Joan Halifax is a Buddhist teacher, Zen priest, and anthropologist. She is founder, abbot and head teacher of Upaya Institute and Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Halifax brings many wisdom teachings to her retreats, speeches, and books. In this work, we can see traces of her spiritual activism, her insights as a Zen Buddhist elder, her years of serving those who are dying, and her humanitarian activities.

Halifax is convinced that contemplative practice is a crucial support for those who serve others and who may, along the way, trip, stumble, and fall. Sometimes they plunge into burnout, and other times they manage to regain their footing. In Halifax's view, it's important to remember that "suffering can feed our understanding and be one of the great resources of our wisdom and compassion. " From a psychological perspective, this transformative process is called "positive disintegration."

When we find ourselves squaring off with the pain, loss, destruction, and despair, "Edge States" can provide the boldness and the courage needed for the journey. Marshalling her usual intellectual and imaginative energy, Halifax provides us with maps to these five virtues altruism, empathy, integrity, respect, and engagement. Each one opens the door to new possibilities while also creating obstacles that help us refine our character. Most interesting in this regard is Halifax's explanation of the far and the near enemies of each quality:

"Far enemies are opposites; compassion's far enemy is cruelty. Near enemies are harder to detect; they are unhelpful qualities that masquerade as helpful ones. For example, pity is a near enemy of compassion, because it involves a sense of regret, plus deceptive concern for those who are suffering. William Blake, for example, called pity a distraction, and wrote that it "divides the soul!"

"Other near enemies of compassion include fear and even outrage. Near enemies easily disguise themselves as allies or analogues of compassion. But these emotions can drain us so much that we can't respond in healthy ways to the suffering of others, and we actually may end up doing harm."

Halifax uses stories from her own experiences and those of her caregiving colleagues, activists, politicians, and others to illustrate the transformative power of spiritual practices. Near the end of the book, she shares the following phrases, based on the five virtues. She explains that she usually practices with one of them, "letting it soak into my marrow."

"May I be generous.
May I cultivate integrity and respect.
May I be patient and see clearly the suffering of others.
May I be energetic, steadfast, and wholehearted.
May I cultivate a calm and inclusive mind and heart
so I can compassionately serve all beings.
May I nurture wisdom and impart the benefit of any insights I may have to others."

Try a Spiritual Practice: Exchanging Self with Other