WAVES AND RIDING THE CURRENTS:
Activism and the Practice of Wisdom
by Charles Halpern
by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. (www.bkconnection.com)
Paperback. $24.95. ISBN: 978-1576754429
and other booksellers.
This is a book about
the life work of Charles Halpern: an exceptionally effective creator of
institutions dedicated to human betterment; a social entrepreneur par
excellence. It is also a book about making the process of wisdom development
central to one's life. As the book's subtitle succinctly puts it, "Activism
and the Practice of Wisdom."
are both astonishing for their day and numerous. Educated at Harvard College
and Yale Law School, in 1965 he joined a prestigious Washington law firm.
There he had some opportunities to pursue human rights cases, but the
firm's primary focus was corporate law and Halpern had to produce quantities
of corporate-case "billable hours." As time went on he became
increasing dissatisfied with the corporate side of the practice, and increasingly
eager to devote himself full time to public-interest cases. In 1970 he
established the first public interest law firm: the Center for Law and
Social Policy (CLASP). A dozen years later he became founding Dean of
a new law school at the City University of New York the country's
first law school devoted to public interest law. In 1989 Halpern reinvented
himself again, becoming the first President of the Nathan Cummings Foundation,
and for many years guided the Foundation's activities in innovative, courageous,
and always socially beneficial ways.
From the beginning
of the tale, it was obvious that Charles Halpern was an intelligent, effective
individual with many skills. But competent doesn't necessarily mean wise.
And interwoven with the story of his highly-accomplished doing is the
story of his psychological/spiritual development the story of his
growth in wisdom, and the integration of that wisdom into his many activities.
tends to be punctuated by "Aha!" moments of sudden insight and
new understandings. But while the steps forward are often sudden, the
overall process is a gradual one, taking place over a span of many years.
Because of this, each person's path toward greater wisdom is to some extent
unique. The opportunities for growth that life presents to us differ from
person to person. Still, learning about the experiences that others have
found helpful can be extremely valuable. Formative books are important
too, and at the end of Making Waves and Riding Currents Halpern
gives us his list.
Among Charles Halpern's
first wisdom-fostering experiences were the teenage summers at a remote
camp on an island in central Ontario. As he put it, "this was where
I first experienced moments of deep inner peace and an intuitive intimation
that all life on earth is interconnected and interdependent." Law
school and his years in corporate law practice distanced him from these
experiences. Later, long conversations with a wise friend opened up to
him new ways of approaching life such as listening more deeply and being
slower to pass judgment. The socially concerned students and staff that
he had attracted to CLASP rejected illegitimate hierarchy in the organization.
This prompted Halpern to head off for intense experiential training in
leadership and authority relationships, and this led to changes at CLASP.
Among other things, he initiated periodic retreats with staff and students
to the hills and woods of West Virginia, and these experiences rekindled
memories of his summers on that Ontario island. He introduced weekly yoga
sessions, and looking back wrote, "bringing yoga into the law library
was an early effort to introduce the practice of wisdom into my life and
work. It created a moment of balance and ease in our busy, purposive days
and helped us connect with each other at a different level than during
our sharp debates about the meaning of federal statutes."
In the years that
followed, Halpern had the courage to place himself in a wide variety of
challenging, often uncomfortable, growth-fostering situations. Too many
to recount here, they included a winter camping adventure in the Adirondacks,
a week-long vision quest based on Native American traditions that included
many hours in a sweat lodge, and a five-day mindfulness meditation retreat
led by Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. This last was a watershed
event, about which Halpern wrote: "The experience of extended meditation
practice...awakened my interest in exploring the connection between meditation
and wisdom. Could I undertake to practice wisdom, living the wise life
that would generate wise actions and decisions? Could this be a new way
to approach activism, to start from the place of wisdom and compassion
rather than the place of anger and insistence on legal rights?"
a central focus, and numerous retreats followed. To some extent facilitated
by the Nathan Cummings Foundation of which he was now President, he met
and got to know many of America and the world's foremost spiritual teachers.
"Longtime meditators and respected teachers," he said, "gave
me a new model for a way to be in the worldcommitted to serving
others, cultivating wisdom, being open to changing themselves, and exposing
their own vulnerability." Currently, Charles Halpern is Chair of
The Center for Contemplative Mind and Society.
Making Waves and
Riding the Currents is a truly inspiring and uplifting book. It is
the tale of a life marked by great accomplishment and developing wisdom,
told with an engaging frankness about his own vulnerabilities by the man
who has lived it.