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Posts Tagged ‘joan halifax’

Matthew Arnold
1882-1888

In his sonnet “To a Friend” (1849), the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold offers “special thanks” to the tragic dramatist Sophocles, whose “even-balanced soul . . . / Business could not make dull, nor Passion wild.” The “mellow glory of the Attic stage,” the author of Antigone and Oedipus Rex “saw life steadily, and saw it whole.”

To see life steadily, which is to say, to remain continuously present for the present moment, is a fundamental aim of Zen practice. Toward that end, a  variety of means are available to the serious practitioner, most prominently sitting meditation, conscious breathing, and mindful attention to everyday life. With proper instruction and sufficient diligence, all of these methods can eventually be mastered. Being fully present can become a dominant mental habit, replacing older habits of inattention and distraction.

Seeing life whole is another matter. What, exactly, Arnold meant by that phrase is open to question, but whatever else his words might imply, they suggest a balanced and comprehensive vision of the human condition. Such a vision would, as Zen teachers put it, “include everything”: illness as well as health, sorrow as well as joy, death as well as life. To attain to so equable and inclusive a view is a noble objective, but many practical obstacles stand in the way. Three in particular come to mind.

Fixed ideas

Some ideas come and go.  Accidental in origin, they cross our minds, only to promptly disappear. By contrast, other ideas set up house and resist eviction. They become our idées fixe: our fixed ideas. To the extent that we identify with those ideas, regarding them as our very own, they continue to influence our thought, speech, and actions.

Sometimes our fixed ideas reflect our ethical convictions and fortify our personal integrity. They provide a moral compass. But such ideas can also cause us to blindly “stay the course,” even when the course is destructive, and to see people and events from a static, limited perspective. That is why the Diamond Sutra urges us to cultivate “a mind that alights nowhere”: a mind that remains fluid and responsive under changing conditions.

Various methods have been developed for that purpose. Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto Zen tradition, admonishes us to take “the backward step” and to examine our inner lives, including our habitual patterns of thought, from that perspective. Thich Nhat Hanh advises us to keep the question, “Are you sure?” uppermost in mind when addressing difficult questions. And Shunryu Suzuki bids us remember that even our cherished verities are “not always so.” Any or all of these methods can loosen the hold of our fixed ideas.

Preferences

“The Great Way is not difficult,” a revered Zen text assures us, “for those who have no preferences.” The author of this pronouncement, the Third Zen Ancestor, does not mention where such people might be found.

Preferences are intrinsic to human nature. Without our personal preferences, we would be dull creatures indeed. Here in Western New York, I have a friend who prefers winter to summer. He has come to the right place. For my own part, I prefer green tea to coffee, chamber music to orchestral music, and Mozart to Wagner any day of the week.

There is nothing harmful about such preferences. The risk lies in our attachment to them. Such attachment can restrict our imaginative freedom and our ability to develop a broader, wiser, and more compassionate outlook. As with our fixed ideas, our preferences can be tenacious, but insofar as their presence is merely arbitrary or reactive, they can be challenged, suspended, or abandoned altogether. What is needed, as before, is full and continuous awareness, joined with the will to manifest greater breadth of mind.

Dualistic thinking

The Zen teacher Joan Halifax recently remarked that we human beings have a “penchant for dualities.” From the cradle on, we are conditioned to see the world through the lens of dualistic language and thought. Dark and light, hot and cold, beautiful and ugly. Even more fundamental are the dualities of “self” and “other,” “us” and “them.”

From the vantage point of Zen, such dualities are both necessary for survival and ultimately delusive. What meditative practice reveals, moment by moment, is that both the self and the external world are impermanent and interdependent. The world of phenomena is not a mere assemblage of solid “things” but an intricate web of ever-changing relationships. And the so-called self is not a separate entity but an integral part of that dynamic whole. “Unity is diversity,” Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, “and diversity is unity.”

Such a view is neither common nor conventional. To embrace and practice it requires energy, persistence, and perhaps the help of a good teacher. But the effort is well worth it, if our intention is to disentangle ourselves from our fixed ideas, transcend our self-limiting preferences, and realize our innate capacity to see life whole.

 

 

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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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“Snow was general all over Ireland,” writes James Joyce at the end of his short story “The Dead.” In this celebrated story Gabriel Conroy, a middle-aged Dubliner, comes to terms with his own mortality. As often in Western literature, snow is a metaphor for death.

Today, what is general all over America—and indeed the world—is fear, whether its object be joblessness, a terrorist attack, or the more familiar specters of aging, sickness, and death. What have Zen teachings to say about fear? And what has Zen practice to offer?

One person who has confronted fear in general and the fear of death in particular is Joan Halifax Roshi, founder and Abbot of the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Trained as an anthropologist, Roshi Joan turned to Zen practice after the death of her grandmother. For the past four decades she has devoted her life to teaching Zen and caring for the dying.

In her new book, Being with Dying (Shambhala, 2008), Halifax presents the fruit of her life’s work. Observing that the fear of death causes many of us to avoid, ignore, or otherwise deny the “only certainty of our lives,” she reminds us that “to deny death is to deny life.” And to embrace death can be the ultimate form of liberation:

The sooner we can embrace death, the more time we have to live completely, and to live in reality. Our acceptance of death influences not only the experience of dying but also the experience of living; life and death lie along the same continuum. One cannot—as so many of us try to do—lead life fully and struggle to keep the inevitable at bay.

But how, exactly, are we to embrace death? To address our fear?

Halifax offer a wealth of “skillful means,” including zazen, walking meditation, reflection on one’s priorities, and the contemplation of nine perspectives on living and dying (“The human life span is ever-decreasing; each breath brings us closer to death”). But of her many strategems, two in particular stand out, the first of them a practical method, the second a matter of attitude.

Halifax calls her method “strong back, soft front.” By this she means the posture of meditation, in which we first straighten, then relax, our backs, feeling the strength and stability of an upright spine. Having established that stability, we soften the front of our bodies, opening our lungs to the air and our minds to things as they are. We bring our presence, strengthened but softened, to whatever suffering we encounter.

Simple though it sounds, this practice can bring immediate calm. And over time, it can engender a profound shift of attitude :

To meet suffering and bear witness to it without collapsing or withdrawing into alienation, first we must stabilize the mind and make friends with it. Next, we open the mind to life—the whole of life, within and around us, seeing it clearly and unconditionally from that stable inner base. And then we fearlessly open our hearts to the world, welcoming it inside no matter how wretched or full of pain it might be. I’ve come to call this the “threefold transparency”—us being transparent to ourselves, the world’s being transparent to us, and us being transparent to the world.

As Halifax readily acknowledges, this practice is anything but quick or easy. But with the necessary effort come eventual liberation and the capacity to be of genuine help to others. “It may take effort,” she observes, “to return our mind to practice. And it usually takes effort to bring energy and commitment to everything we do. Effort at its very core means letting go of fear.”

At a time when fear is as general as Joyce’s snow, such a perspective is as worthy as it is rare.

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