(Still from the film ‘The Wisdom to Survive’)
“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
The following are excerpts from an interview Joanna Macy did with Krista Tippett on her radio show ‘On Being’ where she discussed her life’s work, her love of the poet Rilke and the implications of this moment in history.
“I realized that we were, through technology, having consequences with our decisions — our decisions had consequences or a karma, as we could say, that reached into geological time. And that what in industry and government choices that we make under pressure for profit or bureaucratic whatever, 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.”
“…grief, if you are afraid of it and pave it over, clamp down, you shut down. And the kind of apathy and closed-down denial, our difficulty in looking at what we’re doing to our world stems not from callous indifference or ignorance so much as it stems from fear of pain. That was a big learning for me as I was organizing around nuclear power and around at the time of Three Mile Island catastrophe and around Chernobyl.”
“Then as I saw it, it relates to everything. It relates to what’s in our food and it relates to the clear-cuts of our forests. It relates to the contamination of our rivers and oceans. So that became actually perhaps the most pivotal point in, I don’t know, the landscape of my life, that dance with despair, to see how we are called to not run from the discomfort and not run from the grief or the feelings of outrage or even fear and that, if we can be fearless, to be with our pain, it turns. It doesn’t stay static. It only doesn’t change if we refuse to look at it. But when we look at it, when we take it in our hands, when we can just be with it and keep breathing, then it turns. It turns to reveal its other face, and the other face of our pain for the world is our love for the world, our absolutely inseparable connectedness with all life.”
“I’m ready to see. I’m not insisting that we be brimming with hope. It’s OK not to be optimistic. Buddhist teachings say, you know, feeling that you have to maintain hope can wear you out, so just be present.”
“The biggest gift you can give is to be absolutely present, and when you’re worrying about whether you’re hopeful or hopeless or pessimistic or optimistic, who cares? The main thing is that you’re showing up, that you’re here and that you’re finding ever more capacity to love this world because it will not be healed without that. That was what is going to unleash our intelligence and our ingenuity and our solidarity for the healing of our world.”
“Now something else is going on too, which is the great unraveling under the pressure of the destruction caused by the industrial growth society. And the awesome thing about the moment that you and I share is that we don’t know which is going to win out.”
“How is the story going to end? And that seems almost orchestrated to bring forth from us the biggest moral strength, courage, and creativity. I feel because when things are this unstable, a person’s determination, how they choose to invest their energy and their heart and mind can have much more effect on the larger picture than we’re accustomed to think. So I find it a very exciting time to be alive, if somewhat wearing emotionally.”
Dahr Jamail writes in his article, ‘On Staying Sane in a Suicidal Culture’ of meeting Joanna Macy – Buddhist scholar, Eco-Philosopher and activist. Over tea she opened a door that began a process that allowed him to express the emotions he was carrying from his work as a journalist covering the Iraq war. He later attended a workshop led my Macy during which she said,
“The most radical thing any of us can do at this time is to be fully present to what is happening in the world.”
He then related,
“For me, the price of admission into that present was allowing my heart to break. But then I saw how despair transforms, in the face of overwhelming social and ecological crises, into clarity of vision, then into constructive, collaborative action.”
Jamail’s article explores Joanna Macy’s ‘The Work that Reconnects’ and how her project allows one to see the world with clear eyes, walking the middle path between destruction and rebirth.
“Never before in history has humankind found itself amidst such a convergence of crises: runaway ACD [anthropogenic climate disruption], the global economy in chronic crisis, deepening militarism and surveillance, and a growing lack of food and water as the global population continues to explode.
While a great percentage of the population remains unaware that upward of 200 species are being made extinct each day, even greater numbers of people are ignorant to the very real possibility that humans may well be included in that number some day, whether it be from global thermonuclear war or runaway ACD.
Hence, Macy believes nothing short of a radical shift in consciousness is mandatory.
“What I’m witnessing is that this uncertainty is a great liberating gift to the psyche and the spirit,” she said. “It’s walking the razor’s edge of the sacred moment where you don’t know, you can’t count on, and comfort yourself with any sure hope. All you can know is your allegiance to life and your intention to serve it in this moment that we are given. In that sense, this radical uncertainty liberates your creativity and courage.”
Read Dahr Jamail’s article here.
Reposted from The Work That Reconnects Network founded by Joanna Macy
“Truly the blessed gods have proclaimed a most beautiful secret: death comes not as a curse but as a blessing to men.”
– Ancient Greek Epitaph from Eleusis
The pace of climate change continues to accelerate, and it now appears inevitable that the Great Anthropocentric Extinction currently unfolding will include the end of life as we know it. Characterizing this ‘Great Dying’ as equivalent to a terminal diagnosis for the human race, and assuming an ecopsychological perspective that sees a close relationship between planetary health and mental health, the author applies the stages of grief to this Great Dying, exploring connections retroactively and prospectively between societal mental health trends in the U.S., our awareness of the severity of the threat we pose to the planet, and the stages of grieving the loss of life, and questions the role mental health professionals should play in this context. Looking ahead from this same perspective, the author asks if it is possible to alleviate the pain and suffering that will be associated with the widespread extinctions, mass mortality, and forced migrations that are anticipated by scientific experts as a result of climate disruptions, beginning with the idea of what a “good death” would look like in relation to the end of life as we know it, applying principles from hospice and palliative care. Finally, he offers a hopeful vision that, with an expanding planetary hospice movement and appropriate containing myths, it might be possible to re-cast this Great Dying as a difficult, but spiritually progressive, death/rebirth experience for homo sapiens. Download Planetary Hospice.pdf (430KB).
Zhiwa Woodbury is a long time dharma practitioner, hospice provider, and environmental attorney. He presently serves residents at Zen Hospice Project and is teaching Buddhist Theories of Self, Mind & Nature while completing an M.A. in East/West Psychology at California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
“To go in the dark with a light is to know the light. To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight, and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings, and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”
Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee writes in ‘The Darkening of the Light’
“We are a part of the Earth and it is through her great generosity that we are nurtured and nourished, eating her food, drinking her waters, clothed in her fabric. Even as we deplete her, she continues to give and give. Her generosity is a lesson for us all. Each morning on my walk I pass a gnarled old apple tree. I watch her boughs become heavy with fruit, slowly reddening as late summer turns to fall. I marvel at how she gives with such abundance without wanting anything in return. Now, in this “season of giving,” if we can remember the constant stream of gifts we receive from her, and be appreciative in our hearts.
As I get older I feel the Earth’s endless generosity more and more, as if I treasure each season in the year and its different offerings, its changing fruits. I know more clearly how I would not be here without this giving. At the same time my heart hurts for the Earth, grieves at the way our culture treats her wonder and gifts, her magic and sacred meaning. And the question arises from my depths, in a culture of seeming abundance how have we lost so much? And for how much longer can we continue this destruction, this desecration?
So during this natural season of darkening my heart responds to an unnatural darkening. My attention turns towards a sacred world we seem to have forgotten. In this silent witnessing it sometimes feels as if the Earth itself were calling through me, imploring me to see, to remember, to feel.”
‘I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.’ *
We are living through an extraordinary moment in history. We are witnessing and participating in what some are calling the Anthropocene era, where humanity’s existence has created changes that will impact the environment of the planet for thousands if not millions of years. Roy Scranton explores what this may look like,
“Within 100 years — within three to five generations — we will face average temperatures 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than today, rising seas at least three to 10 feet higher, and worldwide shifts in crop belts, growing seasons and population centers. Within a thousand years, unless we stop emitting greenhouse gases wholesale right now, humans will be living in a climate the Earth hasn’t seen since the Pliocene, three million years ago, when oceans were 75 feet higher than they are today. We face the imminent collapse of the agricultural, shipping and energy networks upon which the global economy depends, a large-scale die-off in the biosphere that’s already well on its way, and our own possible extinction. If homo sapiens (or some genetically modified variant) survives the next millenniums, it will be survival in a world unrecognizably different from the one we have inhabited.”
‘I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.’*
As we approach the winter solstice, a traditional time to go within, a chance to embrace the darkening season, to reflect on the end of a year, the end of things, death as part of the natural cycle, and light a candle to await and hope for the coming light of a new dawn, a new season, a new life, a new year – what can we do to embrace the darkness of a winter solstice for our civilization and for the world ? Scranton continues,
“In the epoch of the Anthropocene, the question of individual mortality — “What does my life mean in the face of death?” — is universalized and framed in scales that boggle the imagination. What does human existence mean against 100,000 years of climate change? What does one life mean in the face of species death or the collapse of global civilization? How do we make meaningful choices in the shadow of our inevitable end?
These questions have no logical or empirical answers. They are philosophical problems par excellence. Many thinkers, including Cicero, Montaigne, Karl Jaspers, and The Stone’s own Simon Critchley, have argued that studying philosophy is learning how to die. If that’s true, then we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age — for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene. The rub is that now we have to learn how to die not as individuals, but as a civilization.”
‘I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.’*
Carolyn Baker, who has been exploring what it means to face the end of an era, the collapse of everything familiar, and discovering the resources to deepen the experience of life as we navigate through dark times tells this story of being invited to participate in a solstice ritual with the Hopi,
“Many winters ago I was among several dozen Hopi-and non-Hopi individuals who sat in the dim light of a kiva on a frigid ceremonial night. The kachina dancers, always the ultimate teachers of the tribe, burst into the underground kiva chamber with the fury of the wind that howled above the ground. Shouting, drumming, and blasting their observers with a potentially terrifying cacophony, they began singing about the darkness as a necessary disciplinarian for the community. Certainly, I did not understand Hopi, but these words were later explained to me by crusty elders whose chiseled faces bore witness to their presence in more of these rituals than they could even count and to the darkness and light through which they had walked across many ceremonial calendar years. One of the intentions of shocking the community with intimidating kachina fury was and is to remind the people of their mortality and the reality that the profane perspective (that is to say in Anglo, psychological terminology, the human ego) will only harm the community and lead to individuals forgetting who they really are. As in virtually all indigenous ceremony, the sacred is central—the core of the community and of each individual.”
‘All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.’*
So what does this mean, to embrace not only our own death, knowing that one day this life, this body, this experience, this sense of being ourselves, our identity, that is so easy to take for granted, will no longer be ‘here’?
And what does it mean to embrace the death of a civilization we are embedded in, to witness the destruction and collapse of natural and unnatural systems that can no longer support and nurture life as we know it for us and for future generations? There are those who have given this a lot of thought and they would propose that each of us individually are not stuck in hopelessness – that there is still a sense of agency we can each embody. What responsibility do we have for ourselves and for each other? Joanna Macy says the world looks bleak, so what? The world looks bleak. There is still work to do. That work will look different for each of us.
We are living in a dark time. One could suggest that we are experiencing the winter solstice of our world. Carolyn Baker offers one suggestion on how to act, suggesting perhaps the generosity of the Earth that Vaughan-Lee alludes to, reminding us, as the kachina do in the Hopi ceremony, who we really are. Perhaps singing through the uncomfortable darkness with dark wings and dark feet of our own to those who cannot see…
“Live as if every act, every task performed in daily life, every kindness expressed to another being and to oneself might be the last. This is one way I stay connected with the light in dark times. Walking in reverence, living contemplatively with gratitude, generosity, compassion, and an open heart that is willing to be broken over and over again. I do not always live the way I want to live. It’s a practice, and practice never makes perfect. Practice only makes practice, and if I think it’s perfect, I’m not practicing. Nevertheless, I’d rather stumble in the dark, finding an occasional candle to light the way than become blinded by excessive light. And so in this time of unprecedented darkness, find the light whenever possible, but most importantly, be the light for someone else who may not be as familiar with the darkness as you are. That may be why you came here.”
‘My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.’*
* ( Thich Nhat Hanh’s version of The Buddha’s Five Remembrances )
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 hearts 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 honour 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.
– – Joanna Macy