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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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Consider, if you will, the peculiar status of the word special. Whether employed as adjective or noun, the word means distinctive, uncommon, out-of-the-ordinary. Yet the word itself could hardly be more common. On what seems like a weekly basis, retailers announce their Special Offers and Special Sales. For breakfast, some of us eat Special K, which presumably is superior to Regular K. When we go out to dinner to celebrate a special occasion, we are likely to hear at length about that evening’s specials. In some contexts, as in “special needs,” “special effects,” and Special Counsel, the word’s function is chiefly descriptive, but more often it serves to praise, sell, or persuade. If someone calls you a “very special person,” you can safely take it as a compliment. With rare exceptions, both the literal meaning and the connotations of special are reliably, if vaguely, laudatory. (more…)

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Wallace Stevens 1879-1955

In his poem “Sunday Morning,” the modern American poet Wallace Stevens depicts a leisured woman enjoying her late-morning coffee in a sun-drenched room. “She dreams a little,” the narrator notes; and in her reverie she revisits moments of heightened emotional intensity:

            Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;

            Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued

            Elations when the forest blooms; gusty

            Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;

            All pleasures and all pains, remembering

            The bough of summer and the winter branch.

I first read those lines as an undergraduate, some fifty years ago. They have stayed with me over the decades, partly because of their formal beauty but also because they exemplify what the English poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) viewed as a principal aim of the poetic imagination: the “balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities.” In this instance, the qualities being reconciled are the disparate emotional states associated with spring and fall, summer and winter. Passion and its absence, grief and elation, loneliness and excitement, pleasure and pain—all are held in balance in one harmonious whole. (more…)

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In the spring of 1998, at a meditative retreat in Burlington, Vermont, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh offered some basic instructions for seated meditation. “Just sit there,” he said. “Don’t try to become someone else.”

A year later, in Brownsville, Vermont, I attended a subsequent retreat conducted by Thich Nhat Hanh. On an August afternoon, I sat outdoors with “Thay,” as we called him, and a dozen others, drinking herbal tea. A gentle monk in his early seventies, he wore the earth-brown robes of his Vietnamese order. Now and then, he lifted his cup with both hands and took a sip of tea. At that time, Thich Nhat Hanh was already a figure of international renown. Describing him as an “apostle of peace and non-violence,” Dr. Martin Luther King had nominated him, in 1967, for the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet, on that August afternoon, his silent presence seemed as humble as it was peaceful. Well established in the present moment, he was the very embodiment of his own advice. He showed no sign of wanting to be anywhere or anyone else. (more…)

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gwen-ifill-the-dalai-lama“My job as a reporter,” the late Gwen Ifill once remarked, “is not to know what I think.” Humble in spirit but incisive in content, that remark calls to mind two essential stories from the Zen tradition.

In the first, a learned university professor pays a visit to Nan-in, a renowned Zen master of the Meiji period (1868-1912), with the intention of learning more about Zen. The two men meet for tea.

Eager to impress his host, the professor holds forth at great length, demonstrating his extensive knowledge of Buddhism and expounding his personal views. Meanwhile, Nan-in pours tea into the professor’s cup. When he has filled it to the brim, he continues to pour, spilling tea all over the table.

For a time the professor ignores this distraction, but when he can bear it no longer, he exclaims, “The cup is overfull! No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in replies, “you are full of your opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” (more…)

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Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney

In an interview many years ago, a journalist asked the Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) for his thoughts on aging. At the time, Heaney must have been in his late fifties or early sixties. With his usual precision of language, leavened by a wryly ironic smile, Heaney remarked that growing older had brought “the inevitable attenuations.” He did not elaborate, but anyone of a certain age could readily fill in the blanks. And more important than the words or the missing details was the attitude behind them, an attitude at once rare and profoundly liberating.

Like forty million other men and women over the age of fifty, I belong to the AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons. As a privilege of membership I receive two bimonthly publications: the AARP Magazine, which is printed on glossy paper and vaguely resembles People magazine; and the AARP Bulletin, which is printed on newsprint and resembles a tabloid. The Magazine endeavors to entertain, educate, and inspire me, while perhaps selling an Acorn Chairlift or a life-insurance policy along the way. By contrast, the Bulletin aspires to keep me informed and alert me to financial and health-related hazards threatening older people. Together these complementary organs of our consumer culture purport to enhance my so-called golden years and help me feel more secure. All too often, however, their effect is quite the opposite. (more…)

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BACKYARDOne afternoon a few summers ago, I decided to practice the guitar on our backyard deck. It was a sunny day, the temperature in the mid-seventies. At the time, I was revisiting the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro (BWV 998), a piece I had played for years and knew by heart. Normally, I practice indoors, my eyes fixed on the score. If I’ve memorized the piece, I tend to stare at the fingerboard, as classical guitarists are prone to do. That afternoon, however, I looked out at our spacious and secluded backyard, where the natural world was vividly in motion. Blue jays were foraging in the grass. Leaves quivered in a light wind. High in a tall pine, a dark bird flew in, perched for a moment, and flew out. As I played the first few bars of the Prelude–a lyrical but technically challenging piece–my eyes came to rest on our Curly Willow tree in the middle distance. At the same time, I remained keenly aware of all the peripheral movement. And as I proceeded into the Prelude, I gradually realized that my playing had become more fluent and relaxed. To my surprise, it had also become more accurate, expressive, and rhythmically precise.

That experience was new to me, but it was hardly my invention. Without knowledge or systematic training, I had stumbled upon a technique known to equestrians, martial artists, and other highly skilled performers as “soft eyes.” “Do you know what you need at a crime scene?” asks Detective Bunk Moreland in The Wire. “Rubber gloves?” ventures Detective Kima Greggs. “Soft eyes,” Moreland replies. “You got soft eyes, you see the whole thing.” In essence an integration of peripheral and foeval (central, line-of-sight) vision, the technique of soft eyes is used in fields as diverse as tracking, performance driving, interior decorating, teaching, yoga, and Akido. The personal and social benefits of this technique can be significant, if not transformative. It can permit us at any moment to see “the whole thing.” Yet in obvious ways, the practice of soft eyes runs counter to the prevalence of “hard eyes”–the type of vision we habitually employ when chopping a carrot or threading a needle or working at a computer. To learn to look with soft eyes may require conscious effort. (more…)

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