I live my life in widening circles

March 19, 2017 ()



Grandmothers Counsel the World; Women Elders Offer Their Vision for Our Planet. By Carol Schaefer with a Foreword by Winona Laduke.  Boston: Trumpeter Books, 2006.

The old people used to tell the people to go to the oceans or the rivers or the streams and call up the water spirits for healing and rebalancing, the Grandmothers say. When you are feeling low, go to the Mother. Even a shower or a bath makes a difference. {Now there is scientific language that explains what the Ancient Ones always knew, that negative ions from water have an impact on the brain that serves as an antidepressant.}

. . . We must teach our children a new way, in order to ensure that future generations will experience the beauty and abundance the Creator has given to us. We must humbly pray to the rocks, the trees, the sky, the mountains, the sacred waters, the birds, and the animals to help us, to give us their power to help us with all of our struggles, to help us to be of service and help us to heal. [pp. 170-171]


Active Hope, How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy by Joanna Macy & Chris Johnstone. Novato, California: New World Library, 2012.

We begin with gratitude . . .

How can we even begin to tackle the mess we’re in if we consider it too depressing to think about? Yet when we do face the mess, when we do let in the dreadful news of multiple tragedies unfolding in our world, it can feel overwhelming. We may wonder whether we can do anything about it anyway.

So this is where we begin – by acknowledging that our times confront us with realities that are painful to face, difficult to take in, and confusing to live with. Our approach is to see this as the starting point of an amazing journey that strengthens us and deepens our aliveness. The purpose of this journey is to find, and offer, and receive the gift of Active Hope.



“And one day, I walked into a bookstore on Adalbertstrasse near the university, and there on a table was this little sort of cloth-bound book in sort of rag paper. It was exquisite. It was Das Stunden-Buch, The Book of Hours.

And I picked it up and the poem that it opened to was the second poem of the first part, “Ich lebe mein Leben in wachsenden Ringen,” “I live my life in widening circles.” And that something immediately rearranged in the furniture of my mind. I identified completely with it and I saw — it was just eight lines in that poem — that it could redefine that I was on a spiritual path.

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

The constrictions that my culture had made around the sacred — it just fell away like dried crusts. And I felt an excitement about being alive now in a world that itself {— yes, of course, it was — my world itself} is sacred.”[1]

Joanna Macy was speaking with Krista Tippett in an interview for the radio program “On Being” when she recounted this story. One moment. A chance meeting with a short poem in a book shop changed her life and returned to her a sense of spirituality that she thought she had lost. Of course, the life of Joanna Macy is full and rich and, for many of us, amazing. Her love of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry is only one of her contributions. Many of you are familiar with the work of Joanna Macy as an environmentalist. It is in this regard that I first encountered her – The Work That Reconnects, The Great Turning, and Active Hope. She is more than that. Here she is in brief:

Joanna Macy Ph.D., is a scholar of Buddhism, systems thinking and deep ecology. A respected voice in movements for peace, justice, and ecology, she interweaves her scholarship with learning from five decades of activism. … Her wide-ranging work addresses psychological and spiritual issues of the nuclear age, the cultivation of ecological awareness, and the fruitful resonance between Buddhist thought and contemporary science. {The many dimensions of this work are explored in her books Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to the Work That Reconnects (with Molly Brown, 2014); Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy (with Chris Johnstone, 2011); Pass It On: Five Stories That Can Change the World (with Norbert Gahbler, 2010); World as Lover, World as Self (2007); Widening Circles: A Memoir (2000); Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory (1991); Thinking Like a Mountain: Toward a Council of All Beings (with John Seed, Pat Fleming, and Arne Naess, 1988); Dharma and Development: Religion as Resource in the Sarvodaya Self-Help Movement (1983, 1985); Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age (1983).}

In addition, with her co-translator and co-editor, Anita Barrows, Joanna has brought forth three volumes devoted to the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.

It is her connection to poetry, specifically Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry, that brought her back to her spiritual core after she tried to dedicate herself to the Christianity of her upbringing, but ultimately, could not. She had abandoned her religion studies and thought that she would not find a spiritual path that would bring her meaning . . . until Rilke.

What I find so compelling about her work is this integration of science and spirit; activism and meditation; urgency and calm; grief and hope. Joanna Macy is keenly aware of what is at stake for humanity, life on earth, and earth itself as we human beings continue to act in ways that threaten to forever change and perhaps destroy our planet. And yet, there is a steadiness about her, a balance, that prevents burnout while never giving up the dedication to her mission. She has been a lover of this world her whole life and an activist for over 5 decades. She knows that we may not see the changes we want and we may not be able to reverse the trajectory we seem hell-bent on pursuing toward environmental collapse. She also knows that we must carry on and we must do what we can while we can. If it can be said of anyone, it can surely be said of Joanna Macy that although there are always things that could have stopped her in her tracks, or worn her down to the very marrow of her bones, or rendered her too exhausted to go on, that nevertheless, she persists.

What is her secret? What can we learn from her example?

I will share with you what I find so compelling and what I have learned from Joanna Macy – not that I have perfected or even consistently practiced what she teaches. Yet, her example is instructive and inspiring.

First – we begin with gratitude.

She says,

Gratitude for the gift of life is the primary wellspring of all religions, the hallmark of the mystic, the source of all true art. . . . It is a privilege to be alive in this time when we can choose to take part in the self-healing of our world. . . .

To be alive in this beautiful, self-organizing universe -- to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it -- is a wonder beyond words.


Gratitude is powerful. When we begin in gratitude we are able to see that there is so much beauty and possibility and love in our world. This truth is not new to us. We all know that we do better when we live from a place of gratitude and love than we do when we fall into negativity. What we put out into the world has real power and real energy. Beginning with gratitude puts our life and the work we do, whatever it is, in a positive and beautiful context. So, begin with gratitude.

Second – we need to feel and accept our grief.

Yes, we are in a mess. And this was true before this year and it continues to be true now. We are in a mess and we have to do what we can about that. But, we cannot muster the inner resources we’ll need to draw upon for the long sustaining work ahead if we ignore or dampen or deny the grief and sadness we feel about this mess that we’re in.

Joanna Macy says:

The refusal to feel takes a heavy toll. Not only is there an impoverishment of our emotional and sensory life, flowers are dimmer and less fragrant, our loves less ecstaticâ but this psychic numbing also impedes our capacity to process and respond to information. The energy expended in pushing down despair is diverted from more creative uses, depleting the resilience and imagination needed for fresh visions and strategies.

Don't ever apologize for crying for the trees burning in the Amazon or over the waters polluted from mines in the Rockies. Don't apologize for the sorrow, grief, and rage you feel. It is a measure of your humanity and your maturity. It is a measure of your open heart, and as your heart breaks open there will be room for the world to heal.

Second, feel your grief and let it break open your heart.

Third – be present.

Joanna Macy talks about the need to stay connected to this present moment. The work we do to get out of the mess we’re in is not easy and it will take the rest of our lives, so it’s essential that we are able to be present to the moment and not be attached to the outcome of our efforts. I know, this sounds ridiculous. Why would I not be completely and critically invested in the outcome and the success of the decisions I make and the actions I take? The reason is that such an attitude puts us more in the future than in the present – we get more concerned about finding the ultimate “right” solution that will save the world. If we get too focused on the future and the outcome of our work, we can fall into deep despair and hopelessness. The key to sustainable activism is being present and committed to your assignment - right now - and to carry out that assignment with a love that is all encompassing.

Joanna Macy says:

The biggest gift you can give is to be absolutely present, and when you're worrying about whether you're hopeful or hopeless or pessimistic or optimistic, who cares? The main thing is that you're showing up, that you're here and that you're finding ever more capacity to love this world because it will not be healed without that.

I’m not insisting that we be brimming with hope. It’s OK not to be optimistic. Buddhist teachings say feeling that you have to maintain hope can wear you out. So just be present.

You don't need to do everything. Do what calls your heart; effective action comes from love. It is unstoppable, and it is enough.

Last thing – for now anyway – live in beauty.

You know, it doesn’t make so much difference what our spiritual practice is or where we go to get spiritually refreshed and renewed or how we organize our thoughts and emotions to make a safe and trustworthy place for ourselves in this life. What makes a difference is that we remember to do the things that ground and renew us and that we pay attention to our own needs and health. For Joanna Macy, the poetry of Rilke brings her to her spiritual center, and that is very important. Poetry can do that. Music and art can do it. Prayer can do it. Meditation can do it. Tai Chi and Yoga can do it. Walking and swimming can do it. Singing and dancing can do it. Hugging a tree can do it. Tilling the good earth can do it.

What is it that brings you to your spiritual center? Maybe you knew once and now it seems that you’ve let it slip away. Maybe you are not sure you’ve ever experienced your spiritual center. Perhaps you are among the lucky persistent ones who have a frequent or maybe even daily practice that brings you home to your spiritual center.

It’s important that we have a way of connecting with spirit, with something larger than ourselves, with the interdependent web of all existence, with the Love that goes everywhere and is in everything. Without this connection, we will go crazy as we try to heal the mess we’re in.

Find your way and let it fill your soul. Be with others – it helps.

A Rilke poem as translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows.

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

My Dear Spiritual Companions, we find that so many aspects of our world are in a mess right now. We are overcome by the enormity of the work that lies in front of us. May we take heart in knowing that we are not alone. May we take strength in knowing that the most important thing we can do now is to be present and to do only what we are here to do and not everything that needs to be done. May we find an active hope in facing our anger and grief and then living in gratitude and beauty as we do whatever it is that we must do to love this world ever more deeply. May we know joy in being together.

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I think that I, and maybe all of us, would like to live our lives in widening circles and to give our life to that endeavor.

Blessed Be. I Love You. Amen


[1] “On Being” with Krista Tippett in an interview with Joanna Macy. Program of August 11, 2016 first recorded in 2010.

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Rev. Margaret A. Beckman

Rev. Margaret A. Beckman

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