"Gratitude is politically subversive." So says eco-philosopher Joanna Macy to a sold-out crowd at the OISE auditorium on Friday night, June 22.
To ecstatic applause, she continues: "In the consumer society, we are taught to feel insufficient. We don't have enough and we are not enough. It has bred in us a feeling of deficiency."
Gratitude is definitely in the room. People can hardly keep their cheers inside as she dispenses further nuggets of wisdom on "how to face the mess we're in without going crazy." For instance, the title of her most recent work and the aphorism that drew me here: Active Hope, as in "hope isn't something you have; it's something you do."
The workshops she runs around the world, a mixture of mindfulness, psychology and activism, aim, as her promo says, to "transform despair and apathy into constructive, collaborative action."
Macy - who hails from Berkeley, California, and whose books have titles like Mutual Causality In Buddhism And General Systems Theory and World As Lover, World As Self - has been active in the enviro and anti-nuke movements for over 30 years. She's also the co-originator of the Council of All Beings, a communal ritual where participants put aside their human identity and speak on behalf of another life form.
As a Buddhist teacher, she draws one of her most powerful ideas - the notion that would-be social changers must embrace the grief of the world - from this tradition.
"Our pain for the world and our power to act for the world come from the same source," she says.
One of her catchphrases, which slightly sets off my cheese detector, is her moniker for the whole disparate movement toward a sustainable society. She calls it the Great Turning. To me it sounds like something out of a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel. But it's clearly caught on here.
Twenty-eight organizations and businesses, many at the transcendental end of the spectrum, billing themselves as "a unified network for a life-sustaining society," have come together to co-sponsor the event, hosted by the Inner Garden Collective. They include concerns like Shamansong, Healing Music, Unify Toronto, Friends of the Heart meditation centre and the like, and their followers appear manifestly glad to embrace the umbrella term for the sum of their incipient efforts.
The Great Turning. In her writings, she likens the idea to "falling in love outward," a phrase she attributes to poet Robinson Jeffers.
There are shades of old-time religion, too, as her talk continues, including some call-and-response. But instead of recalling a trek through the Sinai to the Promised Land, we're asked to meditate on the star-forged atoms that make up our bodies, and the migration of ice age humans carrying fire through glacial canyons to this make-or-break moment when there is "no separate salvation."
I like that, and I'm relieved when, instead of being told to have faith, we are asked to honour uncertainty - the fact that we don't know if we're going to get through this crisis. She shows some of this uncertainty herself as she alternates between spiritual joy and her intermittent need to rant about the degradation of the environment.
The crowd likes this, but they clearly do share one item of certainty: they're sure they like her ideas. This is further evidenced by the long lineup of book buyers after the talk.
As for me, I'm feeling inspired despite myself, and a little pragmatic too - a rose is a rose. I could learn to call it the Great Turning if I had to.