Joan Halifax, author, Buddhist roshi, anthropologist, and caregiver, is a remarkable woman who has lived a multifaceted life of contemplation, activism, and service to others. Raised in a segregated town in Florida and educated in the Episcopal tradition, Halifax attended college in New Orleans, where she became involved in the burgeoning civil rights and anti–Vietnam War movements. Halifax founded and runs the Upaya Zen Center in New Mexico. Her latest book is Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet. Halifax will join Pico Iyer for an intimate conversation on October 23. She spoke recently with the Santa Barbara Independent. What follows is an edited version of the conversation.
What makes a particular psychological experience an edge state? An edge state is a state of virtue, like altruism, that has two valences — one healthy and one unhealthy. For most of us, we experience healthy altruism from our parents who devote themselves selflessly to our well-being so that we may survive. But if we’re not aware and present, altruism can turn pathological, leading to burnout, moral suffering, or cynicism. This is particularly true for people in helping professions, teachers, social-justice activists, and parents.
In Standing at the Edge you wrote that “Buddhists do not separate wisdom from compassion.” Can you explain what this means? Wisdom is the capacity to have insight into the nature of impermanence. Compassion is a response to the truth of suffering. One informs the other and helps us know what action might best serve the situation at hand. But when wisdom and compassion are present, we also know when doing nothing is the most compassionate action.
What is the concept of not-knowing? Western-educated people tend to stand in their knowledge base, their ability to marshal facts to solve problems. Not-knowing is deeper. It’s an openness that is free from judgment and preconceptions. As most people have experienced, there’s a difference between a smart person and a wise person. Even the smartest people can cause a great deal of suffering.
Another concept you write about is that of bearing witness. Bearing witness is the practice of being fully present and connected with our whole being. It’s being in an unfiltered relationship with others and the world around us. Not-knowing and bearing witness are practices that help us take compassionate action: that is, an action with the clear intention of benefiting others.
UCSB Arts & Lectures presents Joan Halifax will join Pico Iyer Tuesday, October 23, 7:30 p.m., at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. For ticket information, call (805) 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.