Buddhism and Ecology

In honor of Earth Day 2022, Tricycle is bringing together leading Buddhist teachers, writers, and environmentalists—including Joanna Macy, Roshi Joan Halifax, David Loy, Paul Hawken, and Tara Brach—for a donation-based weeklong virtual event series exploring what the dharma has to offer in a time of environmental crisis.  Learn more here.

It’s no secret that our world is in a tough spot. The critical problems that we face today—political, economic, and ecological—can be overwhelming even to think about. Joanna Macy, Ph.D., however, believes we are in a moment she calls “The Great Turning”: a transition from a society shaped primarily by industrial growth to a society structured to be life-sustaining. In her workshops, Macy—a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology—encourages people to take part in this collective transition not by hiding from their pain for the world but by embracing it. In honoring our despair, Macy says, we discover our love for the world.

In her new book, Active Hope, co-written with Chris Johnstone, Macy argues that because we can never know for sure how the future will turn out, we should focus on what we’d like to happen and do our part to bring about the world we envision. In this interview, conducted over the phone, we discussed how recognizing our grief allows us to develop an allegiance to life.

—Sam Mowe, Associate Editor

I’m devastated about the state of the Earth. What’s the first step I take? By knowing that you’re devastated about the fate of the Earth, you’ve already taken the essential first step. And that first step is directly related, in my mind, to the First Noble Truth that the Buddha taught: the truth of suffering.

It’s a funny way, isn’t it, to start a major religious tradition by saying there is suffering? But that’s what the Buddha did. And it helps us be totally present to what is, not to what we wish were there, not to something we would approve of, but present to the way things are now. Daring to open your eyes and open your mind in that local way, is that powerful.

What’s the next step? Well, then I’d say, look at where that’s coming from. Look at what you’re feeling. You may be feeling sorrow, you may be feeling outrage. You may be feeling dread and fear. You may be feeling futility and powerlessness. But whatever it is that you’re feeling, just take a look at where that’s coming from. It’s not coming from an attitude of “How do I get ahead as a separate person?” but rather from my caring for life itself. Those feelings of grief and despair or panic don’t come out of some personal craziness, but out of our caring for life. And that caring, in turn, comes from a sense of belonging. I care what happens to this Earth because that’s where I come from, that’s my larger body. I need the air to breathe; I need clean soil to grow food. I’m not just disembodied out there in outer space.

Feeling alarm or devastation can guide us to a deep sanity, reminding us of who we are and what we need. It can remind us that we belong to this larger body and that we care for it. Our power to act, our power to take part in the healing of our world, our power to bring things back into balance, comes from the same source as that devastation. Our pain for the world, and our power to take part in the healing of our world, both come from the same place.

Even if there’s a great sanity and intelligence in being in touch with that pain, often it’s a very painful and numbing experience. It seems that it’s not the grief or the anger or the sorrow or fear that are numbing, it’s our reaction to them. We don’t want to feel the pain, and so we pave it over. We turn away, we distract ourselves, we have all kinds of strategies not to feel them. But it’s what we do with those feelings that causes the numbing. It’s not the pain that causes the numbing, it’s our trying to anesthetize ourselves to the pain.

If we face our pain, does it ever transform into something else? Yes, because when you recognize the pain for what it is, where it is coming from, you see it arises because you care. You give a fig, you know? It matters to you. You’re devastated about the state of the Earth, and you’re worried about climate change. In Oakland, we just closed 23 schools, and one of them is being turned into a police station. That just breaks my heart. Who likes to feel that? I hate feeling that. But I can look at where it’s coming from. It’s like the roots of that pain grow out of my caring that kids have an education. My caring that those teachers, those wonderful teachers, have kids to teach. My caring that they have books to learn from and notebooks to write in. And so that caring is beautiful, and I can affirm, “Okay, thank you.” It’s a good thing that we feel pain, because then it wakes us up to the situation we’re in, and to the fact that we care about it.

That caring comes from our belonging. That’s the power that comes from our interdependence. A lot of that is drawn from the Buddha’s teachings. He was very interested in social change, even though our anthologies of the Buddha’s writings don’t feature that particularly.

Right. Much of the Buddhist tradition seems to emphasize detachment—that samsara is a miserable place that we need to get out of. However, the aspects of Buddhism that you use in your approach emphasize connection. Are these views contradictory? That’s the reputation that Buddhism has acquired. But the Buddha never asked us to be nonattached to the world. He just asked us to be nonattached to the ego. It’s our own selfish desires that he invites us to view with detachment. But he never asks us to be unattached to the world itself. It’s our clinging that we need to let go of. It’s wanting things to go our own way that he asks us to release.

Look at the teachings about the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva is the heroic figure who was modeled on the Buddha, one who really gets how interconnected we all are, like cells in a larger body. Then, when something affects that larger body, and other people are suffering, the bodhisattva is the one who is described as having a boundless heart, a huge heart—a compassionate one who feels the suffering not only of herself or himself, but of other beings, too. So the bodhisattva experiences a shift in identity or an extension into a larger self.

I’m intrigued by what you write about the widening sense of self. Is a widening sense of self consistent with the Buddhist idea of “no-self”? To me, frankly, it’s the same thing. First of all, the Buddha never said there was no self. He just said you can’t prove there is a self. And he kept inviting us to enlarge our perceptions to see how we are interconnected with all beings. He’s inviting us to keep moving beyond clinging to your own success. “How did I do?” “Did I win in that encounter?” You can move ahead from that competitive sense of having to be number one in your own eyes, needing the approval of everybody, to move into a much larger identity, where you’re feeling glad in the welfare of others. You can take joy in people having a good time.

Two of your main influences are the Buddhist idea of dependent origination and general systems theory. Both of these approaches show us different ways of looking at causality. We usually approach problems in a linear, analytic way. Your approach emphasizes mutual causality. How are these different? Linear causality means that any important change moves in a linear chain from A to B to C to D. That translates socially and politically into a top-down notion of power.

One example would be in relating to people who see things differently than you do. In the linear view of causality, which is really a linear view of influence, we would say A wants to change B’s mind. I want to impose information onto another person. It’s a one-way street. You get that in a lot of social environmental activists, that they’re preaching at you and they’re telling you what’s right, and they’re telling you how bad this is, and you’re supposed to swallow it all. Are you with me so far?

We have to find a way to live in mutual respect in a field of uncertainty

I’m doing my best. [Laughs.] Okay. So let’s look at mutual causality. For one thing, the direction of influence is a two-way street. So if I, person A, want to change person B’s mind, I can’t do it. I recognize that I can invite the other to entertain certain questions. I can invite the other person into conversation. I can ask questions that the other person will answer.

There is, fundamentally, more respect and humility in this approach. It goes with a view that many Buddhist teachers have espoused and called “don’t-know mind” or “beginner’s mind,” as Suzuki Roshi put it. I don’t have all the answers, but together, we can find them out in conversation. Once you try to impose your view on another person, they will only say yes if they’re scared of you, or bored with you, and want you to go away. That is just one example, and is one that the Buddha himself was very strong in articulating to his disciples. He said, “Watch out for thinking that there is a correct dogma.” There isn’t. Instead, we have to find a way to live in mutual respect in a field of uncertainty. We must relieve ourselves of having to have the answer. We can do this by linking arms with each other.

How you can embrace doubt and also keep your convictions about important things? Sometimes my “don’t-know mind” can question things that I need to know. I see your point. But then we could come back to the first knowable—as well as noble—truth. You can know that the Greenland ice sheet is melting. You can know that the ocean is becoming more acidic. What you can let go of is knowing what other people are supposed to do. You can know that we’re heading for continued emission of CO 2 methane and other greenhouse gasses—science says that they’re leading us to a raise in temperature of over two degrees Celsius. And you can know that they say this will cause flooding and drought. So you can look at this and sort of feel a kind of solidarity or bond with other people and say, “Gee, look at this. How are we going to respond to this?” You’re not telling people necessarily, you’re not dictating what they’re to do. But you’re asking them to look. But you can know that you want life to go on. That knowing is basic to your very existence.

So “don’t-know mind” only applies sometimes. I think it applies to tactics. It extends to our self-righteousness, to think that I have the answer of what everybody should do. But that’s a very good point. “Don’t-know mind” does not extend to our allegiance to life.

Liberating Our Imagination

From Active Hope, by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone

“What comes before how” is a design principle often used to boost creative thinking. First identify what you’d like to happen; working out how comes later. If we exclude options just because we can’t immediately see how they can happen, we block out many of the more exciting possibilities that might inspire us. An important distinction is to be made between the creative phase, in which we generate ideas and possibilities, and the editing phase, in which we choose and evaluate them. Placing an embargo on editing in this first stage liberates our creativity.

Our intention in the creative phase is to catch a vision so compelling that it touches us emotionally. To remain motivated during difficult times, we need to really want our vision to happen. When what we hope for seems beyond our power, however, we are likely to hear a voice inside us saying, “There’s no point even thinking about this; it just isn’t going to happen.” To hold on to an inspiring vision, we need to stop ourselves from shooting it down inside our minds before it even has a chance to take form. What helps here is recognizing the difference between static and process thinking.

Static thinking assumes that reality is fixed and solid, resistant to change. When people say things such as “The problem is human nature, it is never going to change” or “You can’t change the system,” they’re taking this approach. They are viewing situations as if they are like pictures hanging on a wall: if a new idea or way of doing things isn’t already in the picture, it is seen as unrealistic. This view limits our sense of what is possible; if nothing inspiring is on the horizon, we can easily fall into apathy and resignation.

With process thinking, we view reality more as a flow in which everything is continually moving from one state to another. Each moment, like a frame in a movie, is slightly different from the one before. These tiny changes from frame to frame generate the larger changes seen over time. If something is not in the picture at the moment, that doesn’t mean it won’t be later on. This way of conceiving reality sees existence as an evolving story rather than as predefined. Because we can never know for sure how the future will turn out, it makes more sense to focus on what we’d like to have happen, and then to do our bit to make it more likely.

There was once an inventor who sat for hours every day in a special soundproofed room. With a pencil in his hand and a pad of paper on his desk, he was waiting for ideas. When they came, he would make a note and then return to his waiting. This inventor is modeling three practices that can help us catch an inspiring vision.

The first is simply creating space. When we’re too busy, our attention is so occupied that there is little room for anything new to enter. That is why people often remark that their most inspiring moments come when they are on vacation, out for a walk, or taking a shower. Allowing ourselves quiet moments, even to daydream, opens a space into which inspiring thoughts can flow. Such pauses can be surprisingly productive: Edison came up with many of his inventions while lying on a couch in his workshop. It was a daydream about a snake eating its tail that led German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé to discover the ring structure of benzene molecules.

The second practice for catching inspiration brings together two tools freely available to us all: intention and attention. By placing himself in the soundproofed room, the inventor was making himself fully available to any creative impulses that might arise. His heightened alertness was like that of a cat waiting by a mousehole. If a bright idea was to show itself, he didn’t want to miss it.

The third practice involved his use of pen and paper. An inspiring thought or vision is like a seed—for it to grow into something, it needs to be planted, nurtured, and revisited often. We can only do that if we remember it. Part of catching inspiration is finding some way of holding on to it. We don’t necessarily have to do that through writing, but we need an answer to the question “How will I remember this a year from now?”

These three practices are the key ingredients of a guidance system that helps us find and follow the purposes that call us. There are many different ways of making space, of focusing our intention to catch an inspiring vision, and of anchoring what comes up so that we don’t forget it. The core principle here is that we don’t have to just passively wait for inspiration; rather, we can play an active role in inviting it in. We can also train ourselves to become better at this, developing the habit and skill of tuning in to visionary signals.

Since the best way of anchoring a vision is to act on it and make it part of our lives, we need a way of linking our larger hopes with specific steps we can take. Visioning therefore involves three closely related levels:

1. What? When looking at a specific situation, what would you like to see happen?

2. How? How do you see this coming about? This stage involves describing the steps needed for the larger vision to occur and possible pathways by which these steps can take place.

3. My Role? The first level identifies the desired destination, the second level maps out the story of getting there, and the third identifies your role in this story: what can you do to help the vision come about?


Imaginary Hindsight

A powerful mental shift takes place when we stop telling ourselves why something can’t happen. When we can envision a hoped-for future, we strengthen our belief that it is possible. By inhabiting this vision with all our senses, imagining what colors and shapes we see, the expressions on people’s faces, the sounds we hear, the smells, taste, and feel of this future, we bring ourselves there in a way that activates our creative, visionary, and intuitive faculties. As the poet Rumi once wrote: “Close both eyes to see with the other eye.”

Research has shown that when people approach a problem by imagining that it has already been solved and then look back from this imagined future, they are more creative and detailed in describing potential solutions. Rob Hopkins used this “imaginary hindsight” approach when founding the Transition movement. He told us:

The idea didn’t emerge fully formed all at once. It was more a case of thinking “I wonder what would happen if . . .” and then imagining what a permaculture response to the challenge of peak oil would look like, particularly a response that could easily catch on around the world.

The idea that each community could develop its own “energy descent plan” grew out of this visioning process. The starting point is an image of what a community would look like if it were no longer dependent on oil. How would it function? What would people eat? How would its economy, healthcare, and education systems work? Then a trail is traced back in time from that possible future, marking key developments along the way. The pathway sketched out offers the beginnings of an energy descent plan by which the community can wean itself off oil dependence. Finally, we end in the present, with our lives here and now, looking forward and identifying how we can play our part in the transition process.

Imaginary hindsight can be applied to a range of timescales. If we’re facing a challenge in the next 24 hours, we can imagine its successful resolution a day from now, and then look back from that point at what we did. The story of how we rose to the challenge directs our attention to the steps we need to take.

Article reprinted from Active Hope by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone © 2012. Reprinted with permission of New World Library, www.newworldlibrary.com.