Reflection 70: Joanna Macy

February 27, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)


I have never met Joanna Macy yet she is a landmark in my conscious life. Her book, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Natural Systems (State University of New York Press, 1991), expands the linear notion of cause and effect to the three-dimensional realm of mutual interaction and causality. Macy sets out to track the influence of feedback in goings-on in the world. Yes, everything is connected, not rigidly, but through interactive processes that create the dynamic universe we live in. That universe—and our consciousness of it—does not simply unroll in a straight line, but keeps recreating itself through an infinite series of stages never twice the same.


It’s true, you can’t go home again because home will have changed since you left it. Home is a state of consciousness locked in memory but no longer in existence. With the upshot that, if home isn’t the same, you aren’t the same. Everything changes, that is the law of consciousness. The mutual interplay of simultaneously changing elements within a system is what Joanna Macy deals with in her book.


This work has tremendous implications for consciousness because when the observer looks at her world, the world looks back at her, both aware all the time of their mutual engagement. What you perceive is partly the result of your own process of seeing and partly due to the simultaneous influence of the world seeing you. You know what it is to catch someone’s eye eying your eye. There’s always more going on than meets one eye in isolation. We are never isolated; we are always engaged with that portion of a world making up our current situation. We and that situation are mutually engaged, even if we may not be aware of our personal contribution.


I devote this post to Joanna Macy’s ideas expressed in her own words. All quotes are from Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory.



z The illusion that knower is separate from . . . the world she would know . . . drives her into error and derails her pursuit of truth. (Page 130.)



z Everything subsists in relationship and knows no independent self-existence. (Page 110.)


z In the web of relationships which form what we call the self there are no clear lines of demarcation whereby it can be asserted “This is I.” (Page 110.)


z To be a person . . . is to participate, at every level of our being, in a reality wider than that enclosed by our skin or identified with our name. (Page 184.)


z As a social and linguistic convention, the notion of an “I” is useful, but, if taken to represent a fixed or separate entity, it is a fiction. (Page 184.)


z What is to be overcome, or rather “seen through,” is not this stream of events, this fountain of thoughts and feelings, but the construct of “I” we impose upon it and the assumption that it is separate from other beings. (Page 216.)



z The Buddha [did not] “pour” precepts into his followers’ heads so much as invite them to free themselves of habitual ways of seeing. (Page 127.)


z The mental distortions which obscure to us the nature of our being in the world [can be] viewed in a merciless light. . . .

     This is done by directing attention not to the things we see but to how we see them, the dependently co-arising nature of feelings, thoughts, and perceptions. (Page 136.)


z Skillful meditation, that journey into the wilderness where we confront our own tricks and delusions, can empower social action, freeing us to respond in simplicity and immediacy to our fellow beings. (Page 217.)


z The grip of ego is weakened not only in meditation, but also in acting on behalf of others. The risk-taking and courage which moral action often requires can catapult us beyond . . . individual self-interest. We are shot into a larger space where the old boundaries of self dissolve. (Page 217.)



z The persistent labors of many on behalf of the public weal, as well as the simpler, more mundane acts whereby pleasure is found in giving pleasure, testify to a widespread intuition that we are, by nature, part of each other. (Page 188.)



z What do we do with this clamoring ego, this posturing “I” that distorts our perceptions . . . ? Religious faiths offer means of transcending it by setting it into larger perspectives, The common element is the transformation that occurs as consciousness encounters and opens to wider dimensions of reality. (Page 215.)


z Like roots, trunk, and branches, we beings are interconnected and part of each other. Our griefs and hopes are not separate, nor can our fulfillments be private, for we are as organically linked as a tree. To act with this knowledge, and shape our lives and institutions to reflect it, requires transformations that threaten our comfort and security. It requires a dying to old ways. This is easier to accept and face when we realize that, like a flame, we are ever dying and renewing, for that is the nature of things. (Page 219.)



z Value is intrinsic to each act because action . . . represents, in the last analysis, what we are and what we become. (Page 110.)


z Ethical norms . . . are grounded in the very relativity that, in the mutual causal view, conditions all existence. These norms and values reveal that the liberation of the individual and the health of her society are inseparable. Indeed, they point to a profound mutuality between personal and social transformations. (Page 212.)


z Moral values are not acquired by intellectual assent alone, as many religious teachers have affirmed, but involve a reorganization of personality. By the same token, they do not transform society unless they transform the doer himself. (Page 215.)







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