I remember the day I first read the Duino Elegies of the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). I purchased a copy at Powell’s Books in downtown Portland, Oregon, and then biked east over the Willamette River to Alberta Park. I lay in the grass, shirtsleeves rolled onto my shoulders, and read the whole book in an afternoon. I remember it clearly because I read for so long that I burned the back of my neck as the shadow of the tree I’d been lying under moved away with the shifting sun—and because the lines in the book felt like they’d been spoken directly into my chest. The book lived in my bag collecting dog-ears and underlines for the rest of the summer.
In the Ninth Elegy, after asking why we’re here on earth in the first place, Rilke writes:
But because just being here matters, because
the things of this world, these passing things,
seem to need us, to put themselves in our care
somehow. Us, the most passing of all.
Once for each, just once. Once and no more.
And for us too, once. Never again. And yet
it seems that this—to have once existed,
even if only once, to have been a part
of this earth—can never be taken back.
–Translated by Gary Miranda
I found Rilke’s attention to transience and mutability resonant with the dharma, and I took solace in his lines praising immanence: to have once existed, / even if only once, to have been a part / of this earth—can never be taken back.
This year, I was thrilled when the Garrison Institute offered me a spot at environmental activist and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy’s weeklong retreat, “Rainer Maria Rilke and the Force of the Storm.” I looked forward to spending a week on the Hudson River in a state of leisurely solitude to match my memory of that day in Portland: I foresaw hikes in the woods, reading in the cozy lounge areas of Garrison’s renovated Capuchin monastery, and a week infused with quiet wonder. The retreat would be a melding of Macy’s longtime environmental activist work with her love of the 19th-century German-language poet; I was curious to see how the two would intertwine.
Macy is a Buddhist scholar, environmental activist, and author whose teachings are informed by the dharma, deep ecology, and systems thinking. In 1978, she developed an open-source workshop curriculum called the Work that Reconnects, a set of teachings to help make environmental and social devastation into an embodied experience for participants at dharma and community centers. The workshops create a space for people who are invested in ecological concerns to meet and connect with one another, and to replenish themselves spiritually. Macy describes “the activist’s inner journey” as a spiral with four successive stages—opening to gratitude, owning our pain (or dukkha) for the world, seeing with new eyes, and going forth—that are predicated on the idea that in order to heal ourselves and our ecosystems first we must be willing to feel both suffering and joy. “You’re stuck with what you don’t allow yourself to feel,” Macy said during workshop one day. It seems this motto drives forward both her work and the work of her students.
When I arrived at Garrison, I set my bags in the small plain room I would be sleeping in, formerly a monk’s quarters, and joined the group for our first meeting with Macy. She told us that her love of Rilke’s poetry began more than 50 years ago when she came across the original Insel Verlag edition of The Book of Hours in a Munich bookstore. She was struck by Rilke’s emphasis on the reciprocal relationship between humanity and God, and later, when she was introduced to Buddhist teachings, she found that his work aligned with the Buddha’s central doctrine of dependent co-arising.
The poems in The Book of Hours, written in the persona of a cloistered Russian monk, were part of Rilke’s search for a way to express what he felt “God” was, but in Macy’s workshop she read Rilke even more broadly. She’s found a template within his poetry for ecological and social activism, an activism that relies on our capacity for deep feeling to guide us toward a “life-sustaining society.” On the first day, Macy gave us a brief background on the life of the poet.
René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef was born in Prague to a military father and a devout Catholic mother. His mother desperately wanted a daughter and dressed him as a girl for the first six years of his life, but at age 10 he was sent to military school, an experience he described as “one single terrible damnation.” After he was released from military school in five years due to poor health, he dove into student life in Austria and Germany with gusto and began sharing his poetry widely. In 1897 he met Lou Andreas-Salomé, a brilliant Russian woman who had been admired by Nietzsche and Feud and who at age 36 was Rilke’s senior by 15 years. Rilke and Salomé became lovers, and in 1899, when Rilke was 23, he accompanied Lou and her husband (they were a progressive couple) to Russia. Deeply inspired by the country’s vast landscapes, foreign architecture, and communal forms of worship, he began writing The Book of Hours. He wrote at a whirlwind pace: the first 67 poems of the book were completed within a month, and by 1904 the entire book was finished.
Rilke came of age during the early 20th century, when industrialization was picking up speed and laying the groundwork for the economy of mass consumption we have today. In 1902, Rilke visited Paris to write a monograph on the sculptor Auguste Rodin. Though he was born in Prague and spent several years studying in Munich, he was a country boy at heart—the city’s urban landscape shocked him. The filth, poverty, and wealth disparity he observed entered his poems. The city’s people, he wrote:
. . . serve the culture of the day,
losing all balance and moderation,
calling their aimlessness progress,
driving recklessly where they once drove slow,
and with all that metal and glass
making such a racket.
It’s as if they were under a spell:
they can no longer be themselves.
Money keeps growing, takes all their strength,
and empties them like a scouring wind,
while they wait for wine and poisonous passions
to spur them to fruitless occupations.
In Macy’s teachings, she’s given a name to this world of excessive consumerism and materialism: Business as Usual. The Business as Usual narrative dominated the 20th century and continues today—it’s a world order in which corporations compete for profits and use the natural world as an inexhaustible resource. Profit is valued above all else and wealth is increased only for the wealthy. It is also, according to Macy, the defining narrative of corporate leaders, politicians, and the mainstream media.
This Business as Usual model, Macy notes, has led not only to a loss of moderation that empties citizens like a “scouring wind” but has also led to an unparalleled level of environmental destruction, including loss of species and global warming. Independent scientists, journalists, and activists have alerted us to these changes, and many point out that we are on the cusp of an unraveling civilization. This is the second world order Macy names in her teachings, which she calls The Great Unraveling. The increase in violent storms, annual floods, and the periods of drought that cripple agriculture serve as proof of human society’s pillage. Though he was writing of the great European cities of the late 19th century, Rilke’s words might apply to our world today:
Lord, the great cities are lost and rotting.
Their time is running out . . .
The people there live harsh and heavy,
crowded together, weary of their own routines.
Beyond them waits and breathes the earth,
but where they are it cannot reach them.
What Macy finds so extraordinary about Rilke’s poetry is that he does not turn from the devastation that he sees in the world around him, nor does he dull himself to the pain that comes along with acknowledging it. He witnesses the suffering he sees and refuses to remain untouched by it:
You are poor like the spring rain
that gently caresses the city;
like wishes muttered in a prison cell, without a world to hold them;
and like the invalid, turning in his bed to ease the pain.
Like flowers along the tracks, shuddering
as the train roars by, and like the hand
that covers our face when we cry—that poor.
Yours is the suffering of birds on freezing nights,
of dogs who go hungry for days.
Yours the long sad waiting of animals
who are locked up and forgotten.
So many are alive who don’t seem to care.
Casual, easy, they move in the world
as though untouched.
Macy rejects the Business as Usual and Great Unraveling as the only true narratives. It’s not that she doesn’t believe in their existence; clearly they have tangible repercussions. But neither story offers us, the citizens of an imperiled world, a route forward, and she doesn’t want people to believe that they represent the only truth—when either narrative is taken for gospel it begets only disillusionment and selfishness. Participation in the former model leads to a take-what-you-can attitude toward the resources of the earth, feeding the forces that oppress the working class, minority groups, women, children, animals, and the natural world. If you believe wholly in the latter, it can lead to hopelessness, lethargy, or numbness in the face of suffering. You become nihilistic in the face of bad news.
But Macy speaks of a third way forward. This path, which she calls The Great Turning, requires attention and feeling; it calls upon imagination to accompany fact. Where the Buddha’s Middle Way straddled the gap between hedonism and asceticism, eternalism and annihilationism, hers puts forth an alternate route toward a life-sustaining society. It is a three-part system. In it, “holding actions” slow the environmental and social unraveling. This includes efforts like divesting from fossil fuels, preserving what is left of threatened ecosystems, and protecting wildlife. The second element is defined by efforts at reorganizing and redesigning the systems that make up society: developing new ways to build, hold land, and measure prosperity. And the third is a “shift in consciousness,” or a transformation of our collective value systems, that will allow the structural changes to take root and prevent us from “succumbing to either panic or paralysis.” Macy points out that this shift is already happening through breakthroughs in scientific thought (as reductionism and materialism give way); a resurgence of the wisdom traditions; and new ideas put forth by general living systems theory, deep ecology, liberation theology, and engaged Buddhism, as well as the ecofeminist, ecopsychology, and simple living movements. All of these changes remind us that we are not simply living on the earth—we are deeply connected to it. Our understanding of this connection, Macy argues, cannot rest entirely in the intellect. It must be felt, sensed, and understood with the body. Rilke articulates in his poetry this embodied knowledge, a felt awareness of his being part of earth:
each stone, blossom, child—
is held in place.
Only we, in our arrogance,
push out beyond what we each belong to
for some empty freedom.
If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence,
we could rise up rooted, like trees.
Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused.
So, like children, we begin again
to learn from the things,
because they are in God’s heart;
they have never left him.
This is what the things can teach us:
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.
This shift in consciousness and willingness to engage with deep feeling was something that Macy’s students modeled on retreat. The participants included longtime environmental activists, teachers, community organizers, and artists, all of whom had dedicated their life’s work to the continued survival of our natural world. At one point in the week, we were asked to sit face-to-face with a stranger who would remain silent for two minutes while we told them what we imagined for life on earth in years to come. My partner was an artist and activist who had spent decades devoted to marshland preservation efforts, and I found myself telling her things I hadn’t been aware I was thinking, like, I don’t see a future for human life on earth. I was calm while I said it, and somewhat proud of my even keel—some of the pairs around us were crying. I told her that I felt quite hopeful for other forms of life, however, like cockroaches, rats, and the house sparrows you see in New York City parks. But Macy’s next words humbled me: “Beware premature equanimity. In our culture we’ve pathologized pain, and we fear despair.”
Citing the work of Andreas Weber, a German scholar who writes on the disconnect between humanity and nature, she said, “Feeling is life.” Our culture makes it hard to respond to the grief of the world, Macy said, and so we keep a stiff upper lip, believing that this will protect us. We then succumb to the false notion that the self is separate from the culture at large.
Macy’s reading of Rilke extols the power of the senses, which can provide us with an intimate, even erotic, engagement with life—one that can help us commit to work for its continuation. The potential for a life-sustaining world is predicated upon our ability to feel desire for the preservation of life, she says. Rilke puts words to this longing:
You, my own deep soul,
trust me. I will not betray you.
My blood is alive with many voices
telling me I am made of longing.
What mystery breaks over me now?
In its shadow I come into life.
For the first time I am alone with you—
you, my power to feel.
Reflecting back, I realized that I had circumscribed my own imagination as a defense mechanism—of course it’s excruciating to imagine the mass loss of life on earth. Through Macy’s reading of Rilke, I found the distant, intellectualized stance I’d taken from this knowledge shifting. I began to understand why, in her view, feeling and longing are not the same as grasping attachment. They are not emotions to be avoided—they are skillful desires, fueled by compassion, that motivate us toward beneficial action. But this isn’t simple hopefulness or optimism; to reduce it to a look-on-the-bright-side mentality flattens the nuance of Macy’s view. We live in a time in which the future of life hangs on a razor’s edge, she cautions, but to think all is lost is to (falsely) believe that we know what the future has in store. The self-assurance of saying “all is lost” or “the damage has been done” is not only incorrect and unproductive—it also undermines the potential for any meaningful action. Macy’s work requires that we speak directly about what we see and feel, and remain open to what we cannot foresee. We neither numb ourselves nor ossify, becoming unable to imagine the ongoingness of life. We offer not opinions but experiences, and we share from an embodied ground. In this way, deep feeling is transformed into both nourishment and motivation:
Dear darkening ground,
you’ve endured so patiently the walls we’ve built,
perhaps you’ll give the cities one more hour
and grant the churches and cloisters two.
And those that labor—will you let their work
grip them another five hours, or seven,
before you become forest again, and water, and widening wilderness
in that hour of inconceivable terror
when you take back your name from all things.
Just give me a little more time!
I want to love the things
as no one has thought to love them,
until they’re worthy of you and real.
Macy reminds us that although the world order may appear fixed today, no civilization “ever seems more inevitable than on the eve of its decline. And so we keep moving forward, holding the vision of a life-sustaining world in our minds:
No yearning for an afterlife, no looking beyond,
no belittling of death,
but only longing for what belongs to us
and serving earth, lest we remain unused.
Only in our doing can we grasp you.
Only with our hands can we illumine you.
The mind is but a visitor:
it think us out of our world.
Each mind fabricates itself.
We sense its limits, for we have made them.
On the last day of the retreat, I thanked Macy. I told her how much the week had given me to think about, and that she had granted a permission I didn’t know I’d lacked: the permission to long for a thriving world that included human life. This was a sensation I felt in my chest more than a thought.
“Who are you to tell life that it won’t go on?” she said, waving her thin hands in air the between us as if she could clear it of lingering misconceptions. “The Buddha said not to be attached to your ego—not to life. Life wants to live through you. It’s simply your love for life.”
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not ever complete the last one,
but I give myself to it.
I circle around God, that primordial tower.
I have been circling for thousands of years,
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?