Living for the Future with Joanna Macy
Eco-Buddhist Joanna Macy on facing an uncertain future, changing the world through love, and looking at the Earth as an extension of ourselves.
Illustration By: Katie Daisy
By anyone’s standards, Joanna Macy has lived a far-reaching and audacious life. As a young woman, after studying the French Communist Party during a Fulbright year in France, she was recruited to work for the CIA in Cold War Germany. She discovered Buddhism while working with Tibetan refugees in northern India. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Macy participated in the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement, a self-governance program in Sri Lanka. In addition to her work as an activist and scholar, she is the author of books such as World as Lover, World as Self and, most recently, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy. Now in her 80s, she spoke with S&H following a weekend workshop at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
You have written that the loss of certainty that we will have a future is the pivotal psychological reality of our time.
Yes. Simply to be conscious in our world today involves awareness of unprecedented peril. When we wake up to what is happening to our air, soil, waters, and seas—and when we see that it’s at our own hands, wrought by our own political economy—it’s easy to doubt whether we’ll have the collective foresight and will to pull ourselves out of the downward spiral. I don’t know of any other moment in human history with this degree of uncertainty.
How is that different from apocalyptic visions of the past?
There were times, like the first millennium and during the plague, or Black Death, in Europe, when people thought the world was ending. But those fears were cast in terms of a just and wrathful god, punishing the wayward and wicked. Now the prospect of our demise is shorn of any religious meaning. Today it is not the pious but the scientists who have the direst outlook on the human prospect.
Until now, most of our ancestors seem to have lived with the assumption that other generations would follow—that their children, children’s children, and those yet unborn would carry on and walk the same earth under the same sky. Hardships, failures, illness, and death were encompassed within that sense of collective continuity.
Given this reality, most of us don’t feel comfortable voicing our concerns about the world. It’s just too sad.
Feelings of grief, dread, anger, and fear are perfectly natural and healthy given the dangers we face. But we repress these feelings. We tend to block them because they are frightening, and we take them to be dysfunctional and a sign of weakness. We buy into the idea that our pain for the world is rooted in some personal neurosis or craziness. We fear that if we give it our attention, we’ll get mired in it. Actually, the opposite is true: we are only stuck with what we don’t allow ourselves to experience and address.
Continual repression of feeling takes a mammoth toll on our energies. This anesthetization dulls other aspects of our lives as well. Loves and losses are less intense—the sky less vivid—for if we don’t let ourselves feel pain, we won’t feel much else either.
I find that a great freedom comes when we can speak the truth of what we see happening to our world. As we hear it echoed by other people, we come to realize that we’re talking about something far bigger than our separate self.
Yes, a central idea in your work is that we have the ability to continually expand our sense of self. What’s wrong with worrying about our own separate self?
Well, notice how every religion and spiritual tradition gives guidance on what to do with the self—with all its clamoring wants and needs. Some paths tell you to punish or mortify the self, others to improve and ennoble it. Buddhism asks us simply to see through it, as a fiction or illusion. Every tradition also includes teachings that expand the self in widening circles of identification. You can learn to draw the circle of the self so wide that the body of earth becomes your larger body, with the rivers like your veins, the rain forests your lungs. Through our desire to protect what we love, we can recognize our interconnectedness with all life.
In Active Hope you quote the deep ecology philosopher Arne Naess: “Unhappily, the extensive moralizing within the ecological movement has given the public a false impression that they are being asked to make a sacrifice—to show more responsibility, more concern, and a nicer moral standard. But all of that would flow naturally and easily if the self were widened and deepened so that protection of nature was felt and perceived as protection of our very selves.”
We’re not going to save our world by sermonizing and preaching to each other. Nor will we save our world out of duty and grim determination, or by winning an argument and persuading other people that they’re wrong. We probably can only save our world through loving it enough.
You’ve said we become what we love. When we think in this way, we’re not acting on behalf of the earth because it’s the right thing to do, but rather the natural thing to do once we begin to expand ourselves. It’s like self-interest.
Yes, a collective self-interest. And what is remarkable about the present moment on earth, it seems to me, is that there are millions of people whose motivation extends beyond their separate, individual lives, who are devoting their efforts, dreams, and hopes to the survival of life on earth. It’s beautifully documented in Paul Hawken’s book Blessed Unrest, this great expansion of the intention to serve earth. Hawken calls it the largest social movement in history, and I agree with that. Over the years I’ve been lucky to meet thousands of people whose deepest passion is for the survival of life on earth. I believe this heralds a basic shift in human awareness and motivation.
You’ve developed a series of workshops where people can build on that awareness.
If we want to give life a chance to continue, we’ve got to be able to voice our concerns. We’ve got to open our eyes and our mouths to what is actually going on. So the [workshops] started with providing people a safe place to speak from their hearts about what they feel and see and know is happening to our world.
It soon became apparent that people not only felt relief in the truth telling, but also a larger energy pouring through them. It was like a shift in identity, as if they were speaking not only on their own behalf but on behalf of earth.
This work has less to do with coming up with hard solutions to the world’s problems than with developing the emotional clarity and stability to be a part of the shift that needs to take place for life on earth to continue.
There are plenty of organizations to help us analyze the causes of the planetary crisis, and places where we can develop strategies to address them. The main focus of our work is to get mentally and emotionally free, clear, and present to our world.
The first thing that you emphasize in these trainings is gratitude. With all the reasons to despair about the state of things, why start there?
As our situation grows more perilous, it becomes ever easier to just shut down. So to counteract that, we get in touch with our basic gladness to be alive. That basic gladness, or thankfulness, is actually the first move in all major religions and earth wisdom traditions. The primal sense of wonder and excitement that you are here at all strengthens the psyche and brings you into fuller presence, so that you’re grounded enough to also look at the pain you feel for our world.
Gratitude is a habit you can grow. As it becomes more instinctive, you discover that it’s not dependent on external circumstances. You can turn at any moment to be thankful for what is sustaining your life, for the bits of beauty around you and the relationships that illumine your life. We’re so fortunate in North America to have the example and teachings of indigenous peoples who, despite all the dispossession and humiliation visited upon them, have maintained a practice of thanksgiving. For the Haudenosaunee it begins every gathering, and they call it “the words that come before all else.”
Gratitude is also politically subversive. Our political economy persuades us that we’re needy and deficient unless we buy the latest this or that. So gratitude, with the sense of enoughness it brings, is liberating.
The Haudenosaunee inspired an exercise that I participated in during your workshop at Harvard Divinity School. We were asked to consider ourselves ancestors to coming generations. Specifically, we were asked to imagine seven generations into the future. What can we learn from thinking in this way about time?
Our ancestors knew how to take future generations into consideration. They would work a whole lifetime on a cathedral or a vast irrigation system that they would never live to see completed. They found fulfillment in caring for the future ones. As a culture we seem to totally disregard the needs of those coming after us. We’re using everything up, and what we don’t use up, we destroy or contaminate, with no thought of the mess we’re leaving.
In World as Lover, World as Self you write about how the challenge presented by nuclear waste and its long-term care also impacted your perspective on time.
I saw that my country was making astronomical amounts of radioactive materials that will cripple and kill for thousands of generations—far longer than recorded history—and we didn’t seem able to conceive of what we were doing. It was the nuclear waste that impelled me to want to ask future generations what they wanted us to do with it, because it was clear to me that our government and industry had no idea, and they still don’t.
Now in the linear, one-way view of time—where the past is irretrievably gone, and the future an abstraction—you can’t imagine asking the future ones. They’re not here yet. But I listen to mystics, poets, and philosophers who found another way of being with time. They see that the past generations and the future generations are here with us, surrounding the present moment like a cloud of witnesses.
They are especially present in this time. Given nuclear waste, fracking, and genetically modified organisms, the consequences of our actions—our karma—will endure through time and determine the future ones’ chances to be born sound of mind and body.
Sister Rosalie Bertell, a radiologist who researched contamination from nuclear energy and weapons, had this to say: “Every being who will ever live on earth is here now.” Where? In our ovaries and in our gonads, and in our DNA. So, since our karma now extends virtually forever, it is important that we choose to feel the presence of the ancestors and the presence of future beings.
Sam Mowe is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. He is a contributing editor at Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.