Joanna Macy: The Great Turning


Richard Moore


Thanks to Jan for sending in this inspiring assessment of
"the vast revolution that's going on because our way of life
cannot be sustained".  It's an interview with Joanna Macy
that was taken during the Seattle WTO protests. It touches
on many of the topics we've discussed recently on this list,
and it does so with considerable wisdom. I'd be interested
in your responses.


Date: Sun, 31 Aug 2003 19:27:03 -0700
Subject: Joanna Macy: the Great Turning
From: Jan Slakov <•••@••.•••>
To: "Richard K. Moore" <•••@••.•••>

From: Carolyn Langdon <•••@••.•••>
Subject: The Earth as Sacred
Date: Tue, 16 May 2000 14:49:57 -0400

the great turning
an interview with Joanna Macy, by Sarah Ruth van Gelder

Joanna Macy, writer and Buddhist scholar, took time out from
the WTO protests to speak with YES! editor Sarah Ruth van
Gelder. Their conversation took place the day following the
massive blockade of the WTO and the labor-led march through

Sarah: We've been focused on the activities surrounding the
WTO here in Seattle for the last few days. As we speak,
people are being arrested for walking in the "no-protest"
zones and bused off to jail. Before we head back into
downtown ourselves, I want to ask for your reflections on
change at a larger level, which you're calling "the Great

Joanna: The term "Great Turning" is just one way to name the
vast revolution that's going on because our way of life
cannot be sustained. There are three main dimensions of it
that I see. The first involves holding actions that slow the
destruction caused by the industrial growth society. This
economic system is doomed because it measures its success by
how fast it uses up the living body of Earth - extracting
resources beyond Earth's capacity to renew, and spewing out
wastes faster than Earth's capacity to absorb. It is now in
runaway mode, devouring itself at an accelerating rate.

Holding actions are important because they buy time. They
are like a first line of defense; they can save a few
species, a few ecosystems, and some of the gene pool for
future generations. In Seattle this week we saw how holding
actions - in this case nonviolent blockades - can slow down
efforts to give transnational corporations a yet freer hand
in plundering our heritage.

But holding actions are not enough to create a sustainable
society. You've got to have new social and economic
structures, new ways of doing things. And these seem to be
springing up at a faster rate than at any time in our human
history. I consider YES! so important, precisely because you
are pointing to these innovations, which are rarely reported
in the mainstream, corporate-controlled media.

Alternative structures and analyses constitute the second
dimension of the Great Turning. They were sure evident in
all the teach-ins and resource sharing going on this week in
Seattle. People are wising up to the assumptions and
agreements that allow a few to get richer and richer while
more and more people sink below the poverty line. Fresh
social and economic experiments are sprouting, and new
alliances are forming too. Yesterday I marched alongside
farm workers and longshoremen, and I was moved to see how
labor unions and environmental groups are making common
cause at last.

But new coalitions and new ways of production and
distribution are not enough for the Great Turning. They will
shrivel and die unless they are rooted in deeply held values
- in our sense of who we are, who we want to be, and how we
relate to each other and the living body of Earth. That
amounts to a shift in consciousness, which is actually
happening now at a rapid rate. This is the third dimension
of the Great Turning, and it is, at root, a spiritual
revolution, awakening perceptions and values that are both
very new and very ancient, linking back to rivers of
ancestral wisdom. I loved the banners and banter of
yesterday's marchers, how they conveyed these values with
such exuberance and humor, making fun of our greed and
shortsightedness, and celebrating solidarity with all life
from sea turtles to butterflies. The ancestors were in our
midst, too; every block or two, a United Farm Workers' group
with drums and feathers stopped to perform an Aztec dance.

Of course, a consciousness shift by itself is insufficient
for the Great Turning; you also have to have the holding
actions and the creation of alternative structures. These
three dimensions are totally interdependent and mutually
reinforcing. I love seeing it this way because it gets us
off that dead argument: "Is it more important to work on
yourself? or Is it more important to be out there on the
barricades?" Those are such stupid arguments, because
actually we have to do it all. And as we do it together, it
gains momentum and becomes more self-sustaining.

You know, I often imagine that future generations will look
back at us and say, "Oh, bless 'em. Those ancestors were
right there in the Great Turning! There was so much they had
to change, and they didn't even know if they could pull it

And we might not pull it off. There's no guarantee that this
tremendous shift will kick in before our life support
systems unravel irretrievably. Actually, the very fact that
there's no guarantee of success is what will draw forth our
greatest courage and creativity. If I could give you a pill
or potion to convince you that everything is going to be
okay, that would hardly elicit your purest creativity and

We could wait around forever before we act, trying to
compute our chances of success. But our time to come alive
is right now, on this edge of possibility.

 From our own life experience, we know there's never a
guarantee - whether we're falling in love, or going into
labor to birth a baby, or devoting ourselves to a piece of
land, turning the soil and watching for rain. We don't ask
for proof that we'll succeed and that everything will turn
out as we want. We just go ahead, because life wants to live
through us!

Sarah: In social movements of the past, it seems to me that
people looked to a leader or to some doctrine to lead them
forward. Now, people seem to take the responsibility upon
themselves; they seem to want to know in their bones what
needs to be done and how they can, authentically, be a part
of it.

Joanna: Yes. Everywhere I go, talking with folks of all ages
and walks of life, I sense this search for authenticity.
People are wanting to take responsibility for their lives,
both politically and spiritually. It's beautiful.

At the most fundamental level, there's an appetite for
reconnecting with the sacred. Instead of depending on anyone
else for that connection, we want to be able to know it and
embody it ourselves.

What is the sacred? It's the ground of our being. It's the
whole of which we are a part. It's what imbues our life with
meaning and beauty. Of course, there are different ways of
perceiving our relation to it.

Mainstream western society has, by and large, related to the
sacred by projecting it outwards, setting it apart as a God
"out there" to worship and obey. We made the sacred
transcendent, and in its honor created ziggurats,
cathedrals, masterpieces of art and choral music - perhaps
our greatest cultural achievements.

But after several millennia of assigning the sacred to a
transcendent dimension removed from ordinary life, the world
around us begins to go dead and loses its luminosity and
meaning. The Earth is reduced to a supply store of material
resources and a sewer for our wastes. And in such a world,
devoid of the sacred, anything goes - buy up, sell off,
consume as much as you can!

What's so beautiful about being alive at this moment is that
the pendulum is starting to swing the other way. We are
retrieving the projection. We are taking the sacred back
into our lives. The swing is from transcendence to
immanence. The most vital movement of our era involves
making the sacred immanent again. I see it happening in
every spiritual tradition - in the Jewish Renewal movement,
in Creation Spirituality, in women's spirituality, and in
the resurgence of Wicca, and the teachings of ancient
indigenous peoples. We are reawakening to the sacredness of
life itself, in the soil and air and water, in our brothers
and sisters of other species, and in our own bodies.

I spoke of this as a swing of the pendulum, but a metaphor I
like even better comes from Ludwig Feuerbach, a German
theologian of the mid-19th century. He said that our
apprehensions of the sacred have a rhythm like the pumping
action of the heart. Just as the heart pumps blood out from
the center of the body, we project outwards our sense of the
sacred, so that we can behold its majesty and fall on our
knees before it in wonder and awe. Feuerbach reminded us
that the heartbeat is a two-way action - systole and
diastole: the pumping out is followed by drawing the blood
back through the heart. When the sacred becomes too remote,
you take it back in, to let it lubricate your life. The
retrieval of the projection is not an endpoint either. When
we get stuck too long in immanence, the sacred becomes
indistinguishable from anything else; it becomes bland,
taken for granted. So the heart beat goes on, ever renewing
our sense of the holy. To perceive it this way frees me to
see that they need each other, these two movements of the

Sarah: Tell me a little more about how it affects someone to
start seeing the sacred as more immanent.

Joanna: To see all life as holy rescues us from loneliness
and the sense of futility that comes with isolation. The
sacred becomes part of this encounter - part of you sitting
in front of me, present in that stand of bamboo, and even in
myself. I don't have to go to Chartres Cathedral to be in
the presence of the Divine. It's right here.

This means that our sorrow is sacred, too. Within us all is
grief for what is happening to our world - the despoiling of
Earth, the extinction of our brother/sister species, the
massive suffering of our fellow humans. But when we feel
isolated, we stifle that sorrow and rage in order to fit in
better and to avoid aggravating the loneliness.

Experiencing the sacred as immanent helps people to befriend
their pain for the world and not fear that it will further
isolate them. This is a matter of practical urgency, because
to repress and discount the grief and dread we feel on
behalf of all beings locks us into the status quo. In the
work I do with groups, we reframe our pain for the world,
recognizing it as the capacity to "suffer with," which is
the literal meaning of compassion. It is not only honored in
all spiritual traditions, it also serves as wholesome
feedback, necessary to our survival. To recognize this
brings us back to life: "It's okay for me to be here. It's
okay for me to hurt, even. It's okay for me to weep for
people who aren't even born yet. That's because I belong.
That's because I am part of the sacred living body of Earth
through all time."

This sense of belonging is spreading with the "new story" of
our universe that Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Sister Miriam
McGillis and others are bringing in now. Drawing from the
latest discoveries of science, they show how each of us is
an inseparable part of this ever-unfolding story since it
first began in the primal "flaring forth."

Everywhere I see people starting prayer groups and healing
groups, sacred circles and home churches. They don't wait
until they have Masters of Divinity degrees, or are
ordained. They're ordaining themselves. They are gathering
together because they find they can experience this
sacredness better in groups.

Moreover, people are expressing this sense of belonging by
stepping forth. That was obvious in yesterday's march.
People came in the scores of thousands because their hearts'
desire now is for more than just drawing a paycheck so they
can pay the mortgage and sit in front of the tv. They want
to be out there with their fellow-citizens, taking risks for
the sake of something greater than their separate,
individual lives.

When you act on behalf of something greater than yourself,
you begin to feel it acting through you with a power that is
greater than your own. The religious term for this
empowerment is grace, and we conceived of it as coming from
God. Now, we are feeling graced by other beings and by Earth
itself. Those with whom and on whose behalf we act give us
strength and eloquence and staying power we didn't know we

We celebrate this, for example, in the Council of All
Beings. In that reverent and playful community ritual, we
step aside from our human identity to speak on behalf of
other life-forms. As the beings report the suffering they
now experience, it becomes clear that their fate depends on
that very species that is behaving with such greed and fear.
So they decide to offer to the humans their own particular
strengths. Whether you speak for eagle or worm or cypress
tree, you think of what gifts you could share - farseeing
eye, patience, readiness to go through the dark. In the
process we realize that the gifts we're naming are already
known to us and available. We just need to practice knowing
that and remembering that we are sustained by each other in
the web of life. Such practice helps us to decondition
ourselves from centuries of old-paradigm thinking, which
we've used in ways that have made us so lonely and selfish
and nuts and powerless. It all goes together. Greed and
powerlessness go together.

So we practice knowing our true power, which comes as a
gift, like grace, because in truth it is sustained by
others. We can draw on the wisdom and beauty and strengths
of our fellow humans and our fellow species like so much
money in the bank. I find that incredibly empowering,
because it means I can go into a situation and trust that
the courage and intelligence required will be supplied.

Sarah: Let's circle back, now. How does this shift toward
experiencing the Divine as immanent relate to the Great
Turning you spoke of earlier? Joanna: That's a great
question. I think the felt presence of the sacred will be
like fuel for the Great Turning. It will help us hang in
there through a tough time. In the breakdown of the
Industrial Growth Society, things will get a lot harder and
scarier for a while. And when we get scared we get mean. We
turn on each other. I think our greatest danger is fear and
the blaming and scapegoating that fear arouses. To hold the
conviction that all life is holy will help us withstand the
temptations to demagoguery and divisiveness.

Sarah: So this implies a different way of treating those
whom we consider opponents?

Joanna: Yes, yes. There's no private salvation in this. The
people who don't agree with us become like a noble
adversary, challenging us to develop our smarts and courage.
We still have to walk together into the future. They're like
brother/sister cells in the larger body of life. We may have
to take some pretty strong, surgical steps to limit their
exercise of greed, hatred, and stupidity. But those three
poisons, as they're known in Buddhism, are the problem. We
want to liberate our adversaries and ourselves from these
three. We're not really free until they're free too. I think
that helps with the exercise of nonviolence, don't you?

Sarah: Yes. It's such a tricky business because I think it
can be very difficult to say, for example, "There's a real
problem with corporate globalization. There's a real problem
with the WTO." And at the same time recognize that the
individuals who are involved in those activities are
nonetheless as sacred as any other beings.

Joanna: And that they're in bondage to our real enemies,
which are greed, hatred, and delusion. Delusion or ignorance
means the notion that we are separate, that we can be immune
to what we do to other people. Remember at the march
yesterday, there was a tall figure on stilts dressed as the
fat industrialist? I laughed and booed with the rest. I
think it's great to make fun of Greed - so long as we don't
demonize individuals who are caught up in its claws. I
admit, it does get hard to avoid making people like Charles
Hurwitz the target of my rage, and to remember, as Gandhi
asked us to, that our target is not the person but their
actions - the clearcutting of the redwoods, the lockouts of
the steelworkers.

Sarah: One of the major sources of conflict around the world
is differences in ethnicity, culture, and religion. If this
sense of the Divine becoming immanent, if that is happening
across religious traditions, could that be a sign of hope
for conflicts among religions?

Joanna: Mmm. My mind flies to Afghanistan and the resurgence
of a totalitarian patriarchy where the sacred is seen as
punitive. Yet, out of the same religion comes Rumi and Hafiz
and the Sufi tradition with its celebration of the
sacredness of all life.

Fundamentalism rears its head in all religions now. It's a
reaction against the radical uncertainty of this moment in
history. In such times, we tend to revert to the security of
rock-bound belief and vent our anxieties in scapegoating
others. The temptation to take refuge in our own
self-righteousness is strong. But now there's also a strong
current in the other direction. Last June, when my husband
Fran and I were in Israel - that land so epochally torn by
competing claims to the sacred - what we heard most of all
from the Jews and the Arabs was their spiritual hunger to
reconnect with each other. Clearly those to whom the sacred
is becoming immanent have a role to play in easing the
hatreds bred by the fundamentalists. And they are playing
that role already.

People are sick and tired of being pitted against each other
when there's already so much suffering and the Earth itself
is under assault. They're ready to reconnect and honor the
life we share. That is the great adventure of our time. And
it's happening.

Joanna Macy is a scholar of Buddhism and general systems
theory and author of Coming Back to Life; World as Lover
World as Self; the Dharma of Natural Systems; and Rilke's
Book of Hours.


    "...the Patriot Act followed 9-11 as smoothly as the
      suspension of the Weimar constitution followed the
      Reichstag fire."  
      - Srdja Trifkovic

    There is not a problem with the system.
    The system is the problem.

    Faith in humanity, not gods, ideologies, or programs.

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