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Lessons on Compassion from Joan Halifax

Longtime meditation practitioner and Zen Buddhist nun reflects on how compassion is a proven necessity for the improvement and sustenance of our world.

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Joan Halifax has a powerful voice, full of conviction and layered with a definitive yearning to convey love and empathy. She has been practicing meditation for more than 50 years, has traveled the world giving to others, worked on death row at a maximum security prison, and has sat by the deathbeds of many hundreds of people. Halifax embodies the dharma teachings she devotes herself to: She is a peacemaker, full of drive and desire for change. Halifax is a Zen Buddhist roshi who fuses the teachings from her own particular framework with modern science to convey the import of compassion and kindness. After years of studying the nature of compassion, she was appointed as a distinguished visiting scholar in 2011 at the Library of Congress to continue her research. Over the past few years, Halifax has developed a method for thinking about how we can start to make compassion a priority for our kids, communities, and companies.

On Sunday, March 1, 2015, Halifax shared her powerful message with the 2,400 attendees of Wisdom 2.0 in San Francisco, a conference dedicated to mindfulness, technology, and business. She says in order for society to embrace compassion, we must first “disrupt complacency” and clarify what we mean when we say compassion. In the modern era, compassion is often misconstrued as something potentially harming and weak for its tendency to prioritize sympathy over justice. Additionally, says Halifax, “we’re flooded with atrocities by our technology,” and the facelessness of these atrocities leads us to disinhibition, which shuts down our capacity for compassion. The question then becomes, “How do we develop resilience and character as we are flooded with images of violence, aggression and suffering?” In an effort to fully answer this question, Halifax presented four steps: meaning, mapping, method, and movement.

To establish meaning surrounding compassion, Halifax poses the question: “How do we engender a narrative that creates the conditions where we profoundly value compassion in our lives?” She begins with the science: Studies have shown that compassion not only primes us for well-being, but even Darwin understood that compassion ensures human survival. Too, it’s been shown that helping others makes us happy, and is health promoting for the physical body. In addition to these overt benefits, compassion “affirms our moral principles” connecting us most deeply to our truth.

In mapping compassion in a way that creates meaning Halifax proves that it is necessary to both differentiate compassion and empathy, and also show the foundational elements for true compassion. Compassion, says Halifax, is “the capacity to attend to the experience of others, to feel concern for others, to be able to really sense into what will serve others, and also to have the capacity to serve both directly and indirectly.” It is also impossible, Halifax continues, to have compassion without “attention and affective balance, intention and insight, and embodiment and engagement.” Compassion, unlike empathy, has drive and desire to alleviate suffering, whereas empathy is merely contemplative resonance. As such, Halifax concludes by noting that “neural networks involved with priming us for empathy and compassion are less likely in disembodied people,” and we therefore need to truly map and embody this process in order to attain full efficacy of compassion.

In order to cultivate contemplative interactions, Halifax created a method with an inspiring mnemonic, G.R.A.C.E., which works in the following way:

1. Gathering our attention. Get really present, usually through the medium of the body.
2. Recalling our intention. How do we tap in to our motivation or ethical foundation? How do we access what it means to be our fullest human self?
3. Attuning to oneself and others. Tune in to our biases and prime those networks that allow us to sense into the experience of others.
4. Consider what will really serve. Use insight, metacognition, and our basic wisdom as a means for engaging in interactions in ways that are really principal to who we are.
5. Engage with people, and make an ending. Follow through; complete your task.

The pneumonic is inspiring and the goals are lofty, and Halifax is adamant that we need not wait any longer to begin: “We don’t have to wait. We can gather our attention now. We can attune to ourselves and be really present. We can look deeply into our fundamental wisdom. We can do it now! Sense what will really serve others.” She goes on to quote his holiness, the Dalai Lama, who said, “Compassion is not religious business; it is human business. It is not a luxury; it is essential for our own peace and mental stability. It is essential for human survival.”


Roshi Joan Halifax with the Dalai Lama.

And so, according to Halifax, now is the time to “start a global movement and get radical!” It’s time to convince our peers, our colleagues, our families, and our friends, “Compassion is a sane, healthy, collaborative, radical necessity.” There are many steps we can take, both spiritually and presently, to make this change, and it begins with our awareness. “Enter into the vividness of this moment and recognize suffering and see how you can end suffering in your life and in this world.”

Once we incorporate deep understanding of the benefits of compassion into our minds and into our actions, we must vow to act on our compassion: “Educate and protect the lives of children; sit with the dying; don’t overconsume, be meat-free; give refuge to refugees; volunteer in prisons; protect our earth; look to women for leadership; address issues in our lives, in our culture, in our society related to racism; build community and a just economic order; end war, and become a peacemaker.” If we can release technology’s hold on our minds, and instead fill our awareness with desire for change, we can start a global movement to rally around compassion, and we can, as Halifax says, “Make compassion viral.”

Related: How to Be a Responsible and Conscious Meat Eater



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