Joanna Macy: We Belong: Hope, Choice, and Our Relationship with the Earth
Tami Simon: Joanna Macy, I want to begin by saying I feel very honored to have this chance to talk to you, so thank you so much for making the time. Thank you.
Joanna Macy: Well, how wonderful to be in conversation right across the Rocky Mountains. I can picture you there. I’m imagining you’re in Boulder.
TS: Yes, and you are?
JM: In Berkeley, by the San Francisco Bay.
TS: Wonderful. I had the chance recently, Joanna, to listen to a recording of a presentation you gave, and you sounded so vigorous, so vital, so engaged in the world. And I thought to myself, “At 88 years old, Joanna Macy is doing incredibly well, and is so engaged in life, and I’d love to be that way when I’m 88.” So, my first question to you is: what do you think are the secrets, if you will, to your level of vitality and engagement?
JM: [Laughs] Well, you know, what we all can draw from is a lot older and a lot younger. I’d say four billion years. I often tell my friends, “Let’s act our age.” Not whether it’s 16, or 66, or 86, but our true age, because everything we are comes from the living sacred body of Earth. Every element of our bodies and the air we breathe and the food we’re going to eat. So, it’s time that we recognized that. I know we’re impermanent. We’re impermanent as ripples in a lake and bubbles in a river, but our true nature is the water that pours down. And it’s always invigorating to know your true source, don’t you find?
TS: [Yes.] But you know, it’s interesting when you say that, “Let’s act our age,” and that really we’re billions of years old, I think most people still identify, “Yes, but I’m 50-something or 60- something.” You’re describing—
JM: That’s very boring.
TS: Yes. You’re describing a change of worldview. Is that really alive for you day to day? “I feel like I’m billions of years old?”
JM: [Laughs] Well, actually, it’s been more alive in recent years, especially in the last year when you see what we’re facing with the unraveling of political, economic, ecological structures. And so, when we’re faced with something that demanding of our attention and that requiring our exploring who we really are and what’s there for us, and what we want in our center of our being, to be engaged in. Well, it’s coming alive with the Earth, protecting all life. Don’t you think?
TS: Well, you know, it’s interesting, because I read in your work, in the philosophical underpinnings of The Work That Reconnects—which is the body of work in training that you’ve been engaged in for the past couple of decades—that you think not only of the Earth being alive but that the Earth is our larger body. And I thought to myself, “Well, you know, for a lot of people that’s somewhat conceptual. They don’t experience it, really, as a living truth: the Earth is my larger body.” Can you help me understand how someone could learn to live that more with real awareness, not just as a conceptual idea: “Oh, the Earth is alive”?
JM: Well, one of the most dramatic demonstrations to me of the immediacy of this apprehension was when I describe, at that meeting you mentioned, which was in the mid-1980s in Australia, with a brave rainforest activist, John Seed, who told that the greatest epiphany—recognition of the true nature of the universe—was as he was defending old-growth forests, the great trees of the ancient continent of Gondwanaland, from illegal logging and illegal police connivance. They were outnumbered, and they had no weapons or didn’t want them. They just had their bodies standing between the logging companies and the grappling hooks and the trees. And then he, at that point, realized, “Oh, it’s not me, John Seed, who’s protecting the rainforest. The rainforest is protecting herself through this piece of humanity, which it, over the millennia, cradled into existence.”
Immediately, that came not out of hearing nature mystics preach from the pulpit or reading poetry, though I must say, one of the great vehicles for this recognition is often poetic and not conceptual. Conceptual thought is so often a rearview mirror, using words for what we’ve already understood. But what opens the windows and doors are the requirements—the adventures we actually have in the flesh, as John Seed did defending the rainforest.
TS: So, it sounds to me, if I were to summarize this first part of our conversation, that the sense of vigor that you feel is this connection to the larger Earth. And you said also during this time— during this time when, I think, many people are finding themselves, unfortunately, not more invigorated but more despairing, more feeling defeated. How is it that you’re able to have this sense of coming even more alive during the challenge?
JM: Well, you know, Tami, the year anniversary of the inauguration of our current president there were people marching in cities across the country. It was vigorous, and there was a lot of laughter and fantasy too, and determination. I’m seeing a lot of resilience and a lot of creativity, and the finding different ways to resist and to protect. Out here there’s been a move, despite our declaration of sanctuary cities to protect undocumented and dreamers, a huge movement to just deport by strength and by attacking people where they can be found. And there’s such a beautiful resistance to this. So, I think it may be a question of what I’m looking at. What I’m choosing to look at are the people who—or where my attention is arrested—are people who are saying, “This isn’t …” I want to flourish in those parts of myself that can stay aligned with life. And to move to where life is reinventing or encouraging us to find ever new ways—new ways of capturing, you know, carbon sequestration in the land and new ways of solving conflicts. All those things that in the work I do we call “The Great Turning.”
The Great Turning is still happening. The media—ha ha—our supine, compliant media doesn’t focus on that truly creative aspect of the popular response to the current administration.
TS: You talk about how there are these three stories of our time. One story, which you’re describing now, which you call the Great Turning. This engaged response where we’re reinventing our world. We’re in the midst of doing it. But you also say that one possible story for our time is the Great Unraveling—that we’re, just to summarize it quickly, headed to the sixth extinction. This is what’s happening. And that a third possible story is—
TS: Oh, this is just business as usual. Let’s all go back to our football games and paying off our mortgages. My question to you is you’re clearly invested—
JM: That’s right. And they’re all happening.
TS: Right. You’re clearly invested in the Great Turning.
JM: They’re all happening, so it’s just a question of—and this is what’s the most emboldening thing to treasure in our situation—is that we humans, as fallible and scared and dumb as we can be, we have the choice of where we put our attention. We have the choice on how we understand a given set of experiences, because these three narratives about what’s happening now are all true. The voices that dominate are voices that say, “Everything is going to be OK. We’re going to make America great again, just the old way. We’re going to grow our economy, grow our military power. We’re going to distract ourselves with more and more entertainment. We’re going to take what we can from the Earth. Let’s open everything up to mining and oil drilling, et cetera.” So that’s charged, but most of the voices we hear are that, aren’t they?
Then there are a few voices more that are saying, “Oh, but this is destroying everything.”
And they’re voices of the scientists that haven’t been bought and the journalists that haven’t been intimidated. But then there’s another story—and it’s happening too—a story of resistance and creativity, and a shift in consciousness. That’s part of that Great Turning story. Where we choose to see our world not just as a supply house or a sewer, but to see it as a living body. And that’s what I find the most exciting, Tami, about this moment, because in these first years of the third millennium, both science and spirituality and religion—back from the indigenous ones right up to our current Creation Spirituality—are seeing that the Earth is alive.
This blows me away. That at the very time when the Earth is under such assault from greed and hatred and the urge to dominate, at the same time, we are hearing voices from the indigenous folks right up to the contemporary scientists and the new cosmologists and the evolutionary psychologists and the evolutionary science, that the Earth is a living body. From systems science, Gaia theory. To me, this is stunning. And though we don’t know which story is going to win out, maybe we’ll just pillage and plunder our Earth to death. But we’re given another story now. The people that I find myself hanging out with more and more are people who can get turned on by that. Inspired by that. Enlisted by that.
TS: I want to address that person who says, “I see the possibility of the Great Turning, and I’m willing to work on it in my life. I want to be part of that. Joanna Macy, I want to be with you and the vigor you feel, but truth be told, kind of deep in my gut, I think we’re involved in the Great Unraveling. I don’t feel very optimistic.”
JM: Oh, you’re right. So that’s right. I don’t feel optimistic either. I think we put much too much value on optimism in America. Especially in America. So, I think we overrate hope in here, because we’re constantly taking our pulse as to how hopeful we feel. So, in the book that I wrote with Chris Johnstone in England, Active Hope, we define hope not as something you have [but] as something you do. And you can see what you want to choose, and you take a step and then another step, and you join people who are making it a reality. And with that understanding of hope—active hope, “hope” as a verb, “you” as a verb—then you are acting even when you’re feeling hopeless.
TS: One of the big lights that went on for me when I was listening to this presentation you gave as part of this meditation teacher training program is that you give a very interesting definition of “apathy.” You know, people think of “apathy” as a time when we feel just paralyzed because we’re hopeless, and I think people do sometimes, right now, feel paralyzed. “I just feel hopeless.” You define “apathy” as the refusal, or inability, to suffer. So, help me understand how you came to that and how important that is.
JM: Yes. Well, I was—yes. Tami, this is also very important to me. About 40 years ago, when I was engaged in activism around nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons, and because I was engaged with a team that was suing a reactor station, I was doing a lot of research on health. And I saw that the closer you got to a nuclear power station, even when it wasn’t having an accident, the more likely you were to have miscarriages and stillbirths and birth defects and tumors and leukemia. And so, this was astonishing to me and important. What I found was that nobody wanted to hear it. People’s eyes would glaze over. I said, “You know, what’s da-da-da?” Then I saw that most of the social justice and particularly the environmental movements and organizations were talking to the public and wringing their hands that the public was “apathetic.” And they were trying to scare the public: Don’t you realize how dangerous this is? Don’t you
realize what this is doing to, et cetera, et cetera.
They were acting as if the people didn’t care. As if the public didn’t care. As if the public were suffering from this “apathy.” So, I looked it up. I went to the etymology of it, from the Greek apatheia. Patheia means “to suffer”; a- is the negative. It’s the choosing not to suffer, or the inability to suffer; the refusal to suffer. Then, boy, that really clicked. So, I began to talk to people: “Well, how do we deal with something that is painful?” And we worked in groups. And being able to touch into areas of moral and mental pain that people were fearful of being alienating from other people, fearful of being viewed as depressing or depressed, fearful of being considered unpatriotic, et cetera. And fearful of pain itself. In this, particularly in American culture, where we’ve never had an invasive war and things.
You know, I don’t want to get into that, but that has been—and this is what has made me appreciative of the faith traditions of our planet, where there’s this recognition from my root tradition and biblical roots in Christianity, and in Buddhism, which has been very important to me, that we recognize that suffering happens and that we are able to keep our eyes open so that we can choose how to be with it in a way that’s helpful to ourselves and to other people.
TS: Now, Joanna, what would you say to that person who says, “My fear around feeling all of the suffering I feel about the state of the world is that I’ll get stuck in it and I’ll just wallow in it forever”?
JM: Yes, most people do, I’d say. They feel, “Oh, once I open the door—” Oh, I’ve heard people. Yes, they say, “Look, I’ve got a family to feed. I’ve got a job to keep. Don’t ask me to feel what I’m feeling because I’ll drown in it and I won’t be able to get up in the morning,” or something. But actually, this is only a feeling. And you’re only stuck with things that you’re holding, and the distance is straight-arming out, that you’re refusing to experience. Once you experience it, it’s just—boop—it’s just a feeling. Then you’re actually freer from its stranglehold on you: “Oh, I can say that, yes. I feel terrible. I’m scared shitless. Oh, I can do—” Then, in saying that, you find yourself distanced from it, not at its mercy.
This is a very basic form, many forms of attention and meditation. How do you direct your attention and presence? You decide to be with. The gift of our presence to our world is the biggest gift we can give. We can choose to be with our world in a way that opens our minds and our hearts to the suffering that is there. But speaking it, entertaining it, actually creates some distance from the pain or frees you from its stranglehold. Frees you up. So, I’ve never known as much hilarity in my life as in the midst of “despair work,” as we called it. That was the first name for this work: despair work. Despair and empowerment, because being able to voice—and we can see this in our own lives—when you voice what has been distracting you and frightening you, it shrinks in its power. It’s like the Wizard of Oz pulling back the curtain. Or, I guess, who was it? It was Toto who pulled back the curtain and just realized that it was this little guy.
TS: [Yes.] What I think’s interesting is people often, I think, tend to go to outrage, righteous indignation, anger, that kind of thing more so than a first move, when they’re responding to a situation in the world, than “Can I tell you how I’m suffering, hearing this?”
JM: No, that’s—you’re describing me. [Laughs]
TS: I think I might be describing myself, too.
JM: I’m a big-anger type. Yes. So, actually, that’s a form of suffering too. You don’t bottle up. Where emotions get dangerous is when you lock them inside and they fester. You know, they’re pent up and then explode. Yes.
TS: But, you know, interestingly, when you led this group that you were teaching through a series of sentences that they were to complete and then share their answer with each other, and I want to share the first two sentences, Joanna, because they were very powerful for me. So, you asked people to complete this first sentence: “When I look at what we’re doing to the natural world, what breaks my heart is—” and then people fill in the sentence.
JM: And they were in pairs. They would speak it to one other person.
TS: And then you had a second sentence: “When I see what’s happening to human society, what breaks my heart is …” And I noticed when I heard these sentences, and I heard the phrase “What breaks my heart is,” it brought out a very different response than my normal righteous-indignation-and-anger response. It brought something different out in me. “What breaks my heart is …” So, I wanted to talk about that and why you focus on that language for people to come forward about what’s breaking our heart.
JM: [Yes.] Yes, well, that’s language I’ve been using over the last 10, 12 years, I guess. Before, at the very beginning of this, I would use things, you know, “One fear I have about the world …”
[and] “What causes me …” But right now, I feel that you can go straight to the heartbreak, because that’s there underneath. It’s there in the grief, and it’s right there under the outrage, and it’s right there under the hopelessness and the dread and the suffocation of not daring to want to—untouched, or rather unverbalized, unaccepted, unexpressed. What happens is that we either shut down, like paralysis. You get paralyzed. You used that word earlier. Or, just—and those are like twin responses—you can panic. The paralysis and the panic are like twins on a seesaw or something, because the one can build the other. The panic, or social hysteria, is getting ever closer to the surface in our culture, don’t you think? “
JM: So, we’re both—our culture is gripped by—I often picture it in my mind as we’re walking up the hill toward the future where the sun will peep over the horizon. We’ve locked arms, we’re going there, but on either side of the road we’re walking is a ditch, and one ditch is paralysis and the other ditch is panic. And it’s easy to fall into one or the other.
TS: Now, it’s interesting when you said we’re walking arm in arm and the sun is rising. I notice a part of me had this voice inside, Joanna, that said, “I just don’t buy it. I don’t believe it. I want to. That sure sounds great. Is that really the Great Turning story Joanna’s choosing to believe in? That’s like some Pollyanna thing. I just can’t buy it.”
JM: Yes, well, I was deliberately choosing a very positive—but, at any point, all the time, even as we think we’re walking to the future there is, because of the darkness and immensity of the dangers we’re creating and wrecking our world with, are these tendencies to close down or erupt and turn on each other. So, if you express—and maybe this doesn’t make sense for a lot of people, but it has for me, and for people who are—if you can speak it and own it.
You know, Tami, we’re a country of shut-down people. And we can leave them shut down with more hopelessness and distrust, or we can let people open up by expressing, because you see, we are all living parts of a living larger body: our Earth. And we are—we already belong to each other and to the [Earth]. We may not feel it at a given situation, but we breathe the same air. We drink the same water. We are hearing. We are seeing the same sky. Our innards have the same beautiful intricacy and plumbing that brings forth new life; that can paint a picture. We have the same so that—and there’s a drive in living systems to evolve. They’re self-organizing, and they’re self-evolving.
So, the essential for me has been not only my scholarship and practice in the Buddhadharma, as well as my Christian roots, but my doctoral work in systems theory. Living systems. And living systems want to unfold. So, you’re really, when you turn off, you can pull down the blinds and lock the door and turn off the tube, but that’s not a way you’re at your happiest, and you’re not feeling very fulfilled—or alive.
TS: OK. A couple of questions here for you. One is that in talking to you right here in this conversation, one of the things that really impresses me is how real it is for you in your experience of being a part of the greater body of the Earth and the Earth’s evolutionary process. And I’m wondering, was there an experience you had? Because a lot of people, they’ve read systems theory, and they’ve studied interdependent co-arising, and they understand it theoretically, but they don’t really know it. Was there some experience in your life, Joanna, where it lit up for you as a living truth?
JM: Well, as a child, I loved being on the summers at my grandfather’s farm. But I think that a moment that I found, looking back now, as self-freeing, was actually over 50 years ago when I was just coming into—I was in the Peace Corps in India and beginning to meet and work with Tibetan refugees and finally drew up the courage to ask for some teachings, but not for the first year because they were so tired, sick, and hungry. But then when the teachings came, the teaching that blew the top off my head was the teaching of no self. That we don’t have a permanent, separate self. It came to me in a way, which is what I was reading and where I was— I think I mentioned that, actually, in that talk—where this is powerful medicine for a people who, for a culture that for 500 years has been steeped in and having drilled into it this hyper-individualism. This competitive, lonely, cowboy ego. And the only person you can really rely on is yourself, and that you must be the captain of your ship and the master of this soul. It’s come to the point of our journey of humanity that is showing how the tragic effects of this kind of conditioning and so that when I experienced—not just conceptually but allowed myself to experience what it would be like to not be a separate, permanent self and to be—it was like a popcorn popping. All was outside was on the middle, and what was in the center of me was on the outside in the world around me.
Now, that has been true, and you can find mystics in every culture, and poets as well. And other artists and dancers who have testified to this experience of having a collective identity of this feeling—this profound “interbeing,” as Thich Nhat Hanh would call it. It is something that can be experienced. What I think is that that is more consonant with science than with just the normal way to be. And I’ve seen it in activists. And I’ve seen it in teachers. And I’ve seen it in the Doctors Beyond Borders. I’ve seen it in the guides helping people find a way out of a deathly situation. That this is a natural thing to feel that you belong. And that mutual belonging is our birthright. And that it fits with science and also fits with poetry and with your heart.
TS: [Yes.] It’s interesting that you said—
JM: I’m ranting, aren’t I?
TS: No, I like it. It’s interesting when you said “when the top blew off my head,” and then you used the image of a kernel of popcorn popping. I really liked both of those. Now you talk, Joanna, about the Earth and its evolutionary process. The Earth is our greater body. If you were to give voice, if you will, to the Earth’s evolutionary process as you see it right now, what would that be? How do you think the big body of the Earth is seeing where we are and where we’re going?
JM: I don’t really make a great effort to try to do that, Tami, because it’s beyond my capacity. I’m very affected by and grateful to cosmologists and scientists like Brian Swimme who are seeing the rising of Gaia consciousness. All I know is that I belong to this earth—that I have been part of its evolution. And my journey didn’t start when I came out of my mother’s vagina, nor did it start when I became a cell with my conception. It began with her conception and the mothers and father before her. I go back, back, back through time. This is one of the whole set of practices that we do in The Work That Reconnects to expand our sense of lived time. Expand our temporal context so that we’re more than just this little span from our birth to our death in this lifetime, but that we have been on the way through countless generations—and even before that, in countless lifeforms. We remember that, in our mother’s womb, we have a tail like a fish, and gills. The forms are repeating themselves. You know, phylogeny recapitulates, whatever, that we review our whole journey.
That whole journey of life on our Earth is what has brought us here and contemporary science, both in systems and in the holographic view of our universe and our planet, the whole is—we’re not only part of the whole, but the whole is in us. People are experiencing that mystically. They’re experiencing that sometimes right on the barricades. They’re experiencing that with medicines that expand the consciousness, from mind-expanding plant entheogens. So that we’re at a moment in our history when we’re being asked to expand as much as we can to the mystery that is inside us—the power and the beauty of this generative journey—and that it cannot only be an amusing occupation to do that, but it can give you a tremendous sense of “Wow, I belong here. Wow, I have this vision. I will do anything I can to keep, to preserve the fertility and the verdancy and the intricacy of the lifeforms of this planet. This is my home. This is a wonder.”
People, you get high off it. You feel “This is why I’m here.” It makes you glad. I’d rather be glad than depressed.
TS: But let’s talk to that person, because you’ve said a couple of times this idea of feeling this deep sense of belonging. And I agree with you. That’s such a fulfilling feeling. Something we all want. Something we long for. But what about that person who says, “You know, I feel very sensitive, and I don’t belong on a planet filled with this much vulgarity and grossness and pain and terribleness as is here on Planet Earth. I don’t feel like I belong. I feel like an outsider.”
JM: Oh, yes. Well, I’ve heard that. Yes, that’s perfectly fine. Sure. I say, “You’re perfectly right. I sometimes feel that too. ‘Let me out of here.’ Let’s talk about it. Let’s act it out.” It can get pretty funny, actually, because our body knows—underneath the words that we use for the feelings we decide to express—that there is a body that knows it needs this air. That knows it needs this water. That wants this water to be clean. That knows that it wants another body to hold and be held. So that our bodies—it’s often our scary minds that want to make these statements of “I don’t like it. I don’t like it. I don’t want to be here.” But underneath is a body that knows that it belongs because it needs—it’s dependent on the belonging. Physically dependent.
JM: Does that make any sense to you?
TS: It does make sense, and I think it’s very beautiful, actually, what you’re saying. I’m taking a quote now from one of the building blocks—principles—of The Work That Reconnects. And the quote is “unblocking our energy of engagement occurs when our pain for the world is experienced and expressed.” And it sounds like that’s a lot of what you’re talking about here, that we need to both experience it and talk about it. Talk about it to other people.
JM: That’s right, because then you find that a lot of company—there isn’t anybody in the room who doesn’t feel that same fear, horror, disgust, outrage, grief, loathing in various ways. You have your own particular cocktail of it, but it’s sort of “join the crowd.” What we need to do, what our culture has done, Tami, is it has pathologized our feelings of distress and fear and loathing about what’s happening to our world.
JM: And the dominant model in psychotherapy, still, has been to try to see what was the biographic cause in your early childhood or something. Whereas a key moment—I mean, key for me from the first moment with this work—was to realize: oh boy, we better, and I need to help people see that when you’re feeling this sadness, revulsion, grief over what we’re doing, that is not neurotic or psychotic or aside any pathology. It is wholesome. It is healthy. Our pain for the world is simply one side of the coin, and the other side is our love for the world. They co-arise. Because why does it distress you to see the homeless and hungry and even little kids on the street? It’s because you know in your heart that’s not to be done. You can’t accept that this is how we’re treating people, so your depression over the homeless or over the plutonium blowing around out at Rocky Flats has its roots in a deep caring.
JM: So that was our discovery when we started the work. And that caring is because we belong. We are interwoven with each other.
TS: Now, you took the people in this workshop through yet a third question that they could share with their partner where they fill in the sentence, and it was: “If I could access all the power that there is for me coming through the web of life, the one thing I would do for the sake of my world is” and then, dot, dot, dot—people fill that in. “What’s the one thing I would do?” One thing I read in your work, Joanna, that I thought was interesting, was that you said “the steps we take can be modest ones, but they should involve some risk to our mental and social comfort lest we remain caught in old, safe limits. Courage is a great teacher and bringer of joy.” So, I wanted to talk about doing this one thing that we might want to do for the sake of our world, and that it should involve some risk to our mental and social comfort. What do you mean? What kind of risk are you talking about here?
JM: Well, it could be different today than tomorrow, but it could be a risk like talking to your neighbor about what’s happening around the corner, or the homeless camp, or taking the risk of sharing your feelings with someone. Or it could be taking the risk of running for city council.
TS: [Yes.] What would you say are the risks that you’ve taken in your life that have really been important and you’ve thought to yourself, “This is a risk. This is risky. I’m going to do it. I’m going to step out of my safe zone and do this thing.”?
JM: Well, doing this work was, to me, I was scared all the time. There was, in the first years of pulling people together in the first workshops. They were called “Despair and Empowerment.” I felt pretty sure that people would—I expected people to walk out. And when my teenage children at one point said, “Oh, we’d like to come,” I said, “Oh, no, no, no. You don’t need to know. You don’t need to come.” It was because I didn’t want them to see me fail. So, it was very—because I hadn’t seen anybody else do this before, but I just had this strong hunch that that’s what we need.
So, actually, I wondered later whether I tried to discourage my teenage daughter and son from coming because I didn’t want to know how they felt about their world. But they did come, and it was life-changing for all of us. You know, it breeds courage, and it breeds solidarity. And I see it’s affected their lives—what they’ve done. My daughter working as medical social worker with HIV children and AIDS. She’s facing pain all the time. And my son, he’s been in right on the ground floor creating zero-waste programs here that are now being adopted around the world. Oh, you most certainly omit this from this interview! Don’t ever have a bragging mother on your show! [Laughs]
TS: I’m happy to hear you as a bragging mother, which actually does bring me to something I wanted to ask you. At 88, when you feel into your life now—everything you’ve done in the outer world and the inner world and your family life—what brings you the most sense of fulfillment?
JM: [Pauses] Well, I have—it’s not what I’ve done that moves me so. It’s what I’m open to. Before coming home to sit and wait for your call, Tami, I was watching the clock, and I went for a walk in my neighborhood to exercise my body and breathe the fresh air. It’s a beautiful cloudy, sunny day. And I was, again, just getting almost intoxicated with the freshness of the air. The generosity of the world that puts out its leaves and—yes, I’m moved to—I think that’s what I’m most grateful for is that the path I have been—that opened for me and that I took has helped me so love my world.
JM: And I think that’s—and I want to tell you, you know, at 88, turning 89, I’m still scared. This time it’s that I’m so old and forgetful and appearing in public with my wrinkled face and all of that, because you don’t leave your vanity behind completely, you know?
TS: Well, Joanna, now I have to tell you a story, which is last night I was telling my wife, “I get to interview Joanna Macy tomorrow. Look at her face. Look at how beautiful she is. Look at the sparkle in those eyes and the natural wrinkles in her face.” We both just sat there looking at your picture, remarking how beautiful you are.
TS: True story.
JM: Oh. Oh, I guess I will have to—
TS: Just take that in.
JM: Memorize that and put that behind my left ear. [Laughs]
TS: It’s true.
JM: Yes. You know, I need to say this too, Tami. That I’m not brimming with hope about what will happen to our planet as a home for complex life forms. Nor am I sunk in despair. But I know that—to me it’s even-steven what’s going to happen because it’s—and in a way, I know it’s out of my hands. I’ll do what I can for the Great Turning, but if the Great Unraveling unravels to the point where new ways of being and organizing ourselves can’t turn it around, that’s OK too. Because once we know who we really are, once we know that we belong to the living body of Earth, then we’re already home. Maybe that’s why I was feeling so moved as I walked around the neighborhood before we talked. We belong now, and we always belong. We’ve always belonged. And that somehow, as you let it take hold, it actually can seem enough. It’s wonder enough.
TS: Now, when you said “even-steven,” “the Great Unraveling,” or “the Great Turning” and that that’s not what you’re basing this sense of open aliveness on, I’m with you. And—
JM: That’s right.
TS: The Great Unraveling, I think—
JM: That’s right. Oh, now, if people tell me that it’s a sure thing we’re going to pull through, it makes me want to prove them wrong because it seems so fatuous, and it seems so diminishing of the true drama of the moment we’re in. We are actually in a moment where everything can be lost, of the complex life-forms—of the intelligence that has grown on this—but we’re still in the body of Earth, and it’s still a living system. And isn’t it beautiful? To be able to hold up your head and laugh in the wind at a time like this. That’s another form of the beauty of our Earth. Your courage, your showing up week after week for this show, making podcasts that mean so much to people. However you feel, whatever else is pulling at you. There’s so much beauty.
TS: Now, well, Joanna, I want to ask you a question, though, about this even-steven situation for a moment, which is: We hear so many different visions of the Great Unraveling. You know, there’s three or four movies out at any given time that are apocalyptic of some form or another, but we don’t have, I don’t think, very many images of the Great Turning. Of what this could actually be like. And I wonder if you carry a vision inside of the Great Turning.
JM: Yes. I think that it has—I don’t think we’re going to be able to make it around this with this challenge without rediscovering our love for this planet and our mutual belonging in her—in this fountain of beauty and life and intelligence. It’s all we have. And it’s been beautiful, so we can be grateful. I know there’s been terrible things in history as we know it, but there have been great, great forms. Living forms of great intricacy and intelligence and great works of art. And great acts of nobility. If you can—to me, the deep time work as part of The Work That Reconnects has been the most spiritually and emotionally transforming. It has helped me move beyond just Joanna’s lifetime, but to see the larger drama and landscape of which I am a part. And before, when I felt a little stab of inadequacy thinking about how I might measure up in this interview with you, I immediately thought, “Oh. I’ll just ask the future ones to be there.” Because I invite them into my life a lot. I dedicate—
TS: How do you do that? What do you—you visualize people from the future being here,
TS: Aha! Interesting.
JM: Oh, yes. And you know, the most beautiful of the work, I think, is in the deep time work, where we talk in pairs, but we talk across seven generations. And one will be talking as if she’s living in 2218, and the other is just 2018. That’s about seven generations. Or it could be a much bigger time span, but it’s feeling that—you see, technology and our market forces have accelerated time and introduced very short-term thinking.
But our ancestors could think across generations. They could work on a stone, chiseling a portal for a cathedral that they’d never see in their own lifetimes. And they could get meaning from taking part in building something that would flourish for those who came after, but they’d never see. That’s perfectly possible. And it’s very—it’s ennobling, in a way, if you don’t mind my sounding too, claiming too much.
But it gives a little sprinkling, maybe, of nobility to your life—that you’re engaged in something that makes perfect sense to you and that embodies your love for the ongoing journey of humanity and the future ones, even if you won’t see it yourself. Really, our lives are bigger than being consumers or being performers on the stage right
JM: This is, yes, what they call the “ecological self,” or there are other terms, but we’re part of a—we’re much bigger than our culture gives us credit for, and we can nurture a sense of roots and continuity that lend meaning and inspiration to our lives.
TS: OK. I just have one final question. You talked about the great, ancient nature of your life—that your life didn’t start when you came out of your mother’s womb. And I wonder, at 88, almost 89, when you imagine your own death, what your feelings are about that at this point. What your view is at this point.
JM: Oh, well, I think about that quite a bit because I’m getting close to the age my immediate ancestors kicked the bucket, or popped off, or whatever. Moved on, passed over. So, I’m curious. It’s mainly—I don’t—I—don’t want to live forever. And I’m glad that there’ll be things I gave my heart, mind, and body to that will pass on in these patterns of practices. I think some will. I think that, as a matter of fact, I’ve even had the nerve to think that some of these practices will become intrinsic to the spirituality of the third millennium.
TS: Beautiful. But I don’t know if you really answered the question fully, in terms of your own emotional orientation, if you will. I’d be curious to know about that.
JM: Oh, well, I’m going to go into the ground after I die, near where we placed my husband’s body exactly nine years and two days ago. I’m going to go into the soil without a coffin, just a shroud. Now, you didn’t expect me to be this graphic, I bet. But I’m part of the circle of life. There’s a beautiful meditation that I created with John Seed, where we’re giving thanks: we will recycle our lives into the great body of Earth.