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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.