Positive Disintegration

An Interview with Joanna MacyTensho David Schneider

Wisdom Collection

To access the content within the Wisdom Collection,
join Tricycle as a Supporting or Sustaining Member

Joanna Macy is an activist, scholar, practitioner, philosopher, and—always—a teacher. Initially inspired by her Christian social conscience, then by work in the civil rights movement, Macy ended up in India with the Peace Corps in the mid-sixties working with Tibetan refugees. Returning to the United States, she undertook her doctoral studies in religion at Syracuse University. When H.H. the Sixteenth Karmapa came to this country, Macy went to request a blessing for her scholastic work. "He grabbed my head like a football, and gave this long blessing, which must have been for Manjushri. I felt as though I'd gotten my head stuck in an electric socket. I couldn't sleep for three weeks after that."

In this opened state, Macy wandered into a class on General Systems Theory and ever since has integrated dharma and systems into her work. Systems theory, or "systems-cybernetics," as it is sometimes called, arose from the life sciences in the thirties. The field deals with irreducible wholes: atoms, molecules, cells, organs, bodies, families, societies, ecosystems, and so on. It seeks to understand behavior of these systems in relationship to their environs. Still a young science, systems theory has had obvious and fruitful application in both the physical and social sciences. Gregory Bateson, one of its most famous proponents, said that cybernetics was "the biggest bite out of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that mankind has taken in the last two thousand years."

Joanna Macy continued her practical work over the years, cutting roads and digging latrines with the Buddhist-inspired Sarvodaya Movement in Sri Lanka, and launching, through her writings and workshops, the field of "Despair Work" for disillusioned activists and others. More properly known as "Despair and Empowerment," this approach acknowledges despair and "burnout" as honorable, springing as they do from the interconnectedness of all being. Macy posits that if these feelings are not blocked or ignored or covered over, they can be a tremendous source of further energy.

Her most recent project is Nuclear Guardianship, a citizen effort that champions the need to keep a mindful watch on the weapons and toxins produced by a militarized society.

Macy is the author of Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory; Dharma and Development; and, with John Seed, Thinking Like a Mountain. Her latest book is World as Lover, World as Self, published by Parallax Press (see boxed excerpt here). This interview was conducted for Tricycle by Contributing Editor Tensho David Schneider. His biography of the late Zen teacher Issan Dorsey is forthcoming from Shambhala Publications this year. Photographs by Gaetano Kazuo Maida.


Gaetano Kazuo Maida

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.

Become a Supporting Member

*With Autorenew

  • You Get
  • Tricycle | The Magazine - a one-year subscription to premier Buddhist quarterly
  • Tricycle Retreats - a new online video teaching every every week by a contemporary Buddhist teacher
  • Tricycle | The Digital Edition - web based edition of the magazine
  • The Wisdom Collection - nearly two decades of teachings by the world's most compelling teachers, from the pages of Tricycle
  • Tricycle Gallery - the best in Buddhist art to download and share with friends
  • Tricycle Book Club - online discussions with leading Buddhist authors
  • Tricycle Discussions - teacher-led explorations of dharma in daily life
  • The Tricycle Blog - our diary of the global Buddhist movement
  • Daily Dharma - heart advice delivered direct to your inbox
  • The Tricycle Newsletter - the latest news, teachings, events, and more, every Monday

Become a Supporting Member

Become a Sustaining Member

*With Autorenew

  • You Get
  • Tricycle | The Magazine - a one-year subscription to premier Buddhist quarterly
  • Tricycle Retreats - a new online video teaching every every week by a contemporary Buddhist teacher
  • Tricycle | The Digital Edition - web based edition of the magazine
  • The Wisdom Collection - nearly two decades of teachings by the world's most compelling teachers, from the pages of Tricycle
  • Tricycle Gallery - the best in Buddhist art to download and share with friends
  • Tricycle Book Club - online discussions with leading Buddhist authors
  • Tricycle Discussions - teacher-led explorations of dharma in daily life
  • The Tricycle Blog - our diary of the global Buddhist movement
  • Daily Dharma - heart advice delivered direct to your inbox
  • The Tricycle Newsletter - the latest news, teachings, events, and more, every Monday

Become a Sustaining Member