Roshi Joan Halifax is a Buddhist teacher, anthropologist, and author. In her newest book, Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet, she explores the terrain of five psychological territories she calls “Edge States”―altruism, empathy, integrity, respect, and engagement. We spoke with her recently about some of the ideas from the book.
You’ve spent a lifetime trying to understand how contemplative practice can lead to social transformation. On the surface of it, there seems to be a tension between inner reflection and outer action. How can contemplative practice lead to social transformation?
Meditation can assist us in cultivating attention and emotional balance, developing moral character, and nourishing insight, all of which are necessary for principled social action. Without these qualities being strong within us, we are at risk of harm and can cause harm to others.
In Standing At The Edge, you identify five psychological territories that you call “Edge States”—altruism, empathy, integrity, respect, and engagement. Why do you describe these as “Edge States”?
These are qualities that are essential for personal and social well-being, but they also have fraught sides: pathological altruism, empathic distress, moral suffering, disrespect, and burnout. Being at the edge lets us see both the healthy and toxic landscapes, and standing at the edge gives us the big view, and offers us greater depth of field.
We easily enough fall off that edge. But by doing so, we can learn a lot about ourselves and we can develop strength of character by bringing ourselves back to the high edge of our humanity.
You write, “compassion is the most powerful means I know for keeping our feet firmly planted on the earth and our hearts open.” How can compassion lead us away from the darker aspects of the “Edge States”?
Compassion has no down side. Compassion is composed of a suite of non-compassion elements, including attention that is balanced, affect that is pro-social, moral sensitivity, and moral nerve or moral character, insight, and embodiment. These are all powerful valences that combine to prime the emergence of compassion. Compassion is the lever that transforms the challenging side of the “Edge States” back into the healthy aspects of these states. This is just one of the great virtues of compassion, but there are many others.
Standing At The Edge is a book that will inspire readers to become better versions of themselves. What advice would you give to someone after the initial burst of enthusiasm for spiritual and social transformation wanes?
Keep showing up and respect your own situation. That will teach you the value of continuous practice!
Join us August 3-5 for “Being with Dying: A Retreat on Compassionate Care of the Dying,” a retreat with Halifax and Frank Ostaseski.