What Radical Compassion Means to Activist Joanna Macy

Environmental activist and author Joanna Macy gets into what compassion really means—and how to apply it in daily life.
Joanna Macy radical compassion Naropa University

Environmental activist and author Joanna Macy gets into what compassion really means—and how to apply it in daily life. Don't miss her keynote speech this weekend at Naropa University's first ever Radical Compassion Symposium—a forum on the intersection of compassion and the world. Live stream her talk: “The Courage to See, The Power to Choose” on Friday, Oct 18 at 11:00 a.m. MST. Watch it here, on YogaJournal.com/compassion.


Yoga Journal: Based on your work, what does "radical compassion" mean to you today?
Joanna Macy: Compassion is not something you have, like a virtue or cultivated quality. It is rather an expression of your larger being and can be understood as integral to your belonging or interbeing in the sacred living body of Earth. Compassion boils down to not being afraid of the suffering of your world or of your self. It involves being open to what you're feeling about that suffering (grief, fear, rage, overwhelm) and brave enough to experience it. It helps to know that we are all going to die. And you have this precious moment to get close to the suffering and see what it has to tell you. You can't heal something you're afraid to get near. Compassion is what impels you to act for the sake of the larger whole—or put more accurately, it is the whole acting through you.

See also How to Cultivate Compassion.

YJ: How do you take your activism and intellect and not sound preachy? In other words, share with us how we can learn to be passionate about certain subject matter and evangelize with grace.
JM: I find preaching and moralizing to be both ineffective and boring. The voice that people most need to hear does not belong to me—or to some outside authority—it's the voice from within them. So it's more productive to ask a person nonthreatening and non-accusatory questions that invite them to speak from their own experience. In the Work That Reconnects there's a process we frequently use called "Open Sentences." Taking turns in pairs, having one person respond to a prompt, while the other only listens, invites an amazing degree of openness and spontaneity. In ordinary conversations in daily life I like simply to share an experience or a concern, including how I feel about it. That tends to invite a similar and non-defensive response. It's hard to argue about a feeling.

YJ: What issues are front and center for you today?
JM: In our world today there's such a panorama of issues and causes that break my heart—from state terrorism (war-making, militarization of police, loss of civil liberties, surveillance, torture) to climate disruption and acidification of the oceans. But to keep myself honest I do my best to stay a little more focused and knowledgeable about one cause. For me that has been radioactive waste and contamination. Huge, lethal amounts of this "poison fire" are produced at every stage of the fuel cycle serving nuclear power plants and weapons factories. Preoccupation with this issue over the last 40 years has taught me a lot, and I am grateful now for the schooling it has given my mind and imagination. I'm also glad for the solidarity, admiration, and love I feel for all the other nuclear activists around the world.

See also The Lost Art of Compassion.

YJ: What yoga and meditation are you practicing these days?

JM: My meditation practice is braided of three strands. One is Vipassana, which has been a steady friend since the 1960s, when we lived in India with the American Peace Corps and I was taught by Ven. Gelongma Khechog Palmo, an English-born Kargyu nun. The second is a Tibetan practice given to me 25 years later (and almost 25 years ago now) by the head Tokden or yogi of the Tashi Jong community in northwest India. Centered on a wrathful form of Manjushri, the celestial bodhisattva of wisdom, it strengthens one to deal with wisdom-gone-wrong and was bestowed in relation to my antinuclear activism. The third strand consists of meditations-in-action as I go about my life. I also teach them in workshops and books about the Work That Reconnects. The ones most permeating my days are called "Breathing Through" and "Learning to See Each Other," an adaptation of the Four Brahmaviharas.

See also Daily Meditation Made Easy.