World As Lover – World As Self

World As Lover: World As Self
Seeing the world as oneself - or as a lover - transforms ordinary reality and provides a greater sense of purpose

Spiritual traditions have tended to look at the world in four major ways: as a battlefield, as a trap, as a lover, and as the self. The first two – as a stage set for our moral battles or as a prison to escape – are probably familiar, and have in many ways contributed to our lack of care for the world. But what of the other two? Might they shed some useful light on life in an interconnected world?

This is the focus of Joanna Macy’s wonderful book, World As Lover; World as Self, published by Parallax Press, from which we have taken the following excerpts. Joanna Macy is a scholar of Buddhism and general systems theory. She is known in many countries for her trainings designed to empower creative, sustained social action.

The way we define and delimit the self is arbitrary. We can place it between our ears and have it looking out from our eyes, or we can widen it to include the air we breathe, or at other moments, we can cast its boundaries farther to include the oxygen-giving trees and plankton, our external lungs, and beyond them the web of life in which they are sustained.

I used to think that I ended with my skin, that everything within the skin was me and everything outside the skin was not. But now you’ve read these words, and the concepts they represent are reaching your cortex, so “the process” that is me now extends as far as you.

And where, for that matter, did this process begin? I certainly can trace it to my teachers, some of whom I never met, and to my husband and children, who give me courage and support to do the work I do, and to the plant and animal beings who sustain my body.

What I am, as systems theorists have helped me see, is a “flow-through.” I am a flow-through of matter, energy, and information, which is transformed in turn by my own experiences and intentions.

To experience the world as an extended self and its story as our own extended story involves no surrender or eclipse of our individuality. The liver, leg, and lung that are “mine” are highly distinct from each other, thank goodness, and each has a distinctive role to play. The larger selfness we discover today is not an undifferentiated unity. Our recognition of this may be the third part of an unfolding of consciousness that began a long time ago, like the third movement of a symphony.

In the first movement, our infancy as a species, we felt no separation from the natural world around us. Trees, rocks, and plants surrounded us with a living presence as intimate and pulsing as our own bodies. In that primal intimacy, which anthropologists call “participation mystique,” we were as one with our world as a child in the mother’s womb.

Then self-consciousness arose and gave us distance on our world. We needed that distance in order to make decisions and strategies, in order to measure, judge, and to monitor our judgments. With the emergence of free-will, the fall out of the Garden of Eden, the second movement began – the lonely and heroic journey of the ego.

Nowadays, yearning to reclaim a sense of wholeness, some of us tend to disparage that movement of separation from nature, but it brought great gains for which we can be grateful. The distanced and observing eye brought us tools of science, and a priceless view of the vast, orderly intricacy of our world. The recognition of our individuality brought us trial by jury and the Bill of Rights.

Now, harvesting these gains, we are ready to return. The third movement begins. Having gained distance and sophistication of perception, we can turn and recognize who we have been all along. Now it can dawn on us: we are our world knowing itself. We can relinquish our separateness. We can come home again – and participate in our world in a richer, more responsible and poignantly beautiful way than before, in our infancy.


It is my experience that the world itself has a role to play in our liberation. Its very pressures, pains, and risks can wake us up – release us from the bonds of ego and guide us home to our vast, true nature. For some of us, our love for the world is so passionate that we cannot ask it to wait until we are enlightened.

To view the world as lover is to look at the world as a most intimate and gratifying partner. We find some of the richest expressions of our erotic relationship to the world in Hinduism, for example in Krishna worship, but this erotic affirmation of the phenomenal world is not limited to Hinduism. Ancient Goddess religions, now being explored (at last!) carry it too, as do strains of Sufism and the Kabbalah, and Christianity has its tradition of bridal mysticism.

It also occurs outside the religious metaphor. A poet friend of mine went through a period of such personal loss that she was catapulted into extreme loneliness. Falling apart into a nervous breakdown, she went to New York City and lived alone. She walked the streets for months until she found her wholeness again. A phrase of hers echoes in my mind: “I learned to move in the world as if it were my lover.”

Another Westerner who sees the world as lover is Italian storyteller Italo Calvino. In his little book, Cosmicomics, he describes the evolution of life from the perspective of an individual who experienced it from the beginning, even before the Big Bang. The chapter I want to recount begins with a sentence from science: “Through the calculations begun by Edwin P. Hubble on the galaxies’ velocity of recession, we can establish the moment when all the universe’s matter was concentrated in a single point, before it began to expand in space.”

“We were all there, where else could we have been?” says Calvino’s narrator, Qfwfq, as he describes his experience. “We were all in that one point – and, man, was it crowded!” Given the conditions, irritations were almost inevitable. See, in addition to all those people, “you have to add all the stuff we had to keep piled up in there: all the material that was to serve afterwards to form the universe … from the nebula of Andromeda to the Vosges Mountains to beryllium isotopes. And on top of that we were always bumping against the Z’zu family’s household goods: camp beds, mattresses, baskets. …”

So there were, naturally enough, complaints and gossip, but none ever attached to Mrs. Pavacini. (Since most names in the story have no vowels, I have given her a name we can pronounce.) “Mrs. Pavacini, her bosom, her thighs, her orange dressing gown,” the sheer memory of her fills our narrator

“with a blissful, generous emotion. … The fact that she went to bed with her friend Mr. DeXuaeauX, was well-known. But in a point, if there’s a bed, it takes up the whole point, so it isn’t a question of going to bed but of being there, because anybody in the point is also in the bed. So consequently it was inevitable that she was in bed with each of us. If she’d been another person, there’s no telling all the things that might have been said about her. …”

This state of affairs could have gone on indefinitely, but something extraordinary happened. An idea occurred to Mrs. Pavacini: “Oh boys, if only I had some room, how I’d like to make some pasta for you!” Here I quote in part from my favorite longest sentence in literature, which closes this particular chapter in Calvino’s collection:

“And in that moment we all thought of the space that her round arms would occupy moving backward and forward over the great mound of flour and eggs … while her arms kneaded and kneaded, white and shiny with oil up to the elbows, and we thought of the space the flour would occupy and the wheat for the flour and the fields to raise the wheat and the mountains from which the water would flow to irrigate the fields … of the space it would take for the Sun to arrive with its rays, to ripen the wheat; of the space for the Sun to condense from the clouds of stellar gases and burn; of the quantities of stars and galaxies and galactic masses in flight through space which would be needed to hold suspended every galaxy, every nebula, every sun, every planet, and at the same time we thought of it, this space was inevitably being formed, at the same time that Mrs. Pavacini was uttering those words: “… ah, what pasta, boys!” the point that contained her and all of us was expanding in a halo of distance in light years and light centuries and billions of light millennia and we were being hurled to the four corners of the universe … and she dissolved into I don’t know what kind of energy-light-heat, she, Mrs. Pavacini, she who in the midst of our closed, petty world had been capable of a generous impulse, “Boys, the pasta I could make for you!” a true outburst of general love, initiating at the same time the concept of space and, properly speaking, space itself, and time, and universal gravitation, and the gravitating universe, making possible billions and billions of suns, and planets, and fields of wheat, and Mrs. Pavacinis scattered through the continents of the planets, kneading with floury, oil-shiny, generous arms and she lost at that very moment, and we, mourning her loss.”

But is she lost? Or is she equally present, in every moment, her act of love embodied in every unfolding of this amazing world?

Whether we see it as Krishna or as Mrs. Pavacini, that teasing, loving presence is in the monsoon clouds and the peacock’s cry that heralds the monsoon, and in the plate of good pasta.

For when you see the world as lover, every being, every phenomenon, can become – if you have a clever, appreciative eye – an expression of that ongoing, erotic impulse. It takes form right now in each one of us and in everyone and everything we encounter – the bus driver, the clerk at the checkout counter, the leaping squirrel.

As we seek to discover the lover in each lifeform, you can find yourself in the dance of rasa-lila, sweet play, where each of the milkmaids who yearned for Krishna finds him magically at her side, her very own partner in the dance. The one beloved has become many, and the world itself her lover.



The following stories grew out of Joanna Macy’s experience living and working with Tibetan refugees in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains.

One afternoon at his residence in Dharamsala, India, I told His Holiness the Dalai Lama how Buddhist teachings have inspired my work to empower social and environmental activists. I told him how they help us experience our interexistence with all beings. In Northern California, for example, in direct actions on behalf of the old-growth forests, they help us confront the loggers and lumber company executives without fear or blame, because we can remind ourselves now of our deep interconnections throughout our former lives.

“How can Western people know this if they do not believe in rebirth?” His Holiness asked.

“For rebirth we substitute evolution,” I said. And to illustrate I took his hand and led him on a two-minute evolutionary remembering. “Each atom in each cell in this hand goes back to the beginning of time”… to the first explosion of light and energy, to the formation of the galaxies and solar systems, to the fires and rains that bathed our planet, and the life-forms that issued from its primordial seas. … “We have met and been together many times.”


Another lesson that summer also occurred casually, in passing. In order to help the Tibetans I wanted to tell their story to the world – a story I was just beginning to discover. I had stunning photos of the Tibetans in exile, of their faces and crafts, and the majestic lama dances of their lineage. I envisaged an illustrated article for a popular periodical, but to hook Western sympathies and enlist Western support, such an article, I figured, should include the horrors from which these refugees had escaped. Stories of appalling inhumanity and torture on the part of the Chinese occupation had come to me only peripherally, in snatches, from laypeople and other Westerners. The Rinpoches themselves were reluctant to describe or discuss them.

I presented my argument to Choegyal Rinpoche, the most accessible and confiding of the tulkus. He had been a mature thirteen-year-old when the Chinese invaded his monastery, and he had his own memories to tap.

Only when I convinced Choegyal that sharing these memories with the Western public would aid the plight of Tibetan refugees did he begin to disclose some of the details of what he had seen and suffered at the hands of the Chinese before his flight from Tibet. The stories came in snatches of conversations, as we paused outside the new craft production center or walked over to the monastery in its temporary, rented quarters.

Many of these elements, the forms of intimidation, coercion, and torture employed, have become by now, over a quarter of a century later, public knowledge. Reports now available through agencies like Amnesty International and the International Council of Jurists, may not have the poignant immediacy of Choegyal’s words, but they give the gist.

The lesson I learned, however, and that will stay forever with me, is not about the human capacity for cruelty. I was standing with Choegyal under a rhododendron tree, the sunlight flickering on his face through the leaves and the blossoms the color of his robes. He had just divulged what perhaps was the most painful of his memories – what the Chinese military had done to his monks in the great prayer hall, as his teachers hid him on the mountainside above the monastery. I gasped with shock, and breathed hard to contain the grief and anger that arose in me. Then I was stilled by the look he turned on me, with eyes that shone with unshed tears.

“Poor Chinese,” he murmured.

With a shudder of acknowledgment, I realized that the tears in his eyes were not for himself or for his monks or for his once great monastery of Dugu in the land of Kham in Eastern Tibet. Those tears were for the destroyers themselves.

“Poor Chinese,” he said, “they make such bad karma for themselves. ”

I cannot emulate that reach of compassion, but I have seen it. I have recognized it. I know now that it is within our human capacity. And that changes for me the face of life.


One day, after my morning time with the children, I was walking down the mountain to meet again with my Khampa friends. On the way I accompanied my oldest, eleven-year-old son to a Dharma class for Westerners at a school for young Tibetan lamas. The English-speaking nun in charge was teaching and she said, “So countless are all sentient beings, and so many their births throughout time, that each at some point was your mother.” She then explained a practice for developing compassion: it consisted of viewing each person as your mother in a former life.

I played with the idea as I walked on down the mountain, following a narrow, winding road between cedars and rhododendron trees. The astronomical number of lifetimes that the nun’s words evoked boggled my mind. What a pity, I thought, that this was not a practice I could use, since reincarnation hardly featured as part of my belief system. Then I paused on the path as the figure of a coolie approached.

Coolies, or load-bearing laborers, were a familiar sight on the roads of Dalhousie, and the most heavily laden of all were those who struggled up the mountain with mammoth logs on their backs. They were low-caste mountain folk whose bent, gaunt forms were dwarfed by their burdens, many meters long. I had become accustomed to the sight of them, and accustomed as well to the sense of consternation that it triggered in me. I would usually look away in discomfort, and pass by with internally muttered judgments about the kind of social and economic system that so exploited its own population.

This afternoon I stood stock still. I watched the slight, bandy-legged figure move slowly uphill towards me, negotiating his burden, which looked like the trunk of a cedar, around the bend. Backing up to prop the rear of the log against the bank and ease the weight of it, the coolie paused to catch his breath. “Namaste,” I said softly, and stepped hesitantly toward him.

I wanted to see his face. But he was still strapped under his log, and I would have had to crouch down under it to look up at his features, which I ached now to see. What face did she now wear, this dear one who had long ago mothered me? My heart trembled with gladness and distress. I wanted to touch that dark, half-glimpsed cheek, and meet those lidded eyes bent to the ground. I wanted to undo and rearrange the straps that I might share her burden up the mountain.

Whether out of respect or embarrassment, I did not do that. I simply stood five feet away and drank in every feature of that form – the grizzled chin, the rag turban, the gnarled hands grasping the forward overhang of log.

The customary comments of my internal social scientist evaporated. What appeared now before me was not an oppressed class or an indictment of an economic system, so much as a distinct, irreplaceable, and incomparably precious being. My mother. My child. A thousand questions rose urgently in my mind. Where was he headed? When would he reach home? Would there be loved ones to greet him and a good meal to eat? Was there rest in store, and songs, and embraces?

When the coolie heaved the log off the bank to balance its weight on his back again and proceed uphill, I headed on down the mountain path. I had done nothing to change his life, or betray my discovery of our relationship. But the Dalhousie mountainside shone in a different light; the furnishings of my mind had been rearranged, my heart broken open. How odd, I thought, that I did not need to believe in reincarnation for that to happen.