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Date: 01/01/2014
  • Practices
  • Honoring Our Pain
  • Emerging Facilitators
  • Facilitators

Despair Ritual

from chapter 7 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.


Time: 60-90 minutes


The Despair Ritual, one of the oldest forms of our work, serves much the same purpose as the Truth Mandala, but with greater intensity. It has the advantage of movement, encouraging people to circle around and displace themselves at will; and more people are actively engaged at one time than in the Truth Mandala. On the negative side, the Despair Ritual can get pretty loud and chaotic. We have been offering far fewer in the last twenty years, which may be as much a sign of our aging as a cultural shift. Indeed, after Joanna recently experienced it again with young activists of color (as described in Chapter 12), it seems the venerable Despair Ritual may be more suitable nowadays for young people than for old fogeys like us.

Originated by Chellis Glendinning after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the ritual’s structure was prefigured in a dream, and its function was inspired by the practice of “speaking bitterness,” which was used in China to alleviate apathy and paralysis from the suffering incurred in the revolution.

People confessed, not their sins, but their sorrows. This had the effect of creating emotional solidarity. For when people poured out their sorrows to each other, they realized they were all together on the same sad voyage through life, and from recognition of this they drew closer to one another, achieved common sentiments, took sustenance and hope.

The despair ritual has a similar result: moreover, its form offers people the opportunity to “touch bottom,” in experiencing and expressing their pain for the world. As they do, people lose their fear of it. And the bottom becomes common ground. 



The process unfolds in three concentric circles. At the outset everyone is standing and moving in the outer ring, which is the Circle of Reporting. The next is the Circle of Anger and Fear (with two cushions to pound on), and the innermost, a pile of pillows at the center, is the Circle of Sorrow. Elsewhere in the room, a corner space is marked off with plants or branches to create the Sanctuary. 

After initial explanations by the guide (see “Advice” below), the ritual begins like the Truth Mandala with a vow of intention – “May the work we are about to do serve the healing of our world” – and a long sonorous sounding of AH which symbolizes all that has been silenced or unsaid. People now move around the outer circle, counterclockwise, and at their own pace. Spontaneously they begin to make short comments about what is in their hearts and minds about the condition of the world. They report both facts and feelings – simply, briefly, without explanation. 

“In my city the homeless are being arrested now, and the shelters are closing.”  

“The air pollution is giving my daughter asthma.”  

“I am terrified of getting cancer.”  

After each statement the group responds, “Indeed it is so,” or “We hear you.

When emotion wells up and people feel moved not only to report it, but express it, they enter one of the two inner circles. In the middle one they may stride, stomp, pound pillows, shout out their anger or fear. Or they may move directly to the Circle of Sorrow, kneel or sink down on the cushions to release their grief, crying and sometimes holding each other. People stay in any circle as long as they want and return as frequently as they want. At different moments, almost half the participants may find themselves in the inner rings; all the while the reporting continues. As emotions and noise escalate, individuals may want to take refuge from the turbulence – then they go sit a while in the Sanctuary. There they can be quiet and a bit removed, while still following and supporting the process. 

The great advantage of having the three circles and the Sanctuary is that people can participate simultaneously at different levels of emotional engagement. As they move back and forth, they discover the fluidity as well as the depth of their feelings. And those who don’t give free rein to their feelings still provide a supportive presence.

After painful facts and feelings have been expressed at length, and may have reached a crescendo, or repeated crescendos, the tone of the group usually shifts. The movement down into darkness and distress begins to turn of its own dynamic into a movement up toward affirmation, as people experience the profound commonality of their caring. Statements like “my brother is dying of AIDS” are increasingly interspersed with “I’m planting a garden,” or “Folks in my neighborhood are organizing a cooperative.” This shift cannot be programmed, but it virtually always occurs. The prevailing mood begins to change, even though some still weep in the Circle of Sorrow. Often people start clustering there, touching arms and shoulders, meeting one another’s eyes in compassion and gratitude. A humming or song may arise, with the rest soon joining in.

Each ending is different. Sometimes a good number of the group needs to stay longer with their feelings of anguish; but even then you can sense an abatement of energy, a shift in mood, a temporary kind of completion. Then, in an appropriate pause, you as the guide move to close the ritual by acknowledging the significance of what has transpired and inviting people to honor each other for their participation. Help them refocus on the group as a whole and soon invites them to once again sound the AH that began the ritual.

Sometimes the closing is less dignified. Hilarity can happen when deep emotions have been released – all the more so when they pertain to our shared world. Then the solidarity that has been rediscovered can explode in dancing and drumming.


Advice to the guide

The Despair Ritual is quite a challenge to facilitate, requiring trust, authenticity, and constant alertness. Anyone serving as guide – or “road person” as Chellis put it – should reread the section on “Working with Strong Emotions” in Chapter 5 of Coming Back to Life, and also attend to the following counsel.

  • It is best not to offer and lead this process before you have experienced it.
  • Do not attempt it with less than a dozen people or more than fifty. Twenty or thirty is optimal.
  • With over 20 people, allow a couple of hours, including time for preliminary instructions and time at the end to unwind.
  • In your preliminary instructions, emphasize the fact that everyone has different emotional styles and timing. No one should feel any pressure to behave in a particular way. Emphasize, furthermore, that each person always has a choice about the extent to which they let themselves experience and express their emotions.
  • Remind the group of the distinctive nature of the ritual, which is to allow people to speak archetypally and on behalf of the collective. Here the dread, rage, and grief we express are not ours alone; given our interconnections in the web of life, the tears we shed could also be those of an Afghan mother, a street child, a hunted whale. If someone sees another in the ritual process expressing strong feelings that they also share, they may show their solidarity by quietly standing or kneeling beside them. 
  • Participate. Never hold yourself aloof from the ritual, as if you were an observer or some magus. Take part fully and with two levels of attention – one level as an ordinary participant, and the other maintaining a continuous, overall sense of how people are doing and watching for moments when you may need to intervene.
  • Intervene if people reporting from the outer circle fall into dialogue or debate. This is unlikely to happen if you have clarified the distinctive nature of ritual.
  • Intervene if a person begins to distract or disturb the others by “acting out” some private emotional agenda. This rarely occurs, but if it does, you can handle it. Simply go to the person, make physical contact with their arms or shoulders, ask them to look at you and then look around the group – to “come back” to it – and invite them to rest a while in the Sanctuary, with your co-facilitator.
  • You may choose to provide support to persons undergoing extremely heavy emotional discharge. You can do this by touch or your simple physical presence beside them.
  • If nothing seems to be happening, just breathe and wait. Let people take their time.
  • If everything seems to be happening at once, the storming and sobbing looks as if it could go on for days, and you wonder how you’ll ever bring the group back to “normal”, our advice is the same: just breathe and wait. Your job is not to rescue people but to allow them to take advantage of this rare opportunity to share so fully their pain for the world. Trust the process.
  • As with the Truth Mandala, hold the ritual near the middle of the day, and let it be followed by a break. People need time quietly to absorb the experience, preferably together – so don’t let people leave right afterwards. The Cradling, Spontaneous Writing, or Imaging with Colors and Clay are good follow-ons; and it’s excellent to have some time in nature. The ritual should never be the last process of the day. 
  • Later on, let people meet in small groups to share their experiences of the ritual; then conclude with a general discussion to give people a chance to say things to the whole group.
  • Do we need to say: don’t do both the Despair Ritual and the Truth Mandala in the same workshop?


Contributor/Author: Joanna Macy & Molly Brown