issue 25 Winter/Spring 05
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Turning ourselves around

Engaged and engaging, Joanna Macy is a Dharma teacher, author, eco-activist and grandmother. She talks to Parami about greed on a global scale and possibilities for change

Greed, global greed. What a wonderful topic.' With a characteristic grin, Joanna Macy - Buddhist teacher, author and activist - claps at the prospect of discussing this subject. I have come to meet her in Berkeley, California, where she lives with Fran Macy, her husband of more than 50 years. Downstairs live her daughter and family, while her other children and grandchildren live nearby. Family is clearly important to her and in a much broader sense, she also stresses the importance of community.

Over the past three decades thousands of people have participated in Joanna Macy's trainings. She concentrates on ecological and social issues, exploring their global impact. Using meditations and imaginative exercises to encourage identification beyond the confines of the conventional image of 'self', Macy's work prompts a shift in consciousness from competitive separateness to a sense of interconnectedness. 'My work is about finding the inner resources for ensuring our survival, and saving our planet as a home for conscious life.'

As long as we consider ourselves separate from the planet we can exploit it, overusing natural resources and dumping unmanageable quantities of waste. Macy's thought has also been influenced by her studies of general systems theory, as it is understood in the life sciences and cybernetics as well as philosophy and psychology. This body of thought sees the world in terms of 'systems', where each system is a 'whole' that is more than the sum of its parts, but also itself a 'part' of larger systems. Macy suggests that the planet itself is a 'self-regulating, open system' and that due to the ecological pressures it faces (as a result of human activity) the system is running out of control.

Macy's work in this field started in the 1970s during the period of the cold war nuclear arms race when her aim was to help people 'transform despair and apathy into collaborative, constructive action'. Today her emphasis is on helping people face the current social and ecological crises. She sees her task as encouraging others to participate in a 'Great Turning', the term she has coined to describe 'the necessary transition from the Industrial Growth Society to a Life-Sustaining Society'.

This Great Turning provides the framework for the workshops she leads. As I found when I recently participated in one of these workshops, Macy creates a context in which people can explore the 'work that reconnects'. This proceeds through four stages: gratitude, honouring our pain for the world, seeing with new eyes, and Going Forth. This last stage, which uses a Buddhist term, serves as a bridge between the learning that takes place in the workshop and putting the insights gained into practice in daily life. Each stage is taught as a mixture of information-sharing and experiential work.

To kick off the interview, I showed Macy photos of the 10-day intensive workshop I had attended with her in the Santa Cruz mountains. 'Hey, look at us! Send me copies.' She is not a teacher who stands back from her students; she is in there with them: sharing, experiencing, crying and laughing.

'We need to wake up and come back to life,' she explains. 'To respond to what we know and feel is happening to our world.' She insists that we need to wake up to the first Noble Truth of suffering (dukkha) and to the second Noble Truth of craving (tanha) or greed, which is the cause of this suffering. Emphasising the existence of suffering, she suggests, 'cuts through apathy like the beautiful sword of the Bodhisattva Manjushri. It's like a dose of vinegar on the cloyingly sweet, New Age, we're-all-so-wonderful approach. Yes, we are wonderful, we have Buddha nature - and we suffer too! That acknowledgement is vital. We don't suffer because we are fundamentally bad, we suffer because we fall into the three traps of greed, hatred and delusion.

'Delusion or ignorance underpins the other two. The notion that you are a separate being suggests you have to do something with this self: improve it, or save it, or punish it; whereas as in Reality, as the Buddha showed, all you need to do is see through it.' She continues, 'If the "self" is experienced as separate, it can feel quite small and vulnerable. To shore it up, we crave and consume. Along with this greed comes aversion - we imagine we have to push away anything that threatens the self.'

A driving force behind Macy's work is the conviction that greed and aversion are not only personal problems but endanger our global future. The sense of separation and the need to defend ourselves against perceived threats are experienced at both an individual and a national level, and so is the need to keep accumulating wealth. 'The political economy that rules the world through corporate globalisation rests on the delusion that we must endlessly acquire and consume, and also on the belief that - as individuals, corporations, nation states or species - we are immune to the effects of what we do to others. It is insatiable.'

Macy looks sad as she pursues this train of thought. 'You cannot satisfy that which does not exist, however hard you try. You have to keep acquiring to restore that fleeting sense of meeting the need. The need can never really be met, but we keep trying. That is what the Buddha saw. One of the exciting things about engaging with the Buddha's teaching is that the poisons of greed, hatred and delusion are today so flamboyantly institutionalised. Organised forms of greed, hatred and delusion are exalted and promoted by the media because the Industrial Growth Society requires us to keep consuming for its own survival.'

Macy scowls as she gets into her stride: 'We are encouraged to get on the treadmill of buy, buy, buy. The Industrial Growth Society, and the multinational companies in service to it, no longer make things to last. They build in obsolescence. Fashions have to be changed - we're told we need a new wardrobe, a new car. The media and advertising agencies are constantly suggesting - through images and brainwashing - that we aren't good enough, don't have enough, don't look right, smell right. We are held in tormented bondage by these images. It's really very cruel.'

Catching herself in full flow, Macy grins. Then we both laugh as she declares: 'I'm so glad to realise that the life and joy in me don't depend on going out to shop!'. She admits that in her own life 'greed takes the form of an anxiety that I might miss out on something. These days I am more greedy for experiences than for things'.

Joanna Macy was an 'engaged' Buddhist long before the term became popular. For her it has never been enough to see Buddhism as simply a way to become a calm, generous, nice person. 'That's great, but it is not enough - not now. We live in times in which perfectly nice people, exhibiting many personal virtues (even sitting hours in meditation), are in bondage to a system that can only sustain itself by perpetuating our subjection to consumerist patterns.' She believes we're enslaved by greed, hatred and delusion - especially our ignorance about interconnectedness. And we need actively to work against this trend, internally and externally.

Understanding interconnectedness, and the moral imperative to act, is central to Macy's Buddhist approach, but echoes can be found in her pre-Buddhist childhood, as she describes in her autobiography, Widening Circles. She was born in southern California in 1929, part of a long line of Calvinist preachers, and as a teenager she would organise clothing drives to bring clothes to less privileged families. From her earliest years she experienced an intuitive mysticism and an appreciation of silence - especially sitting in an old maple tree on her grandparents' farm during many childhood summers. This was 'the steadiest part' of a childhood of unspoken tension and occasional violence.

Aged 17 Macy joined a Presbyterian youth programme and enjoyed great success in the pulpit. She believed that missionary work would be her life's vocation but in her early 20s, while majoring in Biblical studies at the prestigious Wellesley College, she suffered a crisis of faith and left Christianity behind. However, she stills feels gratitude to her early religious training because it 'helped to nurture her caring for life'.

'In encountering the Buddha-dharma I felt greatly liberated,' writes Macy of her life-changing discovery of Buddhism. This happened in 1965 when she and her family lived in India, where her husband Fran had a position heading the American Peace Corps Program. She, too, worked within the Peace Corps and this took her into the Tibetan refugee community, where she discovered the intellectual rigour of Buddhist studies. As well as finding in the Dharma a new vision for life, she also found meditative practices that have given her strength ever since.

Macy has had an eclectic training in Buddhism. Since 1965 she has studied under numerous teachers from the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. However, her primary meditation practice is Vipassana from the Theravadin tradition, which she has pursued with many teachers, both Asian and North American.

A formative period for Macy's understanding was the five years studying for a doctorate on Buddhism and General Systems Theory at Syracuse University. Her study focused on the Buddha's doctrine of Dependent Co-arising (pratitya samutpada) and its convergences with Systems Theory. Her thesis eventually became the book Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory, which was followed by World as Lover, World as Self.

Drawing on both Buddhist and western concepts, these books propose that both contemporary science (in the form of systems theory) and the non-dualism of Buddhism undermine the notion of a distinct 'self' separate from, and not answerable to, the world it observes and acts upon. They therefore offer an alternative way of being in the world to the reductive, materialist model that has led to systems of 'power over' and exploitation, rather than 'power with' and solidarity. Her writings emphasise the Buddha's doctrine of pratityasamutpada or Dependent Co-arising (the teaching that things come into being in dependence upon conditions) and she explains that 'notwithstanding later scholarly interpretations, it is clear that the pratityasamutpada of the early texts teaches "the interdependent structure" of Reality'. Thus the notion of interconnectedness follows from that of Dependent Co-arising. In turn this perspective gives rise to the Bodhisattva Ideal - the desire to gain liberation not only for oneself but for all beings, which manifests in a commitment to compassionate action.

Macy's approach is also greatly influenced by her awareness of social and environmental issues. Her sense of the relevance of Dharma teachings to social change was strengthened by years spent working for Sarvodaya, a Buddhist-inspired self-help movement in Sri Lanka's villages. She feels a strong affinity with deep ecology, the belief that the non-human world has value in its own terms, not just ours, and that human society needs to undergo a radical change in its economic outlook and its relationship with the environment. She sees this as the secular equivalent of the Buddha's teaching and it, too, challenges the view that we are separate and unaccountable.

Macy's sincerity and sense of urgency are never far from the surface. And her great vitality makes it hard to believe she has recently celebrated her 75th birthday. Her eyes sparkle with humour and passion. In a flash she moves from fiercely berating 'those who extract materials from the living body of the earth and turn them into consumer goods or, worse still, into highly profitable weapons' to delighting in her friends and collaborators. 'With other people you can turn the grimness of it all into acts of love and joy.'

Working collectively is important to Macy: of her seven books and numerous journal articles and presentations, many are collaborations. I found her a generous teacher who shares her insights and techniques with no sense of ownership, and this approach calls forth generosity in others. She is convinced that we need to 'band together, join with others to counteract our deeply ingrained sense of separateness'. And in her workshops through sharing personal stories, rage, pain and - somehow - laughter, a sense of community develops.

Macy also emphasises personal practice. 'It is vital to experience the fluid nature of self and it is hard to do that without meditation. I've found vipassana invaluable, as it helps you to see the rising and falling of dharmas [phenomena], and that there is no separate self standing by spectating. You are not separate from your experience - you are your experience. However, I spend a lot of time with non-Buddhists and I am not going to make sitting in meditation a pre-condition for working with me. I've noticed that once people get involved in activism and deep ecology, they discover the liveliness and synergy that is interconnectedness.'

In her writing and workshops, Macy makes the sublime ideals of interconnectedness and compassion very accessible, imbuing them with a sense of the wonder of being alive. She encourages her students to feel not only horror at the state of our planet, but gratitude. 'Just as important as stamping out greed and habitual patterns of grasping, is a shift in our sense of identity - from feeling isolated to feeling so deeply embedded in the earth that it seems as natural to defend her as it does to defend ourselves.

'It's not a case of scolding people, telling them not to be greedy. It's more like saying, look how vast our true nature is. Look how good it is to be alive. There are so many teachings about life-affirmation, from indigenous peoples to modern quantum sciences. All reminding us that our true wealth lies in being alive.' Macy believes that when we feel truly alive, in harmony with others and with the planet, 'our usual forms of greed seem tacky and paltry. We simply outgrow them'.

I comment on her ability to help people face painful feelings without flinching. For example, she has devised a ritual known as the Truth Mandala, which I have now experienced several times. The participants form a circle. The circle is divided into four quadrants in which are placed symbolic objects: a stone, some dead leaves, a thick stick and an empty bowl. These represent respectively: fear, grief, anger and a sense of helplessness. During the ritual participants enter the circle and, holding the appropriate item, express the feeling associated with the object. I have found this an effective and moving way of sharing and objectifying painful emotions. People feel great relief to find they aren't alone in their despair or anger.

Macy explains that facing pain comes naturally to her. 'If my grandson runs in with a grazed knee, which is bleeding and full of grit, I say, "Come on, show it to me". I'd hardly say, "That's too awful, go away". It's an exercise of loving attention.'

I ask Macy about her future plans. When we met she was campaigning for the November 2004 presidential election. 'I'm helping to bring out the Democratic vote, especially among those sections of the population that have been under-represented.' She holds her head in her hands when describing 'the horror of being a citizen of the usa right now, with sky-rocketing defence budgets, programmes to place weapons even in space, pre-emptive wars, and our role as global policeman.' She sighs. 'We are so loaded down with weapons - and it all comes from the forces of greed.'

On a happier note she is also working on another translation of poems by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. 'First my collaborator and I translated The Book of Hours and it was so popular we are doing another one, In Praise of Mortality. That will be a force to counteract greed.' Rilke has been a great influence on Macy. 'Although Rilke was not a Buddhist, did not know the Dharma, like William Blake he is a Dharma boy.' She laughs and quotes him: 'This moment is our only moment, all we are is this flickering awareness in the dance of life'.

I tease her about all this activity because 2004 was supposedly a sabbatical year. 'Oh well,' she laughs, 'at least I'm not doing interviews.' More seriously, she is enjoying more time on her own, and new experiences are arising in meditation. She has plans for a trip to Europe in 2005, including teaching in the UK. Longer term Macy aims to continue 'the work that reconnects. I find people very responsive to this. It is innate in us to care about our progeny, and in this "deep-time" work we honour our children's, children's children - whether or not we have children ourselves. We work for those who come after. Life itself surges up, prompting us to be of service and celebrating those to come.'

I am moved by this perspective and reminded of some exercises on the recent workshop in which we dialogued with our ancestors and with future beings. As a parting comment Macy tells me, 'It's our good fortune to be alive at this time when, amid the rampant consumerism, a more sustainable society is emerging. This is what I call the Great Turning, and working together on this great endeavour gives me hope. The rewards will be so rich they'll make any object of personal greed seem insignificant.'

Further information: www.joannamacy.net