Joanna Macy: On "our aching for reverence for the Earth"

Channels such as Mathew and Salusa tell us that all will be well, that a paradise on Earth is just around the corner; that once ETS are allowed to land, we will enjoy cosmic communion. But what if it’s not true? Could we bear it? Could we bear the idea of, for example, species extinction, a ruined Earth?

We really have no idea what is or is not coming down the pike. All we have is either our efforts to buttress belief or a willingness to sit in uncertainty. This latter is the Buddhist approach.

Back in the early ’80s, when I was a nuclear peace activist, and then discovered I was a violent peace activist, I very much appreciated Joanna Macy’s soulful work to create community through the collective acknowledgement of our grief. Now 81 years old, she is still at it, and never more appreciated than now. I excerpt here from an interview with Ecological Buddhism: “It Looks Bleak. Big Deal, It Looks Bleak.”

[After speaking about mass collapse of all biological systems on Earth, she says:]

I take all of these crises seriously and don’t argue with them. At the same time, I spend my life and breath to open our minds, and to change our heart-minds.

Sunsets are beautiful too, not just sunrises

EB: From where do you derive the psychic resources to bear witness to all this, while keeping in touch with joy?

JM: There’s a lot of joy in it. I find myself very buoyed by the work I do. I call it the work that re-connects. It involves speaking the truth about what we are facing. I think it’s very hard for people to do that alone, so this work thrives and requires groups.

It needs to be done in groups so we can hear it from each other. Then you realize that it gives a lie to the isolation we have been conditioned to experience in recent centuries, and especially by this hyper-individualist consumer society. People can graduate from their sense of isolation, into a realization of their inter-existence with all.

Yes, it looks bleak. But you are still alive now. You are alive with all the others, in this present moment. And because the truth is speaking in the work, it unlocks the heart. And there’s such a feeling and experience of adventure. It’s like a trumpet call to a great adventure. In all great adventures there comes a time when the little band of heroes feels totally outnumbered and bleak, like Frodo inLord of the Rings or Pilgrim in Pilgrim’s Progress. You learn to say “It looks bleak. Big deal, it looks bleak.”

Our little minds think it must be over, but the very fact that we are seeing it is enlivening. And we know we can’t possibly see the whole thing, because we are just one part of a vast interdependent whole–one cell in a larger body. So we don’t take our own perceptions as the ultimate. My world view has been so interwoven between the Buddhist teachings and living systems theory. They inform each other so powerfully.

“Beings are numberless, I vow to liberate them all”. This may be the last gasp of life on Earth, and what a great last gasp, if we realize we have fallen in love with each other. If you are really in the moment of experiencing our reality, you don’t say “Oh I won’t experience this because it’s not going to last forever!” You’ve got this moment. It’s true for now. We can have a reasoned concern about what is down the track, without necessarily getting hooked on something having to endure.

EB: . . . Continuing on our “business-as-usual” trajectory will acidify the oceans and trigger runaway global heating, epic mass extinction and a completely new cycle of geological time. A few climate scientists consider we may have already entered into runaway climate change.

JM: I suspect that they are right. Logically they are right: we don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. At my last workshop, people were saying “It’s too late” in the Truth Mandala that we do. And then they went out and got arrested at the White House, chained to the fence to protest the wars. So our acting with passionate dedication to life doesn’t seem to be affected. I would just as soon live that way. What keeps you going? Are you not fed by your work?

EB: Yes, it’s a powerful personal evolutionary demand that has to be lived. There is no choice.

JM: How lucky we are to be alive now—that we can measure up in this way.

EB: In the film about Jung’s life, A Matter of Heart, Marie-Louise van Franz reveals some visions he had towards the end of his life, where a large part of the planet was destroyed, but a small part endured.

. . . what it comes down to is that we are here now. So the choice is how to live now. With the little time left, we could wake up more. We could allow this whole experience of the planet, which is intrinsically rewarding, to manifest through our heart-minds—so that the planet may see itself, so that life may see itself. And we can bless it in some way. So there is some source of blessing on us, even as we die. I think of a Korean monk who said “Sunsets are beautiful too, not just sunrises.” We can do it beautifully. If we are going to go out, then we can do it with some nobility, generosity and beauty, so we do not fall into shock and fear.

The work that I do we call The Work that Reconnects. I sensed from the time that I started it a little over 30 years ago, that on one level it was to help people be better activists – more resilient, more creative, more responsible, more effective. And on a more ultimate level, I recognized I was doing it so that when things fall apart, we won’t turn on each other.

Uncertainty, Despair & Positive Disintegration
JM: I find a lot of what I am drawn to in the teaching I do, the experiential work, is to help people make friends with uncertainty, and reframe it as a way of coming alive. Because there are never any guarantees at any point in life. Perhaps it’s more engrained in the American citizen that we feel we ought to know, we ought to be certain, we ought to be in control, we ought to be upbeat, we ought to be smiling, we ought to be sociable. That cultural cast has tremendous power to keep us benumbed and becalmed. So it’s been central to my life and my work to make friends with our despair, to make friends with our pain for the world. And thereby to dignify it and honour it. That is very freeing for people.

EB: I suppose it is to embrace the shadow as well.

JM: Yes, and it’s a big shadow. I find certain science fiction, the imagination, very helpful here. I like to be stretched. Olaf Stapledon wrote in the 1930s, before the nuclear age, with an incredible imagination that was also profoundly spiritual. In The Star Maker, the human mind of Earth in the head of a particular man starts to voyage through space/time and sees the drama that we are involved in here, recognizing our mutual belonging before we kill each other. He sees this basic drama in many different forms, and it’s so rich. Of course, there are planets where consciousness came that just failed. But the adventure as a whole is so big.

Living systems theory has been so helpful to me. I think there is a drive within living systems to complexify, to wake up—there is an evolutionary movement. I speak out of the love and excitement generated by my little work, which many people are doing with me. It does require being able to experience pain. It does require tears and outrage. It does require positive disintegration. Our whole culture needs positive disintegration. It has to die to itself. So my Christian upbringing is relevant there: Good Friday and Easter, the necessity for death and rebirth. We are going to die as a culture, and it’s better for us to do it consciously, so we don’t inflict it on everyone else.


Wherever I go with workshops, I find the readiness to experience a collective awakening. I’m astonished by how explicit this is. It’s a sense of wanting to belong to the Earth, aching for reverence for the Earth. Again and again, I believe that people would be ready to die for our world, to save the life process. There is something pressing within the heart-mind that is just huge. It’s happening very fast.
That’s one nice thing about being as old as I am. I am 81 and I’ve been watching the mindset of people through the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and the first decade of this century. I was doing doctoral work as late as the 70s. The changes since then are staggering.

A major change is the relevance people are now finding in native American teachings. There’s a deep respect for the wisdom that is there, and for the nobility of character that it fostered. I think that it is a precious addition to our triple gem—this fourth gem of our time—that the native peoples are speaking out.

Eco-philosopher Joanna Macy (b 1929) is a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory & deep ecology. A respected voice in movements for peace, justice, and ecology, she interweaves her scholarship with four decades of activism. She has created a ground-breaking theoretical framework for personal & social change, as well as a powerful workshop methodology for its application. Her wide-ranging work addresses psychological and spiritual issues of the nuclear age, the cultivation of ecological awareness & the fruitful resonance between Buddhist thought and contemporary science. The many dimensions of this work are explored in her 10 books. Many thousands of people around the world have participated in her workshops, which help people transform despair and apathy, in the face of overwhelming social and ecological crises, into constructive and collaborative action. They elicit a new way of seeing the world as our larger living body, that frees us from the assumptions and attitudes that now threaten the continuity of life on Earth. Joanna travels widely giving lectures, workshops & trainings in the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Australia. She lives in Berkeley, California, near her children and grandchildren.

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