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Learning to See in the Dark Amid Catastrophe: An Interview With Deep Ecologist Joanna Macy

Theorist Joanna Macy discusses the necessity of perceiving the full reality of the current ecological situation, difficult as that may be.

Joanna Macy, deep ecologist, systems theorist, Buddhist scholar, author, speaker, teacher, communing with the Earth at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, January 2017. (Photo: Lois Canright)

It’s 3:23 in the morning
and I’m awake
because my great great grandchildren
won’t let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?
Drew Dellinger

We are living in a time of the convergence of multiple cataclysmic forces: runaway anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD), chronic wars and the most grotesque economic inequality ever witnessed on Earth. And all are worsening by the day.

Humans have changed the chemistry of the oceans and altered the very atmosphere of Earth. The planet’s largest ecosystems are in free-fall collapse as ACD proceeds apace. Racism, sexism, xenophobia and myriad other structural forms of hate are amplifying around the globe as a fascist authoritarian has ascended to the US presidency, the most powerful office in the world. This reality-television star, failed businessman, sexual predator, and hate-and-fear monger is clearly aiming for the fast track toward totalitarian rule.

“[The totalitarian leaders’] careers reproduce the features of earlier mob leaders: failure in professional and social life, perversion and disaster in private life,” Hannah Arendt, author of the essential The Origins of Totalitarianism, wrote. “The fact that their lives prior to their political careers had been failures, naïvely held against them by the more respectable leaders of the old parties, was the strongest factor in their mass appeal.”

Sound familiar?

Origins, published in 1951, should be mandatory reading for anyone concerned about what is happening in the US right now, and what may be to come. Arendt, a world-renowned and respected philosopher during her time, could have also been called a prophet.

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist,” Arendt also wrote. “But people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.”

Many believe that Trump’s chief strategist and senior counsel, Steve Bannon — the racist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, misogynist former chief executive of Breitbart — is essentially the puppeteer pulling the strings. Bannon’s goal? “I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment,” he told the Daily Beast in 2013.

More recently, just after Trump won the election, Bannon was quoted by The Hollywood Reporter as saying, “Darkness is good. Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.”

The news on all fronts is truly horrific. Yet as these malevolent forces charge ahead, equal and opposite reactions of resistance, awakening and love for humanity and the planet are emerging. Not even one month into the presidency, the Trump administration has spawned global demonstrations the likes of which are comparable to those that occurred in February 2003 in opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Clearly an awakening is well underway.

Hannah Arendt begins Origins with an epigram from her teacher Karl Jaspers that seems apt: “Give in neither to the past nor the future. What matters is to be entirely present.”

That statement parallels what I was told by one of the great teachers of our time, Joanna Macy.

“The most radical thing any of us can do at this time is to be fully present to what is happening in the world,” she told me in 2006.

Macy, an eco-philosopher and a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory and deep ecology, cofounded with her husband Fran Macy a method of grieving, healing and empowerment that evolved into what is now called the Work That Reconnects.

I attended one of her workshops in 2006 in order to deal with the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder I was struggling with as a result of my reporting from the front lines in Iraq, and wrote about that experience here.

Yet now, in 2017, a new darkness is enveloping the world.

After taking some time to herself in the wake of Trump’s ascendency to power, Macy emerged with an offering of a retreat in Abiqui, New Mexico, aptly titled, “In the Dark, the Eye Learns to See.”

The title, borrowed and melded from poet Theodore Roethke’s “In a Dark Time,” as well as Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote, “Only when it’s dark enough can you see the stars,” could not have been more appropriate.

The moment I was aware of the opportunity to engage deeply in the work again with Macy, who is now 87 years old, I enrolled.

Like so many, I have felt utterly overwhelmed by the viciousness and rapidity with which what Macy refers to as “The Great Unraveling” is now occurring. Like a mountain climber beginning to slip down an icy slope, I needed to find a way to check my fall, hold fast and resume the climb, even if it meant climbing up into a storm.

Simultaneous to “The Great Unraveling,” Macy coined the phrase “The Great Turning” to describe “the essential adventure of our time”: the shift from what she calls the “industrial growth society” that is consuming the planet to a life-sustaining civilization.

Whether that shift will occur or not is an open question, now more than ever before as we move into the darkness of this ominous storm. But it is this very storm that could very well bring about “The Great Turning.”

“We need an opposing wind to fly,” Macy said to the group the morning before our interview. “It’s the hardship that catalyzes our awakening.”

Dahr Jamail: Since our last interview, which was published in June 2014, we are in exponentially worse shape: Donald Trump is president, the catastrophic impacts of climate disruption only continue to worsen and make themselves all the more evident and chronic war is not even paid attention to any longer … among countless other ailments. Given how things were when we spoke in the summer of 2014, it’s difficult to believe it is this much worse in such a short time, yet here we are. From your perspective, how has this not caused more people to wake up and take a stand?

Joanna Macy: I think the two answers to that, as I see it, are as follows. One is that, as Bill Moyers has said the morning after the election in that piece he wrote, “Farewell America,” he laid it at the doorstep of the media: the failure of mainstream media to grow up and report what was actually happening. They let themselves be bought and cowed and distracted, and disrespected the intelligence of the American people by feeding them pap and amusement. They featured Trump up down and sideways. I think that’s part of it.

Let’s not omit Fox News, which has been a force for the distraction and dumbing-down of the United States of America for quite awhile now. [As] one whose spiritual roots are in Protestant Christianity, it makes me quite sick to my stomach to see what the evangelicals’ role … has been in the mauling of the public attention and intelligence.

So there’s that, but then there is something else.

For the last 36 years, since the advent into power of Ronald Reagan, public education and the public school system has been gutted. It’s criminal that we’ve seen how two whole generations have grown up with shamefully limited understanding of the world, history and geography. People in this country now have great difficulty in critical thinking and being able to express themselves.

The public mind has been shattered, fragmented.

In the Vietnam War, for example, 50 years ago, all the protests were visible on television, and people knew where Vietnam was. So to me, one of the great tragedies has been the disintegration of the American capacity to think and pay attention.

In addition to that, there has been a [diminishment] of our capacity to absorb news that might upset the psyche. And this is actually what brought me into the work I do, which is … group interactive work, and I have a bunch of books, using certain methods drawn from systems theory and spiritual teachings — from most traditions, but primarily from Indigenous and Buddhist — to overcome the fragmenting of our culture through the hyper-individualism … that has produced, first unwittingly but then wittingly, a sense of isolation.

Number one in your pursuits is the nurture and feeding of the separate ego, separate individual. That leaves you very little to fall back on if you have to confront something unpleasant, like the criminal activities of your own government. So the weakening of the mind, through the reasons I’ve given, and the culture bred on competition, command and control, power over — which we inherit from the patriarchy — these also have bled people of the nerve to challenge the absurdity or criminality of the larger systems. This makes it very easy for people to allow themselves to be lied to and to be bought. There is the fright induced by finding yourself essentially alone. And that is much the story of the American culture.

One more reason, and I think about this all the time, is that we have, in the mid-20th century, the release from breaking open the nucleus of the atom. What we did in doing that was to release the strongest binding power in the universe. It’s the glue of the universe. And you can’t do that. If it ever were to happen, we’d need to be highly integrated, wise beings, who knew just what they were doing.

The tragedy is that we managed to do that when we were still very vulnerable to greed and hatred and this isolated ego needing to subdue everyone else for the sake of the ego. That that happened is perhaps the greatest tragedy of planet Earth. And for the sake of our poor ancestors. I’ve become convinced that people feel unglued, that there is a basic shakiness.

People used to be able to rely on certain things. Reliance on the Earth being there. Relying on the teachings you had. Relying on some values that mattered to you. Relying on your relationships with people. But this [relationships] is the strongest power of the universe that holds it together, that we would shatter that. I think about this a lot.

As an activist on nuclear issues, I notice how all efforts in environmental activism, peace and justice activism, were [hampered] by this difficulty people have in sustaining the gaze. This is an unfortunate development.

Back then we were trying to scare people to pay attention. You don’t [know] how bad it is with climate change, you don’t know how many nuclear warheads are on high alert. Get roused. And it wasn’t working. People thought the public was apathetic.

But I realized the etymology of the word was a reflection of what was so. [early 17th century: from French apathie, via Latin from Greek apatheia, from apathēs “without feeling,” from a- “without” plus pathos “suffering.”] It was not that people didn’t care or didn’t know, but that people were afraid to suffer. It was the refusal or the incapacity to suffer.

So this has been a lot of my work. To help people open to and become enamored of the idea that they’d really like to see what was going on. And to open the eyes and open the heart to discover, again and again, universally in the work, that acceptance of that discomfort and pain actually reflected the depths of your caring and commitment to life.

And people became positively charged with determination and caring and creativity, and community. We were re-weaving. But without that people are lost, isolated, scared. And that became conscious certainly under George W. Bush. They were consciously using the plan of Joseph Goebbels, who served Hitler, who said you have to scare people, give them an enemy. And also divide them against each other. So to me, this was a logical unfolding [after] what happened on 9/11….

My concern with Hillary winning was that, while it would have been easier to see her crowned, and I mean that literally, we would have stayed asleep. So this is a very painful waking up.

During the end of 2016 you held several one-week intensives where you spoke of seeing people wanting, more than anything, to simply be able to be present and feel this time, despite how painful and heartbreaking that is to do now. You said that instead of doing so, particularly at this time when so much is vanishing before our eyes, and the planet is screaming at us at the top of what is left of its lungs, people are choosing to put their heads in the bucket of manure that is our corporate press, and infinite other distractions. Please talk more about all of these.

When people find that they can, and want to, feel and know and tell what is happening to our world, that is so much sweeter and [more] liberating than the opposite. When people get integrated and find how good it feels, then they really want that more than the narcotic of ignorance and delusion, as painful as it is.

And you can’t do it alone. The dangers coming down on us now are so humongous that it is really beyond an individual mind all by her/him/itself to take it in. We need to sit together, grab each other and be together as we even take in what is happening, let alone how we respond.

Because alone you get overwhelmed, and it becomes traumatizing. But once people have tasted that they can, with each other, speak about what they see and feel is happening to our world, a number of things happen, in addition to the fact that they fall in love with each other. There is a trust and realization of, “Oh my god, I’m not alone.” There is a return to your own self-respect. I think self-respect has not been realized as such a source of strength in the individual psyche. I think people would rather see themselves facing an overwhelming foe with conviction of their purpose, than to be comfortable.

So that was the release. And the release would come, and as people began to break through their reluctance to suffer with our world, once they took that on and spoke to it, then they found their unity with our world. Often, not only did a sense of bondedness come, but a lot of hilarity. There is laughter and joking, and a shaking off of a kind of spell or curse. A feeling comes, of, “I can be here.” And that feels more liberating and true to you and brings you into the moment when you are less dependent on someone giving you a failsafe method to make everything fine, because no one can do that.

People dare to be comfortable with uncertainty if they are in solidarity with each other.

What are some of the things you see that are posing the biggest challenges to people?

When I began this work, someone asked me, Joanna why are you doing this? I thought I was doing it to make us more effective, working for global peace and justice, that we were doing the work to be better agents of change.

But when I was asked that, the answer came right from my solar plexus: I’m doing this work so that when things fall apart, we will not turn on each other.

So I think that’s the biggest challenge now. The powers that momentarily have gained ascendance in our culture know how to manipulate our fears very well. They know how to try to turn us against each other. So a big challenge is to not buy into that, and to be able to look at each other with trust, saying, “Here is a brother or sister, brought by the intelligence of Earth, to be alive at this moment, then this person can also deep within them have a care that life can go on.”

So there you have something in common right away. Instead of contempt and judgment of them, and we practiced this recently in our work…moving that contempt into curiosity, which is very helpful.

We’ve got to use our wits, and by grace re-knit and find our way into some solidarity with one another. Facing the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced, with climate change and the threat of nuclear war, which I think is very real.

We will come together when we die, but I would love for us to come together before that. [Laughs] I would love for it to be before it’s too late. Or at least long enough so that we can look into each others’ eyes with love.

When people come to your intensives, or even just your lectures, what are they seeking? What are you seeing happen to them, from when they come to you, to what happens to them as they do the work that reconnects?

Since the ascendency to power of Trump, the Work that Reconnects is being turned to by many more people than ever before, and many who have already experienced it are actually taking it out to more people. I think people are coming so that they can openly speak of their distress, pain, despair, fury. They love that about the work. They come for that, because this is a place where these dark emotions are not pathologized, but taken as wholesome and realistic.

Another reason people don’t wake up is because the culture and psychotherapy are both so reductionist, focused on making happy isolated individuals. And that has been very good for the pharmaceutical industry too, let alone other forms of addiction.

So it’s like waking from a kind of addiction. It is a noble thing. It is a choosing.

So our breaking free, in order to see clearly, takes many forms, doesn’t it?

What is called of us now, from the planet? What are we being called to do at this time?

To wake up together. That is actually the name of the movement in Sri Lanka that I went over to do field work with. Sarvodaya. Taking the Gandhian term, but using it in a slightly different way, but the same Sanskrit, which is “everybody wakes up together.”

It’s hard to wake up alone now. It’s scary to see even what is going on. But there is almost no limit, I’ve come to believe, to what we can do with the love and support of each other. There is almost no limit to what we can do for the sake of each other. This taps into the Bodhisattva heart. That’s that hero figure of Mahayana Buddhism, “the one with the boundless heart.” The one who realizes there is no private salvation.

If you are going to wake up, you have to wake up together. Never has that been more true than now, at this stage of late stage corporate capitalism.

There is a huge force, through the media, through the banking system, through these people and corporations that are locked in runaway system that is very hard for them to stop now. Because once you create something, an economic system or being or contraption that has to keep making more money, it is forced to do that. It is forced into these extractive industries, and the mining. Even the nicest people are caught up in this. These are super-human forces and principalities, and so many are trapped in it. Those who appear to be our enemies, they are just flesh and blood who are also trapped by this economic system. And it’s good for that system to keep making nuclear bombs. It had President Barack Obama over a barrel. He was caught in that system before he walked into the White House as president. And his first act had to do with more permission being given to Wall Street.

So that can give us compassion for each other. And we don’t have to waste time being scared of each other. We can see each other as captives of a force that’s got us all by the throat. But we can stop it. We have to help each other wake up to how we are destroying everything we love, before we are turned into robotic instruments of these inhuman systems. Just by their own logic, it is pretty simple to see.

It’s going to be beautiful to see what we dare to do. Facing our fears, and letting go of and getting over our knee-jerk reactions to what we think we don’t like, or are afraid of. To see our capacity to walk into the fire. To discover how much we really love being alive. To give ourselves a taste of what that passion is. To let us fall really in love with our planet, and its beauty, and to see that in ourselves, as well as in each other.

The inhuman economic machine does not love us back. It makes us into robots. It sucks us into the destruction of all that is. And even if we can’t turn it around now, at least we can wake up, so that in the time that is left we can discover who we are, just looking into each other’s eyes. Just looking into the face of the moon at night, or the trees, or the faces of our children and free ourselves. I think we want that.

We can do that, we are capable of that, and that is what I see happening. I know that is possible, because I see it. Because it’s happened to me, and countless of my brothers and sisters. They don’t have to do the Work That Reconnects, they just have to fall in love with life, and there are many ways that people are doing that.

And as you do, you find that you are not alone here. We not only have each other, but we have the ancestors. And we have the future ones. And that is the truth. The ancestors are with us because their blood flows in our veins. They made us. We wouldn’t be here without them. Every single one of them, back through time, carried us like a seed. They are here. And they are worried sick about us.

And the future ones — we carry the future in us. And the future ones and the ancestors, I feel they surround us at times, as witnesses. And if we open our heart-minds to them, they can give us guidance and strength and strength in our hearts. Because it helps us realize how big we are. We are bigger than the balance sheets of the mega-corporations. But the mega-corporations are not real. We are real!

People are starting to take radical actions — the resistance at Standing Rock, people chaining themselves to railroad tracks to block coal trains, etc. — valiant acts of resistance — yet much of mainstream society still has not joined with these movements. Talk about that disparity, and that phenomenon.

There again is the betrayal from the media. Fox News and all the others are made to do what they do, skewering the truth as they do.

These people who take these valiant actions to help the Earth, they call to me at the center of my soul. They are the cutting edge of human evolution. They have broken free from being captives of the hyper-individualism of our culture. They are no longer held captive by their lonely ego winning out over other people. They are no longer held captive by a shrunken ego.

And to me, there is nothing more beautiful. I see beauty in them. Such great moral beauty. They are aflame with meaning. They are like beacons. They are saying, “Don’t let it get the best of you. This is just hardware! This is just cement and steel! Don’t let this cow you. See, watch! I’m not afraid. I’m going to do it. I’m going to lock myself down…. But see! See how it is to be free!”

That’s what I hear them saying to the psyche. I think there is nothing more beautiful. They are showing us what we can be. That we can spring free, and walk out of the prison cell of the separate ego and find our true nature in our inter-woven-ness in the web of life.

Oh, that just blows my mind it is so beautiful! It makes me so glad to be alive!

What does it look like today for someone, as yourself, who is living with eyes and heart wide open? Describe the world you see right now?

[Long pause.] I’m so glad to be alive now. [Long pause.] I’m so glad that if this had to happen, that I hadn’t checked out 10 days or centuries earlier. I’m so glad to be able to, even in the smallest way, to take part in this “Great Turning.” To give it a chance for a life-sustaining society. Otherwise we are just right down the tube. We are just flushing everything right down the toilet.

But it’s not over yet. And I’m here with my brothers and sisters, and even if we go under, and I have to admit looks more likely today than yesterday, we’re going to discover how big is our strength, and how big is our love for life. We can do that, and see how much we care. And we can be scared. I can see myself now in a situation where I can forget these words. Because the global corporate economy has developed such tools for destroying the mind through different ways of breaking the mind.

But I’m not broken yet. And I’ll forgive myself ahead of time if under the pressures that the system has developed and used on plenty of other people, my mind breaks. I’ll forgive myself ahead of time if my mind breaks.

But right now, I see the people that are working, that I work alongside, I see people like the scientists how they are saving the information about climate chaos. People are being called forth to do some beautiful things. It makes me so glad to see this.

And even if in the future, from some cosmic place, they say, “That little third planet out in that little old solar system over there, boy they blew it” — even so, there were some beautiful efforts made, some beautiful music. Strong hearts, and a lot of loving.

What should we each, individually, be doing? What is the most important thing for us to do, right here, right now?

To find our strength and our reason, in connection with each other. So that will be different with everybody. Each one will have a different path. People will find different ways.

So, if you’re a clergyman or woman, you’ll find yourself saying new and stronger things from the pulpit. And if you’re working in a corporation, you’ll find ways to sabotage. There is plenty of that already going on. Do you think we’re alive now just by chance that we haven’t blown ourselves up yet? There have been Bodhisattvas at work, gumming up the works.

The most important thing to do is find your gratitude for life. Take stock of your strengths and give thanks for what you have, and for the joys you’ve been given. Because that is the fuel. That love for life can act like grace for you to defend life.

So don’t get too solemn. Don’t just spend all your time gritting your teeth. Laugh out loud. Enjoy a kind of wild joy. Ah! Now I have time, to break free from what had stopped me before. Now I’ve time. This time. To realize my inter-being with all life.

So it’ll be different for different individuals. But I think we should not make a move to do things alone. Find others. Even if it’s one other person to begin with. Then others will come. Because everybody is lonely. And everybody is ready to find what they most want. And if it means that we have to be in such danger for us to find out how much we need each other, then let it be that.

So little study groups, and book groups, make a garden together. Keep your ear to the ground. Inform each other. We have to develop the skill of finding that it is more fun to be waking up together, Sarvodaya [Sanskrit term meaning “universal uplift” or “progress of all”], than a single lone star on the stage.

At the conclusion of the interview, thanks were shared, then Macy smiled and said, “I’m going to go walk in the sun now.”

About Joanna Macy:

Eco-philosopher Joanna Macy, Ph.D., is a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory and deep ecology. A respected voice in the movements for peace, justice and ecology, she interweaves her scholarship with five decades of activism. As the root teacher of the Work That Reconnects, she has created a ground-breaking theoretical framework for personal and social change, as well as a powerful workshop methodology for its application.

Her wide-ranging work addresses psychological and spiritual issues of the nuclear age, the cultivation of ecological awareness, and the fruitful resonance between Buddhist thought and contemporary science. The many dimensions of this work are explored in her books Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age (New Society Publishers, 1983); Dharma and Development (Kumarian Press, 198); Thinking Like a Mountain (with John Seed, Pat Fleming, and Arne Naess; New Society Publishers, 1988; New Society/ New Catalyst, 2007); Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory (SUNY Press, 1991); Rilke’s Book of Hours (1996, 2005) and In Praise of Mortality (2004) (with Anita Barrows, Riverhead); Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World (with Molly Young Brown, New Society Publishers, 1998); Macy’s memoir entitled Widening Circles (New Society, 2000); World as Lover, World as Self (Parallax Press, 2007), A Year With Rilke, (with Anita Barrows, Harper One, 2009); and Pass It On: Five Stories That Can Change the World (with Norbert Gahbler, Parallax Press, 2010).

Many thousands of people around the world have participated in Macy’s workshops and trainings. Her group methods, known as the Work That Reconnects, have been adopted and adapted yet more widely in classrooms, churches and grassroots organizing. Her work helps people transform despair and apathy, in the face of overwhelming social and ecological crises, into constructive, collaborative action. It brings a new way of seeing the world, as our larger living body, freeing us from the assumptions and attitudes that now threaten the continuity of life on Earth. Macy travels widely giving lectures, workshops and trainings in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Australia. She lives in Berkeley, California, near her children and grandchildren.

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