Joan Halifax’s itinerary epitomizes the intertwining of spiritual and academic authority, leading to the respectability of religious experts in the public sphere . Although she has not received the same degree of attention as Michael Harner and Carlos Castaneda,  she is one of the key figures of the popularization of shamanism in the West (Stuckrad 2015). She accumulated skills and legitimacy in multiple fields including ethnomusicology, medical anthropology, shamanism, transpersonal psychology, engaged Buddhism and palliative care, drawing from her relationships and collaborations with prominent academic figures. Halifax’s academic partnership first started in the early sixties at Columbia University with Alan Lomax. Her experience at the Musée de l’Homme and encounters with eminent French anthropologists such as Roger Bastide and Jean Rouch sparked her interest in mental health and dying. She pursued her academic training in the United States in medical anthropology while exploring psychedelic research with psychiatrist Stanislav Grof. Her encounter with Huichol shamanism in California led to her apprenticeship as a shaman in Mexico, and paved the way for her recognition as an engaged Buddhist teacher and as an expert on end-of-life care. How did Joan Halifax achieve legitimacy as a religious expert ? This portrait emphasizes her multilayered circulation between the Americas, Europe, and Asia but also in and out of academia, demonstrating an intricate combination of academic authority, ethnographic involvement, and religious initiation.
An Ethnographer in Her Own Right
Born in 1942 in Hanover, New Hampshire, Joan Halifax was brought up in Coral Gables, Florida. Along with other spiritual leaders within the eclectic field of contemporary spiritualties, her self-narrative highlights a personal experience of illness central to Halifax’s authority as a “wounded healer”, a defining criteria of shamans. The storyline of her spiritual journey began at an early age (Halifax, 1998 : 15). When she was four, a virus left her functionally blind for two years. Following a privileged education at the Newcomb women’s college at Tulane University in New Orleans, she associates her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement to two intimate relationships. One with Lilla, her African American nanny portrayed as a loving, caring “teacher” ; the other with musicologist Alan Lomax, whom she met in 1962 at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island.
Although some of her present bios still mention that she was Lomax’s “research assistant,” none indicates that she contributed to Lomax’s famous Cantometrics project – an ambitious attempt to survey the world’s music cross-culturally conducted at Columbia University with the Bureau of Applied Social Research where Lomax was appointed. Other projects based on this massive comparative work include the Choreometrics, focused on dance, and the Phonotactics, based on the count of types of vowels in typical folk songs. Twenty-seven associates were involved and Halifax was one of eleven cultural anthropologists and ethnomusicologists, among which were celebrities such as Margaret Mead and George P. Murdock. Halifax actively collaborated with the methods and analysis of the project through the elaboration of the coding system as well as the study of texts. Lomax’s chronology of field trips shows that they actually did fieldwork together in Arkansas, North Carolina, the Dominican Republic, St Eustatius, and Morocco from 1962 to 1967, contributing to what would become the most widely known field recordings in the world. This team effort resulted in the book Folk Song Style and Culture (1968), in which she and Lomax co-authored a section of the “Consensus on Cantometric Parameters” chapter, along with “Folk Song texts as Culture Indicators”.
Szwed’s biography of Lomax seems to be the only source mentioning Lomax and Halifax’s four-year companionship (2010 : 350). Rather, Halifax emphasizes their common engagement in the anti-war movement and their political activism against American imperialism, an important element of her biographical account as a figure of engaged Buddhism involved in social action : “We were not just dealing with social injustice in America, but with the invasion of Western culture into the lives of people everywhere” (1998 : 10). This relationship immersed Halifax, then in her early twenties, in worldwide cross-cultural research and trained her as an ethnographer and a folk music expert in her own right. According to Szwed, her intimate relationship with Lomax came to a sudden end, as he never showed up at their wedding planned in Florida (Szwed, 2010, 350). Although she stayed in the shadow of Lomax – who was then 27 years older than her and already well-established in a prestigious career – Halifax has managed throughout the years to establish her own reputation in a different field, as a pioneer and well-respected international figure within contemporary spiritualities.
A Formative Year at the Musée de l’Homme
Halifax’s separation from Lomax did not put an end to their collaboration. As she spent a year in 1968 at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, she kept doing significant work for him to identify French ethnographic film footage as well as other film resources relevant to the Choreometrics project.  Her stay at the Musée gave her the opportunity to give a presentation entitled Trance in Native American Churches within a conference organized in October 1968 by eminent French anthropologists Roger Bastide and Jean Rouch on the topic of cults of possession. Her paper is a study of the use and function of trance through the ethnographic account of church services : one in a Pentecostal church with a predominantly black membership in New York City, the other in a Baptist church with a predominantly white membership in North Carolina. While emphasizing the mechanisms of trance induction, her final note extends the experience of trance to various contexts within the United States, from consumers of hallucinogens, Navajo practitioners of the peyote cult through the Native American Church , and fans of Jimmie Hendrix and The Rolling Stones. This conference seems to have been a gate opener to Halifax’s reputation as a young and promising researcher on trance and possession. In her correspondence with Lomax, she mentions the interest of Belgian anthropologist and filmmaker Luc de Heusch, as well as British, Swiss, and French anthropologists for her work and her use of the cantometric and choreometric approach of trance movements, chant and songs.
The Musée de l’Homme provided Halifax with intellectual inspirations, networking, and fieldwork opportunities. A professor at the Sorbonne, Bastide had spent most of his career on religions and cultures of African origin in Brazil but he was also fascinated by the relations between religious history and mental illness. As a result, he funded the Laboratoire de psychiatrie sociale (1959) at the École pratique des hautes études and wrote Sociologie des maladies mentales (1965). Halifax would explore this direction of research a few years later with her future husband Stanislav Grof.
As the seat of the Comité du film ethnographique, the Musée de l’Homme was central to Jean Rouch’s prolific film production. At the time, Rouch was working on his seminal series on the Sigui later compiled in Sigui synthesis (1967–1973) – The Invention of Language and Death (1981), a film about a renewal ceremonial cycle held every 60 years and celebrated over the course of seven consecutive years by the Dogon of eastern Mali. Whereas Halifax does not contextualize her interest for this ritual, her 1968 research trip there seems inseparable from Rouch’s shooting expeditions in collaboration with French anthropologist Germaine Dieterlen, the long-term partner of Rouch’s mentor, anthropologist and Dogon specialist Marcel Griaule. It is also worth mentioning the collaboration of Rouch and Dieterlen on several films on Dogon funerals, another source of inspiration for Halifax’s emergent interest in dying which would become her specialty further down the road. Rather than this anthropological lineage, Halifax’s narrative in A Buddhist Life in America (1998) presents the three-week drive crossing the Sahara desert as a turning point in her life through the lived experience of solitude, an experience that she had early on defined as constitutive of shamanic initiation (1980, 3). In her view, the study of the Sigui sheds a new light on her native country. “The world I had come from — New York, Miami, North Carolina looked quite disordered as I sat in the quiet shadow of the cliffs above Banani, but I eventually realized that most of us have to return to the world from which we started” (Halifax 1994 ). Her return seems in fact to have been nurtured by her academic apprenticeship and encounters not only with highly influential figures of French anthropology but also with an emblematic ethnic group within the discipline.
From Medical Anthropology to Psychedelic Research
Back in the United States, Halifax was offered the opportunity to work at the University of Miami Department of Anthropology and School of Medicine. Although she does not mention it in her bios, a paper published in 1973 in an edited volume indicates that she worked on the Santeria among Cuban immigrants in Miami with medical anthropologist Hazel H. Weidman, who had developed a community mental health programme geared to the needs of the inner-city population of Miami (Halifax and Weidman in Cox, 1973). The paper argues for the central role of Santeria in Cuban’s acculturative situation. From this period, Halifax chooses to emphasize her work in more general terms as a “cultural broker with African Americans and people from the Caribbean and Latin America who practised healing and made their way into the hospital system” (Halifax, 1998, 12). In fact, this position of cultural broker in health had been formalized by Weidman in her programme and arguably retained by Halifax as a reflection of her constant efforts throughout her itinerary to play this role through the accumulation of claimed filiations and affiliations both within and outside of academia.
In 1971, while at the American Psychiatric Association in Dallas to present her paper on Santeria, Halifax met Stanislav Grof, a Czech psychiatrist, at the time assistant professor of psychiatry at John Hopkins University and chief of psychiatric research at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center. Introduced by common friends, they were soon involved in a relationship. Grof reports that Halifax decided to take a leave of absence to be able to join him to a 10-day-trip to Iceland for the First International Transpersonal Conference, where they ended up marrying at a Viking nuptial ritual improvised by a group of scholar friends attending the conference (Grof, 2006 : 104).
Halifax ended up leaving her job with the anthropological department of the University of Miami and moved to Baltimore with Grof. According to him, she made unsuccessful attempts to get a position at the Johns Hopkins University and at the University of Maryland. “The loss of her academic identity seemed to take a big toll on her emotional condition. I offered her to join me in our project of psychedelic therapy with terminal cancer patients. She enjoyed being a co-therapist in LSD and DPT (dipropyltryptamine) sessions, but had to do it gratis, because there was no salaried position available at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center” (Grof, 2006 : 120). Grof’s motives for publicizing these details along with a whole account of their dazzling encounter and his immediate dismal premonitions on their relationship seem to meet a specific agenda if not a desire to undermine her academic authority. Yet he offers an interesting insight about Halifax’s tensions and sense of estrangement from academia.
Wedding of Joan Halifax and Stanislav Grof, Iceland, 1972.
Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/upaya, © Joan Halifax, Sanislav Grof/Joan Halifax Album.
By 1973, Grof became a resident scholar of Esalen where he lived with Halifax, finishing his first book on LSD research, Realms of the Human Unconscious. Meanwhile, Halifax completed her PhD in medical anthropology in 1973 from the Union Graduate School in Cincinnati, Ohio, her connections with this institution remaining a blind spot of her itinerary. A major intellectual figure of Esalen, Grof was convinced that “LSD is to psychiatry what the telescope is to astronomy and the microscope to biology”, intensifying mechanisms of psychological change unacknowledged and unexplained by mainstream psychiatry (Grof quoted in Kripal, 2007, 256). With Halifax, he co-led a seminar on Buddhism and Western psychology – as reported by historian J. Kripal (2007, 263) – until they separated in 1975. Here again, Halifax remains at the margin of the institute’s prolific scholars, holding a position of follower rather than leader.
Reflecting on this period, Halifax describes it as yet another shift in her worldview : “From cross-cultural studies in archives to fieldwork in Africa and the Dogon’s great rite of passage, the Sigui, I switched from mind to body. My world was again to shift, this time from body to psyche, when I married the psychiatrist Stanislav Grof” (1979, xxiv). In fact, accompanying dying people and training clinicians in the care of the dying would become the main focus of her work The Human Encounter with Death (with Grof, 1978 ; Being with Dying : Cultivating Compassion and Wisdom in the Presence of Death, 2014). This period, however, is also associated with dark memories of her own encounter with LSD, as she reports full-blown hallucinations and mental suffering that extended from 1972 up until 1978. She mentions her work for mythologist Joseph Campbell in New York as a lifesaving period, studying “the !Kung, the Mbuti, and other indigenous peoples who used rites of passage as a way to restore order in the heart” (Halifax, 1998, 24). In fact, Halifax was much more than a research assistant to Campbell. They were so intimate that he actually stood as his surrogate father at her Icelandic wedding with Grof, bringing her to the altar (Grof, 2006 : 117). While Campbell’s comparative approach to myth inspired by Carl Jung was much criticized by academics, he became a celebrity in American popular culture through Bill Moyers’ 1988 famous PBS talk show, and was credited by George Lucas as an inspiration for his Star Wars saga along with other Hollywood filmmakers.  Once again, Halifax positions herself in her public biography as well as in her private life as friend and collaborator of a highly influential public figure. In fact, she is presented in the introduction of A Buddhist Life in America – a transcript of the Wit Lecture series at Harvard University Divinity School – as “the spiritual successor to Joseph Campbell” and “an accomplished ethnologist” in the eyes of the dean of Harvard Divinity School himself, a professor of theology whose work, incidentally, focused on the role of religion in American public life. This acknowledgement from such a prestigious institution both confirms and extends the impact of her academic authority.
Joseph Campbell and his wife Jean Erdman (modern dancer and choreographer) with Joan Halifax, Feathered Pipe Ranch, Montana, late 1970’s, where Campbell and Halifax were teaching on mythology in the indigenous and Buddhist world.
Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/upaya, © Joan Halifax, Joseph Campbell Album.
Building Up Religious Expertise
Disillusioned by Western medicine, she decided to find refuge in Buddhist meditation practice, becoming a student of the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn based in Providence, Rhode Island, while simultaneously exploring shamanism among the Huichol in Mexico. Along with other popular academic spiritual seekers such as Timothy Leary and Carlos Castaneda, Halifax followed the footsteps of Gordon Wasson, a journalist and banker whose essay “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” chronicled his drug session with shamaness Maria Sabina from the Huichol Indians in Mexico (Znamenski, 2007). Its publication in Life Magazine in 1957 attracted a wide readership and turned the attention of spiritual seekers to indigenous Mexico and Latin America. 
Halifax’s first experience with Huichol shamanism and peyote, however, did not start in Mexico as seems to be the case in the narrative of her Buddhist itinerary (1998), but took place right around the corner from where she lived at the time, in Big Sur, California (Halifax, 1980, 238). In the fall of 1973, she partook in a peyote ceremony along with two other fellow anthropologists, Barbara Myerhoff and Peter Furst. A graduate student from UCLA, Furst was himself inspired by Wasson and became a prominent “psychedelic anthropologist”. “With his multiple contributions to various fields, from modern Huichol ethnography to Mesoamerican archaeology, Furst spearheaded the spread of the shamanism idiom in American anthropology in the 1960s and 1970s”. As a result, he promoted hallucinogens as the source of early religion, in what Znamenski describes as a process of shamanization resulting in revisionist view of Mesoamerican archeology and rock art studies contested by specialists in those fields (Znamenski, 141 ; 143).
This ceremony seems to have been a landmark in Halifax’s exploration of shamanism. There, she met Paul C. Adams aka Prem Das, whom she credits as a gate opener and mentor, revealing thereby her aspiration to become a religious expert. “Without him, my interest in shamanism would have remained academic” (Halifax, 1980, 238). When he was eleven years old, Prem Das participated in a series of hypnosis sessions for Ernest Hilgard, a famous professor of psychology at Stanford University  studying hypnotizability in children. A powerful mystical experience triggered a spiritual quest (Grof, 2006 : 243). He became a disciple of Ram Das (Richard Alpert), a former psychologist at Harvard who became a major figure for a whole generation of practitioners within the field of contemporary spiritualities. After going to India to meet with Ram Das’ teacher Baba Hari Das, Prem Das was one of the first to follow Myerhoff and Furst to the homes of Huichol shamans Ramón Medina Silva – one of the chief inspirations for Castaneda’s Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan – and his father-in-law, José Ríos Matsuwa, in the Sierra Madre Mountains, where he became their apprentice in 1971 (Dawson, 2018, 157). Prem Das travelled around the US selling Huichol artifacts to support himself during his years of apprenticeship, at times taking Matsuwa with him to attend month-long seminars on shamanism. According to Dawson, it was during one of those visits in 1979 that he took the hundred-year-old Matsuwa to meet Grof and Halifax at Esalen,  where he performed a series of all-night ceremonies (Dawson, 2018, 158).
The interweaving of academic impetus, consumption of hallucinogens and the exploration of indigenous rituals led Halifax to a long series of trips to Mexico, starting with her encounter with Maria Sabina in 1975, about twenty years after Wasson, and leading to her apprenticeship with Matsuwa. These trips resulted in the publication of one of the first scholarly compilations intended to present the voices of shamans themselves throughout the world, Shamanic Voices : A Survey of Visionary Narratives (1979) followed by the illustrated book Shaman. The Wounded Healer (1982, translated into French in 1991). While giving voice to numerous shamans, the introduction is unambiguous about her self-identification and own visionary self-narrative : “Shamans are healers, seers, and visionaries who have mastered death (…) They are not only spiritual leaders but also judges and politicians, the repositories of the knowledge of the culture’s history, both sacred and secular (…). Above all, however, shamans are technicians of the sacred and masters of ecstasy” (1979, 3).
Nina Wise, Joan Halifax, Don Jose Matsuwa, and Prem Das (in the foreground), All-night ceremony, Esalen, 1976.
Flikr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/upaya, © Joan Halifax, Medicine People Album.
Looking back at her itinerary, she reconsiders the visionary cactus as no more successful than LSD. As a prominent figure of engaged Buddhism, she repositions the practice of meditation as the response she was seeking to enhance her mental health. However, her personal initiation and first-hand, long-term experience with the Huichol represent much more than a failed attempt to heal herself. Through the Huichol, Halifax gained the status of a legitimate shaman, contributing alongside Carlos Castaneda and Michael Harner to the institutionalization of shamanism through the combination of academic authority, ethnographic involvement, and religious initiation. In the case of Halifax, the many layers of her interdisciplinary training through her various mentors in the US and Europe only extended her academic expertise, from folk music to religion, rituals, mythology, and psychiatry. The dedication of her book Shaman : The Wounded Healer to J. Campbell, UCLA anthropologists B. Myerhoff and G. Reichel-Dolmatoff,  G. Wasson, Matsuwa, and Prem Das among others reflects the plurality of her mentors’ positions. Throughout this process, Halifax followed the path of a series of anthropologists who contributed to turn the Huichol – like the Dogon – into an ’ethnologized society’, a term Anne Doquet uses to refer to ’groups for whom ethnographers’ attention is unrelenting, and its mere mention automatically evokes the idea of specific traditions’ (Doquet, 1999, 290).
The rest of Halifax’s itinerary as an engaged Buddhist only demonstrates the extent of her reputation as a highly skilled religious expert, both praised for her anthropological background and academic partnership and well-respected for her experiential knowledge on a variety of indigenous people, from the United States to the Caribbean, Mexico and Mali, expanding further east to Nepal and Tibet. There, she started the Nomad Clinics in the 1980s, an annual month expedition of volunteer clinicians providing medical care in remote places of the Himalayas. During her Buddhist training, she was ordained by Seung Sahn and Thich Nhat Hanh, an internationally famous Vietnamese Zen teacher and anti-war activist established in France, whom she credits for leading her to the combination of contemplative practice and social action.
Joan Halifax and Don Jose Matsuwa, Ojai Foundation, 1980’s.
Flikr, © Joan Halifax, Medicine People Album.
From New York, Halifax moved back to Southern California where in 1979 she founded the Ojai Foundation, presented as an international education centre exploring the interface between spirituality and science, which came to be known as the “Wizards Camp” and, according to Stuckrad, is still an important hub for shamanic activities in North America (2014, 170). Drawing from Halifax’s web of connections strongly echoing Esalen as an inspiration, the foundation gathers an eclectic faculty with a mix of experts and academics in the field of shamanism, humanistic psychology, psychedelic research and Eastern religion. The list includes well-known figures of contemporary spiritualities such as J. Campbell, psychiatrist R. D. Laing, psychologist Ralph Metzner – who collaborated with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert on psychedelic experiments at Harvard – environmental activist and pioneer of ecospirituality Joanna Macy, ethnobotanist and peyote expert Andrew Weil, British anthropologist and founder of the NGO Survival International Francis Huxley, cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, and US Native American author Heymeyohsts Storm.
In 1990, Halifax left for Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she founded yet another institution, the Upaya Institute and Zen Center, dedicated to Buddhist studies and contemplative practice, while developing meditation programmes for prisoners through the Upaya Prison Project. Along the same line, she was one of the founding members of the Mind and Life Institute, an organization fostering dialog between science and Buddhism founded in 1987 by neuroscientist Francisco Varela along with businessman Adam Engels and the Dalai Lama. Mind and Life has since become a leader in the development of the field of “contemplative sciences”.
Joan Halifax and Francisco Varela at Dharamsala in 1994. Mind and Life Dialogue series in Dharamsala, India, was initiated as a discussion between Buddhist thought and cognitive science.
Flikr, © Joan Halifax, Varela Album.
“Roshi Joan” giving Tokudo - Novice Priest Ordination - to James Fushin Bristol, November 18, 2018, Upaya Zen Center.
© Upaya Zen Center.
As an expert in palliative care, Halifax designed the project Being With Dying, dedicated to training health care professionals in the care of the dying (Halifax, 2009) and created a protocol named GRACE based on the practice of compassion as a tool to help health professionals manage chronic pain care. Her work in hospice and hospitals and as an active lecturer in the end-of-life field up to this day have brought her to a variety of academic medical schools and higher learning institutions in the US, awarding her respectable positions and titles systematically listed by her hosts (National Science Foundation Fellowship in Visual Anthropology, Honorary Research Fellow in Medical Ethnobotany at Harvard University, Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Library of Congress).
Joan Halifax’s itinerary exemplifies the prominent role played by scholars and the academic sphere in the development of Western shamanism,  and more widely of contemporary North American spiritualties and metaphysical religions (Hendrickson, 2015, 32). Her respectability as a religious expert results from her eclectic collaborations with highly influential figures within cultural anthropology, folklore, and psychiatry along with indigenous and Western shamans. Halifax has acted as a link in a chain of “enterprising anthropologists” such as Castaneda and Harner (Hendrickson, 2015), thriving outside of the establishment while founding her authority on some of its most emblematic figures and institutions. Her struggle for recognition involves a circulatory process within the Americas inseparable from her experiences in Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Throughout this process, California has played an essential role as a hub of encounters, experimentations and reconfigurations, providing Halifax with a plurality of inspirations and legitimacies. As one of the centres of research in altered states of consciousness in the 1970s, UCLA (The University of California at Los Angeles) provided a vibrant intellectual environment that deeply valued spirituality and altered states of consciousness (Znamenski, 2014 : 106), while Esalen extended this interest outside of academia. Stuckrad emphazises Halifax’s commonalities with Castaneda and Harner in what he envisions as a “routinization of charisma” through the creation of long-lasting foundations and group networks (Stuckrad, 2014 : 172). The case of Halifax, however, expands beyond the role of scholars in the development of shamanic milieus. Drawing from her multiple legacies, she has navigated from shamanism to medicine, reaching out to clinicians, achieving recognition in her own right as reference in palliative medicine  and regaining legitimacy within academic institutions as both a peer and a spiritual authority.
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