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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group
Standing at the Edge

Standing at the Edge

Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet

Joan Halifax; Foreword by Rebecca Solnit

Flatiron Books

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"Joan Halifax is a clearheaded and fearless traveler and in this book…she offers us a map of how to travel courageously and fruitfully, for our own benefit and the benefit of all beings." —From the foreword by Rebecca Solnit

Standing at the Edge is an evocative examination of how we can respond to suffering, live our fullest lives, and remain open to the full spectrum of our human experience.


Joan Halifax has enriched thousands of lives around the world through her work as a humanitarian, a social activist, an anthropologist, and as a Buddhist teacher. Over many decades, she has also collaborated with neuroscientists, clinicians, and psychologists to understand how contemplative practice can be a vehicle for social transformation. Through her unusual background, she developed an understanding of how our greatest challenges can become the most valuable source of our wisdom—and how we can transform our experience of suffering into the power of compassion for the benefit of others.

Halifax has identified five psychological territories she calls Edge States—altruism, empathy, integrity, respect, and engagement—that epitomize strength of character. Yet each of these states can also be the cause of personal and social suffering. In this way, these five psychological experiences form edges, and it is only when we stand at these edges that we become open to the full range of our human experience and discover who we really are.

Recounting the experiences of caregivers, activists, human… More…

"Joan Halifax is a clearheaded and fearless traveler and in this book…she offers us a map of how to travel courageously and fruitfully, for our own benefit and the benefit of all beings." —From the foreword by Rebecca Solnit

Standing at the Edge is an evocative examination of how we can respond to suffering, live our fullest lives, and remain open to the full spectrum of our human experience.


Joan Halifax has enriched thousands of lives around the world through her work as a humanitarian, a social activist, an anthropologist, and as a Buddhist teacher. Over many decades, she has also collaborated with neuroscientists, clinicians, and psychologists to understand how contemplative practice can be a vehicle for social transformation. Through her unusual background, she developed an understanding of how our greatest challenges can become the most valuable source of our wisdom—and how we can transform our experience of suffering into the power of compassion for the benefit of others.

Halifax has identified five psychological territories she calls Edge States—altruism, empathy, integrity, respect, and engagement—that epitomize strength of character. Yet each of these states can also be the cause of personal and social suffering. In this way, these five psychological experiences form edges, and it is only when we stand at these edges that we become open to the full range of our human experience and discover who we really are.

Recounting the experiences of caregivers, activists, humanitarians, politicians, parents, and teachers, incorporating the wisdom of Zen traditions and mindfulness practices, and rooted in Halifax’s groundbreaking research on compassion, Standing at the Edge is destined to become a contemporary classic. A powerful guide on how to find the freedom we seek for others and ourselves, it is a book that will serve us all.

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I. AT THE HIGH EDGE OF ALTRUISM


THE WORD ALTRUISM WAS COINED in 1830 by French philosopher Auguste Comte, who derived it from vivre pour autrui, or “live for others.” An antidote to the selfishness of living for ourselves, altruism...

Praise for Standing at the Edge

"[A] wise exploration of the search for meaning...Clear, detailed, and profound, this remarkable book will be appreciated by anyone seeking a framework for a meaningful life."—Publishers Weekly, starred review

"This book is an invitation to dive deeper into those uncomfortable places and learn new skills to navigate them.... Through a lifetime of contemplative practice, Roshi Joan Halifax inspires us to be present and to remember our humanity regardless of circumstances. What seems impossible becomes possible if you’re willing to go to the edge with her." —Tara Well, PhD, Psychology Today

“Reflecting on her decades long experience as a social activist, medical anthropologist, Zen Roshi, and wise elder, Joan Halifax introduces us to Edge States—qualities of mind that invite optimal balance. Through the extraordinary example of her own remarkable life, and her re-telling of the stories of many others, this book is a must-read to help us navigate these turbulent times, regain our footing, and recognize the balance that is our true nature.” —Richard J. Davidson, New York Times-bestselling author of The Emotional Life of Your Brain and Altered Traits

“Roshi Joan Halifax embodies what she teaches: equanimity, dedication to benefiting others, and putting compassion into action. Her no-nonsense approach to the emotions that push us to our edge—and can also propel our greatest good—truly inspires. In Standing at the Ed… More…

"[A] wise exploration of the search for meaning...Clear, detailed, and profound, this remarkable book will be appreciated by anyone seeking a framework for a meaningful life."—Publishers Weekly, starred review

"This book is an invitation to dive deeper into those uncomfortable places and learn new skills to navigate them.... Through a lifetime of contemplative practice, Roshi Joan Halifax inspires us to be present and to remember our humanity regardless of circumstances. What seems impossible becomes possible if you’re willing to go to the edge with her." —Tara Well, PhD, Psychology Today

“Reflecting on her decades long experience as a social activist, medical anthropologist, Zen Roshi, and wise elder, Joan Halifax introduces us to Edge States—qualities of mind that invite optimal balance. Through the extraordinary example of her own remarkable life, and her re-telling of the stories of many others, this book is a must-read to help us navigate these turbulent times, regain our footing, and recognize the balance that is our true nature.” —Richard J. Davidson, New York Times-bestselling author of The Emotional Life of Your Brain and Altered Traits

“Roshi Joan Halifax embodies what she teaches: equanimity, dedication to benefiting others, and putting compassion into action. Her no-nonsense approach to the emotions that push us to our edge—and can also propel our greatest good—truly inspires. In Standing at the Edge she offers us all a fascinating read and a practical roadmap to fulfilling our personal good work.” —Daniel Goleman, New York Times bestselling author of Altered Traits and Emotional Intelligence

“Joan Halifax knows of what she speaks. Standing at the Edge is powerful, honest, wise, and personal.” —Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Happiness and Real Love

"A magnificent exploration of our lives as moral creatures capable of virtue, and the shadow side of the impulse to help. The downsides of indifference and selfishness are well known. But Joan Halifax's hard won wisdom—and her distinguishing effective compassion from empathic distress and pathological altruism—will stay with me for a long time. So will her practical advice for more flexible, modest, and effective ways of responding to suffering, including my own. Plan to take this book to heart. It's wide ranging, ambitious, insightful, and kind." —Katy Butler, author of the New York Times-bestseller Knocking on Heaven's Door

Standing at the Edge is a moving contemplation, a guidebook of how to be a caring human being, filled with practical advice, rich experience, tenderness, wisdom and courage.” —Jack Kornfield, author of A Path With Heart

“In Standing at the Edge, Joan Halifax weaves together scientific research and her own powerful personal experiences as a social activist and humanitarian to show how we can transform our biggest challenges with compassion and wisdom. Standing at the Edge is essential reading for our time.” —Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global

"Roshi Joan Halifax’s new book, Standing at the Edge is a reflection of her enormous courage, compassion, and wisdom. In her willingness to cozy up to the great mystery she transforms fear into wonder. But most of all it is her great love that shines through the pages of this wonderful book and gives us a clear path to a graceful life.” —Ram Dass

“In this brilliant book with its depth of humanity, wisdom, and nuance, Joan Halifax explores the subtle complexities of altruism, empathy, integrity, respect, and engagement, and concludes that compassion is the means by which we navigate from the edge where courage overcomes fear. Reading it will lead to richer, fuller lives.” —Bill George, author of Discover Your True North, senior fellow at Harvard Business School and former chair & CEO of Medtronic

“This book is a gift to anyone who seeks to serve others. With unwavering honesty and startling clarity, Joan Halifax examines the potential pitfalls of our virtuous intentions, taking on issues that concern people who are drawn to service. With characteristic intellectual precision, scholarship, and real-world experience, Standing at the Edge is food for the soul.” —Ira Byock, MD, author of Dying Well and The Best Care Possible

Standing at the Edge is a book that inspires us to rise into our better selves and gives us the tools to do that.” —Jane Fonda

“Reading Standing at the Edge, I am struck by Joan Halifax’s honesty and hard-won humility. This is an unusual, courageous, and inspiring work, a true guide to keeping one’s footing in these unstable and perilous times.” —Mark Epstein, MD and author of Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself and Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart

“People everywhere will be able to benefit from Roshi Joan’s truth and her wisdom. Her courage and straightforward message should touch the hearts of all who want to create a better world for all of us and move them to action.” —Jody Williams, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Chair, Nobel Women’s Initiative

“In this moving and timely reflection on embracing life with passionate care, Roshi Joan shares her insights from Zen Buddhism, social engagement, and neuroscience but, above all, from half a century of living fearlessly.” —Stephen Batchelor, author of After Buddhism

“Joan Halifax is wise, compassionate, grounded, and truly powerful. Her stories and insights come from life experience, and the wisdom of facing realities that are often uncomfortable with maturity and optimism. Standing at The Edge is a resource, an inspiration, and an important book. It offers hope and tools in a time of turmoil.” —Mallika Chopra, author of Living with Intent

“An important, thorough book. Halifax covers every angle of our interactions with compassion, even willing to tread on its dark side. As I read I found myself excited, inspired, nodding my head at its clear truth. Written in precise, beautiful prose, this is not an abstract tome—it’s backed by Halifax’s years of experience, close observation, and honest scrutiny. This needs to be read by everyone so we have a new language for love.” —Natalie Goldberg, author of The Great Spring and Writing Down the Bones

“With her book, Standing at the Edge, Joan Halifax has given the world a timeless sand necessary gift. An engaging, story-filled excavation on the meaning of compassion and the psychological states that define the human experience, Standing at the Edge has profound lessons for individuals and organizations. Halifax’s writing is infused with the strength of character, honesty, and authenticity that have earned her a reputation for being a fearless and steadfast spiritual leader, activist, and humanitarian. This book has wisdom for us all.” —Bernie Glassman, author of Instructions to theCook: A Zen Master's Lessons in Living a Life That Matters

“In Standing at the Edge, Roshi Joan Halifax offers powerful insights from what she has discovered about 'Edge States.' The lessons she has learned—while listening to fellow civil rights worker Fannie Lou Hamer, to sitting with the suffering in refugee camps—provide essential wisdom and principled compassion during our troubled times.” —Rhonda V. Magee, law professor, mindfulness teacher, and author of The Way of Color Insight

Standing at the Edge is medicine for our times. Roshi Joan’s well-earned wisdom walks us to our own edges, where we see our inner landscape and the immense learning that comes from lingering there. Reading these pages is like sitting down with the village elder soaking in a lifetime of service, compassion, courage, and activism.” —Michelle Gale, author of Mindful Parenting in a Messy World

“There is no easily accessible education on how to stay well in the midst of stress and suffering—our own or of the people around us—until now. Halifax lays out a clear map for how to transform the challenging states we all experience to those of growth—building the foundation of our desperately needed ability to become more stress-resilient and compassionate. There is nothing abstract here. Through science and contemplative wisdom, through examples of courageous lives, and especially the powerful exemplar of Halifax’s own life and immense service to humanitarian causes, you will see how your own courage can overcome your fear to live your best life possible.” —Elissa Epel, Ph.D., professor at University of California, San Francisco, member of The National Academy of Medicine, and coauthor of the New York Times bestseller The Telomere Effect

“In this beautifully-written volume, Joan Halifax combines a spiritual master’s depth, the insight of a psychologist, and the vision of a prophet to help us fulfill our humane duty towards others while maintaining respect and care for our own body, mind, and soul.” —Gabor Maté, MD, author of In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction

“In this unflinchingly honest book, Roshi Joan Halifax calls upon us to understand how close to the edge we truly stand and teaches us to be unafraid of falling. This book is an extraordinary gift to those of us trying to make a positive difference in our world; a sobering and yet, uplifting teaching that methodically takes us from ignorance to realization in our personal journey. It is beautiful and clear-sighted but most importantly, it is rooted in compassion. I am deeply grateful for her courageous insight and wisdom.” —Dekila Chungyalpa, founder and director of Sacred Earth at the World Wildlife Fund, Environmental Coordinator for His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, and Associate Research Scientist at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

“The wisdom that Roshi Joan Halifax has distilled from her work with cancer patients, clinicians, teachers, disaster relief workers, CEOs, and Zen students is all here, recast into a guide to the way we live now that is urgent, principled, practical, and deftly psychological. An astonishing gift.” —Anthony Back, MD, professor at University of Washington, Cambia Palliative Care Center of Excellence, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and founder of VitalTalk

“I thought I knew these words: altruism, empathy, integrity, respect, and engagement. Not until I read this book did I realize that I have not really understood the words thoroughly. This book is a result of the author’s long years of spiritual practice and service. It is a book in which one needs to anchor oneself in order to survive the stormy sea of our present reality.” —Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, the first Bhikkhuni in Theravada Buddhism in Thailand and abbess of Songdhammakalyani Monastery

Standing at the Edge arrives at a critical moment in history, when the world is searching for a new way to reconnect with the deep roots of our spirituality. The book is profoundly engaging and ruthlessly poetic. It is a vital exploration of how we can transform this world through compassionate action.” —Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne, founder and president of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka

“I love this book. Standing at the Edge places Roshi alongside our greatest teachers and practitioners—Pema Chodron, Thich Nhat Hanh, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Dr. King. Reading it, I was reminded of the old adage: ‘Don’t just do something—stand there!’ By exploring the big themes of altruism, empathy, integrity, respect, engagement, and compassion, Roshi helps us to take a stand in a bad time, and to know where we stand, and to stand there in the fullness of wisdom and compassion. Given our violent, inhuman world, this timely book will help us become more nonviolent and more human, to do our part for a more nonviolent world. With Roshi as our guide, we, too, can stand at the edge, learn to see a new vision of humanity and enter into universal compassion, nonviolence, and peace. What a gift!” —Father John Dear, author of The Nonviolent Life and The Beatitudes of Peace

Standing at the Edge is a must-read not only for all clinicians but for anyone who is caring for others in their suffering. Roshi Joan has a gift to transform the complexity of scientific, theological, and philosophical theories into practical models for everyone to express compassion to others. She enables us to being able to sit in the midst of the other’s suffering—offering presence and love.” —Christina Puchalski, MD, OCDS, Professor of Medicine, Director of the George Washington University’s Institute for Spirituality and Health, author of Time for Listening and Caring, and coauthor of Making Healthcare Whole

“At this precipitous moment of history, when so many of us are unbalanced and suffering, Roshi Joan Halifax offers us a modern classic. Her essential wisdom, compassion, and experience dare to lead us—as it has led her—in and through the dark places of our lives and minds, to a ground of steadfast clarity. With stories and accessible practices, documented by cutting-edge research, Halifax points the way to our own ease and completeness.” —Sensei Hozan Alan Senauke, Clear View Project

“With the clear eyes of a social scientist and the warm heart of a Buddhist, Roshi Joan explores those liminal spaces where burnout is transformed into recalibration, empathy grows the wings of wisdom, and in tending the broken heart of the world we are brought home to our fullest humanity.” —Mirabai Starr, translator of John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Julian of Norwich, and author of Caravan of No Despair: A Memoir of Loss and Transformation

“Through her insightful reflection and intimate research, Roshi Joan maps the dividing points between our failures and genuine, wholesome activities. Standing at the Edge is a most generous gift from her lifetime of meditation, deep thinking, and amazing scale of service to society.” —Kazuaki Tanahashi, author of Painting Peace: Art in a Time of Global Crisis

“A must-have guidebook for altruists, seekers, caregivers, and all those wishing to make a difference. Standing at the Edge reminds us that good intentions are not enough to change the world; Nothing short of deep inner work—both contemplative and psychological—is required. Roshi Joan’s voice, fierce and wise, reveals the edge as a place where true spiritual transformation happens.” —Cheryl A. Giles, PsyD and Willa B. Miller, PhD, authors of The Arts of Contemplative Care

“Joan Halifax shares with us the wise insights derived from a life of deep inquiry and service to others. This is a work of heart and of substance.” —Hal Roth, author of Original Tao: Inward Training and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism, Professor of Religious Studies, and Director of the Brown University Program in Contemplative Studies

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Reviews from Goodreads

Joan Halifax; Foreword by Rebecca Solnit

Roshi Joan Halifax, Ph.D., 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. She received her Ph.D. in medical anthropology and received a National Science Foundation Fellowship in Visual Anthropology, was an Honorary Research Fellow in Medical Ethnobotany at Harvard University, and was a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Library of Congress. She is the founder of the Upaya Prison Project and of the Nomads Clinic in Nepal.

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