The Next Wisest Thing
When we’re at the edge, in danger of falling over the precipice into suffering, compassion is the most powerful means I know for keeping our feet firmly planted on the earth and our hearts wide open.
—Roshi Joan Halifax
For those of us who want to be of benefit to some greater good, we walk what Roshi Joan Halifax calls the ‘edge states.‘*
- The edge state of altruism is described as pathological altruism, or that excessive urge to ‘help’ that breeds intrusion, disrespect, exhaustion, resentment.
- The edge state of empathy is empathic distress. ”Feeling with” causes us to go down with the ship.
- The edge state of integrity is moral suffering: Our struggle to know how to skillfully relate to moral conflicts and the systems that contain them—to not be complicit or succumb to the view that we are somehow morally superior.
- The edge state of respect for what is wholesome is judgment and disrespect for others who sit outside our understanding of ‘goodness’ and honor. The age old lesson that hate begets more hate is present when we lose respect and compassion for others in our quest for a world built on our ideals.
- The edge state of engagement, of commitment to be on the frontlines… is burnout when we fail to include the barometer of our own wellbeing in the attention and care we give to others and the world around us.
There are always 2 sides to each coin.
What can bring benefit, without balance, will bring harm.
In all of the various caregiving paths that we work with at the Institute, there is a common theme.
How do we stay connected to the next wisest thing?
What will be beneficial?
As Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha describes in Care Work, how can we stay connected with our vulnerability, our ‘ghost of need’ that we must be familiar with if we are to be of benefit to others, without drawing back, without building lines between an us:them.
How can we, as Roshi describes, not fall off the edge?
*A highly recommended read is Roshi Joan Halifax’s book, Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet. It touches on many of the elements we bring into our framework at WisdomWay Institute. This question of how to be in caring presence to one another is, in so many ways, the question of our time. In our family carer programs, we see how both profoundly awakening, and potentially depleting it is to care for our loved ones. In our programs for professionals, we know that the personhood of the practitioner is the place where healing relationships arise and how health care is transformed. We know that unskillful approaches will not only mean that providers burnout, but it can also lead to harm. In my view, the imperative is to both cultivate and sustain wisdom in our caring relationships.
This excerpt from our 28 day program references learning within that program:
When we pay attention to the present moment with the calm clarity that we’ve been exploring, we can see where we stand more clearly. And, having found ourselves on the edge, we can pause, extend compassion, and step back onto the ground in which we can actually be of benefit.
Then, and perhaps only then, can we do what is the wisest next thing.
We tend to believe that working ‘tirelessly’ toward causes that we value has exhaustion as its price, as its badge of honor…
What if we worked, instead,
with sensitivity to our
own capacity and our own contribution
in each moment?
We tend to think we have to fight for cures…
What if we, instead,
nurtured healing possibilities?
We often take sides, fitting in with those whose views align with ours…
What if we, instead, took a stand.
We are often drowning in grief or are paralyzed by all that’s undone…
What if we, instead,
gave our full attention and full presence
to what is front of us in this moment?
We can feel our contribution is inadequate, measure ourselves and our worth on some imagined scale.
What if we, instead, lived in our authenticity,
saw that each of us is whole, and good enough,
and that doing the next wisest, kindest thing,
is all that we need to live out our purpose?
What if we remembered that those who most inspire us, with whom we feel most cared for, are the people who show up fully, with tenderness, with healing presence, full attention, with that comforting sense that they are fully in their own skin, doing what comes naturally to them in this moment?
We forget that what really brings about that peaceful, generative state of grace is not this forceful effort, but its opposite…
Calm clear, authentic, open-heartedness.
Calm and Clarity as our Natural State
When the Buddha gives meditation instruction for the first time to his monks he tells them that serenity, peace, joy, rapture, and freedom from the suffering of the world comes simply from making way for it. Not by reaching or grasping or working harder and better, but by learning how to let peace arise by settling our agitated minds. In other teachings, the mind/heart is described in its state of calm clarity: like a still, clear pool. When it’s agitated and we’re unable to see the bottom because of the stirred up mud, or, when it’s disrupted and choppy like a lake blown by strong winds, the only way to return to a clearer, mirror-like surface is to cultivate stillness.
So, does meditation make us complacent or complicit in the wrongs of the world?
As we learn more about the paralyzing and depleting qualities of unbuffered stress and the way the mind works; as we consider mirror neurons and how each of us influences the next; as we explore what health and wellbeing are comprised of…
It follows logically that we need practices that support keeping us sane and balanced so that we can more effectively bring sanity and balance to a wounded world.
Our best contributions come from this calm, clear place. This state allows us to be fierce and compassionate. It may also follow that the best way to bring sanity and balance to the world at large is to start local.
Start where we are.
Start with the next wisest thing.
The Right Contribution
Too often we’re in the midst of doing what is the most meaningful contribution within our means, but we despair about what is undone. It’s like our to-do list to be good enough is never ending. To give to others from this place of misunderstanding is depleting. If this art of generosity and skillful serving isn’t practiced and honed from the very beginning, practitioners who could be skillful, seasoned contributors within organizations, or within circles of care, all too often burnout. Many of us may know those friends or family members who show up in big ways for the first wave of a crisis but don’t have the stamina for the weeks or months that follow. The disability or illness of a caregiver is the most likely reason that someone will need to be moved from care at home into assisted living. It’s the unbuffered stress of caregiving that increases the likelihood of these injuries or stress-related illnesses.
Social workers, teachers, primary caregivers, and those of us working to protect the environment— to undo systemic problems like racism, sexism, ableism, homelessness— take on challenges that, by nature, are needs that will not get significantly smaller, no matter how much personal effort we give to them. We can easily be haunted by the dozens, hundreds, thousands who we are not serving, by the needs for comfort and ease that we can’t address, by the systems that seem unmoved by our efforts… at the expense of giving full presence to the one who sits with us in this moment.
When those who are needed in the world can serve without attachment to outcome, bringing this clarity and calm that gives rise to compassionate action…there is a net gain. It may feel small.
But step back and consider: if each of us did the same, what could be possible?
Whether we think about how we care for a friend in crisis or a systemic challenge in our communities, small, consistent contributions may be more impactful and more meaningful than one, big, often imbalanced, effort.
Start where we are.
Start with the next wisest thing.
Karen Laing is a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Teacher with experience in trauma and caregiving. She's spent the last 25 years supporting families through major life transitions such as birth and postpartum care.
She founded Birthways over 20 years ago to support expectant families and provide training and support for birthworkers. She created WisdomWay as a means to continue supporting all caregivers with mindfulness-based training and certifications. She speaks nationwide on mindfulness, parenting, caregiving, and mental health.