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Roshi Joan Halifax

Altruism. Empathy. Integrity. Respect. Those abstract words enjoy an exalted status in contemporary discourse, perhaps because the qualities they designate often seem in short supply.  Those who embody them earn our admiration, both for their courage and their moral example. In many spiritual traditions, Zen included, the manifestation of such qualities is both an aim and a fruit of dedicated practice.

Yet even the noblest human qualities have their shadow sides. Practiced unskillfully, they can harm both the practitioner and those whom he or she purports to serve. In her new book Standing at the Edge (Flatiron Books, 2018), Roshi Joan Halifax, founder and Abbot of the Upaya Zen Center, takes a hard look at five such qualities, examining their nature, their agency in the world, and their capacity to relieve human suffering. At the same time, she acknowledges the emotional damage that even such commendable qualities as empathy and compassion, practiced without sufficient knowledge or wisdom, can inflict on oneself or others. As a longtime caregiver for the dying, a volunteer in maximum-security prisons, and the director of clinics and service projects in Tibet and elsewhere, Halifax knows whereof she speaks. Grounded in her practical experience and her scholarly training in the social sciences, her book is at once a manual for caregivers and an illuminating collection of cautionary tales, detailing the hazards and the fulfillments attendant to a life of selfless service.

As her organizing metaphor, Halifax has invented the term “Edge States,” by which she means “five internal and interpersonal qualities that are keys to a compassionate life, and without which we cannot serve, nor can we survive.” The five Edge States are altruism, empathy, integrity, respect, and engagement. Standing at the “high edge” of any one of these qualities, Halifax writes, we can lose our footing and “slide into a mire of suffering.” With this extended metaphor as its core, Standing at the Edge consists of six sections, one for each of the Edge States and a sixth on the power of compassion. Within each of the first five sections, Halifax discusses the complexities of the Edge State, its pitfalls for the practitioner, and its relationship to the other Edge States. She then offers practices that can support the healthy development of that particular state, together with her insights into its nature. In the sixth section, she concludes her book with an incisive discussion of compassion, which she views as “the way out of the storm and mud of suffering, the way back to freedom on the high edge of strength and courage.”

The perils intrinsic to Edge States are many and varied. With respect to altruism, the chief danger is “pathological altruism,” or “help that harms.” With empathy, the risks include “empathic distress” and “vicarious trauma,” which occur when the empathic doctor, counselor, teacher, aid worker, or chaplain “[merges] with the sufferer through over-identification.” With regard to integrity, the destructive sides include “moral distress” and its cousin “moral remainder,” which Halifax defines as “the painful emotional residue that lingers following actions that violate one’s sense of integrity.” Regarding respect, the main hazard is disrespect, which arises when “we too easily objectify the other as persecutor or victim, objectify ourselves as a victim, or let others objectify us as a victim, persecutor, or rescuer.” And with “engagement,” or wholehearted commitment to the relief of suffering, the most common negative outcomes are over-exertion and exhaustion.  All too often, an excess of well-intentioned effort leads to burnout.

Artfully and effectively, Halifax balances her discussion of dangers with a systematic presentation of salutary practices, most of them drawn from the Zen tradition. Among them are the practice of “not-knowing,” wherein the practitioner endeavors to let go of fixed ideas; “deep listening,” in which the listener sets aside biases and attends to the other person’s experience; the practice of “living by vow,” including the fundamental vow of non-harming; the practice of mindful speech, as taught by Thich Nhat Hanh; and the practice of Right Livelihood, in which the practitioner finds a way to earn a living without causing personal or social harm. Beyond these specific Buddhist practices, Halifax offers an inspiriting discussion of “universal compassion” and its protective power.  The skillful practice of compassion, she maintains, can keep us grounded “on the high edge of our humanity.”  And should we fall, it can “harrow us from the hells of suffering and bring us home.”

To those familiar with Zen teachings, the markedly schematic structure of Halifax’s book and its heavy reliance on abstract concepts may seem at odds with the Zen tradition, which emphasizes the fluidity of experience and warns against the reification of abstract ideas. But Standing at the Edge is not aimed exclusively at Zen practitioners. Rather, it is addressed, in its author’s words, to “those who encounter others’ difficulties and suffering on a daily basis.” To that general audience, which includes almost everyone, Halifax speaks with eloquence, warmth, and hard-won wisdom.

 

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