Widening Circles Exercise
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 www. newsociety.
com. Her memoirs are also called Widening
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