In "Compassion's Edge States: Roshi Joan Halifax on Caring Better" (American Public Radio, On Being), program host Krista Tippett interviews Halifax, Abbot of Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, N.M., who has devoted a lifetime of work to palliative care. In the program, Halifax offers her insights on the nature of grief and on the effects caregivers experience from working with the bereaved.
The experience of grief is profoundly humanizing and ... we need to create conditions where we are supported to grieve and where we're not told, "Why don't you just get over it?" Or, "It's time" ... [There is a] loss that all of us will face in anticipation of death. It is something that brings great depth and meaning into our lives and also helps us to articulate internally our priorities. What is really important for us? So for me as a human being and not identified as a Buddhist or a woman or a Western person, but as a simple human being, I value the experience of grief.The "Compassion's Edge State" webpage links to a more complete discussion of Halifax's ideas about "edge states" of compassion among caregivers in a talk she presented at the Library of Congress in 2011. Halifax calls one of those edge states "pathological altruism" (which is also known as "compassion fatigue," a term Halifax believes is inaccurate):
[Pathological altruism] is altruism in excess, where the individual who's caring is actually harmed physically or emotionally by the act of caregiving, and that gives rise to a number of other edge states.The edge states she is concerned about are:
- Pathological altruism: Placing needs of others above oneself, causing physical and/or psychological harm to oneself
- Burnout or vital exhaustion: Being overcome by cumulative work demands and stress
- Secondary trauma: Dysfunction from prolonged exposure to others' pain and suffering
- Moral distress: Distress that occurs when a caregiver knows what needs to be done but cannot do it or cause it to happen
- Horizontal and vertical hostility: Behavior that controls, devalues, disrespects, or diminishes another peer or group
- Structural violence: Violence caused by systemic or institutionalized policies, practices, or behavior
In the Library of Congress presentation, Halifax takes an in-depth look at the causes and costs of pathological altruism and the other edge states, analyzes how positive and effective compassion differs from pathological altruism, and summarizes the work she has been doing on developing "a protocol which we can use across cultures and also in various professions and in eduction that would help individuals be more compassionate."
In the "Compassion's Edge State" program, Halifax also interprets the great difficulties of our time (she says, "we see the world distancing itself from its own heart") as potentially foreshadowing a positive global development:
We're in an era of great breakdown, environmentally and socially and psychologically. And when systems break down, the ones who have the resilience to actually repair themselves, they move to a higher order of organization. And I think that this is characterized by something the complexity theorists call robustness, that we can anticipate ... a time of great robustness, which we're in, with tremendous potential to wake up and take responsibility. And, at the same time, we're in a lot of difficulties, and we need resilience to make our way through this change.The abbreviated URL for this blog post is bit.ly/edgestates.