how to live and what is of value. Most of all, they have made me realize that there is hope for the future if we all remember to remember.

Reviewed by Roberta Wilson, co-founder of Winslow Cohousing Community

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