A moment with Buddhist teacher, anthropologist, and author Joan Halifax, founder and head teacher of the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Q. What is your biggest concern in the world right now?
Q. What influences you the most?
A. The biggest influence in my life is Buddhism. The next most important thing in my life is spending time in the natural world so I can remember my roots.
Q. How do you connect with nature?
A. I walk in the mountains as many times a week as I am able to. I walk across mountains. I walk around mountains. I sit by rivers. I have a small hermitage about 45 minutes from here that is extremely secluded. I do not visit often enough, but when I do get there it is a source of deep renewal. I meditate there. The solitude is very nourishing.
Q. How can other people bring meditation into their lives?
A. It’s important to find a good meditation teacher and a place that’s quiet. And to make a commitment and discover that practice is the path to sanity.
Q. In other conversations you’ve recommended that people “open themselves to the world.” What do you mean?
A. It means being compassionate. Compassion for me is one of the most important qualities that we can nourish in our lives. It’s essential in today’s world. It’s the only way we can really know that we’re not divided from each other. Suffering actually is a bond. And when we realize this, we can respond not just by feeling the suffering of others, but actually responding with active compassion in the deepest way.
Q. Would you describe the work you do?
A. I’m a Buddhist teacher. I’ve been working with dying people since 1970, and I also work in the prison system whenever that’s possible. I bear witness to a lot of suffering in the world as people come to me and share their lives in various ways. It’s a wonderful life that I have. I feel very deeply blessed to have good physical health, some degree of mental clarity, and a life that has a lot of meaning in it.
Q. How do you unwind from your work?
A. I paint. I make small oil pastel paintings that are very intense. And they’re usually of a single object, like a luminous face emerging out of darkness or an egg. They’re objects of meditation for me.
Q. Are you a trained painter?
A. I painted when I was younger and I started again 40 years later when my father died. It was an extraordinary passage from grief to peace. So, since many people in my life die, I find that painting is a way for me to work with sorrow.
Q. What have you learned from working with terminally ill patients and death-row prisoners?
A. I think the most important thing I’ve learned is that the gift, really, is to be present completely. Out of being present you’re able to see and be—and to see that even in situations that seem absolutely helpless, there’s always some deep invitation to come into a miraculous presence.
Q. Do you find this work upsetting and challenging?
A. I find it easier to work with people whose situations are hopeless than people who are just normally neurotic. Sometimes I feel slightly desperate inside because we don’t see how short and fragile our lives are; we don’t really take advantage of the precious human body and of our relationships by really opening our hearts to the world.
Q. What’s the most important thing you’d like to convey to DL readers?
A. It’s what I say to myself every morning and to my students: Clarify the mind. Be clear about your commitment. Know how precious this life is. And use it well. In the words of the great Zen Master Dogen, “Give life to life.”