Compassion in Action: Contemplative Science and Practice in the Classroom and the World

group photo in Dharamsala
Some of the participants at the Compassion in Action week in Dharamsala in March, 2024, with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. (See below for names and affiliations of those pictured.)

As the world grows increasingly polarized, and economic, environmental and other societal challenges grow increasingly complex, future leaders will need to draw from ever-deeper sources of understanding and compassion to bridge divides and move solutions forward. 

Last month, Dean Ian Solomon and professors Kirsten Gelsdorf and Abigail Scholer joined dozens of scholars and others from around the world in Dharamsala, India, home of the Dalai Lama, for a weeklong exploration of this proposition and to converse about how to bring contemplative science and practice into teaching, research and policymaking. 

“For a school like Batten, engaging with all of the emerging multidisciplinary research on contemplative science offers us not only new approaches for the classroom at a time when many of our students are struggling, but also the chance to be at the forefront of thinking about ways public policies can be more inclusive and compassionate,” says Gelsdorf.    

The program, called “Compassion in Action,” was designed and hosted by UVA’s Contemplative Sciences Center, the University of Colorado Boulder’s Renée Crown Wellness Institute, and Stanford University’s Office for Religious and Spiritual Life. In 2010, the institutions developed the Dalai Lama Fellowship, designed to help emerging leaders cultivate compassion and self-awareness and broaden their cultural perspectives to better engage in positive changemaking at the local and global level.

“It was an unprecedented honor and a profound delight to be with the fellows during their visit for five days of intimate dialogue with the Dalai Lama about the state of the world, their work and their life journeys,” says Marty Krasney with the Contemplative Sciences Center. “None of us who had the good fortune to participate will ever be the same.” 

In the presence of His Holiness

Solomon, Gelsdorf, Scholer greet the Dalai Lama

The visitors participated in two facilitated group conversations with His Holiness during which each of the 14 fellows posed a question, such as how to maintain optimism in contexts of suffering and how to show compassion in leadership. Throughout the discourses, the Dalai Lama was keen to communicate a simple core message, says Solomon. 

“We are all fundamentally the same. We are all here thanks to care and nurturing by our parents. All human beings want to be happy and to avoid suffering. Race and religion and nationality are secondary to the importance of our common humanity. That was the Dalai Lama’s message that he wanted us to take back to our communities. Leadership should build upon that basic truth."

Solomon was invited to give the closing remarks at the end of the second day, and he thanked His Holiness for his leadership and for being the world’s foremost ambassador for peace and compassion. 

“Individuals, groups like the Dalai Lama Fellows, institutions, and even nations can exercise leadership,” Solomon told the group. “The choice we face is to take responsibility for ourselves and others to manage change in the world and bring about healing and justice.” 

Creating interdisciplinary community and driving policy change

The fellows, scholars and other participants met continually throughout the week in group discussion and conversations, fostering a rich exchange of ideas across multiple disciplines, which was an especially valuable aspect of the trip for Scholer. 

She notes that social psychology, her area of expertise, has parallels with Buddhist psychology in terms of how our subjective perceptions of situations and of people influence how we react and behave, whether we’re aware of that or not. Having the ability to shift those perceptions and view situations through a lens of compassion and common humanity can have profound impact on improving interpersonal exchanges, she says.

For example, Scholer has been researching the dynamics that arise when a person is giving negative feedback to someone else – which is difficult for everyone involved.  “There is a lot of exciting science that examines empirically ideas around mindfulness and compassion-based approaches to problem-solving that have lessons we all can learn, and that we as educators can pass on to our students at Batten who are here because they want to develop leadership skills and make the world a better place.”

The sense of interdisciplinary community and policy change were also a highlight for Gelsdorf, who as co-director of the UVA Humanitarian Collaborative, has benefitted from collaboration with the Contemplative Science Center and has done research on the intersection of compassion and humanitarian work.  She has also had a personal practice since the early 2000’s when she began learning about mindfulness to help her with PTSD from working in the war in Liberia and the Pakistan earthquake. 

“This is a critical time when policy makers and students alike are struggling with challenges like eco-anxiety, burnout and empathy overload. There is recognition that in many cases the way policies are developed and implemented is not working. But it is also an exciting time to be learning about new ways to engage in self-inquiry, cultivate compassion, and develop attentive, sustainable, and interconnected leadership and policy approaches,” she says. 

In 2023 Gelsdorf developed and taught a new Batten capstone Contemplative Public Policy and Leadership where she was first introduced to the Dalai Lama Fellows. On last month’s trip, Gelsdorf, Scholer and Solomon all spent time learning from the fellows, some of whom are working in Uganda, Kenya, Bhutan, and India on challenges such as sexual abuse, education inequities, and conflict resolution. The Batten faculty members also spent time with Anthony DeMauro, the fellowship program’s director. 

group with Dalai Lama

“The time in Dharamsala was deeply impactful for everyone involved,” DeMauro says. “Not only were we moved by the Dalai Lama’s presence and wisdom, but the event allowed everyone to experience the essence of the Dalai Lama Fellows program through the radiance of the fellows and their commitment to improving the world. The fellowship aims to create spaces for contemplation, cultural exchange, and genuine joy as the means for social change, and I believe we created such a space for all who attended. It felt extremely energizing for the fellowship.”

What’s next? 

Solomon has had a personal contemplative practice for most of his life, grounded in the philosophy and ethics of Buddhism rather than as a religious faith, he says. “To me, the Dalai Lama is special not because he’s the 14th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama but because he has devoted his life to important things. For 65 years he’s been in exile and has consistently been on a message of love and reconciliation and compassion and peace. What I admire most is his humanity, not his divinity.” 

The Dharamsala experience reinvigorated his appreciation for those who devote themselves to bridging our human divides, he says.  

The trip also planted seeds of ideas for deepening the Batten School’s partnership with the Contemplative Sciences Center as it opens its new building, the Contemplative Commons, this fall, and for exploring the possibility of co-developing classes and research with UC Boulder and Stanford. 

group photo in Dharamsala
Back row, left to right: Janet Visick (guest), Karen Leshner (CSC advisory board), Tiffany Steinwert (Stanford University), Gerardo Abboud (guest), Tim Edmond (guest), Megan Kiernan (guest), Lynn Dengel (UVA Health), Kirsten Gelsdorf (UVA Batten), Anthony DeMauro (CSC), Nina Brown de Clercq (CSC advisory board)
Front row, left to right: Marty Krasney (CSC advisory board), Jonah Willihnganz (Stanford University), Ludwig Kuttner (guest), Abigail Scholer (UVA Batten), His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Kayti Sewell (CSC), Kelli Sutton Block (CSC), Ann Dehner (Stanford University), Huda Aziz (guest), Michael Goetz (UVA Advancement), Owsley Brown III (CSC advisory board), Ian Solomon (UVA Batten)


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