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.
The third noble truth teaches that there is a way out of suffering. In this third of a four-part series of posts transcribed from a July 2013 talk “The Dharma of Climate Change,” Dharma teacher Chas DiCapua discusses how clearly seeing our interdependence with all of life naturally alters our motivations and actions. Find the first and second parts of the series, or listen to the full audio below, generously made available by Dharma Seed.
Another teaching or dharma principle related to global climate change is interdependence, or, as it is called in the teachings, “dependent co-arising“. I posed the question earlier – how could it be possible to extract something from the level of complex interdependence and call it mine? How could we own this? Another important question for us to ask ourselves is, given such depth and breadth of interdependence, is:
How could it be possible to harm a certain aspect of this world and in turn not harm ourselves?
Of course the answer to that question is, we can’t.
Intellectually it is not much of a stretch to see that we can’t. Yet one of the big reasons that we have gotten ourselves into this mess is that this wisdom, this knowledge that we can’t harm the world without harming ourselves, is not always fully present for us when we are making our decisions about our lives and about the things of the world. This wisdom – this principle of interdependence – is not steering the ship.
The Challenge of Staying Connected
Our dominant cultural narrative (certainly the narrative shared by the US, Canada, Great Britain, and, to some degree, Europe – the cultures that tend to have the largest impact on the resources of the world, and whose social and political impact also ripples out onto the world) – our dominant cultural narrative is that each of us deserves everything we want. Anything that gets in the way of that is wrong. Isn’t this true? Americans believe that we deserve whatever we want and anything that gets in the way of that is just wrong. According to David Korten,
“When the stories a society shares are out of tune with its circumstances they can become self limiting, even a threat to survival. That is our current situation.” Out of tune with its circumstances – not in alignment with the way things are.
It can be difficult, can’t it? To stay connected to the truths of our circumstances. Like the truth that our garbage, our waste, goes somewhere – it doesn’t just disappear! It takes an increasing amount of energy to run our electronics, and it takes energy to make our electronics. They have to be made somewhere. They have to be made in a factory that takes electricity. It takes electricity to charge the battery that runs them. That happens. It doesn’t just happen by magic – it is connected to all sorts of things. It’s hard to remember that right in the moment. It’s hard to remember that every time we get in our car and drive, we are putting carbon dioxide into the air. Every time we get onto a plane we are putting massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the most vulnerable part of the atmosphere. It is hard to remember the strawberry we eat in January probably flew 2-3 thousand miles to get to us. It’s just how we live.
It is difficult, especially given the fast pace of our lives, to keep these truths present within us. It’s also physically invisible. At least in this culture, because we are privileged that it be invisible. In other cultures it is not invisible. But at least here it has been invisible, until now – because we are starting to see and feel the effects of climate change. It’s not just a theory anymore. It is actually happening. It is becoming easier to see.
We’ve Done It Before
I want to point out an example of this wisdom that knows we cannot harm one part of this interconnected web without harming ourselves. There is one way that we have actually acted on that wisdom, and wisely so. And that is, in the arms race – the nuclear arms race – it was known, very clearly, that in an all-out nuclear war no side could win because the radiation that would be released would cause everyone to suffer terribly.
So this is one example of a time when we knew that harming one part of the population, the system, would harm everything. We knew that and when we know that – when that is clear to us – we act on it. There very consciously has not been a nuclear war. It is self protection, but it is still wisdom – it is that clear knowledge that is present as we make our decisions. So we can act appropriately when we have the right information, when it is present for us while we are making our decisions.
Our task as human beings and as dharma practitioners is to reflect on the understanding that we are all connected. Our task is not only to reflect, but to be mindful of things as they actually are when they arise, understand that we are all connected through our own experience, see how conditional things are. I know some of you have seen that and have recorded it – that thought precedes emotion, that things are connected, they are not happening in isolation. To the degree that we begin to tune into this cause and effect it becomes less possible to harm the environment and ourselves in the process. Once again a very natural morality arises from understanding. This is a deep and undeniable truth, this understanding. And it is one of the main truths or insights that we start to open to as we walk this path.
Our task as human beings and as dharma practitioners is to reflect on the understanding that we are all connected. When we begin to tune into this basic wisdom, it becomes less possible to harm the environment and ourselves in the process. Once again, a very natural morality arises from understanding.
So we are back to cause and effect, sometimes called karma. This is like this because that is like that. As that changes it effects this; as this changes it effects that. Cause and effect. When we think and act in accordance with this law of cause and effect, then the outcome is one of harmony and peace. There is harmony and peace because we are congruent with how things are. There is not friction – we are going with the flow. When we think and act in opposition to this law then the outcome is one of disharmony and much suffering.
Another example of how we came into accordance with this law of cause and effect is back in the 60’s when we found out that DDT was extremely harmful to living beings, and that human beings were going to suffer if we kept using it. Once that connection was clearly made, DBT was banned.
Overcoming the TranceYou might be thinking, aren’t we making the connection now? Aren’t we making the connection between cause and effect with CO2 and temperature rise? Aren’t we getting that? And aren’t we even making the connection between temperature increase and human suffering? Isn’t that cause and effect starting to dawn? Well, yes. And no.
Remember that study I mentioned (in part one of this talk), where people didn’t respond to the smoke coming through the vent? There are strong forces at play that are keeping us from making this connection to cause and effect. Some of these forces are outside of us and have to do with the industrial/political complex that runs the show these days. For example, the amount of air time climate change gets on the news, and what is reported, is a very calculated, conscious, controlled thing. Yet there are forces at play inside of us that can keep us from clearly seeing the cause and effect of climate change. I believe it is these internal forces, and how to work with them, that our dharma practice can most effectively address. I’m not saying we shouldn’t address the outer forces. What I am saying is that looking at our own lives, looking inwards at our own hearts, and using our dharma practice to shed light on these inner forces is a good place to start.
This transcription has been edited for readability as a Dharma article. Stay tuned for the final of four posts transcribing Chas’s talk. If you prefer, listen to the full talk here from Dharma Seed:
The Dharma Of Global Climate Change
Chas DiCapua is currently the Insight Meditation Society’s Resident Teacher, and has offered meditation since 1998. He is interested in how each person can fully and uniquely manifest the dharma. He teaches regularly at sitting groups and centers close to IMS.
Shariputra, be here always … .
Return to your original heart,
leave distorted dream-thinking far behind,
leap beyond fear,
and live without walls of the mind.
Always remember your deepest heart is true …
So sit the night patiently through
and gather you wayward mind.
Take up your own power
as in your heart
is the earth’s body …
plunge your life
into your unfathomable yearning …
Core to One Earth Sangha’s mission is the cultivation and proliferation of the dharma of climate change. The Heart of the Bitter Almond Hedge Sutra is just such an offering, delivered in epic verse. Through this new text, renowned teacher Thanissara has the courage to make the connection between genocide and ecocide, colonialism and our current environmental crisis.
Juxtaposing the mystical Heart Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism with the majestic beauty of the African landscape, the haunting voices of First Nation San, and the brutal legacy of South African apartheid, Thanissara’s text pivots on the Bitter Almond Hedge as a symbol of the separation. “The inception and first demarcation of apartheid began with the planting of the bitter almond hedge (brabejum stellaﬁfolium) by the pioneer governor Jan van Riebeeck, in about 1666. It was one of his first acts on arrival at the nascent colony of Cape Town. The intention was to create a boundary and isolate the white settlers from the KoiSan and other Africans with whom, nevertheless, they needed to trade. The hedge became the first symbol of the laager, (circled wagons to ward off the enemy), and the later gated communities that deﬁne large areas of South Africa’s contemporary cities, particularly in Johannesburg.”
Speaking to the children of the conquerors, Thanissara offers hope for our deeply wounded hearts. Linking the objectification and abuse of First Nations with the objectification and abuse of the land, she declares the “ultimate apartheid [as] the mind’s own division against the heart.” Apartheid, in this context, is but one example of the myriad of ways in which the mind has erected walls against the heart. Drawing on the Buddhist text of the Heart Sutra (Prajna Paramita Hrdaya Sutra), it is to this heart, “which is deeper and more aware, and which intuitively knows the ‘intimacy of all things,’” Thanissara encourages us to return. “It is this fundamental separation from the heart’s sensitive resonance with life … that generates escalating spheres of disconnect and madness. The ultimate madness is the current drive for pathological power and obscene profit which is killing the ecological systems that our collective lives depend on.”
In The Heart of the Bitter Almond Hedge Sutra, Thanissara simultaneously breaks our hearts and offers us hope. A hope that comes with mindful awareness and a turn towards our own wise and sacred hearts. As Thanissara explains in her introduction to the text:
“At its core, the Heart Sutra imparts courage. This is the courage of the unfettered, free, and alive heart inherent within the deepest seat of inner listening. This is the heart that knows intuitively the ‘intimacy of all things.’ This heart is our birthright, a gift from the divine. … It exists within the sacredness of the Earth and within each living thing, each breath, our bodies, our sexuality, our relationships, our work, and all manifestation. It is the reclamation of this sacredness that is our task.”
Here is the faith of the wild warriors
Who leave dream-thinking far behind.
Who leap beyond the walls of the mind.
Who know the intimacy of all things.
And who return to this, our human
that feels the scream
in each mindful moment
To breathe the mystery.
To enter the unknown gate.
To love fiercely every living thing,
right down to the last blade of grass.
The Heart of the Bitter Almond Hedge Sutra is available in its entirety here.
Thanissara is Anglo/Irish and originally from London. She was a Buddhist nun for 12 years in the Forest School of Ajahn Chah and has taught meditation internationally the last 25 years. She is co-founder of Dharmagiri, a small meditation center in the Southern Drakensberg in South Africa which also initiates and supports local community engagement projects. Thanissara currently resides between South Africa and the USA. www.dharmagiri.org.
Join Spirit Rock in their second annual Earth Day event. We will bring our attention to the urgency of climate change, and the capacity of our community to respond appropriately and compassionately. We hope you will go home inspired to act!