Buddhism, Deep Ecology & Donald Trump

An Evening of Earth Wisdom with Elder Activist Joanna Macy

Joanna Macy, longtime Buddhist peace and environmental activist, scholar, and grandmother of deep ecology,* packed the house at the Boulder Shambhala Center, a local Buddhist hangout, in March, when she spoke about “The Time of the Great Unraveling.”

Based on the response to my interview request, which was denied, I was expecting to see a frail, elderly woman gingerly rolled out in a wheelchair, straining to raise her head to deliver a brief message. I had been told that the nearly 88 year-old Macy was closely monitoring her energy, and was no longer doing interviews.

Photo courtesy Justin Veach

So I was quite surprised when a tall, upright, spry woman stepped out, immediately asking if she could stand instead of sit in her designated chair. The “old lady” proceeded to speak with heart, soul and vigor for two hours, extemporaneously, never taking a break, or sitting down for a moment. If anyone was worn out, it was folks in the audience trying to keep up.

A captivating storyteller — animated, quirky and funny — Macy opened by taking us on a highlights tour of her life journey, painting vivid scenes from watershed moments.

There we were in northern India when she first encountered living Buddhist masters, inspired to her own Buddhist study and practice by their embodied wisdom. We see her going back to school at age 40 for a PhD, witnessing her excitement at discovering parallels between the Buddha dharma , the ancient Buddhist teachings, and contemporary systems theory.

If we can dismantle nukes, we can certainly do the same for all the other dark toys we’ve created. Ah, hope. And here I was thinking something had gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Resisting the temptation to make it all sound easy and inevitable, Macy spoke openly of the despair and weariness that she has often faced.

Yet despite her challenges, Macy appeared, somehow, to have avoided the legendary burnout plaguing long-term activists. In fact, decades of activism seem to have made her stronger. Despite her age, this woman’s crusade on behalf of people and planet is far from over.

Charming and fierce, Macy was a light in the dark tunnel I’ve wandered without direction since the election. But if she can show up day after month after year after decade, what’s my excuse? It may never be easy — but it can be noble and life-giving, when we are rooted in love, as she encouraged.

Photo courtesy Adam Shemper

As Macy shifted away from autobiography and toward the wisdom she’s gleaned, I was heartened by the resonance between her perspectives and my own.

Joanna promised that waiting for us on the other side of our grief, if we have the courage to face into it, is actually love. In my recent essay, Tears on the Turnpike, I shared a similar takeaway on the connection between grief and love, and in a follow-up essay, I was already planning to explore protective love as the only viable path through our predicament. Great minds think alike, right? I couldn’t resist a comparison, however fleeting.

As well, Macy called out two commonly-held, yet ostensibly opposing viewpoints that ironically both lead to disengagement. On the one hand, there is, as she put it, the rather American tendency toward naïve and rosy optimism, “Everything is fine, it’s all going to work out. Don’t worry, things are changing. Be positive!” On the other side is the darker view, that it’s too late and nothing can be done, so why bother?

Macy was describing the exact sentiments I once expressed in repeated arguments with my darker-glasses ex-boyfriend, which is that we can’t possibly know what will transpire, even when it seems 99.9 percent doomed. Alternative outcomes are always possible, and there’s never a justification for checking out. I felt vindicated. (But not to the point of sending him an email.)

We are the ones we have been waiting for. I can’t remember if Joanna said that out loud. But she didn’t have to.

Toward the end of the evening, like a teen groupie enamored of a rock star, I wanted to pack it up and follow Joanna on the road. While that’s unlikely, I can follow my inner Joanna, who points the way so clearly to my inner Carah.

Joanna shined a light on my own wisdom, stretching my deeply-held notions of what’s possible for me and others who love and hurt deeply with and for our living relations, human and otherwise.

In her embodied example, Joanna showed me, as her Tibetan teachers once showed her, how it’s done. Step by step, I can move toward the questions of our time, however deep and torturous they have become, and maintain my, somehow, my sanity and aliveness.

She shared a favorite Rilke poem, which reminded me of a Rilke quote that has become a totem of sorts, guiding me around many a dark corner, and which now speaks, I think, to our shared experience.

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves. ... Don’t answers that cannot be given you, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Maybe someday, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Another highlight was when Joanna shared the Shambhala prophecy she’d heard years earlier from her Tibetan Buddhist teacher (video telling below). Apparently, this moment, that’s right — that would be right now — has long been predicted. This is when the greedy “barbarians” have consolidated power, she said, and possess weapons of mass destruction.

Sound familiar?

And here I was thinking that something had gone terribly, terribly wrong.

As Shambhala warriors, Macy said, we place our trust in the paired “weapons” of wisdom and compassion — skillful mind and skillful heart. But we also have to physically dismantle those weapons, and since humans made them, she said, the good news is that humans can deactivate them.

I interpreted “weapons” as encompassing all the instruments of violence and destruction, large and small, material and intangible, that we ourselves have created. What I heard is that if we can render nukes harmless, we can certainly dismantle all the other dark toys we’ve created. Ah, hope.

Photo courtesy Justin Veach

I was reminded of the Hopi prophecy that I once heard from a tribal elder. The whole prophecy took about four hours to tell, and it, too, points to a pivotal moment in human history where life hangs in the balance.

Macy was not told the outcome of our epic battle. She didn’t ask, she said, and she didn’t want to know.

Stay tuned.

Whether our particular situation was inevitable or not is ultimately unanswerable. But even fielding the possibility that instead of some huge cosmic mistake, we are actually if not right on track, or at least still within the sphere of meaning, lightened my load — my judgment, anger, resistance and profound sorrow in the face of what is unfolding.

Thank you, Joanna, for helping me breathe a sigh of relief. Whatever their validity, these ancient stories helped me to relax, to soften around the ever-present undercurrent of distress I’ve been feeling about humanity in general, and Americans in particular.

We are the ones we have been waiting for. I can’t remember if Joanna said that out loud. But she didn’t have to.

It echoed in her every word.

And in her every breath.


*Deep ecology is a philosophy that asserts the inherent worth of all living beings, without reference to their value to humans, economic or otherwise.

This event was co-sponsored by the Joanna Macy Center at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.

Active Hope Show 1 — Shambhala Warrior Prophecy (Courtesy Chris Johnstone, 2012)
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