May 21, 2004: Headlines: COS - India: Yoga: Tricycle Shop : Joanna Macy ended up in India with the Peace Corps in the mid-sixties working with Tibetan refugees

Peace Corps Online: Directory: India: Peace Corps India: The Peace Corps in India: May 21, 2004: Headlines: COS - India: Yoga: Tricycle Shop : Joanna Macy ended up in India with the Peace Corps in the mid-sixties working with Tibetan refugees

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Joanna Macy ended up in India with the Peace Corps in the mid-sixties working with Tibetan refugees

Joanna Macy ended up in India with the Peace Corps in the mid-sixties working with Tibetan refugees

Joanna Macy ended up in India with the Peace Corps in the mid-sixties working with Tibetan refugees

Positive Disintegration

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 over 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 a relationship to their environs. Still a young science, systems theory has had obvious and fruitful applications in both the physical and social sciences. Gregory Bateson, one of its most famous proponents, said that cybernetic was "the biggest bite out 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 beings. Macy posits that if these feelings are not blocked or ignored or covered up, they can be a tremendous source of further energy.

Macy is the author of several books including: Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory; Dharma and Development; with John Seed, Thinking like a Mountain; and World as Lover, World as Self.

This interview was conducted for Tricycle by Contributing Editor Tensho David Schneider.

"Systems theory"—it sounds so dry. Did it strike you that way at the beginning?

Macy: I remember spending a weekend at a little cottage with my family. My kids were in high school, and evenings we all did our homework. I would read a few lines of Ervin Laszlo’s Introduction to Systems Philosophy, and I would have to go outside and walk up and down, looking at the night sky and weeping. It was like whole-body knowing. It was like I already knew it. I thought about how lucky I am to be alive in a time when these elegant conceptualizations are available. Extraordinary tools to help us perceive the orderly patterning, the dynamic patterning of reality. In a way, it’s like being alive in a time when the dharma is taught. I was riveted. And images. All during that time, there were images of neurons and neural nets superimposed on Indra’s Net. I say Indra’s Net being made up of neurons.

Let’s be reductive for a minute here about systems theory and dharma. Would you say that paticca samuppada—the theory of dependent co-arising—is a hinge between the two?

Macy: the Buddha said he who sees the dharma sees paticca samuppada. He said other teachers can teach loving-kindness and generosity, but dependent co-arising is what buddhas and only buddhas teach. So it’s pretty central.

It’s a distinguishing mark, then, but as I understood it, it was a sort of bridge for you to the systems.

Macy: There were a number of convergences that struck me right off the bat. One is that everything is in fluid, dynamic change all the time. Instead of separate, discrete entities, everything is flowing, interacting, and impinging on each other. We and the sun and the trees, all is perpetual flowing. It’s only the kind of senses we have to do this stop-photography. In actuality, everything is moving all the time, and it can be scary as hell.

There’s nowhere to rest.

Macy: Right. There’s not even an experiencer alongside the flow of experience, which is a dizzying and powerful realization. That was one of the first things that I recognized in the systems vision. Unlike other philosophies, it doesn’t posit something outside of this rush of change.
What the systems theorists seek to determine are the patterns and regularities they call invariances, in how things change. That’s what the Buddha was trying to figure out, too. The dharma is not about the essence of things so much as it’s about the way things work. You see, I was looking at it through Buddhist spectacles. In systems, the boundaries between organism and environment are very fluid. I found remarkable statements by system thinkers that were as resonant with no-self as any scripture. Another thing. I was struck right away that there was mind throughout.

Mind—as in consciousness—in both teachings?

Macy: When I got to know the systems philosopher Laszlo—he took part in my dissertation committee, and I worked with him on a couple of projects—he asked me to write a one-sentence statement on his work for an exhibit. I wrote that his work demonstrates that mind is endemic in nature. You can’t reduce mind to what’s between our ears.
Systems theory makes the amazing assertion that nature is self-organizing. You don’t need mind, either divine or human, operating from above to make nature behave itself. The whole show is spontaneously self-regulating and self-evolving. Its very dynamics move toward complexity and intelligence. It is alive with mind. Laszlo suggests that mind is the interiority, or subjective dimension of every system. And matter, or physicality, is its externally observed dimension. These two dimensions are like the inside and outside of a house. You can neither separate them nor reduce one to the other. This is the most elegant resolution of the mind-matter problem I know. (Of course, the subjectivity of an atom is very rudimentary compared to our own, because the numbers of neurons and synaptic connections in our brains are trillions of times more complex than an atom.) But as in Buddhism too, consciousness is there throughout. I got very excited when I say how the dynamics of self-organizing systems could explain why Buddhists teach that choice becomes possible in the human realm.

This interview appeared originally in its entirety in the Spring 1993 issue of Tricycle available at the Tricycle Shop .

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