Halifax: Personal stabilization key to avoiding elected numbness

Joan Halifax speaks with “On Being” host Krista Tippett on grief, suffering, compassion and death Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy. Photo by Eric Shea.

Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

At 3:15 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, a profound stillness swept through the Hall of Philosophy as Roshi Joan Halifax led the audience through a meditation that touched on death, grief and acceptance.

In the third installment of Week Three’s series based on the theme “Krista Tippett and Friends who Inspire, Commit, Act,” Halifax sat down with radio host and producer Tippett during the 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture and discussed her life, Buddhist faith, inspirations and the vast and human concepts of death, compassion, grief — and neuroscience.

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,” Tippett said.

Halifax’s path toward Buddhism began when she was 4 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 Halifax to turn her curiosity inward.

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

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, 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,” she said.

Though fighting and supporting the causes constituted doing what 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. 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, Halifax said she felt she had found her path.

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

Buddhism taught 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,” she said.

While in her 20s, 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,” Halifax said.

That experience prompted 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,” she said.

While observing the Dogon, 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, Halifax said.

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, 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,” Halifax said.

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,” Halifax said.

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 Tippett, 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, 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,” Halifax said. “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,” she said.

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,” Halifax said.

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, 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,” Halifax said. “We feel this profound moral conflict, yet we can’t do anything about it.”

In response to the overwhelming feelings of pain and futility, 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,” 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, Halifax said.

“When we are more stabilized, then we can face the world with more buoyancy,” she said. “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, 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, Halifax 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, Halifax said.

“But you have to practice,” 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,” Halifax said.

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, 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,” Halifax said.

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, Halifax said.

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

During the later moments of their conversation, Tippett asked 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, 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, 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,” she said. “That becomes a kind of insight that liberates you from the futility of the kind of grief that disallows our own humanity to emerge.”

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