” Old age, sickness and death do not have to be equated with suffering; we can live and practice in such a way that dying is a natural rite of passage, a completion of our life, and even the ultimate liberation.” Being with Dying, by Joan Halifax, Shambhala Publications, 2008
Joan Halifax Roshi by Gary Block
“My field is dying,” says Joan Halifax Roshi, with a smile. “How we die and how we live can’t be separated because factors and policies surrounding death affect the well-being of us all.”
Halifax, Head Abbess and Founder of Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and director of the Project on Being with the Dying, should know. “You could say I’ve been on a death trip for the past thirty years,” she adds. “Although, I’m a specialist in death, I’m also an incredible generalist.”
One might wonder how Halifax became a generalist on “a death trip.” But her journey fromanthropologist to Zen master and expert on working with the end stage of life has everything to do with her quest to understand what makes us human.
With a PhD in Medical Anthropology and forty years of fieldwork in countries as varied as Africa, Mexico, Tibet and Canada,
Halifax breaks new ground in her book, Being with Dying showing how the universal stages of caregiving, dying, and death, are a celebration of life.
“We should remember that only ten percent of people die quickly and painlessly,” she says. “For the rest of us, whether we are on a conscious death trip or not, we will share this process with the people we love, and they will do this with us.”
WRR: Your new book, Being with Dying, draws on thirty years of work in end of life care. What did you learn about yourself in the process of writing it?
Joan Halifax: I learned once again that writing a book is a difficult and revealing practice. Every word is a process of truth telling. One has to live with these words in the future; so being careful and self-honest is essential. One thing I do feel is that I am more at ease around the truth of mortality than I had supposed. I think being older has contributed to that, but the book certainly helped because I had to think deeply about the
process of dying during the years it took to write it.
WRR: You were cared for by an African-American woman whose mother was a slave. How did that experience shape your life and career?
Joan Halifax: My caregiver was very poor, but to me she seemed freer than anybody. She had a taste of freedom that entered my heart. That sense of freedom was not a vague thing. It had to do with how you live your life in details. And by this I mean, her vision of freedom was kindness, strength and courage. These are qualities I treasure and endeavor to cultivate and nourish in my life. Because of my relationship with her, by the
time I reached my late teens, I was deeply committed to the Civil Rights Movement.
WRR: Your book, The Fruitful Darkness, was published in 1993. In it, you share stories of your work with medicine men and women, shamans, and Buddhist teachers. You write, World and mind and nature, self and other, our breath and the atmosphere are not separate from each other. Those words seem prescient today in light of global warming and the world financial crisis. How did they come out of your fieldwork and personal experience?
Joan Halifax: My experience living and working in the natural world, the mountains, rivers, deserts and forests, showed me that human beings must rely on nature not only for survival, but to thrive. But I also learned from my meditation practice, and as well my experience with the world of indigenous healers. At one point in my life, I moved between New York City to the mountains and rainforests of Mexico. The contrast taught me that we share the same atmosphere. In Mexico, I saw the rainforest being cut down and realized that life as I had known it, was coming to an end.
WRR: You worked with folklorist and musicologist Alan Lomax. How did he influence your work?
Joan Halifax: Alan and his father, John, founded the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Alan was an anthropologist, a discoverer of patterns of culture, and very political. He began his career doing fieldwork with his father, recording songs of sharecroppers and prisoners in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. His love of the aesthetic aspects of culture was profound. Through him and his work, I met many extraordinary people like Margaret Mead and others. And my years of working with him gave me a deep sense of the importance of requisite variety for the survival of the planet.
I started my fieldwork with him in Pentecostal churches like my caregiver’s church, and became fascinated with the alternate states of consciousness I witnessed during their services. In 1969, I went to Mali to the Dogon people. Every 53 years they have a seven-year period of initiation. I sat there and thought, how do we transform ourselves in our own culture? Our initiation rites offer no alternative but to send kids to war. Or we get them drunk. There is no opportunity for true maturation.
Through Alan, I learned the importance of cultural and environmental diversity. The Civil Rights Movement spoke to that. We spoke up against the way our society was pressing us into a kind of monoculture, one where everything becomes objectified. He saw this coming and wanted not only to preserve a record of cultures on the brink of death, but also to make a point about the importance of appreciating cultural differences.
Alan Lomax, Library of Congress
WRR: In The Fruitful Darkness, you begin with your mother’s death. You were on a meditation retreat in the desert when she died. How did she influence your life and work before and after her death?
Joan Halifax: I was leading a wilderness fast for my students in Death Valley, California. Her death was devastating and not anticipated. She had, during all her life, been a volunteer helping others. Her compassionate spirit influenced my value system and eventually led me to the practice of Buddhism.
WRR: In Being with Dying, you start with a very obvious premise: To be alive, means that we are all dying. You share your father’s dying process as a lesson on how to die and how to care for the dying. What was his profession and what steps had he taken to prepare for his death?
Joan Halifax: My father was a businessman. He did nothing consciously to prepare himself for death, but he was a good man, a loving person, and when death came, he was ready.
“As he lay dying, my father did not seem to be afraid. He had included old age, sickness and death in his life, even as he let go of it. He held the memory of my mother together with the presence of his new wife: his children, grandchildren, and great- grandchild together with nurses, doctors and aides; and his discomfort alongside his sense of humor. Nothing was left out. As he gave away his life, his wisdom and kindness grew even deeper. He let go of opinions, concepts, and ideas. He let go of us. His true nature shone through his dissolving body as boundless love completely free of clinging, for everyone around him.” – Being with Dying
WRR: Early in Being with Dying, you write: Accepting impermanence and our shared mortality requires loosening the story knot: letting go of our concepts, ideas, and expectations of what we think dying ought to be. It also calls us to “practice dying” – that is let go, surrender, give away… Isn’t that opposite of everything Western culture teaches?
Joan Halifax: Letting go may seem to go against the grain of Western society, and in some ways it is. But no matter, lots of Westerners let go well. I feel it is more an individual thing. But clearly, some cultures create better conditions for people to learn that letting go is the way to go!
WRR: In Buddhism letting go is rooted in meditation practice, the idea that life and what we see is always in flux; is, in fact, impermanent.
Joan Halifax: The Buddha himself had a really hard time in meditation. Mara, the ruler of desire and death, always came to him, even into his death because the Buddha died at a time of war; a time and place not so different from now. What the Buddha came to understand is that nothing is fixed in time and space.
It can be liberating to realize how groundless our moment-to- moment experiences really are. We have to ask the question, what is a self? Is that a me and everything else is not me?
In meditation we know there is no other. Even Albert Einstein knew that the idea of the “other” is foolish.
There is one thing we all have: breath – an engine – a piston that goes up and down. The in-breath. The out-breath. The piston that one day stops. So Buddhism is a medium for dying people, caregivers, and family institutions.
WRR: While reading Being with Dying, it was enlightening to see how people coped with the realization they were dying. How the will to live and the life force is so strong. How can caregivers be present for their loved ones during this process?
Joan Halifax: We need to learn to bear witness. And “to bear witness” is not to be separate from what is going on, but rather to be open to whatever is arising. How to do this? Meditate. Pay attention to whatever is going on in your own mind. Start with your own experience because the ability to be present is often hard won. Most often we escape in distraction or denial. Instead of sitting, we get up and open the drapes or check our cell phones or turn on the television.
WRR: I was touched by the story of the young man who didn’t quite fit into his role as a hospice care volunteer. He ended up asking terminally ill men and women where they longed to go if they were well enough to leave. He then went and filmed those places. What can we learn from his way of dealing with dying?
Joan Halifax: This is a wonderful story, and is about the truth that we can always find a way to include everyone in the caregiving process.
The young man had become discouraged and decided to leave hospice for good when he ran into a doctor who took the time to ask him what was wrong. When the young man explained that he wasn’t sure he was the right kind of volunteer, the doctor asked, “What do you love to do?”
The young man told him he liked to make movies, and the doctor encouraged him to use his talents with those in hospice care. Before anyone knew what was happening, the young man began talking to patients, listening to their stories of places they longed to see one last time.
He then went to those places and filmed them: to the beach to record waves moving in and out, to a woman’s favorite bar where he filmed the bartender making her favorite drink, a Mai Tai. He even went to one person’s former home, asking the new owners if he could come in. When he finished his project, he came to the hospice and hosted a film festival for the patients and their caregivers to great acclaim.
WRR: Your book is a very useful reference tool. At the end of each chapter you offer a practice with which to contemplate mortality and impermanence. They are from the Buddhist tradition, but as one who doesn’t practice Buddhism I found them to be universally helpful. Could you recommend a practice that would be practical and helpful in daily life?
Joan Halifax: For me, the richest practice, which has many nuances is “giving and receiving” or tonglen. How can we receive and take in suffering, letting it go into the vastness of who we really are, and send mercy into the world? Imagine what are planet would be like if we all did this.
WRR: You are the founder and Abbess of Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Would you talk about your community and the importance of community in end of life care?
Joan Halifax: I feel that living in a spiritual community is deeply challenging and wondrous. To have a shared practice, shared values, and shared intention to serve those who are suffering keeps life very vibrant and full.
WRR: You offer a comprehensive end of life care training program. If one is interested, what should they consider?
Joan Halifax: The Project on Being with Dying at Upaya Zen Center trains clinicians, family caregivers, and those interested in exploring issues related to dying and death. We also train clinician/contemplatives in our approach to care of the dying, not only at Upaya, but at major medical centers around the country, in Europe, and Canada. In addition, we have a local project that trains contemplative caregivers to sit with dying people. We also have a weekly meeting for those who are facing life-threatening illness; and offer to those who need it, refuge at Upaya as well as several donation programs a year.
WRR: What is the greatest gift we can receive from a loved one who is dying?
Joan Halifax: The simple truth that we cannot know death except by dying. This is the mystery that lies beneath the skin of life. But we can feel something from those who are close to it. In being with dying, we arrive at a natural crucible of what it means to love and be loved. And we can ask ourselves this: Knowing that death is inevitable, what is most precious today? Can we meet ourselves and others now?