This 20-minute video of Joanna Macy is derived from previously unused outtakes for a film released in 2014, titled: The Wisdom to Survive: Climate Change, Capitalism & Community. Upon review of the original interview, we found certain statements even more relevant now, in answer to the most important and painful questions of our time: How can we live our lives fully, with inner peace and courage (and even joy) as we confront a world that is rapidly destroying itself?
Please, take 20 minutes to be inspired by Joanna Macy’s message and empowered by her presence!
We are two “old dogs” saddened by the suffering we see all around us and moved to take action. Since 1985, we have produced and directed documentary films about the subtleties of individual human experience and the complexities of our collective challenges.
Our political leaders cannot solve the problems of our time. They themselves are too beholden to privileged, powerful constituencies motivated to preserve the status quo. Change must start with ordinary people who understand the interrelatedness of our global community. Ordinary people have the will, resourcefulness, and compassion to craft new solutions serving our common good.
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Thich Nhat Hanh said…(remember when he was asked what’s the most important thing we can do for the sake of life on Earth? And I think his questioners were asking, “Should we work in the system or sit on a zafu, meditate, or climb the barricades?”)…he didn’t go strategic at all, he said, “What we most need to do is to hear within ourselves the sounds of the Earth crying…To hear within ourselves, the sounds of the Earth crying.”
Every spiritual tradition, somewhere in it has a comment or a story or a metaphor about mistaken identity and this incredible crisis for conscious life on planet Earth, can be understood as that. That we’ve been thinking that we were consumers…we’ve been thinking that we were laborers in the machines of the industrial growth society. We were thinking that we had to get ahead as separate selves, compete, win, look out for number one, all the time imprisoned in this shrunken sense of self.
And now, this crisis is telling us, slapping us in the face saying, “Wake up, you are life on Earth.” We are living members of a living planet. We’re like cells in the living body. That body is being traumatized. So of course we feel it. Of course.
grief as a doorway
It arises from our profound caring, and that caring is grounded in our interconnectedness with all life, our interexistence with all life. And that’s been true for life since the beginning of space time. We forgot it for awhile. We began to exploit each other and the Earth for separate advantage and greed and fear grew.
So what the mainstream society would have us think of as ‘oh, some personal neurotic response’ and have us reduce our grief to a private neurosis is actually when we behold it and work through it. It becomes a doorway into a vaster realization of life and of our identity, our interexistence with all life. So that’s why I think that the crisis itself is both the mirror of the mistake we’ve made, but it also becomes an opportunity for our awakening.
That’s why I’ve come to think that maybe the first step on the way to the awakening is the simple act of being glad you’re alive.
What a magic that is, just to stop for a minute. That in itself is a politically subversive act, because we’re taught so much dissatisfaction and that results in self-deprecation, self-loathing in a way. And the loneliness, but to pause as in every spiritual tradition and at the beginning of every spiritual tradition, there was this, “Oh, wow, get a load of this. Hallelujah! I didn’t create this, but here I am. I have hands. I have breath. I have eyes that can see, there are trees out there. Here’s another person talking to me. Wow, there’s the sun, and the moon.”
So simple. So that act of saying, “Ah, thanks to life,” and you don’t have to be in circumstances you approve of to feel that way. Then finding the readiness and the will and the tenderness to look at the suffering. I like that about the Buddha’s teachings. He just began right off with that. Didn’t mince words. Suffering is, and you’re not going to make things better by running from it or pretending. Just be with it, and then you see.
When you feel grounded in gratitude, just even a little bit, so that the panic just subsides, you open the eyes, then you can feel held enough by life to notice and be present with what is also there and what you’ve been carrying around, maybe for as long as you can remember. But you can’t talk about it usually. Mainstream society doesn’t want to hear about our sorrow for what is happening to life on Earth. That gets reduced right away to some personal pathology. Mainstream society, the consumer society, they say, “Go out and shop. Go shopping.”
Really, we want to go cry. And in all the spiritual traditions there’s been place for mourning, tears that cleanse, hearts that open and get washed together, and words that get spoken of our anguish. What a deliverance to realize that that’s not a private burden, but a shared experience with our brothers and sisters.
When we’re suffering massive collective trauma, there’s always choice. There’s a choice about how we relate to suffering. Seems to me there are two ways. One is that we can let that suffering open us up to each other, and bond us in greater trust and collaboration, shared strength. Or we can let it divide us into feuding and conflict and bitterness.
…let this darkness be a bell tower…” – Rainer Maria Rilke
Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.
(Sonnets to Orpheus II, 29)
I didn’t create this body that stood by me so well for over 80 years, nor did I create the conditions that over billions of years nurtured life to allow you and me to emerge in this time. So there’s a mystery to that, and to be alive now, when things are really dicey. Whoa, I mean, we are causing the unraveling of life systems, species, and ecosystems, of the vast interplay of microbial, hydrological cycles, climate that is unhinging life on Earth.
If you want an adventure, boy, what a time to choose to be alive! To get a chance to find out what you have inside you, in terms of vitality and alertness and courage, what you have to discover in terms of what we can do together.
We have to build new, and let emerge new sustainable ways of doing things. And they are, they’re coming forward with such ingenuity. So many new ways, sprouting up. That’s essential for life to go on. It’s like the old Wobblies motto, “Building the new within the shell of the old.”
Don’t pour all your energy into defeating what’s already defeating itself at the core, but build living economies, living ways of producing food, the food revolution and the change in holding the land. Changes, basic changes in our judicial system, restorative circles, basic changes in how we understand and measure our wealth and prosperity. Biggest changes than we’ve seen in thousands of years, I think. And then, changing our minds, with it all this awakening to our true identity.
hope and hopelessness
Hope and hopelessness, they’re just feelings. They arise and pass. Sometimes I feel hopeful. Sometimes I feel helpless. Sometimes it has to do with what I had for breakfast or what somebody just said to me.
So the greatest gift we can give our world is our full presence and our choice moment by moment to be present, to stay open. And when you’re in the middle of a big adventure, you don’t have time to decide whether you’re hopeful or hopeless. David going out with his slingshot… Say, “Excuse me, Are you feeling hopeful?” Or, “Excuse me, Frodo and Sam, how hopeful do you feel today?” We just got a job to do. Don’t waste my time. That question can bring you out of the present moment. It can throw you into imaginings and conjectures when all your energy should be right here in the moment.
the path ahead…
I see us on the way into the future as walking always with uncertainty. We don’t know whether the great unraveling or the great turning is going to be the end of the story, but I know what I want to get behind. And I know the people that I love and link arms with get behind, and as we walk toward the possibility of a life-sustaining society, we’re on a path together, but we better link arms because there’s a ditch on either side of this road. And one ditch is paralysis, shutting down, because we feel too puny and too guilty and too weak to see what’s happening or too victimized. And the other ditch is panic, and there’s enough social hysteria going around nowadays that right-wing politicians are exacerbating and using.
I don’t think we need to scold people. People know that the whole life on Earth is in danger. They are aware of it in their bodies, at any rate. Help them feel the strength to feel life within them and move together and make that choice. It’s a choice that has to be made minute by minute. That’s where your urgency comes in.
“…I live my life in widening circles…” – Rainer Maria Rilke
I was raised in the church. I loved it. It was a place where my family could go and say nice things instead of being mean to each other. And I loved the music and it was great – liberal, Protestant theology, a loving God. But then when I prepared to study for a life in the church, I couldn’t take the theorizing, which was highly patriarchal and hierarchical, and I walked out. And I missed it.
Oh, because I’d been crazy about God and Jesus, and I was missing it until I came upon a Rilke in a bookstore in Munich. I was already a young mother. I was there and I picked up this Book of Hours, [speaks in German], and it fell open to the second poem.
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I will give myself to it.
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?
Whoa! Hello! Hello life! Whoa. God’s everywhere. Yeah, but it’s a different God. And that meant so much. I think it’s the very next poem in the Book of Hours, Rilke said, “You, the mist that brought forth the morning,” that’s the image he uses. Not a king on a throne, but the mist that brings forth the morning. “I would sing your praises, not with gold leaf on parchment, but with the colors of apple bark.” A God you meet in darkness, a God who surprises you into tears, a God that causes you to love things.
So that call, and the condition of our world meet. There’s the poetry. Poetry helps so much, because expository prose, that gets caught in old thought forms. It’s almost sometimes like looking in a rear view mirror. But listen to this, “Dear darkening ground, you’ve endured so patiently the walls we’ve built.”
See, he’s talking to God as if God were the Earth. It merges, as it has for me, the object of my devotion and joy is the living Earth itself. And so that’s okay with God.
Dear darkening ground,
you’ve endured so patiently the walls we’ve built,
perhaps you’ll give the cities one more hour
and grant the churches and cloisters two.
And those that labor—let their work
grip them another five hours, or seven,
before you become forest again, and water, and widening wilderness
in that hour of inconceivable terror
when you take back your name
from all things.
Just give me a little more time!
I want to love the things
as no one has thought to love them,
until they’re real and ripe and worthy of us.
(Book of Hours, I 61)
Well, what better thing to do? How can you have a great turning unless you love it all into being? Don’t let urgency deprive you of the capacity to let life through in the biggest doorway of your being.
After watching Climate Crisis As Spiritual Path you can start a conversation.
Here are a few questions to guide a group discussion or simply to help you go deeper into your own thoughts and feelings about the climate crisis that confronts us:
- When have you experienced a connection to nature? How has it influenced what you’ve thought or said or done? Have you “heard within yourself the sounds of the earth crying?”
- Joanna Macy reflects the view of “deep ecology” that the life energy flowing through us is the same life energy that flows through the rivers and the mountains, the trees and the forests, and all the plants and the animals. How might such an understanding help us respond to the climate crisis? Buddhists believe that what we perceive as happening outside us is also happening inside us. Is that in any way true for you?
- Joanna Macy and her colleague Anita Barrows have translated the poet Rainer Maria Rilke who sees the world as sacred, a view Joanna reflects in the poems of Rilke that she recites. Is there a sense in which you see the world, nature, or creation as sacred? Rilke wrote: “Now you must go out into your heart as onto a vast plain. Now the immense loneliness begins.” What are your thoughts?
- Joanna recently framed the essential question challenging us this way, “Our species is destroying our world. How can we live in full presence and enjoy it in a world that is destroying itself?” How would you respond?
Learn about other Old Dog Documentaries:
ABOUT OLD DOG DOCUMENTARIES
Anne Macksoud and John Ankele, Filmmakers
Anne Macksoud spent 17 years as a teacher (English literature, photography, and music) before transitioning to film and video production.
As a producer of radio and TV programming in the 1960’s, John Ankele used mass media to empower faith communities advocating for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. During the struggle for independence in southern Africa, he worked with and trained political activists in the use of media to bring about social change. As an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church and as a student in the Zen and Shambhala Buddhist traditions, John has been involved for many years in interfaith dialogue around contemplative practice and social justice.
Visit: https://www.olddogdocumentaries.org/ to learn more.
Originally published in Kosmos Journal, Autumn Edition 2021 and republished here with kind permission.