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Copthorne Macdonald's review of:

Activism and the Practice of Wisdom

by Charles Halpern

Published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. ( 2008 
Paperback. $24.95.   ISBN: 978-1576754429

Available from 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."

Halpern's accomplishments 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.

Wisdom development 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?"

Meditation became 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 world—committed 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.