With the ever increasing complexity and suffering facing us in the world today, it can be deeply challenging to live as compassionate, kind, respectful human beings who strive to make a positive difference in the world. Too often, good people brimming with passion, and activists with high ideals, come crashing down when faced with the reality of the enormity of the crises facing the world today. We lose our empathic nature, become mired in frustration, rage, and hopelessness. Or we just burnout.
How do we marry these oppositions within us: Our desire to help the world with our hopelessness? Our empathy with our compassion fatigue? Our altruism with our distress at the suffering we witness?
Roshi, Joan Halifax, has enriched thousands of lives around the world through her long-time work as a humanitarian, social activist, anthropologist and Buddhist teacher. In her new book, Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet, she provides a useful map for how we can respond to suffering and travel courageously as a caring human being. Joan Halifax recounts the experiences of caregivers, activists, humanitarians, politicians, parents and teachers. She shows us the wisdom of Zen traditions and mindfulness practices, and provides her own groundbreaking research on compassion. Through this she gives us a practical guide for standing at the edge.
Edges are places where opposites meet. Where fear meets courage and suffering meets freedom. Where solid ground ends in a cliff face. Where we gain a view that takes in so much more of our world. And where we need to maintain great awareness, lest we trip and fall.
The High and Low Edge
She has identified five psychological territories which she calls Edge States. They are altruism, empathy, integrity, respect and engagement. All of these edge states have a high edge and a low edge.
- Altruism means to ‘live for others.’ An unselfish, humanistic and ethical way of generously contributing to the world. In the negative, altruism when it is excessive and we ignore our own needs, can give rise to resentment and burn out.
- Empathy is when we feel into another, identifying with, and sharing, their emotional experience. Empathy falls into problems when we over-identify with someone else’s pain, or traumatise ourselves vicariously, because then it becomes empathic distress.
- Integrity is a moral strength rooted in compassion. It is a conscious commitment to honour moral and ethical principles. Integrity fails us when we fall into moral suffering and distress, which can be a result of outrage towards people who have violated ethical social norms.
- Respect has three aspects, according to Joan Halifax: Respect for others, respect for principles and self-respect. It is an attitude or honour, consideration and regard for all life. The negative side of respect is disrespect, which is a lack of awareness and mindlessness.
- Engagement is about getting involved; engaging with the world. The downside of engagement is of course burnout, fatigue, cynicism, exhaustion and hopelessness.
These edge states epitomise strength of character and are where great potential resides. “Yet we can also lose our firm footing on the high edge of any of these qualities and slide into a mire of suffering where we find ourselves caught in the toxic and chaotic waters of the harmful aspects of an Edge State.”
She says altruism can turn into pathological altruism, where our seemingly altruistic acts harm those we are trying to serve. Empathy can slide into empathic distress when we take on too much suffering of another and become damaged and unable to act. Integrity can become moral suffering, and respect become disrespect.
Two Sides of the Same Virtue
She recounts a story of a psychologist friend who after years of practicing in his field succumbed to compassion fatigue. He became utterly overwhelmed by the experiences of suffering he was being exposed to through his clients, eventually moving into a place of helplessness and emotional shutdown where he described himself as feeling flat and grey inside.
His story exemplifies the negative outcomes of a combination of all the Edge States: What happens when altruism goes toxic, empathy leads to empathic distress, respect collapses under the weight of sensitivity and futility and turns to disrespect with a loss of integrity, and when engagement leads to burnout.
Another story of a Nepali friend of hers is also shared in the book. Pasang Lahmu Sherpa Akita, one of Nepal’s greatest woman mountain climbers, bucked the odds and turned adversity into strength. Pasang’s home was destroyed during the tremendous earthquake in Nepal in 2015. Grateful she was not killed on Everest along with many others, she and her husband began to organise people and hire trucks to bring food and tarps to people in the quake’s epicentre.
Pasang was acting from altruism, an Edge State that can easily enough tip toward harm. But in speaking with Pasang during her months of intensive service following the earthquake, I never detected anything in her voice but unlimited goodwill, energy and dedication. She also expressed a tremendous sense of relief that she and her husband were able to help.
Joan Halifax illustrates why working with edge states is vital in this example where she shares that her psychologist friend went over the edge and never found his way back, while her Nepali friend stood on the best edge of her humanity. And she asks: “How is it that some people don’t get beaten down by the world but are animated by the deep desire to serve?”
Her answer is compassion.
I have come to view compassion as the way to stand grounded and firm on the precipice and not fall over the edge. And when we do fall over the edge, compassion can be our way out of the swamp.
The Transformative Power of Compassion
Her collaboration, over many decades, with neuroscientists and psychologists to understand how contemplative practice can be a vehicle for social transformation has led to an understanding of how our greatest challenges can become the most valuable source of our wisdom. She believes we can transform our experience into the power of compassion for the benefit of others.
Like a doctor who diagnoses an illness before recommending a treatment, I felt compelled to explore the destructive side of these five virtuous human qualities. Along the way I was surprised to learn that even in their degraded forms, Edge States can teach and strengthen us, just as bone and muscle are strengthened when exposed to stress, or if broken or torn, can heal in the right circumstances and become stronger for having been injured.
She sees our journey through life as one of peril and possibility, sometimes with both happening at once.
Edge States are a fickle territory, and things can go in any direction. Freefall or solid ground. Water or sand. Mud or lotus. Being caught in strong wind on a beach or a high ridge, we can try to stand strong and enjoy the view. If we fall off the edge of our understanding maybe the fall can teach us how important it is to keep our life in balance. If we find ourselves in the mud of suffering, we can remember that decayed matter feeds the lotus. If we are pulled out to sea, perhaps we can learn to swim in the middle of the ocean, even in the midst of a storm. While there, we even might discover how to ride the billowing waves of birth and death, alongside the compassionate bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.
In her book, Joan Halifax shares contemplative practices to support the five Edge States. These practices include Deep Listening, Practicing Now-Knowing, Practicing Bearing Witness, Stewarding Empathy, or the Practice of Rehumanization. They also include a practice in Exchanging Self with Other, practicing gratefulness and practicing grace. These practices are borne out of her decades of Buddhist practice and mind training which have been the focus of her life.
All of us share a common life, a common world, a common destiny.
One of the reasons why meditation practice is so important is that it allows us to develop not only the kind of stability that makes it possible for us to open our heart, and our mind to the world in a very undefended way. And it will give us the strength of this strong back, our capacity to uphold ourselves in the midst of very complicated conditions, but also meditation provides the means for us to perceive reality more clearly and to have insight about the nature of our interconnectedness with each other. In this way we begin to realise the self is not this little sort of circumscribed entity that so many of us are defining and defending. But we begin to see the self from the big point of view where we really understand that there is no possibility for example for me to live without each other, without others, without this Earth being a healthy place, without the creatures, without the air in the ocean.
Working with our own edges, we can learn to embrace and celebrate the challenges of being human today as they are cracking our hearts open, bringing us the opportunity of coming nearer to spiritual illumination and wisdom in an unprecedented manner.
Standing at the edge, our determination to meet the world of suffering becomes a calling as we discover that compassion is the great vehicle that delivers us from suffering and gives us power, balance and ultimately freedom, no matter what we have faced. There, we see that all of us share a common life, a common world, a common destiny.