The Work that Reconnects: a weekend with Joanna Macy

Flannel bush (Fremontodendron californicum) Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Flannel bush (Fremontodendron californicum), Charmless Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California

I did something recently that I’ve been putting off for a long time: I joined Joanna Macy and twenty-eight other people for a weekend of the Work that Reconnects, workshops she has been developing and offering since the 1970s. I knew of Joanna as a philosopher of both ecology and Buddhism, full of wisdom and deep practice on both fronts. Over the years I would see opportunities to join her. I’d carefully read the description, which always included confronting our deep pain about what is happening with the earth. It sounded profound; it sounded like something I should do; it sounded very painful. I would decide to do it another time. 

There were several threads that went into joining Joanna this spring. I am in Marin for now, just across the San Francisco Bay from her home in Berkeley. She is in her mid-eighties, and I wanted to be able to work with her before she completely passes the baton to others. I listened to an interview with her which made me realize how delightful she is, so I could assume delight would be part of the workshop. And I was in such pain at the drastic backward lurch we took with last fall’s election, that I figured I couldn’t feel any worse. I might even see my way to some clarity and faith, since the weekend was called, after her book of the same title, “Active Hope: how to face the mess we’re in without going crazy.” 

Morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia) taken in Charmless Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia) Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California

As with many things we dread, it wasn’t what I feared. I found it uplifting, joyous, complicated, loving, inspiring, painful: life distilled into a weekend. The work was even familiar, similar to practices I’d done some years ago at my beloved Genesis Farm, a spiritual and ecological center in New Jersey. There, as here, I sat in circles large and small, paired up, went off alone, all to explore not only what I felt, but where such feelings could lead me, how to operate with them and beyond them. Once again, with Joanna’s group, I learned how much I share with others, and how much comfort their presence on the journey gives me.

There is, sadly, an unending amount of pain and anger to be felt when we are alive to what’s happening on our planet: the loss of habitat, the rate of extinction, the pollution of oceans and rivers, the unraveling of polar integrity as the climate warms, the struggles of species, including our own. The list is literally endless. Though I spend a lot of my time in continual concern about and celebration of plants, when I answered prompts that asked for my worst fears or deepest hopes, my first response was often about the suffering of people:  hungry children, trapped women, exploited workers, refugees with nowhere to go, indigenous people losing their homes and sacred places. The thinking behind the devastation of the natural world is the same thinking that exploits and degrades humans.

Blue curls (Trichostema lanatum) taken along the Mishe Mokwa Trail, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Blue curls (Trichostema lanatum) Mishe Mokwa Trail, Santa Monica Mountains, California

This heightened awareness led to one of the most memorable moments of the weekend. I’ve always assumed that the earth could survive us better than we can survive each other. That, if necessary, she would eventually shrug us off her beautiful shoulders and get on with her very long life. Animals and plants are resilient. Cities would eventually crumble, plants would take root in the rubble, creatures would spread out into their ancient habitats. Other life forms would eventually evolve. There was a certain grief-filled comfort in this. 

Then Joanna led an exercise called ‘milling,’ where we walked around our space aimlessly until she had us stop. We took the hands of the person nearest us and looked into his or her eyes while Joanna spoke of the profound beauty of seeing this unique and precious being, the only one that will ever be. Then we moved on. After about five encounters, we stopped.

Later that day, in another context, a young, radiant rabbi, pregnant with her first child, said that she, too, had always thought the earth would be fine without us. “But,” she said, “when we were milling, I realized that the earth loves us.” 

Monkey flower (Mimulus aurantiacus) taken in the Charmlee Wilderness in the Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Monkey flower (Mimulus aurantiacus) Charmless Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California

I was very moved by her, and by everyone there, especially the young people, finding their way. There were heart-rending moments. A man in his mid-twenties wept at the speed of the earth’s losses, and the despair that he can do anything to stop them. Several of his contemporaries wondered if they should bring children into this world. A young woman whose baby had just turned one talked about how much she feels mothers are shamed in our society. Our rabbi spoke of having to be strong for her congregation, who are terrified of the anti-semitism unleashed in the last year.  One woman is afraid the ocean will be dead by the time her 12-year-old daughter, who wants to be a marine biologist, is ready. Another young man talked about trying to resist the lure of violent protest.

Anguish and rage can rise easily, when we let them. But we are often afraid to give them space, because we have no idea what to do with their force. By closing difficult emotions off, we risk numbing our ability to respond to the urgencies of this time. Or we can be all too willing to feel them, but not to release them, and then be immobilized by a tangle of despair and fury. The constant barrage of things to feel bad about is overwhelming and deeply dispiriting. No matter how much we want to help, we feel like hummingbirds taking a drop of water to a wildfire

Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) taken in Solstice Canyon, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) Solstice Canyon, Santa Monica Mountains, California

Joanna has been a Buddhist since the 1960s, when she went to India for the Peace Corps, with her husband and children. Her work took her among newly arrived refugees from Tibet: the young Dalai Lama and the monks that had fled Chinese occupation. Inspired by the peaceful good humor radiating from them, despite all they had been through, she began to study Buddhism, and eventually became a teacher.

So it would be natural that her solution to the problem of pain is simple, ancient and very challenging: be present. Allow it. Breathe it into our hearts and give it room, give it time. Let ourselves mourn and rage. No matter how large or overwhelming, grant whatever comes the space it asks for. And then, breathing out, release it. In all, a process that might require a lot of steady breathing.

Canyon sunflower (Venegasia carpesoides) taken in Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Canyon sunflower (Venegasia carpesoides) Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California

I loved being with Joanna. She is an embodiment of the work she offered us — by turns joyful, angry, full of grief, impish, wise, questioning, organizing, open to the flow. She’s a living version of The Guest House, Rumi’s poem about embracing everything. 

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

Canyon pea (Lathyrus vestiges) taken in Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Canyon pea (Lathyrus vestiges) Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California

That was the steadily opening heart of the weekend: embrace it all, accord whatever comes its place, release it back into the flow, carry on with your thread in the fabric. These difficult emotions arise from our greatest gift as humans: compassion. Joanna moved us through an ever-renewing spiral, from gratitude, to honoring our pain, to renewing our vision, to going forth with the part of the work that we have chosen, or that has chosen us. “Our approach,’ she says in her book, Active Hope, ‘is to see this as the starting point of an amazing journey that strengthens us and deepens our aliveness.”

The pictures chosen for this essay come from a time when my only choice was to live with pain. My partner, George, was dangerously ill with kidney failure, from a reaction to blood pressure medication. There was no possibility of fending off the dread and heartache. I could only do exactly as Joanna said: allow it. I would walk into the Santa Monica Mountains and feel one emotion after another: sadness, fear, anger, love, pity. And, with all of that, transcendence. It was spring, wildflowers were blooming, and they were my solace. Grief, which rose from loving, could also be comforted by loving. 

California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) taken along the Mishe Mokwa Trail, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) Mishe Mokwa Trail, Santa Monica Mountains, California

Damage to the world and its people, which comes from greed and obliviousness, will be slowed and salvaged by love: for the earth, for our fellow creatures, for its waters and air, for the dirt under our feet, for the wondrously intricate web of all beings that we are a part of. This is no simple, ‘love, sweet love’ invocation. The kind of love we need is complex, educated, dedicated to human and more-than-human community.

To rethink the way we do things, we need to rethink what we treasure. We need to re-embed our wisp of human history into the long, deep time of earth history. A profound understanding of our inherence in the natural world is the most nourishing gift we can give both the earth and ourselves. If it’s clear that we are the planet, instead of on the planet, our choices — and our courage to make them — will change dramatically. 

Bush mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus) taken in Solstice Canyon, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Bush mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus) Solstice Canyon, Santa Monica Mountains, California

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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13 Comments

  1. Ellen May 4, 2017 at 6:04 am #

    So wonderfully said, Betsey! And your photos are spectacular!!!

  2. Sue April 30, 2017 at 8:36 pm #

    Thank you so much for sharing this profound post, Betsy …. again.

    • Betsey May 1, 2017 at 5:11 pm #

      Thank you so much, Sue. Lovely to ‘see’ you!

  3. Carol Nicklaus April 30, 2017 at 11:03 am #

    Beautiful… Sometimes our gifts do seem to us to be irrelevant or ineffectual in the light of the kind of “forest fire” that’s been ignited on our beautiful planet… But what do we know?

    All we can really “know” is when we are doing the thing we were put here to do – like the hummingbird!

    That’s all we can do, and all we need to do. No more, and no less, is required.

    MLAA

    • Betsey May 1, 2017 at 5:10 pm #

      Love this: All we can really “know” is when we are doing the thing we were put here to do – like the hummingbird!

  4. Ann April 30, 2017 at 9:08 am #

    So beautiful and inspiring — a boost up to others, saying, “Come look at everything from a higher vantage point!” From that mountaintop view, we can feel / be / accomplish/ inspire so much more. I’ll share this on my FB page, too.

    💖💖💖

    • Betsey May 1, 2017 at 5:09 pm #

      Thanks so much, Annie. Hearts back.

  5. Cara April 30, 2017 at 7:33 am #

    What an amazing post. This is so, exquisitely senstive, wise and consoling as much as I feel challenged by it too. I had the realization some time ago that just as (for me) there is nothing secular – all is sacred – there is nothing unnatural, even the worst noxious chemicals we made from stuff of the Earth. For me there isn’t the human world and the natural world, we evolved out of other animals, and we eat and eliminate and reproduce and have “interesting” smells – just as other animals do. I say this without minimizing or excusing the devastation that human animals have caused on our planet home, I hold the hope that the wisdom that created dirt, the oceans, the air – will present the way to heal it. The pain, despair, anger and fear does feel so overwhelmingly huge that I, for one, can’t even attempt to hold it all. I just have to do what I must – paint and love people, sort the trash in Larkspur and wash out my plastic bags – and have enormous gratitude for all those who are awake and caring and doing what they must. Reading what I’ve just written, there is a part of me that wonders if there isn’t a cop out in there somewhere, but I’m also open to being called to do more. I do think we need to be called. Thank you for going to be with Joanna Macy and for this post and for your heart and mind at work in the world.

    • Betsey May 1, 2017 at 5:08 pm #

      My dear, you are the living embodiment of Howard Thurman’s call to go and do what makes us come alive, because what the world needs are people who have come alive. Bless you for this wonderful comment.

  6. Nancy Hamma April 30, 2017 at 5:24 am #

    Betsy. What a beautiful essay and weekend. It lifted my spirits but I am so sorry to hear George is suffering. Will write more soon. Love, Nancy

    • Betsey May 1, 2017 at 8:13 am #

      Thank you, Nancy. Yes, it was, literally, a wonderful weekend. And George is okay. That happened four years ago. His kidneys never fully recovered, sadly, but he is doing amazingly well.

  7. Andrea Mathieson April 30, 2017 at 5:18 am #

    Dear Betsy, I’ve been receiving your newsletters for the past few months, feeling a strong resonance with your call to be with beauty and to articulate this passion with exquisite photographs. I will post this blog on my facebook page, knowing many of my contacts will appreciate the deep, honest journey you undertook with Joanna. She has created a way to reconnect with what ‘matters’, the living pulse of the earth, and to feel our essential part in this choreography. She could have used her energies to protest; instead, she did what I feel is a highly subversive and creative act. She listened to her heart and developed a humble, authentic way to remember our participation in the sacred web of life. This legacy far outlasts the necessary but short-lived waves of public protest, for we are invited to engage our hearts, our imagination, and our intuition as part of the unique ‘medicine’ we bring to the world. And she makes space for our anger and grief, letting it guide and inform us into deeper levels of communion. I met Joanna many years ago in Toronto and can still feel the warmth of love as we locked eyes and recognized each other. Thank you for sharing your experience… and may your own beauty-filled, soulful work continue blossoming. It matters!

    • Betsey May 1, 2017 at 8:11 am #

      Thank you for this wonderful comment, Andrea. And what a great tribute to Joanna and her many years of dedication and work. I so appreciate your supportive words.