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Joanna Macy’s reading of Rilke offers a Middle Way in an era of ecological devastation.By Marie Scarles
I remember the day I first read Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies. I purchased a copy at Powell’s Books in downtown Portland, Oregon, and then biked east over the Willamette River to Alberta Park. I lay in the grass, shirtsleeves rolled onto my shoulders, and read the whole book in an afternoon. I remember it clearly because I read for so long that I burned the back of my neck as the shadow of the tree I’d been lying under moved away with the shifting sun—and because the lines in the book felt like they’d been spoken directly into my chest. The book lived in my bag collecting dog-ears and underlines for the rest of the summer.
In the Ninth Elegy, after asking why we’re here on earth in the first place, Rilke writes:
But because just being here matters, because
the things of this world, these passing things,
seem to need us, to put themselves in our care
somehow. Us, the most passing of all.
Once for each, just once. Once and no more.
And for us too, once. Never again. And yet
it seems that this—to have once existed,
even if only once, to have been a part
of this earth—can never be taken back.
I found Rilke’s attention to transience and mutability resonant with the dharma, and I took solace in his lines praising immanence: to have once existed, / even if only once, to have been a part / of this earth—can never be taken back.
This year, I was thrilled when the Garrison Institute offered me a spot at environmental activist and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy’s weeklong retreat, “Rainer Maria Rilke and the Force of the Storm.” I looked forward to spending a week on the Hudson River in a state of leisurely solitude to match my memory of that day in Portland: I foresaw hikes in the woods, reading in the cozy lounge areas of Garrison’s renovated Capuchin monastery, and a week infused with quiet wonder. The retreat would be a melding of Macy’s longtime environmental activist work with her love of the 19th-century German poet; I was curious to see how the two would intertwine.
Macy is a Buddhist scholar, environmental activist, and author whose teachings are informed by the dharma, deep ecology, and systems thinking. In 1978, she developed an open-source workshop curriculum called the Work that Reconnects, a set of teachings to help make environmental and social devastation into an embodied experience for participants at dharma and community centers. The workshops create a space for people who are invested in ecological concerns to meet and connect with one another, and to replenish themselves spiritually. Macy describes “the activist’s inner journey” as a spiral with four successive stages—opening to gratitude, owning our pain (or dukkha) for the world, seeing with new eyes, and going forth—that are predicated on the idea that in order to heal ourselves and our ecosystems first we must be willing to feel both suffering and joy. “You’re stuck with what you don’t allow yourself to feel,” Macy said during workshop one day. It seems this motto drives forward both her work and the work of her students.
When I arrived at Garrison, I set my bags in the small plain room, formerly a monk’s quarters, and joined the group for our first meeting with Macy. She told us that her love of Rilke’s poetry began more than 50 years ago when she came across the original Insel Verlag edition of The Book of Hours in a Munich bookstore. She was struck by Rilke’s emphasis on the reciprocal relationship between humanity and God, and later, when she was introduced to Buddhist teachings, she found that his work aligned with the Buddha’s central doctrine of dependent co-arising.
The poems in The Book of Hours, written in the persona of a cloistered Russian monk, are often read as a series of intimate conversations with the Christian God, but in Macy’s workshop she read Rilke more broadly. She’s found a template within his poetry for ecological and social activism, an activism that relies on our capacity for deep feeling to guide us toward a “life-sustaining society.” On the first day, Macy gave us a brief background on the life of the poet…