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Date: 01/01/2014
  • Practices
  • Grounding in Gratitude
  • Seeing with New/Ancient Eyes
  • Emerging Facilitators
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Becoming Present through Breath, Movement, Sound and Silence

from chapter 6 of Coming Back to Life by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown; second edition, published 2014. Please acknowledge the source when you use any of these practices.


Most of us are braced, psychically and physically, against the signals of distress that continually barrage us in the news, on the streets, from the natural world. This chronic state of tension inhibits our vitality and gratitude as well. At the outset of a workshop, therefore, we turn to the breath, the body, the senses — for they can help us to relax and tune in to the wider currents of knowing and feeling.


Opening Through the Breath

The breath is a helpful friend in this work, for it connects the inside with the outside, revealing our intimate and total dependence on the world around us. It connects mind with body, lending attention to that ever-flowing stream of air, stilling the chatter and evasions and making us more present to life. The breath also reminds us that we as open systems are in constant flow, not stuck within any given feeling or response, but dynamic and changing as we let it pass through us.

Begin by having everyone pay attention to their breathing for a few moments. You may lead the group in a brief breathing practice of your choice.

In the course of the work, as we let ourselves experience our pain for the world, the breath continues to serve us, much as it serves a woman in childbirth. It helps us relax and open to the flow of information, and to the changes it may bring.


Opening Through the Body

All the threats facing us in this planet-time — be they toxic wastes, world hunger or global warming — come down in the last analysis to assaults on the body. Our bodies pick up signals that our minds may refuse to register. Our unexpressed and unacknowledged dreads are locked into our very tissues along with known and unknown toxins — in our muscles, in our throats and guts, in our ovaries and gonads. Essential joys come through the body as well: the tastes, sights, sounds, textures and movement that connect us tangibly to our world. Our faithful “Brother Ass,” as St. Francis called the human body, is our most basic connection to our planet and our future.

To bring attention to the body, continue the guidance you began with the breath, using your own words to suggest something like the following:

Stretch. Stretch all muscles, then release. Slowly rotate the head, easing the neck with all its nerve centers. Rotate the shoulders, releasing the burdens and tensions they carry. Behold your hand, feel the skin. Feel the textures of the world around you, clothing, arm of chair, tabletop, floor. Your senses are real; they connect you with your world; you can trust them.


Opening Through Sound

To open up and tune in, we also turn to sound — sounds we make, sounds we hear. The physical universe, say the ancient Hindus and modern physicists, is woven of vibrations, and so are we. Releasing our attention into sound moves us beyond the self’s cramped quarters into wider apprehensions of reality. Non-melodic music can weave our awareness into those larger patterns. So can sounding — letting the air flow through us in open vowels, letting our voices interweave in ah’s and oh’s, in Oms and Shaloms.

Sounding together we feel our capacity for community vibrate within and among us. Sounding also clears the throat, helping us feel more present to each other and ready to speak.


Opening Through Silence

Many traditions, like the Quakers, know the power of gathered silence, where together in stillness we attune to inner and deeper knowing. In this planet-time, when we face dangers too great for the mind to embrace or words to convey, silence serves. It can be as rich as sounding, while serving a complementary purpose: sounding helps us to release the planetary anguish; silence helps us to listen to it. And, later in the workshop, once we have had opportunities to specify our concerns and fears, we can take more moments to be with each other in silence.

Some guides like to begin every session with a period of silence, eyes closed, just to settle in. Sometimes they pose a question before the silence, to stir reflection for a dialogue to follow, suggesting that when people feel ready to speak out of the silence, they may do so. This can move the group to a deeper level, while closing the eyes builds trust and helps people relax and reflect.

Contributor/Author: Joanna Macy & Molly Brown