Charles Halpern on his experience of a SoundPlay Workshop  at the Omega Institute

Social entrepreneur Charles Halpern wrote this account of his experience in one of Paul’s workshops, during the time he was Dean of the Law School at City University of New York. The following is excerpted from his recent book, Making Waves and Riding the Currents: Activism and the Practice of Wisdom, 2008

As I was anticipating the arrival of our first-year students in the fall of 1983, I thought it would be a good thing for me to undertake an exercise in empathy, to put myself in a situation where I would feel the way that many of our incoming law students would feel when confronted with a new, intimidating discipline. I wanted to immerse myself once again in the student role, in an area where my levels of confidence and competence were low.

Just at that time, I received in the mail a catalogue announcing the summer programs at the Omega Institute, up the Hudson Valley. I had never been to Omega, but had been tantalized—and put off—by its catalogues for years. It was a “human growth center” of the kind that made me suspicious. Like Esalen in California, but without the hot tubs on the cliffs above the Pacific Ocean, Omega presented a smorgasbord of workshops offered by diverse teachers, holding out the promise of holistic, integrative growth of mind, body, and spirit. Few people I knew had ever heard of Omega, much less gone there. It seemed too ungrounded for me, home to too many teachers with none of the credentials that I relied on to certify competence.

Nonetheless, one weekend program caught my eye—Paul Winter, the creative saxophone player—  … was doing a workshop on music improvisation, and the opportunity seemed almost perfectly designed for my needs. I had absolutely no skill in making music and no prior experience in improvisation. It sounded like fun—at worst, a good concert by gifted musicians. I headed north with the drum that a friend had brought me from Ethiopia.

We began the weekend with some instruction in improvisation, exercises to clear our minds, to keep us fully present and attentive in the moment, to rest in a noncritical, nonjudgmental frame of mind, and to listen deeply to the sounds around us. This quality of nonjudgmental attention was something new to me—especially being nonjudgmental of myself, because being critical of myself full-time was a basic part of who I was.

I had long been caught in what I considered the success trap. I had, ever since elementary school, engaged my time and energy in areas where I had been most successful—I had strong verbal skis, so that is where I focused my efforts. I avoided activities where I was less confident about my ability. This tendency stood as a barrier to developing myself as a whole person and undermined my capacity to get pleasure from activities in which I did not excel, a common enough malady in modern America.

When we began to make music, my drumming was awkward and I tried to keep it soft in deference to the sensibilities of my colleagues. As time passed, I became more confident, more assertive and experimental. On Saturday afternoon, Paul Winter  sat down with a group of four of us who were improvising on fiddle, tambourine, trumpet and my drum. Paul listened for a few minutes with complete focus and presence, and then began to play with us. The next ten minutes were, for me, an experience of pure flow state, riding the currents of sound, lost in the collective experience. The music seemed to me to be incredibly beautiful and absorbing, and I felt myself a contributor and collaborator. I realized then what a gifted teacher can convey to the student, simply by the attention he bestows and the empowering environment for learning he creates.

Driving home after the workshop, I felt that it had been worthing and nourishing. I had dealt with my fear, finding satisfaction in performing at an acceptable, if not outstanding, level. I had made a friendly connection with the frightened learner in me, not allowing my behavior to be controlled by my fear of a humiliating failure. This connection would help me to engage with the incoming students, and would allow me to manage my fear of failure in my high risk job. It had paid off for me to suspend my skepticism and to tryout a workshop that had seemed vaguely ridiculous.

… I was encouraged to push the boundaries more vigorously, to get away from the law school and explore unfamiliar pathways that promised to help me manage my turbulent leadership responsibility wisely, with equanimity.