by Joanna Macy
The following article was adapted from Joanna Macy’s talk at the “No Time To Lose: A Dharma Response to Climate Change” event hosted by Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California on September 15, 2019. It was previously published in Tricycle, Nov. 2019, and is republished here with permission.
Perhaps the truest form of touching the reality of this moment is this: to experience our capacity to praise and love our world, as it is. Even when it’s on fire.
The Arctic is on fire. The rainforest of the Amazon is on fire. The Bolivian rainforest is on fire. Great swaths of Indonesia and Central Africa are on fire.
Can we praise our world still? Yes.
Last November, I was at a retreat at Spirit Rock. Doing walking meditation outside on the road, just concentrating, placing the foot, lifting the heel. But this mindfulness was broken by a stupid memory—it stuck like a bur. I didn’t need it. It was about some minor embarrassment to me, years back.
And I thought to myself, “I should know better how to handle this.” Just noting, noting, noting. And then I despaired, asking, “Oh, what do I do?” Then—right up my left side—rose a thunderous voice that said: “Just fall in love with what is.”
As soon as I heard that voice, I saw, right ahead of me, two curtains closing. On the left was the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. “Twelve years left to cut our emissions in half”—and even though we knew this—emission levels have been steadily growing. This had been the most searing, most alarming, frankest report yet. On the other side of the curtain: Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in Brazil’s presidential election, and his electoral promise to cash in on the Amazonian rain forest and turn it over to big business and “let it make money.”
I was rooted there. My whole body seemed to turn to stone, as I stood facing an impossible future.
My life hasn’t been the same since this “fall in love with what is” rang like a command in me.
My life hasn’t been the same since this “fall in love with what is” rang like a command in me. It was a message of acceptance: “Stop your self-preoccupation for a minute, Joanna, and accept what is happening to the world.”
What we’re up against is so mammoth, I realized, a change so total, that it is like we’re entering a bardo [the liminal state between death and life in Tibetan Buddhism].
The bardo occurs not just when you die; it also can be a huge change in the conditions of your existence. [Tibetan Buddhist teacher] Mingyur Rinpoche talks about something like this in his book Falling in Love with the World, describing so powerfully how totally disoriented he was after leaving his monastery and going out into the world completely alone.
But we’re entering this bardo together.
Buddha Akshobhya, whose skin is blue like water, which reflects things as they are. (Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure, 2003, cat. 134; licensed by ancientartpodcast.org under CC BY 2.0.)
In the east is Akshobhya Buddha, the buddha of mirror wisdom, who holds a mirror to us and our world. For us to survive, for us to pass through, we must not turn away from the mirror. Look into it, and you see a lot of beautiful things: students marching, wise teachers, and some of the great wisdom traditions stepping forward. In the center, however, we see a political economy doomed by its own rapacity. We see global corporate capitalism, or what you can call an “industrial growth society.” It’s devouring the world, and it’s on automatic––it’s gotten to a point where it can’t stop.
The Earth is being assaulted, extracted, poisoned, contaminated. This is us coming home to our true nature and our true identity. We can’t stop climate change to go back to what we were. We’re in collapse now, but it doesn’t have to be a total collapse. That’s where my heart-mind-body is poised now.
There is inspiration out there to help us craft a life-sustaining society through this. Five centuries of hyper individualism has messed with us, but we ache to shake off our competitive suits of armor. We want to fall into the Earth’s arms and into each other’s arms. We need to find our way back to each other, and learn once again how to take care of each other.
It will be messy, but this is our work right now: to see the Great Turning [from an ever-growing industrial society to a life-sustaining civilization], even as things are falling apart.
Copyright 2019, Spirit Rock Meditation Center
Joanna Macy, is a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology. A respected voice in the movements for peace, justice, and ecology, she interweaves her scholarship with five decades of activism. As the root teacher of the Work That Reconnects, she has created a groundbreaking theoretical framework for personal and social change, as well as a powerful workshop methodology for its application. Her wide-ranging work addresses psychological and spiritual issues of the nuclear age, the cultivation of ecological awareness, and the fruitful resonance between Buddhist thought and contemporary science, explored through her books, audio-visual resources, and teachings on the Great Turning.