Giving Voice to Heart

When we approach a damaged place for the first time, we often feel anxious. We worry that our grief about what has happened to this river, this wetland, this old neighborhood will be so overwhelming that we’ll collapse and never recover. We feel such a jumble of emotions that we have no idea how to sort them or begin confronting them.
An exercise I did last weekend with my co-facilitator pointed to a simple yet meaningful way to define and express painful emotions about hurt places.
For this segment of ArtGym’s Leading Creative Collaboration course, held in Kent, England, Louise Austin and I adapted a practice called the Truth Mandala created by Joanna Macy. We invited our participants to make drawings of four emotional responses that stir them as they consider this troubled world. The first three were from Macy’s template: Fear, Anger, and Sorrow. For the fourth, we chose to substitute Love for Macy’s Emptiness.
While people were making their drawings in a clearing in an ancient woodland, Louise and I went deeper into the wood and created a large circle with four quadrants out of fallen limbs and sticks. In the center we placed natural objects to evoke the different emotions: a tangled vine for Fear, thorny blackberry canes for Anger, dead brown ferns for Sorrow, and soft moss and feathers for Love.
When everyone had completed their drawings, we led them in silence into the wood and asked them to put their drawings in the corresponding quadrants. Then we invited each person to step, one at a time, into one of the quadrants and voice their deepest expression of that emotion. Each of the four quadrants received heartfelt testimony, often accompanied by tears and expressed in tones that seemed wrenched from the heart.

For anyone wishing to lead others into the practice of RadJoy, this exercise can be an opening into the experience. It offers a gentle, yet meaningful, way of crossing over the threshold into the altered space of any wounded place. It combines powerful ceremony with honest personal sharing. And it offers people a framework for their tangled emotions, while acknowledging that these emotions are shared by all of us.

— Trebbe Johnson

Trebbe Johnson
Trebbe JohnsonFounder
Trebbe is the author of The World Is a Waiting Lover and 101 Ways to Make Guerrilla Beauty. Her new book, Radical Joy for Hard Times: Finding Meaning and Making Beauty, will be published in Fall 2018 by North Atlantic Books. Her articles about people’s emotional and spiritual relationship with nature have appeared in Orion, Sierra, Ecopsychology, The Ecologist, The Nation, Harper’s and other magazines. She lives with her husband, Andrew Gardner, in rural northeastern Pennsylvania, a region currently under exploitation by natural gas companies.


  • Friedmann Children 2 Copy

When Young People Mourn Lost Nature

Elizabeth's childhood home in New England was near a woodland. She loved spending time there. The woods were her playground, her refuge, her friend, her spiritual home. She knew those trees and stones, birds and [...]

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Radical Joy Revealed is a weekly message of inspiration about finding and making beauty in wounded places.

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