For over 30 years, Joanna Rogers Macy has been teaching in workshops and trainings that help people move through their despair and denial about nuclear proliferation and ecological destruction and to act with a renewed sense of purpose. In this interview, she highlights the paradox of our material worldview, and the joy of greening the self, seeing ourselves as part of earth's ecology, which she has written about extensively.
Joanna Macy, PhD, is a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology and has been an activist for over 50 years. As the root teacher of the Work That Reconnects, she has created a groundbreaking theoretical framework for personal and social change and has used it in her powerful workshops.
Her wide-ranging work addresses psychological and spiritual issues of the nuclear age, the cultivation of ecological awareness, and the fruitful resonance between Buddhist thought and contemporary science. Macy is the author or co-author of a dozen books, including Thinking Like a Mountain, with John Seed, Pat Fleming, and Arne Naess; Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World with Molly Young Brown; a memoir entitled Widening Circles; World as Lover, World as Self; and Pass It On: Five Stories That Can Change the World with Norbert Gahbler.
Many people around the world have participated in Joanna’s workshops and trainings, which have also been adapted for schools, churches, and grassroots organizing. Her work helps people transform despair and apathy, in the face of overwhelming social and ecological crises, into action, bringing a new way of seeing the world, as our larger living body. Joanna lectures in the Americas, Europe throughout the Americas, Asia, and Australia. She lives in Berkeley, California, near her children and grandchildren.
Joanna Macy: We’ve known this — our bodies know this — for the last two or three decades that we’re taking more out of the body of earth than it can renew and dumping more waste, much of it toxic, than it can absorb.
Joanna Macy: I don’t know how we are going to be able to come to our senses and stop this without recognizing that we are doing this to ourselves. We are mining ourselves. We’re contaminating ourselves and our illnesses show this.
Joanna Macy: More and more, I think the very grief we feel for what we’re doing to the earth is helping us see that this grief is not out of some craziness, but it’s out of a deep caring. It’s because we’re connected, because we are capable of suffering with our world.
Joanna Macy: So we begin to allow our grief in for that and the grief tells us that it stems from caring and from love, that this is–we’re not separate. It’s expressed in art. The poem of [Ranier Maria] Rilke that started me on the road was of– the translation was, “I live my life in widening circles/ that reach out across the world./ I don’t know if I’ll complete this last one/ but I give myself to it./ I circle around God…/ I’ve been circling for thousands of years,/ and still I don’t know: am I a falcon, a storm or a great song?”
Joanna Macy: We yearn to be freed from too tight, like a straightjacket conception of who we are, of our true nature, of our true beauty, of our true power. And it seems that the survival of life on earth, of this planet as a home for conscious life is going to require our daring to see ourselves as that big, and that beautiful, and in our connections that powerful. It’s going to take a lot of trust, but trust also in our own pain.
Joanna Macy: The ecological self then is a self that knows that its fate is with this beautiful earth. You grow out of this earth, distinct, exquisitely different from everything else, but tied. I’m linked to the rainforests of the Amazon and to the plankton out there in the ocean.
Joanna Macy: I am finding and seeing that there is a broadening of identification to include other beings, to include a mountainside of trees, old growth trees. It’s where people put their life on the line, whether its Judy Bari the rainforest activist, or whether it’s the Chipko women in the Himalayas going to hug the trees, to protect the trees with their bodies. What a widening of identification!
Joanna Macy: People are learning, to just redefine, to reframe what matters to them is not – reframe not just their grief, but their joy then. Reframe their purpose and service to something that you see as so beautiful and it’s been put into our hands in trust. And you’re so glad for the chance to be able to do it, and you’re so glad for the people you can link arms with.
Joanna Macy: So we just go on, and we don’t–we don’t have to take our pulse about how sad or confident we are, we don’t need to. We’re in the service of something so great.