I have a small cabin in the mountains of New Mexico where I spend time whenever I can. It is located in a deep valley in the heart of the Sangre de Cristo Range. It’s a strenuous hike from my cabin up to the ridge at more than twelve thousand feet above sea level, from where I can see the deep cut of the Rio Grande, the rim of the ancient Valles Caldera volcano, and the distinctive mesa of Pedernal, where the Diné say First Man and First Woman were born.
Whenever I walk the ridge, I find myself thinking about edges. There are places along the ridgeline where I must be especially careful of my footing. To the west is a precipitous decline of talus leading to the lush and narrow watershed of the San Leonardo River; to the east, a steep, rocky descent toward the thick forest lining the Trampas River. I am aware that on the ridge, one wrong step could change my life. From this ridge, I can see that below and in the distance is a landscape licked by fire and swaths of trees dying from too little sun. These damaged habitats meet healthy sections of forest in borders that are sharp in places, wide in others. I have heard that things grow from their edges. For example, ecosystems expand from their borders, where they tend to host a greater diversity of life.
My cabin sits on the boundary between a wetland fed by deep winter snow and a thick spruce-fir forest that has not seen fire in a hundred years. Along this boundary is an abundance of life, including white-barked aspen, wild violet, and purple columbine, as well as the bold Steller’s jay, the boreal owl, ptarmigan, and wild turkey. The tall wetland grasses and sedges of summer shelter field mice, pack rats, and blind voles that are prey for raptors and bobcats. The grasses also feed the elk and deer who graze in the meadows at dawn and dusk. Juicy raspberries, tiny wild strawberries, and tasty purple whortleberries cover the slopes holding our valley, and the bears and I binge shamelessly on their bounty come late July.
I have come to see that mental states are also ecosystems. These sometimes friendly and at times hazardous terrains are natural environments embedded in the greater system of our character. I believe it is important to study our inner ecology so that we can recognize when we are on the edge, in danger of slipping from health into pathology. And when we do fall into the less habitable regions of our minds, we can learn from these dangerous territories. Edges are places where opposites meet. Where fear meets courage and suffering meets freedom. Where solid ground ends in a cliff face. Where we can gain a view that takes in so much more of our world. And where we need to maintain great awareness, lest we trip and fall.
Our journey through life is one of peril and possibility—and sometimes both at once. How can we can stand on the threshold between suffering and freedom and remain informed by both worlds? With our penchant for dualities, humans tend to identify either with the terrible truth of suffering or with freedom from suffering. But I believe that excluding any part of the larger landscape of our lives reduces the territory of our understanding.
Life has taken me into geographically, emotionally, and socially complex geographies. Organizing within the Civil Rights and Antiwar movements of the sixties, working in a big county hospital as a medical anthropologist, founding and leading two practice and educational communities, sitting at the bedside of dying people, volunteering in a maximum-security prison, meditating for extended periods, collaborating with neuroscientists and social psychologists on compassion-based projects, and running health clinics in the remotest areas of the Himalayas—all have introduced me to complex challenges, including periods of overwhelm. The education I’ve gained through these experiences—especially through my struggles and failures—has given me a perspective I could never have anticipated. I have come to see the profound value of taking in the whole landscape of life and not rejecting or denying what we are given. I have also learned that our waywardness, difficulties, and “crises” might not be terminal obstacles. They can actually be gateways to wider, richer internal and external landscapes. If we willingly investigate our difficulties, we can fold them into a view of reality that is more courageous, inclusive, emergent, and wise—as have many others who have fallen over the edge.
Over the years, I slowly became aware of five internal and interpersonal qualities that are keys to a compassionate and courageous life, and without which we cannot serve, nor can we survive. Yet if these precious resources deteriorate, they can manifest as dangerous landscapes that cause harm. I called these bivalent qualities Edge States.
The Edge States are altruism, empathy, integrity, respect, and engagement, assets of a mind and heart that exemplify caring, connection, virtue, and strength. Yet we can also lose our firm footing on the high edge of any of these qualities and slide into a mire of suffering where we find ourselves caught in the toxic and chaotic waters of the harmful aspects of an Edge State.
Altruism can turn into pathological altruism. Selfless actions in service to others are essential to the well-being of society and the natural world. But sometimes, our seemingly altruistic acts harm us, harm those whom we are trying to serve, or harm the institutions we serve in.
Empathy can slide into empathic distress. When we are able to sense into the suffering of another person, empathy brings us closer to one another, can inspire us to serve, and expands our understanding of the world. But if we take on too much of the suffering of another, and identify too intensely with it, we may become damaged and unable to act.
Integrity points to having strong moral principles. But when we engage in or witness acts that violate our sense of integrity, justice, or beneficence, moral suffering can be the outcome.
Respect is a way we hold beings and things in high regard. Respect can disappear into the swamp of toxic disrespect, when we go against the grain of values and principles of civility, and disparage others or ourselves.
Engagement in our work can give a sense of purpose and meaning to our lives, particularly if our work serves others. But overwork, a poisonous workplace, and the experience of the lack of efficacy can lead to burnout, which can cause physical and psychological collapse.
Like a doctor who diagnoses an illness before recommending a treatment, I felt compelled to explore the destructive side of these five virtuous human qualities. Along the way, I was surprised to learn that even in their degraded forms, Edge States can teach and strengthen us, just as bone and muscle are strengthened when exposed to stress, or if broken or torn, can heal in the right circumstances and become stronger for having been injured.
In other words, losing our footing and sliding down the slope of harm need not be a terminal catastrophe. There is humility, perspective, and wisdom that can be gained from our greatest difficulties. In her book The Sovereignty of Good (1970), Iris Murdoch defined humility as a “selfless respect for reality.” She writes that “our picture of ourselves has become too grand.” This I discovered from sitting at the bedside of dying people and being with caregivers. Doing this close work with those who were dying and those who were giving care showed me how serious the costs of suffering can be for patient as well as caregiver. Since that time, I have learned from teachers, lawyers, CEOs, human rights workers, and parents that they can experience the same. I was then reminded of something profoundly important and yet completely obvious: that the way out of the storm and mud of suffering, the way back to freedom on the high edge of strength and courage, is through the power of compassion. This is why I took a deep dive into trying to understand what Edge States are and how they can shape our lives and the life of the world.
No Mud, No Lotus
Thinking about the destructive side of the Edge States, I recall the work of Kazimierz Dąbrowski, the Polish psychiatrist and psychologist, who proposed a theory of personality development called positive disintegration. This is a transformational approach to psychological growth based on the idea that crises are important for our personal maturation. Dabrowski’s concept is similar to a tenet of systems theory: living systems that break down can Reorganize at a higher and more robust level—if they learn from the breakdown experience.
Working as an anthropologist in Mali and Mexico, I also observed positive disintegration as a core dynamic in “rites of passage.” These are ceremonies of initiation that positive disintegration. The rotting mud at the bottom of an ancient pond is also food for the lotus. Dabrowski reminds us that our suffering can feed our understanding and be one of the great sources of our wisdom and compassion. Like the exiled Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, we might feel deep sadness in not being able to return to our country for many years, or we might suffer because we are separated from the homeland of the virtuous side of the Edge States, but these hard times of being in the mud of suffering can deeply humanize us.
Another metaphor for positive disintegration relates to storms. I grew up in southern Florida. Every year of my childhood, hurricanes turned our neighborhood upside down. Electric lines crackled in the wet streets, old banyan trees were uprooted from firm earth, and terracotta tile roofs were blown completely off the Spanish-style stucco houses in our neighborhood. Sometimes my parents would take my sister and I to the beach to watch the hurricanes come in. We would stand at the water’s edge, feeling the force of the wind, the slap of the rain. And then we would quickly return home, open all the windows and doors, and let the storm blow through.
I once read about a geologist whose special area of research was the study of beaches. He was being interviewed during a massive hurricane that was slamming into the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The geologist told the journalist, “You know, I’m excited to get out to that beach as quickly as I can.”
After a pause, the journalist asked, “What do you expect to see out there?”
Reading this, my attention sharpened. I expected the geologist to describe a scene of total destruction. But he simply said, “There will probably be a new beach.”
A new beach, a new coastline: gifts of the storm. Here at the edge, there is the possibility of destruction, suffering—and boundless promise.
Edge States are where great potential resides, and working skillfully with these states, understanding can be quickened. Yet Edge States are a fickle territory, and things can go in any direction. Freefall or solid ground. Water or sand. Mud or lotus. Being caught in strong wind on a beach or a high ridge, we can try to stand strong and enjoy the view. If we fall off the edge of our understanding, maybe the fall can teach us how important it is to keep our life in balance. If we find ourselves in the mud of suffering, we can remember that decayed matter feeds the lotus. If we are pulled out to sea, perhaps we can learn to swim in the middle of the ocean, even in the midst of a storm. While there, we even might discover how to ride the billowing waves of birth and death, alongside the compassionate bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara.
Sometimes, I imagine Edge States as a red-rock mesa. Its top is solid and gives us a vast view, but at its rim is a sheer drop-off, with no rocks or trees to slow our fall. The edge itself is an exposed place where a lapse in concentration can cause us to lose our footing. At the bottom is the hard ground of reality, and the fall can injure us. Or sometimes, I imagine that we have fallen into a dark swamp, where we can get stuck for a long time. Whenever we try to extract ourselves, we are sucked deeper and deeper into the mud of suffering. But whether our fall ends in solid rock or a nasty cesspool, we are a long way from the high edge of our best selves, and the descent and landing take their toll.
When we find ourselves on the precipice—the high side of altruism, empathy, integrity, respect, and engagement—we can stand firm there, especially if we are aware of what could happen if we lose our footing. This recognition can fuel our determination to act from our values, as well as our humility about how easy it is to make mistakes. And if we do trip and fall, or if the earth collapses beneath our feet, we have to somehow find our way back to the high edge, where our balance and ballast can keep us firmly rooted and the view includes the entire landscape. Ideally, we can learn to keep ourselves from falling over the edge—most of the time. Yet the itinerary is subject to reality, and sooner or later, most of us will fall over the edge. Important that there is no judgment in that. It’s what we do with that experience, how we use the fall as a place of transformation, that really matters.
I believe that we have to work the edge, expand its boundaries, and find the gift of balance among the diverse ecosystems of the Edge States, so that we can make a greater range of human experience available to us. At the edge is where we can discover courage and freedom. Whether we are encountering the anguish and pain of others or our own difficulties, we are invited to meet suffering head-on so that hopefully we can learn from it—and cultivate perspective and resilience, as well as open the great gift of compassion.
In one sense, the Edge States are all about how we see things. They are a fresh way of viewing and interpreting our experiences of altruism, empathy, integrity, respect, and engagement—and their shadow sides. Through nurturing a wider, more inclusive, and interconnected view of these powerful and rich human qualities, we can learn to recognize when we are standing at the edge, when we are in danger of going over the edge, when we’ve gone over the edge, and how to make it back to the high edge of the best of ourselves.
From there, we can discover how to cultivate a view that is embracing—a view within ourselves that we develop by nurturing deep awareness into how our hearts and minds operate in the midst of life’s great difficulties. And also seeing the truth of impermanence, of interconnectedness, of groundlessness.
Vast view can open when we talk with a dying person about their wishes, when we hear the prison door clang, and when we listen deeply to our children. It can open when we connect on the streets with a homeless person, when we visit the wet tent of a Syrian refugee stuck in Greece, and when we sit with a victim of torture. It can open as well through our own experience of anguish. View can open almost anywhere; without it, we cannot see the edge before us, the swamp below us, and the space within and around us. View also reminds us that suffering can be our greatest teacher.
Many influences have shaped my way of seeing the world and have contributed to my perspective on the Edge States. During the sixties, I was young and idealistic; it was a difficult and exciting time for many of us. We were outraged by the systemic oppression in our society—racism, sexism, classism, ageism. We could see how this oppression fed the violence of war, economic marginalization, and consumerism, as well as the destruction of the environment.
We wanted to change the world. And we wanted a way to work with our good aspirations—to not lose them, nor get lost in them. In this atmosphere of social and political conflict, I began reading books about Buddhism and teaching myself to meditate. I met the young Vietnamese Zen master Thích Nhất Hạnh in the midsixties, and through his example, I was drawn to Buddhism because it directly addresses the causes of individual and social suffering, and because its core teaching says that transforming anguish is the path to freedom and the well-being of our world. I also liked that the Buddha emphasized inquiry, curiosity, and investigation as tools of the path and that he did not recommend we avoid, deny, or valorize suffering.
The Buddhist concept of interdependent co-arising also gave me a new way of viewing the world: seeing the intricate connections between seemingly separate things. As the Buddha explained this concept, “This is, because that is. This is not, because that is not. This comes to be, because that comes to be. This ceases to be, because that ceases to be.” Looking into a bowl of rice, I can see sunshine and rain and farmers and trucks driving on roads.
In a sense, a bowl of rice is a system. Soon after I started studying Buddhism, I began exploring systems theory, which is a way of seeing the world as a collection of interrelated systems. Each system has a purpose; for example, a human body is a system whose purpose (on the most basic level) is to stay alive. All parts of the system must be present for it to function optimally—without a working heart or brain or lungs, we’ll die. The order in which parts are arranged matters; you can’t mix up where the organs are.
Systems range from micro to macro, from simple to complex. There are biological systems (the circulatory system), mechanical systems (a bicycle), ecosystems (a coral reef), social systems (friendships, families, societies), institutional systems (workplaces, religious organizations, governments), astronomical systems (our solar system), and more. Complex systems are typically composed of numerous subsystems. Systems peak, move toward decline, and finally collapse, leaving room for alternative systems to emerge.
I mention this because, together, the Edge States are an interdependent system, influencing each other and forming our character. And systems are the ground in which Edge States develop—interpersonal relationships, the workplace, institutions, society, and our own bodies and minds. As systems decline, so also can we encounter ruin. Yet often, from collapse, a new and more robust perspective on reality can emerge.
Futility and Courage
I have a friend who was a dedicated and skillful psychologist, but after years of practicing, he had caved in to futility. In a conversation with me, he confessed, “I just can’t bear to listen to my patients anymore.” He explained that at a certain point in his career, he had begun to feel every emotion his patients were going through, and he was totally overwhelmed by their experiences of suffering. The constant exposure had eventually dried him up. At one point, he couldn’t sleep, and he was overeating to relieve stress. Gradually he had moved into a space of helplessness and emotional shutdown. “I just don’t care,” he said. “I feel flat and gray inside.” Worst of all, he had begun to resent his clients, and he knew this meant he needed to get out of his profession.
His story exemplifies the negative outcomes of a combination of all the Edge States: what happens when altruism goes toxic, empathy leads to empathic distress, respect collapses under the weight of sensitivity and futility and turns to disrespect with a loss of integrity, and when engagement leads to burnout. Suffering had crept up on the psychologist, and he began to die inside. He could no longer absorb and transform pain to find meaning in his work and his world.
My friend is far from alone in his suffering. Many caregivers, parents, and teachers have confided similar feelings to me. Part of my work has been to address the devastating epidemic of futility, which leads to a deficit of compassion in people who are expected to care.
I have another friend, a young Nepali woman who bucked the odds and turned adversity into strength. Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita, one of the country’s greatest woman mountain climbers, was an hour’s walk from Everest Base Camp in April 2015 when the 7.8 earthquake hit. She heard the thundering avalanche that killed many at Base Camp. She immediately set off to help but was forced to turn back when an aftershock hit.
Pasang’s home in Kathmandu had been destroyed by the quake—but she and her husband, Tora Akita, realized that they had to respond to the loss of life, home, and livelihood that many in Nepal were facing. “I could have been killed at Everest Base Camp,” Pasang said. “But I was safe. I survived. There had to be some reason why I survived. I told my husband, ‘We have to do something for the people who are in trouble.’”
In Kathmandu, Pasang and Tora began to organize young people, and hired trucks to bring rice, lentils, oil, salt, and tarps to people in Sindhupalchowk, the region of the quake’s epicenter. She returned week after week to the Gorkha area with roof tin, tents, medicine, and more tarps for the survivors in a number of villages. She hired local people to make new trails across and over landslides that had destroyed existing pathways. She employed hundreds of villagers to bring food and supplies to people who were completely isolated by the effects of the quake and facing the monsoon season without food or shelter.
Pasang was acting from altruism, an Edge State that can easily enough tip toward harm. But in speaking with Pasang during her months of intensive service following the earthquake, I never detected anything in her voice but unlimited goodwill, energy, and dedication. She also expressed a tremendous sense of relief that she and her husband were able to help.
My psychologist friend went over the edge and never found his way back. My Nepali friend stood on the best edge of her humanity. How is it that some people don’t get beaten down by the world but are animated by the deep desire to serve?
I think compassion is the key. The psychologist had lost his connection to his compassionate heart; burnout had deadened his feelings. Cynicism had sent down a deep root. Pasang, though, was able to remain grounded in compassion and let those feelings guide her actions. I have come to view compassion as the way to stand grounded and firm on the precipice and not fall over the edge. And when we do fall over the edge, compassion can be our way out of the swamp.
When we learn to recognize the Edge States in our lives, we can stand on the threshold of change and see a landscape abundant with wisdom, tenderness, and basic human kindness. At the same time, we can see a desolate terrain of violence, failure, and futility. Having the strength to stand at the edge, we can draw lessons from places of utter devastation—the charnel grounds—of refugee camps, earthquake-destroyed areas, prisons, cancer wards, homeless encampments, and war zones, and at the same time be resourced by our basic goodness and the basic goodness of others. This is the very premise of coming to know intimately the Edge States: How we develop the strength to stand at the edge and have a wider view, a view that includes all sides of the equation of life. How we find life-giving balance between oppositional forces. How we find freedom at the edge. And how we discover that the alchemy of suffering and compassion brings forth the gold of our character, the gold of our hearts.
(Excerpt from Standing at the Edge)
Roshi Joan Halifax, Ph.D., is a Buddhist teacher, Zen priest, anthropologist, and pioneer in the field of end-of-life care. She is Founder, Abbot, and Head Teacher of Upaya Institute and Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She received her Ph.D. in medical anthropology in 1973 and has lectured on the subject of death and dying at many academic institutions and medical centers around the world. She received a National Science Foundation Fellowship in Visual Anthropology, was an Honorary Research Fellow in Medical Ethnobotany at Harvard University, and was a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Library of Congress.