by Michael Kelberer
A piece adapted from Joan Halifax’s book Standing at the Edge: Where Fear and Courage Meet appeared in the July 2018 issue of Lion’s Roar. In it, she talks about two kinds of “edges” in nature that are apt metaphors for places where spiritual growth happens: where ecosystems meet – an edge where growth occurs and where the greatest diversity of life is present; and where a cliff edge meets solid ground – an edge “where we need to maintain great awareness, lest we trip and fall.”
Mental states are like ecosystems, she says, sometimes friendly, sometimes hazardous. It’s important to study our inner ecology so we can tell when we are on that edge, in danger of slipping off solid ground of health into pathology. If we do fall down the slope, however, we can learn.
Edges, says Halifax, are “where fear meets courage and suffering meets freedom.”
In her own life, complex challenges have given her an understanding of the value of accepting the whole landscape of life. And particularly the value of not rejecting those slides down the slope – each of which, no matter how serious, was never a terminal obstacle, but a gateway to “wider, richer internal and external landscapes.” These experiences strengthen us “just like 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.”
The compassion lifeline
Her experience has taught her 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.”She gives two examples from people she has known, one of a therapist whose constant exposure to patients’ suffering led him to burn out, and another of a couple who lost everything in an earthquake, but whose decision to help others affected by the disaster helped them not only recover from their own loss, but thrive.
“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.
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 back out of the swamp.”