rn: Joanna Macy: The Great Turning


Jan Slakov

From: Carolyn Langdon <•••@••.•••>
Subject: The Earth as Sacred
Date: Tue, 16 May 2000 14:49:57 -0400

the great turning
an interview with Joanna Macy, by Sarah Ruth van Gelder

Joanna Macy, writer and Buddhist scholar, took time out from the WTO
protests to speak with YES! editor Sarah Ruth van Gelder. Their
conversation took place the day following the massive blockade of the WTO
and the labor-led march through Seattle.

Sarah: We've been focused on the activities surrounding the WTO here in
Seattle for the last few days. As we speak, people are being arrested for
walking in the "no-protest" zones and bused off to jail. Before we head
back into downtown ourselves, I want to ask for your reflections on change
at a larger level, which you're calling "the Great Turning."
Joanna: The term "Great Turning" is just one way to name the vast revolu
tion that's going on because our way of life cannot be sustained.
There are three main dimensions of it that I see. The first involves
holding actions that slow the destruction caused by the industrial growth
society. This economic system is doomed because it measures its success by
how fast it uses up the living body of Earth - extracting resources beyond
Earth's capacity to renew, and spewing out wastes faster than Earth's
capacity to absorb. It is now in runaway mode, devouring itself at an
accelerating rate.
Holding actions are important because they buy time. They are like a first
line of defense; they can save a few species, a few ecosystems, and some of 
the gene pool for future generations. In Seattle this week we saw how
holding actions - in this case nonviolent blockades - can slow down efforts 
to give transnational corporations a yet freer hand in plundering our
But holding actions are not enough to create a sustainable society. You've
got to have new social and economic structures, new ways of doing things.
And these seem to be springing up at a faster rate than at any time in our
human history. I consider YES! so important, precisely because you are
pointing to these innovations, which are rarely reported in the mainstream, 
corporate-controlled media.
Alternative structures and analyses constitute the second dimension of the
Great Turning. They were sure evident in all the teach-ins and resource
sharing going on this week in Seattle. People are wising up to the
assumptions and agreements that allow a few to get richer and richer while
more and more people sink below the poverty line. Fresh social and economic 
experiments are sprouting, and new alliances are forming too. Yesterday I
marched alongside farm workers and longshoremen, and I was moved to see how 
labor unions and environmental groups are making common cause at last.
But new coalitions and new ways of production and distribution are not
enough for the Great Turning. They will shrivel and die unless they are
rooted in deeply held values - in our sense of who we are, who we want to
be, and how we relate to each other and the living body of Earth. That
amounts to a shift in consciousness, which is actually happening now at a
rapid rate. This is the third dimension of the Great Turning, and it is, at 
root, a spiritual revolution, awakening perceptions and values that are
both very new and very ancient, linking back to rivers of ancestral wisdom. 
I loved the banners and banter of yesterday's marchers, how they conveyed
these values with such exuberance and humor, making fun of our greed and
shortsightedness, and celebrating solidarity with all life from sea turtles 
to butterflies. The ancestors were in our midst, too; every block or two, a 
United Farm Workers' group with drums and feathers stopped to perform an
Aztec dance.
Of course, a consciousness shift by itself is insufficient for the Great
Turning; you also have to have the holding actions and the creation of
alternative structures. These three dimensions are totally interdependent
and mutually reinforcing. I love seeing it this way because it gets us off
that dead argument: "Is it more important to work on yourself? or Is it
more important to be out there on the barricades?" Those are such stupid
arguments, because actually we have to do it all. And as we do it together, 
it gains momentum and becomes more self-sustaining.
You know, I often imagine that future generations will look back at us and
say, "Oh, bless 'em. Those ancestors were right there in the Great Turning! 
There was so much they had to change, and they didn't even know if they
could pull it off."
And we might not pull it off. There's no guarantee that this tremendous
shift will kick in before our life support systems unravel irretrievably.
Actually, the very fact that there's no guarantee of success is what will
draw forth our greatest courage and creativity. If I could give you a pill
or potion to convince you that everything is going to be okay, that would
hardly elicit your purest creativity and chutzpah.
We could wait around forever before we act, trying to compute our chances
of success. But our time to come alive is right now, on this edge of
>From our own life experience, we know there's never a guarantee - whether
we're falling in love, or going into labor to birth a baby, or devoting
ourselves to a piece of land, turning the soil and watching for rain. We
don't ask for proof that we'll succeed and that everything will turn out as 
we want. We just go ahead, because life wants to live through us!
Sarah: In social movements of the past, it seems to me that people looked
to a leader or to some doctrine to lead them forward. Now, people seem to
take the responsibility upon themselves; they seem to want to know in their 
bones what needs to be done and how they can, authentically, be a part of
Joanna: Yes. Everywhere I go, talking with folks of all ages and walks of
life, I sense this search for authenticity. People are wanting to take
responsibility for their lives, both politically and spiritually. It's
At the most fundamental level, there's an appetite for reconnecting with
the sacred. Instead of depending on anyone else for that connection, we
want to be able to know it and embody it ourselves.
What is the sacred? It's the ground of our being. It's the whole of which
we are a part. It's what imbues our life with meaning and beauty. Of
course, there are different ways of perceiving our relation to it.
Mainstream western society has, by and large, related to the sacred by
projecting it outwards, setting it apart as a God "out there" to worship
and obey. We made the sacred transcendent, and in its honor created
ziggurats, cathedrals, masterpieces of art and choral music - perhaps our
greatest cultural achievements.
But after several millennia of assigning the sacred to a transcendent
dimension removed from ordinary life, the world around us begins to go dead 
and loses its luminosity and meaning. The Earth is reduced to a supply
store of material resources and a sewer for our wastes. And in such a
world, devoid of the sacred, anything goes - buy up, sell off, consume as
much as you can!
What's so beautiful about being alive at this moment is that the pendulum
is starting to swing the other way. We are retrieving the projection. We
are taking the sacred back into our lives. The swing is from transcendence
to immanence. The most vital movement of our era involves making the sacred 
immanent again. I see it happening in every spiritual tradition - in the
Jewish Renewal movement, in Creation Spirituality, in women's spirituality, 
and in the resurgence of Wicca, and the teachings of ancient indigenous
peoples. We are reawakening to the sacredness of life itself, in the soil
and air and water, in our brothers and sisters of other species, and in our 
own bodies.
I spoke of this as a swing of the pendulum, but a metaphor I like even
better comes from Ludwig Feuerbach, a German theologian of the mid-19th
century. He said that our apprehensions of the sacred have a rhythm like
the pumping action of the heart. Just as the heart pumps blood out from the 
center of the body, we project outwards our sense of the sacred, so that we 
can behold its majesty and fall on our knees before it in wonder and awe.
Feuerbach reminded us that the heartbeat is a two-way action - systole and
diastole: the pumping out is followed by drawing the blood back through the 
heart. When the sacred becomes too remote, you take it back in, to let it
lubricate your life. The retrieval of the projection is not an endpoint
either. When we get stuck too long in immanence, the sacred becomes
indistinguishable from anything else; it becomes bland, taken for granted.
So the heart beat goes on, ever renewing our sense of the holy. To perceive 
it this way frees me to see that they need each other, these two movements
of the heart.
Sarah: Tell me a little more about how it affects someone to start seeing
the sacred as more immanent.
Joanna: To see all life as holy rescues us from loneliness and the sense of 
futility that comes with isolation. The sacred becomes part of this
encounter - part of you sitting in front of me, present in that stand of
bamboo, and even in myself. I don't have to go to Chartres Cathedral to be
in the presence of the Divine. It's right here.
This means that our sorrow is sacred, too. Within us all is grief for what
is happening to our world - the despoiling of Earth, the extinction of our
brother/sister species, the massive suffering of our fellow humans. But
when we feel isolated, we stifle that sorrow and rage in order to fit in
better and to avoid aggravating the loneliness.
Experiencing the sacred as immanent helps people to befriend their pain for 
the world and not fear that it will further isolate them. This is a matter 
 of practical urgency, because to repress and discount the grief and
dread we feel on behalf of all beings locks us into the status quo. In the
work I do with groups, we reframe our pain for the world, recognizing it as 
the capacity to "suffer with," which is the literal meaning of compassion.
It is not only honored in all spiritual traditions, it also serves as
wholesome feedback, necessary to our survival. To recognize this brings us
back to life: "It's okay for me to be here. It's okay for me to hurt, even. 
It's okay for me to weep for people who aren't even born yet. That's
because I belong. That's because I am part of the sacred living body of
Earth through all time."
This sense of belonging is spreading with the "new story" of our universe
that Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Sister Miriam McGillis and others are
bringing in now. Drawing from the latest discoveries of science, they show
how each of us is an inseparable part of this ever-unfolding story since it 
first began in the primal "flaring forth."
Everywhere I see people starting prayer groups and healing groups, sacred
circles and home churches. They don't wait until they have Masters of
Divinity degrees, or are ordained. They're ordaining themselves. They are
gathering together because they find they can experience this sacredness
better in groups.
Moreover, people are expressing this sense of belonging by stepping forth.
That was obvious in yesterday's march. People came in the scores of
thousands because their hearts' desire now is for more than just drawing a
paycheck so they can pay the mortgage and sit in front of the tv. They want 
to be out there with their fellow-citizens, taking risks for the sake of
something greater than their separate, individual lives.
When you act on behalf of something greater than yourself, you begin to
feel it acting through you with a power that is greater than your own. The
religious term for this empowerment is grace, and we conceived of it as
coming from God. Now, we are feeling graced by other beings and by Earth
itself. Those with whom and on whose behalf we act give us strength and
eloquence and staying power we didn't know we had.
We celebrate this, for example, in the Council of All Beings. In that
reverent and playful community ritual, we step aside from our human
identity to speak on behalf of other life-forms. As the beings report the
suffering they now experience, it becomes clear that their fate depends on
that very species that is behaving with such greed and fear. So they decide 
to offer to the humans their own particular strengths. Whether you speak
for eagle or worm or cypress tree, you think of what gifts you could share
- farseeing eye, patience, readiness to go through the dark. In the process 
we realize that the gifts we're naming are already known to us and
available. We just need to practice knowing that and remembering that we
are sustained by each other in the web of life. Such practice helps us to
decondition ourselves from centuries of old-paradigm thinking, which we've
used in ways that have made us so lonely and selfish and nuts and
powerless. It all goes together. Greed and powerlessness go together.
So we practice knowing our true power, which comes as a gift, like grace,
because in truth it is sustained by others. We can draw on the wisdom and
beauty and strengths of our fellow humans and our fellow species like so
much money in the bank. I find that incredibly empowering, because it means 
I can go into a situation and trust that the courage and intelligence
required will be supplied.
Sarah: Let's circle back, now. How does this shift toward experiencing the
Divine as immanent relate to the Great Turning you spoke of earlier?
Joanna: That's a great question. I think the felt presence of the sacred
will be like fuel for the Great Turning. It will help us hang in there
through a tough time. In the breakdown of the Industrial Growth Society,
things will get a lot harder and scarier for a while. And when we get
scared we get mean. We turn on each other. I think our greatest danger is
fear and the blaming and scapegoating that fear arouses. To hold the
conviction that all life is holy will help us withstand the temptations to
demagoguery and divisiveness.
Sarah: So this implies a different way of treating those whom we consider
Joanna: Yes, yes. There's no private salvation in this. The people who
don't agree with us become like a noble adversary, challenging us to
develop our smarts and courage. We still have to walk together into the
future. They're like brother/sister cells in the larger body of life. We
may have to take some pretty strong, surgical steps to limit their exercise 
of greed, hatred, and stupidity. But those three poisons, as they're known
in Buddhism, are the problem. We want to liberate our adversaries and
ourselves from these three. We're not really free until they're free too. I 
think that helps with the exercise of nonviolence, don't you?
Sarah: Yes. It's such a tricky business because I think it can be very
difficult to say, for example, "There's a real problem with corporate
globalization. There's a real problem with the WTO." And at the same time
recognize that the individuals who are involved in those activities are
nonetheless as sacred as any other beings.
Joanna: And that they're in bondage to our real enemies, which are greed,
hatred, and delusion. Delusion or ignorance means the notion that we are
separate, that we can be immune to what we do to other people. Remember at
the march yesterday, there was a tall figure on stilts dressed as the fat
industrialist? I laughed and booed with the rest. I think it's great to
make fun of Greed - so long as we don't demonize individuals who are caught 
up in its claws. I admit, it does get hard to avoid making people like
Charles Hurwitz the target of my rage, and to remember, as Gandhi asked us
to, that our target is not the person but their actions - the clearcutting
of the redwoods, the lockouts of the steelworkers.
Sarah: One of the major sources of conflict around the world is differences 
in ethnicity, culture, and religion. If this sense of the Divine becoming
immanent, if that is happening across religious traditions, could that be a 
sign of hope for conflicts among religions?
Joanna: Mmm. My mind flies to Afghanistan and the resurgence of a
totalitarian patriarchy where the sacred is seen as punitive. Yet, out of
the same religion comes Rumi and Hafiz and the Sufi tradition with its
celebration of the sacredness of all life.
Fundamentalism rears its head in all religions now. It's a reaction against 
the radical uncertainty of this moment in history. In such times, we tend
to revert to the security of rock-bound belief and vent our anxieties in
scapegoating others. The temptation to take refuge in our own
self-righteousness is strong. But now there's also a strong current in the
other direction. Last June, when my husband Fran and I were in Israel -
that land so epochally torn by competing claims to the sacred - what we
heard most of all from the Jews and the Arabs was their spiritual hunger to 
reconnect with each other. Clearly those to whom the sacred is becoming
immanent have a role to play in easing the hatreds bred by the
fundamentalists. And they are playing that role already.
People are sick and tired of being pitted against each other when there's
already so much suffering and the Earth itself is under assault. They're
ready to reconnect and honor the life we share. That is the great adventure 
of our time. And it's happening.

Joanna Macy is a scholar of Buddhism and general systems theory and author
of Coming Back to Life; World as Lover World as Self; the Dharma of Natural 
Systems; and Rilke's Book of Hours.