Act: Inspiration

What Could Possibly Go Right?: Episode 89 Joanna Macy

October 25, 2022

Show Notes

Joanna Macy, Ph.D, author & teacher, is a scholar of Buddhism, systems thinking and deep ecology. A respected voice in movements for peace, justice, and ecology, she interweaves her scholarship with learnings from six decades of activism.

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 postmodern science. The many dimensions of this work are explored in her thirteen books, which include three volumes of poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke with translation and commentary.

As the root teacher of The Work That Reconnects, Joanna has created a ground-breaking framework for personal and social change, as well as a powerful workshop methodology for its application.

She addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:

  • Choosing “to be starkly present in this moment and now” is a radical act
  • “Don’t be afraid of your sorrow or grief or rage. Treasure them. They come from your caring.”
  • These emotions “will nurture in you a fierce clarity for what can be done”
  • “There’s so much joy and courage… in finding a purpose”

Connect with Joanna Macy



Joanna Macy: Don’t be afraid of your sorrow, or grief or rage. Treasure them. They come from your caring.

Vicki Robin: Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right, a project of Post Carbon Institute. We interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good, and social artists who take the pulse of the times and create in this time. When so much seems to be coming apart, for sure much is coming together that we can’t see, so our guests help us to see more clearly and act more courageously in this potent time of change. 

Today’s guest is one of my mentors and likely yours too: Joanna Macy. In the interview I did with her I hung on her every word. She seemed to be speaking from somewhere deep inside both her and the Earth. Unfortunately, the video quality was poor, so we are publishing this only as a podcast. Perhaps it will actually help her words drop right into you as they did to me.  

I want to share one thing from her website. She says that the most remarkable feature of this historical moment is not that we are on the way to destroying our world. We’ve actually been on the way quite a while. It’s that we are beginning to wake up as if from a millennia long sleep to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and to each other. So that’s what’s in store for you. 

Joanna Macy is an author and teacher and a scholar of Buddhism, who is steeped in systems thinking and deep ecology. She is a respected voice in movements for peace, justice and ecology. She interweaves her scholarship with learnings from six decades of activism. 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 postmodern science. 

The many dimensions of this work are explored in her 13 books, which include three volumes of poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, with translation and commentary. Her other books include World is Lover, World as Self, Coming Back to Life, Active Hope, The Work that Reconnects, and Thinking like a Mountain

As the root teacher of the Work That Reconnects, Joanna has created a groundbreaking framework for personal and social change, as well as a powerful workshop methodology for its application. In the face of overwhelming social and ecological crises, this work helps people transform despair and apathy into constructive and collaborative action. It brings a new way of seeing the world as our larger living body. This perspective frees us from the assumptions and the attitudes that now threaten the continuity of life on Earth. And now here’s Joanna.

Vicki Robin: Dearest Joanna, What a pleasure and a privilege to have you here with us. I’m gonna seed our conversation with a few prompts, which you can take or not. First to show you our audience and you can’t see them on the Zoom screen, but they’re here with us. I just wanna talk about the people who follow this podcast and who follow the Post Carbon Institute and

I find that they are courageous minds and hearts who have watched the dark horse of this unraveling come towards us for decades. They have dedicated their lives to the great turning. Not as a contemplation or a framework of understanding, but as if they or we each held the wheel of lurching ship in our hands and we were turning with every ounce of us.

So your image of the great turning, the dying of the old, and the birth of the new has inspired me for decades. But somehow I thought it meant those of us who are aware and able would be the turners, not simply those alive to witness the old story turning to dust. So it’s taken humility and healing to let go of this Shambala warrior cape that we might be victorious in our lifetimes and rescue life from the maw of capitalism.

But here we are, and you have been guiding us to accept that we cannot change, but also providing wisdom about how we will live through the collapses that are underway or coming toward us. Because as I’ve heard you say, in this dying of the old, is an opportunity for our souls to stand at the wheel while we practice active hope.

We who are weary warriors, teachers, scientists, activists, leaders, students, family members; we really wanna hear your reflections on this one question we ask each guest, which is: in the midst of all that seems to be going awry, Joanna, what could possibly go right?

Joanna Macy: I hear you and we have to. The one thing that we have going for us, is that we still have choice. As you may know, I have been very affected by being in the Buddhist tradition for the last 50 years, and although I’ve written a book with the word hope in it, there’s no word for hope in the Buddhist tradition, in the teachings, in the scriptures. Perhaps with the understanding that, to think about hope takes you out of the present moment, and that immediately ungrounds you and you lose connection with your inmost sense of what’s real and what’s true. 

But what I take joy in and answer with in this way, what could go right is that we can choose to be here. That is a radical act. That means that we are standing almost naked of both our pretensions and our imaginings of what we ought to be seeing, saying, appearing as what people wanna hear, what we’d like to say, and just be starkly present in this moment and now.

Slide Anything shortcode error: A valid ID has not been provided

What is present to us and what’s present to you or to me in this moment? I have the choice to allow that. What immediately comes to my mind is Pakistan. I cannot almost pull my attention way from what is happening and the floods covering almost a third of Pakistan. It poured down in the outsize monsoons, but now it’s standing water, sometimes up to the waist.

It’s wrecked crops. Reports of the harvesting of cotton, and they’re wading out and trying to pull what’s still white, what hasn’t been wrecked of the balls of cotton. That’s what they count on for exchange, for money. Now it’s standing and breeding illness in that standing water.

To be present with what is now. What is now is that for the first time since the building and use of nuclear weapons, since Hiroshima, Nagasaki, what we actually did there, is conversation, about people using them in the Russia-Ukraine hostilities.

And what there is, I look at my own country, is people not banding together, but turning on each other. Whether it’s right on the neighborhood level – we have a serial killer on the front pages of today’s paper – or the struggles and animosities of people. 

Vicki, when I did my first workshop, and that was 50 years ago, yes late seventies. But there was this workshop where I asked people to express their grief, their alarm, and not let it be treated as a private failing, but let it be treated as something you could actually face. And see in your facing of it, your curiosity and your courage and your caring. Care, Curiosity and courage. Right? Alliteration. 

When I look at my world right now, what I see is alarm, and I feel my own broken heart or breaking heart. It doesn’t just break once. It just keeps on. And that tells me that I love my world and I’m part of it. Right. I don’t expect, expect that capacity to ever leave me, and don’t want it to actually. 

So what I’m experiencing, Vicki, as much as ever in my life is that the world is inside me, and that I’m strewn about it. I’m everywhere. And maybe that’s why I have felt so grateful to be here. It’s like, if I’d ever known this is my family, if I’d ever known that there would come a time where we’re faced with the biggest dangers and tests and suffering, that we could imagine. A time like this where so many people literally do think it’s too late, too late for peace, too late for the climate healing. 

If there were ever a time like that coming, I would wanna be there. And you, I think you would too, because that’d be the time, not because you think you’d know what to do, but because you wouldn’t wanna miss it. You wanna just be there.

Yeah, I don’t know why. It’s certainly not to do with any kind of capacity or wisdom, but that this is my world. This is our world, and my caring is so immense as is yours. That’s why you’re doing this program. You want us to be available to each other. You’re helping people help each other.

Vicki Robin: Yeah. So, several things come to mind as you speak. I wanna put out both of them and you can use whatever, but one is the excruciating experience of being present and not trying to intervene to do something to reduce one’s own experience of distress. So much of how people respond in this world is to reduce, and I’ve done this big time, reduce our own feeling of distress.

I would say that was a sort of a subtext of my activism that I could bear the world because I believed I was doing something that could change conditions such that the suffering didn’t have to happen. And linked with it was there was grief, and then right on top of the grief was fury. Like, God damnit, those guys are not gonna get away with this, you know?

So to arrive at a time in life, and a time in the life of the world, when that frantic patching holes in the old ship, frantic pulling of the wheel, it’s almost like that’s an old activity and that there’s some other activity that’s being asked of us.

In part, what I’m thinking about is the mystery of if we were… I love these constructions of if then, because they’re all B.S. But anyway… If we were excruciatingly present, there might be something that emerges in terms of action that comes out of the endurance of the reality. You know what I mean? 

It’s sort of like Oliver Wendell Holmes is quoted as saying, I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for this simplicity on the other side of complexity. So in a way, there is doing. We get up every day. We breathe, there’s gonna be doing. And so what is…

Joanna Macy: Well, did you reflect on the doing? That’s a trap. Because it can make you feel that your idea, your project, is something fully trustworthy and that you can give your full attention to that and sell it. Sell it off one way or another to larger boards of people.

I’ve become convinced that the one thing that any of us can do for our world is to be present, to be fully present. And out of that presence, it’s like an interweaving of our being and our perspective and our curiosity, and the life buzzing in our senses that what we are becoming present to is revealing will help us see, will help, will act through us even without our knowing it necessarily, or even without our having the right words. Because Joanna at 93 was having her words blink out sometimes in the middle of a sentence, but that there can be a way we become a sensory organ of our world with that kind of deep attention, and it’s almost like prayer and it’s deep, so deep. 

It’s like rejoicing at the same time, and you take it inside you. Like those people up to their knees and waist and standing water in the areas around the south of Pakistan, there’s an urging, there’s a feeling of wanting so much to be with them and then you find in a way you are.

No, it’s not that. You’re not with them, but you’re not the same person as before. You get pulled outta shape. Your mind, your heart, gets pulled out of shape.  Because it’s like that, getting pulled out of shape is like becoming a kind of creature. It’s okay to be pulled outta shape, and we have to respect that and accept that because we’re alive in a world. We are made of this world. There’s not one particle in a cell of any organ, of our body or brain, that isn’t part of this world. 

When you’re feeling in any way halfways to effectiveness, you can feel the world acting through you. I love that preposition through. That the world can act through because we’re an organ of this world. I never said that before.

Oh, what’s filling my chest now is a sense that this is a great gift for us in this time to not be afraid of the moral distress or the guilt or the injustice, because we are our world.

It was hard for me to talk right now because I wanna cry. I wanna cry with gratitude because I’m so glad that I feel that much. I didn’t know that I would wanna cry when I’m doing this interview. I have so much to say about the experience of rage because it’s not only grief that tears me apart, but rage as well. 

But underneath it all, maybe rage and grief are ways of manifesting my identification with the world at this point, at this in my 94th year after a lifetime of loving and exploring and marching and writing and loving this world.

There is no stupidity that we humans of the 21st century, there’s no limit to the violence we can inflict on our world, and this in no way erases our deepest identity with our world.

I don’t remember a time when in an interview on Zoom I have wanted to cry, and the tears are in me, but it’s because more than fairness, more than justice even, perhaps what I want, what I feel is my identity with my world.

Vicki Robin: I feel like you just pulled something right out from deep within you. I just felt like you had a rope and a bucket and you went down to the well of yourself and you pulled that out for us and I am so grateful. Yeah. I’m so grateful for that. 

Joanna Macy: Thank you for eliciting and receiving that. When I look at what I said, what is the one thing more than anything, and I see it in myself and it’s there. Then what more could I want?

Vicki Robin: What’s brought to mind, and it may be a little florid, but that scene where Arjuna and Krishna wrestled with the I don’t want to go out and kill my people. I can’t do that. Well, you’re gonna do it. This is your destiny. And the moment he surrenders to it, accepts it, it’s incredible.. The psychedelic image of all that Krishna is and the worlds upon worlds and time upon time and all of that is revealed. 

And then, and then there’s the next moment when Arjuna might wanna resist again, it’s like we have these experiences and incredible, heartbreaking, heart filling, world loving, world fearing moments. It’s like the apotheosis and then boy, there’s the next moment and that takes so much surrender, to not draw a line under something and sum it up and then find language for it and put it in a blog post. It takes so much discipline to stay at that knife’s edge.

Joanna Macy: And also to know that’s just what your heart, mind, your beingness at this moment wants. Not other people, but that that’s what was placed in my living of life when I emerged, when I came to be. Because it feels that, non-separate from me. It’s beautiful when that non-separateness is experienced on a mountaintop, or in Beethoven’s seventh or in a garden, a meadow of wildflowers, but that it can be felt on the guillotine of this world, with the seeing the prisoners forgotten during a hurricane, left in their cells, in their prisons, in this incarcerating world, country of ours.

Maybe it’s that curiosity is a great companion for you and I. What will it be like? There’s no limits to what I’m ready to experience to be with my world. Including all that we do to each other, even for getting the prisoners in the middle, of the inmates of a penitentiary, left in panic as the waters come into their cells.

Vicki Robin: I want to raise the question that these reflections are the fruit of a long engaged existence, and there are people in their teens, twenties, thirties who are here. They’re becoming aware of their world. They’re feeling distressed. 

I’m not asking to go into problem solving, but I’m asking would you adapt? How would you adapt, if at all, this wisdom for people who are just full of fight and fury and grief and confusion and sense of abandonment?

Joanna Macy: Well, I have a young friend who is a climate activist, and we’ve started conversations between us, with 60 years between us, between her age and mine, and we’re exploring that. But my first word to anybody would be, don’t be afraid of your sorrow or grief or rage. Treasure them. They come from your caring. Now you can tell when they’re thin, real, or fake, when you’re only afraid of how that will appear, that you will cry with rage in public or something like that. 

The grief, sense of loss, rage at the injustice of it. You have your life before you and it’s being pissed on. It’s just all that. It’s life in you. It’s life for you to trust. You are alive and you love that life, and you’re going to let that life speak. You’re gonna let it be uttered. You’re gonna let yourself feel it. Don’t let yourself go dead. 

When you’re not afraid of that, if you learn to treasure it as binding you to this beautiful planet, then it will nurture in you a clarity, fierce clarity for what can be done and be done by just you. 

Just because you aren’t old enough to vote yet, don’t let yourself feel in any way reduced or incapable of manifesting your rage and your love, because the rage comes from a huge love and a justice because you were born to this planet, you’re part of this planet, it’s in danger for some reason that you can’t possibly understand that this is coming, that you’re born at a time when what humans have been doing, I’d like to take it back to the coming of capitalism, 500 years ago, but there’s stuff in our situation that goes back thousands of years to private property and all of that, and you’re born as the same species that has brought us to this point.

And you didn’t ask to be born as a human and you didn’t ask to be born at a time of great tragedy and danger. So you’re gonna find in your willingness to be here, a great love. You don’t know how it’s gonna come to you. It’ll be unique to your path, but you’re going to show yourselves as worthy of this time.

Those words just came. How can I, at 93 about to step out, bye-bye, too bad you’re all gonna be cooked? No, because you’ve got to be glad to be here, my dear ones. You’ve got to be glad in some way to be. And you’ll find the way to that because that’s where the joy comes. It really is.

There’s so much joy and courage. And so much joy in, in finding a purpose and so much joy in feeling supported by the ancestors and the other critters. You’ll find so much support as you find your message.

Vicki Robin: I’m so grateful for both of those deep dives and things you said you never said before, because now they’re on, we don’t even call it tape anymore, whatever this is.

They’re here for us and they’re here for every ear that listens. Something of this is going to be like the message in a bottle that comes up on their shore. For everybody who hears it, it’s like a message in a bottle. They’ll take what they do and it’s just precious beyond words.

It’s really wonderful. I mean, I’m gonna give you an opportunity if you wanna wind this up in any way, shape, or form. 

Joanna Macy: Yeah. Well, I have a great gift in my life, is a form of group work, that came in my midlife. We call it the work that reconnects and it’s an undertaking. And there’s sort of a spiral path that we trace in this work, beginning with gratitude, because that grounds us. 

When you stand in that gratitude to be alive in this world, then when you take the next step into articulating your pain for the world that’s been given and felt, then it grounds you. 

Then the third stage is that you, having spoken deeply, open yourself to your pain for the world, whether it be rage or grief or longing or missing out, that changes you. You reach a certain level of your existence inner being and something new is seen. You see things with new eyes. You see your relationship to yourself, and the world in a fresh way, and that is priceless.

So what was coming through me this morning was also the fruit of years of we talking to each other in this work that way, and it also gives me a sense of loving appreciation for what any one of us experiences when we dare to articulate our despair and grief and loss, that we come to a great kind of revelation about who we are.

Vicki Robin: My little summation here is listening to you. I feel that there is in this a doing that doesn’t seem like doing, which is gathering with others to share this process. Not in order to come up with a strategy, but that is a doing, that this happens in each one of us uniquely, but it is not a private act.

This is the world in all its glory and horror, arising in each one of us in every moment, and it is in the speaking and listening that we feel more deeply our world and we feel more deeply our place in it. It’s not just that the burden of it is all in our shoulders. The grief of it is not all in our shoulders.

So I think that at the end of this conversation, you’ve given us a sort of pointer. You’ve pointed toward practices that whatever our age, 94, 77, 32, 12, whatever our age, this is the cycle of experiencing and sharing in groups, the gratitude, the grief, the new eyes, and the going forth.

This is the process that all of us, as the earth itself, is expressing. And who knows where this goes? I mean, really. We can read the data, but who knows where this thing goes? So thank you so much, Joanna.

Joanna Macy: Yeah. Who can imagine all this emerges of deep understanding and deep trust, when we’re how many hundreds of miles apart? 

Vicki Robin: Exactly. But you just said it. This is the module. It’s not Vicki, or it’s not Vicki or Joanna. It’s the alchemy of open hearted conversation, deep listening, seeking those beautiful, beautiful gems of truth together. That’s how we get through this. Thank you, Joanna. 

Joanna Macy: Thank you very much, Vicki.

Vicki Robin

Vicki Robin is a prolific social innovator, writer, speaker, and host of the What Could Possibly Go Right? podcast. She is coauthor with Joe Dominguez of the international best-seller, Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence (Viking Penguin, 1992, 1998, 2008, 2018). And author of Blessing the Hands that Feed Us; Lessons from a 10-mile diet (Viking Penguin, 2013), which recounts her adventures in hyper-local eating and what she learned about food, farming, belonging, and hope. Vicki has lectured widely and appeared on hundreds of radio and television shows, including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Good Morning America,” and National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” and “Morning Edition.” She has also been featured in hundreds of magazines including People Magazine, AARP, The Wall Street Journal, Woman’s Day, Newsweek, Utne Magazine, and the New York Times. She currently lives on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound and is active in her community on a range of social and environmental issues including affordable housing, local food, and community investing. For fun, she is a comedy improv actress, sings in a choir, gardens, and nurtures a diverse circle of friends.

Tags: building resilient societies, eco-grief, Work that Reconnects