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Lions Roar : May 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2009 58 When i arrived at the refuge, i understood why roshi joan had brought me there. among Prajna’s tangle of wildflowers and groves of tall aspens, she is more expansive, at ease. i found her propped on pillows beside a plate-glass window, laptop on lap. We spoke about her life’s work and about where she is and who she is at this pivotal time. “i’m a kind of ‘plain rice’ Buddhist,” roshi joan said. “i’ve seen some really amazing things, but they haven’t amazed me.” She describes “plain rice” Buddhism as the meditation of ev- eryday life: “When it’s time to meditate, you meditate, and when it’s time to make a bed, you make a bed. not very exciting but, actually, ex- citing. The fierce kind of excitement. excitement without excitation. it’s about being alive.” groWing uP in hanover, new hampshire, joan halifax learned early about illness and death. When she was four, a virus attacked her eye muscles, leaving her bedridden and func- tionally blind for two years. although she felt alone and vulnerable, she found a dear compan- ion in her african-american nanny, lilla, who told stories at her bedside. her grandmother, too, was a role model of caregiving, often sitting with dying friends in her georgia neighborhood. “She normalized death for me,” halifax says. But her grandmoth- er’s own death was a long, lonely process in a nursing home. upon viewing the open casket at the funeral and seeing her grandmother’s face fi- nally at peace, halifax writes, “i realized how much of her misery had been rooted in her family’s fear of death, including my own. at that moment, i made the commitment to practice being there for others as they died.” as a student at Tulane university in the mid-sixties, halifax got involved in the civil rights and antiwar movements; she read d.T. Suzuki and alan Watts and taught herself to meditate. af- ter obtaining her doctorate in medical anthropology, she began working with dying people at the university of Miami School of Medicine. She went on to research, with her then-husband Stanislov grof, the use of lSd as a supportive therapy for dying people. as they wrote in their 1977 book, the Human encounter with death, grof and halifax found that lSd alleviated patients’ fears, transforming the process of dying into “an adventure in consciousness rather than the ultimate biological disaster.” as an anthropologist, she studied the dogon people of africa and the huichol indians of Mexico, where she witnessed shamans passing through metaphorical experiences of death and rebirth, emerging as wiser and more powerful “wounded healers” for having endured suffering. For several years she studied shaman- ism and Buddhism in parallel, illuminating their connections in roshi’s longtime student and colleague Maia duerr, however, has a somewhat different take. “i think the key to understand- ing roshi joan is seeing her fragility as well as her fearlessness,” duerr says. “She is literally fragile right now, her bones breaking. her mind is brilliant and her heart is huge, but her body is at the breaking point. She has pushed herself to exhaustion.” last june, roshi joan slipped and fell on a hard bathroom floor, breaking her greater trochanter in four places. She spent thirty hours strapped to a gurney in a Toronto emergency room, then another two days waiting for surgery. When i met with her two months later, she was still walking gingerly with crutches. Prajna Mountain Center was her escape, where she grabbed a few hours or a few days of convalescence whenever she could. Fearlessness and fragility: two core aspects of a woman who is also an academic and an activist, a wild child of the sixties, and a Zen priest. Who is funny, irreverent, bold, mercurial, sometimes difficult, driven by aspiration, and tamed by discipline. Who is without her BlackBerry and MacBook air—tools of building insti- tutions—only on mountain trails and in the meditation hall. But she is best known for sitting at the bedside of terminally ill patients and pioneering a form of contemplative care. her new book, Being with dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Pres- ence of death, synthesizes lessons from her nearly four decades as a leader in the field. now, this longtime caregiver must learn how to be, as she says, “a better care receiver.” She must also, by necessity and doctors’ orders, slow down and reconsider her commitments, including her role at upaya, her Zen center in Santa Fe. Joan Halifax with roshi Bernie Glassman i’m not a “nice” Buddhist. i’m more interested in a “get down in the street and get dirty” Buddhism. PhoToBYandreWBlaKePhoToBYKriSTinBarendSen