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TEDWomen 2010

Joan Halifax: Compassion and the true meaning of empathy

December 3, 2010

Buddhist roshi Joan Halifax works with people at the last stage of life (in hospice and on death row). She shares what she's learned about compassion in the face of death and dying, and a deep insight into the nature of empathy.

Joan Halifax - Author, Zen priest
Known for her compassionate work with the terminally ill, Joan Halifax is a driving force of socially engaged Buddhism. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I want to address the issue of compassion.
00:15
Compassion has many faces.
00:18
Some of them are fierce; some of them are wrathful;
00:21
some of them are tender; some of them are wise.
00:24
A line that the Dalai Lama once said,
00:27
he said, "Love and compassion are necessities.
00:30
They are not luxuries.
00:33
Without them,
00:36
humanity cannot survive."
00:38
And I would suggest,
00:40
it is not only humanity that won't survive,
00:42
but it is all species on the planet,
00:45
as we've heard today.
00:47
It is the big cats,
00:49
and it's the plankton.
00:51
Two weeks ago, I was in Bangalore in India.
00:54
I was so privileged
00:57
to be able to teach in a hospice
00:59
on the outskirts of Bangalore.
01:02
And early in the morning,
01:04
I went into the ward.
01:06
In that hospice,
01:08
there were 31 men and women
01:10
who were actively dying.
01:12
And I walked up to the bedside
01:14
of an old woman
01:16
who was breathing very rapidly, fragile,
01:18
obviously in the latter phase
01:21
of active dying.
01:23
I looked into her face.
01:26
I looked into the face
01:28
of her son sitting next to her,
01:30
and his face was just riven
01:32
with grief and confusion.
01:34
And I remembered
01:37
a line from the Mahabharata,
01:40
the great Indian epic:
01:43
"What is the most wondrous thing in the world, Yudhisthira?"
01:46
And Yudhisthira replied,
01:51
"The most wondrous thing in the world
01:53
is that all around us
01:56
people can be dying
01:59
and we don't realize
02:01
it can happen to us."
02:03
I looked up.
02:13
Tending those 31 dying people
02:17
were young women
02:20
from villages around Bangalore.
02:22
I looked into the face of one of these women,
02:24
and I saw in her face
02:27
the strength that arises
02:30
when natural compassion is really present.
02:32
I watched her hands
02:35
as she bathed an old man.
02:37
My gaze went to another young woman
02:41
as she wiped the face
02:45
of another dying person.
02:48
And it reminded me
02:50
of something that I had just been present for.
02:52
Every year or so,
02:54
I have the privilege of taking clinicians
02:56
into the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau.
02:58
And we run clinics
03:01
in these very remote regions
03:03
where there's no medical care whatsoever.
03:05
And on the first day at Simikot in Humla,
03:08
far west of Nepal,
03:12
the most impoverished region of Nepal,
03:14
an old man came in
03:17
clutching a bundle of rags.
03:19
And he walked in, and somebody said something to him,
03:22
we realized he was deaf,
03:25
and we looked into the rags,
03:27
and there was this pair of eyes.
03:29
The rags were unwrapped
03:32
from a little girl
03:34
whose body was massively burned.
03:36
Again,
03:41
the eyes and hands
03:43
of Avalokiteshvara.
03:45
It was the young women, the health aids,
03:47
who cleaned the wounds of this baby
03:50
and dressed the wounds.
03:53
I know those hands and eyes;
03:55
they touched me as well.
03:57
They touched me at that time.
03:59
They have touched me throughout my 68 years.
04:01
They touched me when I was four
04:04
and I lost my eyesight
04:06
and was partially paralyzed.
04:08
And my family brought in
04:10
a woman whose mother had been a slave
04:12
to take care of me.
04:14
And that woman
04:17
did not have sentimental compassion.
04:19
She had phenomenal strength.
04:21
And it was really her strength, I believe,
04:24
that became the kind of mudra and imprimatur
04:26
that has been a guiding light in my life.
04:29
So we can ask:
04:33
What is compassion comprised of?
04:36
And there are various facets.
04:40
And there's referential and non-referential compassion.
04:42
But first, compassion is comprised
04:45
of that capacity
04:47
to see clearly
04:49
into the nature of suffering.
04:51
It is that ability
04:53
to really stand strong
04:55
and to recognize also
04:57
that I'm not separate from this suffering.
04:59
But that is not enough,
05:01
because compassion,
05:03
which activates the motor cortex,
05:05
means that we aspire,
05:07
we actually aspire to transform suffering.
05:10
And if we're so blessed,
05:13
we engage in activities
05:15
that transform suffering.
05:17
But compassion has another component,
05:19
and that component is really essential.
05:21
That component
05:24
is that we cannot be attached to outcome.
05:26
Now I worked with dying people
05:29
for over 40 years.
05:32
I had the privilege of working on death row
05:35
in a maximum security [prison] for six years.
05:38
And I realized so clearly
05:41
in bringing my own life experience,
05:43
from working with dying people
05:45
and training caregivers,
05:47
that any attachment to outcome
05:50
would distort deeply
05:52
my own capacity to be fully present
05:54
to the whole catastrophe.
05:57
And when I worked in the prison system,
06:00
it was so clear to me, this:
06:02
that many of us
06:05
in this room,
06:07
and almost all of the men that I worked with on death row,
06:09
the seeds of their own compassion had never been watered.
06:12
That compassion is actually
06:15
an inherent human quality.
06:17
It is there within every human being.
06:20
But the conditions
06:23
for compassion to be activated,
06:25
to be aroused,
06:29
are particular conditions.
06:31
I had that condition, to a certain extent,
06:33
from my own childhood illness.
06:36
Eve Ensler, whom you'll hear later,
06:38
has had that condition activated
06:41
amazingly in her
06:43
through the various waters of suffering
06:46
that she has been through.
06:49
And what is fascinating
06:52
is that compassion has enemies,
06:54
and those enemies are things like pity,
06:57
moral outrage,
07:02
fear.
07:05
And you know, we have a society, a world,
07:07
that is paralyzed by fear.
07:10
And in that paralysis, of course,
07:13
our capacity for compassion
07:15
is also paralyzed.
07:17
The very word terror
07:19
is global.
07:21
The very feeling of terror is global.
07:23
So our work, in a certain way,
07:26
is to address this imago,
07:28
this kind of archetype
07:30
that has pervaded the psyche
07:32
of our entire globe.
07:34
Now we know from neuroscience
07:38
that compassion has
07:41
some very extraordinary qualities.
07:43
For example:
07:45
A person who is cultivating compassion,
07:47
when they are in the presence of suffering,
07:50
they feel that suffering a lot more
07:53
than many other people do.
07:56
However,
07:58
they return to baseline a lot sooner.
08:00
This is called resilience.
08:03
Many of us think that compassion drains us,
08:05
but I promise you
08:08
it is something that truly enlivens us.
08:10
Another thing about compassion
08:13
is that it really enhances what's called neural integration.
08:15
It hooks up all parts of the brain.
08:18
Another, which has been discovered
08:22
by various researchers
08:24
at Emory and at Davis and so on,
08:26
is that compassion enhances our immune system.
08:29
Hey,
08:34
we live in a very noxious world.
08:36
(Laughter)
08:38
Most of us are shrinking
08:40
in the face of psycho-social and physical poisons,
08:42
of the toxins of our world.
08:45
But compassion, the generation of compassion,
08:48
actually mobilizes
08:50
our immunity.
08:53
You know, if compassion is so good for us,
08:56
I have a question.
08:59
Why don't we train our children
09:03
in compassion?
09:05
(Applause)
09:08
If compassion is so good for us,
09:13
why don't we train our health care providers in compassion
09:16
so that they can do what they're supposed to do,
09:20
which is to really transform suffering?
09:23
And if compassion is so good for us,
09:26
why don't we vote on compassion?
09:29
Why don't we vote for people in our government
09:33
based on compassion,
09:37
so that we can have
09:39
a more caring world?
09:41
In Buddhism,
09:44
we say, "it takes a strong back and a soft front."
09:46
It takes tremendous strength of the back
09:49
to uphold yourself in the midst of conditions.
09:52
And that is the mental quality of equanimity.
09:55
But it also takes a soft front --
09:58
the capacity to really be open to the world as it is,
10:01
to have an undefended heart.
10:04
And the archetype of this in Buddhism
10:06
is Avalokiteshvara, Kuan-Yin.
10:09
It's a female archetype:
10:11
she who perceives
10:14
the cries of suffering in the world.
10:16
She stands with 10,000 arms,
10:23
and in every hand,
10:27
there is an instrument of liberation,
10:29
and in the palm of every hand, there are eyes,
10:32
and these are the eyes of wisdom.
10:35
I say that, for thousands of years,
10:38
women have lived,
10:41
exemplified, met in intimacy,
10:43
the archetype of Avalokitesvara,
10:47
of Kuan-Yin,
10:50
she who perceives
10:52
the cries of suffering in the world.
10:54
Women have manifested for thousands of years
10:57
the strength arising from compassion
11:00
in an unfiltered, unmediated way
11:04
in perceiving suffering
11:07
as it is.
11:09
They have infused societies with kindness,
11:13
and we have really felt that
11:16
as woman after woman
11:18
has stood on this stage
11:20
in the past day and a half.
11:22
And they have actualized compassion
11:25
through direct action.
11:27
Jody Williams called it:
11:29
It's good to meditate.
11:31
I'm sorry, you've got to do a little bit of that, Jody.
11:33
Step back, give your mother a break, okay.
11:36
(Laughter)
11:39
But the other side of the equation
11:41
is you've got to come out of your cave.
11:43
You have to come into the world
11:45
like Asanga did,
11:47
who was looking to realize Maitreya Buddha
11:49
after 12 years sitting in the cave.
11:52
He said, "I'm out of here."
11:55
He's going down the path.
11:57
He sees something in the path.
11:59
He looks, it's a dog, he drops to his knees.
12:01
He sees that the dog has this big wound on its leg.
12:04
The wound is just filled with maggots.
12:08
He puts out his tongue
12:11
in order to remove the maggots,
12:14
so as not to harm them.
12:16
And at that moment,
12:19
the dog transformed
12:21
into the Buddha of love and kindness.
12:23
I believe
12:27
that women and girls today
12:29
have to partner in a powerful way with men --
12:31
with their fathers,
12:35
with their sons, with their brothers,
12:37
with the plumbers, the road builders,
12:40
the caregivers, the doctors, the lawyers,
12:42
with our president,
12:45
and with all beings.
12:47
The women in this room
12:49
are lotuses in a sea of fire.
12:51
May we actualize that capacity
12:54
for women everywhere.
12:56
Thank you.
12:58
(Applause)
13:00

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Joan Halifax - Author, Zen priest
Known for her compassionate work with the terminally ill, Joan Halifax is a driving force of socially engaged Buddhism.

Why you should listen

Activist, anthropologist, author, caregiver, ecologist, LSD researcher, teacher, and Zen Buddhism priest -- Joan Halifax is many things to many people. Yet they all seem to agree that no matter what role she plays, Halifax is consistently courageous and compassionate. Halifax runs the Upaya Zen Center in New Mexico, a Zen Peacemaker community she opened in 1990 after founding and leading the Ojai Foundation in California for ten years. Her practice focuses on socially engaged Buddhism, which aims to alleviate suffering through meditation, interfaith cooperation, and social service.

As director of the Project on Being With Dying, Halifax has helped caregivers cope with death and dying for more than three decades. Her book Being With Dying helps clergy, community activists, medical professionals, social workers and spiritual seekers remove fear from the end of life. Halifax is a distinguished invited scholar of the U.S. Library of Congress and the only woman and Buddhist on the Tony Blair Foundation’s Advisory Council.

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