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Date: 01/01/2014
  • Practices
  • Seeing with New/Ancient Eyes
  • Emerging Facilitators
  • Facilitators

The Cradling

from chapter 8 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.


Please note that this practice calls for physical touch between participants. Follow the guidance below and proceed with sensitivity to physical trauma and personal choice in whether to participate and to what extent. 


Time: 20-60 minutes


A guided meditation on the body, the cradling practice serves many purposes. It permits deep relaxation, all the more welcome after dealing straight on with fearsome issues. It builds trust among participants, and a kind of respectful cherishing. It widens our awareness of what is at stake in the global crisis; for the dangers we face – pollution, ecological collapse, famine, warfare – are dangers because of what they do to the body. 

The Cradling also taps deeper levels of knowing, stirring reverence for life. Usually, in dealing with the deterioration of our world, we try to get our minds around it; we deal with it on the informational level, as if we were brains on the end of a stick. The Cradling quiets for a while the computing mind and opens it to the wordless wisdom of life. 



People work in pairs, taking turns. First you model with a volunteer how Partners A lie down and Partners B, following your verbal suggestions, will “cradle” them, which means lifting arms, lower legs, and head. 

Proceed with care and respect. Touching another person’s body is a sensitive and often problematic issue. In some cultures it is virtually taboo. Even in California, people can interpret touch as an invasion of their personal integrity, especially if they have suffered physical or sexual abuse. So inform people that the practice involves their letting their arms, legs, and head be lifted and held; ask them to choose a partner with whom they will feel comfortable.

Now Partners A, removing glasses and shoes, loosening ties and belts, lie down on the floor, close their eyes and relax. Have them place themselves so that there is adequate room for their partners to move around them to cradle arms, legs and head. Assist with a brief guided relaxation (stretching, feeling the breath, letting weight sink down, releasing tension from feet, legs, hands, etc). Soft background music, like flute sound, is helpful, but not essential.

Respect the participants for their trust and stay matter-of-fact in your manner, avoiding a portentous or sugary tone. Speak relatively slowly, interspersing suggestions with silence, remaining casual and reflective, as if observing some constellation in the heavens or a conch shell on the beach.

Whatever words or images are used, it is good to touch on certain themes. These motifs renew and sharpen awareness of what it means to be a living person at this time in history. They include:


  1. the uniqueness of the human species in the cosmos 
  2. our long evolutionary journey
  3. the uniqueness of each individual, and of each personal history
  4. the intricacy and beauty of the human organism
  5. its universality, linking us to other humans around the globe
  6. and its vulnerability


The following transcript of Joanna guiding the Cradling is offered for illustrative purposes only. You will not be repeating this word for word when you are the guide; you have your own style, your own experience to use. Now, however, read it reflectively to get a feel for the process, its pace and unfolding.

Lift gently your partner’s arm and hand. Cradle it, feel the weight of it… flex the elbow and wrist, note how the joints are hinged to permit variety of movement. Behold this arm as if you had never seen it before, as if you were a visitor from another world… Observe the articulation of bone and muscle … Turning the palm and fingers, note the intricacy of structure.

What you now hold is an object unique in our cosmos:  a human hand of planet Earth. In the primordial seas where once we swam, that hand was a fin  – as it was again in its mother’s womb. Feel the energy and intelligence in that hand  – that fruit of a long evolutionary journey, of efforts to swim, to push, to climb, to grasp. Note the opposable thumb, how clever and adept it is… good for grasping a tool, a gun, a pen.

Open your awareness to the journey it has made in this present lifetime… how it opened like a flower when it emerged from the mother’s womb.… how it reached to explore and to do. That hand learned to hold a spoon… to throw a ball… to write its name… to wipe tears… to give pleasure. There is nothing like it in all the universe.

Gently laying down that hand, move now to your partner’s leg and slowly lift it. Feel its weight, its sturdiness. This species stands upright. Bend the knee, the ankle, note the play of bone and muscle. It allows this being to walk, run, climb. Holding the foot, feel the sole, no hoof or heavy padding…. It is this being’s contact with the ground…. Feel that heel; when it kicked in the womb, that was what the parents first felt through the wall of the belly…. “See: there’s the baby’s heel”. And such journeys that leg has been on since then… learning to take a step and then another… walking and falling and getting up again… then running, climbing, kicking a ball, pedaling a bike… a lot of adventures in that leg… and a lot of places it has taken your partner… into work places and sanctuaries, mountainsides and city streets… gotten tired… sore… still kept going. Gently putting it down now, move around to the other leg and cradle that one, too.

Observe this companion leg and foot… which shared those journeys… and many yet to come. For all its weight and sturdiness, it can be broken, crushed… no armor… just skin that can tear, bones that can fracture. As you hold that leg, open your thought to all the places it will take your partner in the future… into places of suffering perhaps… of conflict and challenge… on missions that your partner doesn’t know about yet… As you lay it back down, extend your wishes for its strength and wholeness.

Lift now your partner’s other hand and arm … Observe the subtle differences from its twin … This hand is unique, different from all other hands… Turning it in yours, feel the life in it …  And note also its vulnerability… no shell encases it, for those fingertips, that palm, are instruments for sensing and knowing our world, as well as for doing…  Flexible, fragile hand, so easy to break or burn … Be aware of how much you want it to stay whole, intact, in the time that is coming… It has tasks to do, that your partner can’t even guess at.… reaching out to people in confusion and distress, helping, comforting, showing the way. This hand may be the one that holds you in the moments of your own dying, giving you water or a last touch of reassurance…. The world of sanity and decency that lies ahead will be built by hands like this one. With gratitude for its existence, put it gently down; move now around behind your partner’s head.

Placing a hand under the neck and another beneath the skull, slowly, gently lift your partner’s head… Partner A, keep your neck relaxed, your head heavy, loose. Lift that head carefully, cradle it with reverence, for what you now hold in your two hands is the most complex object in the known universe… a human head of planet Earth… a hundred billion neurons firing in there… vast potential for intelligence… only a portion has been tapped of its capacity to perceive, to know, to vision.

Your hands holding your partner’s head – that is the first touch your partner knew in this life, coming out of the womb into hands, like yours, of a doctor or midwife…. Now within that skull is a whole world of experience– of memories of scenes and songs, beloved faces… some are gone now, but they live still in the mansions of that mind…. It is a world of experience that is totally unique and that can never be fully shared…  In that head too are dreams of what could be, visions that could shape our world.

Closing your eyes for a moment, feel the weight of that head in your hands. It could be the head of a Chinese worker or an Nicaraguan mother, of an American general or an African doctor. Same size, same weight just about, same vulnerability, same capacity for dreams that could guide us through this time.

Looking down at this head, think of what this person may have to behold in the times that are coming… the choices to be made… the courage and endurance needed. Let your hands, of their own intelligence, express their desire that all be well with that head. Perhaps there is something that you want your partner to keep in mind  – something you want them not to forget in times of stress or anguish. If there is, you can quietly tell them now, as you lay their head back down.

Allow time for the recumbent partner to stretch, look around, slowly sit up. Then A and B reverse roles, and the verbal cues are offered again in different words. At the conclusion of the whole process, time to reorient is important. Let the pairs talk quietly or remain in silence for a while.

If the number of workshop participants is uneven, and you have no co-facilitator, pair up with the extra person, and lead the exercise while acting as Partner B, but not reversing roles.


Timing & Variation

Depending on the time and space available, the Cradling can take two forms: the fuller version (like the example above) lasts about 45 to 60 minutes. When time or floor space is inadequate to accommodate the full Cradling, a brief version (10 to 20 minutes) can be conducted with pairs sitting face to face. The meditation then focuses on the hands and arms, and if space permits one partner to move around behind the other, the shoulders and head as well. In that case, attention is directed to the burdens we carry, the stresses we tend to lock into our shoulders and necks; and the meditation on the head is appropriately adapted. If that is impossible or awkward, don’t worry. So long as there is touch and attention, even the briefest form of this exercise is evocative and powerful.

Contributor/Author: Joanna Macy & Molly Brown