Interview with Joanna Macy

First published in Inquiring Mind

For fifty-plus years, Joanna Macy has been helping us to face the Earth’s urgent and deepening crisis, to look without turning away, and to engage. Her brave journeys have been both physical and spiritual, taking her from Chernobyl to Tibet, into ancient Buddhist teachings and contemporary cosmology. Through her writing and teaching, she has inspired, mentored and befriended activists all over the world. Macy has the wisdom and experience of a true elder; at the same time, her uprightness, her flashing eye, and her exuberance for life are not the province of any age.

This article is adapted from several interviews with Macy, conducted in the fall of 2011 with Inquiring Mind editors Barbara Gates, Susan Moon and Wes Nisker.

JOANNA MACY: I took a retreat for three months in my home at the beginning of this year, from winter solstice to spring equinox. My main purpose was to expand my experience of the time frame of my life and to grow a keener sense of connection with the past and future ones—the ancestors and the generations coming after us.

My desire for a wider temporal context has grown out of my involvement since the 1970s with movements to stop production of nuclear power and nuclear weapons. I was staggered by the sheer amount of radioactive contamination generated at every stage of the fuel cycle, and by how long into the future it would cause mutations, cancers and death. Enduring up to millions of years and affecting scores of thousands of generations, the “poison fire,” as we came to call it, extends the consequences of our actions—our karma—into geological time.

This realization, grim as it is, actually brought two gifts. One was a learning-and-action project called Nuclear Guardianship, working for the closure of all reactors and for ongoing care of the radioactive remains. The other gift is Deep Time, a vast timescape embracing all that went before and all that comes after. The vista thus offered is wonderful and necessary because past and, especially, future generations are blocked from view by our current political economy.

INQUIRING MIND: Are you saying that our present economy narrows our experience of time?

JM: Yes. Time becomes an increasingly scarce commodity. Our lives are driven, pressured and fragmented by hurry. We often blame ourselves for having poor time-management skills, but the source of the problem is in the nature of the industrial-growth society. To be more precise, it is in its technology and its market forces. Searching for efficiency, we develop technologies to increase the speed of every operation and machine, and start measuring time in ever more minuscule fragments—nanoseconds and fractions of nanoseconds. Speed-induced pressures affect the body, of course, producing many forms of “hurry sickness,” and the feeling that things are out of control.

In addition to technology, market forces are at work in accelerating time. With the primacy given to corporate returns, goals are determined and progress is measured in terms of how fast profits and market shares increase. Corporations seek to show not only a greater profit every quarter but also a rising rate of growth. This makes for exceedingly short-term thinking. There is little or no room for reflection or weighing consequences.

In my teaching, I find this theme of great interest to young people. Although they enjoy the instant communication through the acceleration of electronic gadgets, they suffer over not having time to finish anything, or to think through one thing before something else comes along.

IM: So, with this acceleration, we often don’t consider the effects of our actions on the future.

JM: We use up everything we can—forests, fisheries, oil, coal—without any thought of what’s left for future generations. What we don’t consume, we contaminate or destroy—rivers, oceans, topsoil—not to mention cultures. It’s strange indeed that we are willing to do this, given the fact that in past eras people labored for generations on cathedrals and sacred cities and irrigation schemes that they didn’t expect to see completed in their lifetime.

Yet I have come to believe that this behavior, as distressing as it is, is not because we are evil but because we are caught up in a mind-destroying acceleration of time. And I also believe that we can begin to free ourselves from this, and reclaim our birthright to live in sync with the natural world and in wholesome relation to the past and the future.

To help this happen, over the past thirty years, my colleagues and I have been developing experiential practices and offering them in workshops and retreats. We start by slowing the mind to the tempo of body and breath. Then we engage the imagination to help ourselves absorb what science and news reports tell us about the world. We write and speak from the perspective of past and future beings. We improvise role-plays, especially about the future; for example, we may enact how people centuries from now might encounter and relate to the remains of a nuclear power station. This use of the moral imagination can bring a strongly felt connection with the ancestors and future beings, almost a sense of their surrounding us like a cloud of witnesses.

We’ve grown up to think that time is linear and unidirectional, a one-way street. The past is over, gone, done, irretrievable. And the future remains an abstraction; we never get there. So we are trapped in the speeded-up present of the industrial-growth society, where consideration of past and future become increasingly irrelevant. But there are some—mainly poets and mystics—with a more expansive experience of time in which the present contains the past and the future.

So on my personal retreat I wanted to open up to Deep Time without distraction. And I wanted to explore what further help I could get from Dharma thought and practice. I combined meditation—vipassana and a Tibetan sadhana—with reading and reflection, and I made my retreat at home so as not to absent myself from my children and grandchildren as I so often do when I am working and traveling.

IM: So what were some of the discoveries of the retreat?

JM: Well, in terms of the Dharma, I discovered possibilities inherent in the Buddha’s central teaching of dependent co-arising, paticca samuppada. This doctrine of causality holds that all phenomena are interdependent and mutually conditioning. Like others through the ages, I looked at what this radical interdependence means for the flow of time and the interrelationship of past, future and present.

In the Flower Ornament Sutra, we get the stunning image of the Jewel Net of Indra, which celebrates the interconnectedness of all phenomena through space and time. The multifaceted jewel at each node of the net reflects all of the other jewels and catches their reflections as well. So each part contains the whole, which is close to the holographic view of the universe as found in Karl Pribram and others. But in the Jewel Net, this view is not just presented theoretically as it is by the Western scientists but as a reality you can inhabit and practice.

One way this is described is in the “Ten Enterings” of the Bodhisattva. These include the capacity to enter into one moment and come out in all three times—past, present and future. You can also enter all three times and come out in just one moment, or enter into one organ and come out in all bodies everywhere. I see us learning to do this under the pressure of the environmental crisis. People suffering the effects of industrial toxins on their own bodies don’t stop there but extrapolate from that to the sufferings of others and take action on behalf of humanity. Many of these toxins, like dioxin and plutonium, last virtually forever, so in working to restrict and contain them we quite literally “enter” the lives of future beings.

I also harvested rewards from Zen Master Eihei Dogen of 13th-century Japan. In his essay, “Being Time,” he turns our relationship to time inside out and asks us to experience time not as external to us but as what we essentially are. This allows us, he affirms, to coexist with past, present and future, especially in the sitting practice of zazen, where through concentration and intention we can see all of time as here at once. When we sit in zazen, which Dogen calls the Buddha Mudra, we are one with all of existence and we are right there with the Buddha himself.

In the light of these teachings, I sat with an awareness of being alive as an aging white North American woman at this particular point in our planetary history. As a lever in time, I asked for ways to see this moment, perceiving within it the meaning of my life and its connection to the future ones.

IM: How does the experience of this larger frame of time support you now in the present?

JM: When fear and despair arise over the state of our world, the Deep Time perspective helps me look farther down the road and keep on going. There are so many who have gone before and who are coming after, it buoys me to feel linked with them in this ongoing drama. Feeling that, I can see the work my colleagues and I are doing as giving people an appetite for living with our planet in this fateful time, and doing what we can so that the beings of the future can play their part as well. That is my most basic motivation.

Because I think about the future beings so much, there are times when I imagine I hear them. They are right behind my left shoulder and they are telling me not to give up. They tell me it doesn’t matter that I am not a nuclear physicist or climatologist with expertise and renown. They remind me that what matters is that I am alive now, and they are not, and I can speak for them.

I have also found it tremendously rewarding to practice with Jizo, the celestial Bodhisattva who is depicted as a small, shaven-headed Buddhist monk. Called in some countries Ksitigarbha, Jizo is revered in East Asian Buddhism. I have always been moved by Jizo’s readiness to go down into the deepest hell to be with those who are suffering. This isn’t necessarily to rescue them but simply to not abandon or forget them.

Scriptures tell how the Buddha wondered, “How will the future ones in difficult conditions be able to hear the Dharma?” So Jizo made a promise: “I will see to it that they hear the Dharma and I will not become a Buddha before I fulfill that vow.” On my retreat, Jizo became for me an icon or an embodiment of the future beings. I felt that so strongly that just to gaze on the little statue of him on my altar and hold it to my heart catalyzed a hot physical yearning in my chest.

I recognize how much support I found in these Mahayana teachings—the Flower Ornament Sutra, Dogen and Jizo—and I’m glad for my good vipassana discipline that I have been able to sit and practice with them.

In addition, I was greatly helped by Native Americans, especially the Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois, who in their councils make no major decision without considering its effect on the Seventh Generation. A reading on this from a Mohawk elder, Tom Porter, was another scripture that I read on my retreat.

Just as I was getting ready to come out of retreat, Fukushima blew. It was clear to me that this catastrophe is worse than Chernobyl, and that the radioactive contamination being spewed into air, sea and soil would affect countless generations in Japan and around the world. The living connection with the future ones that I had been training myself to feel and to honor intensified the discouragement that came upon me, and at the same time, fortified my determination to not turn away.

IM: Your husband, Fran Macy, partner for over fifty-six years, died two years ago. Is there some role he played in this retreat?

JM: In the first days of slowing down and stillness, right here in the home we had made, Fran’s death swept over me afresh, with feelings of unspeakable loss. But soon all our years of working together flooded in, bringing respect and gratitude for him that began to steady me. At Fran’s memorial service, in my words of eulogy, I included a letter he had written at one of our workshops. It was a letter to himself from a great, great, great, great-grandchild. On my retreat I found three more such letters; it was strange and wonderful, as I read and reread them, to open to both Fran’s past and his ongoing-ness in the future at the same time.

I think of our human story as a chain. We right now are the most fragile link in that chain—the most afraid, the most ready to break and let everything come apart. So naturally all those in the surrounding cloud of witnesses want to be of help, but they can only be of help through us, using our hands and seeing through our eyes.

IM: As we end, can you articulate some new insight or understanding that came for you out of this retreat?

JM: What is new perhaps is a greater recognition of intention. In the Flower Ornament Sutra, the bodhisattva chooses to enter one moment and come out in all times. She can do that because this holographic universe is built on reciprocities. It’s not as if we suddenly get zapped and look and see Indra’s Net. It’s that we choose to see it. Indra’s Net reveals itself to us when we dare to see and live it. Similarly, Jizo chooses to make his vow, and his vow in turn shapes him, opens him to the future ones. If there was an “aha” on this retreat it was that we are all capable of choosing to make a great vow.

IM: A beautiful affirmation arising from profound practice of the Dharma!

JM: The Dharma teaches me that reality is too big for one person’s mind to understand. The Buddha emphasized that the only thing you can know is your own experience. Go see for yourself. Don’t claim to have a grand theory of anything. So that keeps me from thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to develop a new theory of time.” What I can do is to have the courage and stomach to look at what is threatening life, and to honor the ferocity of my desire that life continue.

I don’t like to think the current crisis in our world would have been given to us if we weren’t able to imagine going beyond it. Most of the time, I think we’re cooked. But when I open to a wider frame of time, then what little-Joanna thinks from her narrow perspective becomes relatively unimportant. I can view my little-Joanna story as part of a much larger drama with ups and downs. Right now, I may just be looking at a down part.

NOTE FROM JOANNA MACY I’d like to make a bow here to my friend Wes Nisker, who often joins me in teaching, and continually opens us up to vast, evolutionary sweeps of time. And I’d like to offer thanks to Chozen Bays and Taigen Leighton for what they helped me learn about Jizo.


Prayer to Future Beings

You live inside us, beings of the future.

In the spiral ribbons of our cells, you are here.

In our rage for the burning forests, the poisoned fields,

the oil-drowned seals,

you are here.

You beat in our hearts through late-night meetings.

You accompany us to clear-cuts and toxic dumps

and the halls of the lawmakers.

It is you who drive our dogged labors to save what is left.

O you, who will walk this Earth when we are gone,

stir us awake.

Behold through our eyes the beauty of this world.

Let us feel your breath in our lungs, your cry in our throat.

Let us see you in the poor, the homeless, the sick.

Haunt us with your hunger, hound us with your claims,

that we may honor the life that links us.

You have as yet no faces we can see, no names we can say.

But we need only hold you in our mind, and you teach us


You attune us to measures of time where healing can happen,

where soil and souls can mend.

You reveal courage within us we had not suspected,

love we had not owned.

O you who come after, help us remember: we are your


—  Joanna Macy

Published with permission from the author. © 2012 Inquiring Mind