Making Waves and Riding the Currents

Those of us who spend our days working to shield the planet from the howling winds of rapacious greed are well acquainted with a pair of burdens: hopelessness and burnout. We know how to cry in our beers after city council votes (and presidential elections), and how to demonize our opponents. Oh, how we know how to demonize our opponents! — those faceless corporations ripping off mountaintops, brewing poisons, and killing innocent creatures.

It’s a broken-hearted world, and Charles Halpern wants to show us a path out. He wants us to soften our attitudes and our bodies until our intentions — and our arguments — are as clear as a cold spring. In his new book, Making Waves and Riding the Currents, Halpern, a pioneer public-interest rabble-rouser, takes us along on his journey from pinstripe-suited corporate lawyer to yoga-practicing meditator. Halpern has the reputation to bring us this wake-up message. The Dalai Lama wrote his book’s foreword, and top-notch journalist Bill Moyers gushes: “A nation wandering in the wilderness, as we are, could not ask for a better guide toward clarity and compassion.”

As a smart and well-connected young lawyer in Washington DC in the late 1960s, Halpern took a leave from his corporate law firm and cofounded the first-ever public-interest law firm, the Center for Law and Social Policy. This new idea, he writes, was to “set up a nonprofit organization to handle cases representing unrepresented interests in Washington, dealing with big policy issues — the environment, consumer rights, corporate responsibility, the rights of mental patients.” Over the years, Halpern was involved in some landmark cases that ended up making the world a better place, including the Alyeska decision, which required the Mobil, Exxon, and Shell oil companies to consider, for the first time, the environmental impact of the eight-hundred-mile pipeline they built across the Alaskan tundra.

All along, Halpern was practicing more than law. He was seeking wise teachers, going into the wilderness, and learning to meditate. He raised eyebrows when he brought yoga to law students. But Halpern knew that effective advocates need to be centered and soul-fed. “As wisdom practice develops,” he writes, “clarity of vision emerges. We hold our ideas more lightly and see reality more clearly, less circumscribed by our inherited screens and filters, biases and preferences. We become more comfortable living with paradox, holding dissonant views.”

Making Waves and Riding the Currents is a compelling memoir with a simple message: Find the wise people in your life, and listen to them. In fact, listen to everyone more fully, even your opponents. Most importantly, listen to yourself — you’ll be less reactive and more productive for it.