Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘joan halifax’

Matthew Arnold
1822-1888

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. (more…)

Read Full Post »

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. (more…)

Read Full Post »

“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.

Read Full Post »