Joanna Macy is an activist, scholar, practitioner, philosopher, and—always—a teacher. Initially inspired by her Christian social conscience, then by work in the civil rights movement, Macy ended up in India with the Peace Corps in the mid-sixties working with Tibetan refugees. Returning to the United States, she undertook her doctoral studies in religion at Syracuse University. When H.H. the Sixteenth Karmapa came to this country, Macy went to request a blessing for her scholastic work. “He grabbed my head like a football, and gave this long blessing, which must have been for Manjushri. I felt as though I’d gotten my head stuck in an electric socket. I couldn’t sleep for three weeks after that.”

In this opened state, Macy wandered into a class on General Systems Theory and ever since has integrated dharma and systems into her work. Systems theory, or “systems-cybernetics,” as it is sometimes called, arose from the life sciences in the thirties. The field deals with irreducible wholes: atoms, molecules, cells, organs, bodies, families, societies, ecosystems, and so on. It seeks to understand behavior of these systems in relationship to their environs. Still a young science, systems theory has had obvious and fruitful application in both the physical and social sciences. Gregory Bateson, one of its most famous proponents, said that cybernetics was “the biggest bite out of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that mankind has taken in the last two thousand years.”

Joanna Macy continued her practical work over the years, cutting roads and digging latrines with the Buddhist-inspired Sarvodaya Movement in Sri Lanka, and launching, through her writings and workshops, the field of “Despair Work” for disillusioned activists and others. More properly known as “Despair and Empowerment,” this approach acknowledges despair and “burnout” as honorable, springing as they do from the interconnectedness of all being. Macy posits that if these feelings are not blocked or ignored or covered over, they can be a tremendous source of further energy.

Her most recent project is Nuclear Guardianship, a citizen effort that champions the need to keep a mindful watch on the weapons and toxins produced by a militarized society.

Macy is the author of Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory; Dharma and Development; and, with John Seed, Thinking Like a Mountain. Her latest book is World as Lover, World as Self, published by Parallax Press (see boxed excerpt here). This interview was conducted for Tricycle by Contributing Editor Tensho David Schneider. His biography of the late Zen teacher Issan Dorsey is forthcoming from Shambhala Publications this year. Photographs by Gaetano Kazuo Maida.

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