Joanna Macy on Yoga, Buddhism, and Eco-Activism


Joanna Macy is a visionary scholar of Buddhism and general systems theory, and author of nine books, but she is no academic shut up in an ivory tower. She lectures and leads workshops on effecting personal and social change, and her creative exercises for activist communities are well known. This year, just between March and December, her schedule lists 18 public events lasting one to five days, some as far away as Scotland, England, Germany, Japan, and Thailand, interspersed with appearances in Idaho, northern California, Washington State, Massachusetts, and New York. She has been at this for 40 years. In the 1960s, Joanna and her husband, Francis Macy, directed Peace Corps activities in India. It was there that Joanna first became involved with the Tashi Jong, the Tibetan Buddhist community in exile.

Macy was to continue and deepen her work with the Tibetan community over the years, and in 1987 she and Francis were able to visit the rarely accessible Khampagar Monastery, a great ruin that the monks were beginning to restore.

To Macy, restoring Tibet has become a metaphor for restoring the earth, and she is inspired by the determination of the monks to begin reconstruction without knowing if the Chinese government would ultimately permit Khampagar to rise again. From this effort she learned that perseverance is the most important thing. She says: “Don’t waste your spirit trying to compute your short-term chances of success, because you are in it for the long haul.”

For the Yoga International interview Macy welcomed me into her Berkeley home. We talked in the book-filled living room, where lovely Tibetan tapestries graced the walls. Passion pours through Joanna as she speaks, but at the end of our interview, when I asked if she had a poem to share, she responded with joy: “We need so much more than words,” she said, as she reached for a volume of Rainer Maria Rilke. Here—as you will see—is a woman who uses words to great effect, who can become visibly excited over the power of poetry to spin words into a substance beyond words.

 Your book, , is a short book, but every page is full and rich, in the way of one of your central metaphors, Indra’s Net. Indra’s Net is a beautiful vision of the universe that arose out of Mahayana Buddhism. The imagery is of a huge net where at every node is a jewel, and each jewel reflects the other jewels and catches the reflections back and forth. The other jewels represent other beings in a kind of tapestry of the universe.

I love this vision because it is very close to what is arising in science today, a holographic vision of reality that reflects the insights of systems theory and deep ecology that cannot be understood using a hierarchical paradigm. In a hierarchy power comes from the top down. Nature doesn’t work that way, and great mystics of many traditions have seen this radical interdependence of all life.

“Dependent co-arising” in your book, in contrast to hierarchy? Yes. That is a translation of  paticca samuppada, which is the Buddha’s central doctrine. He equated that way of seeing with the Dharma itself, and as the conceptual content of his enlightenment.

You also speak of “deep ecology.” That’s a term coined by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, who contrasted it with what he called shallow environmentalism—which is cleaning up eco-systems, rivers, swamps, and seas, and what have you, for the comfort and profit of humans. He said that is not enough and that we are not going to be able to survive if we don’t understand that the web of life is not organized to put humans at the crown of creation. The idea that we can treat the earth how we want, that we can extract as much as we want from it and dump as much as we want onto it, is what has landed us in this crisis. Naess said we need to understand that we are interwoven in the web of life. When I read the term “deep ecology” I was thrilled to have an English phrase that would be a secular expression of paticca samuppada.

So, if humans are not the crown of creation, what is our role? Well, we are special, as all life forms are special, and we have a capacity that is distinctive according to ancient teachings in the Buddhist tradition and probably elsewhere, too. Humans have the capacity to foresee the consequences of their actions, from experience, and choose which way to go. It’s called self-reflexive consciousness. There’s a form of almost ritual remembrance at the beginning of many meditation periods where you bring to mind how rare and precious is a human life. Given all the astronomical numbers of life forms in the universe—how many bacteria, for example—that we should be humans is remarkable and we should not take it for granted.

And why should we be so glad for this? Not because humans are superior. They are not superior, but they have the capacity to change their karma. In other words, we can choose. So, that’s why in my work I emphasize the importance of intention, of choice. We can choose right now to stop destroying our world. Our world is not being destroyed by a satanic deity. The global crisis arises out of our priorities and our habits, and we can choose to change the behaviors that are causing it. We can choose to honor all life forms.

Resisting Privatizing Air, Water — Or Grief

Though Americans love nature in the abstract and pay it lots of lip service, fewer people are tearing themselves away from all of the screens around us and going outside to reconnect. Are we afraid to love the natural world? There is no one who does not feel sorrow for what’s happening to the world, whether they’re working in the peace movement or the Pentagon or Monsanto or eco-activism. We even feel it in our bodies. So, when we are reluctant and scared to attend to these feelings, it is really important to first of all be grateful for the life that we have. We can do practices for that in our work and then even be grateful for the pain, honor the pain, what we call pain for the world, which can be fear, sorrow, outrage, overwhelming feelings of futility.

But the industrial-growth society, the consumer society, can persuade us that these feelings are some private pathology or personal craziness. So, a key move is to say we won’t privatize the grief. We don’t want to privatize the water; we don’t want to privatize the air; and we are not going to privatize our grief. We are so scared of these dark emotions because we are in a culture addicted to feeling good and appearing to be sunny, but these feelings are actually wholesome and healthy. They’re the other side of our love for the earth. You only mourn what you love.

So, is this part of what you call despair work? Yes. That is, in essence, what it is. When you stop blocking the despair, all this energy comes through you—creativity, passion, even hilarity. It’s unblocking the feedback loop. All systems need to be open to feedback.

I hear people say, “I know all of the problems, but my prescription for myself is to not read the news, just turn it off.” That seems like saying, “I don’t matter. I’m too small to take my place in the real world.”

Another thing is trying to hide in our healthy practices. We do yoga; we do meditation and other good things. But as long as it’s focused on ourselves feeling better, it is still not breaching that shell, not opening up a connection to the world around us. To pretend that everything is hunky-dory is just to close your eyes and close your heart; it changes nothing and leaves you isolated and fearful of encountering the suffering of the world.

One development in the yoga world that reported on recently (January 2008) is how Julia Butterfly Hill and Seane Corn are spreading word about the importance of (selfless service). In fact, Corn’s slogan is “off the mat and into the world.” That’s great because we have been harmed by viewing the two things in an either/or way or a sequential way. So many times we’ll say, well, first, I’m going to get my head straight or, first, I’ll get psychoanalyzed or enlightened and then I will get engaged with actions for the world. But it doesn’t work that way because often as you move into the world for the sake of all beings, at that time you wake up to our mutual belonging in the web of life. It is really good news that you can suffer with our world. The literal meaning of compassion is just that, to suffer with, and that is honored in every single major spiritual tradition. It shows that you are not an encapsulated or autistic being, but that you’re open to the web of life and life is flowing through you.

Your book Is courage what we need in these times? Yeah. I’m a sucker for courage. We are naturally courageous because we naturally love life, just as we thirst for water to drink, air to breathe. We have a battery of senses with which to engage our world. We have minds that can choose, and we want to be alive. Life wants to go on, and so we can feel the currents of life carrying us into fresh, original, unexpected paths of healing, if we’re not closed down. To overcome fear you have to look at what you’re afraid to see.

In central myths of our world’s traditions, the journey of the hero is to go down into the dark and face the monster, face what he doesn’t want to see and then, breaking through that, realize that he is strong enough to face what has appeared so terrifying to him. Then, he comes into his full magnitude and power of being.

Courage Of The Shambhala Warrior

When you recover this courage—is that when you become what you call the Shambhala Warrior? I use that metaphor from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. We need to find and we can find those qualities of the warrior within us, the courage. I’m not afraid to use warrior language because it summons up keen attention and strong will and spunk and passion for life. We’re much tougher than we think.

The two tools that the Shambhala Warrior uses are compassion and insight, and compassion is defined as not being afraid of the suffering of our world. Name it; go to it. Our consumer society has made us feel so fragile and isolated, but we are woven into the living fabric of life. So that’s the compassion, to not be afraid of the suffering but to go right there where you need to be, to do what you need to do. And the other tool is prajna, our insight, our realization of the interconnectedness of all life, that we’re interwoven, just like Indra’s Net.

So, with Seane Corn’s new initiative to get off the mat and into the world comes the idea that karma yoga be part of teacher training and practiced by yoga groups. There’s no substitute for going out together, linking arms, and taking action, even if it’s just leafleting at the supermarket. There’s no substitute for doing something.

For groups new to karma yoga, can you suggest an exercise from your book, Make a time where people can share a concern, to just speak of an issue that’s causing them pain for our world. There’s an exercise we call open sentences, where we work in pairs, taking turns completing sentences like: “One of the concerns I feel for my world is…”

Now, you don’t know what’s going to come up, whether it’s going to be the water crisis or the air pollution or the prisons or the violence on television, but, as they bring that up, they’re naming it. And they’re hearing it from themselves. They are not hearing anybody else tell them, “You should be concerned about the violence on television,” or “You should be concerned about the state of your drinking water.” They’re saying it for themselves, and they’re already beginning to take that responsibility: “I see this and I don’t like it, and I want to be part of the solution here.” And they find that “Oh, I feel the same way. Let’s next time we come each bring a suggestion of some things we can do about it.” This makes it particular and practical, and builds solidarity, too.

How do we make time for activism in such busy lives? Many people today feel stressed around time. Speed is accelerating in our culture so that people are being hurried out of their minds by too much to do. Karma yoga can be very useful here in helping people not get caught in a frenetic urgency. When you’re feeling frenetic and hurried, your presence isn’t as full, your intelligence isn’t as alive, as when you’re feeling the amplitude of life in you. And yoga can help with that.

You quote poetry throughout your books. I wonder what you might cite for people deepening their practice of other forms of yoga by a practice of karma yoga. Well, you know I’m a translator of Rainer Maria Rilke. This poem of his [from Book of Hours] makes me think of what yoga does for us:

How surely gravity’s law,strong as an ocean current,takes hold of even the strongest thingand pulls it toward the heart of the     world…If we surrenderedto earth’s intelligencewe could rise up rooted, like trees. 

It’s like surrendering to earth’s intelligence when you feel the patterns of energy in the body in those beautiful, ancient asanas. Here is more from the poem:

Instead we entangle ourselvesin knots of our own makingand struggle, lonely and confused. So, like children, we begin againto learn from the things,because they are in God’s heart;they have never left him.This is what the things can teach us:   to fall,patiently to trust our heaviness.Even a bird has to do thatbefore he can fly.

This poem invites us to “trust our own heaviness,” when our hearts are heavy and when there are tears or grief or loss. Don’t be afraid of it. You can trust that, and even a bird, it says, has to learn to fall before it can fly. Our heaviness needs to be accepted as well as our lightness.

And we don’t have to do this all by ourselves? In a yoga group, we have a ready-made little sangha of community with people who have learned to move and feel the deep currents of life together. Then, once engaged in karma yoga, they can go out and feel the currents of life as they act for the healing of our world.

About the Teacher

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Kelpie Wilson
Kelpie Wilson is a solar engineer and author of a novel, Primal Tears. She is also an enironmental columnist... Read more