On the green outside U of T's new College, where students bask in the sun and catch up on their reading on an autumn Monday morning, there's contemplation in the air but especially in the boardroom up the stairs from Willcocks Street.
It's a most improbable mixture of people, most of them brought here by one of those endlessly redirected e-mails, who take their places in the plush black chairs. There's a sprinkling of Buddhists, a PhD student in modern American politics, left-wing agitator Judy Rebick and a dozen or so others, including a disproportionate number of lawyers.
Ostensibly, they're here to see Charles Halpern, known to some as the daring public interest lawyer who 30 years ago helped stop the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, helped turn the U.S. public on to the dangers of DDT and proved what an enthusiastic lawyer and a good argument can do.
But Halpern, ever so conventional-looking in his steel-grey shirt and dress slacks, took a weird turn somewhere along the way.
Around the time he was running the law school at the City University of New York, he started venturing into territory quite unusual for lawyers, left-wing or otherwise.
Indeed, the fiery adversary of corporate America now cares more about Buddhism than legal briefs, and his practice has turned from law to meditation. But you don't have to give up one for the other, he advises. You can still be a high-powered activist or lawyer you will just be better at it if you experience inner calm.
That's the explicit view of the Northampton, Massachusetts-based Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, an org Halpern now chairs.
"Personal transformation does not guarantee the transformation of social institutions," the center's statement of purpose admits. But "contemplative awareness can assist in identifying the root causes of social problems and finding creative approaches to eliminating them."
As he tells the asssembled, "So much of the tension on the grand scale comes from the inability of individuals to get beyond their entenched views. Meditation can help us avoid getting locked into polarizing arguments.'
Halpern says his personal transformation began when he was running a law school so fractious that profs refused tenure would hunger-strike. There, he got in the habit of taking 30 minutes for morning quiet time. This technique for beginning to calm the nattering mind, he warns, "is simple but not easy."
Since his first meditative deep breath, Halpern and his group, which runs retreats for social justice activists, lawyers and businesses, has been urging the use of the higher mind as a solution generator. "Meditation opens a window through which other things can pass," he says.
It all sounds a little far out, but Halpern lists all the professions that have borrowed in whole or in part from contemplative studies. Law students are using it to be better negotiators, and neurologists are investigating how meditation alters the brain's behaviour.
Still, as welcoming as this room is, there's skepticism, and not only from Rebick, who allows she'd like the practical benefits but she's put off by the religious underpinnings.
Another questioner wants to know whether, aside from achieving their own enlightenment, the great spiritual leaders have accomplished any tangible results. "How do you measure what the Dalai Lama has accomplished?" Halpern asks, observing that the Tibetans still do not have independence and perhaps never will.
If you wanted to give contemplation a whirl, how would you start?, others want to know. "Just set aside 15 minutes before a high-pressure meeting," Halpern advises. "Or get up early in the morning and observe your breathing. It's a place you can return to during the day.'
And so we depart, back to our pressure cookers, feeling that we got something out of this but we're not exactly sure what.
My heart rate accelerates slightly when I notice the time. Thing went on longer than planned. Behind schedule now. So much to do. Note to self: schedule meditation time.
But not today.