Joan Halifax, Mindfulness, and the Most Important Thing

A few years ago, Roshi Joan came to town. It was for a Mindful Leadership conference, a gig she held with Harvard business guru Bill George and the great UW-Madison neuroscientist, Richie Davidson

Things were going pretty well. Bill gave his spiel. Then Richie. Then Roshi Joan took the stage with her fireball energy, a light hot and bright, her feet planted, fingers crossed in a tent just in front of her chest as she asked the audience, "What is the most important thing?"

People pondered. I pondered. Seemed a safe enough question. A good question. 

But then she turned to me and said, "Craig, what's the most important thing?"

I was just a guy in the audience. Sitting in the fifth or sixth row. "Huh?" I said.

"What's the most important thing?"

I looked around. Two hundred faces seemed to pivot in my direction. "Um," I stumbled. "Kindness?"

"Not bad," she said, but it wasn't the answer she was looking for.

Roshi Joan Halifax has led a life at speeds fast and slow. As an anthropologist in the 60s, she worked with the famed ethnomusicologist, Alan Lomax. By the early 70s, she had moved on to a marriage to the psychiatrist and acid-adventurer, Stan Grof. Through the 80s she ran the Ojai Foundation, an interfaith center she founded, before accepting lineage transmission from Zen Master Bernie Glassman in the 90s (hence the title "Roshi," a moniker awarded Zen teachers) and kicking off the Upaya Zen Center, which has been thriving ever since. 

That's the high speed part. She also sits meditation several hours a day. That's the slow part.

I met Roshi Joan in the mid-2000s when I was living at a Zen Monastery in southern Colorado. My center was isolated, intense, traditional: we woke up at 3:30 in the morning, lived high in the mountains, stayed a bit solemn and a bit off the map.

At Upaya they were fully engaged, political, uncowed by the confrontation with secular western culture. Roshi Joan taught doctors and nurses and whoever else would listen about Being with Dying, her revolutionary book-turned-seminar. She led medical teams into the Himalayas. She pulled brilliant minds from across disciplines and denominations to dialogue about the brain, consciousness, social justice, interconnectedness.

I would go there whenever I had a chance. Roshi Joan was always a presence: welcoming, warm, with a Zen master's barely-contained electricity.

When I left the Zen Center she became a kind of benefactor for me, ready to step in at opportune moments to make an introduction or write me a letter of recommendation. 

Meanwhile, she was expanding her reach, extending her depth. She gave a TED talk that has gathered 1.3 million views (and counting). She developed GRACE, an acronym built to aid clinicians in the cultivation of compassionate presence. It stands for:

Gathering attention
Recalling intention
Attuning self/other

As someone who works in the inpatient psychiatric unit at a major hospital, this acronym comes in handy. Whether I'm standing with a psychotic woman who's giving birth to a phantom baby or speaking with a young widower who sees no way forward in life, I can just come back to GRACE, gather my attention, return to my intention, attune with the human being in front of me, consider my training, and engage. 

I'm always grateful for the reminder. 

But back to that moment in Madison. After she asked me, she asked my friend Cort. Then a few more folks. "What is the most important thing?"

"This moment," she finally said. "This moment is the most important thing. This moment is all we have." She stood, feet still planted, for a long moment. "This," she said, "then this; then this." She took a breath. "This is the most important thing." 

Amen to that. 

*Note: This post is part 2 in a 5 part series on amazing people doing amazing things with mindfulness. 

Craig Hase