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21 Apr 2008

Exclusive to Transition Culture: An Interview with Joanna Macy


On the final day of the Positive Energy conference, I took some time out with Joanna to do a short interview for Transition Culture. She has kindly gone through this transcript and corrected any mistakes I have made, so I hope it represents an accurate record. The night before the interview she had had a sleepless night, something she refers to in the interview. In most things I read by Joanna there are sentences that jump out at me and which I then go on to quote at length. Here, I love her reference to the need to become “freed from continually computing our chances of success”…

What has been special for you about this conference for you?

You. And the people who are here. The beauty of the Universal Hall. The coloured lights in the ceiling. The earnestness and the intention of the people stirs me greatly. The willingness, the sense of unpanicked urgency. The deep goodwill. The dancing. The humour. I’m a little uncomfortable with talk about love. “Love?” L.O.V.E. To me its just such an inadequate term, I was lying awake thinking it has become meaningless, but delight… ah! Wonder. Yes.

When we look at peak oil and climate change together what happens is that more and more ordinary people find themselves thrust into positions of leadership. Do we need more leaders, and what are the qualities of good leadership?

I am so moved by the young people here. Like Amanda who introduced Megan (Quinn), and Megan herself, and Kyla, Troy, Rowan…. That you are there doing it for the love of it without seeing the results of your own actions. That you are freed from continually computing your chances of success.

So there is a quality of transparency, of seeing a picture much bigger than the success of this scheme or that scheme. That means you are open to catching the winds that are blowing in this time and ready to improvize at the breaking edge of the moment, inviting novelty of perception and connection, that living pulse. It is rare to see that in a conference.

Are good leaders born or made?

The power to lead is not something you have or are born with, it is something that arises as a function of the relationship. You can’t lead without somebody inviting you to lead. You can’t lead without somebody dancing along with you, behind you. It’s not something in that skin-encapsulated ego, but it is a function of relationships. Then it becomes synergistic.

The leader isn’t someone who knows what’s going to happen, who has the answer, but someone who trusts that the answer will arise, who out of conviction and passion for life takes a step. A leader of that quality would be someone who dares to be a fool, to venture with others, “come, let’s see”. That’s the quality. You remember when the young American Emily Ryan (a conference participant) role-played her possibilities and stepped from behind her computer to be the prow of a ship? It is an invitation. That was beautiful, wasn’t it?

The Bowl of Tears exercise you did was amazingly powerful. Why is it important that we honour and explore our grief for the world before we are able to respond?

jrI don’t know that I would make it sequential, but our grief, if we are not afraid of it, brings us into full presence to our world. That’s why I want to help people to move beyond being afraid of the despair, grief, outrage, or fear. I want us to move beyond viewing it reductionistically, as a function of some personal pathology. I want us to see the true nature, what I call the Tantric side, of these: that love is behind the grief, that passion for justice is behind the anger.

So when that happens, energy is liberated. It unblocks the feedback loop, so that we can receive the information and respond to it, it unblocks the flow through, then we can be fully there. If we’re not afraid of suffering of our world, then I fear nothing can stop us. It doesn’t mean we’ll succeed, but we can spend ourselves freely and joyously.

One of the tendencies for people involved in this work is overdoing it and burning out. What strategies have you developed to minimise the risk of this in your own work?

Systems thinking. Also seeing that the Great Turning comprises dimensions that are very different in character. We are interwoven in a much vaster response, so that our part of it is just one strand in a moving, flowing tapestry of response. That living systems are built on redundancy, which means that while it is essential that you do what you do, it is also true that there are many others doing similar things. There is not just one Messiah, there are many.

That’s been a tremendous source of resilience for me. Of course we are conditioned by top-down thinking of the Industrial Growth Society, so it’s easy to be lured into the self importance that is the breeding ground for burnout, when we think that what we’re doing is so essential that we waste ourselves. Now I’m prey to that, because we’ve all been conditioned, we’re all scared.

But actually it is becoming easier and easier and you must feel this in the Transition movement, where so many people are joining in who had never even heard of Transition Towns. You are one lovely river. You’re naming it and describing it, but it’s not dependent on you.

When you ran your workshop, you stand doing that work from a place of great power. When you speak you speak with great power, and it seems to me like a time when we need a lot more people able to do that. Was that something you have always been able to do, or did you develop it, and how can we bring more people forward able to do that?

For me, it is a function of how I see people. I can look at them and be afraid of them, and I remember at the beginning I thought ‘they’ll judge me, or they won’t agree with me, and I’ll fail, I’ll make a fool of myself. Because that was such an unpleasant feeling, I chose to see people as bodhisattvas. Here Dharma teachings are so helpful to me.

The early Mahayana recognised that if the Buddha was a bodhisattva in all his earlier lives, and if his teaching about dependent co-arising is true, then everybody is able to be a bodhisattva. We are all jewels in the net of Indra. I can remember the time when I was starting to fall into fear as I walked in to speak to a large audience, and I just thought: “I’m in the company of great noble bodhisattvas. There nothing to fear.” So I am free of trying to persuade them, and can enjoy sharing my experience them.

The Dalai Lama always talks about seeing everyone he meets as a new friend. One of the things I was thinking during your workshop, when there were different characters, is that given that we need to draw in the mainstream, the alternative movement often wants to change the world but wants to keep a distance as it rather disapproves of it. There are some qualities within the alternative movement that are in part to blame for the fact that we haven’t got further than we have got…

There could be a bit of fear, or stereotyping of the people that are in the mainstream. Do you think that is true?


…that the mainstream is resistant, that the mainstream doesn’t care, that the mainstream is indifferent to the fate of the world, that the mainstream is ignorant, that the mainstream will never understand.

In terms of moving more towards the mainstream, given that the Great Turning is the Great Turning for everybody, what things to we need to let go of and what do we need to take with us?

Absolutely let go of typecasting and stereotyping. Recognise your own projection. My way of letting go at that point, when I chose to see people as bodhisattvas was letting was the projection of my self-doubt. Instead I chose to see them as friends in disguise, as allies right from the start. We need people in the corporations and government so they can work from within because we have to dismantle the whole system.

The Shambhala prophecies are very helpful to me in this respect. In the prophecy that Dugu Choegyal Rinpoche taught me, the Shambhala warriors have no uniform, no insignia, they have no home turf, no barricades; they must even go into the corridors of power. We should let go of the notion that people are indifferent or ignorant of the dangers. Now they may actually be, but if I come from that place, I trip all over myself in effortfulness and condescension.

What do you say to people when they say it is too late, we are finished?

I don’t take it seriously. Hopefulness and hopelessness are just feelings, you have them both at the same time. There are perfectly reasonable grounds for feeling that we don’t have a chance of a snowball in hell. But those are just feelings, they come and go, so not to put that much weight on them. Of course you feel that. Of course hope will spring. The main thing then is your intention. What is your intention? The life living through you wants to go on. I don’t think anyone really wants to give up. That might just be an excuse for sloth! (laughs)

What would the Buddha be doing if he were here now at the time of the Great Turning?

The Buddha himself didn’t hang out in the deep forest in the way that the forest teachers of his time did. He taught near the cities, and always in conversation with the people in power–the merchants, the kings, the courtiers and the ministers. He told his followers, “Go forth for the welfare of the many.”

You know I can see the Buddha right here, in this Findhorn conference. He is in you, with your incredible way of opening your students and your colleagues to join in transforming our culture–there’s the Buddha! I see him in Richard Olivier, taking Shakespeare’s plays and bringing them right up to the moment to help unleash our green leadership.

And the Buddha is in Richard Heinberg, as he speaks so exquisitely the First Noble Truth, which is dukkha. There is suffering. There is peak oil, peak everything. He trusts that we don’t have to run and hide our heads, but can move with great dignity and purpose.

Do you have any last advice for people who are reading this as we stand on the cusp of the Great Turning?

To sense the enormous privilege that is ours to be alive at this time, where our lives can matter. Where we make choices. Where in the very danger and darkness of our time we grow such solidarity. Where the play of our imagination and vision can matter supremely. It is a wonderful time.

Scary, and shot through with dark and light. Such an amazing time to come alive. Feel the privilege of that. Feel the companionship of the ancestors and future beings who are there to support us because this moment is a crucial link in a very long story.

Thank you.

Thank you! What wonderful questions! (laughs)

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


Lucy Skywalker
21 Apr 7:28am

Thank you, thank you my friends. So next time I feel the terrible fear, “who am I, to stand like this, to speak like this”, born of being disbelieved so many times, I shall try to remember the Bodhisattvas around me, of which I’m one – the little plants that are only just starting to poke their bright green noses out of the primeval mud – and the little warm furry animals, the warm ideas running around, too tiny and too many to destroy – while the multinational dinosaurs still roam wild.

Stephen Watson
21 Apr 8:19am

Thank you for that Rob. That connection of opening up to my grief and anger was touched on lightly in Sophy’s Heart & Soul workshop and I can feel how important it is to explore that so that I can better serve the process. There’s a part of me for the moment that’s still clinging to security more than is helpful. It’s all such a journey …

Scott Morrison
25 Jun 1:38pm

When Joanna says “that love is behind grief, that passion for justice is behind the anger”, it made me stop and think how the 2nd part of this might describe “a terrorist” or an enemy. And that those involved in conflict negotiations, be it meeting with government heads in the Middle East or on a more personal level, could do well to remember this phrase.
And when we speak at a council meeting, that if we go in seeing the officials in the room as indifferent or ignorant, that “I trip all over myself in effortfulness and condescension. “