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An Interview with Joanna Macy
by Martha Boesing and Susan Moon

(printed in Turning Wheel, the Journal of Socially Engaged Buddhism, Fall/Winter 2006)

    Joanna Macy is a Buddhist teacher, writer, activist, and scholar. For three decades, she has been developing teaching tools to help us respond to the perils and suffering of our world. Her work combines imagination, courage and good strategy to bring us teachings about “the work that reconnects.” This work is described in one of her many books, Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World (with Molly Young Brown, New Society). Joanna has been a mentor, advisor, and supporter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship from the beginning.
    In the following interview Joanna speaks of the Great Turning, a name for “the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the Industrial Growth Society to a life-sustaining civilization.” You will find more about the Great Turning on her excellent website (www.joannamacy.net) along with many other teaching tools, resources, encouragement, and inspiration.
    In May 2006, Martha Boesing and I interviewed Joanna in her home in Berkeley, California, as cherry trees bloomed outside the window. Martha is an activist, playwright, director, and former BPF board member. —SM

Martha: This issue of Turning Wheel is a “call to action” in a time of urgency. What actions would you call people to?

Joanna: The very term “call to action” suggests sounding the bugle and getting everybody to run to the barricades. That’s the response we’ve become habituated to: urgency, urgency, urgency! At this point, I’m convinced that it’s too late to turn around the collapse of the industrial growth society, and that the task we all have, and one that I find worthy and exciting, is to help each other through it, saving what we can, and making sure that the collapse destroys as little as possible.
    There’s so much to save. There are many mental, spiritual, and psychological tools that we can give each other, as well as linking arms to slow down the destruction and to create new forms, new structures, new Gaian ways of doing things.
    So, for me, in the last year or two, the conceptualization of the Great Turning has been a source of increasing gratitude on my part. The Great Turning helps us understand that the industrial growth society is doing itself in. There’s no way to save it, and why  would we want to? There’s also no point in buckling on the armor and heading out to destroy it, because it’s doing that job very well itself.
    So what we want to do is focus on serving life as best we can in this time of unraveling and destruction.

Martha: Do you believe the Earth will survive?

Joanna: Yes, I think that the Earth will survive, and that some humans will survive,  but that they will be condemned to live in a severely degraded world.
    My husband, Fran, recently attended the Chernobyl conference, on the 20th anniversary of the accident. He learned that 40 percent of the surface area in Europe was contaminated. So let’s look at how we can serve the generations that are coming after us, to save what we can, and to do it with joyous gratitude that we have the opportunity.

Sue: Do you think that some fronts are more urgent to work on than others, or do you think it’s all equally urgent?

Joanna: Some clearly have more repercussions, deeper levels of causality, in our planet’s system. Rising sea levels and shifting ocean currents caused by melting arctic ice, for example, could bring on famine quite rapidly.
    It’s just common sense that some issues are more urgent than others. But the problem with prioritizing is that we can start to compete in urgency, to say, “My issue is more important than your issue.” If we are fully, undividedly responding to this time of crisis, we won’t try to harangue each other. We won’t say, “What are you doing just working for women at the rape center when there are…blah, blah, blah.” I find that tiresome in the extreme. All these concerns are interrelated. An attitude that says: “I’m doing this, but I totally respect what you’re doing” will serve us better in the long run.
    Also, we need to realize that we may not succeed, and to actually take that in. Because we suspect it, so we might as well bring it around from behind our left ear where we don’t want to look at it: We may fail. There’s no guarantee. But this is our chance, you know? The very dire nature of our situation helps us drop our dependence on seeing the results of our own actions. Once we drop that, then we’re almost unstoppable. It’s very liberating.

Martha: And it’s very Buddhist: the door to liberation lies through suffering.

Joanna: Exactly. There is a door, sometimes a quite narrow one. It’s a door that’s painful, but if you just walk through it, then you’re in a big place. Everything is shot through with radiance, and you think, “Ah, we can do this.”

Sue: I always take comfort in the law of karma—that beneficial actions produce beneficial results. So even if I don’t see the results of my actions, I trust they will have an effect somewhere down the line.

Joanna: That’s right. And that motivates you to keep dedicating the merit.
    You know, I thought of you, Sue, last week, when I went to the weekly demonstration at Boalt Law School about U.S. torture policies. I took my turn, as you had done, to stand on the street, wearing the pointed hood that we know from the famous photograph from Abu Ghraib. My arms got so achy as I held them out. Through the black hood I saw people hurrying by, trying not to look. It felt good to have that experience, that solidarity.
    In the Great Turning, there are three domains of essential activity, which are often pitted against each other. But they go together.

Martha: What are the three domains?

Joanna: First, there are holding actions to slow down the destruction being brought by the industrial growth society. That includes most of our legal, political, legislative, and regulatory work, as well as civil disobedience and direct action. It’s very wearing, with more failures than successes, but it’s terribly important because it saves lives, species, and ecosystems for the sustainable society that is taking birth now.
    The second dimension is creating alternative structures and alternative ways of doing things. We can call them Gaian structures, Gaian ways of doing, and they are arising with abundance in this time. These changes are mostly unreported in the media, which is another reason why the Great Turning is important to talk about, because the mainstream, corporate-controlled media do their best not to reflect it.
    I’m talking about new ways of holding land, new ways of growing food, new ways of distributing food, new forms of energy, new forms of schooling, new forms of healing, alternative currencies, barter systems, and new ways to measure wealth, sustainability, and disease. There’s a lot going on!
    But these forms aren’t going to last unless they’re deeply rooted in new ways of understanding reality, new ways of seeing our relationship with ourselves, each other, and the living earth.

Martha: And that’s the third domain?

Joanna: Yes. That’s the shift in consciousness—spiritual, cognitive, and scientific. That’s where systems theory and deep ecology come in.
    These three domains support each other. You can go into one and find yourself popping into another. Julia Butterfly goes up the tree Luna for two weeks, to save it, and she ends up staying for two years, and, because of cell phones and radios, she is able to participate hugely in the shift in consciousness. It’s important to see these connections, because the divisiveness that sometimes takes place in communities for change can be quite disheartening.

Sue: That brings up another question I have. You’ve been doing this kind of work for so long, all your life, really. There must be times when you just think, “Oh no! It’s impossible!”

Joanna: Every day!

Sue: What keeps you going in those times?

Joanna: I love this whole Gaian approach to reality. It stretches my mind and heart. I love stretching my perceptions, as well. Another thing is the great people. I wouldn’t know either of you without this work. Forgive me, but when I think of the company my mother kept, her bridge partners and so forth, I feel lucky to be around people I so admire and take delight in.
    I like being alive at a time when the basic assumptions underlying patriarchy are being dismantled: Papa knows best, shut up and obey, the rules of private property. As a child growing up under top-down power, I thought, “Oh well, that’s just the way life is, I guess.” Now there’s a great comeuppance as we see how destructive these assumptions are.

Sue: We also see people believing in these assumptions and strengthening them. There’s a polarization, too.

Joanna: Yes. I’m disheartened about what’s in store for this country. I’m wondering what can wake us up when we have already seen wars of aggression, two elections stolen, our constitution shredded, the Democrats being so cowardly.

Sue: It seems to me that we are called on to have a lot of courage right now. Sometimes I feel that I don’t have enough courage. I don’t stand in front of bulldozers. I’d like to develop more courage for standing in front of bulldozers, metaphorical if not literal ones.

Joanna: You know, frankly, I’d throw in the sponge any day if I could, but I can’t. It would be so boring. What would you do that would be half as much fun?

Sue: I can think of some fun things to do. You could work in the garden and make nice flowers grow, paint a picture, sing a song, make dinner for your family, have a wonderful vacation on the beach. You could say, “I can’t deal with it anymore. I’m just going to go to a class on making mille-feuille pastry.”

Joanna: It’s not wrong to enjoy your life. It’s good to do those things, too. Just don’t buy your garden fertilizer from WalMart.

Martha: What do your grandchildren think about all this, Joanna?

Joanna: They understand that Oma and Opa are working for the Earth, and they kind of like that.
    In the workshops we give we go into “deep time,” where we allow the future beings and the ancestors to become real to us. We take it as scientific fact that the future is inside us. Sister Rosalie Bertell, the researcher in radioactivity, says that every being who will ever live is on earth now, in our DNA and in our gonads and ovaries.
    I can’t imagine staying as involved as I have, and as glad as I have, without the deep time work. I think our grandchildren are going to go through a lot of awfulness that we can’t stop, and that what we’re doing now may make more of a difference for generations a little farther off.
    I would like to see American Buddhists include the world situation more in their practice, because the Buddhadharma gives us wonderful tools for being within a challenging situation. People work so hard on a retreat. They really do. Such focus! What could be harder than training the mind to watch the mind, day after day. To me, it’s just a shame to make this huge effort, which uses every ounce of your being, and not set it within the context of the healing of our world. There’s danger that people will just do this for their personal comfort or as some kind of escape. The psychic strength and the acuity of vision that develop—why not apply them to the collective situation that we’re given by being born now?

Sue: As Aitken Roshi says, Buddhism must be engaged. There’s no such thing as just sitting on your cushion.

Martha: How can an organization like BPF help bring a concern for the world into Buddhist centers in the West?

Joanna: BPF stands for that concern, for one thing. It has a kind of symbolic weight. Some of us have talked in the past about writing a letter to the Buddhist teachers in the U.S. I don’t want to name names, but there are teachers with a huge following, who raise buckets of money, but who rarely if ever mention political and social concerns. And these are the people to whom we give the care of our souls.

Sue: That’s a good idea, to have a letter from BPF to the teachers, encouraging them to bring in those concerns.

Joanna: People need to be reminded of what is happening, that this whole, technically based, industrial growth system is about to go under, at tremendous cost. It’s hard to take it seriously. Look! There are cherry trees outside, blooming. There are children coming home from school. There are people heading to the grocery store. This looks like a peaceful day in a beautiful place.

Sue: And it is.

Joanna: I have to battle with my own natural tendency for moment-to-moment forgetting. Then my friends come back from Palestine, back from Iraq, back from Nigeria, and they tell me what they’ve seen.

Sue: I think we can enjoy the cherry blossoms with gratitude at the same time that we remember the people being bombed in Iraq. Somehow, we have to fit both of those things, at the same time, into our awareness.

Joanna: Yes, I have never in my life been more in love with the blooming flowers. People walk by me as I stand there gazing at them. Everything seems so very, very precious.

Sue: How do you see your own role, personally, changing? You’re an elder for us, and you’re getting older. You couldn’t have the energy you used to have in a day, though it certainly looks like you have a huge amount of energy! All of us are getting older. What is it appropriate for us to do as we become mentors and elders and pass on the actions to younger people?

Joanna: I’m actually a little embarrassed to be running around so much! I think it’s not age-appropriate. But it’s true that now I give more hours in the week and in the month to being with people one-on-one in a mentoring way. It’s happened naturally.
    In my teaching, in the work I do with groups, there’s more spontaneity, even glee. There’s more emphasis, just coming up naturally, on gratitude. I’ve become more aware of what I’ve received. Gratitude is necessary because it gives us a ground to stand on when there’s so much crashing around us. Gratitude is not dependant on external circumstances.
    In the Western psyche, there’s a tendency toward self-loathing and self-hatred. I’ve heard Buddhist teachers comment on this—the challenge in presenting the Buddhadharma in a situation where there has been so much self-blaming, culturally and religiously inspired. An untrammeled love for life is like a raft, like a lifeboat—just to love it, just to love it.
    In The Book of Hours, Rilke says, “I just want a little more time, / Just give me a little more time, because I am going to love the things as no one has thought to love them.”
    If nothing else happens in the workshops I teach, I feel it’s time well spent if we can get back to loving life; if we can see that the pain we feel for the world and our love for it are not separate, but that they are two sides of one coin.

Sue: A significant offering you make is that you show us it’s possible to do this very difficult work and not turn away from suffering, not be afraid of the dark.

Joanna: There’s a wonderful practice we do, written by Caitriona Reed, of bowing to our adversaries. As we bow we say something like: “You who destroy the environment for your own profit, you show me how much I value honesty and generosity, and how much love I have for our planet home. So I bow to you in gratitude.”

Sue: Can you tell us a story about an encouraging experience you’ve had recently?

Joanna: I visited the Onondaga Nation recently. They’re one of the six nations of the Haudenosaunee, in central New York, whom we used to call the Iroquois Federation. The Onondaga are among the poorest because they won’t build casinos. They know that once the casinos come in, the mafia comes too. Onondaga land goes in a huge swath from Pennsylvania all the way up to Canada, though only a tiny part of it outside Syracuse, New York, has been left in their control.
    Last year the Onondaga finally brought a land rights claim against the state and federal government. Their tadedaho, which means their spiritual leader, announced it at a press conference. He’s a construction worker in long braids and a steel helmet, chewing gum, and there were tears in his eyes. He said, “This lawsuit is hard for us to do because if we fail at this, then there’s no hope left for our people. But we have prayed a lot and this is our demand.”
    They’re not asking any recompense. They’re not asking anybody to move. They’re asking one thing only: that the land be cleaned up, that it be environmentally restored, for the sake of the white people living there as well as for themselves. This is the first such claim that has been made in this country.
    When I visited the school in their nation, a teacher, one of the clan mothers, said: “Here in this hall, we meet every morning with the students for thanksgiving. Of course, we do a very abbreviated form because the real thanksgiving takes several days.” To my total delight, she proceeded to guide me in their 20-minute version. “Now we gather our minds as one mind. We give thanks to Grandfather Sun, who warms the seeds and gives us light so we can see each other’s faces. We give thanks to the moon, who changes her shape and pulls the waters. We give thanks to the maple, chief among the trees.”
    I felt: this is the way we’re going to survive, if we do survive. Our teachers will be those who have been through a holocaust and still love the world. If we can love our world, then we have a chance. We’ll save something of it. You don’t have to get a grant from the MacArthur Foundation—just love something. That’s my call to action.
    As I sat there with that wise woman, I thought about the long journey we have all been on together. The life that is in us, breathing through our lungs and beating our hearts, goes back to the first unfolding of space-time. Over billions of years this planet has nurtured the life that is in us. Just as the Buddha, on the night of his enlightenment under the bodhi tree, remembered all his past lives, we can remember all the eons and beings that brought us to this point. You don’t have to believe in rebirth, as the Buddha pointed out himself, but you can know that you’ve been brought to be alive on Earth at this time for a reason. It’s a privilege to be alive now.