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All the Time in the World

Essays on The Great Turning by Joanna Macy

EarthLight Magazine #44, Winter 2002

CHILDREN don't watch the clock; they seem to feel they have all the time in the world. A sense of temporal abundance is also conveyed by many young activists I know. Although they can move fast-showing up at meetings, completing tasks, staging events-they seem less hurried and driven than I usually am. Even their running seems unhassled and unpressured by the ticking clock.

M51 Whirlpool Galaxy, courtesy NASAThis ease with time appeals to me greatly. It seems a truer, sweeter way to live than the gritty haste I note in myself and see around me. In our speed-addicted society, time is an increasingly scarce commodity, demanding obedient alacrity and split-second maneuvers.

Actually, if we pause to reflect, the relation to time engendered by our political economy is quite peculiar. It is unique in human history. Unique, and perhaps suicidal. One can come to believe, as I have, that both the destruction we are visiting upon our world, and our capacity to slow down and stop that destruction, are a function of our experience of time.

The Shrinking Box

The technologies and economic forces unleashed by the Industrial Growth Society radically alter our relation to time. They require decisions made at lightning speed for very short-term objectives. They cut us off from nature's rhythms and from the past and future as well. Time becomes an ever-shrinking box in which we race on a treadmill without pausing for breath. It maroons us in the immediate present, blinding us to the vast reaches of time. Both the company of our ancestors and the claims of our descendants become less and less real to us.

This peculiar relation to time is inherently violent. It destroys the quality of our lives and wrecks the living body of Earth. And this intensifies because the Industrial Growth Society is, in systems' terms, on exponential "runaway"-accelerating towards its own collapse.

Deep Time

As humans we have the capacity and the birthright to experience time in a saner fashion. Throughout history, men and women have labored at great personal cost to bequeath to future generations monuments of art and learning. And they have honored through ritual and story those who came before them. The Great Turning to a life-sustaining society requires that we retrieve that ancestral capacity-or in other words, act like ancestors.

"Deep Time" work has arisen for that express purpose: to help us experience our lives within their larger and truer temporal context. Refreshing my spirit and informing my mind, Deep Time work has been one of the great joys of my life. When done in groups, as a component in a workshop or as the overall theme of a week-long retreat, it brings tremendous rewards in both immediate gladness and lasting resilience.

The Remembering

We did not come yesterday into this world, nor are we passing visitors. Each atom in each molecule of our brains and bodies goes back to the beginning of space and time, and is shaped by the unfolding adventure of life. Just when we most urgently need to recall our own cosmic story, it is being given to us afresh. Each issue of EarthLight attests to exciting breakthroughs in understanding our participation in the universe story.

I love using movement, breath, and body to experience the reality of this story. Last week at a retreat center, with steady drumbeat, we "remembered" our evolutionary journey. Memories are embedded in our neurological system, even if we only imagine that we imagine them. They help us trust the intelligence that brought us forth, and the powers that can manifest through us as we act for the healing of our world. This kind of remembering can help us "act our age," instead of being frightened or cowed by today's challenges.

The Future Inside Us

Sister Rosalie Bertell, a radiologist working on issues of nuclear contamination, inspires me greatly. She said once, "Every being who will ever live is present now on Earth." Where? Right here in our bodies, in our ovaries and gonads, and in our DNA. Thanks to the powers of our technology and the endurance of our toxins, decisions we make now affect whether future generations will be born of sound mind and body.

We can help each other experience this presence of the future ones, not just as a moral weight, but also, and even more so, as a source of inspiration and guidance. Some Deep Time exercises involve simple role plays, which invite us to address and speak on behalf of future beings, such as those of the seventh generation. Instead of guilt and moral judgement, what springs up spontaneously is, almost always, gratitude and love. What dawns on us is so unexpected, so deep, it changes how we relate to our own individual lives. It lifts us into wider dimensions of time where old fears and self-judgments give way to awe before the grandeur of our larger story.

[To continue an exploration of Deep Time, see Joanna's book, Coming Back to Life, which devotes an entire chapter (9) to Deep Time work. ]

Joanna Macy, Ph.D., is an ecophilosopher grounded in Buddhism and living systems theory, who works worldwide with movements for peace, justice, and ecology. Her books include Coming Back to Life, World as Lover, World as Self, Rilke's Book of Hours, Mutual Causality, and her memoir, Widening Circles. Her web site ( tells more about The Great Turning and includes her teaching schedule. 2002

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