Accessing Natural Wisdom: The Work that Reconnects

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Since its inception in 1970, the annual celebration of Earth Day on April 22nd has been a call to respond to the growing ecological crisis. As the 44th anniversary approaches, the urgency of that call has only grown. But practitioners often ask, “I am just one person so what can I do?”, “How can I know that my actions will make a difference?” or “Isn’t it too late?” In the face of a challenge as ominous as global climate change, it can be difficult to experience and sustain our own power. Joanna Macy and the Work that Reconnects offer skillful means.

Eco-philosopher Joanna Macy, PhD, is a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology. A respected voice in movements for peace, justice, and ecology, she interweaves her scholarship with five decades of activism. Joanna is the author of eight books, including Active Hope, and the root teacher of the Work That Reconnects, a transformation framework for confronting personal, communal and global challenges.

The Work that Reconnects, now a collaborative workshop methodology, deeply informs the intention and theory-of-change at One Earth Sangha. Specifically, we are inspired to

  • View our response to global climate change as practice, both inner and outer. We aspire to manifest the compassion and wisdom of the Buddhadarma in service of life.
  • Recognize and emphasize the role of Sangha as essential to transforming our situation and sustaining our well-being along the way.

In recognition of one of our most powerful teachers and of the work that she and others have developed, we dedicate this, our first celebration of Earth Day as One Earth Sangha, to Joanna Macy and the Work That Reconnects.

Approaching 85 years old, Joanna offers us a body of work that is vast and luminous. To give you a sense of her person, her great heart and mind, we offer two pieces. First is an excerpt (less than 7 minutes) of a 2009 conversation with filmmaker Leanne Allison wherein Joanna clarifies that uncertainty can actually be our ally.

We follow with a 2012 interview from Tricycle Magazine illuminating how we can respond to the ecological crisis without getting trapped by despair, hatred or overwhelm. We, the aspiring Bodhisattvas, can begin with seeing and honoring all that arises within in us as part of our belonging, as part of our love for this world.

Conversation with filmmaker Leanne Allison in 2009
Interview with Tricycle Magazine’s associate editor Sam Mowe in 2012

This interview is republished here with the generous permission of Tricycle Magazine.

Sam Mowe: I’m devastated about the state of the Earth. What’s the first step I take?
Joanna Macy: By knowing that you’re devastated about the fate of the Earth, you’ve already taken the essential first step. And that first step is directly related, in my mind, to the First Noble Truth that the Buddha taught: the truth of suffering.

It’s a funny way, isn’t it, to start a major religious tradition by saying there is suffering? But that’s what the Buddha did. And it helps us be totally present to what is, not to what we wish were there, not to something we would approve of, but present to the way things are now. Daring to open your eyes and open your mind in that local way, is that powerful.

Sam Mowe: What’s the next step?
Joanna Macy: Well, then I’d say, look at where that’s coming from. Look at what you’re feeling. You may be feeling sorrow, you may be feeling outrage. You may be feeling dread and fear. You may be feeling futility and powerlessness. But whatever it is that you’re feeling, just take a look at where that’s coming from. It’s not coming from an attitude of “How do I get ahead as a separate person?” but rather from my caring for life itself. Those feelings of grief and despair or panic don’t come out of some personal craziness, but out of our caring for life. And that caring, in turn, comes from a sense of belonging. I care what happens to this Earth because that’s where I come from, that’s my larger body. I need the air to breathe; I need clean soil to grow food. I’m not just disembodied out there in outer space.

Feeling alarm or devastation can guide us to a deep sanity, reminding us of who we are and what we need. It can remind us that we belong to this larger body and that we care for it. Our power to act, our power to take part in the healing of our world, our power to bring things back into balance, comes from the same source as that devastation. Our pain for the world, and our power to take part in the healing of our world, both come from the same place.

Sam Mowe: Even if there’s a great sanity and intelligence in being in touch with that pain, often it’s a very painful and numbing experience.
Joanna Macy: It seems that it’s not the grief or the anger or the sorrow or fear that are numbing, it’s our reaction to them. We don’t want to feel the pain, and so we pave it over. We turn away, we distract ourselves, we have all kinds of strategies not to feel them. But it’s what we do with those feelings that causes the numbing. It’s not the pain that causes the numbing, it’s our trying to anesthetize ourselves to the pain.

Sam Mowe: If we face our pain, does it ever transform into something else?
Joanna Macy: Yes, because when you recognize the pain for what it is, where it is coming from, you see it arises because you care. You give a fig, you know? It matters to you. You’re devastated about the state of the Earth, and you’re worried about climate change. In Oakland, we just closed 23 schools, and one of them is being turned into a police station. That just breaks my heart. Who likes to feel that? I hate feeling that. But I can look at where it’s coming from. It’s like the roots of that pain grow out of my caring that kids have an education. My caring that those teachers, those wonderful teachers, have kids to teach. My caring that they have books to learn from and notebooks to write in. And so that caring is beautiful, and I can affirm, “Okay, thank you.” It’s a good thing that we feel pain, because then it wakes us up to the situation we’re in, and to the fact that we care about it.

That caring comes from our belonging. That’s the power that comes from our interdependence. A lot of that is drawn from the Buddha’s teachings. He was very interested in social change, even though our anthologies of the Buddha’s writings don’t feature that particularly.

Sam Mowe: Right. Much of the Buddhist tradition seems to emphasize detachment—that samsara is a miserable place that we need to get out of. However, the aspects of Buddhism that you use in your approach emphasize connection. Are these views contradictory?
Joanna Macy: That’s the reputation that Buddhism has acquired. But the Buddha never asked us to be nonattached to the world. He just asked us to be nonattached to the ego. It’s our own selfish desires that he invites us to view with detachment. But he never asks us to be unattached to the world itself. It’s our clinging that we need to let go of. It’s wanting things to go our own way that he asks us to release.

Look at the teachings about the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva is the heroic figure who was modeled on the Buddha, one who really gets how interconnected we all are, like cells in a larger body. Then, when something affects that larger body, and other people are suffering, the bodhisattva is the one who is described as having a boundless heart, a huge heart—a compassionate one who feels the suffering not only of herself or himself, but of other beings, too. So the bodhisattva experiences a shift in identity or an extension into a larger self.

Sam Mowe: I’m intrigued by what you write about the widening sense of self. Is a widening sense of self consistent with the Buddhist idea of “no-self”?
Joanna Macy: To me, frankly, it’s the same thing. First of all, the Buddha never said there was no self. He just said you can’t prove there is a self. And he kept inviting us to enlarge our perceptions to see how we are interconnected with all beings. He’s inviting us to keep moving beyond clinging to your own success. “How did I do?” “Did I win in that encounter?” You can move ahead from that competitive sense of having to be number one in your own eyes, needing the approval of everybody, to move into a much larger identity, where you’re feeling glad in the welfare of others. You can take joy in people having a good time.

Sam Mowe: Two of your main influences are the Buddhist idea of dependent origination and general systems theory. Both of these approaches show us different ways of looking at causality. We usually approach problems in a linear, analytic way. Your approach emphasizes mutual causality. How are these different?
Joanna Macy: Linear causality means that any important change moves in a linear chain from A to B to C to D. That translates socially and politically into a top-down notion of power.

One example would be in relating to people who see things differently than you do. In the linear view of causality, which is really a linear view of influence, we would say A wants to change B’s mind. I want to impose information onto another person. It’s a one-way street. You get that in a lot of social environmental activists, that they’re preaching at you and they’re telling you what’s right, and they’re telling you how bad this is, and you’re supposed to swallow it all. Are you with me so far?

Sam Mowe: I’m doing my best.
Joanna Macy: [Laughs.] Okay. So let’s look at mutual causality. For one thing, the direction of influence is a two-way street. So if I, person A, want to change person B’s mind, I can’t do it. I recognize that I can invite the other to entertain certain questions. I can invite the other person into conversation. I can ask questions that the other person will answer.

There is, fundamentally, more respect and humility in this approach. It goes with a view that many Buddhist teachers have espoused and called “don’t-know mind” or “beginner’s mind,” as Suzuki Roshi put it. I don’t have all the answers, but together, we can find them out in conversation. Once you try to impose your view on another person, they will only say yes if they’re scared of you, or bored with you, and want you to go away. That is just one example, and is one that the Buddha himself was very strong in articulating to his disciples. He said, “Watch out for thinking that there is a correct dogma.” There isn’t. Instead, we have to find a way to live in mutual respect in a field of uncertainty. We must relieve ourselves of having to have the answer. We can do this by linking arms with each other.

Sam Mowe: How you can embrace doubt and also keep your convictions about important things? Sometimes my “don’t-know mind” can question things that I need to know.
Joanna Macy: I see your point. But then we could come back to the first knowable—as well as noble—truth. You can know that the Greenland ice sheet is melting. You can know that the ocean is becoming more acidic. What you can let go of is knowing what other people are supposed to do. You can know that we’re heading for continued emission of CO 2 methane and other greenhouse gasses—science says that they’re leading us to a raise in temperature of over two degrees Celsius. And you can know that they say this will cause flooding and drought. So you can look at this and sort of feel a kind of solidarity or bond with other people and say, “Gee, look at this. How are we going to respond to this?” You’re not telling people necessarily, you’re not dictating what they’re to do. But you’re asking them to look. But you can know that you want life to go on. That knowing is basic to your very existence.

Sam Mowe: So “don’t-know mind” only applies sometimes.
Joanna Macy: I think it applies to tactics. It extends to our self-righteousness, to think that I have the answer of what everybody should do. But that’s a very good point. “Don’t-know mind” does not extend to our allegiance to life.


You can learn more about Joanna Macy and the Work that Reconnects at workthatreconnects.org.

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