Rain ran down the large hospital window as thick clouds enveloped the Berkeley hills on a cold afternoon. In her 94th year, Joanna Macy, the Buddhist scholar and environmental and social activist, looked frail with tubes hanging from her hospital gown giving a sense of foreboding. Her labored breath sounded worrisome. And yet, my friend’s eyes looked bright and spirited and her smile warmed up the room. “I am so glad to be alive at this time,” she said softly, breathing with difficulty. “I am so glad that we are together. Let’s look out on those beautiful redwood trees,” she continued. “They feel as though they are hugging me from both sides.”
I said, “The earth still wants you here.”
“Yes, there are still things I want to do,” Joanna answered. She smiled at me, “Let’s do a meditation together.”
The meditation began with a felt sense of the body. Then we moved into the resonance of the heart and then widened our attention to the body-as-a-whole, and then to the resonance of awareness itself. “Feel awareness as body, awareness as heart, heart as awareness,” I said. Swiftly our meditation expanded out into the vast ocean-like field of awareness itself. Joanna had often told me about Prajnaparamita, Mother of all Buddhas, the field of natural, awake awareness out of which all Buddhas arise. “There is the groundless ground,” I said, “and you are part of it, arising and dissolving back into it.” Joanna’s hand touched her heart and she nodded softly. We sat silently together, so blissfully, for a long while.
Joanna Macy has been advocating on behalf of the earth for over forty-five years. For several decades she has been teaching what she calls The Work That Reconnects. This body of work brings together spiritual practice and activism and helps those engaged on behalf of our world to withstand burnout and moral distress, while remaining resilient and inspired. The Work that Reconnects unfolds as a spiral journey through four stages. Coming from gratitude we become aware of the emotional and social wealth we already have, and we recognize the beautiful world we are part of. This allows us to feel that life is “good enough” which gives us confidence. With that inner experience of wealth, we are strong enough to honor our pain for the world.
Then we can see with new/ancient eyes—new as we are not caught up in our small-self, or ego story and ancient because we tap into the fullness of universal reality. This encourages us to go forth into our engagement with life itself. Each of these stages naturally leads into the next. This experiential journey helps us feel that we are larger, stronger, more creative—as well as deeply interconnected—more than we ever knew.
When we live into this spiral from natural, awake awareness, then it becomes possible for us to have an outlook that is much greater than our small frightened, maybe even terrified egos. Now we don’t need to “try” to be good citizens or responsible activists, instead, we naturally feel the desire to relieve the suffering of others. Resting in natural, awake awareness allows us to feel a sense of ease and inner security. We feel open-hearted and generous in an uncontrived way.
Joanna is aware of her gradually fading health as well as the state world is in. She witnesses the countless refugees as well as the diminishing species, wars and what Joanna calls the tragedy of economic injustice. Yet, she shares that she remains happy and peaceful. “I am so glad to be alive at this time, so I can be part of it all,” she whispers.
Being aware of the current dire situation we are in can feel depressing and overwhelming. We might want to shut down or give up. However, I learned from observing Joanna that when we can rest in natural, awake awareness at least some of the time, we can stay present and loving in times of hardship. Now, our perspective can transform from the small ego-self to a bigger and broader perspective. This new outlook then becomes helpful in times of illness, personal distress, and when we are overwhelmed by the greater challenges in our world.
As we gazed out the hospital window, glimmers of light suddenly appeared. The fog lifted and we were able to see the stunning Berkeley hills. A few minutes later, rays of sunshine flooded in from the right corner of the window, even as it was still lightly raining on the left. “There is a rainbow,” she called out as she popped out of bed and stood in front of the window, smiling with obvious delight. The rainbow assumed intense neon colors of purple, orange, yellow, green, and blue. Then, ever so faintly, we saw a shining double rainbow emerge. This was the first time Joanna had left her bed to stand up since entering the hospital! She leaned softly against my side, her hand intertwined in mine, and whispered, “Our world is a miracle.”
“This all is here, and I am here too.”
Now, three weeks after my visit to the hospital, I am again visiting Joanna, this time back at her home. She is slowly recovering and a twinkle has returned to her eyes. And, as always, she sets me straight about what is truly important and meaningful in life, especially salient now in this new year. I ask her how she can be so high-spirited now, as her body and our world are struggling. She muses for a while, then says, “You know I am so grateful now, full of gratitude to be here.” Looking around the room slowly, pointing, she adds, “I am grateful for this, and this, and this. This all is here, and I am here too.”
I wanted to go deeper and asked her, “Joanna, where does this gratitude come from? I imagine it is hard to feel it when we are stuck in our contracted ego, when we are scared and frustrated.” I continued, deep in thought, “How can you hold both personal and universal reality at the same time? You must be living in a different place now, in yourself.” She replied, “I must be, it just happens.” She paused, then moved her hands in spirals and said, “The world is spacious and alive now, and even sacred. I am so grateful to be here, and to be of any service,” Joanna smiled at me, timid and yet mischievous at the same time. Besides being delighted for her, I seek to learn a lesson: How can we hold a spacious, loving attitude so that it is possible for us to stay in good spirits and remain resilient, even in times of hardship?
Spiritual practice, in Joanna’s case over sixty years, transforms our perspective and the stance with which we meet those around us and our world. As we practice, this spacious place of natural awake awareness can become our default state of being. Then our ego-self retreats into the background and our efforts come naturally from a place of wide-angle wisdom and open-heartedness. This allows us to not take personally the outcome of our contributions, and we ultimately become less rattled by the eight worldly winds such as praise and blame, success and failure, pleasure and pain, and fame and disrepute.
When this experience of awake awareness is paired with service, with compassionate action, and with embodied interdependence with our world, then our effect will be potentiated. And, we will be less prone to burnout or to experience compassion fatigue or moral distress symptoms, stress disorders which often undermine many activists’ efforts. Again, these ‘reactions’ are often related to experiencing the miseries of our world from a place where we, personally, feel overwhelmed and hurt, from the small ego-self.
Learning to relate to life from the larger perspective of natural or awake awareness allows us to be emotionally wealthy enough to feel gratitude, even when things are difficult. From there we have the strength to feel our pain for a suffering world. Then, surprisingly, a shift happens, and we see life with the new eyes of love and interdependence. Now we go forth with loving engagement in a life that rises up to meet us.
Joanna lives this broader view, intermingled with love for life. One of Joanna’s many books is titled World as Lover, World as Self. It conveys how we can be in love with the world, while also being liberated into the vast non-duality of life itself.
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