Featured speaker Joanna Macy at "The Tree of Life in the Time of the Great Turning" event, St. Mark's Cathedral, Seattle, November 5, 2010.
(Photo courtesy of Jeffry W. Myers.)
Joanna Macy came to Seattle on November 5th and 6th. Saturday night Macy addressed a large audience gathered at St. Mark’s Cathedral to honor “The Tree of Life at the Time of the Great Turning”. The next day at Nalanda West, Joanna led a capacity-full shrine room in “The Dharma that Reconnects”.
Belinda Griswold from Great Turnings Northwest introduced Joanna. Straightaway, in her open and personable way, Joanna shared her excitement at being at Nalanda. Although her root practice is Insight or Vipassana, she experienced abroad early heart-opening teaching from the Kagyu, including a special connection to the previous Karmapa. She said, “The strong tree of Buddhism is beyond any sectarian approach.”
Often called an eco-philosopher and/or a Buddhist scholar, Joanna Macy is perhaps primarily an activist, a fine and follow-able example of the beliefs she advocates.
For many years now Joanna has been articulating a system theory which she and now others like David Korten call “The Great Turning”. The world is surely in great trouble, and there is a Great Turning—the other side of the story—one that Macy is telling:
“The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world—we’ve actually been on the way for quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and each other.”
After sharing information about herself and the framework of The Great Turning, Joanna led right into guided meditation and personal interactions. This experiential and practical side of The Great Turning she calls “The Work That Reconnects”. Joanna helped us see, as Buddhists here in America, how it’s truly the Dharma that reconnects us—to our deepest selves, to each other, and to our world. To the world of nature and yes, even to our era’s “end stage of the industrial growth society”.
Joanna doesn’t sugarcoat the suffering involved in awareness: “to clearly see what’s going on, without going crazy”. She told us that The Work That Reconnects is Bodhisattva training: “Compassion literally means to feel with, to suffer with. Everyone is capable of compassion, and yet everyone tends to avoid it because it's uncomfortable. And the avoidance produces psychic numbing—resistance to experiencing our pain for the world and other beings.”
Participants in Joanna Macy's program "The Dharma that Reconnects" practice in pairs at Nalanda West.
However, reconnecting work can be joyful and transformative because we are not doing it, as individuals or even as groups, by ourselves. Whatever they are calling it, many people right now are doing this reconnecting work in our neighborhoods and all around the world. In fact we are naturally “released into action” by dependent arising, the “radical interdependence of all life forms”. According to Macy, “We can let life work through us, enlisting all our strength, wisdom, and courage, so that life itself can continue… If the world is to be healed...it will be by...people whose love for this life is even greater than their fear."
Macy talked about three kinds of important dependent co-arising activities/actions for all beings. One involves ways of trying to hold back or correct the system, another consciously creating and participating in Gaia Structures, new ways of being inside and outside the “shriveling” shell of the old. The third is changing consciousness:
“Earth is what we are! No more projecting the sacred, but experiencing it in daily lives, in each other, ourselves…” Addressing us as stream/s of being, Joanna said, “Self is a neural assembly in the web of life—with intention in it, there’s no place for fear… The Four Abodes are verbs—when you do them you are in heaven.”
In addition to meditation, the afternoon’s program included partner and small group discussions. We experienced guided meditation directed to the four directions (to the South, for example, we honored pain, letting go of impatience and powerlessness); expressed thanksgiving (“the words that come before all else”) for the gifts from Nature, humanity, and self; and practiced using open sentences to deal with avoidance of difficult feelings.
For hope and trust amidst the seeming dissolution of everything, Buddhism truly comes in handy, Joanna emphasized, because “there is no way to tell”, no certainty. We don’t know whether or not “this Great Turning is going to happen fast enough or fully enough to stop the unraveling of the systems supporting complex, conscious life forms on this planet. It's not clear yet whether we’re going to pull it off. There's no guarantee.”
And we need to “make peace with that”, not constantly brace against bad news while “working up hopefulness.” After all, she said, “There's a certain equanimity and moral economy when you're not continually trying to evaluate your chances of success.”
Our dear Dharma sister counseled us to keep on keeping on, “without dependence on seeing the results. Just hang in there a little bit. Huge evolutionary forces are at work. Life wants to go on.”
Approaching the end of our time together, Joanna almost called out: “Gratitude is not dependent on external circumstances—especially when things are not going well! Open your eyes, open your heart. Now!”
“…Gratitude is a revolutionary act. Buddha didn’t say everything is fine, perfect as it is. There is dukkha. Is it this world you want to find redemption in? Is it this world? Then…suffering.” At this point I realized I had a huge smile on my face and tears in my eyes.