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On a Wednesday afternoon a profound stillness swept through the Hall of Philosophy at the Chautauqua Institution as Roshi Joan Halifax led the audience through a meditation that touched on death, grief, and acceptance.

In a series of conversations based on the theme “Krista Tippett and Friends Who Inspire, Commit, Act,” Roshi Halifax sat down with the radio host and producer and discussed her life, Buddhist faith, inspirations, and the vast and human concepts of death, compassion, grief — and neuroscience.

Roshi Halifax is a medical anthropologist, and founder and abbot of the Upaya Zen Center. For the past 40 years, she has helped the dying and their families comprehend and grasp the reality of death and the rituals and feelings that go with the experience of dying. She has studied and written on topics such as death and compassion. “Her wisdom about dying is informed by her wisdom about living,” Ms. Tippett said.

Roshi Halifax’s path toward Buddhism began when she was four years old. She contracted a virus that left her blind for two years. During those formative years, children are immersed in the process of discovery. Blindness forced Roshi Halifax to turn her curiosity inward.

“Another level of your life opens up when you recognize that you have a life that is inside.”

The internal sight she examined during her spell of blindness deepened as she grew older, in part because of her participation with the civil rights and antiwar movements. During the 1960s, Roshi Halifax fought for civil rights alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Later, she protested for peace during the Vietnam War.

“It was a time where we felt we really had the opportunity to engage, not only psychologically, but also socially in terms of changing the global culture — not just our national culture."

Though fighting and supporting the causes constituted doing what Roshi Halifax felt was right, it also left her feeling very polarized, she said. At that time, in her world and philosophy, right and wrong were definite, set in stone. Roshi Halifax said that sense of polarization caused her to suffer.

About the time she first became acquainted with great Zen Buddhist writers such as Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki, she was attracted to the Buddhist emphasis on training the mind. After she attended their lectures and began reading their literature, Roshi Halifax said she felt she had found her path.

“I went, ‘You know, I’m one of these.’ It wasn’t about religion — it was about a philosophical perspective.”

Joan Halifax at ChautauquaBuddhism taught Roshi Halifax that she could take agency over her own mind and mold it in a direction away from feelings of suffering or desire and toward clarity and truth.

“In Buddhism, there are practices about actually stopping or cessation, about taking a backward step about coming to a place where the heart and mind are genuinely reflective, where we’re able to perceive reality in an unfiltered way.”

While in her 20s, Roshi Halifax traveled across the Sahara desert to observe the Dogon people. The Dogon are an indigenous people who participate in a rite of passage every 53 years. The actual experience of the rite of passage lasts seven years.

“What I saw was an entire society, an entire culture going through a rite of passage where they died and were reborn."

That experience prompted Roshi Halifax to question what sorts of rites of passage exist in the United States. She concluded that apart from war, there were very few such rites in the U.S that sacralized life or marked maturation of an individual or a society.

“I became very interested in the effects of rites of passage, how we actually mature ourselves and how we integrate into the various life phases — or into the transitions through loss, through death, through geographical change, moving from one place to another and so forth."

While observing the Dogon, Roshi Halifax realized the importance of ritual. Ritual allows people to transcend chronological time. Ritual can provide a sense of both sacredness and normalcy. The combination is particularly important in the experience of dying, Roshi Halifax said.

Roshi Halifax recently returned from a trip to Japan, where she was involved in a discussion regarding palliative care. Increasingly in Japan, the process for dealing with a dying person includes palliative sedation, or “putting a person to sleep,” before he or she dies. With the method, the patient is often unaware he or she is are dying, Roshi Halifax said. It impedes the spiritual and natural experience of dying that is understood in the West.

In the experience of dying, it is important that the patient and those close to him or her experience the rituals that include reconciliation, expressions of love, reflection, and forgiveness.

“The potential within the dying process to refine one’s priorities, to enter into relationality that has been turned away from and also to find meaning — to make meaning of one’s life — is really extraordinary."

Scientific and medical technologies have blossomed during the past decades. It is time to reintroduce spirituality to medicine, she said.

“As medicine has unfolded in the West, it has become kind of a technological miracle but an existential nightmare.”

Roshi Halifax has cared for the dying since 1970. Last year, she was the distinguished scholar at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, where she developed a lecture titled, “Inside Compassion: Edge States, Contemplative Interventions, Neuroscience.”

During her conversation with Ms. Tippett, Roshi Halifax discussed the different facets of her scholarship. “Edge states” are the psychological and emotional places to which caregivers are pushed when confronted with the overwhelming challenges of caring for the dying. There are three main edge states: pathological altruism, vital exhaustion and vicarious trauma, Roshi Halifax said.

Pathological altruism refers to when a person sacrifices his or her own well-being in the care of another.

“We harm ourselves physically or mentally when we engage in care of others. This actually affects many women whose identities are actually related to the act of giving care, and who become very self-harming in engaging in giving care, in a way that causes harm to their own lives.”

Vital exhaustion, or burnout, occurs when a caregiver is unable to create a proper separation or boundary between himself or herself and the person or institution for which he or she works. Vicarious trauma refers to when someone works with those who are suffering and begins to take on that suffering as his or her own.

“Say, you know, you’re a person who works in the end-of-life field, or a person who’s a chaplain in the military where you’re hearing these terrible stories of pain and suffering, violence and abuse, and it begins to get you, so you suffer these effects vicariously.”

In today’s day and age, where news media constantly bombard people with horrible news and images, they are often pushed in the direction of edge states. The sadness of the world’s suffering can be consuming, Roshi Halifax said.

“We enter into what we call a state of moral distress and futility, and moral distress is something where we see that something else needs to happen. We feel this profound moral conflict, yet we can’t do anything about it.”

In response to the overwhelming feelings of pain and futility, Roshi Halifax said people often choose one of three routes: moral outrage, avoidance through substance abuse or other means, or elected numbness. “A good part of the globe is going numb,” Roshi Halifax said.

We are privy to so much suffering and horror in our lives, through our own experiences and through what we see on the news, that we never have time to stabilize. Stabilization is almost like pushing a metaphorical reset button on our lives. It can be attained through various means: by going to a refuge of peace and tranquility, such as Chautauqua, or by practicing a form of contemplative meditation, Roshi Halifax said.

“When we are more stabilized, then we can face the world with more buoyancy. We have more resilience, you know. We’ve got more capacity to actually address these very profound social and environmental issues.”

Compassion is not sorrow, or pity, it is a multifaceted virtue, and it is good for us, Roshi Halifax said. People can use techniques such as contemplative intervention to train and mold their minds so that they are still sensitive, compassionate and empathetic without becoming overwhelmed, morally outraged and ultimately numb, Roshi said. Training the mind can allow people to better handle pain and sorrow, so that instead of descending into an edge state, they can remain present, compassionate and active, she said.

A neurological study of the brains of Tibetan monks, by Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry, has proven that the brain changes throughout a person’s lifetime. It never stops growing and never reaches a place where it cannot be changed, if we want to train it, Roshi Halifax said.

“But you have to practice,” Ms. Tippett said.

In the study, the section of the brain that controls our sense of compassion was located. Researchers found that when Tibetan monks, who meditate for thousands of hours in their lives, encounter instances of suffering and pain that these instances elicit a compassionate response. They feel that compassion more acutely than the average person, but they are also able to let it go faster.

“It’s not like meditators are in this state of numb equanimity; in fact, they feel the deep press of suffering, but it is a much briefer impact of suffering on the individual."

When they let go of the sorrow quickly, they are able to embrace their compassion and take positive, effective action. There have been many incredible new studies about the human brain, feelings and virtues — courtesy of neuroscience, Roshi Halifax said. For example, it was recently discovered that there is a bit of the brain that holds the capacity to distinguish self from other.

“When you’re able to distinguish self from other, you can feel the resonance and sense into their suffering, but you can also simultaneously understand that you are not in reality experiencing that pain.”

Neuroscientists have discovered that the brain is constantly growing and changing, so it is important to understand that many of the traits and values human beings possess can be trained or further developed through practices like meditation. Although it is possible to further develop people’s traits that cause them to behave compassionately — traits such as focus, attention and positive affect — it is not possible to train compassion, Roshi Halifax said.

“You cannot train people in compassion, but what you can do is you can train people in the processes that prime compassion.”

During the later moments of their conversation, Ms. Tippett asked Roshi Halifax how people should consider grief. The experience of grief is universal — grief is about loss, and everyone has lost something — people, things, ideas and values. In life, we experience the feeling of loss over and over again, Roshi Halifax said.

“The experience of grief is profoundly humanizing,” she said. “We need to create conditions where we are supported to grieve and we are not told, ‘Why don’t you just get over it.’ ”

The experience of grief helps people locate their internal self and truly define their priorities. The challenges of grief highlight the value of contemplative practice, or meditation, Roshi Halifax said.

“When you are in a state of deep internal stillness, you see the truth of change, the truth of impermanence, that’s constantly in flow moment by moment. That becomes a kind of insight that liberates you from the futility of the kind of grief that disallows our own humanity to emerge.”

This article appears courtesy of The Chautauquan Daily. Photo by Eric Shea.

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11 Comments

What a gift to be able to see this again! I have been talking about the experience of being there since I got home that day and am so glad to now be able to share the experience more directly with my friends and family. Seeing Joan was so inspiring. I just picked up a copy of her book The Fruitful Darkness today and immediately fell into it with great joy. Those who have never encountered Joan before this should spend some time and energy looking more into her work. She is a great spirit.

How can we be sure that the world seems to be falling apart at this time any more than it seemed to be falling apart 100 years ago or a thousand years ago. Could it be that what we have more of now is greater access to "the world falling apart" as entertainment? Could it be that in 100 years from now, there will simply be new ways for the world to seem to be falling apart?

I loved the talk about our need for ritual. I agree that my world is deficient in the kind of ritual that builds a sense of community and belonging to other people. My personal world has lots of ritual that gives me a sense of belonging to life. It varies with season, but right now it involves a lot of picking berries and pulling weeds, sometimes its cutting firewood, frequently it's interacting with the wife and kids; other times it's burning the wood and clearing snow. There's plenty of opportunities for practicing presence, attention and compassion in any activity.

A few times I thought that Joan was at a loss for words, then I realized that she was just pausing to stay present to herself. Wow, what an idea.
Krista and On Being staff, I hope you have a nice relaxing vacation coming soon. You've been busy.

Thank you so much for posting this entry. For those who wish to know more about Roshi Joan's work at Upaya Zen Center, please visit Upaya Zen Center

Thank you for the opportunity to share your profound dialogue with Roshi Halifax.

And thank you, too, dear Krista, for the wonderful work you are doing in the world. I listen to your program nearly every Sunday morning and/or online.

With loving best wishes,

Mary E Kaiman

Nice job, Thanks

Joan and Krista's discussion was great comfort and company as I sorted a car-ful of belongings in a time of high transition in which material groundlessness can wear at the sentinels of one's truth and Being and "enoughness." I have been hoping to spend some time at Roshi's monastery, and I was grateful for the quiet replenishment of remembrance of myself in her heart and voice, of my own "I'm one of those" moments. Thanks.

very Good blogThank you!

I'm so sorry for your loss, Barry. She seems to have been a truly generous prosen. It's also a mark of your capacity to love that you were able to nourish the relationship.I too have trouble with the platitudes of just breathe or just sit or open your heart having learned the hard way that an open heart can be an invitation to a trashing party!What stuck with me in this statement is the opportunity to encourage others to reach for what is possible and even for what may only seem impossible because of the mind of poverty the mind that says, Oh, this is all I'm good for/deserve. I think back to your encouragements when I first came on scene and how you fostered the mind of boundlessness in my efforts. That's where I place my mind in this moment to value your teachings.That being said, I like that the topic is troublesome. No other way to develop except by creating trouble to go through, eh? Your point of taking on the words of the teacher brings us to the ko-an of Gutei's finger. How do we truly embody the teachings so that all beings might benefit?

Bruce, that feels comfortable for me. I thhguot of it as a state of grace too.ZDS, I'm glad you like the garden. Everything is in full bloom here! I am deliciously tangled in your word tangled and read something beautiful from Wendy Johnson's Gardening at the Dragon's Gate which hopefully I can post later this week or next. I can also work with the idea of being happy with with you have and feel it is not a closed system. May be because I've worked hard to challenge my feelings of unworthiness or I've been fortunate or it's blind luck that I can. That's very different from others who may feel impoverished through abuse and neglect where the mind of poverty is so deeply furrowed with negative self-judgements.I guess I'm thinking in terms of bodhisattva arms for them to fall into Helmut, you raise a tough point especially for me in my limited nature. I do see something wrong with the situation in Haiti and elsewhere. But I don't see it as outside the realm of Buddha Nature. Maybe I just don't get it

Hi Keep up with The excellent posts.Thank you

What a joy to be able to see and hear this wonderful presentation from Chautauqua although not being able to be physically present. Thank you to the Institute, to Krista Tippett and her program On Being and to Roshi Joan Halifax for sharing your gifts.