Joanna Macy on the Great Awakening the Planet Needs

Buddhist thinker and environmental activist Joanna Macy on the global awakening the planet needs. At heart, it’s a spiritual revolution.

Melvin McLeod  •  Joanna Macy
15 May 2021
Joanna Macy. Photo by Adam Loften.

Melvin McLeod: You have had a long and influential career as a Buddhist thinker and writer, social justice activist, and respected voice in the environmental movement. You are also the root teacher of the “Work That Reconnects,” which you describe as a body of theory and practice that helps people “experience their innate connections with each other and the self-healing powers of the web of life, transforming despair and overwhelm into inspired, collaborative action.” Why is this work important now?

Joanna Macy: I think the most important thing we need to hear is the voice inside us which connects us to all beings and to the whole web of life. That is needed now to counteract the crippling of the modern self, which is cruelly contained, as in a prison cell, by the hyper-individualism of the last five centuries.

When you really pay attention, you see that you are part of the whole web of life.

When Thich Nhat Hanh was asked what we most need to do for the sake of our world, he said “to hear within ourselves the sounds of the earth crying.” I believe it’s true. The earth is crying, deep in our consciousness. Sometimes it reaches us.

The starting place of this work is the admonition to choose life, or, as you put it, to return to the wellsprings of life. All of us probably aspire to that, but how do we do it in practice?

We can begin by choosing to be present. We can choose to pay attention. That is the essential magic of mindfulness, and of the Buddha’s own life.

When you pay attention to your experience, you realize that you’re not just a separate organism sitting here breathing. You are not only breathing but being breathed. You need an oxygen-producing web of life for you to breathe—you need trees, you need plankton.

So where does the self begin and where does it end? When you really pay attention, you see that you are part of the whole web of life. That leads you to want to know that life and to protect it.

Rather than choosing life, you say we are in a culture that “deadens the heart and mind,” which it does by encouraging us not to acknowledge our suffering and pain. To what extent does fully connecting with life depend on opening our hearts and minds to the reality of suffering, both our own and others?

That’s how the Buddha began. The first noble truth is suffering. But the truth of suffering seems almost subversive within the American dream of affluence. It seems almost unpatriotic to confess anxieties about this country or our life.

It’s one of the basic functions of ego to suppress our awareness of suffering. So that’s not new. But it seems that today the whole system is designed to offer us more and more elaborate forms of deadening, distraction, and self-indulgence to cover over our suffering, and thus disconnect us from the fullness of life.

That’s right. Actually, reconnecting with the web of life may be harder for us than for any of our ancestors. As I look back over the millennia of humanity’s journey, it’s hard to imagine another time when we were so cruelly isolated by the illusion of a separate self and by a political economy that pits us against each other.

So this primary teaching of the Lord Buddha, the truth of suffering, is both necessary and liberating now. Our pain for the world, which we honor in the Work That Reconnects, reveals that we are far vaster than we ever imagined ourselves to be. This crumbles the walls of the little separate ego and moves naturally into seeing with new eyes. Then you see with the eyes of an undefended being, intimately interrelated with this incredible living planet. You see that you’re part of everything.

Compassion—literally to “suffer with”—asks you to not be afraid to be part of this world. When you are that wide open, you see that the grief you feel is just the other side of love. You only mourn what you love.

Photo by NASA.

Let’s turn to your analysis of the global situation and the choices humanity faces. One path you describe is supporting business as usual—continuing in the direction we are currently going. The alternative is to proceed with choices that lead to a life-sustaining culture. These range from how we grow food to how we resolve conflict. You have come to call this “the Great Turning.” Ultimately, you argue that this must be a spiritual revolution, because only spirituality leads to the kind of profound change the world needs to avoid the looming catastrophe.

Yes. But it’s spiritual with legs. Spiritual with hands. Spiritual with a loud mouth. Because we need to slow down the powerful impetus of economic growth that drives industry and government. It’s spirituality that’s ready to sit on the tracks, that’s ready to take the guns out of their hands.

This is where the two streams of your life come together—the spiritual and the politically engaged.

I experience them as one river. In early Buddhist scriptures there is a simple and wonderful phrase describing the relation between wisdom and action: they are “like two hands washing each other.” It is a dance of reciprocity. You can’t have one without the other, because they generate each other.

I learned this in my year with the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka, which brings a Buddhist understanding to Gandhian nonviolence. In India, the word Sarvodaya means “the uplift of all,” but in Buddhist Sri Lanka it means “the awakening of all.” In the buddhadharma, that waking up is inseparable from realizing our interdependence or interbeing.

When you talk about the Great Turning, it sounds like that means people need to realize the basic Buddhist teaching of anatta that there is no separate, independent, permanent self and everything is interconnected in the ever-changing web of life.

That’s absolutely essential, but it also needs to include being willing to get your hands dirty.

But you have to start with the realization.

Actually it’s not sequential, Melvin. Even the eighth-century Buddhist master Shantideva made clear that you can discover wisdom through your actions. In the Sarvodaya movement, the work camps in the villages are one of the ways to discover your mutual belonging.

I remember one unforgettable work camp in the middle of a town where we were digging a fountain for a hospital. We were in a kind of bucket brigade passing along buckets of mud, and next to me in the line was a fellow who was dressed like an office worker. He was sweating from the effort and laughing. He said, “Ah, now I am experiencing no separate self. I’m now experiencing anatta.” He thought that it was a great joke, but that is the main reason for Sarvodaya’s work camps. As the movement puts it, “we teach through actions first; words come after.”

We’re up to almost eight billion people on this planet and time is short. Do you really have hope that this great awakening can take place on a sufficient scale to change the direction in which we’re heading?

I find that assuring people there’s hope, including myself, is not all that useful. In Buddhism, there is no word for hope. It would be viewed as a distraction from what’s at hand. It takes you out of the present moment and into conjecture.

We have a choice: do we want to give up and surrender to the great unraveling, or do we want to join those who are working for a liveable future?

I think all we can really affirm is where we want to put our attention. I have a choice: do I want to give up and surrender to the great unraveling, or do I want to join those who are working for a liveable future? Since the outcome is uncertain, we have to enjoy doing something exhilarating and useful without knowing for sure if it’s going to work out.

We need to and we can find adventure in uncertainty. That’s the best we can offer right now. Uncertainty

rivets the attention. It’s like walking on a narrow trail with the land falling off on either side. It concentrates the mind wonderfully. But if you want a sure fire, guaranteed deal, then I don’t know where you’d find it right now, except through some kind of frontal lobotomy.

I think it’s more than wanting guaranteed success. It’s about having any hope at all. You could come to the conclusion that we simply can’t turn the whole thing around in time. So where do you find the motivation to do the right thing if you don’t have any real hope?

To be honest, it looks like we’re nearing the end of corporate capitalism. People and ecosystems the world over are already suffering from its massive dysfunctions. Within another generation or two, all of us, regardless of our current level of comfort or privilege, will be struggling to build a future through the rubble of a failed political economy.

So in that context, what’s our real hope? That is something wonderful to ponder. If you want to live with an open heart and a free mind, it leads you to confront such questions as: What can we do to reduce suffering now? How can we bring forward the moral strength, the values, and the practices to help us prepare for so great a challenge? What do we need to let go of in order to build a life sustaining culture?

We have a choice. We have the tools in our spiritual traditions. Being fully with what we’re experiencing, we can work together and cherish each other. Professor Jem Bendell, who writes about the need for “deep adaptation,” says, “Now that I have accepted this collapse, I have more peace of mind and love in my life than ever before.”

It seems there’s a deep connection between impermanence and love, because it’s recognizing that someone or something is impermanent that frees us to truly love them.

That’s it. There is a cherishing that allows space for love as we stand at this incredible brink. I’m gradually losing my vision through macular degeneration, but I’m very happy that I can still see that beautiful tree behind you as we speak.

And perhaps you love and treasure it more because you will lose the sight of it.

What you’re expressing so beautifully is the exquisite and sacred aspect of impermanence.

In Buddhism, it’s recommended that every morning when you wake up you say to yourself, “Today may be the day I die,” because that will transform how you live that day. Because of death—impermanence—you will live that day with more love and gratitude. I wonder how it would transform us to apply that meditation to the world itself—that it too will die sooner than we expect.

We would want to cherish each other while we still can. To look into each other’s eyes with love. I imagine going out and thanking the trees and all the life forms instead of turning them into money. I imagine us wanting to liberate those in prison. We have just a short time. These are the kinds of things we can do before it’s too late.

When we look into our own soul with love, miracles can happen. It’s a great thing to come out of the sleep, out of the hurry, out of the rush, out of the constant comparing ourselves with other people. To let that terrible strain drop away.

I feel so fortunate to be alive now. People might think I’m crazy, but just speaking personally, it’s an incredible thing to be alive with my fellow humans at a time when the future looks so bleak.

Right now we can be here to honor life. It’s a precious thing to be giving thanks for what we have instead of insisting it must last forever. Well, it’s not lasting forever. Can we still be grateful?

Melvin McLeod

Melvin McLeod is the Editor-in-Chief of Lion’s Roar magazine and Buddhadharma.
Joanna Macy

Joanna Macy

PhD, teacher and author, is a scholar of Buddhism, systems thinking and deep ecology. As the root teacher of the Work That Reconnects, Macy has created a ground-breaking framework for personal and social change that brings a new way of seeing the world as our larger body. Macy received a BA from Wellesley College in 1950 and a PhD in Religion from Syracuse University in 1978. She continues to write and teach in Berkeley, California. Her most recent book is A Wild Love for the World: Joanna Macy and the Work of Our Times (ed. Stephanie Kaza). To learn more, visit