Life Map / Flocking / Witnessing new

Bibliographic Details:

Lisa Heft. 2002.


This exercise, created by Lisa Heft, was inspired by Bill T. Jones (Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Dance Company). The exercise helps participants tap into their internal images and dialogue about a situation, time or issue through reflection and drawing and movement – the use of the body and creative side of the brain, and the power of ritual. This is often used before group dialogue to deepen the level of discussion.

Introduction from Lisa Heft:

I saw a videotape once of some work U.S. choreographer/dancer Bill T. Jones did with a group of people with life-challenging illness. Bill T. Jones choreographs with famous dance companies like Dance Theatre of Harlem and also for dance companies of disabled people. His own company is the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Dance Company (his lover/partner/co-choreographer Arnie Zane died some years ago from HIV/AIDS, and Mr. Jones is HIV-positive). Jones often uses spoken word in his work and often taps into multiple modalities for expressing and understanding spirit, heart, mind, culture, memory and experience. The video showed a process for a performance piece he created about living with a life-challenging illness.

Jones worked for several weeks with a group of non-dancers living with HIV and cancer — using movement and spoken word exercises to help them explore their life experiences and challenges and to communicate, share healing with and support each other. Ultimately this work also became a piece performed by professional dancers. The piece I saw on video was one segment of this longer process of support and expression.

I originally saw the piece some years ago and had always wanted to adapt and try this portion of the workshop activity out / work it out / see if it would be of use for dialogue work. Still/Here was first performed at the Biennale Internationale de la Danse in Lyon, France in 1994, with spoken text by participants of the Survival Workshops and Lawrence Goldhuber. Still/Here was co-directed for television by Bill T. Jones and Gretchen Bender. A PBS documentary on the making of Still/Here by Bill Moyers and David Grubin premiered in 1997.

At least one piece of flip-chart paper for each participant; one marker for each participant.

Number of Participants:
Any number (in a large group others can watch the final step as a smaller group does it).

2 hours or more (depending on the time you may wish to design in for dialogue and ‘unfolding' of thoughts after the exercise).

Use a large room (or large outside space) so each participant has breathing and moving room. Note that the participants do not have to have any prior experience with movement or drawing and people of all physical abilities can participate if you are aware of adaptations you may invite to include them. Be careful not to use this to cover topics that are emotional and deep unless you design in the time for people to decompress and transition back into the world after this session. If you take someone through a visualization of personal issues and you know in advance or sense that there is fear, grief or danger in their past experiences, remind them to breathe, and remind them that what happened may have been or may still be difficult and to stay with that or jump to another time and avoid that – all is fine; to remember that what happened is always part of us but that they are also having other experiences now and that that is part of them too; that they are loved — and move them forward smoothly without lingering on those moments.

This activity can be used for telling the story of anything (not just of someone's life or challenges, as it was originally used).


1. A guided visualization:

Take your participants through a reflection so they can visualize whatever journey is appropriate for the discussion or work you will be doing after this exercise. It can be a life journey, or a professional journey, a journey to and through faith, or any number of rich, complex experiences of discovery and learning over time. As you name the different parts of that journey, remember to ask how they saw that, felt that, how they saw other people, how they saw themselves, what events brought them major shifts in how they saw how they thought how they moved through the world from that point forward, major events both joyful and perhaps also painful or otherwise surprising. Then continue with this same reflection through the next phase, the next and the next, each time repeating those questions about how they felt and saw the world around them. If you wish, you could also ask them how they felt / what they carried in with them or left behind or thought about or tried not to think about as they began this conference or meeting. Then after they fit back (or don't) into their lives after our experience here today, what they know is about to happen to them, good or bad, how they feel, how it might change them. Then move them from the cognitive to the intuitive to think about what is coming to happen for them – something they cannot name but a feeling that something – they don't know what – is about to happen (for people with life-challenging illness I have asked them to imagine through their death and beyond).

2. Give them a moment for silent reflection.

3. Invite them to place their marker on their paper wherever the story starts, and in silence, to tell themselves that story again, and to watch where their pen moves in a continuous line as they tell themselves that story — to create a map of their life's journey. And to end by picking up the pen off the paper.

4. Invite them to stand up, think of the whole room as that piece of paper, and holding their map in their hands, find a place in the room where their map/story starts, and to walk their path on the map, silently telling themselves the story again.

5. Invite one person to volunteer to share their story with the group. S/he goes to stand where the story starts, and the rest of the group goes to stand behind him/her [Always ask permission of the volunteer if you / another can touch her/him lightly on the shoulder for this next bit (because many people are survivors of unwanted touch]. The first two listener/witnesses lightly place one hand on his/her shoulder (one person with a hand on one of her/his shoulders and on with a hand on the other of her/his shoulders, both behind him). Then three others put their hand lightly on the shoulders of those two, then the rest behind those two, and so on, until all are connected as a flock of birds.

Then s/he begins telling her/his story by moving though it – but this time with the others witnessing his story by fully listening and connecting and moving with her/him in this manner around the room.

6. S/he talks and moves around the room with his/her life map and the others moving with her / connected to her / witnessing in this manner.

7. Then take time for reflection by asking that person what it was like to be witnessed in this way, and ask the others what it was like to witness. Ask everyone to share what it was like for them to draw their map, walk their map, and revisit these moments that brought them here today.

Lisa Heft (Opening Space) is a facilitator and interactive learning specialist known internationally for her resources, tools and workshops on such participant-led processes as Open Space Technology and for her use of spoken word, graphics and movement to engage deeper reflection and dialogue. Clients on 5 continents include the International AIDS Conferences, U.S. Departments of Labor and Transportation, GlaxoSmithKline, One Ocean Marine Forum, National Forum on Information Geosciences, San Quentin prison and Columbia University Center for International Conflict Resolution (for whom she has consulted on Open Space process and design for conflict transformation work in Northern Iraq and East Timor). Lisa is the author of the Open Space Idea Book, Vice President of the U.S. Open Space Institute, founder of the Fabulous Facilitators learning community and current Poet Laureate of the global OSLIST.

Learn more about Lisa's work at

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