World as Lover, World as Self
By Joanna Macy
Parallax Press: Berkeley, 1991.
251 pp. $15.00.
Joanna Macy has always considered it perfectly natural to feel the sufferings of the world as her own. She has worked with Tibetan refugees in India, developed a system of workshops in Europe and America to cope with the psychological fallout of potential nuclear annihilation, and became an early “eco-warrior.” In World as Lover, World as Self, she has gathered together essays that offer sustaining insights drawn from her active, compassionate, and thoughtful life.
World as Lover, World as Self begins by reminding us of leaking nuclear waste, worldwide loss of topsoil, famines, pollution, and the extinction of thousands of species. The more Macy describes the painful news of our toxic world, the more one wants to separate oneself from it—to shrink into a safe, clean place within. That place is an illusion. But the mind tries to prevent itself from noticing. And with that last, subtle move, one’s mind closes a trap on itself, de-activates the natural, corrective “feedback loop” between itself and the world. It may seem safe in there; but it is a zombie existence.
Macy displays compassion for those who think they can hide. She knows the suffering implied by their efforts. What passes for apathy (apatheia, “not feeling”) in our time indicates to Macy a deep despair. But along with her compassion comes the penetrating challenge: “We have to learn to look at things as they are, painful and overwhelming as that may be, for no healing can begin until we are fully present to our world, until we learn to sustain the gaze.”
Furthermore, she flatly rejects any Western convention that assumes that suffering for others is always displaced personal feeling, a projection of some hurt from one’s own childhood or private life. After years of studying natural-systems theory and the Buddhist teachings of causality (“dependent co-arising“), Macy has concluded that the individual ego, or separate self, has no substantial reality at all.
Don’t ever apologize for the sorrow, grief, and rage you feel. It is a measure of your humanity and your maturity. It is a measure of your open heart, and as your heart breaks open, there will be room for the world to heal. That is what is happening as we see people honestly confronting the sorrows of our time. And it is an adaptive response.
When the sense of self expands to the circumference of the world, one’s ethics, love, hatred, one’s sense of what is important—all change. Sensitivity and the strength to respond to it unite. Yet there are psychopathologies whose descriptions sound like this. I suspect that unless the insubstantial nature of one’s personal self is deeply seen and felt (seemingly a rare event, even among Buddhist practitioners), the act of expanding the sense of self will lead too easily to some form of inflation or megalomania.
People easily get caught in neurotic co-dependency and can mistake this for the Buddhist notion of dependent co-arising. A psychiatrist once noted that Zen practice centers often attract people with weak egos who are seeking an ideal of egolessness. Would I recommend this book to someone who lacks healthy ego-boundaries, who cannot distinguish his or her own responsibility from that of others? Is Macy really suggesting that having ego-boundaries is the problem?
In traditional Western psychology, the ego is understood to be a construct. Otherwise how could some people fail to develop a sound one. Probably, a healthy ego structure is not in conflict with Macy’s sense of the “self” as metaphor. My guess is that you need a healthy ego-construct before you take on the identity of “world as self.” You have got to keep something (someone) at home minding the store. So, I would not recommend this book to people with weak or damaged ego-formations.
Throughout, at each step, it is evident that action on behalf of life transforms. Because the relationship between self and the world is reciprocal, it is not a question of first getting enlightened or saved and then acting. As we work to heal the Earth, the Earth heals us. No need to wait. As we care enough to take risks, we loosen the grip of ego and begin to come home to our true nature. For, in the co-arising nature of things, the world itself, if we are bold to love it, acts through us.