John Malkin Joanna Macy, I am very pleased to be here with you in person.
Joanna Macy It is a delight. Welcome to my home.
John You have said that we are living in a time of a Great Turning. You call it the third turning of the wheel of dharma, a time when we are experiencing a revolutionary shift from a society based on industrial growth to one based on life sustainability. What evidence makes you feel that this shift is occurring and how is this view different from simply having hope?
Joanna I am so glad that you are starting with that because the concept of Great Turning has been of enormous help to me and my colleagues around the world, particularly at a moment when, on the surface of things, there is so much bad news and many setbacks. Environmental controls are being eroded, military contracts are being awarded and preemptive war is the order of the day.
Many great thinkers of our era have been teachers to me. They see that we are in the midst of a revolution that is as significant in its magnitude as two other recent revolutions. One is the agricultural revolution, which took centuries; and much later came the industrial revolution, which was quicker. Now, right on the heels of those revolutions, comes this revolution.
John Why is the current revolution inevitable?
Joanna It is inevitable because the industrial growth society is not sustainable. We are already on overshoot, as we say in systems thinking. Or, it is a “runaway system,” where we have already exceeded the renewable limits of the resources and have already exceeded the capacity to absorb the wastes that we have dumped into air, soil, water and earth. So we have just a little time left. We cannot continue at this rate.
Then we can look around and see that this revolution is happening particularly in certain dimensions. It has been useful to think of them in three dimensions. The first is in the holding actions to slow the damage, what many people think of as activism. The second is in the new institutions, such as organic farming and alternative health care. And finally, the third dimension is the perceptual shift in consciousness.
This revolution is happening and we don’t know if it will succeed or not. And that is a very useful thing to confront and recognize right on. There are no guarantees in life. And we don’t know if the systems that sustain life will unravel, thanks to our assaults upon them, before the life-sustaining society structures really are set in place. But that is always the case. When you put seeds in the ground, you don’t know if you are going to have a bumper crop. Or if you go into labour, you don’t know if you are going to have a healthy baby. So we have this enormous privilege in our time of being alive in a historical moment when what we do — how we relate, how we think, how we move ourselves about — has enormous effects. That is a great gift. A sense of meaning for our lives is right there and is something quite grand.
I just want to tell you this quote I heard the other day: “The essence of an adventure is not to know the outcome. The essence of a joyous adventure is not to need to know the outcome.” This is the great adventure of our time and it can transform every part of our life. And in the meanwhile, our hearts break all over the place, as we see the huge losses that are being incurred. We can’t stop those losses. We can’t stop all of them, so our hearts are breaking, our minds are opening, and our hearts are opening. We are weaving connections for the future.
John Many people seem to have become depressed and afraid, particularly since the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. Many people agree that there has been a lot of destruction and dysfunction in our world, in our social, economic and ecological structures. We don’t know if we are going to manage through this. That in itself creates a lot of fear and distress in people and there can be the idea that it is too late to reverse the destruction of the earth. What do we do with that feeling?
Joanna We can realize that our very sorrow for the world, our dread for what might happen for the future beings and for our children and their children, our outrage at what is happening — all of these, which I summarize as “our pain for the world,” are actually evidence of our interconnectedness. Otherwise we wouldn’t care so much.
Now the mainstream thinking would have us privatize this grief and think that we are personally maladjusted or something. But this grief actually springs from deep caring. It is a shift that happens when you realize your sadness, the depth of sorrow — my God, what we’re doing to each other! Look how we are deregulating clean air acts and pumping poisons into the atmosphere, creating so many hundred thousand more cases of bronchitis.
To even feel a little grief is actually good news for you because it shows that you are not sealed off. You are not morally autistic. It matters to you. You are capable of suffering with your world. In every spiritual tradition the capacity to “suffer with” — the literal meaning of compassion — is honoured.
John But how do we know when to reach deeper into one’s own pain and into the pain of the world around us or when to let go of that and move on? I think that in our culture, we are particularly conditioned to want to push away the painful experiences and try to have as many pleasurable experiences as possible.
Joanna The only thing to watch out for here is if you’re afraid of the pain. That is where you get into trouble. It is not that you should be actively seeking to feel lousy about our prospects and to sink into the bottomless pit of sorrow. But you have to keep on going. You acknowledge that it is there without being afraid of it. I would say using the breath, the breathing through, helps a great deal. I always teach that in my books and in my workshops.
This is a time to stay present to what’s happening in our world, and it is really hard to do alone. We are social animals and now more then ever, we need each other. We need that companionship on the way, to help us know that we’re not crazy.
John There seems almost to be a crisis in knowing what truth is now. This is accompanied by the idea that, “Well, I don’t know if this effort I am making will see success anyway.” You touched on that earlier, with a lot of the work that we do to end suffering, we don’t know how it will turn out. Also, I think of Gandhi. He entitled his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. He viewed life as an experiment without knowing what will happen.
Joanna You don’t need to know. Don’t you find it really boring to hang out with people who think they have the answer? I mean, what is duller than that? Curiosity enlivens us and we cannot be genuinely curious if we think we know it all.
I have a friend who says, “Things seem to be getting worse and worse and better and better, faster and faster.” Well, as things get worse and worse, there is a temptation to get absolutely furious at the people in power who are making decisions that bring so much suffering. Or who are buying the politicians. There is a tendency to demonize them and I want to acknowledge how grateful I am to the Buddhadharma for offering me ways of being able to look at the perpetrators of great suffering and not demonize them.
The roots of suffering are not this person, this politician, this CEO or this terrorist or whatever! The roots of suffering are mistakes the mind makes. They are delusion, ignorance, craving and hatred. That has been such a huge teaching in its resonance, in my life and the lives of so many colleagues. Especially when you see how, in our time, there are institutionalized forms of greed, hatred and delusion. And they are powerful. But they’re not flesh and blood.
John There is still a dominant tendency in activism or in political change to attempt to remove those in power with the intention of gaining power to use that power better.
Joanna You bet! That is called “turning over the dung heap”! (Laughter)
Joanna Everything will be great, just put me in there, too! But it is the structures that need change. You get into the way it is structured, the rules of the game. Now, in the rules of the industrial growth society, if the CEO of a corporation tries to make decisions based on the sustainability of his raw materials, he can be ousted by the shareholders.
As we see in the Great Turning, this is one of the most ingeniously inventive times of our whole human story. There are so many new structures and perspectives that are springing up. And at the same time, there is such a radical extension of self-interest. People in every line of work — from radiologists and anti-nuclear activists, to permaculturists, farmers and the economists with their alternative currencies — are taking part in this great adventure of the revolution of our time.
John You are speaking about a very different sort of revolution than people were talking about fifty years ago. The idea of revolution is changing. Along with that, ideas about power are changing. You wrote, and I really appreciate this, “Power adheres not in any entity, but in the relationship between entities.”
Joanna Oh, you got it! The revolution in our time is a cognitive one as well as a spiritual one. That is why I got so excited about general systems theory. It reveals that, in terms of our intellectual understanding of how reality is structured, we are shifting from a “stuff” based view of reality to a process view. It is like shifting from noun to verb. The same thing happened at the time of the Buddha. That is why he didn’t want to get stuck on whether you have an atman or not, whether you have a permanent self or not. He said, “We are process. Karma. We are something happening.” Karma means action. We are action. Power occurs as we act and it occurs when we relate. It is very liberating!
John There can be the view that one must choose between “being” and “doing” or between being active in social change or involved in spiritual growth, or addressing our own suffering versus addressing the suffering of the world. I think that there is a similar dichotomy present between beliefs in science versus religion or mind over matter. Do you think there is a possibility of a third, combined, non-dualistic way of viewing and living in the world?
Joanna Well, that is one of the exciting things about being alive right now. That old dichotomy has been breached. It is so boring, anyway! (Laughter) There were years and years where there was debate whether it was more important to get enlightened first or get psychoanalyzed first or get your head straight first before you took action, before you climbed in the barricades. Or vice versa: “I must stand on the barricades first in order to earn the right to focus on myself. I have to take care of these terrible injustices. I can’t have any rest while there are still the homeless on the streets, and then I can sit on the zafu.”
I think these ideas are tragic and that this kind of polarization has turned a lot of people from doing either well. The Great Turning helps me to see that the truth is that you have to do both. And in a way, you have to do both at the same time. At least not see them as sequential, that you do one first.
This revolution we are in takes all of these norms and shakes them up and intermingles them so that you don’t know when you take an action whether you are going to be finding yourself in the midst of great mysterious awakening when you are just going out to collect signatures for a petition. The change is so deep and it will affect every part of our lives. It won’t be easy, but it won’t be all that hard because a different kind of strength comes through us.
John Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. both embraced social change and spiritual practice. King spoke of an “inescapable network of mutuality.” In Buddhism this is referred to as mutual causality or interdependence. Can you explain a little bit of what that view is?
Joanna It is really so radically new for us. It actually is the view that indigenous peoples and all humans have had — in our pre-industrial, pre-imperial, and actually perhaps, pre-patriarchal times — in seeing the natural world and ourselves as parts of each other. We are intricately, actively and organically interrelated as one body. It is like seeing that this world, which seems to be made up of all these separate entities, is actually connected through invisible relationships. These relationships are invisible to the physical eye. Just as an ecosystem is invisible to the physical eye, so is a society. The aspects that make it a society are invisible to the eye.
Interdependence, that view of the Buddha and of the systems thinkers, invites us to see the web of life in which we cohere and to honour it, to live according to its laws, because there are laws. “As we do unto others, so it is done unto us.” And this isn’t just some nice old wives’ axiom or moral. That is actually the way it works. It is the way an ecosystem works; what you do to others happens to you. We are not aloof from what we do. In my workshops, we get into the question of “What is a living system?” It is a process, a dance. Like a whirlpool or a flame, it is in constant transformation. An image that we use a great deal is that we are like a nerve cell in a neural net. So then, as living systems, we are in constant change, thanks to our relationships. There is a constant flow-through of matter, energy and information. It is a physical flow-through and a mental flow-through. And we discover that we are conditioning each other all of the time. This is true of life; it is reciprocal.
Once we understand it, this has immediate psychological effects on our notion of self-interest. My self-interest can’t possibly end with my skin. When we exterminate or contaminate places like the Amazonian rain basin or San Francisco Bay, we are doing that to ourselves. This is the heart of the spiritual, intellectual adventure of our time. We are waking up to the vastness of our mutual belonging, and the vastness of the mind that is available to us in that opening.
John Why is it still worthwhile to cultivate a relationship with the “world as lover,” to “fall in love with the world,” as you put it? How do we do that?
Joanna Well, I think that we’re made for it, for one thing. I think that we are built to take delight in our world with our senses of sight, smell and touch. We have tremendous capacity to connect with each other and the world around us. And we’re miserable when we don’t. It is hard to connect when you are scared. This is the great tragedy of fear.
We must not fall prey to wanting to exempt ourselves from pain or think that we should be feeling great or on top of the world all of the time. Not that I want us to wallow in suffering, but just to see that our very grief is an evidence of our love. It is the other side of the coin. Our pain and love for the world, and our reverence for life and our grief over it is present.
How can we toss in the sponge? Who are we to say it is too late? Who are we, with our finitude and discouragement and our grumpy moods and our bleeding hearts? Just look at today’s news, oh my God! But there is something huge happening for life and if we free ourselves from being dependent on the visible results of our own actions, and just take part in the dance to offer what we can, with curiosity and gladness for the opportunity — then, well, that’s enough for me.
Learn more about the systems of thought that influence Joanna Macy's work: Deep Ecology and Human Systems Theory