Bringing Contemplation to Life—Kirsten Gelsdorf



Bringing Contemplation to Life—Kirsten Gelsdorf

At CSC, we are often asked to describe the positive impacts of incorporating contemplative practices into our lives—from the way we see ourselves and our relationships, to creating balance, managing stress, and succeeding in our careers. But because the benefits are diverse and because there are so many practices to explore, it is a challenging question to answer. For this reason, we are sharing personal stories of transformation and discovery—to help us all better appreciate and understand the powerful effects of contemplative practices. We hope you enjoy this interview with Kirsten Gelsdorf who sat down with us for the CSC series, "Bringing Contemplation to Life."

Upcoming Talk: Finding Space to Confront Global Challenges" - Sunday, November 4, 2018

Kirsten Gelsdorf has seen the world at its most dangerous and difficult. As a humanitarian aid worker, she has found herself on the front lines of some of the most devastating natural disasters of our time, including the 2004 Tsunami in Indonesia and the deadly earthquake in Pakistan the following year. When a friend introduced her to the work of Sharon Salzburg, a world of contemplative practices opened up for Gelsdorf and taught her how to slow down and explore avenues of stress reduction, compassion, and balance. It was the beginning of a journey that would introduce her to a community of like-minded friends and colleagues and that would set her on a path of constant learning and growing that has provided her with invaluable tools for navigating the transitions that in so many ways define our lives. Kirsten is a senior lecturer and Director of Global Humanitarian Policy for the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. 

Q. Tell us how your mindfulness journey began.

A. In 2006, I had just done a string of what we call "deployments" in the humanitarian aid industry. I had been in Liberia during the end of the war there. Then I went straight to serving in the aftermath of the tsunami in Indonesia and was among the first teams on the ground. I stayed there for almost a year and was a witness to so much destruction. After that I went to aid in the response to the Pakistan earthquake. Following these deployments, I was having a hard time processing all of what I had seen and finding ways to stay optimistic and balanced. I ran into a friend who was also a relief worker. She introduced me to the work of Sharon Salzburg. I read Sharon's book and started doing these short meditations, and it was kind of a monumental moment for me. I not only discovered this practice as a way of helping with stress, but also found that slowing my thoughts helped me process my emotions and find new ways of seeing problems and solutions. There was also something about finding this practice that allowed me to slow down and take a break, and these larger concepts that spoke to me—like equanimity, beginner's mind, and loving-kindness.
Q. After this discovery, how did you find ways to explore the practice?

A. I was living in New York City at the time, and I started to go to the Tibet House. This is one of several institutions worldwide founded by the Dalai Lama to preserve Tibetan culture. Every few weeks, I would go to what were called Dharma Talks, where someone would give a lecture and you would do a meditation. There I was, in a room with 200 other New Yorkers, and somehow it felt so quiet and calm and connected. For me it was about bridging this transition from living and working in these incredibly difficult situations and places, to then being in New York. It was a really great tool, and it also introduced me to a community of people whom I respected and learned a lot from.
Q. What do you find most rewarding about your mindfulness practice?

A. The thing I've found most exciting about meditation and contemplative practices and mindfulness is that the learning never stops. I have been doing this for 13 years now, and it was only this year that I started to understand the concept of exploring where in your body you feel stress and how that helps you to release it. How we can use mediation to help us approach policy challenges and find new ways of seeing things. It's what I love about this practice: it allows me to constantly unlock new things. It's like a gift that keeps on giving.
Q. How has your practice impacted your teaching?

A. I recently did a program on contemplative practice course design that is offered by the Contemplative Sciences Center in conjunction with the Center for Teaching Excellence. It was about how you can think about contemplative practice when designing your courses and various ways you are able to infuse that into your classroom. Following this course, those of us who participated also joined a faculty learning community and continue to meet during the year sharing our pedagogical practices and meditating together. This group and what I have learned really improved my teaching in ways that are rewarding and exciting. For example, I always taught writing and public speaking in my courses. But I never taught listening. So this program got me thinking about how this is a critical skill that we don't teach. So now I try to infuse different radical listening practices.  In the classroom, I think a lot about the difference between how introverts and extroverts learn and the things I can do to create a classroom that is open to everybody. What I have found is that studying listening helps students see that there are numerous skills that are valued in teams.
Q. How have you been able to share with your students the importance of listening as it relates to the field of humanitarian aid?

A. Listening is such a critical part of my field. It is very easy for me to say that listening is one of the most important skills to have in a humanitarian setting, particularly when you are under time pressure and in a high-stress environment where the stakes are very high. Some people say there are 12 versions of listening. There is the listening when you are reacting. There is the listening where you are thinking about what you are going to say next. There is the listening that you do to understand. And there is the listening you do that goes toward empathy. Just understanding that you can choose the one you want to employ in a given situation is really empowering. You are often getting difficult information, and you're listening to people share horrific things that you may or not be able to help with. Giving students these skills and tools-ones that I am able to access and share through my contemplative practice-is really critical.
Q.  What do you feel is the most important message you share with your students about mindfulness and contemplative practices?

A. I think the key for me is helping my students understand that there are numerous tools that contemplative practice offers that can help them build resilience, foster creativity, manage difficult challenges and transitions. For instance, I am in a career transition, having left the United Nations, and being in an academic environment opens me up to having to re-form my identity in a lot of ways. I have a new social circle and a new professional circle, and I have to redefine who I am in this new environment. I think a lot of students go through this same thing at UVA. They are coming from one environment and coming into another one here, and then they are leaving the University and heading out into the professional world. I have found that this practice can really help us make transitions. It allows us to step away from who we think we are-from being defined by a certain set of achievements or paths-and allow us to see not only ourselves, but others too as the far more complex beings we all are. Here, like in all other places in the world, we tend to put people in boxes: This person is a first-year student; this person is a minority student; this person is a political scientist. Engaging in contemplative practices can help us recognize that both we individually and the world are always in transition and that this recognition may help bring them a sense of belonging and peace wherever they are.
Kirsten Gelsdorf is Professor of Practice of Public Policy, and Director of Global Humanitarian Policy at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. As Director of Global Humanitarian Policy, Kirsten brings 19 years of experience working in the humanitarian sector; most recently serving as the Chief of the Policy Analysis and Innovation section at the United Nations Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Her career includes long-term field postings and operational deployments to numerous emergencies including the international responses to Hurricane Mitch in Honduras, the Ethiopian Famine, the South African Regional Food Crisis, the Liberian War, the Tsunami in Indonesia, Hurricane Katrina, the Pakistan Earthquake, the Timor-Leste Security Crisis, the Global Food Crisis and the Haiti Earthquake. She also served as a humanitarian advisor to President Clinton in his role as the UN Special Envoy for Haiti and as a policy advisor to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the global food crisis in 2008. She has led major policy processes and authored numerous high-profile policy reports documents that have been implemented by Member States and adopted in key UN resolutions. She has been the guest editor of Journal special editions and a Senior Researcher for Tufts University.