The Balance Between Contemplation and Action

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Buddhist teacher Joan Halifax Roshi talks with Marianne Schnall, founder of, about the qualities she wants to see in a leader, how to find balance between inner and outer work, and the benefit of working in challenging situations. 

By Marianne Schnall

Marianne: The Omega Women’s Leadership Center (OWLC) is exploring how to create a new paradigm around power and leadership, particularly when it comes to women. When you hear the term power, what does that mean to you? What would a new paradigm of power look like?

Joan: I think power is mostly associated with imbalance—someone having power over some other being. In this case what we're speaking about is not the old notion of power, but a notion of power that includes compassion. The sense of being able to really have the strength to see the ultimate truth of suffering of beings around you and to have the capacity to respond with what will really serve the whole situation. The old model is characterized by selfishness while this new model is a vision of power that's basically unselfish, more compassion-based.

Marianne: What qualities do you think are most needed from today's leaders and what qualities do you think that women, in particular, can bring to the table?

Joan: Our leaders need to have a capacity for attending, of really being able to bring attention to the present moment in a way that is balanced, enduring, and is characterized by a high resolution or vividness. Our leaders need to have the capacity to bear witness and do so with their whole organism. To be—in simple Buddhist terms—mindful.

I also feel that positive regard for others is critical. Much of what we see in the world today is a kind of politics of disrespect that breeds unwholesomeness. Even though we might be in a different camp, or disagree with an individual, we have to bring respect into our interactions and hold each other in positive regard.

I also think it's important to have a base motivation that is fundamentally unselfish, where we're not just out for ourselves. Our leaders need to think in more noble terms of how we can be of service to all beings.

Embodiment is another critical factor. Our leaders should be grounded in their bodies and not living a dissociated life on a virtual level. We know from research in neuroscience that if you are able to tune into your own physical experience (interceptivity) you are better able to experience empathy for others because these use the same set of neural circuits. 

Another important part of leadership in today’s world is bringing a greater capacity of understanding of how the human heart and mind work. Women tend toward more empathy and higher nurturing, and we need a world where our leadership is characterized by empathy and nurturing. I feel that, and other teachers, like the Dalai Lama, agree.

Marianne: It does seem that feminine qualities in general, like compassion and empathy, have long been undervalued in our society. How can women be encouraged to tap into and utilize their feminine instincts and wisdom and bring those to the table, rather than trying to emulate how it's always been done?

Joan: We used to call that “the daughters of the patriarchy.” What we're seeing both in men and women today is the birth of a different kind of psyche, one that is much more attuned to inter-connectiveness, a psyche that also understands that compassion is a mental process or a process that arises within us and is actually conducive to more wholesomeness, not draining. I also feel that as things have become more and more stressful and people are in a state of despair and alienation, there’s this interesting gravitational pull toward feminine principles and the recognition that we need to actualize those principles today.

Marianne: I definitely can see that shift emerging, and yet one of the things getting in the way is the hectic pace of the world. Often we are operating on autopilot and it's almost like “we know not what we do,” because there isn't the time to be mindful or to tap into the full spectrum of our qualities or to be aware that we're creating the world that we're living in. How can people, especially women who are often juggling so many responsibilities, learn to incorporate that awareness into their lives?

Joan: Many of the women who have opened up their lives to a greater capacity have done so through a crisis. They hit a wall and realize this M.O. doesn't seem to work that well. Maybe we need to take a backwards step and look deeply into our true nature, to our basic goodness, to discover who we are.

In addition to the cultivation of an inner life it’s important to cultivate relationships, particularly with other women. We need to build networks or friendships with women that are trust-based and that also have a strong contemplative, functional, and instrumental aspect. Many of my teaching collaborations are with extraordinary women who have matured, gone through many difficulties, who have great wisdom, humor, and compassion, and are vigorous and committed. I think we're in a very interesting time of collaboration and using a different model of leadership, one that is more lateral.

Marianne: Often there's a misconception that inner work is somehow not conducive to being an activist. What do you think is the connection between actively working for change in the world while simultaneously working on your inner world?

Joan: We call it engaged Buddhism, but it’s really just being socially engaged. You could say that every bird has two wings, one of those wings is the wing of contemplation and the other wing is the wing of action. Both of those wings make it possible for us to move, fly, and be in the world.

I deeply value the time in my day when I meditate, and when I take a backward step and go into deep solitude at my hermitage in the mountains. These are times of renewal for me, where I have a chance to integrate the social and environmental transformation work that I do in the outer world. If I was just driving straight on as a social activist, without ever taking an inhale, I don't think I would still be alive. There is the in-breath and there is the out-breath, and too often we feel like we have to exhale all the time. The inhale is absolutely essential—and then you can exhale.

Marianne: Sometimes when we're working to create change in the world, we're often pitted as working against things. But when we assume a “fighting” attitude, we can actually create more negativity and division. We see it in many places right now, especially in politics and activist work. Do you have any advice about this?

Joan: I think our tendency is to blame the other. We tend to have a punitive relationship with the world, and that doesn’t help anyone, the one getting blamed or the one doing the blaming. We have to walk the path of reconciliation. We have to see both sides. We have to understand that ignorance and suffering touches both of us. They think they’re right and I think I’m right, but we need to drop down to a deeper, more open place. It’s difficult because we’re people who love to know stuff. Well, that’s too bad.

Marianne: The theme of the 2012 Women & Power Conference was “What’s Possible.” It was a celebration of what is possible when women trust their inventiveness to solve some of humanity’s most pressing problems. What do you think is possible?

Joan: Well, I think everything is possible. Through partnership and collaboration with other women we have a phenomenal capacity to consume less and give more to our children, our communities, and the world. Omega is making a tremendous effort in this regard.

I had the opportunity to work on a project in Northern Thailand. I was standing on a bamboo platform in the middle of a soy field, outside of Cheng Mai teaching 30 women. About an hour into the program, I discovered that all the women were HIV positive. Their husbands had infected all of them. They had seen their husbands through grave sickness, they had buried their husbands, and now they were, by default, village leaders, because there were no more men in their village. I was touched by both their grief and their power. Among women there is a tremendous well of grief that has within it the potential for profound social transformation. When we open to the truth of the suffering of children and our environment we can turn our grief into power to help serve the world.

Marianne: Can you talk a little bit about your meditation work with prisoners and how it relates to what's possible? Society doesn’t think about possibilities for that group. What have you learned from that experience?

Joan: I worked inside the penitentiary system in New Mexico for six years. I worked on Death Row and in maximum security. These were men who had killed somebody. There weren't any rich, white men in there—these were all men who came from economically challenged environments. Most were Hispanic, Native American, or African American and had suffered terrible abuse as children. You could just feel the mark of it on their psyches.

Within a short time, I recognized that these were people who had not been shown much kindness in their lives. Over a six-year period, as this work unfolded, I learned a lot from these men. I learned to separate the doer from the deed. I learned to see their suffering, ignorance, and violence, but also to see something that was deeper than that—their basic goodness. I learned a lot about patience. I also learned a lot about tolerance—not only toward the men, but of the system that the men are in. The penitentiary system is itself a breeder of violence and alienation.

I learned not to look for outcomes but to experience things as they were. I learned not to have an expectation that a prisoner would get enlightened or reveal remorse. It was an experience that brought me deeply into the here and now. It wasn't very different from working with dying people, which I've done for many decades. It’s about knowing, bearing witness, and loving action, the concepts Bernie Glassman talks about in his Peacemakers group. I had a positive experience working in the prisons because I saw human beings—I could see them more deeply and understand that violence too is suffering.

Marianne: What have you learned from all your work with the dying that is applicable to life?

Joan: We’re all mortal. We're all going to die. What happens in working with people who are dying is really inspiring, because priorities change, often in a very profound way, and the deeper, existential questions that give depth to our lives arise within the context of this journey of dying. It's not just for the dying person—if you’re around people who are dying, those same questions come up for you. It makes you appreciate life and the lives of others much more as a result of being with those who are imminently facing death.

Marianne: Thich Nhat Hanh talks about the concept of inter-being, that we are truly connected to everything. He gives an example of how we're connected to a piece of paper because of all of the elements in the universe are there in the paper—the sun and the rain and the trees and the people that worked to make the paper, the food that fed the people, and so on. Do you think that part of the problem is that we still see ourselves as separate and that we don't feel our interdependence with each other and the earth?

Joan: We’re quite a fearful species and out of this fear arises a sense of isolation and selfishness. That isolation is based on a sense of deep helplessness. I don’t know where we are as a species, but I am glad I lived this long and am alive in the world that is unfolding today, even though it's characterized by some pretty distressing prospects. My heart goes out particularly to children and young people. I have no idea how this thing is going to turn out. We're in a kind of a mystery.

Marianne: What is your ultimate wish for humanity and the world?

Joan: I wish that all of humanity could share my optimism and that we act accordingly.