Transforming Despair

An Interview with Joanna Macy
By Mary NurrieStearns


Joanna Macy is an activist and teacher. For the past twenty years, she has guided people through a process first called "despair and empowerment work" and now called the "Work that Reconnects." This work is generally conducted in workshops where group energy supports participants; it invites people into despair about the plight of the planet and the destructive course we are on. The work does not end there. Joanna uses exercises that strengthen the minds and hearts of participants for the struggles ahead. Through this work, participants transform their despair into compassionate action.

Joanna is a guide for spiritual activists who want to end the present course of destruction of Mother Earth. She, among others, sense that we live in an extraordinary time. In this age of information and technology, we have life yielding information and power. The power is ours to destroy or preserve life all life on planet Earth.

It is not news that we are exhausting Mother Earth's resources and damaging her ability to sustain life on land, air and sea. Nor is it news that there is what Joanna calls a Great Turning. People are alarmed and taking action to slow the course of destruction. People are campaigning for laws to mitigate the effects of pollution, poverty and the loss of habitat. Others are blowing the whistle on illegal and unethical corporate practices. Municipal composting and recycling programs are increasing. A shift is occurring in perceptions of reality. The Gaia theory shows our planet to be a living system and our larger body. A resurgence of shamanic traditions shows us our identity with Earth and other species. Eastern philosophy and religion is teaching the "interbeing" of all life forms as grounds for both spiritual practice and social action.

Joanna is a leader in this movement to preserve life on Earth. Her newest book, Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World, published by New Society Publishers, maps ways into the vitality and determination we each possess to take part in healing our world. It describes a body of work that has grown up over the last twenty years and helped hundreds of thousands of men and women around the globe find solidarity and courage to act, despite rapidly deteriorating social and ecological conditions.

Personal Transformation: In our society, we talk about despair as if it is primarily a psychological matter, coming out of personal life. Your understanding is that despair also comes from a different source.

Joanna Macy: Yes. I learned, when I began to work with groups 20 years ago, that despair arose in relation to something larger than individuals, personal circumstances. There is a complex of strong feelings that I call ingredients of despair. One is fear about the future based on what we're doing to each other and to our planet. Another is anger that we are knowingly wasting the world for those who come after us, destroying the legacy of our ancestors. Guilt and sorrow are in the complex. People in every walk of life, from every culture, feel grief over the condition of the world. Despair is this constellation of different feelings. One person may feel more fear or anger, another sorrow, and another guilt, but the common thread is a suffering on behalf of the world or, as I put it, feeling "pain for the world."

In American culture, we are conditioned to try to keep a smiling face and remain chipper at all costs. A lack of optimism somehow indicates a lack of competence. Feelings of despair are treated reductionistically as a function of personal maladjustment. This doubles the burden individuals carry. Not only do they feel bad about their world, but they feel bad about feeling bad.

Feeling the pain of the world is not a weakness. This is God-given or, put another way, an aspect of our Buddha nature. This openness of heart that characterizes the caring individual is a function of maturity. Don't ever apologize for the tears you shed on behalf of other beings. This is, in its essence, not craziness, but compassion. This capacity to speak out on behalf of others, because you have the right to, because you can suffer with them, is part of our spiritual nature.

PT: Realizing that despair comes out of compassion legitimizes what people feel and provides a context for addressing what they feel.

Joanna: It also provides a context for action. It transforms the pain that isolated them.

PT: How are we to relate to despair?

Joanna: We have to honor and own this pain for the world, recognizing it as a natural response to an unprecedented moment in history. We are part of a huge civilization, intricate in its technology and powerful in its institutions, that is destroying the very basis of life. When have people had this experience before in our history? We ask people to relate to what they experience with respect and compassion for themselves. They're not just griping and grumping. It is absolutely shattering when we open our eyes and see that we are actually, in an accelerating fashion, destroying the future.

PT: As people take in the staggering enormity of what we're faced with, how do you address their sense of being insignificant and feeling overwhelmed, as if what they do will make no difference?

Joanna: People fear that if they let despair in, they'll be paralyzed because they are just one person. Paradoxically, by allowing ourselves to feel our pain for the world, we open ourselves up to the web of life, and we realize that we're not alone. I think it's a cardinal mistake to try to act alone. The myth of the rugged individual, riding as the Lone Ranger to save our society, is a sure recipe for going crazy. The response that is appropriate and that this work elicits is to grow a sense of solidarity with others and to elaborate a whole new sense of what our resources are and what our power is.

PT: Do you recommend that this work be done primarily in a group context?

Joanna: Yes, group work is most effective because we are conditioned to think that despair is a personal problem that we must handle alone. A group experience restores a deep faith in life. There is a strong sense of coming home at last to one another, so that we face this together. The institutional and political systems in power have much momentum, which means there will be reversals and disappointment. There's no guarantee that we're going to pull through. At the same time, we are challenged to be courageous, to stand on our understanding of the truth even though others don't.

PT: I image this group as warriors who pow-wow together and then, strengthened, begin taking action in their own lives and communities.

Joanna: That's right, they are empowered by their linked arms. One of the practices, described in the chapter on meditations, is learning to see each other as potential allies. This practice helps us to not succumb to fear and social hysteria when things get rough, as we navigate the transition to a sustainable civilization.

PT: What is the value of allowing the feelings of despair?

Joanna: It takes tremendous energy to repress something so strong, which stems from our instinct to preserve life. Repressing our feelings of pain for the world isolates us, and can also drain us. When we allow ourselves to experience these feelings, we cease to fear them. We learn to turn them into strong solidarity with all beings.

PT: By opening to despair, do we allow these feelings to move through us?

Joanna: It's opening to pain. We use meditations in the workshops to learn how to open. One comes from an ancient Buddhist practice where we use breath to circulate images of suffering, to take them in, instead of defending ourselves. We are dynamic, ever-changing, flowing, open systems, and we're only stuck with what we refuse to experience, because that means we have to hold it at arms-length, and that's exhausting. But if you let all feelings flow through you, channels within you open to beauty, love, wonder, excitement, courage and to a sense of connectedness with all of life.

PT: Let's talk about hope. What is hope, and does hope arise in this process?

Joanna: Hope is an openness to the future that arises out of our evolutionary history. Hope is an impulse in the evolution of humanity. We continually die and live and die into forms that are ever more complex, with greater capacities for sensitivity, intelligence and responsiveness. The story of biological organic life on Earth is this movement toward ever-greater responsiveness on the part of living systems. This is the thrust of living systems. Hope is not hope for any particular thing, or an attachment to an outcome you desire. It's an openness toward what you don't even have the capacity to think yet because you're still in the present. Hope is a radical openness to what can be. It is a posture that leaves us flexible and adaptable and alive.

PT: Is hope a posture that comes out of working with despair?

Joanna: I believe so. That is my experience. No one can take hope away from you. You can sit in jail and feel a mystical communion with all beings. We're part of a magnificent story that's been going on for 15 billion years, and at any moment, we can look up and let the sun shine into our hearts. It's such a tremendous privilege to be alive.

PT: How do you define faith and its relationship to the group work?

Joanna: I could never imagine a way to create myself with this body and mind, as a member of my family of humanity. I couldn't have invented that. Nobody could. Something has given life to me. Something grander than my mind can comprehend is living through me. How can I not rest into that? My surest path to feeling a faith in life is to feel my gratitude for it. This which has brought me into being is a whole lot more intelligent than I am. That which called us into being in this exquisite, vast web of life is beyond our comprehension, but we can taste it, at any moment, when we put our intention in doing so, and put our attention on that truth.

PT: Does faith grow out of action?

Joanna: Yes, especially as you step out with no guarantee about outcome or any certainty that you'll succeed. Becoming involved in a social cause is stepping into the unknown. Yet it is just then when we step into the unknown that we can feel a greater life supporting us, informing us, and deepening our faith. Taking action also deepens our faith in each other, because we have to work together, even if it's a little study group on how to incinerate toxic waste so that you can protect your kids. When you sit down with even two or three other people, you start teaching each other. Each action, each step along the way, provides opportunity to deepen connection with those people. That shared solidarity can bring you to greater gratitude for the life that runs through you.

PT: As individuals, what do we do? How do we know where to put our energy?

Joanna: Often, the answer comes from what is sticking in our consciousness like a burr, that which annoys or hurts us as we contemplate it. In a way, it really doesn't matter what the social or environmental issue is. They all rise from the same delusion in our civilization that we are separate from each other, that we are immune to what we do to other beings. I've become convinced that, in part, people remain uninvolved because there are so many issues. They don't know whether they should try to protect sea mammals or battered children or work for the climate. So just take the issue that you have the most passion for and work on that. If you work on the rain forest, you're also working to protect the sea mammals. If you think you have to deal with them all, you'll be immobilized.

Link arms with others and don't act alone. I pulled a group of people together from various walks of life to join me in a study group on dealing with nuclear waste. Our group included a nuclear engineer, kindergarten teacher, dancer and a lawyer, and we taught each other. I asked them to commit to six months, meeting every three to four weeks.

PT: Your example of a six-month commitment makes the work of being a spiritual warrior seem more manageable.

Joanna: I think setting a terminus is important. We're all rushed out of our minds in this industrial growth society. We have to be realistic and not expect more of ourselves and others than is humanly possible.

PT: What's the significance of this work with the millennium approaching?

Joanna: To prevent us from going into the future blindly and abdicating our chance to be fully alive. To prevent us from dying before we're dead. To truly see the magnificence of life by being ready to experience our pain for it and also be to willing to experience our capacity to meet the challenge.