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Jan 16
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book reviews
A Wild Love for the World: Joanna Macy and the Work for Our Time

a wild love for the worldEdited by Stephanie Kaza

Book review by Christine Heming

As an activist, Buddhist scholar, general systems thinker and deep ecologist, Joanna Macy’s work is far-reaching.  Many know her for creating “The Work That Reconnects” and “The Great Turning,” and with her husband Fran, a real-world vision of nuclear guardianship.  A Wild Love for the World is a collective tribute, indeed a celebration of the life and work of Joanna Macy. It may surprise the reader to know the full range and depth of her contributions to humanity. It will also lift your spirits.  As David Abram writes in the Forward:

Such a magical creature is Joanna Macy. . . . how is it possible that a single human life can have touched and transformed so many others, in so many different places.  Yet this is hardly a mystery.   By offering herself so unconditionally to each locale and situation wherein she finds herself, Joanna’s life radiates out to touch and enliven every cell within our larger, spherical Body.  By giving herself with such abandon to the very presence of the present moment, Joanna’s tears and her joy – like those of any genuine bodhisattva – reverberate backward and forward through time to nourish all moments within the broad life of the breathing Earth.

Stephanie Kaza has skillfully edited a wide range of voices (40 in fact) from every continent and over a dozen countries, and shared their stories of the wide-ranging impact Joanna Macy has had on their lives and their work.  Arranged into five themes meant to more fully convey her broad legacy, this book leads us through the work for our time.

The first theme, “Our Planet, Our Self,” centers on Joanna Macy’s unshakeable love for the Earth and her sense of connection with all of life, which she refers to as the “ecological self.”  Within this section, there’s an excellent chapter by Donald Rothberg who writes about her connection to socially engaged Buddhism and the impact of her powerful group practices.  Rothberg writes:

At the heart of Joanna’s work, and perhaps her most important contribution to socially engaged Buddhism practice, is the development of powerful group practices such as the Truth Mandala, the Council of All Beings, and the deep time practices with ancestors and future beings.  

Joanna has develop a form of relational spiritual practice that complements individual spiritual practice and is particularly useful in addressing both social and cultural conditioning and larger social issues.

Theme two, aptly titled “Sustaining the Gaze,” challenges us to face the truth we see unfolding around us, however disturbing, and find a way forward through our grief and despair by sharing our anguish with others.  I was drawn to the story of Dahr Jamail, witness to unthinkable carnage while reporting from the frontlines of the Iraq war.  He finds his way to a ten-day retreat with Joanna Macy in the redwoods of coastal California where he would dive deeply into his grief.  He writes:  “I saw how, in the face of overwhelming social and ecological crises, despair transforms into clarity of vision, then into constructive, collaborative action.”  Finding balance is at the core of Joanna Macy’s work on grief and despair.  We must attend to what nourishes us but at the same time, not turn away from the painful dimensions of our experience, including our pain for the world.  

Andy Fisher applauds Joanna Macy as a strong voice in the field of ecopsychology, and notes that in her book Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age, she calls our sense of uncertainty regarding the continuation of life on Earth “the pivotal psychological reality of our time.”  Joanna Macy has been saying for decades how “our society pathologizes and numbs painful emotion, most especially our pain for the world.”   In contrast, The Work That Reconnects – Joanna Macy’s groundbreaking framework and methodology for personal and social change – “cultivates earth-loving, ritualistic, and heart-centered ways of being that wake us up and bring us back to life.”

The third theme focuses on “The Interplay of Reality,” what Joanna Macy in her 1991 doctoral dissertation called “mutual causality.”   This is a hallmark of Joanna Macy’s gift to all of us – her deep realization of the interconnectedness of all life.   In the words of Paula Green, an international peace builder, Joanna “taught us there is no Other, we are all connected, and only by embracing this vast collective can we all survive and thrive.”

In the section on “Deep Time,” Joanna Macy tells her own story of how the vision of nuclear guardianship came to her, and the stories un this section of the book tell of others who share that vision. In Coming Back to Life Joanna Macy writes: “To make the transition to a life-sustaining society, we must retrieve that ancestral capacity – in other words, act like ancestors.  We need to attune to longer ecological rhythms and nourish a strong, felt connection with past and future generations.”  

Taigen Dan Leighton’s contribution in the section, “Being Time and Deep Time,” is particularly intriguing – connecting Joanna Macy’s work to the teachings on the multidimensional quality of time in the Chinese tradition of Huayan and to the realm of being time in the writing of Japanese Zen founder Dogen.

The final theme is titled, “On the Move Together.”  Joanna Macy’s work has always been about forging relationships – breaking down the walls that separate us from our deeper selves, from one another, and from the living world.  Paula Green tells us Joanna Macy’s genius lies in the “brilliantly designed experiential activities” wherein “concepts are not delivered by words alone, or even by words predominantly.  The intellectual underpinnings are acted out, so that bodies, minds, and spirits inhabit first the despair and then the journey to awakening and finally to empowerment.”  

Each section of this book begins with stories from Joanna herself.  In one of these she tells the story of how the Council of All Beings came to light.  It was a meeting with John Seed when she questioned him about how he dealt with despair.  Seed’s rely spurned her reflection: “If we could feel the earth acting through us, if we could experience being held by a power greater than our own, it would change everything.  We would feel graced.”  She recognized how bound we are by our anthropocentrism and was challenged to find a way to break free. From this insight, as well as a swim with the carp in the pond, the Council of All Beings was born.

In another story, she describes how the Truth Mandala ritual came into being, quite spontaneously, to give voice to the anger, grief, hopes and fears of the people from East and West Germany, and to heal the invisible wall that continued to divide them.  Joanna Macy writes:  “Though I had invented this ritual, I could in no way have anticipated the power and beauty I experienced in these men and women after forty years of separation and hostility.  We discovered that not only could we tolerate but we even welcomed the intensity of one another’s feelings. “

There is so much learning and inspiration in A Wild Love for the World.  As Andy Fisher writes, Joanna Macy’s life is a “rich model of worldly rather than other worldly spirituality.”   She is a Shambhala warrior, fully engaged, her work a living example.  This volume is a testament to her fierce and fearless determination and her boundless love for this world.


Christine Heming is a writer and educator.  She has been a student of the buddhadharma for over 45 years, and a senior teacher and meditation instructor in Shambhala.  She lives in Port Royal, Nova Scotia.

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1 response to “ A Wild Love for the World: Joanna Macy and the Work for Our Time ”
  1. Nicki Dayley
    Jan 25, 2021
    Reply

    Thank you so much for this beautiful review of a book that sounds amazing…and exactly what we need in these times. You brought the book and Joanna Macy’s work to life. Thank you so much…can’t wait to read it!


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