Interview with Joanna Macy
By Jayna Gieber
Teacher-activist Joanna Macy, Ph.D., is a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology. A respected voice in movements for peace, justice, and ecology, her scholarship is grounded in five decades of activism. She is the root teacher of “The Work That Reconnects,” a groundbreaking theoretical framework for personal and social change as well as a powerful experiential methodology. This is described in her 2014 book Coming Back to Life: An Updated Guide to the Work That Reconnects (with Molly Young Brown; published by New Society Publishers: www.newsociety.com). More information on Joanna’s work can be found at www.joannamacy.net and www.WorkThatReconnects.org and http://www.activehope.info/.
Rev. Jayna Gieber, True Recollection of the Mindfulness Trainings, Inclusive Intention of the Heart, practices with Buddha’s Bookbag Study Sangha in Vancouver, Washington. Her life is devoted to family, spiritual practice, and the People’s Climate Movement. Her website is: www.peopleoftheheart.com.
Ecological comrades since 2002, Joanna and Jayna reconnected in a heartfelt, energizing interview via Skype in November of 2014, Joanna from her home in Northern California and Jayna from her home at Crooked Kitty Ranch in the Pacific Northwest.
Joanna Macy: So good to see your face again, dear Jayna!
Jayna Gieber: Joanna, it’s wonderful to see you too. Thank you for this interview. The 9/21/2014 People’s Climate March around the world drew millions of people together. There is new blood flowing into the People’s Climate Movement. What do you feel are the most impactful aspects of this movement, and what is most imperative to focus on now regarding the climate?
JM: We need to focus on helping people trust their own good instincts to protect life, and their ability to tell the truth. Immediately after 9/21, I was teaching in Massachusetts with many young people who came back from the climate march charged with energy and high spirits.
There has been a disconnect in the soul of our country, with our people being pulled onto the path of permanent war and learning to tolerate the militarization of the police, the legitimization of torture, the increasing reliance on nuclear weapons. We need to help people break free of their fear, which is so dangerous, because fear can paralyze people or induce panic and scapegoating––for example, the fear and loathing so many people now feel about the noble tradition of Islam.
With the march, these young people have recognized that the climate is not just one more issue, like mountaintop removal, coal mining, tar sands, or marine mammal protection. Climate chaos is the umbrella issue.
JG: As Naomi Klein calls it, “The Big Tent.” We all share the same atmospheric climate and all issues relate back to it. Just as with the Buddha’s precepts, or as Thich Nhat Hanh calls them, the Mindfulness Trainings, each one touches and evokes another.
JM: So it is essential to recognize the root cause of climate chaos, which is the industrial growth society. Naomi Klein sees it as “capitalism versus climate.” For too long climate change has been debated with numbers, temperatures, emissions, and dates––which keeps it all abstract and even remote. But our political economy requires us to keep on consuming more and more; that kind of growth is sickening to our own spirit and body as well as to the spirit and the body of the planet.
Resilience and Love in the Face of Suffering
JG: In the face of great suffering and overwhelming crises in our world, what do you do when you feel despair or grief? How do you keep your joy and resilience alive? What nourishes your freshness, sustaining you to keep going and stay buoyant?
JM: Temperament has a lot to do with it and so do my Christian roots. I grew certain that God would never give us challenges without giving us the strength to meet them. For me, that carries over into the Buddhist path––not personalized as God but as the central doctrine of the Lord Buddha, the dependent co-arising of all things. Knowing our “interbeing” changes everything. I wrote about this in my book, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory.
What also helps me hugely is the Work That Reconnects, where we walk straight through the pain and fear. Right there waiting for us is the knowledge that we belong to each other in this world, and that is the foundation for gratitude and joy. That’s why I am so glad a wonderful new book about this work has just been published: Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to the Work That Reconnects.
JG: Waking up to the gift of being alive now and focusing on our interbeing with all.
Ancestors, Future Beings, and Deep Time
JM: Over the years, the Deep Time (a)spect of the Work That Reconnects has become ever more important. For the first time in the history of humanity, we now have the capacity, the technological means, to spoil the Earth forever. Our karma, the consequences of our actions, such as with nuclear contamination and genetic modification of seeds, can never be undone. For example, the lethal chemicals that fracking for natural gas injects into the groundwaters can never be removed.
JG: Thay speaks of the climate crisis as related to our lack of connection with the Earth and says that being in touch with love for the Earth will assist us in mitigating climate change. At the other end of the spectrum is the Dark Mountain Project, which posits that the world as we know it is ending and that we must focus on looking to writers, artists, and storytellers. Where do you land on this spectrum and why?
JM: I say watch out for opinions, known in Buddhism as a ditthi––attachment to a mental view. We can’t be certain of what will happen because we’re only a small part of larger living systems. That systems reality also means that nothing can happen to us that would separate us from the sacred living body of Earth. The future and the past are close around us. The ancestors and the future beings are ready to help us, but they need our hands and our voices.
JG: I have two grandchildren now, so this sense of a bloodline moving into the future is very real for me. That’s why I’m going to Rio, Brazil with Al Gore for the International Climate Reality Leadership Training, to deepen my commitment to environmental actions. I will take you with me. Many highly educated scientists and biologists will be attending, and while I’m not educated in those ways, I am a minister, a grandmother, and a woman of heart. What I take is a love for life, an emphasis on meditation, and connecting with ancestors and future beings.
JM: That’s wonderful. Thank you for taking my work and me with you to Rio!
JG: Last year on retreat I sat with Thay and shared my tears of despair and deep love for the world and the dread that my grandbabies may not have a habitable planet to live on. He said to have faith in the children, the future beings, and to accept help from the ancestors, as well as creating Sangha support. It’s not about us figuring it out alone but being open to guidance.
JM: That’s it! Because our minds are too limited and we’re too corrupted by hyper-individualism. We can choose to just open up and trust our grief and trust our outrage too, as they come from a place of deep caring.
JG: Thay also refers to civilizations coming and going and that it may be too late to create the changes we need to preserve life. However, we must try. Viewing the climate crisis as a spiritual and ethical dilemma, we move from a place of love, compassion, and conviction. There is the possibility that humanity may not survive as a species. We can still choose to be present to life.
JM: He said that? Good for him. That liberates us! The last chapter of my book, Active Hope, is all about this––about being “strengthened by uncertainty.” We can be very glad to be here even if we do not know what the future holds.
JG: As Viktor Frankl, holocaust survivor, taught, regardless of what awfulness might be happening, “we can choose our own attitude.” Many believe planet Earth is in hospice and there is no coming back; we will lose all the species. What do you say about that?
JM: I know there are others who say the loss of all species is inevitable. But that’s an act of hubris and lack of realism in how open systems work, because systems act symbiotically and with synergy. So yes, it looks pretty grim right now. But it’s arrogant to assume we know, to insist that there’s no chance.
JG: Perfect. Amen. I love that.
JM: I think it’s very important to accept...
JG: ...that we don’t know. I’m curious, how are you able to maintain such active hope? Is it because of embracing bodhicitta found in the bodhisattva heart?
JM: Exactly, all of it.
JG: Despair, grief, hope, love...
JM: We must accept we’re in a big pickle and do what we can. The joy is in the action, as I’ve seen with the most effective and busy, devoted activists. This has been true for me for the last forty years. Yes, we can look over the brink to see how grim it is. That just actually gives us a sense of immediacy with the chances that are available. Move quickly with the chances. Just as you’re doing. You felt, “There’s this happening in Rio”––and you moved on it––“this is what I want to be and do.”
Spiritual Influences on the Journey
JG: How have your spiritual practice and your work been influenced by Thich Nhat Hanh and other spiritual teachers?
JM: Thich Nhat Hanh and his teaching have deeply inspired me for over forty years, long before I met him in person in 1982 at the United Nations Special Session on Nuclear Disarmament. You know, I’m inspired by heroic figures who love and act for our world: Vandana Shiva’s crusade against Monsanto and GMOs; Wangari Maathai’s tree-planting Green Belt Movement in Africa; Arundhati Roy working with tribal people to stop dams; and Edward Snowden risking everything to reveal the extent of government surveillance and deception. It’s good to do a little hero worship––to have images to inspire us and remind us of what we are also capable.
JG: As you look over the span of your life and how you have loved life on Planet Earth, what do you feel your legacy will be?
JM: I would like to leave the practices of the work––especially the Deep Time of connecting with ancestors and future beings, and the Great Turning (2) to help people see clearly the three dimensions: 1) actions to slow the damage to Earth and its beings, 2) analysis of structural causes and the creation of structural alternatives, and 3) shift in consciousness. Also, helping people listen to their true voice and what is deep inside, helping people not be afraid of their pain and anger and not pathologize grief that comes from such a deep caring for life.
JG: Beloved Joanna, you are one of the few who will leave this kind of legacy, that it is not only acceptable but wise and brave to be in touch with grief and despair to open our hearts to loving life and the planet even more. Thank you for being one of our world’s wisdom elders. I bow to you.
JM: It’s been wonderful to see you, Jayna, and to share with the Mindfulness Bell.
1 Deep Time refers to a way of being and rituals that connect us with all life––past, present, future, the ancestors, and future beings. 2 The Great Turning is a name for the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization.