Awakin Calls » Charles Halpern » Transcript
Charles Halpern: Cultivating Wisdom for Justice and Social Transformation
Awakin Call with Charles Halpern, January 28, 2017:
Birju: As a little bit of context the purpose of these calls is about sharing stories. And the reason we are sharing stories is to offer a little bit of insight as to how leaders in the field of work for the betterment of others, of social good, of social justice have been invited into that work through their own inner work --- through their own inner journey that involves their own process of growth. Today's special guest speaker is none other than Charlie Halpern. And he's somebody who embodies our theme of cultivating wisdom for justice and social transformation. Along with Charlie, we have a few logistical elements to share, so what I'm going to do is first introduce our moderator who is Alyssa Martin. She will then engage in a dialogue with Charlie for about an hour and then at the top of the hour we're going to shift over into a Q&A and those who wish to get involved can either do so through a caller queue, which will be audio oriented. You can access the caller queue through pressing *6. Or you can ask a question online through email -- through the email address email@example.com. I'll remind us of that opportunity as we get closer to the Q&A segment. Aside from asking questions if you have reflections based off the dialogue, feel free to ask that as well.
So our moderator today is in some ways an example of the kind of young lawyer that Charlie's work is inspiring. Alyssa Martin is a young lawyer with an interesting mix of legal expertise and inner work. On the former side is her credentials at Harvard Law Review. She has assisted Elizabeth Warren's efforts on Capitol Hill. She's practiced law at internationally renowned Fenwick. And she's been a clerk on the U.S. Court of Appeals. And on the latter side is her background in religious study and a practice of Vipasana Meditation. Alyssa, thank you so much for joining us today. I'm curious as to your thoughts on today's theme on Wisdom and Justice and I welcome you to lead the conversation.
Alyssa: Thank you so much, Birju, and thank you for allowing me this opportunity to have this conversation with our guest, Charlie Halpern. Thank you, Charlie, for being here. I'm very honored to be here. I just wanted to say a few things on this theme. As Birju mentioned, our theme is cultivating wisdom or developing the inner resources for justice and social transformation. Our guest today really, really exemplifies this theme as his contributions to education, law, and social movements have really been facilitated by his inner work around wisdom and mindfulness. For me personally, the theme resonates because it's something I've been struggling with -- how to harmonize inner work and outer work -- in my own life as I think Charlie will touch upon. There's definitely a temptation to fall into a success trap and to privilege the external over the internal. And definitely something I've been tempted by myself, so it's important to try and every once in a while figure out how to maintain that grounded awareness. It's really inspiring to see someone who's brought that grounded awareness to their social, public life. So I'm really excited to hear from our speaker today about his experience and insight on that issue of balancing the inner work and social advocacy. Before we get started with the dialogue with Charlie Halpern, I want to say a few things about him and his really remarkable journey. Much of which has actually been as Charlie, himself, has described in his book, ‘Making Waves and Riding the Currents, Activism and the Practice of Wisdom.’ For those who haven't read it, I highly recommend it. It's an amazing book that gives incredible insight into his personal journey and the way it intersected with all of his incredible work in the public sphere.
Some background on Charlie and his journey. Charlie graduated from Harvard College and Yale Law School. He initially worked as a corporate lawyer at a prestigious law firm in Washington, D.C. During his time there, Charlie had an opportunity to work on a really important case involving the adequate treatment for mentally ill patients. The thing about that experience, not only did it have important social impact, but it also was very personally transformative as Charlie really connected to his clients in that case. That helped for Charlie to carve out a little different path for himself. Charlies and several others started the Center for Law and Social Policy which was the first of its kind of law firm dedicated to representing the unrepresented public interest in Washington, D.C. as opposed to the more traditional, well-heeled corporate interests. That was a very novel and risky thing at the time because it wasn't entirely obvious how a firm like that would be funded. But Charlie and the Board found innovative ways to make that venture work. The law firm ended up achieving a number of really important social victories in the areas of environmental rights, corporate governance, rights of the mentally ill, and a number of other important public areas as well. For example, their work led to the banning of DDT which is a really harmful chemical. Their work also led to an increase in accountability of corporate boards.
Charlie has continued that work, the work of a social entrepreneur by serving as a founding being of the City University of New York Law School or CUNY, which was a rather unique law school with a public interest and curriculum. And as Charlie notes in his book, it was during the time that he served at CUNY, which was personally often quite challenging, that Charlie was exposed to meditation. Hopefully Charlie will get into this a bit more, but for Charlie meditation really opened up the space for the cultivation of wisdom. Which, as I mentioned, is really the heart of this discussion and the theme here. And since then Charlie has come to see the practice of wisdom is integral to social advocacy and has been a very important part of his work since CUNY and since CLASP. For example, Charlie served as President and CEO of Nathans Cumming Foundation where he helped develop a number of grants which integrated support for both social advocacy and meditation and inner work. So, for example, Charlie helped create the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society which helps lawyers, journalists and business people develop the tools to approach their work from a place of mindfulness. More recently Charlie served as the Director of the Berkeley Initiative for Mindfulness and Law. He's inspired many students like myself to align their work with their inner values, to develop both their inner resources of the heart and the head. Charlie is currently working on how to transform the criminal justice system through mindfulness. In that spirit he's taught mindfulness prosecutors and organized a conference with leaders in the criminal justice system on transforming the system through personal transformation. So I'm really excited to be here with Charlie and so grateful to have this conversation. Thank you very much, Charlie, for joining us.
Charlie: It's really my pleasure Alyssa. I've been a great admirer of Service Space and its various projects for a long time, and I'm happy to participate in this program.
Alyssa: I thought if it's alright with you that we start at the beginning. I was hoping for the initial part of our conversation you could speak to some of your earlier years. After graduating from Harvard and undergrad at Yale Law, you clerked for a prominent judge in the D.C. circuit and worked for several years as a successful corporate lawyer at Arnold and Porter. I'm curious what led you to pursue this more conventional linear path as you put it in your book, and what kind of led you to turn away from it.
Charlie: Let me speak about the earliest years. I grew up in Buffalo, NY and my father was a lawyer by training and a judge and law professor for most of his life. So I kind of grew up in this law saturated environment. My father was a person who had a great concern not just with law but with justice. That the law should operate fairly and he brought that into our dining room conversation and that was a wonderful background for me.
I was born actually as World War II was just beginning and as I look back on it, of course, I was too young to really be conscious of what was going on. But in the post war years when I was entering a period of consciousness, I became very much interested in the fate of the Jews in Europe. And, the enormous destruction of WWII altogether.
But growing up in a Jewish household, the systematic and serious effort of the German nation to exterminate the Jewish people had an effect, I think, on how I thought and felt at the deepest level. As I look back and try to understand the unusual path I took, I had a feeling this was something very important to me, and foundational. It was submerged for many years by my absorption in the traditional academic exercise of hard, analytic work and competitive struggle for excellence and achievement. And that was, I would say, the dominant theme in my life in those formative years of high school and college.
My time at Yale law school moved me more in the direction of social justice concerns. It was very much in the air at that time in the early 60s. The civil rights movement was heating up and many of my classmates were very active in the civil rights movement. So I was influenced by that. And many of my professors were brilliant and thoughtful participants in that movement. They were writing briefs for the NAACP; they were evolving new theories about the rights of poor people that could be pursued in court; and it was a very heady time for me.
So then after law school and the clerkship in Washington, D.C., as you said, I went to work in a prestigious corporate law firm. It was a firm that had a reputation for doing a lot of good work, a lot of pro bono, as it's called in the law world. I quickly got into that side of the practice but most of my time was spent doing corporate work and struggling against federal regulation and things of that kind. And I did that work for four years with a growing awareness this was really wasn't what I wanted to do with my life. Basically if you pass through the legal issues, the bottom line was I was helping rich people to get richer. And that just seemed like an odd thing to do. And there was this one particular firm had a client which -- a big client -- that really brought the ethical issues to the foreground for me. And that was the representation of the tobacco industry. This was at a time when the evidence was becoming irrefutable that the tobacco was connected to cancer and various other health problems. Our job was basically to make sure that information did not become the basis for a federal regulation or even a ban on cigarette sales. I was pretty clear I didn't want to be involved in that kind of a business for my whole life. And some friends and I started thinking about what kind of an alternative law practice we might set up. Actually my experience in this big firm and the experience of my colleagues all led to the same idea. This excellent representation that we're giving to corporate interests, what if, we were to bring that kind of representation to groups and individuals who lack representation. It might be minorities who were excluded from the communications industry. What if we were to try and help them find a voice. At that time, these were the late 60s, the field of environmental law had scarcely begun. There were a handful of cases and no lawyers who were really spending full time being environmental lawyers and trying to bring their legal skills to bear in protecting the environment. So we decided we would give it a try. We went through a long process and we got some foundation support for us. We got some leading lawyers with strong status and credentials to serve as our Board of Trustees. So we looked more credible than our age and experience would have suggested. And we went to work!
Alyssa: What I find really intriguing about the story and especially the light you were sharing on your early years, it sounds like a lot of the roots and the later changes in your life were sowed at a young age. And your family experience and with some of these social changes that were happening when you were younger, I was wondering if you could speak more to that to the extent to which maybe some of these earlier seeds were planted for some of the work you would eventually do in terms of cultivating wisdom. It sounds like some of these earlier seeds were planted for social advocacy -- if you could speak to the extent to which some of the seeds were planted for the cultivation of wisdom as well. I think that would also be very interesting.
Charlie: That's an important matter. Because on the surface I was being groomed in a very -- how shall I say -- into a rationalistic, intellectual environment. And I distinguished between the cultivation of wisdom and the cultivation of analytic skill and cognitive intelligence. For me and my early years were definitely on the analytic, cognitive side. When I look back and think, well what was planting the seeds of an impulse to do inner work? A couple of things come to mind. One was my experience in nature. I went to a summer camp in northern Ontario for a number of formative years, my teenage years mostly. And I got into the practice of taking fairly extensive canoe trips from this camp. And I found places of peace and stillness. Sitting in the stern of a canoe and paddling across large lakes and portaging the canoes from lake to lake. And, being with a group of other teenagers but also being on my own. And connecting as Thoreau or Emerson would suggest, one can to depths of inner reflection in the context of beautiful and sterling natural spaces. And that was, I think, one important factor for me.
And actually I met the woman who would become my wife at that summer camp. We married young and she has been an absolute partner of everything in my life since I was twenty. The fact that she was interested in social transformation and inner exploration was a great gift to me. The fact that we did this together over decades has been an incredible gift. In fact when I'm through with this phone call today, she and I are going to put our canoe on our car and we're going off to a nearby lake to spend the rest of the day paddling. So it gets it out and then we come home.
Alyssa: That sounds simple.
Charlie: Yes this has been a real blessing. I couldn't have left this comfortable law firm job to kind of take a leap off into space and invent a new kind of institution that the legal world had never seen before if I didn't have a 100% support and buy in from her. So that was it. There was another thing too. When we started the Center for Law and Social Policy, we thought we were just starting a law firm with a different kind of client and a different kind of value orientation from a regular law firm. But then it became clear we had an opportunity to reinvent the way we worked together. My colleagues and I, the support staff -- we hired the students we brought in to our program from the beginning. We always had -- the early years from the Center for Law and Social Policy -- we always had students coming in. And we tried to create a less hierarchical more engaged, more committed community. We played together as well as working together. We tried to engage each other as whole people and not just as brilliant thinking machines. Which is basically the way, as you know Alyssa, that law schools tend to engage with their students. We were trying to engage with each other as people and that paid off because many of the students who passed through our program undertook the kind of public service, public interest, social justice law careers that we were trying to do in our program. And they'd been creative and innovative in their own right.
Alyssa: One of the things I'm hearing and I find really interesting is that it sounds like when you transitioned from the law firm to CLASP, Center for Law and Social Policy, there was the sense that okay this was going to be -- this new work is going to be more aligned with my values, this is going to be serving a broader social interest and so in that sense it can be more meaningful at that level. And also you mentioned that it was a novel experience in terms of how you related to people and dealing with people as whole persons, those are really interesting themes. I was wondering if you could speak about some of the feelings and emotions you had at CLASP and whether did you feel at that time, "Wow now I'm so aligned, this is exactly right." Or did you kind of experience some challenges or what were some of the inner issues you were dealing with at that time...what were some of the road blocks you were experiencing or areas where you thought there were opportunities for further inner exploration during that time period?
Charlie: I would say that it was a very satisfying and exciting time in my life. I've got to give you a sense of this. This was a time of radical innovation in the country with voices of social justice and interconnection and concern for marginalized people was really coming forward. We were deeply engaged in that. And, deeply engaged in a way which was unique in my experience, in that I was in an organization that was really supportive of that kind of work. We had our ordinary tensions, things that -- I'll give you an example, something that pushed us in the direction of more involvement. It's not exactly the kind of inner work that I came to value at a later point in my life but it certainly deepened my understanding of who I was and what kind of doors could be opened.
There were four of us that started CLASP and all of us had in common the fact that we all were white men. It's hard perhaps for someone of your generation to see how that could have happened. It would be so unlikely for that to happen in America today. But America in the 1960s, even as the old ways were disappearing, some of them were not. We ended up as four white men as being our pioneering group. The first challenge we received was from the group of women who were doing clerical and secretarial work in our organization, because they were all women. And they were women who were talented and had taken this job because they believed in the work that CLASP was doing. That was why they were there. And then they found that to a very disagreeable extent, we were operating the place vis-a-vis them, the lawyers and support staff, in very much the same hierarchical way that was common to law firms and to other jobs in more conventional settings that they had held. And they resented that and they undertook to organize and change it. First they wanted to be more involved in our decision making process and they thought that we should be doing women's rights law -- a very novel field at that time. So we had a series of facilitated meetings some of which were not as skillfully managed as they might be as I look back on them. But we were all open to moving this process forward. And out of this process came a number of changes in the way we worked together. They were more involved in our selection of cases, they elected one member of the Board of Trustees in the organization that is the support staff did. And we brought in two women lawyers, recent graduates, to try to develop a women's project. What would a women's law project look like? Because it was quite a novel notion at that time. How could they use the law and administer the processes of Washington to advance the cause of women's equality?
So it was a productive thing, and again, making us go a layer deeper than we had started. The women's project that we had started then, 1970 or 1971, has since grown and become an independent group called the National Women's Law Center. A very prominent player in women's issues in Washington today. And, of course, one that is deeply challenged and threatened by the changes that we saw this past week in Washington with the new administration. They're now in the process of organizing to protect the rights that they and others have won for women in the United States and around the world over the last forty-five years. As you know the issues that are currently under debate are not just undoing the Obama legacy but going back to the New Deal really and trying to turn back the clock. So they have their hands full and of course all of that grows out of the work of CLASP.
And they don't see the current challenges as reacting to a particular person or particular administration but rather continuing effort to pursue and press for the equal treatment of women that has been their cause for all of these years. So that was the kind of deepening we saw in those days because we were organized with the kind of mandates that we had and because we were engaging with each other at a deeper level, we were able to see things and take actions that were not apparent to other people who weren't doing this work, and we were doing it in a context where we had a supportive environment where we were working with people we really cared about. And we were representing causes and people that seemed vitally important to us -- environment, rights of the mentally ill and mentally retarded people, and the rights of women and rights of minorities. All of these seemed so important to us that we were touched at a deeper level than many professionals and many people have the good fortune to work at. So we did all of that. That was kind of where -- at that time my balance was still very much on the outer work side and less on the inner work side. The inner work side became more prominent in later years.
Alyssa: I understand. One thing I found interesting and maybe you can expound on this a bit more, it seems like the inner work did become an important part of your time at CUNY. So maybe you could speak about that and when that shift started to happen, recognizing that you needed some other resources and tools to draw on when you're thinking about social transformation.
Charlie: Thank you for that reminder. I did various public law things in Washington through the 70s and in 1980 I was invited to come to New York City to become the first dean of the City University of New York Law School. There had never been a public law school in New York City -- lots of private law schools but none public. And there had never been in New York City a law school specifically aimed at public interest law. So it was a very attractive invitation for me and so I accepted and moved my family to New York City from Washington. But it was an extremely hard job. I knew it was going to be a hard job but I didn't know how difficult and complicated it would be. In part because we had such a wonderful and unique and challenging opportunity which was to rethink the way lawyers are trained. And train them in a way which moves them in the direction of public interest and law practice. And we were doing that in what is after all a conservative profession, law, and conservative corner of that profession, which is the way we educate lawyers. Harvard Law School pioneered the modern model of legal education in the late part of the 19th century and other law schools have pretty much followed the case method. The same method you are familiar with Alyssa. The analytic approach, the focus on apellate decisions, the emphasis on making lawyers wonderfully articulate, oral advocates but not very good at listening deeply even to their own clients. So we were trying to think of a different way to educate people. But it's hard to reinvent. You know all the old case books are written for the old way and I didn't realize how difficult our challenge would be. And we had some very conservative politicians we had to deal with, we had a state legislature and because we were a public interest lawyer we decided to admit students on a different basis. We didn't admit them on the basis you and I were admitted to our elite law schools. We wanted to find people not only who said they were interested in serving the public interest with their professional skills but we wanted people who had actually shown some commitment and skill in that direction. So we were bringing in a bunch of students -- our first year students were activists. They had been activists in college and many of them were older people who had been union organizers, and had been environmental organizers; and demonstrators that had been arrested repeatedly for sitting in at nuclear power plants that were under construction. The first president of the black policeman's union in New York City was one of our first year students. So it was a very engaged and energetic and disputatious group of people who came in. And then we hired a faculty that was also people who had been public interest lawyers; people who had done it in their lives. They were leaders in the women's movement, the civil rights movement. We didn't have any environmental people in the first group. So between the activists who energized the students that came to this place, the activist faculty and the conservative politicians and the people who were in charge of our budget. The City University of New York is not actually the most innovative educational institution in the world. So for them to be spouting this new law school was a bit of a jar. And we had to be credited by the American Bar Association. There were elements of the job that I had never imagined. And they weren't easy. They were exhausting. A friend of mine who had started the University of Hawaii Law School as their founding dean had lasted for more than two years actually. He came to see me one day and said "Look I know just the kinds of challenges you're facing. I want to suggest a simple thing you might do that will make your life a little bit easier." I said, "What's that?" And he said, "Well why don't you try meditation?" And I said to him "What's that?" And he explained to me very simply, simple terms, described a practice of sitting for 15 or 20 minutes a day, watching the breath, when thoughts arise you let them go and bring your attention back to the breath and back to your body. Very simple. He said get up fifteen minutes early and do this. And I said, "What good is that going to do me?" He said "Well what you might find is that you find a place of stillness and calm that you can in the course of a busy day reach back to from time to time. And as your stress level is getting higher, as you're about to blow up at the academic bureaucrat from the City University who's trying to get you to do something that is inconsistent with your plan for the law school, rather than blow up with smoke coming out of your ears, you can take a few minutes, a few breaths, not a few minutes, a few breaths and come back to a place of stillness and respond with greater wisdom, with greater balance and a sense of being grounded rather than just flying off the handle. It's not going to happen every time. This isn't going to be a miracle cure. But why don't you give it a try?" I said "Well we’ll see." And I went and talked to Susan about it, my wife, and she said, "Look why don't you give it a try? This job is driving you crazy." So I did. And it helped. No miracle, but it helped. And the first result was I was managing my emotions more effectively. I was being more effective in my more difficult interactions. And gradually over time this practice settled in and helped me; suggested a path in combining my commitment to social transformation in the world and doing inner work that would support and sustain that. So that was an important turning point for me.
Then while I was Dean at the Law School and we had graduated our first class and having some considerable influence in the world of ??? education. A very important teacher came into my life. I was reading a catalog of the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, up the Hudson River from New York City. There was a Vietnamese teacher who was relatively new to teaching in the United States, but he was a Zen monk and a poet and an activist. He was doing a meditation retreat at Omega. And I thought well I've been doing this meditation on my own just in the simple way it had been suggested getting up and meditating every day, so I thought maybe this will be a way to deepen that practice and see what other ??vitches?? it could open for me. Susan and I went to this retreat. It wasn't wholly silent, but I think they said 80% silent. We did all our meals in silence. And we walked in silence through these beautiful, wooded rolling hills of upstate New York. And I got to see, be quite close to Thich Nhat Hanh who since then has become a very important Buddhist teacher and a teacher of mindfulness practice around the world. A wonderful man and I had never been exposed to that kind of teaching. The teachers I knew were oriented towards passing along content and skills and analytic tools to people. This man spoke simply and wisely and his presence, the stillness that he embodied was an inspiration. Could people be like that? I actually had another teacher who was, Ralph ??Fu??, a research scientist I knew in Washington. But for a scientist, he was of Chinese origin, an incredibly wise person who had spent his life integrating Asian wisdom and western science. I knew him as a friend not a teacher but he was also, Ralph Fu?? was a great influence on me in those days. And the most striking thing to me about Thich Nhat Hanh was that he was so wise and grounded and kind. And at the same time he had been a powerful advocate for peace in the depths of the Vietnam War. So, that his voice was sufficiently strong that both the Viet Cong and the Americans and their allies all found him very objectionable. Yet he, with remarkable courage and effectiveness, organized the monks of his order, he was a Zen priest, and also organized in the general population, a peace movement in the midst of the chaos and terror of the Vietnam War. That he could draw on these inner strengths that he had to be so effective an advocate was very powerful to me. Just the thought that this was the direction I could move in when things get really hard; when we're dealing with environmental crises that have global significance; issues of nuclear power and the use of nuclear weapons in war; or global climate change, things that are so fundamental to human civilization and the preservation of the planet. All these things, one could be absolutely grounded and have a place of stillness and still be able to come forward on these difficult issues in a way that is powerful and resonant for many people and persuasive and effective.
Alyssa: I was wondering if I could follow up on that point actually. In my extremely limited experience one of the things I find difficult about balancing the inner work and the outer work, and I'm starting to hear a little bit of this, it sounds like the inner work is so difficult, can be so difficult, if you really want to dedicate yourself, so time consuming to get to that place of mindfulness and grounded awareness. You've never arrived, it's just a continual journey and effort at purification so you want to continue in that way but then on the other hand you want to be out in the world doing some good and having some impact. So how did you try to balance that in your own life and any difficulties you've encountered in terms of wanting to continue to push inward while also having some sort of impact outward and wanting that to radiate in a more external way? How to continue to balance those two forces and make sure the inner part is not being forsaken?
Charlie: That is the koan or the conundrum that we all deal with all the time. In a certain sense it's easier for a buddhist monk wearing robes to do that inner work and make it really deep and powerful than it is for somebody living in a family and supporting and sending children to college and having to pay the rent. The wisest people I've encountered, people like Thich Nhat Thanh or the Dalai Lama, are people who wear the robes and do this full time and I'm never going to have the level of wisdom they do. What I can do is take their inspiration and walk that same path. I can tell you what I've done but it's different for each person. There are a few things. One is first of all to make that commitment to start. I'm going to put my feet on this path and I'm going to walk. And sometimes it will be really hard and sometimes it will be relatively easy. And sometimes it will seem dry and unproductive, other times it will provide real "aha" moments where you'll have a feeling that I'm seeing things I haven't seen before and doing things differently. And you'll look back after you've done it for a few years and you'll think "I really have changed quite a lot. Not as much as I would have liked to but some considerable." So daily practice. As I tell these busy lawyers, everyone can find ten minutes a day to sit. Start with ten minutes, then move it up to twenty, maybe half an hour. And just be faithful about it. And look for places in your daily life in the world where you can bring those moments of silence and reflective insight to bear on the work you are doing. That's one thing. Second thing, there are now places in many parts of the country where you can go on retreat with skilled teachers and caring environments where you sit with a group of people who share your interest in doing the inner work. And there are teachers who have been at it for decades who can help you move along. While our media soaked environment is one of the things that makes it so important and challenging to do this meditative work, it's also a resource that you can get. You can take out your cell phone and have access to really wonderful teachings that will help move you along the mindfulness path. You can listen to those talks and discussions online and move your inner work along. And the other thing that I think has been very important to me and would recommend it to anyone is to make sure you try not to do this alone. I started on this as an isolated path, but it became much more productive when I had friends and colleagues who were involved in the same enterprise. For example at this point I have the good fortune of meeting once a month with a group of lawyers, law professors and former judges. Once a month we meet with a wonderful teacher, Norman Fisher, who teaches both the Zen practice and Jewish meditation. We talk about how we are struggling to bring our mindfulness practice to bear in our works in law and social transformation. Some kind of community of that sort is extremely important. And at this point readily accessible. Mindfulness is now -- mindfulness and meditation -- were two terms which made people raise their eyebrows twenty years ago. At this point there are lots of people interested in this and lots of people who are practicing. So you're not climbing the steep, cultural hill that you were climbing twenty-five years ago, or that I was climbing twenty-five years ago. There's been cultural resonance for the work. I don't want to overstate how powerful that resonance is but there are plenty of lawyers doing this work and there are lawyer tsongas in many cities. It's relatively easy to set one up too.
Birju: Alyssa and Charlie I'd love to jump in here. I'm really appreciating where this direction is going and it strikes me that we're moving to the crux of the kinds of questions our callers would be intrigued to reflect on how they bring this into their own lives. I'd love to take this opportunity to invite the callers into the conversation to the extent they feel called.
Alyssa: Great, thank you so much Birju. Actually one area that might be fruitful to kick into this next conversation -- I was wondering if you could speak Charlie to how your inner work and how your meditation practice which grew and grew over the years changed your approach to social advocacy? And how you’re able to deal with the angrier and more reactionary voices in this social justice field? How has wisdom and your cultivation of it shifted your approach in that regard?
Charlie: These are two very live issues for me now. I would say as I think of the way I try to be active in the social justice world, social transformation world, it is a work in progress. I try to be more balanced and when I feel myself being taken over by emotions like anger or fear, to try to come back to the contemplative space and come forward instead of letting my actions be guided by, as they might have been in the past, by fear and anger, instead to try and find a place of more positive feeling and a place where an affirmative vision and a sense of interconnection with other people could be the motivating forces. There's a big difference between banking an argument, for example, on the use of DDT which was being used with incredible abandon without attention to the negative consequences it was having on the total environment and just to be raging about the pesticide companies being so indifferent to the state of the world. I don't think working from those kind of emotions is good for my inner being and I don't think it's the most effective way to be in the world. I think it's much better if I can put myself in the place of someone who's spent a career working in the pesticide world thinking he was doing good things. And think about how to talk to that person in a way that's going to permit conversation and not shouting. So that's one of the things and it's one of the things I've been working at and I'm still working at and I'm not there yet. But I do believe that both good for my own inner growth and good for outcomes. When we started doing the DDT work at CLASP we were climbing up a very steep hill. No one had ever done anything like this -- the voice of environmentalists concerned with the health of the planet heard in decision making processes in Washington. What a radical notion that was. But we tended to think about our opponents as enemies. If you can dial the heat down so your opponents, for various reasons, causes and conditions have led them to positions where they are taking these positions. At that time Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, was a powerful summary of the science at that time about the damage done by DDT. You know if we could have had more forums about Silent Spring and less adversarial proceedings, then I think we would have done the job better. And I think that's true now too, when we're facing real challenges. For me it's my life's work is being challenged. It's an effort to silence those voices that we brought into the process in those days. And we've got to respond forcefully and effectively and in a way that's grounded. That is not driven by rage but instead driven by a sense of possibility -- a possibility that we can open new dialogues in this country and back off from the intense polarization that's characterized American decision making processes over vitally important matters for decades at this point. And how can we come together in a place of dialogue, mutual respect and interconnection. Look I'm a grandparent and a lot of these people are grandparents and if we could have the wisdom of the elders passing back and forth among grandparents -- that would be a great achievement. And I think that can only be done by people who have done some inner work -- the leadership of that conversational process.
Birju: And inviting that spirit of dialogue here Charlie, I'd love to invite in some of our callers if that's okay with you?
First Caller: Hello, my name's Mafia. I'm calling in from Devon in England. I've just listened to your conversation, it's fascinating! I used to be a lawyer working in a city law firm in London. And a few years ago, around the occupy movement, I had a huge shift in my way of looking at the world and how community can be inspired by longing that is driving all of us and I went on kind of a journey myself. And I've come to this place, similar maybe to the place where you were twenty or thirty years ago, but I respect and what I've heard from you is how you have achieved so much real change in creating organizations and structures for changing -- you know I see a movement from social justice towards an environmental movement around Carson and Silent Spring, and now we're entering this new phase, it feels to me, is how do we move to the ecological way of looking at the world? And that's what I've really been focusing on. Joanna Macy's work has really been key to me, around her Buddhism practice and she often talks about this active hope, having to change. I'm really connected to what you spoke about the end there, how we can use meditative practices which I've been bringing into myself. A friend of mine has started a magazine called the Conscious Lawyer to kind of bring all these different people together who work in different ways and collaborative law and eco-law. But it hasn't really at the moment grounded itself into working organizations that can actually create the change that I think you helped create around -- with your organizations. And I guess my question is, and what I'm sensing also through Joanna Macy's work, and I've been studying at a place called Schumacher College in Devon, which is all about holistic Gaia theory, James Lovelock's work all around that we're in a living system, the earth is a living system which we are part and so there's a lot of movement around spiritual ecology, or sacred activism which brings both the meditative practice towards meaning of our human life within the greater Gaia ecology. I'm just trying to save that space for a movement from meditative practice to spiritual ecologist lawyers or sacred activist lawyers and how can we make it real in the way that you made, in the 60s, your movement real?
Charlie: Thank you for that question. Two things. One lesson I've learned it's very important to take people where they are and move them along the pace they are ready for. It's the only way to succeed. And I can remember how skeptical I would have been of these initiatives if they were put to me when I wasn't ready to hear them. So I think that kind of sensitivity is essential. When I started doing this work, we set up this thing called the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society to try to bring contemplative practices into various sectors of the secular community. And people would say you know the law is the hardest place to go with that, a really tough nut to crack. It's also a very important one. You know you have lawyers thinking this way and it can have huge changes. Don't misunderstand me. The legal profession has a long way to go. But let me give you an illustration of both these two points. One is we'd been working with a group of prosecutors in San Jose, city near the Bay area. People would say lawyers are hard to introduce to mindfulness and inner work, and among the lawyers, prosecutors are going to be the hardest. And we've been at this with these folks for about a year. And I thought from the beginning they were surprisingly receptive. They were people struggling in their work and they wanted to do the best job they could, they were very devoted to the work they do and finding ?redress? for victims of crime. Things of that kind. But they also had a tunnel vision. By trying to use their language to talk to them with respect for the work they're doing, we've had significant movement. But I wouldn't say breakthrough but there has been significant movement. And the idea of what a mindful courtroom could look like if the prosecutors, the defense counsel, the judges and all the personnel around the courthouse including the police officers and the prison guards. If they all had some grounding and mindfulness, is it possible to imagine over time some significant change, a different kind of criminal justice system that was grounded in rehabilitation and empathy in a sense of community and shared purpose? So all I can say is stick with it. I know the magazine the Conscious Lawyer, there's a new one out of Ireland.
Mafia: Yes that's right.
Charlie: That's wonderful and I'm hoping to write something for them. But I think it's very important that this be an international movement. I'm sure you know about the mindfulness committee in Parliament or do you?
Mafia: Yes I've heard of it, one of the select committees in Parliament.
Charlie: It's fantastic! There are 150 members of Parliament that have been through the basic training in mindfulness. It's a wonderful program. And the former MP who headed it, Chris Rouan, is now carrying that work to the Parliament of other countries around the world. So that's an encouraging sign. I sat in on a hearing about criminal justice and inner work at Parliament eighteen months ago and it was very inspiring to see all the people working in provincial detention centers and in prisons with prisoners and increasingly with prison guards and correctional officers. And that's a big deal. So we should be working together and sharing our experiences and encouraging each other.
Birju: Here's a question that came in online from Priyanka in Bombay, Charles thank you so much for the gift of your being. A lot of what you say resonates well with me as I pursue justice in my work as a journalist reporting on issues of human rights. My question to you is how does one keep compassion and hope alive when cynicism seems easier, especially in the pursuit of justice? I see many, many compassionate advocates of justice who sometimes are not able to see any light at all. On a similar note how can we have political conversations that anger us without projecting it onto others when we are so doggedly pursuing justice?
Charlie: Thank you Priyanka for your kind words. I had a conversation when I was teaching a workshop at the University of Hawaii Law School about mindfulness. And there was a student there, she was a third year student and she had come there specifically to work on environmental matters. And as a student she had worked on two or three major cases that had huge consequences for the Hawaiian environment and she had lost them all. What I said to her was mindfulness was a good skill to cultivate especially for public interests lawyers who are deeply devoted to causes that seem so urgent. Because it's inevitable in your work that you're going to lose a lot of cases. And you've got to have something to fall back on which gives you a framework to hold these losses and to hold your disappointments and stick with it. And which invites you to take a longer view of things. To see not just the immediate matters that you're handling but the long history that's led up to the environmental mess we're in. And to recognize that the power of private interests and materialistic impulses is tremendous in this area and deeply threatening to the ecological system. And think about the progress that we've made and how our efforts can help deal with these incredible challenges. As you know in this country we're now facing the reality that our new President is deeply indebted to the fossil fuel industry and speaks about the possibility of nuclear war as if it's an acceptable policy option. So those of us that have been working at these issues for a long time have reason to be deeply saddened. And we need a way to maintain our sense of hope and possibility. And I think that involves developing inner strength which will help us deal with these things. And help us put aside the cynicism that we feel inside ourselves and so much our society encourages.
And as for what we do with our anger and how we avoid just spraying it around on people we view as adversaries and even on our friends and our family. If we don't have a way of processing our anger, we're going to spill it over on a lot of people with a lot of destructive consequences. I haven't found any easy way to deal with that. And I do find my mindfulness practice gives me sometimes to just breathe with the anger and to let it go. And the more I do with that, the better I'm at it and I'm only fairly good at present. I've only been at it a few decades.
Birju: That's the easier said than done element that the practice really helps with. Thank you so much Priyanka for the question and Charlie for the response.
The next question is from Christy in Sherman Oaks, she asks "Can you give an example of a story of a time when you saw mindfulness cause a drastic change in the climate of a conversation with someone who did not practice your same techniques?"
Charlie: What's relatively easy is to retain your mindful center in conversation or conflict with someone who also has the same commitment as you do. Even if there are major substantive disagreements, that's pretty easy. The hard one is when people are coming at you full of anger and self-righteousness and really committed to a narrow view of things. I'll give one example. I was heading a program at Berkeley on Mindfulness and Law which had a very positive impact on the students involved, and there were many. And it was beneficial for a number of faculty members. There were students that actually came to Berkeley Law School because they knew of this program and wanted to be a part of it. And then a new dean came to the law school and for reasons that I still don't know, he never spoke to me. He simply cut the legs out from under our program. Made it impossible for me to stay on. First I tried to change his actions. Several hundred students filed a petition that they wanted this program saved. But it just wasn't going to happen. First I tried to see him
but he wouldn't see me. But still I tried to hold on to not blaming him, not understanding why he'd done what he'd done, but not to blame him and make him an evil person. And then for a variety of reasons his career at the law school was cut short and he's no longer the dean. But the damage he did and in many respects and certainly in respect to the mindfulness program at Berkeley Law remains on. And a lot of my friends had encouraged me to venge my anger about him and what he did. But it was better for me to view what he did as unfortunate, a real disservice to the education of law students at this law school, but he did what he did for whatever reasons he had. And it doesn't serve me or the law school community to let my anger toward him find its full expression. So unfortunately it's not a happy story where mindfulness changes someone's mind, but it is promising the fact that -- it makes it more likely in my opinion that a mindfulness program, a meditation program at the law school will revive at some time when it's appropriate, when the right people come together. And by keeping the added unnecessary toxicity out of the atmosphere, I think there is a small victory and a basis for hope.
Birju: Well thank you Charlie and thank you Christy for the question. It is okay to ask you Charlie how people can get in touch with you after the call?
Charlie: I'd be delighted. I have to warn the commenters and inquirers I'm rather slow in responding but I'd welcome that conversation. And in particular, I really welcome this effort to take this work with lawyers and mindfulness global.
Birju: Well thank you so much. We'll make sure that we follow up with that and I'd love to turn it over to Alyssa for a recap.
Alyssa: Thank you Birju and thank you Charlie. This has been a really wonderful conversation and as I mentioned before I'm really grateful to have been a part of it. I think there's so many aspects that have struck me and as I'm thinking back on the conversation, I think it's very striking that the seeds for the wisdom path that Charlie went down, the seeds for all the social activism that Charlie engaged in really were sown at a very early age. We discussed in an earlier part of the conversation that the Holocaust and WWII left a big imprint on Charlie's family and was a big part of Charlie's passion for social justice. So those seeds were sown very early and became a big part of his life. Similarly Charlie had these amazing experiences out in nature -- having this deep inner peace that gave him an intimation of what's to come in terms of the wisdom path that he would eventually go down. Both of those things became more and more prominent in his life as he transitioned from corporate law to public interest law and started pursuing social advocacy on a much larger and more meaningful scale.
Same with his time at CUNY and bringing it to the sphere of education as well and we'd been discussing in the latter part of the conversation how mindfulness has added a new and important dimension to his social advocacy work and viewed it with a new purpose and according to Charlie made it much more effective. So I'm really excited about where this conversation has led and interested to hear more about how mindfulness can infuse all of our social work, all of our work in the world. So thank you again Charlie for this wonderful conversation.
Birju: And Charlie one thing we'd like to do in terms of ending our call together is practicing gratitude for the space and the offering you have offered to us. I have one final question before we move there is there any suggestions you have for those of us on the call who want to offer into your work, how can we do that?
Charlie: Well first connecting with me and telling me what your interests are and what kind of contributions you could make would be helpful. And I hope my email address will be made available to your listeners. I'm currently launching a group called "Transforming Justice - The Center for Mindfulness and Criminal Justice." You can look us up online and see what we're doing and what we hope to do. And anyone who connects with the goal of trying to make criminal justice system that works for everybody. Where people's sense of safety and also sense of community and sense of individual responsibility and compassionate interconnection is fed and nourished. Anybody who has that interest certainly could connect with the work we're doing there. But I think the conversation and the encouragement of people to pursue their own practice to do it in community and to always find that point at which our inner work can really help to nourish the world.
Birju: Well thank you so much Charlie.
About Awakin Calls
Awakin Call is a weekly global series of deep conversations with inspiring changemakers. It is an all-volunteer offering and is completely free, without any ads or solicitation. Read more ...
Subscribe To Newsletter
To stay updated about guest announcements, fresh content, and other inspiring tidbits, subscribe below and we'll send you a weekly email.
If you have any questions, feel free to drop us a note.