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Can You Have Too Much Altruism?

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Roshi Joan Halifax is an esteemed writer, spiritual teacher, founder of Upaya Zen Center and the Nomads Clinic in Nepal’s Himalayas—and she’s spent decades researching the intersection of mind and body through the lens of Buddhism, neuroscience, and anthropology.

Her new book, Standing at the Edge, is the culmination of years spent at the front lines of compassion-based advocacy in prison work, care of the dying, hospital settings, and remote regions of the world. She writes about what she calls “edge states,” places where people go as they endeavor to be of service to the world—but where they can go too far, encountering burnout, despair, and depression. As the world pushes many of us to our limits, her book is an urgent and critical tool that might help all of us find balance.

Roshi Joan Halifax Roshi Joan Halifax

Jenara Nerenberg: How did you identify the five “edge states” described in your book?

Joan Halifax: For years, I’ve been close to many people doing human rights work, environmental work, involved in care of the dying and prison work. I’ve sat with hundreds (maybe thousands) of people who are in service professions from all over the world, and listened to their stories of joy, as well as to stories of their suffering as they endeavored to be of service to others. It’s been fifty years of bearing witness, fifty years of learning.

I have also learned from my own experience, my failures and struggles in caring for others; and the great benefits as well. I saw that what we consider as virtues in making care possible, often had fraught aspects. I had to ask myself what characteristics of heart and mind are really important to strengthen our experience of serving others and what should we be sensitive to in terms of pitfalls.

I identified five “edge states” that have shadow sides but, in their healthy forms, are essential in caring for others: altruism, empathy, integrity, respect, and engagement.

I also discovered that there is a way to transform the negative aspects of the edge states, and that is through compassion. In addition, I learned that even when we “fall off the edge,” we can learn so much from our experience of failure. I have written the new book, Standing at the Edge, as a deep exploration of edge states and compassion.

JN: How do you define compassion?

JH: Compassion is about enhancing the well-being of others, particularly in relation to alleviating their suffering.

I see compassion as composed of non-compassion elements, which includes attention and affect, intention and insight, and embodiment and engagement. And it entails the capacity to attend to the experience of others or another. Attention is a very important component of compassion.

Compassion also involves our capacity to feel concern for others—just because we presence another doesn’t mean we necessarily feel concern. So, the pro-social experience of concern, or the capacity that we know as concern, is really vital—that we actually care about the person who is suffering. And then intention—that we have the intention to be of benefit to others—and then potentially take action, or at least we wish for the best for that person if we can’t engage in direct action.

JN: Can you speak to the relationship between boundaries and pathological altruism?

JH: I write in my new book about the profound value of altruism in our lives and in the world. In fact, we wouldn’t be alive without it. And yet when altruism is unhealthy, when it goes too far, and it harms one physically or mentally or it harms the institutions the altruist is working in or the institution or the nation that the altruist is endeavoring to serve, then it tips into what has been called by social psychologists “pathological altruism.”

Many people who work in service professions—and I as someone who has sat with the dying for many decades—know that altruism that is not principled and grounded and characterized by insight can easily tip into harm.

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<em><a href=“https://amzn.to/2FC4mpP”>Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet</a></em> (Flatiron Books, 2018, 304 pages) Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet (Flatiron Books, 2018, 304 pages)

JN: How can we more often or more easily switch from empathic distress to a state of compassion?

JH: Part of it has to do with our capacity to get grounded and not to get overwhelmed, ourselves, by over-identification with someone who is suffering. Part of it is maintaining intentional balance and to keep in focus the clear intention of why we’re there, that is to benefit others.

Another aspect has to do with our capacity to actually distinguish self from other by taking a meta-cognitive perspective, in other words, not to completely objectify the other but to realize “I am not that person who is suffering.” On some level you are that person, and on another level you aren’t. Vicariously experiencing the suffering of another can truly disable us, whereas what compassion does is provide the medium for us to allow concern to be there but it engages other features, like attentional balance and emotional balance that make it possible for us to find the middle path between objectification and over-identification or too much empathy.

Compassion has three different expressions. One is biased, referential compassion, where there is compassion in relation to an object. There is insight-based compassion which is compassion that comes from understanding the truth of suffering, the truth of impermanence, the value of precepts. And then there is non-referential or universal compassion which the great Tibetan masters feel is the actual, real compassion, where compassion pervades our whole being, and we are ready to respond in all situations. That kind of capacity and readiness to be of service arises in an unmediated way.

JN: What is your advice to people to begin building one’s “internal infrastructure?”

JH: Partly it has to do with how we cultivate an intention which has a strong moral ground. It also has to do with how we cultivate moral sensitivity, our capacity to actually see the contours of goodness and harm in the world in which we live. Another aspect is to engage in practices that are focused on mental training—that is, to cultivate attentional balance, emotional balance, to cultivate insight, so that we have strengthened the internal architecture that allows us to have a character of integrity. Meditation practice can be very important as a means to open up the healthier aspects of our character.

Another thing has to do with the community in which we operate. Relationality is very important in the development of moral character and developing healthy relationships, relationships that are characterized by respect and integrity.

JN: Can you say more about “mental nimbleness?” For example, when you mentioned in the book how the Dalai Lama was able to switch from tears to joy in an instant.

JH: Yes, the ability to state-shift is important, because what happens if we don’t state-shift when we encounter suffering, then we tend to get stuck in the stickiness of suffering.

His Holiness is a great example of someone who state-shifts easily, who has a lot of nimbleness—a lot of plasticity when it comes to his mental experience. He’s able to be in resonance with a scientist in one moment, and then he’s in resonance with a Tibetan refugee in another moment; he’s able to switch back to the scientist in a matter of a mind moment. I think that capacity is characterized by a lack of stickiness, a lack of mental adhesiveness, the capacity to really let go of our experience and to receive the next moment as it is. This ability is an expression of non-referential compassion—and it is a treasure.

JN: What have you learned in observing the dialogue between Buddhists and scientists over the years?

JH: I think that science, in our time, has given Buddhism a certain kind of lift in more conventional settings—that is to say, the kind of information that’s respected in medicine or education or law is usually based on discoveries in science. When science validates what people have practiced or known for thousands of years, when science validates the value of these kind of experiences in our lives and in the life of the world, then it helps to make mental training practices more valued and better understood by people in the wider public.

In my work as a contemplative, since I serve in conventional medical settings—what science has done is allow me to understand my contemplative experience in a more systematic way and to develop a way to communicate the value of contemplative experience in secular settings.

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JN: What area of research is particularly exciting to you right now?

JH: I’ve been part of this movement of contemplative neuroscience since the 1970s—the very early years—and involved in the development of the Mind and Life Institute since the beginning. I feel that the kind of pioneering work of investigating the mind through neuroscience has been extraordinarily beneficial.

We are currently moving into another phase related to social and environmental responsibility and how the institutions that we’re part of reflect what we’ve learned about the mind. I’m interested to see how the kind of research that’s already been done in social psychology and neuroscience and contemplative experience—how this research is going to affect social transformation.

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