Halifax, Tippett discuss painful truths of death, impermanence of life



Jessica White | Staff Writer

Joan Halifax has helped people die for more than 40 years.

Halifax, a self-described “midwife to the dying,” is a medical anthropologist and Buddhist teacher, or roshi, who works with dying people and their families. She works to reduce the physical, psychological, social and spiritual pain of death.

She will join radio producer and host Krista Tippett for a conversation about death as a part of life at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.

Tippett interviewed Halifax in the early years of her nationally syndicated radio program “On Being,” and she said she has wanted to come back to Halifax for years because their first conversation helped so many people.

“She talks about being with dying — this presence at the end of life — which is something we really don’t know how to talk about or think about in this culture where we do everything we can to fight the end of life,” Tippett said. “So she has this knowledge as an anthropologist and as a Buddhist teacher, and she’s been taking that in some new directions in the last few years. It’s been really interesting for me to follow.”

In the 1970s, Halifax pioneered the use of LSD as an adjunct to psychotherapy for dying cancer patients, and co-authored The Human Encounter with Death in 1977. Two years later, she took control of the newly renamed Ojai Foundation, an educational interfaith center, and then the Upaya Institute and Zen Center in 1990. The Upaya center offers meditation, Buddhist training and care for the dying.

Halifax has practiced Buddhism since 1965, receiving refuge vows in 1976 by Zen Master Seung Sahn. She has also studied with renowned Vajrayana teachers, including the Dalai Lama.

For the past 25 years, Halifax has lectured on death and dying at many academic institutions, including Harvard Divinity School, Harvard Medical School and Georgetown Medical School. She continues to teach health care professionals and lay individuals on dying and the inner life.

“Our work as caregivers of those who are dying is never to deny the truth and presence of suffering, impermanence and death,” Halifax wrote in her 2011 article “The Precious Necessity of Compassion.”

“As we are touched by these realities of existence, we realize that compassion is a moral, social, psychological and spiritual imperative.”