Book by Joanna Macy, review by Martine Verweij

This is a hugely important book. In it, eco-philosopher Joanna Macy first of all explains how there are four different ways to look at the world, that have been passed down to us through the ages. They are not specific to any culture or tradition. They can be found in all major religions. These four are: world as battlefield, world as trap, world as lover and world as self.

World as battlefield can be literally, a battlefield, where the good ones win from the bad ones. But in a way our classroom is also a continuous test, where you are supposed to prove your mettle and shape up, so you can graduate to other arenas and rewards. The school is merely a proving ground. The world as battlefield can be seen on every corner, in every newspaper. To break out of this destructive paradigm we need to recognize its presence, appeal and tenacity.

The world as trap is a world where the goal is not to engage in struggle and vanquish the foe, but to disentangle ourselves and escape from this messy world. Many on a spiritual path fall for this perspective. It’s about assigning a transcendent reality distinct from a materialistic society. When we try to escape from something we are dependent on breeds a love-hate relationship. And a love-hate relationship with matter reinforces the idea that mind and spirit are separate from the natural world, and superior to it.

The world as lover is a world that is experienced as a an essential life-giving partner. ‘From the curve of the cosmos to the spinning of atoms, the universe engages in a dance of mutual allurement. In this worldview desire plays a creative, world-manifesting role. ‘When you see the world as lover, every being can become – if you have a clever, appreciative eye – an expression of that ongoing, erotic impulse’. Macy advocates to seek the lover in each life form. If we do so, we can find ourselves in the dance of sweet-play. The one beloved becomes many, and the world itself is her lover.

The world as self is the exponent of the world as lover. Macy: ‘Just as lovers seek union, we are apt, when we fall in love with our world, to fall into oneness with it as well. We begin to see the world as ourselves’. Mystics of all traditions give voice to this hunger of seeking oneness. Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh evokes the long, wondrous evolutionary journey we all have made together, from which we are as inseparable as from our own selves. It is like a love song.

Being rock, being gas, being mist, being Mind,
being the mesons traveling among galaxies at the speed of light,
you have come here, my beloved…
You have manifested yourself
as trees, grass, butterflies, single-celled beings,
and as chrysanthemums.
But the eyes with which you looked at me this morning
tell me you have never died.

World as lover, world as self – two worldviews combined

Joanna Macy states: ‘we return to the experience that we are both the self of our world and its cherished lover. We are not doomed to destroy it by the cravings of the separate ego and the technologies it fashioned. We can wake up to who we really are, allow the rivers to flow clean once more, and the trees to grow green along their banks’.

Dependent co-arising

Macy then continues to explain the concept of dependent co-arising: a centerpiece of Buddha’s teachings. In much of her work Macy draws back on Buddhist teachings. Things help each other happen by providing occasion or locus or context, and in so doing, they in turn are affected. There is a reciprocal dynamic at play. Power inheres not in any one dominating entity, but in the relationship between entities.

.. between mind and matter

From the same logic follows the importance of seeing the radical interdependence of mind and matter. Macy: ‘This is important because the environmental crisis has deep attitudinal roots. The bulldozing of nature and the abuse of our own bodies reveal the split in the psyche that cuts us off from the physical world. This separation engenders a fear of nature and a compulsion to control it. To fill the emptiness caused by this perceived separation, we seek satisfaction with external diversions, be it alcohol, tobacco, crack, or shopping’.

… between man and society

One step further, Macy stipulates that the combination of these two worldviews, makes it clear that we cannot separate from society and declare independence from the world at large. The phenomena of dependent co-arising also goes for our institutions, which co-arise with us. Macy: ‘The Buddha saw all social structures as impermanent, contingent products of human interaction’.

… between doer and deed

In a next chapter, Macy talks about the co-arising of doer and deed. One particular paragraph is titled the systems view of Karma. Macy: ‘Because any open system is self-organizing, its behavior cannot be dictated from without. External pressures can do no more than interact with the system’s internal organization. Since a person’s actions derive from her unique observations and reflections, she can always choose. Though her reactions are conditioned by previous experience, present circumstances bring ever-new perceptions and opportunities.

Does it matter?

Macy’s Buddhist, systems-answer to the eternal question, ‘does it matter what we do’, is that indeed it matters. It matters to the extent that ‘we’ matter. Macy sees consciousness as the operation whereby information is continuously  received, evaluated and summarized in the form of ‘decisions’, ‘choices’ and ‘intentions’. In this way doer and deed co-arise.

All of the above, serves as a preambule to a more active part of the book, in which Macy illustrates what’s needed and possible, when engaging in the world in accordance to the systemic-budhist worldview of lover and self.

The spiral within the activists’s inner journey

Macy introduces a very helpful concept of the spiral within the activist’s inner journey. An interconnecting of four movements that feed into each other:

  1. convening to gratitude
  2. owning our pain for the world
  3. seeing with new eyes
  4. going forth.

From the book (pg 86): The sequence repeats itself, as the spiral circles round. It begins with gratitude, because it quiets the frantic mind and brings us back to the source. It reconnects us with basic goodness and our personal power. It helps us to be more fully present to our world. That grounded presence provides the psychic space for acknowledging the pain we carry for our world.
In owning this pain, and daring to experience it, we learn that our capacity to “suffer with” is the true meaning of compassion We begin to know the immensity of our heart-mind, and how it helps us to move beyond fear. What had isolated us in private anguish now opens outward and delivers us into wider reaches of our world as lover, world as self.

The truth of our inter-existence, made real to us by our pain for the world, helps us see with new eyes. It brings fresh understandings of who we are and how we are related to each other and the universe. We begin to comprehend our own power to change and heal. We strengthen by growing living connection with past and future generations, and our brother and sister species.

Then, ever again, we go forth into the action that calls us. With others whenever and wherever possible, we set a target, lay a plan, step out. We don’t wait for a blueprint or fail-proof scheme; for each step will be our teacher, bringing new perspectives and opportunities. Even when we don’t succeed in a given venture, we can be grateful for the chance we took and the lessons we learned. And the spiral begins again. 

Group rituals

The rest of the book Macy shares some amazingly effective group rituals and meditations to work on the four steps. I know, for I tried out most of them and they work wonders.

When it comes to gratitude, Macy shares a beautiful thanksgiving prayer by the Mohawk people. In the prayer a tribute is paid to the people, the Earth Mother, the Waters, the Fish, the Plants, the food Plants, the Medicine Herbs, the Animals, the Trees, the Birds, the Four Winds, Grandfather Thunder, Eldest Brother the Sun, Grandmother Moon and the Stars.

She describes the importance of despair work through truth-telling exercises. She shares meditations on death and on loving kindness. She teaches how to ‘breath through’ many situations that confront us with suffering. She also teaches ways to find joy in the joy of others, with an exercise called the great ball of merit. And lastly, she shares a meditation which helps to ‘learn to see each other’.

Shambala Warriors prophecy – system thinkers with compassion

In subsequent chapters Macy shares the prophecy of the Shambahla warriors, which to me are like to ultimate systems thinkers; Shambala warriors go into the very heart of barbarian power, into the pits and citadels where the weapons are kept in order to dismantle them. To dismantle weapons, in every sense of the word, they must go into the corridors of power where decisions are made. They know they can do this, because the weapons are mind-made and can be unmade by the human mind. Shambala warriors use two weapons: insight and compassion. In this little movie Macy shares the prophecy of Shambala and explains why these two weapons are so important.

The Great Turning

Part three of the book is called Sowing Seeds for the Future and in it Macy describes what she calls ’the Great Turning’. The Great Turning is a metaphor for how we – these generations alive and in power – will have turned things around. If we don’t, future generations won’t be there to have something to look back upon. It is the epochal shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining society. And it is a matter of survival.

The revolution begins with the acknowledgment of two facts. First, that an economic system that depends on ever-increasing corporate profits – on how fast the Earth can be turned into consumer goods, weapons, and waste – is suicidal. And second, that our needs can be met without destroying our world. We have technology and resources available to produce sufficient food and energy, and ensure clean air and water, and leave a livable world for those who come after us.

How the Great Turning will come about has three dimensions, according to Macy:

We have to engage in holding actions – activism. The legislative, legal and regulatory work to slow down the negative effects of the current industrial system. It also includes blockades, boycotts, civil disobedience and other forms of refusal. This dimension can be very strenuous. No one can do this all the time. It wears us out. But it’s not all that’s needed.

What else is needed is structural change to free ourselves from the industrial growth society. To do this, we must understand its dynamics. What are the political and economic structures that lead us to use our Earth as supply house and swear? What are the tacit agreements creating obscene wealth for a few, while the majority of humanity sinks into poverty and want? Clarity as to how the old system works helps us see how it can be replaced. Alternative institutions and ways of doing are mushrooming, from local currencies to consumer cooperatives, from ecovillages to community-supported agriculture.

Lastly, none of the above will work, without a shift in consciousness. This is happening all around us; we are again becoming aware of the web of relationships in which we have our being. Discoveries in science help us see the whole of the Earth is one big living system. This cognitive revolution is paralleled by a spiritual one. Ancient teachings become available to us now. Like our ancestors we begin to see our the world as our body and, whether or not we say the word, as sacred.

The greening of our sense of Self – a hopeful development

In chapter 14 Macy elaborates further on this shift in consciousness, from the perspective of Self. Macy is very hopeful when it comes to a development that concerns the Self. There’s a development that she calls the greening of the Self. More and more people come to see the natural world around as an extension of themselves. The Amazon as their lungs. The trees that are felt, as part of their body. For them, protecting the earth, is protecting themselves. If our sense of Self is extended like this, protecting the Earth as our body comes natural.

To reinhabit time

Lastly, in chapter 16 Macy highlights something very fundamental; our sense of time. Macy: ‘It occurred to me that both the progressive destruction of our world, and our capacity to stop that destruction, can be understood as a function of our experience of time. Until we break out of this temporal time trap, we will not be able to fully perceive or adequately address the crises we have created for ourselves and the generations to come. Macy advocates that we open up our experience of time in organic, ecological and geological terms. This can allow life to continue on Earth.

Doing so Macy suggests invoking beings of the past, present and the future. She suggests a different politics of time. What if we would have a house of Congress, a house of spokespersons for the Future. Without the power to pass laws, it would speak for future generations. We need structures that would give voice to the interests of future generations.

To train our ability, through our moral imagination, to break out of our temporal confine and let longer expanses of time become real to us, Macy suggests an exercise called the Double Circle or ’the Seventh Generation. It lets us experience ourselves as ancestors and see our lives through the eyes of future beings. And she shares a guided meditation that allows us to experience our life as Gaia.

Ancestral and evolutionary remembering are powerful ways to expand our consciousness of time and our felt continuity with past and future.

A prayer to the beings of the future

Macy admits that sometimes she finds herself praying, not only for the beings of the future, but also to them. She asks them to help us to be faithful in the work that we, their ancestors have been given to do.

You live inside us, beings of the future.
In the spiral ribbons of our cells, you are here.
In our rage for the burning forests, the poisoned fields, the oil-drowned seals,
you are here.
You beat in our heart through late-night meetings.
You accompany us to clear-cuts and toxic dumps
and the halls of the lawmakers.
It is you who drive our dogged labors to save what is left.

O you, who will walk this Earth when we are gone, stir us awake.
Behold through our eyes the beauty of this world.
Let us feel your breath in our lungs, your cry in our throat.
Let us see you in the poor, the homeless, the sick.
Haunt us with your hunger, hound us with your claims,
that we may honor the life that links us.

You have as yet no faces we can see, no names we can say.
But we need only hold you in our mind, and you teach us patience.
You attune us to measures of time where healing can happen,
where soil and souls can mend.
You reveal courage within us we had not suspected,
love we had not owned.
O you who come after, help us remember: we are your ancestors.
Fill us with gladness for the work that must be done.