Writing Coming Back to Life with Joanna Macy

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By Molly Brown

In the summer of 1996, Joanna Macy requested my help with two writing projects.   She was working on Widening Circles (her memoir) and she also wanted to revise Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age, at the request of New Society Publishers. She needed someone to read through and update the material in Despair and Personal Power while she focused on her memoir.  

I had been a part of the Nuclear Guardianship Project after attending a Nuclear Guardianship workshop with Joanna in 1990.  I then studied with her at Starr King School for the Ministry, and served as a teaching assistant in two courses she taught at California Institute of Integral Studies.  In the process, we had become colleagues and good friends. I was thrilled when she asked me to help her with these writing projects.

For over a year, I made frequent trips to Berkeley from Petaluma (where I lived at the time) to help Joanna organize and conceptualize Widening Circles, and to begin revising Despair and Personal Power for a new edition.  As she completed the memoir, and I worked on the update, it became clear to both of us that a whole new book was asking to be written. In the year that followed, the first edition of Coming Back to Life came into being.

Coming Back to Life (cover)

Keep in mind this was in the relatively early days of the Internet and computer programming.  We didn’t have Google docs to work with and had to send Word files back and forth to one another. Joanna worked on a pre-Windows PC with green lit-up letters on a dark background (remember?).  One of us would take on the writing of a particular section and then share it with the other—who would send feedback back to the author. Then we’d get together in person and read aloud the results to one another, for further fine-tuning. 

Joanna was a hoot to work with!  Often, when trying to find the right words to express a concept or nuance, we would get really silly and suggest all sorts of nonsensical phrases to one another.  This nearly always cleared the way for one or the other of us to find just the right words—and the other would immediately say, “That’s it!”. We experienced “group intelligence” frequently in our writing process together, contributing to a rich and enjoyable experience of collaborative creativity.

We experienced “group intelligence” frequently in our writing process together.


Still, it was Joanna’s work we were writing about, and even though I had some experience leading workshops, Joanna had the final word about what we included and how we expressed it.  I was comfortable with that, because I was still learning the Work through writing about it.  

Joanna had been referring to this body of work as “Deep Ecology work.”  However, she came to believe that was too broad a term, in part because it was used by many other people with different approaches.  I remember vividly when that title changed, during a writing session at Joanna and Fran’s Berkeley home. As Fran passed through the dining room where we were working, Joanna asked for his opinion on the question.   Fran responded by asking Joanna, “Well, what does this work do?”  Joanna replied, “It reconnects people to themselves and to the web of life” (or words to that effect). Fran said, “So call it ‘the work that reconnects.’”   We decided to use similar wording for the subtitle of that first edition of Coming Back to Life: “Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World.”  And “the Work That Reconnects” became the name Joanna and many of her colleagues have used for the Work ever since.  

In 2012, Joanna proposed we write an updated edition of Coming Back to Life, nearly 15 years after its first publication in 1998.  (I was now living in Mount Shasta in far northern California, about a 5 hour drive from the Bay Area.) The original publisher, New Society, supported the idea.  So much had happened in the world since 1998–crises intensifying and new ones arising–that Joanna wanted to address in the new edition. Moreover, she wanted to speak more directly to what she saw as institutionalized “dukas” (causes of suffering from a Buddhist perspective)–specifically corporate capitalism with its global markets and prioritizing of profit over all other concerns. And of course the Work itself had evolved, with many new practices she wanted to share.   

Cover of 2nd edition of *Coming Back to Life*

For this new edition, Joanna made it clear that she wanted me as a more equal partner.  She was fully aware that the years were taking their toll on her ability to focus her thoughts and needed me to help hold the focus.  Moreover, I had much more experience in the Work by then, having led several workshops in various settings over the years, experience which I could bring to the new edition.  Our work together was just as satisfying–if not more so—this time around.  

Each of us poured through our copies of the first edition, making notes in the margins about what we saw that needed to be changed.  Then we posted big sheets of newsprint on the wall of her study to outline the chapters and what we wanted to include, adapt, or add to the new edition. 

Now we each had a laptop and access to much easier programs and interface.  Even so, Joanna preferred to print out chapters once they were in draft form. We would read them aloud to each other and make notes in the margins of any changes needed.  

Joanna loves to salt her writings with poetry and pithy quotations from many sources, to communicate how much the Work That Reconnects is part of a larger world-wide movement.  We both made lists of favorite quotations and poems, which we would consult whenever we needed an epigram to begin a chapter, or remembered something relevant to the topic at hand.  Quotations often presented themselves in communications we received through email, websites, or even social media–often appearing at just the right moment. Needless to say, we could not include everything from our collections.

As we worked through the old edition and envisioned the new one, we agreed on four major changes: 

  1. We wanted to describe the Spiral more fully. In the earlier edition, there was a brief reference to the idea related to “sequencing.” However, in the years since, Joanna had developed the Spiral as a major feature of the Work.  We described it in some detail in Chapter 4, “What is the Work That Reconnects?”
  2. We wanted to revise Chapter 5 on “Guiding Group Work” fairly drastically.  Joanna thought it was woefully inadequate, so we virtually rewrote that chapter from scratch, with many hours spent thinking together about what was needed. We also changed the title to “Guiding the Work That Reconnects.”
  3. Although Despair and Personal Power had a chapter on working with children, we had left that out of the 1998 book.  Joanna wanted to acknowledge the work being done in that field by several creative facilitators, and asked me to gather and integrate that information in a chapter on working with children and teens–which I did.
  4. Historically, most of the people attending Work That Reconnects workshops were white middle class folks, predominantly female and middle aged.  With the climate crisis heating up, more young people became interested in the Work, including young people of color. As the number of people of color attending workshops began to grow, Joanna and her assistant Anne Symens-Bucher gathered a group of people of color for a dedicated facilitator training program held at Canticle Farm. Joanna as the root teacher was the only white person in attendance.  Joanna wanted to report on that experience in the new edition, along with a section on “Deep Culture” from Patricia St Onge (who presented her work during the second cohort), as well as essays from some of the participants.  Thus a chapter on “Learning with Communities of Color” came into being.  

Note: Since the completion of the new edition, many facilitators in the Work That Reconnects have met to examine the unconscious assumptions of power, privilege, and oppression that are endemic in white society today and may be carried into Work That Reconnects workshops. In response, Joanna and I have revised some of the practices and the Three Stories description to broaden the language and perspectives beyond that of the predominant white culture. These revisions appear on the workthatreconnects.org website.

As we neared the completion of the new edition, we had to decide on the title and subtitle–something entirely new or similar to the previous edition.  We decided to keep the main title, Coming Back to Life, and change the subtitle to name the Work up front: “The Updated Guide to the Work That Reconnects.”  This also signaled that the book is a guidebook on how to facilitate the Work. This was especially important to Joanna to distinguish it from Active Hope- How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy, which she had recently co-authored with Chris Johnstone.

Joanna has always welcomed new insights and practices into the Work.


In my experience, Joanna has always welcomed new insights and practices into the Work, because she sees the Work That Reconnects as alive and evolving. This was why she wanted to write an updated edition of Coming Back to Life.  At the same time, she is committed to staying true to the basic principles of the Work: 

  • the movement of the Spiral, 
  • the roots in systems thinking and spiritual teachings, 
  • the vision of the Great Turning,
  • the need to “sustain the gaze” as we confront the Great Unraveling,
  • the need to honor our pain for the world as evidence of our radical interconnectedness with all people and all beings within the web of life, and
  • the intention to act for the sake of all beings as an organizing current in our lives.

So although she wanted the Work to be shared with the world as “open source” or “creative commons,” Joanna hoped Coming Back to Life would serve as a guidebook and resource to help people offer the practices in the context of these principles.  May it be so!

Personal note:  My relationship with Joanna changed the course of the second half of my life.  I was 48 when I took that first workshop with her; my children were grown and I was entering a new phase of life.  It’s hard to imagine now what would have unfolded if we hadn’t connected. I have learned so much through working and talking with Joanna, more than I can begin to summarize here. And largely due to our friendship, the Work That Reconnects has become my life’s work, too.


Molly Brown, editor of Deep Times, co-authored Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to the Work That Reconnects with Joanna Macy. Molly brings ecopsychology, the Work That Reconnects, and psychosynthesis to her work writing books and essays, teaching on-line courses, phone coaching, talks and workshops. Her six books include Growing Whole: Self-realization for the Great Turning and Lighting a Candle: Collected Reflections on a Spiritual Life. With Mutima Imani and Constance Washburn, Molly directs and teaches the Spiral Journey Facilitator Development Program for the Work That Reconnects.  Website: MollyYoungBrown.com.

 

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