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Lions Roar : March 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2008 29 After a traditional, high-end education and career— Harvard, Yale Law School, top Washington law firms—Charles Halpern became one of the country’s first public interest lawyers in the 1960s. Justice, human rights, and the environ- ment were his concerns; early successes included helping ban DDT. But eventually he began to won- der whether activism was enough. Wisdom, he feared, was lacking. He began to question and read more, and to practice meditation and Qigong. Recently he served as chair of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Now Halpern has written Making Waves and Riding the Currents: Activism and the Practice of Wisdom. In it he de- scribes the journey of a successful activist, lawyer, and academic who has sought to bring into his life—and the public sphere—the practice of wisdom. —DAVID SWICK You write that a new and wiser consciousness is emerging in the U.S. Do you see this only in a minority of people, and everyone else is at the mall? CHARLES HALPERN: [Laughs] It isn’t a majority in the United States yet, but I think there is a significant shift toward a greater wisdom. I’ll give you an example. Recently I co-led a law and meditation workshop for California judges. Twenty years ago a program like that wouldn’t have drawn anybody, but we had thirty-five judges, most of whom had never meditated before. The word “wisdom,” you note in the book, rarely appears in legal, political, or academic discourse. Are these pillars of our society lack- ing in wisdom? I think they are. Too much attention has flowed to skill, facility, efficiency. These qualities are valued, and wisdom tends to be pushed to the side. It’s considered too vague a concept. People ask, what do we mean by wisdom, anyway? What do you mean by wisdom? Wisdom is a quality that arose for me very sharply in my first pro- longed meeting with the Dalai Lama. I was in Dharamsala with a group of Jewish scholars and rabbis for a dialogue between His Holiness and leaders of the Jewish spiritual community. I was so struck by the quality of wisdom the Dalai Lama brought to the interaction. I could see it in the way he engaged with his guests, in the care- ful attention he gave to everything that was said to him and ev- erything that he said. I thought to myself, “This is a quality I have not seen in all of my work in law and academia. This is something special.” It was clear that these qualities of compassion and pres- ence flowed from his spiritual work and meditation practice. What spiritual values or philosophies inform your life and work? When I became a public interest lawyer, I was working from a progressive set of values that was secular and political. That had to do with a concern for justice, for treating people fairly, for having political processes that embodied a democratic ideal. I haven’t abandoned that, but I have become convinced that in it- self, that isn’t enough to get us through. I’ve come to believe that all living beings are connected, and that humans have responsi- bilities for stewarding the great miracle of the earth. We are part of a cosmic order of things that is beyond our understanding, but that asserts a claim on us and demands that we—individ- ually and collectively—act out of the deepest wisdom that we can draw on. We are faced with challenges, like global warming and the hazards of nuclear proliferation, that are going to require something deeper than competence and skill. I think that will take people to a deeper level, to the cultivation of wisdom. In the book you say you hope that the practice of wisdom can create a new activism, one more grounded in hope and community and less in anger and divisiveness. When we look at the huge changes in society over the last fifty years, many are due to the work of activists. What’s wrong with activism as it has been practiced? Q&A The Activist’s Search for Wisdom CHARLES HALPERN — - red, and rved as ciety. Ridi th g of wi could see it flttti h MAR 18-41.indd 29 MAR 18-41.indd 29 12/19/07 2:34:19 PM 12/19/07 2:34:19 PM