How can we engage in action on behalf of earth and not get consumed, not go crazy? We who have aligned ourselves with this effort to transform a civilization so that complex forms of life can continue are faced with something very different from the kinds of challenges that our foremothers and forefathers faced.
I’d like to begin by reflecting on some peculiarities of our situation in the twilight of the twentieth century here on planet earth. Six occur to me. First of all, there is the staggering range of the crisis, from the soil to the forest to the air to the seas to the rivers to the spasms of extinction. It’s overwhelming for any single pair of eyes.
Second and concurrent to that, there is an overwhelming amount of data. You never know enough. Every time you hear mention of a new development, you think, “I’d better bone up on that too.” When can you draw a free breath?
Third, it appears that our chances of pulling through are slim. We recognize this, but we don’t say it much. For example, the chlorofluorocarbons we’ve already put into the biosphere will still be eating the biosphere for the next fifteen years. How do you find the energy and motivation to act when it may be too late?
The fourth and related peculiarity is the taboo against acknowledging the situation—aside from the occasional letter from Nobel laureates on the thirty-fourth page of the newspaper—against speaking out and naming what we’re doing to ourselves. It still feels inappropriate to acknowledge this in polite society. On one level we really intuit the severity of the crisis we’re in, and on the other we’re just going along with business as usual. The press helps us by treating everything as if it were separate—wars and hunger, radiation and AIDS, the floods in Bangladesh and the floods in the Midwest.
The fifth feature is that it’s increasingly dangerous to act on behalf of earth because of repressive actions of the FBI (as in infiltrating Earth First!) and attacks on environmentalists by corporate-sponsored movements like Wise Use. I know for myself when I do speak out, I sometimes hear ancestral voices whispering, “Shut up or you will be burned.” We carry this fear.
Lastly, we feel so pressed—the letters to answer, the lobbying, the meetings, the fundraising, the calls to make. We get sick and tired, and we get tired and sick. Some of the people I most admire work around issues of contamination and are themselves ill. It’s not an easy time to charge out, although it is the most natural choice in the world to move out and act when our larger body is threatened. It’s good to be able to name why it’s hard for us to do that.
I’d also like to reflect on some things that have helped me act for earth. What do we have going for us? I’ve come to realize that we have a lot going for us. First, it helps to remember your true nature. Action is not something you do, it’s something you are. In other words, you are not a noun, you’re a verb. That is our true nature. In our old paradigm, the substantialist view of the world, rocks, atoms, molecules, trees, people, nation states were seen as separate entities, and what happened between them—in terms of interchanges, communications, messages, relationships—was considered less real because you can’t see it or weigh it or touch it. And that was true for Aristotle, Newton, Galileo. Now in the view that has emerged in our time, natural scientists see reality as flows, interconnecting currents of matter, energy, and information. They see that what appeared to be separate entities are patterns made by flows and sustained by flows. This reversal of perspective is happening now and we can live it in our lives. Systems thinker Norbert Weiner said, “We are not stuff that abides, we are patterns. . . in a river of ever-flowing water.” Or, to use another image, we are flames that keep our shape by burning, by the act of combustion—matter in and matter out.
So action isn’t a burden to be hoisted up and lugged around on our shoulders. It is something we are. The work we have to do can be seen as a kind of coming alive. More than some moral imperative, it’s an awakening to our true nature, a releasing of our gifts. This flow-through of energy and ideas is at every moment directed by our choice. That’s our role in it. We’re like a lens that can focus, or a gate that can direct this flow through by schooling our intention. In each moment we can give it direction.
This true nature of ours tells us what our power is. Understanding power is absolutely critical because you can have all the smarts and devotion and information to carry forth a campaign of action, but if you are still falling for the old notion of power you are crippling yourself. The old notion tells us that power is what one substance does to another piece of substance. And what can it do? It can push it around. It can exert its will. Hence we have identified power with domination—power over. And we’ve imagined that power means having strong defenses, really being invulnerable so others don’t push us around. In contrast, an image frequently used by systems thinkers is the nerve cell. In a neural net, nerve cells are constantly interacting and interdependent, allowing flows of matter and energy and information among them and transforming those flows. What is the power of one nerve cell in relation to another? It’s not power over or the power of being invulnerable. If a nerve cell were to build strong defenses to protect itself from painful information, it would die. An effective nerve cell lets the charge through. It communicates and develops collaborative assemblies or networks. We can call that power with, or as systems theorists do, synergy. So when we remember our true nature as change, as action, we remember also the true collaborative nature of our power.
Is it not a privilege to be incarnating at a time when the stakes are really high, at a time when everything we’ve ever learned about interconnectedness, about trust, about courage, can be put to the test?
A second thing that helps is mudra. We go from philosophy to gesture. There are two symbolic gestures, or mudras, in Buddhism that help me a lot. The abhaya mudra, palm outward, means “Fear not.” Don’t be afraid. It arose with the teachings about impermanence and interbeing. When I wonder where is my refuge, my safe haven, it reminds me that my real refuge is in my action, in the flow going out of the heart, in the connection. The other mudra is this gesture—touching the ground. When the Buddha was sitting under the bodhi tree, Mara said, By what authority are you doing this? Gautama didn’t recite his pedigree or what he had accomplished in his life; he reached down and touched the earth. This is my right to be here; this is my right to seek freedom from endless suffering and inflicting of suffering. The scriptures say that when he did that the earth roared.
Knowing this, we know we don’t need to fear pain. We can see our pain for the world as flowthrough of information in the great net. Grief can ambush us at any time, and our power doesn’t have anything to do with being immune to that. It derives rather from our capacity to suffer with—the literal meaning of compassion. To be able to suffer with is good news because it means you can share power with, share joy with, exchange love with. Let your pain tell you that you are not alone. What we thought might have been sealing us off can become connective tissue.
Third, it has been helpful to me, too, to reflect on the meaning of apocalypse. A theologian brother who knew his Greek told me that the real meaning of the word is to uncover, to disclose. What can be disclosed in us? If we really face the magnitude of the dangers—the possibility that this may be the end of the road for our species—what can be revealed in us? People think that if we allow ourselves to experience this fear, it will paralyze us. And they think that if we don’t look at it, we won’t be paralyzed. But what if we were to live each moment as if it were our last? That’s a central spiritual teaching—the death meditation in Buddhism or medieval Christianity’s mystery play Everyman. Look into apocalypse and let that free you from triviality, evasion. If you’re in a game and the chances of winning are minimal and it is only minutes to the end, what does the coach say to you? He doesn’t say, “It’ll turn out okay, just relax,” but rather, “The odds are overwhelmingly against us: go out and give it all you’ve got.” Use that sense of being on the brink to come alive, to discover who you really are, to let all the falseness that we imprison ourselves in be stripped away. Before Lakota warriors went into battle, they said: Today is a good day to die.
It also helps a lot to remember that each one of us has been called into being at this time. I am convinced of that. We are not here by accident. Is it my imagination to think that we have chosen this? Is it not a privilege to be incarnating at a time when the stakes are really high, at a time when everything we’ve ever learned about interconnectedness, about trust, about courage, can be put to the test? Each one of us, I believe, is a gift the earth is giving to itself now, a unique gift. Every anguish, betrayal, disappointment can even help prepare us for the work of healing. You don’t need to be extraordinary. If the world is to be healed through human efforts, I am convinced it will be by ordinary people, people whose love for this life is even greater than their fear. People who can open to the web of life that called us into being, and who can rest in the vitality of that larger body.
Last, we need to be ready for surprises. The first property of systems is that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Each time new systemic patterns form, through interaction, something emerges that wasn’t there before—that is a systemic property of life. You cannot predict what is going to emerge. That is why it’s okay not to have a blueprint. Unburden yourself of the notion that you have to carry around a master plan to know what is the best thing to do. Lewis Mumford saw this years ago when he said that the era of the individual savior, a Buddha, a messiah, or a Christ, was over, and that the wisdom was going to erupt through each and all of us. Transformation now is a collective event.
This was adapted from a talk given by Joanna Macy to environmental activists in August 1993 as part of a two-week summer school in Deep Ecology at the Shenoa Retreat Center in Philo, California.
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