Reconnecting with the Earth…with Joanna Macy

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Joanna Macy

At 85, Joanna Macy is still a beautiful tiger of a woman: fierce, focused, passionate. At a recent weekend workshop at Rowe on her signature Work That Reconnects, she was a keen and generous leader, with an impeccable sense of when to speak and when to be silent, when to share the microphone with younger leaders, when to get out in front and show the way.

Joanna has been refining the Work That Reconnects since the 1980s, when it grew out of her engaged Buddhist practice and her anti-nuclear activism. Its premise is simple: that we are integral parts of the Earth, having emerged out of carbon and water billions of years ago just like everything else on the planet; but we humans, having caused the near-collapse of the current epoch with our fixation on industrial growth run on chemicals and fossil fuels, have a special role to play in shifting our civilization to a sustainable footing.

To step into our power as change agents, we must first undo the social conditioning that has alienated us from our primary relationship with the Earth. The Work That Reconnects accomplishes this through a series of exercises and meditations, which can take a day or a week or much longer to accomplish, depending on how much time you have and how deep you want to go.

In the weekend version of the workshop, we spent a three-hour session on each of the three stations on Joanna’s Spiral of the Great Turning, led through a series of interactive activities designed to get us thinking about ourselves as bodhisattvas, awakened ones willing to give our lives in service to the higher good of all life.

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In the forest at Rowe. Photo by J. Browdy

First came Gratitude: appreciating and giving thanks for being alive in this beautiful place, alongside myriad other complex and beautiful creatures who call the Earth home; and also giving thanks for our own strengths and capacities to become active warriors on behalf of the planet.

Then there was the grief and despair work for which Joanna is justly famous: she calls it Honoring Our Pain for the World, and it is a radical, counter-cultural push to sit with and confront all the sadness, despair, anger and pain we feel when we allow ourselves to become fully conscious of the destruction and devastation human beings are wreaking on the planet. Grief for individual loved ones lost to cancer mingles with grief and anger at the loss of the Great Blue Herons and the paved-over forests, in a powerful and galvanizing outpouring of rage and pain.

After an evening break that featured song and dance around the warmth of community, we turned the next morning to the last two stations on the spiral: Seeing with New Eyes and Going Forth.

Joanna talked about the necessary shift from the alienated form of seeing our relationship to the Earth as “our supply house and our sewer” to a new form of seeing, an understanding that we are embedded in the sacred living body of the Earth, and what we do to her we do to ourselves.

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A closer look. Photo by J. Browdy

One of the reasons I love Joanna’s approach to activism is because she is unafraid to call on the imagination as one of our primary tools for social change. In a powerful closing exercise, she arranged us in pairs and asked one person to take the role of a descendant seven generations in the future—about 200 years hence, in 2214. The other person remained herself, in 2014.

The future being, prompted by Joanna, asked a series of questions of the ancestor, and then listened to the answers—this was not a conversation or a dialogue, but a witnessing of the struggles of this ancestor—you and me, in our time—to bequeath a livable world to our children, grandchildren, and on down the line.

After listening to three different present-day people talk about their work for the planet—what makes it hard, what makes it rewarding, what keeps them going day to day—the future being had a chance to respond, and it was an incredibly powerful experience to imaginatively inhabit the spirit of the future encouraging us embattled ones in today’s world to find the strength to persevere.

Joanna at Rowe

Joanna signs books and talks with workshop participants. Photo by J. Browdy

In the call to Go Forth, the final turn on the spiral, Joanna reminded the gathering that this work is impossible to do alone—“it’s impossible to even take it in alone,” she said. We need to create communities of “Shambala warriors for the planet,” who can function like “the immune system of the Earth,” a potent metaphor she attributed to Paul Hawken.

In the Shambala prophecy that Joanna has been sharing ever since she heard it from one of her Tibetan Buddhist teachers back in the 1970s, it is said that great courage is required of those who work for the good of the world, because we must go right to the heart of the “barbarian empire,” armed only with two critical weapons: compassion for all living beings, and the radical insight of interbeing—that everything in this biosphere is intricately and integrally interdependent and connected.

And of course the truth is that the “barbarians” who inhabit this destructive empire are not strangers. They are, quite simply, us.

At the very end of the workshop, Joanna led us through a series of affirmations honoring our perceived enemies as our most important teachers.

Through our awareness of what we don’t want, we learn what we care about most. And through our caring—what Joanna calls the awakening of our “heart-mind”—we find the courage, passion and commitment to do the most important work of our time: transitioning from our current dead-end, greed-based, exploitative society to a society that honors the sacred in all life and works respectfully for the well-being of each participant in the dance of planetary life.

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An elder maple in the forest at Rowe. Photo by J. Browdy

As I walked out under the ancient maples and hemlocks in the forests around Rowe, lit up in all their autumnal glory on this beautiful September weekend, I could feel the warrior spirit rising in me and in all of us who came from near and far to learn from Joanna.

Now is our time, and time is precious: there is none to waste as the forces unleashed by the industrial growth of the past 300 years threaten so many life forms on the planet with extinction.

Will we succeed in transitioning to a sustainable future? Will we humans grow into our potential as stewards and nurturers of our beautiful garden, this Earth? Or will we all slip away into the history of the planet, as the march of evolution and transformation continues on to the next era?

All we can do is go forth with good heart and brave spirit into our own communities and carry on the work that reconnects in our own spheres. I am so grateful to Joanna Macy for continuing to lead the way and for so generously sharing the powerful tools and practices she has developed over a lifetime, for others to take up and carry forward into the Great Turning.

JB & Joanna Macy

Joanna and Jennifer

N.B. Joanna’s classic book Coming Back to Life, a guidebook for doing the Work That Reconects by yourself or (preferably) with groups, has just been re-issued by New Society Publishers in a revised and updated edition. Joanna is hoping that people will gather in schools and church basements, in Transition Towns and activist organizations, to do the inner work that can sustain and fuel the outer work we must all undertake to transition to a life-enhancing human relationship to Earth.

The People’s Climate March: Taking the Evolutionary Leap of Radical Democracy

The People’s Climate March in New York City is just one manifestation of a huge sea-change sweeping through our culture. Or perhaps “seeping” would be a better verb—this shift in awareness is not happening with the tsunami force of a revolution, but more with the steady, determined drip-drip-drip of water undermining rock.

Humans are paradoxical. On the one hand, we love everything that’s new and innovative, we all want to be out ahead of the curve when it comes to technological breakthroughs and new ideas. On the other hand, we hold tight to the received wisdom of our forebears, living by enshrined writings thousands of years old (the Bible, the Koran, the Mahabharata, Confucius, etc.) or hundreds of years old (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights).

We have established elaborate educational, political and legal systems designed to hold us to a particular form of society, permitting free, innovative thinking only along narrow channels carefully defined by the interests of business and commerce.

The arts and humanities, traditionally the realm of creative, imaginative exploration, have been steadily starved in this brave new world, which can only imagine creativity in the service of profit.

What happens to a society that can only envision creative energy in an instrumental, utilitarian light?

We become a society of robots. We lose our connection to the soul of the world, the anima mundi that sustains us humans along with all other living beings on the planet.

http---pbs.twimg.com-media-ByDzJSPIYAA_RHcThe People’s Climate March, which is happening not only in New York City but worldwide, with 2,808 marches and events in 166 countries, bears welcome witness to the fact that the sparks of creative, independent thinking have not totally gone out.

There are many, many people worldwide who are aware, and aghast, at the failure of our political and business leaders to act in the best interests of the people and all the beautiful, innocent creatures who are slipping away into the night of extinction day by day due to the relentless human assault on our shared planet.

We are here, we are aware, and we are engaged. We are not going to stand by silently and let corporate greed and shortsightedness overwhelm us.

It is true that business and government have a stranglehold on official channels of communication, education and social change.

They control the curricula taught in our schools, what appears on our major media channels, and what projects and areas of creative exploration are funded. They keep us in line with the debt bondage of school loans, mortgages, car payments and the fear of not having enough money in the bank for a comfortable old age. We’re so busy running on the treadmills they’ve set up we have no time or energy to think about changing the system.

Or do we?

So far, the one social area that has not been overtaken by corporate/governmental control is the World Wide Web. It’s still a Wild West space, a place where you can find everything and everyone, from dangerous sadists to beneficent spiritual leaders. There’s room for every kind of idea out there to percolate through our collective consciousness. And make no mistake: the energy we’re seeing in the People’s Climate March is fueled in large part by the distribution power of the Web, the ability to get the word out and get people fired up to come together to take a stand.

We saw it happen in the Arab Spring, where people used cell phones and texts to organize themselves to resist oppression.

We saw those people get beaten back, the promise of their revolution squashed by the entrenched power of men with guns and tear gas.

The rise of the Islamic State, like the rise of Al Quaeda and the Taliban, is all about conservative forces resisting change.

I am just as afraid of men with guns and tear gas as the next woman. I am happier making revolution on my laptop than in the streets. But at some point we have to come out from behind our screens, get off the treadmills of debt bondage, look around us at the beauty of the world, and say: this is what I want to live for, and this is what I’m willing to die for.

Terry Tempest Williams.  Photo by Cheryl Himmelstein

Terry Tempest Williams. Photo by Cheryl Himmelstein

Environmental activist and writer Terry Tempest Williams, in her book The Open Space of Democracy, says that the time has come to “move beyond what is comfortable” (81) in pursuit of what she calls a “spiritual democracy.”

“We have made the mistake of confusing democracy with capitalism and have mistaken political engagement with a political machinery we all understand to be corrupt,” she says.

“It is time to resist the simplistic, utilitarian view that what is good for business is good for humanity in all its complex web of relationships. A spiritual democracy is inspired by our own sense of what we can accomplish together, honoring an integrated society where the social, intellectual, physical and economic well-being of all is considered, not just the wealth and health of the corporate few” (87)

Williams calls for a radical recognition of the interdependence of all life on Earth. “The time has come to demand an end to the wholesale dismissal of the sacredness of life in all its variety and forms,” she says. “At what point do we finally lay our bodies down to say this blatant disregard for biology and wild lives is no longer acceptable?” (86)

If we humans could step into our destiny as the stewards of our planet, the loving gardeners and caretakers of all other living beings, we would harness our incredible intelligence and creativity to re-stabilize our climate and do what needs to be done to ensure the well-being of all.

Williams calls this “the next evolutionary leap” for humanity: “to recognize the restoration of democracy as the restoration of liberty and justice for all species, not just our own” (89).

DSC_2200WIf we are able to take this leap, we will not only avert climate-related disaster on a Biblical scale, we will also overcome many of the social problems that we currently struggle with. “To be in the service of something beyond ourselves—to be in the presence of something other than ourselves, together—this is where we can begin to craft a meaningful life where personal isolation and despair disappear through the shared engagement of a vibrant citizenry,” says Williams (89).

Williams’ small gem of a book grew out of a speech she gave at her alma mater, the University of Utah, in the spring of 2003, as America was rushing into its ill-conceived War on Terror in Iraq. She describes her heart pounding as she got up to make a speech advocating a different form of democracy than that embraced and espoused by all the conservative friends and family sitting in the audience before her.

Challenging one’s own friends and family, betraying one’s own tribe, is the hardest aspect of being a social revolutionary. You have to question the very people you love most, who have given you so much and made your whole life possible.

But if we become aware that the social systems that gave birth to us are the very social systems that are undermining the possibility of a livable future on this planet, can we continue to just go with the flow, to avoid asking the difficult questions?

Or will we become change agents who work slowly and steadily, drip by drip, to awaken those around us, those we love most, to the necessity of undertaking “the next evolutionary leap” in the human saga on the planet?

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Are We Going to Stand By Silently in the Face of Ecocide? Hell no!

In my talk the other night, “The Personal is Planetary,” which I gave as the opening lecture of the Berkshire Human Rights Speaker Series, I set out to point to climate stabilization as the most important issue of our time, the one that dwarfs all the other social and environmental struggles we may be engaged with.

candian-oil-sands-615Most people know by now that if we don’t shift to renewable sources of energy like solar and wind, the greenhouse gases caused by the profligate burning of fossil fuels are going to wreck our planetary environment so badly that our beautiful Earth will become unlivable for most of her current inhabitants, including humans.

“We know and we don’t know,” I told the audience. “We know but we see no role for ourselves as change agents. We know but we’re afraid of the consequences of protest. We know but we don’t want to know. Life is comfortable; why rock the boat?”

I wondered aloud how bad things would have to get before we sunpower_maincomfortable Americans finally understand that it is past time for our active engagement in forcing our government and our corporations to do what needs to be done to ensure a livable future for us all.

Shocks can be necessary, and we’ve already had a few: Hurricanes Katrina, Irene and Sandy, along with regional droughts, floods and wildfires in many parts of the country, all weather-related events exacerbated by global warming.

But Americans are still pretty cushioned from the full effects of climate change. Around the world, for people of other nationalities and for millions of non-human species, things are already reaching a tipping point beyond which recovery will be difficult, even impossible.

We Americans, privileged and coddled as we are, need to open up our eyes and take in the full enormity of the crisis that confronts us.

This is bigger than any individual war, even against evil empires like the Islamic State. It’s bigger than any individual social justice issue, even the ones I’ve spent a good part of my life fighting for, like women’s equality and anti-racism.

As I said in my talk, “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to compare our role as bystanders to the destruction of the forests and oceans and all their inhabitants to the role of the ‘good Germans’ who watched the trains full of Jews roll into the concentration camps and professed to not know what was going on behind those walls.”

Six million Jews died in the Holocaust, some of them my distant relatives. I’ve been taught all my life that we must remember this genocide, and others like it, so that it will never happen again.

And yet all of us are willing to stand by, deaf, blind and mute, as millions upon millions of innocent living beings on the planet are sacrificed to the maw of human industry in its current greedy, profit-driven guise.

Tens of thousands of albatross are dying from eating plastic out of the Pacific Ocean

Tens of thousands of albatross are dying from eating plastic out of the Pacific Ocean

Fossil fuel extraction, from fracking to tar sands to deep-sea drilling; industrialized agriculture, with its chemical poisoning of the earth and waters; mining and deforestation; plastic garbage on land and sea; endless urban and suburban sprawl—all this is driving what scientists now refer to as the Sixth Great Extinction, which will only intensify as the planet continues to heat up.

Eventually, if we stand by and do nothing, we humans too will join the long death march to extinction, or at least to a total collapse of our ruinous global civilization.

Are we going to stand by and do nothing while the planet burns? Are we going to allow our government and our corporations to commit planetary ecocide? Are we going to continue to pretend that we don’t know what’s going on?

10453020_1454513064799672_5914704337046021387_oThis Sunday there will be an opportunity to take to the streets to demand effective action on climate change. Tens of thousands of Americans from all over the country will be converging on midtown Manhattan for the People’s Climate March to show the world that we care about our future and we know that our destiny is bound up in the health and welfare of the entire planetary ecosystem.

It is truly a legendary moment in the history of humanity. We have the grand opportunity to be the generation that succeeds in abandoning the deadly playbook of industrialized capitalism, and opens up a new epoch based on caring, balance and good stewardship of the Earth.

Endless growth of human industry is not possible on our finite planet—not without driving us all to ruin. The sooner we can adjust our economies and industries to this new worldview, the sooner we will all begin to learn how to recalibrate human activity accordingly, and redistribute the current massive imbalances of wealth so that everyone has enough—including all the non-human species that we must also learn to value and protect.

As I concluded in my talk the other night, “The future of so many living beings on this planet depends on our ability to overcome our fear, move beyond our silences and step into the power of our own transformative visions. Opportunities to work for positive change will open up as we begin to look for them. Now is the time for action, and we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Let’s not wait any longer.”

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PS: I was glad to see an excellent op-ed piece by Mark Bittman in The New York Times about the importance of the People’s Climate March. The Times is also providing a “Countdown to the Climate March” this week: here’s a story that goes behind the scenes with the organizers, featuring an interview with Bill McKibben.

Also, if you haven’t seen the new film DISRUPTION yet, here is the You-Tube link.  It begins with a quote: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” –Frederick Douglass.  Check it out!

Resistance is the Secret of Joy–and of Social Revolution

The little old building that houses the offices of Orion Magazine was crowded with people of all ages, gathered around a data projector to see the just-released film, DISRUPTION: CLIMATE. CHANGE.

The film, made by the same folks who created the excellent climate advocacy film DO THE MATH, features stalwart activists like Naomi Klein, Van Jones and Bill McKibben, along with newer voices like Chris Hayes and Keya Chatterjee, all focused intently on a single goal: getting the viewing public—that’s us!—to understand that climate change is real, it’s happening now, it’s going to get worse before it gets better, and there is absolutely no more important cause to which to dedicate our lives.

According to the 2014 report by the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we are in for a rough century. If we don’t stop burning fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow, we’ll drive the global temperature so high that severe climate change will result. Mega-storms, melting polar caps, coastal flooding, ocean acidification, damages to agriculture, human and ecosystem health, mass extinction, you name it.

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Alice Walker

How do we avoid despair when looking ahead at an uncertain and probably chaotic future? One of the scientists interviewed in the film quotes Alice Walker, who famously wrote that “resistance is the secret of joy.”

This is the title of one of Walker’s novels, and the quote comes from the protagonist, Tashi/Evelyn, who willingly submits to genital mutilation as a young woman eager to conform to her society’s idea of what is right and proper…only to spend the rest of her life dealing with the resulting pain and trauma.

She thinks to herself that “resistance is the secret of joy” as she’s on her way to be executed for the crime of having murdered the old woman who cut her clitoris out with a razor—the woman who performed this “operation” on hundreds and hundreds of young girls over the course of a long career as an exciser.

For us, as for Tashi, there comes a point where we can no longer go along with the path that our elders and leaders have laid out for us.

There comes a point where we have to begin to think for ourselves, and to see that the danger of going along with the status quo far outweighs the danger of standing up to declare that another world is possible.

In a much-quoted column on Truthdig.com, Chris Hedges writes that because of the stranglehold the fossil fuel industry has on our political process, ordinary democratic tactics are not going to work in the urgent struggle to radically rethink and retool our economy to run on renewable energy.

“We have known about the deleterious effects of carbon emissions for decades,” Hedges writes. “The first IPCC report was published in 1990. Yet since the beginning of the Kyoto Protocol Era in the late 1980s, we have emitted as much carbon dioxide as was emitted in the prior 236 years. The rising carbon emissions and the extraction of tar sands—and since the industry has figured out how to transport tar sands without building the northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, this delivery seems assured—will continue no matter how many police-approved marches are held. Play by the rules and we lose.

“Resistance will come from those willing to breach police barricades. Resistance will mean jail time and direct confrontation. Resistance will mean physically disrupting the corporate machinery. Resistance will mean severing ourselves from the dominant culture to build small, self-sustaining communities. This resistance will be effective only when we refuse to do what we are told, when we turn from a liberal agenda of reform to embrace a radical agenda of revolt.”

These are strong words from a middle-aged white guy, a media guru with a lot to lose.

Hedges is disdainful of the People’s Climate March on September 21, which, he says, has been coopted by some of the big fossil fuel companies themselves, and has failed “ to adopt a meaningful agenda or pose a genuine threat to power.”

Go ahead, “March if you want,” Hedges says. “But it should be the warm-up. The real fight will come once people disperse on 11th Avenue.” 

This is a point that is also made in the DISRUPTION film by the People’s Climate March organizers, who freely acknowledge that the march is only a first step in what will be a much more protracted struggle to, as one activist says, “take back our future” from what Bill McKibben calls the “rogue industries,” the criminal fossil fuel companies who are selling the future of every living being on the planet for a fourth-quarter profit report.

My favorite part of the film is right at the end, where Van Jones looks directly at us through the camera and says that change must start with each one of us taking a good hard look in the mirror.

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The author marching in Washington,DC, February 2014

Planetary and political change starts with personal awareness and responsibility. We can’t keep hanging around waiting for our political leaders to do the right thing. We can’t keep waiting for someone else to step up. If you have a vision of a better world, now is the time for you to start expressing it, finding others to share it, and together making it happen.

Next week I’ll be sharing my own story of coming to awareness, finding my way out of the straitjacket of convention and back into a deep connection with the natural world, which I had as a child but lost as I took my place among the young adults of my generation.

Entitled “The Personal is Planetary,” my talk is aimed at people like me—ordinary, people who work hard, take their responsibilities as parents and mentors seriously, and try to be kind and compassionate towards others.

How could it be that good people like us have let the planet come to the brink of disaster?

Human beings are like caribou—or like lemmings. We are instinctively compelled to run with our pack, even if the pack is running straight over a cliff. Those who try to buck this stampede can find themselves trampled.

The DISRUPTION film makes the point that we Americans are both bystanders to the tragedy of global climate change, and perpetrators. We have been enjoying the carbon-intensive lifestyle that is now driving the entire planet down the road to ruin.

True story. But regrets and guilt won’t get us anywhere now. We must find within ourselves the courage to look in that mirror, accept our culpability and deficiencies, and move on to do whatever we can, in the time that is left to us, to work towards a smooth transition to a sustainable future for children and grandchildren.

I’ll be in New York on September 21 for the People’s Climate March, will you? Let’s remember that resistance is not only the secret of joy. It’s the only way real social change has ever been accomplished.  

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