Standing at the Edge is an evocative examination of how we can respond to suffering, live our fullest lives, and remain open to the full spectrum of our human experience.
Joan Halifax has enriched thousands of lives around the world through her work as a humanitarian, a social activist, an anthropologist, and as a Buddhist teacher. Over many decades, she has also collaborated with neuroscientists, clinicians, and psychologists to understand how contemplative practice can be a vehicle for social transformation. Through her unusual background, she developed an understanding of how our greatest challenges can become the most valuable source of our wisdomand how we can transform our experience of suffering into the power of compassion for the benefit of others.
Halifax has identified five psychological territories she calls Edge Statesaltruism, empathy, integrity, respect, and engagementthat epitomize strength of character. Yet each of these states can also be the cause of personal and social suffering. In this way, these five psychological experiences form edges, and it is only when we stand at these edges that we become open to the full range of our human experience and discover who we really are.
Recounting the experiences of caregivers, activists, humanitarians, politicians, parents, and teachers, incorporating the wisdom of Zen traditions and mindfulness practices, and rooted in Halifax’s groundbreaking research on compassion, Standing at the Edge is destined to become a contemporary classic. A powerful guide on how to find the freedom we seek for others and ourselves, it is a book that will serve us all.
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May I do a great deal of good without ever knowing it. — Wilbur Wilson Thoburn
In the early seventies, my passion for biology and the sea led me to serve as a volunteer at Lerner Marine Laboratory in the Bahamas. I assisted a biologist from Brandeis who was researching the ever-so-brief life cycle of the intelligent and wondrous Octopus vulgaris, which we know as the common octopus.
My work afforded me the rare chance to witness a captive female octopus spawn her eggs after she was fertilized. Hundreds of thousands of translucent, teardrop-shaped eggs, each the size of a grain of rice, were spun out of her mantle into long, lacy strands that hung in the water of the aquarium where she was captive. As the weeks passed, she floated like a cloud above them, not hunting or eating, just gently moving the water around the knotted thread of eggs that were slowly maturing. Hovering over her eggs, keeping them aerated, she hardly budged, and her body slowly began to disintegrate, becoming food for her brood as they hatched. The mother octopus died to feed her offspring, her flesh the communion meal for her hatchlings.
I was puzzled and moved by the strange sight of this beautiful creature dissolving before my eyes. Although her sacrifice was not altruism per se, but part of the natural life cycle of her species, this octopus mother brought up a lot of questions for me about human behavior — questions about altruism, self-sacrifice, and harm. When is human altruism healthy? When do we give so much to others that we can harm ourselves in the process? How do we recognize when our altruism might be self-centered and unhealthy? How do we nurture the seeds of healthy altruism in a world where being hurried and uncaring is so often the order of the day? How does altruism go off the rails, over the edge?
In my later work with dying and incarcerated people, and as I listened to the stories of parents, teachers, lawyers, and caregivers in my capacity as a Buddhist teacher, I began to understand altruism as an Edge State. It is the narrow edge of a high cliff, one that allows us a vast view but also one that can erode under our feet.
To act altruistically is to take unselfish actions that enhance the welfare of others, usually at some cost or risk to our own well-being. When we are able to stand firm in altruism, we encounter each other without the shadow of expectation and need lurking between us. The recipient of our kindness may discover trust in human goodness, and we are ourselves enriched by the goodness of giving.
However, when our physical and emotional safety is at risk, it can be challenging to keep our feet planted on solid ground; it's all too easy to lose our footing and freefall into harmful forms of serving. We might help in a way that undermines our own needs. We might inadvertently hurt the one we're trying to help by disempowering them and taking away their agency. And we might "appear" altruistic, but our motivation is not well grounded. These are forms of pathological altruism, as we'll explore.
Standing at the edge of altruism, we gain a view of the vast horizon of human kindness and wisdom — so long as we avoid falling into the swamp of egoism and need. And if we do find ourselves stuck in the swamp, our struggle doesn't have to be in vain. If we can work with our difficulties, we might be compelled to figure out how we got there and how we can avoid falling off the edge again. We might also get a good lesson in humility. This is hard work — but it's good work that builds character and helps us become wiser, humbler, and more resilient.
I. AT THE HIGH EDGE OF ALTRUISM
The word altruism was coined in 1830 by French philosopher Auguste Comte, who derived it from vivre pour autrui, or "live for others." An antidote to the selfishness of living for ourselves, altruism became a new social doctrine based on humanism rather than religion. Altruism was an ethical code for nonbelievers, one detached from dogma.
Those who act from the purest form of altruism are not looking for social approval or recognition, and they are not looking to feel better about themselves. A woman sees a child she doesn't know wandering into the path of a car. She doesn't think, Saving this child would make me a good person — she just rushes into the road and grabs the child, putting her own life at risk. Afterwards, she probably doesn't praise herself too much. She thinks, I did what I had to do. Anyone else would have done the same. She feels relieved because the child is alive and well. As this example illustrates, altruism is a step beyond ordinary generosity; it entails self-sacrifice or physical risk.
In 2007, Wesley Autrey (not far from autrui), a construction worker, jumped onto the Manhattan subway tracks to save Cameron Hollopeter, a film student who was having a seizure and had fallen from the platform onto the tracks. Autrey saw the oncoming train and leapt down to haul Hollopeter out of the way. But the train was coming too fast, so Autrey threw himself over Hollopeter in the foot-deep drainage trench between the tracks. As he held down the seizing man, the train passed over them both, grazing the top of Autrey's knit cap. No thought to self, just an unmediated impulse to save a fellow human's life.
Later, Autrey seemed bewildered by all the attention and praise he received. He told The New York Times, "I don't feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right."
I see Autrey's story as an example of pure altruism. We all have altruistic impulses, but we don't all act on them at all times. Other people on that subway platform no doubt saw Hollopeter seizing and recognized the need to help — but they also understood that they could get killed in the process. Altruism happens when our impulse to serve others overrides our fear and our instincts of self-preservation. Thankfully, Autrey was resourceful enough to save a life and to survive as well.
All over the planet, every day, people are acting from unmediated altruism to serve one another. Like the unidentified Chinese protester who stood resolutely in the pathway of the tanks heading toward Tiananmen Square. Like the doctors in Africa who so courageously treated Ebola patients. Like the Parisians who opened their homes to those escaping the 2015 terrorist attacks. Like the three thousand courageous Syrian volunteers who serve as first responders rescuing survivors after the bombs fall on civilian neighborhoods. Like Adel Termos, who tackled one of the suicide bombers heading toward a crowded mosque in Beirut the day before the Paris attacks in 2015. When Termos caused the bomb to detonate away from the crowd, he lost his own life — but he saved the lives of countless others. Like Ricky John Best, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, and Micah David-Cole Fletcher, who fearlessly intervened in a racial attack on two teenage girls riding the MAX Light Rail train in Portland in May 2017. Ricky and Taliesin lost their lives; Micah survived. As Taliesin was bleeding out, he offered these words: "Tell everyone on this train I love them." In our fraught world, I feel that it is important to hear stories like these to keep our faith in the beauty and power of the human heart and to remember how natural altruism is.
Self, Selfish, or Selfless?
Let's return for a moment to the woman who pulls the child out of traffic. If she later thinks, I'm a good person for doing that, does this self-congratulatory thought negate the altruism of her action? The strictest definitions of altruism do not allow for ego involvement, either before or after the action. Altruism is characterized as an act of selflessness that is about benefiting others, free of expectation of an external reward (such as gratitude or a quid pro quo), and free of internal rewards like higher self-esteem or even better emotional health. Pure altruists have "no gaining idea," to quote Zen master Shunryu Suzuki-roshi — they gain nothing from their beneficial actions. They are fundamentally unselfish.
Great contemplative practitioners and some naturally compassionate human beings have the kind of boundless heart that is open to serve in all circumstances. No self, no other; just unbiased goodness toward all. But most of us are merely human, and it's very human for us to feel some sense of fulfillment from serving others.
Whether pure altruism even exists is a subject of debate among psychologists and philosophers. According to the theory of psychological egoism, no act of service or sacrifice is purely altruistic, because we are often motivated by at least some small feeling of personal gratification, or we feel a little ego enhancement after helping others. This theory might hold that in the real world of human psychology and behavior, there is no such thing as pure altruism.
Buddhism takes a more radical position; it says that altruism and its sister, compassion, can be totally free of the ego, the small self. Altruism can arise spontaneously and unconditionally in response to the suffering of others, as it did for Autrey. Buddhism also suggests that selfless concern for the welfare of others is part of our true nature. Through contemplative practice and ethical living, we can resist the pull of selfishness and come home to the place inside us that loves all beings and holds them in equal regard; the place that fearlessly aspires to end their suffering and is free of biases.
Thích Nhat Hanh writes, "When the left hand is injured, the right hand takes care of it right away. It doesn't stop to say, 'I am taking care of you. You are benefiting from my compassion.' The right hand knows very well that the left hand is also the right hand. There is no distinction between them." This is the kind of altruism that is non-referential, meaning that it is not biased toward family members, friends, or other in-group affiliations.
A poem by Joseph Bruchac conveys this deep and humble sensibility to care for all beings equally:
Here, the grampa is a good example of a living bodhisattva, in Buddhism, someone who freely saves all beings from suffering. Grampa keeps stopping to rescue those toads, though it means scrambling along the rainy, dark road. Smiling, he seems to be experiencing what Buddhists call "altruistic joy," joy in the good fortune of others.
Altruistic joy is considered to be a truly nourishing quality of mind. In this way, Buddhism agrees with Western psychology that feeling joy about the good fortune of others is good for us. I know I feel better mentally and physically when I am doing good things for others, although feeling better isn't what motivates me. Recent studies in social psychology suggest that being less self-centered and more generous is a source of happiness and contentment for the giver. One study showed that very young children, even those under two years old, tend to experience a greater sense of well-being when they give treats than when they receive them. Another found that adult participants who spent money on others experienced greater satisfaction than those who spent money on themselves. And the neuroscientist Tania Singer has discovered that compassion (a close companion of altruism) triggers the brain's reward centers and pleasure networks. She believes that humans are wired for kindness. When we act from kindness, we feel aligned with our deepest human values. We take joy in our actions, and life feels more meaningful.
Conversely, when our actions harm others, we don't feel well; we often lose sleep, become irritable, and worse. With more and more research documenting the positive health outcomes for people who help others (e.g., enhanced immune response and increased longevity), we might soon face a wave of pseudo-altruists who help others just to live a longer and healthier life. Of course, this might not be a bad problem to have.
Forgetting the Self
For me, one of the most moving examples of altruism is the story of the late Englishman Nicholas Winton. In 1938, as the Nazis were in the process of occupying Czechoslovakia, Winton organized the transport of 669 children, most of them Jewish, from Czechoslovakia to Britain. He ensured their safe passage through Europe by train and found a home in Britain for each and every refugee. This was an incredibly risky, selfless act. He didn't even tell his wife for fifty years. He wasn't interested in fame, though in the end he did become famous when his wife told the BBC about this extraordinary endeavor, after she discovered his scrapbooks when cleaning their attic in 1988.
That year, the BBC invited Winton to the airing of a show called That's Life. Unbeknownst to him, people whom he had saved, now in their fifties and sixties, had also been invited. The presenter said, "Is there anyone in our audience tonight who owes their life to Nicholas Winton? If so, could you stand up, please?" Everyone in the studio audience stood up. Winton hugged the woman next to him and wiped away tears.
We can ask if we can really know Winton's precise motivations, and whether his actions may have reified his sense of self in some way. In 2001, when a New York Times reporter asked why Winton did what he did, Winton modestly replied, "One saw the problem there, that a lot of these children were in danger, and you had to get them to what was called a safe haven, and there was no organization to do that. Why did I do it? Why do people do different things? Some people revel in taking risks, and some go through life taking no risks at all." An interesting personal assessment of his extraordinary courage.
Winton saw the need, saw that he could serve, and had an appetite for positive risk. If he felt any "fulfillment" from his actions, would that change the way we regard him? I think not. Saving the lives of 669 children earns our profound appreciation. His actions had such a powerful long-range effect, through generations, that we simply rest in the wonder that this happened, and that so many people benefited. Winton lived a long life, passing away in 2015 at age 106.
As Auschwitz survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said, "Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself. ... The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is."
II. FALLING OVER THE EDGE OF ALTRUISM: PATHOLOGICAL ALTRUISM
It's sometimes challenging to keep altruism healthy; as we stand at this cliff's edge, we can be vulnerable to falling into harm. When we help excessively and ignore our own needs, we can begin to resent the person we are helping and the situation in general. I knew a woman who cared around the clock for her cancer-ridden mother. Worn out, frustrated that she couldn't do more to alleviate her parent's pain, and feeling guilty for being so frustrated, she ended up turning anger toward her mother, and then later toward herself. She felt she had lost heart and failed both her mother and herself.
When our altruism shifts out of selfless goodness into obligation, duty, or fear ... or we simply feel burned out from giving, we may start to churn with negative emotions. I remember listening to a schoolteacher who was angry at himself for spending "too much time" helping a needy student. And a nurse who came to resent her patients, then felt ashamed for feeling so negative toward those whom she had once enjoyed serving.
We may also believe that helping a patient, student, or relative gives us permission to offer unsolicited advice or to control their actions. Once, when I was in the hospital very sick with sepsis, I became the recipient of so much kindness that I was almost done in. Finally, one of Upaya's chaplains wisely advised me to have a sign put on my door: "No visitors." Struggling through fever and chills, I was hosting an overwhelming number of visitors who were giving me copious counsel on how to recover my health. These kind people had taken time out of their day to visit me and were trying to be helpful — but clearly, I needed my own energy to heal, and not theirs. I couldn't even mentally track what they were saying, my fever was so high. Their need to help seemed to overwhelm their capacity to feel into my situation and to realize that I could not be receptive. Altruism's edge in these situations can easily crumble when our anxiousness or need to fix take the lead.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Standing at the Edge"
Copyright © 2018 Joan Halifax.
Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsForeword by Rebecca Solnit
A VIEW FROM THE EDGE
Futility and Courage
I. At the High Edge of Altruism
Self, Selfish, or Selfless?
Forgetting the Self
II. Falling over the Edge of Altruism: Pathological Altruism
Help that Harms
Healthy or Not?
III. Altruism and the Other Edge States
IV. Practices That Support Altruism
Practicing Bearing Witness
V. Discovery at the Edge of Altruism
The Wooden Puppet and the Wounded Healer
I. At the High Edge of Empathy
Take a Knee
Throughout the Body, Hands, and Eyes
II. Falling over the Edge of Empathy: Empathic Distress
Empathy Is Not Compassion
Emotional Blunting and Blindness
Between Gift and Invasion
III. Empathy and the Other Edge States
IV. Practices that Support Empathy
The Practice of Rehumanization
V. Discovery at the Edge of Empathy
I. Standing at the High Edge of Integrity
Moral Nerve and Radical Optimism
Living by Vow
II. Falling over the Edge of Integrity: Moral Suffering
The Pain of Moral Injury
Moral Outrage and the Stickiness of Anger and Disgust
Moral Apathy and the Death of the Heart
III. Integrity and the Other Edge States
IV. Practices That Support Integrity
Expanding the Circle of Inquiry
Vows to Live By
V. Discovery at the Edge of Integrity
I. Standing at the High Edge of Respect
Respect for Others, Principles, and Ourselves
Two Hands Together
Washing the Feet of Others
Water Is Life
II. Falling over the Edge of Respect: Disrespect
Power With and Power Over
Stripped of Dignity
Causes and Effects
III. Respect and the Other Edge States
IV. Practices that Support Respect
The Drama Triangle
The Five Gatekeepers of Speech
Exchanging Self with Other
V. Discovery at the Edge of Respect
I. At the High Edge of Engagement
Energy, Involvement, Efficacy
The Gift of Busyness
II. Falling over the Edge of Engagement: Burnout
Who Burns Out?
Addicted to Busyness
Drinking the Poison of Work Stress
III. Engagement and the Other Edge States
IV. Practices That Support Engagement
Practicing Right Livelihood
No Work Practice
V. Discovery at the Edge of Engagement
6. COMPASSION AT THE EDGE
I. Survival of the Kindest
Science and Compassion
II. Three Faces of Compassion
Asanga and the Red Dog
III. The Six Perfections
IV. Compassion's Enemies
The Arithmetic of Compassion
Falling In and Out of Compassion
V. Mapping Compassion
Compassion Is Made of Non-Compassion Elements
VI. Compassion Practice
VII. Compassion in the Charnel Ground
Harrowing from Hell
The Magic Mirror