Joanna Macy: Active Hope Reconnects Us to Life


Joanna Macy’s talk in Grass Valley, California, August 24, 2012

Michael Stone: For young people, the future isn’t what it used to be. Joanna has been an activist for five decades. She’s an eco-philosopher, and she has touched people all over the world. Joanna is one of the great wisdom elders.

Joanna Macy:
At the heart of our hearts is a generosity. The love we have for our children, our kin, as things fall apart in this time. It’s a time to test men and women’s souls, and it’s hard for the young. It feels good to know there is no suffering we want to close our eyes to. We aren’t going to let anybody fall aside. We’ll be with each other when our hearts are breaking — and they are breaking open. We are capable of the boundless heart of the boddhisattva.

This book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy takes out to the broader public the work I’ve been doing in the last 30 years, the work that reconnects. This book is not for Buddhists, but there are two terms we use because there is no English equivalent. Boddhisattva — the hero of the Buddhist tradition; the one with the boundless heart; the one who “gets it” how woven we are in the web of life, through space and time. And therefore there is no private salvation. No place we can go for our private security. We either all wake up or …

The second word from the Buddhist language is Boddhichitta: the motivation of the Boddhisattva. The yearning in your heart that life go on. That yearning for the well-being of all you experience not because you’re noble or pious or virtuous, but just because you love life and you don’t want it to be trashed. And you don’t want our beautiful planet to be trashed, either. You don’t want all the love and beauty the ancestors have done to be flickered out.

Before writing this book I thought I knew that. I recommend writing a book so what you think you know can percolate into your body, your cells, become more real and genuine. I’m glad for that.

What is Active Hope?

The book title is Active Hope. I never thought I’d write a book or article with the term “hope” in it! I used to say, “don’t talk to me about hope. Hope is a killer.” I had good reasons for thinking that. I saw that hope could put people to sleep, as if the lone ranger would come take over.

In the Buddhist tradition, there’s hardly a word for hope. Hope takes you out of the present moment. I found, though, in writing this book, that I couldn’t get away from it.

I have to admit, since I’m something of a Luddite, suspicious of modern technology, this book was largely a product of Skype. From Somerset, UK to Berkeley, CA. One day I got to talking and my co-author Chris Johnstone and he recorded it:

Active hope is not wishful thinking.

Active hope is not waiting to be rescued

by the Lone Ranger or by some savior.

Active Hope is waking up to the beauty of life

 on whose behalf we can act.

We belong to this world.

The web of life is calling us forth at this time.

We’ve come a long way and are here to play our part.

With Active Hope we realize that there are adventures in store,

strengths to discover, and comrades to link arms with.

Active Hope is a readiness to engage.

Active Hope is a readiness to discover strengths

 in ourselves and in others;

a readiness to discover the reasons for hope

and the occasions for love.

A readiness to discover the size and strength of our hearts,

our quickness of mind, our steadiness of purpose,

our own authority, our love for life,

the liveliness of our curiosity,

the unsuspected deep well of patience and diligence,

the keenness of our senses, and our capacity to lead.

None of these can be discovered in an armchair or without risk.

Yes, but in a world like this? Yes, but in this mess? Can we face the mess we’re in without going crazy or numbing out or shutting down? Without blaming each other and going to war? Can we face the extent to which we are in bondage to the largest military power in history? …the fact that we are making war in this country right now? It doesn’t feel like it now, not like when I grew up in World War II, with our victory gardens and saving scrap metal. Does this feel like a country at war?

Can we face the mass extinctions of our brother-sister species? Can we face the dying of our oceans, the deadening of our rivers, poisoning of our topsoil blowing off in the wind, the toxins and sickening they cause? Is there a way to face that? Can we face the truth of what’s happening in our world and let it be an occasion of love?

In our bondage to a political economy that is destroying our world, can we face that and have it be a gift of love? Day after day I find that to be true. It involves a choice, doesn’t it? So one part of that gift of facing our world is the choice that’s made, the choice to speak truth.

I was thinking while we chanted how we have a Bradley Manning making us a gift of true. Julian Assange believed he was giving us a truth, but we as a culture can’t accept that gift. No, we believe that truth must be assaulted, punished, tortured…. All the viciousness we put onto whistleblowers shows we’re not willing to accept the gift of truth — so how will we find the gift of love?

Active Hope had me feel ready to engage. It’s not something you have, it’s something you do. You find yourself wanting to engage in.

Three Stories to make sense of our world

Right off the bat, what’s been helpful to me is seeing that our sanity and our aliveness stem from how we choose to understand what’s happening to our world. That could be put in terms of “what story, what narrative, do we want to get behind?” There are three main stories which make sense to what’s going on.

The first is what the military, media, corporate, and government believe: Business As Usual. Industrial growth society will see us through. All we need to do is get back to economic growth. That is actually believed. Even though we see what it’s doing to our planet, to all species, to us. It has a great following. Any preaching, ranting and speaking in this election comes from this frame: both political parties are in bondage to this story. It’s a story in which the world itself, our earth, is viewed as good for extracting commodities, raw materials to make into goods and weapons. You dump the wastes. The earth in such a view is a supply house and sewer. Sure seems [the story] most people in this country, and much of the industrialized north,  seem to believe in.

A second story is seen and believed by those who peel back the carpet of Business as Usual, who see that it is costing us the world. The Great Unraveling. I like that term because that’s what systems do — they unravel. They lose their distinctiveness and change towards entropy, as the monoculture of industrial growth society spreads and we subject our planet to the demands of ceaseless and accelerating growth.

That’s happening! It’s filling the news, at least the news that is trying to give us the gift of the truth.

The third story is the epochal transition from industrial society to a life-sustaining society. A historical epochal adventure. You have to train your eyes on it. When there’s a revolution, there’s a veneer of “business as usual.” [she named whoever was attributed to saying:] “Nothing appears more solid and authoritative than a great civilization on the eve of its collapse.”

More and more of us call this The Great Turning. It is happening. It is so big, so historic in its magnitude and scope that it is seen as vast and significant as the first human journey when we settled down from hunter/gathering and settled down into agriculture. It took a long long time.

There was no shift of such a magnitude until the beginning of the industrial revolution in the 1700s…. natural resources, engines, machines, of the industrial capitalist state. On the heels of that, when we see where that is leading us, when we harness that to the belief of unlimited growth, that we find ourselves in the third revolution.

The first person I know who called our attention to it, 35 years ago under Nixon, was William Ruckelshaus. He said this was the third revolution, and what must be different this time is that it must be conscious.

Wow, we are alive for that! You in this room are not only alive for it, but interested. You’re not shut down. Your lives are evidence of that. That’s what gives me hope: we can choose what story we want to get behind.

Once we do, how are we sustained? How do we keep ourselves from falling part, as we see billions in hunger, the dust blowing, the corruption… That’s why I feel grateful to be immersed in the Work that Connects. Between those two stories, the Great Unraveling and The Great Turning, we do not know how it is going to play out. Sometimes I feel I ought to know. I ought to have some fail-safe assurance to give people. But honeys, there isn’t! Sometimes I wish I could give a medicine to assure everyone that everything’s going to be okay. But if there were, would that draw from you and me the greatest intelligence and courage and creativity? It’s that not-knowing, that razor’s edge. How many stories and scriptures use that metaphor, of being right there on that breath-stopping, heart-pounding edge? It brings you right into a very humble and alert presence in the moment.

And then I realize that there’s one thing I can count on. I can’t count on which is going to win out— The Great Unraveling or The Great Turning.

I can count on my own caring. That’s where the boddhichita comes in — the earnest desire of the boddhisattva for life to go on. I can depend that caring, though I cannot depend on any outcome.

I used to think that what mattered for me in my activism is my effectiveness, and that my motivation didn’t matter as much. How do you know you’re effective? If you look at the interrelated nature of life, our lives are caught in a web of intricate weavings that you don’t know what the effects are. Some of the people that have affected you, do they know? How do you know how you’ve affected others? I used to take my pulse — how effective was I?

But your caring, your motivation! That’s why the scriptures see that boddhichitta is like a flame in the heart. You treasure it as the most important thing. You kind of protect it. You might blow on it when it gets to guttering. This is your most priceless ground on which to stand. It’s like in the New Testament what Jesus said about salt:

“Salt is good but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?”

Your caring is a treasure. If you woke up one morning and found you didn’t give a shit….your caring is what you can count on in a dark and shaky time.

Aspects of The Great Turning

There is a journey we take in the Work that Reconnects that helps us stay on our feet, helps us not shut down in grief over what’s happening, helps us feel the exhilaration of the moment, that we have an incredible part to play in The Great Turning. There are so many ways:

Actions to slow down the destruction — all the legislative and political action to save what’s being trashed. Civil disobedience, boycotts, petitions…

Building new structures, new ways of doing things. Probably there is no time in history where there have been so many new ways arising, and pre-industrial ways bubbling up. Housing together, growing food, distributing it without middlepersons, new ways to resolve conflict, to measure wealth, new currencies, renewable energy, etc., etc. When people look back at the time of the Great Turning, they will feel awe at the inspiration and the inventiveness.

The third part of the Great Turning is a shift in consciousness. It is so thrilling to be alive at a time when that is happening. There is a revolution going on both scientific and spiritual. From spiritual voices we haven’t heard, going way back — indigenous people, alchemists, witches — as well as contemporary scientists. What they’re coming to, a converging view, is that the Earth is Alive. It is a living system. It is not a sewer and supply house.

It breaks our hearts to see it being mistreated. Deep in our hearts we know this is our mother/father Earth.

(I can’t keep on over-feminizing her [with how women are treated]: “She’ll be there forever — take what you want, rape, pillage, she’s always forgiving.” The hell she will.)

This gives me so much gratitude. That’s the first movement in the work that Reconnects. Then honoring our pain for the world. Then seeing with new eyes. Then going forth into the Great Turning.

So it begins with gratitude. It makes you know you have a right to be here. How wonderful to be here at a time when it is recognized spiritually and scientifically that Earth is Living, we are alive parts of a Living Earth. Everything we know and have derives from this larger whole of which we are a part. Therefore it is sacred to us. There was no breath of this when I went to school.

In this time, in countless ways, in art and music and our heartbreak, we see this Earth is alive and is sacred. After centuries of projecting the sacred out onto a big daddy god, or some abstract ideal, as reality got bled of mystery and enchantment and became a supply house and sewer, we are retrieving that projection and bringing back the sacred, re-sacralizing our lives.

It’s a great thing to be alive now, if you can stand the grief. That’s what we learn in the second part of the spiral of the Work that Connects. Our pain for the world. Our dread of what’s happening. Our sorrow and grief for what we’re doing to the body of earth. Anger and outrage for what’s happening. Impotence and futility and overwhelm. I haven’t met anyone in my life who is not in their hearts in grief for the world.

The trick mainstream society does is to have us think this is a personal thing, and to pathologize it as a weakness on our part. That’s true to an extent. But there’s a strong tide now to recognize that our sorrow for the world cannot be reduced to the separate individual ego. Your grief for the world is of a different order than what’s happening to your fridge or your bank account or even your own body. It is something vaster. We’re beginning to see that our pain for our world does not derive from a personal craziness. It comes from our caring. That caring comes from our absolutely undeniable inter-existence in the web of life.

So we practice that in the Work that Reconnects as we look at what is, without diagnosing, without running away, without paving over what’s happening to our brothers and sisters, the gifts of the ancestors, what we’re leaving for the future generations. Honor it, because it is proof positive that we are interconnected in the web of life.

It’s the good news that we can suffer with our world. Suffering-with is the literal meaning of compassion. That pain you feel, when you think you can’t stand hearing any more about the flooding of the Pacific Islands, the radioactivity assaulting the children in Japan and the mothers who can’t move away, the animals in the factory farms — that pain means you are a compassionate one. You do not need to pretend. That’s the definition of a boddhisattva, you know.

That gives us tremendous power of truth. It gives us capacity to speak the truth. And then, when you are able to see that — as Jung said, there’s no birth of consciousness without pain — this pain you are feeling on behalf of your world, it says something extraordinary about who you are and the vastness of life within you. There’s an immensity of life in each of us. The Whole Story is in each one of us. This is more thrillingly put forth by the new cosmologists and new scientists.

Let’s do something experiential right now. [Holding hands with another person and feeling what these hands can do, have done, may do in the future, on behalf of Life.] Our hands came from fins coming out of the oceans, and were shaped to grasp. You can take inspiration and sassiness from that. You are 14 billion years old. Use it when you talk back to the dam-builders: use the authority from back there.

That third part of the spiral of the Work that Connects is Seeing with New Eyes. We see our place in the holographic immensity of time. We see the vastness of our self-interest. We stop identifying solely with the self inside this bag of skin, or with the family. We see we have to defend not just our lungs, but the lungs in the Brazilian forests, the forests of the Pacific Northwest.

We’re at the moment when scales are falling from our eyes, and there is a shift in our identity. So many artists and poets bring this forward. One of the things I love about the discoveries is what our power is. Coming out of centuries of hyper-individualism, we think we can only act out of our own supply of diligence, smarts, our inner strengths. It’s not enough. I don’t have courage enough, I don’t care enough, for what’s called for right now.

It doesn’t matter — I can use some of yours. We can draw from each other. Life can live through us, think through us.

Here’s a story about the education of King Arthur when he was a boy, from T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone. The boy Arthur’s teacher was the wizard Merlin. Merlin had unorthodox ways of teaching. Without giving him any warning, suddenly he’d transform Arthur into a creature of another species. Suddenly Arthur was a carp swimming in the palace moat — he stayed there long enough to learn the ways of the water people. Or another time he became a falcon, becoming the great hunter with sharp eyes: learned quickness and fearlessness. Another time he became an ant learning to be a good soldier, dutiful; a badger in the hedgerows learning diligence. A good goose going on long migrations. This book was an inspiration in my creating the Council of All Beings with John Seed.

Later when Arthur was a teenager, the word went out that the old king had died, and a tournament would be held in London town to determine the new King of all England. He had to be able to pull the sword from the stone: there in the churchyard was a sword buried to the hilt in the stone.

All the knights tried and gave up. The boy Arthur, not yet a knight, thought he’d give it a try. He put his hand on the hilt of the sword, pulled at it: no way. He raised his eyes, saw in the bushes all of his teachers: badger, goose, carp, falcon, ants — all that taught him their strengths. He had the impression they were smiling at him. He turned back to the sword, and it came out as easy as a knife from butter. He wasn’t using his own strength. He was using it on behalf of, and with the help of, all his kin across all species.

That’s how we’re going to manage the Great Turning. There is no heroic person smart enough or big enough to do it alone. But we can do it together with all of our kin, the trees, the forests. We will cultivate this power increasingly in the Great Turning.

I will close with a couple of poems. I mentioned how important the arts are in a transition like this. We are healed by the chanting tonight; by the flowers in this place tonight. We need that.

I am endlessly grateful for the opportunity to translate the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke with co-translator Anita Barrows(Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy) These mean the world to me. They were written when Rilke was 20 years old at the beginning of the 20th century.

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

You carry the past and also the future with you. The future ones are counting on you.

I’ve been circling for thousands of years… probably I’m all three and more than that!

He’s been talking to God in this collection. And then God begins to be blended with the Earth:

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—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.

He dared to see and name what haunts us too! That things could end. And then he says:

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.

He doesn’t ask for time so he can write grants or make money! There are things no one loves in the world as YOU do. Now’s the time to let that bloom and grow.

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night. 

These are words we dimly hear: 

You, sent out beyond your recall,
Go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me. 

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going.  No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me. 

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness. 

Give me your hand.

This of all his poems has had the most requests [to be set to] choral music. Of course, it’s the boddhichitta.

Go to the limits of your longing…it’s what we’re here for.

Praise be! Go to the limits of your longing!


  1. Lynn Thomas says:


    there are tears in my eyes
    and I’m ready for more action.

    And I’m signing up for Active Hope webinar

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