Doing the Work

It’s by accepting our pain that we can act with the boldness that our times demand.

Maggie Ziegler

Image: mattdooley40/flickr

I’m finding it hard to face up to how things are. Present and future dangers have been stepped up by the election of Donald Trump, with terrifying implications for climate change, the environment, human rights, and our global intertwined world. Depression, denial and diversion call me, just when what is required is to step more fully into an open-hearted and courageous life.

For decades Joanna Macy – activist, eco-philosopher, Buddhist scholar, systems thinker and writer – has been developing a series of evolving and powerful group processes. In her pioneering offering, Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age, she considered that it wasn’t indifference that stops us from acting, but rather an internal distancing that happens because we don’t know how to face our feelings (grief, fear, anger) about the state of our world. We retreat to a wide range of defenses – we numb ourselves, deaden our empathy, and displace our energies into pretending all is well.

In 1983, when that book was published, I was a young psychotherapist and a social activist struggling to integrate inner and outer worlds and not fully feeling part of either. Macy’s emphasis on facing together our suffering for the pain in our world offered a conceptual and practical path to honour individual and collective pain in a way that widens rather than narrows engagement with a broader community of life. It made room both for those too discouraged to participate and for those working so hard for change that the emotional processes driving their activism were hidden, often resulting in burnout and withdrawal. As I began to integrate these processes in my therapeutic group work, I saw the power this shared exploration has to melt frozen and wounded hearts and bring us together.

Troubled times break our hearts. Opening to that, over and over, requires an ongoing and loving vigilance.

Many years later, a dear friend Jackie Larkin and I attended a week-long retreat with Joanna Macy. The beauty of a Salt Spring Island hillside reached into each person present, giving the steadiness required for speaking and witnessing grief and anger, uncertainties and inadequacies. Joy and sorrow co-existed, offering an embodied understanding of our place in the web of life. We gained clarity about our own intentions, finding new and renewed energy for what Macy and others call the Great Turning: the movement towards a life-sustaining society and away from what is exploitative and life-destroying.

Troubled times break our hearts. Opening to that, over and over, requires an ongoing and loving vigilance. These days, I find myself sheltering in the processes of the Work That Reconnects (Macy’s term for her offerings), finding them more relevant than ever in helping step forward with the boldness that our times demand.

I’m wandering in the forest, conscious of my gratitude and appreciation. When my human landscape is one of fear and grief, I know that the woods can hold me as I allow a path inwards to embrace that pain. I know that my human community can also support me. As I do my best to honour and validate my deepest feelings as evolutionary gifts that connect me to the larger body of earth, I see myself as a being wired for relationship and solidarity and find my commitment to action strengthened.


Since attending their first retreat with Joanna Macy, Maggie Ziegler and Jackie Larkin have been co-facilitating workshops that integrate diverse experiences while holding the Work That Reconnects at their core. Their next residential retreat will be offered March 10-14, 2017 on Bowen Island, BC. www.reconnectingtolife.org  

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