Are You Standing at the Edge?

Joan Halifax will inspire you to meet life's challenges with courage.

Posted Apr 30, 2018

Steven Seighman/ Flatiron Books
Source: Steven Seighman/ Flatiron Books

This is a time in history when many people feel like they’re standing at the edge of something momentous and disturbing.  It may be happening in their own lives, or as they witness the unfolding of world events, or it may simply be an unsettling feeling of uncertain origin.  This book is an invitation to dive deeper into those uncomfortable places and learn new skills to navigate them.

Roshi Joan Halifax has enriched the lives of thousands of people around the world through her work as a humanitarian, a social activist, an anthropologist, and as a Zen Buddhist senior teacher. Standing at the Edge is based on decades of work collaborating with neuroscientists, clinicians, and psychologists.  Halifax has worked in research labs, with medical teams in Himalayas, at the bedside of the dying, in maximum security prisons and as Abbott of the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe New Mexico. As a keen observer of humanity, a deep thinker, and a compassionate teacher she enriches our understanding of how meditation can be a powerful vehicle for personal and social transformation.

Emotional resilience is the ability to adapt to stressful situations or crises. By having the psychological resources to hold complex emotional states in our awareness, we can then choose to act skillfully instead of reacting based on momentary impulses.  In this book, Halifax has identified five such states, which she calls Edge States:  altruism, empathy, integrity, respect, and engagement. These states can define strength of character, and at the same time can be the cause of great personal and social suffering.

  • Altruism can turn to pathological altruism. Selfless actions in service to others are essential to the well-being of society.  But sometimes, our seemingly altruistic acts harm us, harm those who we are trying to serve, or harm the institutions we serve in.
  • Empathy can fall into empathic distress. When we are able to sense into the suffering of another person, empathy brings us closer to one another, expands our understanding of the world, and inspires us to take action. But if we take on too much of the suffering of others, or identify too intensely with it, we may become too overwhelmed to take action.
  • Integrity involves having strong moral principles and acting in alignment with those principles. But when we engage in or witness acts that violate our sense of integrity, justice, or beneficence, moral suffering can be the outcome.
  • Respect is a way we hold others in high regard. When we go against the grain of our values and principles of civility, and disparage others (or ourselves), respect can disappear into a swamp of toxic disrespect.
  • Engagement in our work can give us a sense of purpose and meaning to our lives, particularly when our work serves others. But overwork, a toxic workplace and the experience of the lack of efficacy can lead to burnout, which can cause physical and psychological collapse.

Halifax offers an invitation to hold these states not only in our minds, but in our hearts. It’s through compassion that we can navigate their complexity. When we have greater understanding and capacity to hold these states, we can meet them with grace and skill.  Through her extraordinary life experiences, she’s developed a deep understanding of how our greatest challenges can become precious sources of wisdom―and how we can transform our experience of suffering into the power of compassion for the benefit of others.

But, can we only be compassionate when we’re in a good mood and everything’s going well for us?  When we’re in physical or emotional pain, our awareness contracts making it seemingly impossible to see beyond the immediacy of our own suffering. Yet, others are suffering too. How can we hold the bigger picture of the reality of life in our awareness and stay in connection to others even though we are in pain? Halifax recounts the experience of falling in the shower and severely breaking her hip bone, clearly an excruciating and frightening experience, yet she is able to keep her awareness open enough to notice the suffering the EMT attending to her. She could feel his deep sorrow – and when she inquired found that his wife is dying of breast cancer. Rather than letting our pain reduce us to helpless creatures, we have the capacity to remember who we really are – not victims of circumstances but open and connected in our humanness.

Suffering is everywhere. To be present and witness the suffering of others and even in ourselves requires dedication and practice.  Through a lifetime of contemplative practice, Roshi Joan Halifax inspires us to be present and to remember our humanity regardless of circumstances.

What seems impossible becomes possible if you’re willing to go to the edge with her.

Copyright 2018 Tara Well, PhD

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