Mark Matousek

Ethical Wisdom

Standing at the Edge: The New Book by Roshi Joan Halifax

The anthropologist and Buddhist teacher lays out a plan for compassionate action

Posted Feb 15, 2018

Roshi Joan Halifax is a force of nature and her powerful new book, Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet (out May 1)  promises to open many minds, and hearts, to what compassion truly means, and why it's so necessary for conscious activism in the world—without burnout. As a medical anthropologist, ecologist, civil rights activist, and hospice caregiver, Halifax has been at the forefront of engaged Buddhism for the past four decades, and Abbott of the Upaya Institute and Zen Center in Santa Fe, which she founded in 1990. Buoyant and unrelenting in her devotion to service, she leads the Humla Nomads Clinic in in Nepal every year and appears, at 75, to be nowhere near slowing down. We talked recently in Costa Rica about Standing At the Edge, and the urgent need for self-care on the path of repairing, and loving, the world. 

Mark Matousek: Let's begin with the idea of 'positive disintegration," a paradoxical idea you introduce early in the book. Why is positive disintegration important? 

Roshi Joan Halifax: I got introduced to the work of the Polish psychiatrist/psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski in the 1960’s and his work fascinated me. He saw profound value in the experience of falling apart, of disintegration, for the development of a person’s character. I recognized how in Western culture we marginalize or condemn people who are destabilized. But perhaps we can understand that they might be in a process of reforming their identity or lack thereof, so to speak. This can be a psycho-mental crisis as well as happening with people who are seriously ill and dying. You can also feel your life is coming apart during a divorce or when you’ve lost a loved one. Being between worlds is positive disintegration.

Stanislav Grof, the psychiatrist I was married to, worked with LSD as an adjunct to psychotherapy. In that context, he also had a vision of positive disintegration. In addition, my work as an anthropologist allowed me to study shamanic cultures where the psycho-mental crisis of the shaman is something that allows an individual to open themselves to the truth of suffering and also the possibility of transforming that suffering into greater strength.

MM:  How does this relate to what you call "edge states?" 

RJH: I created the term “edge states” because I myself have experienced these particularly human characteristics or states, in one way or another, and think they are important for both individuals and for society to understand. There are more than what I’ve written about in my new book Standing at the Edge, but I’ve focused on five as they abide within each other; they are all interconnected. The five edge states, with both their positive and negative aspects, are altruism, empathy, integrity, respect, and engagement. My contention is that the way we transform the conditions that are toxic in each of the edge states is through the medium of compassion.

MM:  Let’s start with the edge state of altruism. What are the pitfalls of altruism?

RJH:  There are profound strengths associated with altruism. Altruism is an important internal and social process, without which you and I wouldn’t be alive. It’s wonderful that our mother—and hopefully our father—were altruistic, so we could be fed, taken care of and protected from the assaults of the world. But altruism implies not only this caring behavior; it also implies some measure of sacrifice: mental, physical, economic, relational, and so forth.

But altruism also has a shadow. As somebody who relates to many people in the caring professions, in education, business, and politics, I’ve had the opportunity to bear witness to the suffering of people who have the intention to be a benefit to others. When the measure of their sacrifice is too much, it can cause undue harm and begins to move into the pathological domain. Of course, there is a broad spectrum associated with this: we ourselves can suffer in the process of giving care to others; we can cause suffering to others we are giving care to; we can cause suffering to the institutions that we serve in as we give care; we can even cause difficulties for the nations associated with the care that we’re giving, like what happened in Haiti or is often the case in Nepal. From one point of view we could say the NGOs have kind of disempowered internal initiatives to serve their populations.

That issue of pathological altruism has come up for me a lot in listening to others, where people experience a trauma or suffering. They identify themselves as good people who engage in acts of service to others, but they’re doing it out of a need to be perceived as a good person.

MM:  Is that what causes the burnout and self-harm?

RJH:  Many things cause harm: working too hard, over-identifying or fusing with the suffering of others, being too empathetic. Or we take on suffering from a moral perspective and focus on the ethical aspects and service to others but we actually end up violating our own principles of care. This touches on how the edge states are interconnected.

MM:  But what about empathy? In the book, you make a point of distinguishing between empathy and compassion.

RJH:  Empathy is the experience of resonance with another. We identify with another or we include another into our subjectivity. We can do that at the somatic or body level, or we can do it from the point of view of emotions, or we can do it in terms of a kind of cognitive domain. We can include into our subjectivity how the other person might see the world. That’s called “perspective-taking” or “mindreading.” 

A world without empathy is a world where we’re dead to each other. But what’s really fascinating is when any of these domains go off the rail. For example, there is a group of individuals who are very somatically attuned to others, with what is called “mirror-touch synesthesia.” These people can sense into what’s happening in the body of another person. Imagine how overwhelming that would be. You’re walking down the street and all this information is rising up within you from the bodies of the people around you.

One really interesting and very positive example of this I included in the book. A Cuban physician who works in the northeast U.S. has spontaneously developed various skillful means for being able to work with this hypersensitivity. He is able to read patients from his own perspective in a way that is very uncommon, very rare. As you can imagine, he’s called to all corners of the hospital to consult.

Affective empathy is the kind of empathy that most of us are more familiar with. We include the feelings of another into our own experience or our own subjectivity. If either somatic empathy or affective, emotionally-based empathy aren’t regulated, we can become over-aroused, overstimulated, and overwhelmed. And that’s called empathic distress. 

I think a good example of cognitive empathy or perspective-taking or mindreading gone awry is the Third Reich, where people identified with Hitler. They began to see out of Hitler’s eyes and became more and more aligned with something that was extraordinarily violent and harmful, taking on the views of this demagogue empathically. That’s when perspective taking can be highly problematic; whereas it’s important in other situations to be able to perspective-take because our ability to connect and communicate would be very limited otherwise.

Edge states are always in a spectrum. Some people have more somatic resonance with others. Some people have more affective resonance. Some people are on the end of the spectrum of psychopaths, where they can figure out what the heck is going on in the other person and in that way, they are able to manipulate or harm that person.

MM:  And integrity? What would be the downside or shadow side to integrity?

RJH:  Integrity is a very powerful edge state for many reasons, but when compromised, we can experience what I call “moral suffering.” There are four kinds of moral suffering that I’ve identified. 

Moral distress is where you can see what needs to be done but you can’t implement. You’re unable to follow a course of action that’s beneficial. Moral injury is when you are engaged in or see acts of egregious harm and you’re traumatized. You feel ashamed. This is associated primarily with the military, as that’s where most of the cases of moral injury have been documented, but I know it’s experienced among politicians, clinicians, humanitarians, and many other individuals. Moral outrage provokes an experience of a mixture of anger and disgust when one perceives egregious harm toward others. We bring this to the attention of others and instead of self-shame and moral injury, it’s shaming and blaming others.

Moral outrage has a place in our society—in all societies—because it’s a regulating mechanism. But when it becomes chronic, it becomes harmful. Knowing our intention is really important when we engage in moral outrage. The last category is moral apathy. That is when we are in a kind of bubble of protection, either constructed by ourselves or constructed by the society in which we live. For example, privilege has protected many of us from the truth of racism in our culture, and psychosocial customs have protected us from gender violence and sexual violence.

MM:  We see that in the #MeToo movement, of course.  

RJH:  Yes, in terms of interpersonal communication, more transparency and a strong drive toward greater gender parity and less tolerance for sexual abuse. What we have right now is a public process of breaking up of the bubble of apathy, which I think is really important, because apathy can be created through drugs, sex, rock and roll, through all kinds of addictive behaviors. Moral outrage can be addictive as well, but apathy is very much primed by the society in which we live.

As a white person, you’re not even aware that you’re swimming in the waters of racism. You have to step out, do what the Zen Buddhist Roshi Bernie Glassman calls, “taking a plunge.” You’ve got to put yourself in environments where the kind of suffering that you’re not even aware of becomes obvious to you. That was one of the reasons why I went into the prison system and worked as a volunteer on death row. I’d never thought much about our prison industrial system, but soon recognized that actually it’s a class and caste system based on race and economic factors. It’s unlikely you’d find many rich white men in these systems because they can buy their way out. Going into that system, you recognize how much rage there is—no matter what side of the equation you are looking at—but you also recognize how the roots of the rage are based on our social perspectives, values, and institutions.

MM:  Next we come to respect, another edge state you recognize. It's hard to see a downside to respect at first.     

RJH:  Well, the downside is obviously disrespect. I was a very sick child, so have a personal experience of this from my early life. Being skinnier, more frail and vulnerable than my peers left me open to their bullying both in grammar school and high school. But it was a nurse who brought it to my attention again with how much disrespect or bullying there is in the nursing profession. She wrote a thesis on horizontal hostility or bullying in the nursing profession, which I cite in the book. Her finding was that 15 to 20 percent of nurses leave the nursing profession because of “horizontal hostility.” I’d always thought it was more a case of doctors bullying in a sort of vertical violence, which is disrespect among people of different ranks. That’s a kind of top-down process. But it can also be a bottom-up process where a patient disrespects a nurse or a physician and is abusive. And of course, this takes place in many arenas besides medicine.

MM: Yes. Finally, you write about engagement as the fifth edge state, another slippery slope for many of us. 

RJH:  Because of my own kind of work habits, I was inspired to understand what burnout was about and so I studied the work of social psychologist Christina Maslach. In Western culture, work becomes an identity and an obsession. People work to a point of becoming sick. But in Asia, it can become an even more toxic problem where death by work is called karoshi in Japanese. Occupational death or suicide, where one works so hard that you have no more meaning in life. This is documented as an issue in Japan, South Korea, and China.

The opposite of this is engagement. It’s when we feel uplifted by our work by meaning, purpose, enthusiasm, vision and efficacy. Also we are not working in a toxic workplace. The principles of right livelihood which are articulated in Buddhism are very much at the heart of what many of us have chosen to do with our lives. The question to ask ourselves is: “How can I have a livelihood that benefits others and doesn’t cause harm to others or myself?”

MM: How do you live with the edge states? Do you find yourself getting overwhelmed?

RJH:  It’s a great question, but mostly no. Mostly my life is joyful, even the tough parts. And I also know how to say, “Forget about it.” (smiles)

I’m just very interested in how things work. If I ever feel that I am about to tip over the edge, I have my practice. I sit every day and I have an institution where I have to show up for zazen. I teach it and I get to practice when I’m with my students. It’s wonderful to have this failsafe built into my life.

I have tilted toward burnout, but have never succumbed to that because I have always felt my work has meaning. I’ve never felt a lack of efficacy. But sometimes I overdo with my enthusiasm, and then I take a nap.

MM:  It seems to me that humility is the key to avoiding burnout. Admitting your own limitations. Being human.      

RJH:  Oh well, humility is in all of these things. It basically means, you’ve slid down into the hole of suffering and made your way out, dusted yourself off and realized, “Oh gosh. That was interesting.”

MM:  Compassion, too.  

RJH:  For yourself and others. There’s a big section at the end of my book with a deep analysis of compassion. What it actually is and how it works. From my point of view, it’s the medium we need so that these positive characteristics we’ve talked about don’t transform and become toxic.

MM:  How does compassion prevent that?     

RJH:  Compassion is involved with a suite of qualities that engage together to prime compassion. It’s a kind of complex dynamical system. It includes our capacity to actually attend to others, to feel concern for others and be fundamentally prosocial, to really care about the wellbeing of others, and to feel concerned when we perceive suffering. It entails our intention to do something, either directly or by simply holding that aspiration in our hearts to benefit another. It also involves insight, because we want to do our best to serve another, but we can’t be attached to outcome, so we also understand the truth of impermanence. There’s a lot of connection with wisdom in compassion, and in the right circumstances, we can engage in action that actually assists in transforming the suffering of others.

MM: Without frying ourselves to a crisp. Compassion doesn't lead to burnout like empathy can.       

RJH: It doesn’t burn us out at all. In fact, there’s a tremendous amount of ongoing research showing how compassion enhances immune response, activates the pleasure centers in the brain, enhances longevity and the sense of moral integrity. When people see others being compassionate, they feel uplifted themselves, so it can be positively contagious. There is no downside.

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