We knew that Brian Swimme and Joanna Macy would have a lot to contribute to our special focus on science and dharma, because both of them are working right at the interface. In their books, seminars and workshops, Swimme and Macy experiment with methods for transforming scientific knowledge into a new mythos—a meaningful modern story about ourselves and the universe—that in turn might inspire new respect for life and a commitment to serving its continued evolution.
Through her teaching and writing, Joanna Macy has become one of the leaders of the worldwide movement of engaged Buddhism. In her watershed book, World As Lover, World As Self (Parallax Press, 1991), she uses the Buddha’s teaching of dependent co-arising to create a new philosophical foundation for environmentalism. Her book of workshop exercises, Coming Back to Life (New Society, 1998), written with Molly Young Brown, offers practical methods of realizing our interconnection with all life, as well as healing and empowering ourselves.
Brian Swimme was trained as a mathematical cosmologist, and is the author of the much-loved book The Universe Is a Green Dragon (Bear and Co., 1984), and the coauthor with Thomas Berry of The Universe Story (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992). He is also creator of the acclaimed video series Canticle to the Cosmos, and a member of the graduate faculty of the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.
The following conversation took place at Wes Nisker’s home in Oakland, California.
Joanna Macy: I’d like to begin by making an intention. May our words serve the ongoing dance of life and the welfare of all beings.
Wes Nisker: Let’s also raise the two appreciations, traditional in Tibetan Buddhism, for being born a human and for being born in an age when the dharma is available.
JM: And for being born at a time of such deep crisis, when we face the possible extinction of complex forms of life on this planet. The difficult times make it easier to become a bodhisattva. [Laughter]
WN: There are certainly a lot of job openings in that field. Which brings me to my first question to both of you: how would you describe your work in the world?
JM: I’m trying to be present to my world and to come to terms with the fact that we have unleashed technologies that can destroy it. After all these millennia of evolution—after even the Shakespeares, the Mozarts, the Gautamas and the Lao Tzus—we find ourselves bombing each other and raping the body of Earth for minerals to make hair dryers, microwave ovens and cars, not caring a twit about what happens after we’re gone.
As I come to terms with it all, I see that we are actually privileged to be alive at this pivotal moment, when we can either watch the world die or else lay the groundwork for a life-sustaining society. We might prefer things to be otherwise during our lives, but they are the way they are, and here we are.
Then I try to help others face the catastrophe of our times and not be afraid of the anguish they feel on behalf of other beings and the living body of Earth. I ask people to see the crisis as an opportunity to experience a larger identity than we have ever dared contemplate for ourselves. We are so accustomed to living inside our small, enclosed selves with our endless appetites and endless needs for defense and security. But we can be glad to be on hand during these difficult years, to have the opportunity to expand our sense of self and put to good use everything we’ve ever learned about courage, solidarity and love.
Here is where the Buddhadharma is so helpful. It allows us to tap into the power of the life within us—which is ancient and ever-surprising and new in each moment—and to venture forth into the healing of our world. This involves a shift of identity, which in Buddhism would be called moving out of our exclusive identity with the small self toward a relationship with the big Self. In the deep ecology movement we call it the “ecological self.” This shift of identity is the great adventure of our time, and in service to that adventure, I invent games and role plays. In the “Council of All Beings,” for instance, we step aside from our human persona and speak on behalf of another life form. Through guided meditation, we evoke earlier existences—as single-celled organisms, as fish, as reptiles—remembering the great evolutionary stream of which we are a part.
WN: Do you find yourself drawing on scientific information when you make up your games and teach your workshops?
JM: Absolutely. For me, general systems theory has been incredibly mind opening and useful. The way living systems self-organize as they relate to each other is a stunning illustration of the Buddha’s central teaching of dependent co-arising. Seeing this scientific perspective is one of the great privileges of being alive now. I look back at my own ancestors of just a generation or two ago. They were good, faithful people, but they didn’t have much to sit down to—just a little helping of Christianity. But we’ve got this banquet of science, with its new revelations about the wonders of life. On top of that we’ve got the Buddhadharma itself, and Taoism, women’s spirituality, the Native American traditions—what a feast.
Even so, our hearts are breaking because we’re losing so much, right now, this minute, irrevocably. That is what extinction means. We are losing whole species, ecosystems, cultures, languages. So on the one hand we have this great wealth, and on the other hand we’re in anguish. Being born with both this kind of promise and this kind of loss is amazing! You couldn’t have thought up such a scenario. So the question is: what kind of consciousness, what kind of awareness can we develop to hold life together?
Brian Swimme: I agree with Joanna’s assessment of the world we live in. Personally, I try to make a difference by telling the story of the universe. As a scientist, I try to grasp the dimensions of what we know and to assist others to behold it. I try to translate abstract, scientific information into plain English, to give simple expression to the depth of knowing that can’t be expressed through the narrow frame of scientific, reductionist, materialist thinking.
My intention is to awaken in people a sense of original awe. By hearing the story of the universe, people may begin to see their essence as the supreme radiance. Hopefully, this will fill them with new appreciation for life as well as the motivation to help the experiment continue. In this way, like Joanna, I too try to awaken the small self to the big Self.
JM: Yes. Some of my students have also taken Brian’s courses. He blows the lid off their heads!
WN: Within the scientific story of evolution we can see ourselves as part of the great unfolding of life. The bodhisattva ideal—our aspiration to continue our spiritual practice until the day all beings everywhere reach enlightenment—also plays well in that story, because everything we do can be seen as part of the past and the future, as well as the present.
BS: Absolutely. It is simply no longer viable to think in dualistic terms, of oneself and others. Consider the spirituality that has flowed out of the Buddha. His accomplishment is certainly his own, but it is equally valid to consider it a cosmological event. That is, the atoms of the Buddha’s body were fashioned by the stars, and the organs of the Buddha’s body, including his brain, were fashioned by four billion years of biological evolution. The Buddha’s enlightenment experience required all fifteen billion years of the universe’s development. If there is spirituality in the life of the Buddha, there is spirituality throughout the entire process that gave birth to the Buddha.
WN: You belong a group called the Epic of Evolution Society. What exactly is that group, and what does it do?
BS: A number of years ago, a few people in the scientific community began to talk about how the scientific story of evolution could serve as a fundamental spiritual myth, a cosmological frame for humans of our era. For years I had been working with Thomas Berry on this idea. We felt like we were truly alone, without much hope that people would recognize the worth of this project any time soon. Then one day while we were talking about the universe—as we love to do—the phone rang. He picked it up, and I got irritated because we had really been on to something great. He handed me the phone, and a man said, “I’m from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and we’re interested in looking into the evolution of the universe as a new religious myth. Would you come and speak at our conference?” This is the largest scientific organization in America. I was very surprised and truly thrilled.
Out of that conference of scientists and theologians came the Epic of Evolution Society as an ongoing professional group, with its own publication and gatherings. We might hold a conference focusing on neuroscience, but it wouldn’t be strictly scientific. We would explore ways to understand the science from a personal or spiritual perspective and to place it in the context of the epic.
I don’t mean to suggest that science is now providing the story of evolution. The universe itself is providing the story; we’re just participating in its articulation. It’s like the work both of you do, using Buddhist ideas and methods to make this cosmological understanding come alive. I’m more traditional, working in the classroom. I tell the story—I don’t apologize for it—but you create new experiences for people through meditation and imagination. That really brings the story home.
JM: Thank you for mentioning imagination. I use it a lot in my work. Imagination is a resource that can’t be overestimated. I think it’s probably the most underdeveloped of our muscles, and it has atrophied in so many of us, especially given the onslaught of electronic media.
Using the imagination became crucial for me with the Nuclear Guardianship Project, which is concerned with how future generations will cope with the toxic wastes we’re leaving behind. To face up to the long-term results of our actions—a dimension I call “deep time”—we need to experience our connectedness with the ancestors and especially the generations coming after us.
For instance, the Waste Isolation Pilot Project just opened in Carlsbad, New Mexico. Thirty-eight thousand truckloads of radioactive waste will be transported to that site from around the country. This stuff will be moving around on the freeways, where accidents and spills are a statistical certainty. Even after it is placed into Carlsbad, it still won’t be safe. It is subject to geological shifts and leakage that will eventually contaminate the underground aquifer, the Pecos River and the Gulf of Mexico. It will remain radioactive for over 250 millennia. In Buddhist terms, our karma, the results of our actions, now extends into geological time.
The solution to this problem is not to come at people with a wagging finger, saying “You should feel responsible to future generations!” I enlist people’s imagination to open them to their innate sense of responsibility and compassion. There are role plays, for example, in which they take the part of humans 100 or more years from now, who ask us why we produced this deadly plutonium and what we expect them to do with it.
I think the basis of what both Brian and I are doing comes out of some inchoate realization that you don’t change behaviors without changing the assumptions from which those behaviors spring. While it’s important to have compost containers or recycling bins, what really needs to change is the very premise of who we think we are and our relation to the life of the planet. Out of that, organically, comes both joy and responsibility.
BS: What is great, Joanna, is that you come from a Calvinist tradition that talks about every image being the work of the devil and that represses imagination. In fact, imagination is really one of the most wondrous and unique qualities of the human species. We had the imagination to find our way into all our tools and technology. Even a fish hook is the result of imagination. Now we need to use imagination to develop a new understanding of ourselves. We have to think of ourselves as a geological power in order to really be able to manage the power we’ve developed.
JM: The Mahayana Buddhist tradition makes wonderful use of the imagination. In the Avatamsaka Sutra, for instance, we can follow along with the bodhisattva’s imaginative explanation of the holographic nature of the universe. In the Jewelled Net of Indra, each being at each node of the net is a multifaceted gem that reflects all the others; the part contains the whole. They didn’t have holography back then, but they could apprehend and describe the fact that we are alive in an interdependent, co-creating world. There is great exhilaration in that understanding. It can blast you out of your own little drama into the great space of all being.
WN: Within the Theravada tradition are exercises that take us into the body, where we can feel the totality of life living through us. We meditate on the bones, the muscles, the fluids, the breath, all of it.
JM: Right. You feel the effervescence of all of life inside you. The key is experience. Transformation doesn’t happen with people just talking about new paradigm thinking or postmodern this or that.
BS: I am constantly amazed to hear of these Buddhist practices and insights. The Buddha and his disciples seemed to have an intuitive grasp of evolution and the nature of the universe. Now, through modern science, we have an empirical grasp as well. To bring these together will be a very powerful force in the world. I think this is a major moment in our collective history.
WN: But what do you say to people who object that science talks just about material processes, that these don’t really apply to the human realm because we are somehow different than the rest of creation? We have souls and a consciousness that science can’t explain.
BS: I am confronted with those sorts of objections all the time. It’s a common assumption to think that our mind has dropped out of the sky. Sometimes it’s attributed to God or some other divine source. I try to offer people another, equally fascinating idea: that the mind is an evolutionary event just like the universe. This story is no less magnificent than the other myths. It’s just that the way science typically tells this story generally de-souls it and makes it sound flat.
WN: And we don’t like the story itself. It seems to be part of the human condition to believe that we are specially created and so different from other species of life that we couldn’t possibly be related. Our brains are designed to think that way.
JM: But we are redesigning that brain right now. [Laughter] And behind this redesign is the huge pressure of Eros, pushing for life to continue. To allow that to happen, we have to learn to think in a new way.
BS: That’s right. Up to now, our human minds have had a local focus, which depresses the hell out of anyone interested in preserving the planet for the far-distant future. So why is it that we humans are so fixated on local considerations? Precisely because all of our animal ancestors were exactly the same. There was no need for the orangutan or the great white shark or the Neolithic hunter-gatherer to think about what the Earth would be like a million years in the future, so they didn’t develop those capacities. But now we need to. That’s why I consider Joanna’s work as at the cutting edge of material-spiritual-imaginative evolution taking place today.
JM: As I work with problems like radioactive materials, I find myself trying to revision and reexperience time, to break out of the box of one-way, linear time that our culture holds so dear, in which the past is irretrievable and the future forever receding. We have become marooned in this little box, where we run on our treadmills, faster and faster. Brian, I have watched you boldly invite your fellow beings to experience vast dimensions of time and bring that time right into this present moment’s experience. How do you do it?
BS: The way I teach about time is to look at the birth of the universe and to see that the very energy released by the Big Bang is what enables me to move my hands now. The primordial energy is right here, in this movement, now. Or we might consider the fact that our breathing was not invented by us humans. Oxygen breathing was developed over two billion years ago by early microbial beings, and it’s an invention that is still working. When we breathe, it is the past coming alive in this moment. In fact, every one of our actions is the whole universe acting in concert through all of time.
An expanded sense of time can also be understood through the birth of a new star. Consider a cloud of hydrogen atoms drifting about somewhere in the Milky Way galaxy, each atom happily bouncing against the others. The strength of their gravitational and strong nuclear interactions will eventually bond them together as a star. If the intensity of the atoms’ bond were different, either stronger or weaker, there would be no star. It’s not as if the atoms have knowledge of the future, but in a real sense the future star can be seen in the particular intensity of their bond.
So we can consider the future as being causal, even though it has no form yet. Fifty years ago, any scientist who talked about future causation would have been considered a crackpot, but we now have some evidence to support the idea. Even today, people don’t yet know what to do with this kind of elegance we are discovering in the universe.
My sense is that each of our experiences contains the presence of the entire past as well as the entire future. This can be seen in the human realm through our sense of allurement or attraction, our fascination. Does a new human arrive at the moment of conception, or when the father and mother first see each other and are attracted? It’s just like the star: you could say that the atoms’ attraction for one another is actually the first appearance of the star. That’s what we are all about. And so when Joanna brings people together to call the future into the present, that to me is not fanciful but is rather the dynamic of the universe giving shape to itself.
JM: Beautiful! Rather than pushing us from behind, the future is pulling us. As a social scientist, one can say the same thing, and even give empirical evidence for it. For instance, there are more and more people in different walks of life being pulled by a vision of a sustainable society, a force of attraction. Countless people are giving up their time, energy and comforts on behalf of something that doesn’t exist yet, just like those hydrogen atoms.
BS: Those atoms had to sacrifice as well. They had to give up being independent little hydrogen atoms, but in exchange they got to participate in the birth of a great big star.
JM: And now we all get to participate in the birth of a new star, right here on Earth. It’s new because we wake up and see it with new eyes. The life scientists who evolved general systems theory called it a “new way of seeing.” Instead of a mechanistic, “stuff-based” view of reality, with all the appetites that it inflames, the universe now appears as an interweaving dance of relationships. We shift from noun to verb. And this new understanding is wondrous in and of itself, whether or not it comes in time to save us. We are all invited to the dance, to find our joy and purpose in the transformation of the world.