From the inspired work of Joanna Macy
You have said that the spiral of your work begins with “gratitude,” goes to “grief for the world,” then to “seeing with new eyes,” then “going forth.” How exactly does this work?
We start with gratitude because that helps us be fully present, and shows us that we have a right to be here in this miraculous world. This evolving life on earth is a wonder, and gratitude helps open our senses-our hearts and minds -to this miracle, to this beauty. It brings us into presence, and I have come to realize that the most precious gift that we can give our world is to be fully present to it. Gratitude is a revolutionary act because it counters the thrust of the industrial growth society, or the consumer society, which breeds dissatisfaction. You have to make people dissatisfied with what they have and who they are in order that they keep buying.
Gratitude is an age-old practice, very strong in North American culture. When we’re fully present, then we have the grounding and confidence to look at what is inside of us as well. There is, in every person that I have met, regardless of their party politics or background, grief for what is happening to other beings. And there is fear about what is happening to our country and to our future. This pain for the world is present in everyone, but most people are afraid of it and cover it over, repress it.
When people discover that they don’t need to be afraid of the pain they feel for their world, there is great liberation of their energy. People find that these feelings of anguish for the wider planet are living proof of their interconnectedness, their radical interdependence with all life. This brings a new way of seeing and experiencing life.
The third stage of the cycle is to see with new eyes-that is, this new paradigm thinking that you hear of now and again, coming from science as well as from ancient teachings. It is this new way of seeing that will enable us to create the life-sustaining society we are committed to in “The Great Turning.”
The fourth stage is where we gather what we’ve learned in the first three stages and look at our own niche in life-where we happen to be living, what we happen to be doing, what our real relations are. This allows us to see how we can collaborate in building a sustainable, peaceful, and ecologically sane world.
A Wild Love for the World
Joanna Macy is a Buddhist philosopher of ecology and an exquisite translator of the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. We take that poetry as a lens on her wisdom, at 81, on the great dramas of our time: ecological, political, and personal. Rilke sought the shape of meaning in a now-vanished central Europe at the turn of the last century. Joanna Macy’s vision took shape in crucibles of the 20th century; she sees us at a pivotal moment in history — with possibilities of unraveling, or of creating a life-sustaining human society.
and Great Turnings
On my 40th birthday, nearly ten years ago, this radio program was much more a possibility than a reality, and I was in despair. I was encountering skepticism at every turn; nothing was working out. I was about to give up — certain that this adventure, however passionately I had believed in it, was coming to an end. But somehow a copy of Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows’ translations of Rilke’s Book of Hours fell into my hand. I still vividly remember my defeated mood as I opened it up and read this poem in a coffee shop:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
—Rilke’s Book of Hours, I, 59
After reading this poem (listen to Joanna Macy’s recitation) for the first time those years ago, I began to breathe again. It cleared none of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles away. It simply gave me courage to keep moving forward, one foot in front of the other. This project might not work out, the dream might not come true, but I would see it through to the end.
So I made big shadows. I let beauty and terror happen to me. I learned a new universe of things about the seriousness of “the country they call life.” And after years of starts and stops, this program made its way into that country too.
I’ve ever after been grateful to Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows, not just to Rilke. I spent the early part of my adult life in Germany and had first read Rilke’s poetry in his singular, inventive, lush German. Until I found Macy and Barrows’ book, I didn’t believe any translator could render him into English.
They even translate his sense of the urgency about his century to the urgency of the century that is ours. And it is a gift, and a joy, to hear Rilke’s words in Joanna Macy’s English and even more in her voice as she ponders what she has learned in 81 years bravely lived and deeply examined.
She knew Cold War Europe and also post-colonial India. There, her husband ran the newly minted Peace Corps, and she came to work with Tibetan refugees fleeing their country, following the exile of the young Dalai Lama. She later became an environmental activist before that term entered our global lexicon, visiting ravaged Chernobyl, protesting the Three Mile Island catastrophe.
She is a delightedly wise elder, a kind of voice I love to bring to the air. And in all of her experiences, she has also acquired a long view of time with regard to political, spiritual, and ecological realities.
In our conversation, for example, she says this of her early discoveries about environmental degradation. “I realized that we were, through technology, having consequences with our decisions … that reached into geological time. … That we are making choices that will affect whether beings thousands of generations from now will be able to be born sound of mind and body.”
These days, Joanna Macy is best known as a Buddhist scholar and a philosopher of ecology. Her poetic sensibility and Buddhist savvy combine to give her a fresh and challenging take on our collective encounter with the environment now — an unfolding encounter that may define economics, cultures, and wars as well as ecology in the century ahead. Joanna Macy insists that we must embrace our passionate love for the world if we are to work with our grief at its unravelings and keep hope alive. She offers courage for the whole challenge of life and love in this present day.
I Recommend Reading:
Rilke’s Book of Hours
In Praise of Mortality
translated by Joanna Macy
and Anita Barrows
These two translations of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry are among my most treasured reading. Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows have creatively captured Rilke’s rich use of the German language and rendered his ideas into English better than any more literal translation I have seen. These poems nourish and challenge one to reflect on the innermost depths of oneself and the splendor of the natural world.