Charlotte Rotterdam: Finding Courage in Contemplative Education

Charlotte Rotterdam

The newest episode of our university podcast, ‘Mindful U at Naropa University,’ is out on iTunesStitcher, Fireside, and Spotify now! We are excited to announce this week’s episode features special guest Charlotte Rotterdam, Director of the Center for the Advancement of Contemplative Education and Buddhism and meditation teacher at Naropa University, on the topic of ‘Finding Courage in Contemplative Education.’

play-iconCharlotte Rotterdam: Finding Courage in Contemplative Education

“You know, we might have an idea about something, but then when you begin to express it from a creative place it’s almost like you have to feel into it. If I want to write a poem about sadness it’s not just about my ideas about sadness. At some point as I’m writing, I need to stop and feel into what does sadness feel like? And then I might even think about a very specific situation in my life that brings up sadness. And then what arises from that place as a poem is coming from a non-conceptual place. [It’s] non-conceptual knowing, and yet I’ve expressed something, and I might even express it in words like with a poem. So, what we’re trying to do in contemplative education is to bring both of those together. So, it’s not in spite of conceptual knowing — concepts are great, thinking is great — but that there are other ways of knowing that are equally important and maybe if we bring them all together then there’s a richness of knowing that begins to emerge.”

About Charlotte

Charlotte Rotterdam teaches Buddhism and meditation in the US and abroad, and was authorized to teach by Lama Tsultrim Allione. She is an Instructor and Director of the Center for the Advancement of Contemplative Education at Naropa University. The mother of two boys, she has published essays on the intersection of spiritual practice and motherhood in Mandala and in an anthology, Fearless Nest. Charlotte received her Masters’s in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School.

Full Transcript
Hello. And welcome to Mindful U at Naropa. A podcast presented by Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.

I’m your host, David Devine. And it’s a pleasure to welcome you. Joining the best of Eastern and Western educational traditions – Naropa is the birthplace of the modern mindfulness movement.

[MUSIC]

DAVID:
Hello. Today I’d like to welcome my guest Charlotte Rotterdam to the podcast. Charlotte is an instructor teaching in the core contemplative classes and she is also teaching in the Graduate School of Psychology. On top of that she is also the director for the Center for the Advancement of Contemplative Education. It is also known as CACE. Welcome to the podcast.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Hey David.

DAVID:
How are you doing today?

Charlotte Rotterdam:
I am well.

DAVID:
Awesome.

So, I was actually curious — how did you find your way to Naropa? Where did you start? Tell me a little bit about yourself? How did you find your way into this role of teaching and also being a director of a program?

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Well I think one thing is that I never knew that what I do now was something one could do as an adult — as a profession. So, whenever I talk to my students who are graduating and they don’t know where they’re going — I say that’s good news because if you only went on what you knew now you know it, you’d be pretty limited.

So, I studied philosophy undergrad and then went on to graduate school at Harvard Divinity School and studied comparative religion and really because I felt like religion was lived philosophy — it was like philosophy — Western philosophy is — gets very heady and intellectual and it’s beautiful at the conceptual level. But, in a way it doesn’t necessarily relate to everyday life. And so, religion to me was how we take those big questions of life — why am I here? Where am I going? What’s death? What’s meaning?

DAVID:
What’s next?

Charlotte Rotterdam:
What’s next? And take it into how we live everyday life and how we interpret that whether that’s through images or belief systems or ritual or song.

DAVID:
Yes, ok.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
So, there’s kind of this like it matters — you know studying religion felt like it’s studying something that really matters to people. So — and then I decided after I got my masters to go back into the world and not stay on in the ivory tower — although that was sort of a turning point in my life. And one of my professors in grad school, Diana Eck, who’s an amazing Hindu scholar said, oh you’re moving a Boulder? You need to meet Judith Simmer-Brown — meet her at Naropa. And I’d never heard of Naropa.

DAVID:
Hey, we know her.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
We know her!

So, I remember I just — I guess in those days you called people. So, I guess I must have called her and she said sure come have tea. And so, we had tea over in one of these little cottages. So, at that point she said the School of Continuing Education was just starting up at Naropa. That was in ’95.

DAVID:
Ok, I was gonna say when was that?

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Yeah, ’95. So, it’s been a while. Yeah, this is definitely home. And so, I first started working there and then started teaching in the religious studies department. And then in the core college and now graduate school. Psychology — sort of weaving together, you know my own studies and then my own contemplative practice, which has been deepening over these last few decades as well.

DAVID:
Awesome. Yeah and one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you was because a while back when I was working in the marketing team I had to come in your classroom and take some photos. And while there I was really admiring the way in which you held the class, the way in which you held the conversation, the way in which the students respected the space and respected you and respected each other. I was really having this moment of like wow, this woman’s got it going on. You just like command the classroom and everyone was really enjoying the learning space in which they were in. And I just had this moment where I didn’t have the podcast then — this was probably right before the podcast started. And a while ago I was just like I want to talk to you — you know because I just felt like that was like such a very powerful moment where you can really hold a classroom and I’m sure it’s not easy teaching contemplative education because not only do you have to have an idea of what the content is about — you also have to embody it. And I felt like you were doing that without even trying. It was really beautiful to see and so thank you for like inviting me to your class three years ago.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Thank you, David. Thank you That means a lot. I think there’s a magic in the contemplative classroom and honestly you know I’ve been teaching this one undergraduate class — Contemplative Learning Seminar for 11 years now. And the other day I walked out of my house and I said to my husband, I can’t believe I’m still nervous — about to go teach this class. And then I realized it’s because every class is completely different. And that dynamic that you’re talking about has to do with who’s in the classroom and what kind of day it is and what space we’re in and what everyone’s bringing to it. So, it’s not set in stone and then just delivered time after time after time. And that’s both what — to me makes it incredibly exciting, but also at times a little nerve wracking, you know.

DAVID:
I can see that — yeah being a teacher just oh — I don’t know if I’m cut out for that.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
We all teach in our own way. You’re doing your own kind of teaching, I guess.

DAVID:
I guess so. I’m behind a microphone just chatting with people.

So, wow eleven years — like — do you get nervous at every class or do you get nervous at every student body that comes in? Every shift of semester? Or is it like actually every class?

Charlotte Rotterdam:
It’s interesting sometimes I feel it as anxiety or nervousness and sometimes it’s excitement, you know which is very subtle. It’s this sort of uprising of energy. So, it’s different each time. So, I think it’s just about freshness. Actually, there’s a quality in some way. It’s true of every day right like we wake up in the morning and we really have no idea what that day is going to be like. And so, some part of us wants to be like well I know I go here and then I go there and then it’s all you know really, we have no idea. And so that can both fill you with incredible excitement about the potential of the day and it can also freak you out a little bit, you know?

DAVID:
Yeah, I’ve said this before, but I’m going to say it again because I’m not sure if you heard it but excitement and nervousness vibrate the same. So sometimes we mix them up — like when you’re actually excited, you’re saying you’re nervous, but you’re excited and so by saying you’re nervous it makes you nervous. And I always say that to people to make sure like hey, you might be excited and not nervous at all. You’re just stoked on the day.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Yeah totally. And I think it’s a beautiful energy. It’s sort of like life — it’s like the fire within us — you know tapping into that.

DAVID:
Yeah. I love it. So, during your introduction it said you were the Director of CACE. CACE is the Center for Advancement of Contemplative Education. Can you just let us know like what exactly is CACE and what do you do?

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Mm hmm. So CACE was — it had its first iteration like 2008 for a few years. It was funded by the Lens foundation and then stopped and then was sort of reborn in 2014 and Judith, again, invited me to come on board as the director at that point. And the vision for CACE is really to be — you might say like a hub at Naropa for all things related to contemplative teaching and learning.

So, both — there’s sort of an internal aspect of CACE, which is having conversations, having trainings, having dialogue around what contemplative education is, how we do it at Naropa, training new faculty. It’s an emerging field. So being a place where we can grow what we’re doing and also in some ways archive or train in pedagogies that have been developed really uniquely here at Naropa in terms of contemplative teaching and learning.

And then there’s an outside face of CACE, which is bringing that wisdom or opening dialogue with other institutions and other individuals in the wider range of education who are interested in these kinds of things. And so, one of the projects we have that we developed maybe two and a half years ago is the compassion initiative and really looking at what is at the heart of contemplative education and saying, really at the heart of all contemplative education is compassion. Compassion for ourselves, compassion for other — when we talk about Naropa’s slogan, you know transform yourself — transform the world. It’s really about compassion for yourself and the world. And so, we developed this eight week compassion training that’s really outward focused, but a lot of Naropa students come to it, but also people from the community.

DAVID:
So, it’s not so education based sometimes it could be workshops facilitated by people around the community.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Exactly.

DAVID:
Okay, cool. So, can you tell us who’s actually in the group? Is it composed just of teachers and people — staff members? Or is it actually students? Do students get involved too?

Charlotte Rotterdam:
It’s been primarily focused on faculty because it’s about contemplative pedagogy, but so the core people — so there is Judith Simmer-Brown who is really the founder you might say of CACE and the main faculty head. And then there’s myself as director and then Carla Mueller is on board as program manager. So, we’re sort of the three solid people involved. Jordan Quaglia who’s in the B.A. contemplative Psych department is the research director for our compassion initiative. So, he’s been very involved with CACE. And then there’s also a faculty committee. And lately we’ve actually been involved more with SON and with students as well and their interest, which is wonderful because we’d love to do more with that and see you know how is contemplative education landing for students? What are they getting out of it? What are their questions?

DAVID:
Yeah. And what is SON real quick?

Charlotte Rotterdam:
SON is the student union of Naropa.

DAVID:
Yay.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Yay.

DAVID:
Okay, so as the director of CACE what are your responsibilities to move the mission forward?

Charlotte Rotterdam:
You know it’s great because there’s a lot of freedom. You know there’s both — I work really closely with a group of faculty — the CACE Faculty Council. And so we meet every week and talk about how can we support more conversation, more training within Naropa in contemplative pedagogy, but then in terms of outward facing events — you know it’s really like the Compassion Initiative we put a call out and said who is interested in being part of this? So, we have a group of seven faculty who came together like three years ago who said we’re interested in this. And so, then we collaborate together. So, there’s a lot of space to see you know what’s called for, what are we most excited about? Where our funding opportunities — obviously all of that. Kind of what does our world need and what is the gift that Naropa can offer, which I think is actually quite amazing. So then how do we articulate that? How do we package that? Whether that’s in a training or in getting the word out about what we do here.

DAVID:
Ok. So, when it comes to facilitating some of these workshops and dialogues and just interactions with other teachers — what are some of the things that could be incorporated into the classroom to provide a more contemplative edge? So, like say like a normal classroom is just going about its daily activities — like how can we insert some contemplative practices into that? What are some contemplative practices that we can’t insert?

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Mm hmm. Yeah and this is a great question because when we meet with educators at other universities who often are — they’ll be like there’s this one person who’s interested in mindfulness and education. And their question is that — like what do I do? How do I make my class contemplative? And you know I think there are different levels of that. There’s sort of an outer insertion of something like — ok, let’s take a moment of silence at the beginning of class or let’s insert a mindfulness bell. So, let’s say a discussion gets heated. Let’s just take a moment and come back into some sense of our body or the space we’re in. It could be around creating space — like you talked about the space in my classroom. So how am I creating literally physically — space. Are students sitting in a circle? Are they in rows? Is there someone who’s always in the back of the classroom? Is there a way of bringing them in? Those are sort of small things, but then there’s really in terms of contemplative pedagogy it’s like how do we infuse everything that we’re learning and we’re studying with that sense of the potential of contemplative view, which is that learning happens at all these levels of our being — that certainly there’s something about mind and conceptual learning, but it’s also how does this make me feel? How does my body react? How do I situate myself right now in this moment with what I’m hearing?

DAVID:
How do I feel right now?

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Yes, and that’s actually important. That’s not beside the point.

DAVID:
Mm hmm.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
That actually getting in touch with how you feel right now is as important and critical and has as much to teach you as whatever you’re reading on page 103 of the book, you know?

DAVID:
That’s what I realized with my Naropa education was feelings matter. They speak to the learning in which we are receiving. So, if you’re having a bad day you might also have a bad learning day as well. There might be something into that, but if you notice how you feel and not saying like oh, I’m having a bad day. I’m going to try to not have a bad day. Have your bad day. It’s all good — that’s being real, but also being able to understand that while walking into a learning situation to be like ok, I don’t want to put this on anyone else and I’m just going to have my thing happen. And I’m going to try and receive the information the way I can. Other than being like why am I like having a rough time? Rrrr!

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Yeah. And I think the other thing that what you’re sharing points me to is that learning from this view of contemplative education doesn’t just happen in the classroom or when you sit down to do your homework or write your paper or do the reading — there really — you know I say to my students this is a lab class and every hour you’re not in class is actually lab time — like your life is the lab of this class. So, whether you’re taking a shower or you’re lying in bed or you’re having a conversation with a friend like maybe that’s where the learning emerges, but we’re always planting seeds for it. And so, that might happen in the context of the classroom, but it might happen outside of it. And then again, it’s like — then things start getting really exciting, you know.

DAVID:
Ok. So, speaking of the classroom — as an instructor you teach some of the core classes. Can you tell us what that is like? Because it seems like you would get the first students that come to Naropa. So, someone’s interested in Naropa they don’t really know what it’s about. They apply. They’re finally a student. They get — they have to take these core classes. Can you just like tell us what they can expect?

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Mm hmm yeah so first of all I just want to say how wonderful it is to teach at Naropa and teach Naropa students because I feel like everyone who comes here comes here intentionally. You know everyone has their own story. Some of them like well, I just drove up and here I am, but nonetheless they drove up you know and so there is a way in which I find Naropa students — they’re aware of that they are here and why they are here to some extent. The why might be — I’m not totally sure, but something drove me to this. Or I — I just felt moved to be here.

So, there’s a presence that’s already there. And I would say in terms of what to expect — I think it can be intense. You know in a way what’s drawing people here to Naropa is an invitation to learn in a different way and I would say in a more holistic way in which all parts of your being are being invited to show up in the classroom.

And so that’s the invitation, but then suddenly you’re being invited to completely show up exactly as you are. And that’s kind of scary and that’s intense. It can be intense. And so, there’s always a dip in the semester I find like maybe week four where the honeymoon is sort of over and then it’s like —

DAVID:
There’s actual work involved, but it has to do with inside of myself.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Yeah, yeah. And it’s like and I’m still expected to write papers and I’m being asked to look at how do I really feel. How does this sit with me — not just what do I think about it? And so, it’s really asking people to show up fully. And that is intense I think for all of us no matter how practiced we are. And it brings up stuff — you know it’s like calling out your demons, calling out our insecurities, it’s calling out your pain in some way. We’re asking for vulnerability because that sense of when we get to what’s vulnerable, we also get to what’s genuine and authentic in who we are. And so, that’s the transform yourself part of Naropa education is getting to truly know yourself.

DAVID:
Yeah, which can be fun and scary all in one. It’s one thing to read a book that you know say like you assigned to me Chapter Three and I read it and our assignment is to like see how it makes you feel — it’s one thing to be like oh that made me feel very insightful. I’m really thinking deeply, but then it’s also another thing to think of why do I feel that way? Why did that promote feelings of that and why is it that I feel that. So, it’s not just feeling a thing and moving on — it’s investigating the feeling where does the feeling come from? Why do I have this feeling — is it being triggered by something else? Did I read something in that chapter that also reminded me of something else? So, it has a very knowledgeable deep center of why. I really like that. You don’t get that at most places.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Mm hmm. Yeah and you know in the writing that we ask students to do and the reflections there’s always a piece about make it real in your real life lived experience. So, give an example. You know because sometimes we can spin all kinds of stories intellectually, but then to think well when did I experience this thing? Or what’s my relationship to this idea in my personal — life like really directly. And that takes a different type of thinking and awareness. But I think whatever we’re talking about — the topic comes alive.

DAVID:
Yeah it makes it real. If you can relate to it.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Mm hmm.

DAVID:
All right, so when teaching in a contemplative setting there is this idea referred to the conceptual thought and non-conceptual knowing. Can you explain to us what that actually means — like what does it mean to have conceptual knowing and to have non-conceptual knowing and what is it to even know what that is?

Charlotte Rotterdam:
So first, basic distinction. So conceptual thought would be the thing — what we think about something, about an idea and we might think it’s right or we might think it’s wrong. And a lot of our knowing is conceptual. We have ideas about things or history — or you know science or many things. We know conceptually we have thoughts about them. And we have opinions about them. And then there’s this other aspect of knowing that we call non-conceptual knowing, which is really what we’re trying to get at in contemplative education as well, which is the sense that we can know things without necessarily having ideas about them. And that —

DAVID:
It’s like an innate knowing?

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Yes.

DAVID:
Okay.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
It’s both innate knowing. So sometimes I like to say like what do you know in your bones? Like what do your bones know? And you don’t have to prove that — you don’t have to prove what you know in your bones. What you feel — it just is. And then how do you express that, which you know in a non-conceptual way — non-conceptual knowing is also the place where a lot of creative expression comes from. The arts come from it. It’s like you hear that riff or that poem come.

DAVID:
Yeah, itÕs like where creativity likes to hang out too. Okay.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Absolutely. You know we might have an idea about something, but then when you begin to express it from a creative place it’s almost like you have to do what we’ve been talking about — like you have to feel into it. You know, I can’t – if I want to write a poem about sadness it’s not just about my ideas about sadness. At some point as I’m writing I need to stop and feel into what does sadness feel like? And then I might even think about a very specific situation in my life that brings up sadness. And then what arises from that place as a poem is coming from a non-conceptual place. Non-conceptual knowing and yet I’ve expressed something and I might even express it in words like with a poem. So, what we’re trying to do in contemplative education is to bring both of those together. So, it’s not in spite of conceptual knowing — concepts are great, thinking is great — but that there are other ways of knowing that are equally important and maybe if we bring them all together then there’s a richness of knowing that begins to emerge.

DAVID:
Yeah, I like that too because there’s an idea of how education has solely or not solely but has heavily lied in the idea of concepts. And they’ve not focused too much on the non-conceptual knowing so much, but now there is a shift of utilizing both of them because they’re extremely useful individualized and they’re extremely useful together. So, the dynamic between the two — so if you can have a generating non-conceptual knowing within yourself and then a conceptual knowing — you’re going to be a very solid individual.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Yes absolutely. And I would say, you know, if I don’t want to demonize conceptual knowing — there’s so much beauty in that. And it’s actually coming into right relationship with conceptual knowing. So, the concepts we have — like thought — concept is so powerful, right. That’s what politics is about. That’s what wars are fought over is concepts — is ideas. So, what is that part of our awareness that has thoughts? And this is another way in contemplative practice of working with conceptual thought. What do I think? And then one of my favorite slogans is like — don’t believe everything you think. So, we can think all kinds of things — you know like actually Trungpa Rinpoche in one of his books he said you know when you sit in meditation you might have a thought of making lemonade. And you might have a thought of killing your father. And one seems great. And the other feels horrific. But he says don’t be surprised by what you think — you can think anything. So, coming into relationship with are thinking and seeing the playability of it and working creatively with it — I think is part of contemplative education.

DAVID:
Oh. Yeah, it’s very interesting and yeah just the fact that conceptual thought is amazing, but a lot of education is solely based on that. And so, I think what we’re trying to do is trying to stretch the spectrum out of like where the knowing is based in.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Yes exactly. And that knowing sometimes is based in our body, you know, but our minds are so quick. They’re like the loud voice in the room and the body’s sort of like the softer slower voice. So sometimes you have to shut up and just listen to your body.

DAVID:
We want to raise our hand and know the answer. But what I’ve realized is that knowing in the mind — the conceptual mind and then knowing in the heart probably the — the non-consensual knowing is based in the heart — I’m kind of guessing here, but the — the heart wants to like hang out and feel what’s going on. It’s not going to have an answer right away because it needs to digest what is going on, but the mind is just like oh yeah, I know the answer — pick on me, pick on me, I know. Hey over here.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Yes.

DAVID:
You know what I mean?

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Totally.

DAVID:
So, the heart wants to hang out and just be like let me like sit with that for like a minute.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Yeah. And I think that what you’re sharing is bringing up another thing for me which is around the importance of not knowing and being okay with not knowing cause yes the mind — like you said wants to raise its hand and have the answer and put a period at the end and like a checkmark and a golden star.

DAVID:
Next.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Right. But then it’s like well what if I could not know and hang out in that space of not knowing? And then what happens? Then actually I get really curious. Because if I’m okay was not knowing and not just trying to fill that gap of not knowing then I begin to listen more — like I say it’s like if you go to a city you don’t know a place you don’t know — you kind of see things in a new way. Right? You walk down the street in a new way, you listen in a new way.

DAVID:
Very foreign.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Right. And like what happens for you like when you go to a new city? How do you experience that?

DAVID:
Like travelling can be psychedelic. You know the smells, the sight, the language, the people, the interactions — everything is completely different. Completely different, but they’re doing the same thing you would do in your part of town that you’d be in.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Right, and in that experience — like you’re explaining it’s also who you are is totally new, right. No one’s like oh that’s David. He does the Naropa podcast like I —

DAVID:
Right, who is this guy.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Right, who is this guy? What’s his deal and so suddenly in that not knowing space everything becomes interesting in a new way. There’s like a curiosity and you get to redefine who you are and your relationship to others. So, in a way like we talked about waking up in the morning — we’re actually always in a place of not knowing. Like you and I have no idea what’s going to happen two minutes from now, really.

DAVID:
Yeah.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
So that same curiosity about hey, who are you? Who am I — is always open — always alive?

DAVID:
I just had a thought where education has this direction where they want to make you know. I wonder how much space is held for not knowing — you’re almost like penalized for not knowing. But how much information is in not knowing? There’s infinite possibilities of where your mind can go, where your heart can go, where the actual thought of how does that actually function? You know maybe you can think of a really better idea or a better way to do things — all stemming from not understanding or not knowing. We’re not taught how to not know or we’re taught how to know.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Yeah totally. We’re taught to fill the gap, you know. And I love — like the London subway system, you know they — it says mind the gap. And to me that like Mind the Gap — Mind the Gap of knowing. Like when there’s a gap in your knowing to actually take it as like a sign of great opportunity — like wow I don’t know — I don’t know the answer to this. And then hanging in that space of discomfort — it’s uncomfortable, right, because we — like you said we want to know. So, can I relax in that place of not knowing long enough that I can surprise myself? And I think all good ideas, fresh ideas actually come from that place. And as a creative person I’m thinking of you like you know creating music from — it must also come from that place of being willing to hang in the gap of not knowing what comes next.

DAVID:
Oh yea, there’s times when you’re writing music and you’re like I don’t know where this is going. Hopefully it’s going somewhere good. Yeah, we promote so much knowing that the idea of not knowing — I love that just sitting in the unknowing — being comfortable in that. And I feel like that’s one thing we learn is at Naropa it’s okay to not know things. On top of understanding the text, the language, the questions that are being asked like knowing it when we actually don’t know something, which is probably half the time or you know a percentage of the time that we’re in a classroom setting — that’s okay.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Yeah.

DAVID:
Because you can figure it out. We are adults. We know how to investigate information. We know how to dive deeper and we know how to learn. And so that’s why it’s okay. Like you have the capacity to know, but at the moment you do not know.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Yeah. And even — you know it doesn’t even have to be so black and white — you know can we have you know what Suzuki Roshi the Japanese Zen teacher called beginners mind can we have a sense of beginner’s mind even with the things we know? Because we do — as we get older, we do get to know more — it’s great. We know more about all sorts of things and we know places and people and it’s wonderful — it’s greater wisdom and greater insight, but can we continuously bring that freshness of that gap of not knowing or what he called that beginner’s mind which is open. Can we bring that even to the things we think we know or have experienced a thousand times and not just check them off as been there done that.

DAVID:
Yeah. I feel like that’s where creativity comes from because if you know it — you know which way you’re going to go — that’s not creative.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Right.

DAVID:
It’s very logical and it’s very easy because you know how to do it. But the creativity is when you’re just like I’m going to try something completely different. And then you let go of all the rules in which you’ve subjected yourself to, I guess.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
And I would say that’s where courage comes in. And so, I think of — like in contemplative education I think coming to Naropa and being here is courageous because exactly the reason you talked about with the creative process. It’s actually coming to see that our lives are a creative process. Our life is a work of art. Our life as a theatre production, our life is a song. Our life is a poem. And so, it takes courage to show up and not know what the next line is. But that’s where the creativity comes. And that’s where the beauty comes and that’s our unique offering. And the fact that we have all these billions of people on earth and yet everyone’s completely unique. And so also drawing that like what is the next line of your song that’s your song different. That’s gonna be different than mine. So, the courage is really to be willing to be surprised. And like we’ve been talking about — be in that place of freshness and not knowing.

DAVID:
Yeah. And I love the idea that our life is a story that is unwritten. That we are continuously writing in the moment. That’s fun! It’s like an adventure.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Isn’t it? Right?

DAVID:
It’s like let’s go on an adventure.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Yeah. As opposed to like a bunch of check boxes we need to just check off — you know and then — and then that’s it.

DAVID:
All right. So, it seems like there is a form of intelligence being accessed to approach to learning and also like development. Where do you think that comes from and how much do you think is uncovered compared to like learned?

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Mm hmm. Yeah that’s a great question. So first I guess I’d want to say that I consider a question like this to be — I call it a living question. And it’s not to take it as an out, but a living question to me is like there are certain questions which are never answered once and for all, but that are important questions and worth holding in our basket of questions. And we keep coming back to them. They’re evocative questions.

It seems to me what your question is pointing to — a couple things that arise. One is, what is our innate knowing? Like is education about filling something that’s empty or is it about uncovering an inherent wisdom or knowledge that we come with?

DAVID:
Yeah.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
So, I would say it’s probably a both and, but I think one of the aspects of contemplative education, which to me is so exciting is that it is a sense of uncovering our inherent knowing. And that there’s a basic intelligence you might say or basic wisdom that is who we are — what we are. And that education in its best form is about coming to know more intimately what you are, who you are, what is — in the world and our reality in the world.

And so as opposed to a layering on — it’s actually in some sense almost like a letting go of stripping down and then what’s left. And what’s left is brilliant intelligence, brilliant beingness and I’ll tie compassion here because sometimes it’s said like our basic nature is compassion. Is the open heart. Is the intelligent heart — the awakened heart? So, there’s this sense of insight and wisdom connected with incredible heart fullness, connection, warmth, goodness. Sometimes that’s talked about here as basic goodness. And so, education is actually coming — for each of us coming to know that within ourselves and trust it within ourselves — not because we’ve manufactured it, but actually because we’ve relaxed enough to be in it and let it be who we are.

DAVID:
Oh ok. So, you talked about this education kind of being this thing that we are letting go of something. We’re kind of like shedding instead of adding to the pool of knowledge. It’s like we have this innate wisdom already that we are uncovering. Where do you think the things come from that get attached to the being that we are essentially trying to let go of? Like is that being subjected to like family situations, friend groups, political ideas? Is it just being around certain communities — like where do you think we get these things attached to?

Charlotte Rotterdam:
I think it’s part of human nature probably because in some ways — you know the way I was talking about sort of innate wisdom, which makes you feel like it’s something, but I would almost say that that innate wisdom — it’s not something you can hold on to. It’s not concrete. And so, that can create a sense of fear almost. You know like we kind of want to know stuff. We want to know like who am I? What am I supposed to do? Where am I going? You know? And so, then we attach to things — maybe we attach to an ideology like this is absolutely right and this is absolutely wrong or this is who I am. And this is what I like. And this is what I don’t like because it gives me some sense of security, right. And we all do it. I think its part of human nature. It’s not like it’s wrong. But where I think it gets us into trouble is when that becomes our identity — that’s — we’ve structured what we are, who we are, what the world is based on these labels, on these handles you might say of reality. And so, there’s this idea of the warrior that we talk about in the contemplative learning seminar. And it’s an odd word because when I think of warrior you know I think about sort of like a medieval knight with all this like iron steel —

DAVID:
Going into battle.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Totally and they’re covered from head to toe you know every finger and the elbow and their — even their horse and the helmet and you know — but that actually warriorship from this view is taking down the armor of what we’ve created. And we’ve created all kinds of ways just all the ways you describe — you know as actually to cover fear of the unknown. But that the warrior in a sense the — what the contemplative warrior is taking off all of the steel. And then maybe you take off the clothes underneath — maybe even take off the top layer of your skin.

DAVID:
Mm hmm.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
So that you feel — like you feel so intensely, so profoundly. And then that awakened heart I was talking about earlier is actually like your experience — not because you’ve grasped onto something, but because you’re so present in the moment of your life and things as they are with the other human being you’re standing across or the tree you’re with — wherever you find yourself.

DAVID:
Mm hmm. Super scary. People get really nervous about showing their rawness to other people. It’s not something we’re necessarily taught all the time to have the open heart of the warrior. We like to go into battle with our armor. We — when someone shows up with no armor and just an open heart, you’re like damn.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Right.

DAVID:
You’re just — here we are.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Right.

DAVID:
It almost dismantles your armor too. So, it’s — it’s an invitation to show up fully and not needing to have this egoic representation of defending yourself. You can be like wow yeah, I was feeling that and I’m sorry.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Yeah, it’s beautiful. And it’s — I think what you’re pointing to is like — I love that you said it’s disarming. It’s almost like when someone so genuinely with you exactly as they are with nothing to defend — you realize there’s nothing to fight against either. Like then that’s freedom, actually. You know you think about what does freedom really mean? It’s like the courage of that openness — of total openness. Wow. Then what can get at you. It’s actually the greatest quote unquote protection, you know. You know I mean that’s — it’s sort of we’re talking idealistically here to some degree, but I think that’s you know what we keep pointing out when we’re talking about drawing on your own experience, making it real — you know all of this is pointing to taking off those layers of the armor.

DAVID:
Oh, so good.

So why and how is approaching contemplative education beneficial for someone to pursue and how do you think that shows up in their life once the educational process is over?

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Mm hmm. Well for one I would say that there’s a realization that the educational process is never over. That hopefully — yay you sign up for life so that Naropa — you know coming to a place like Naropa is about gaining tools — you know. And becoming more familiar. It is kind of like a laboratory — like you take out some of the other factors of life. And you get to be in a more intense situation with other people who are interested in similar things and you get to really explore what do I love? And then when you kind of go out in the world that process continues, but you’ve got a whole tool belt and you’ve come to know yourself in a different way. And maybe a broader spectrum of who you are and what you want to do.

So, I guess in terms of affecting their life — couple things. You know we already talked about beginner’s mind. So, I think there can be that sense of bringing beginner’s mind into the rest of their life till they’re 99 and 105 or however old they get to be — that that never ends — that freshness. And also — you know I talk about living questions, but I think the power of questions. And you as an interviewer you know it’s like so much in the question, right, sometimes it’s just the questions we ask — like what are the questions we’re bringing into our life that are in a way guiding us, leading us — not because we need to answer them with a period at the end, but because they’re worth asking and they’re worth living. And so, I think coming out of a background of contemplative education gives you incredible respect for the question and the power of questions to guide because they guide that curiosity and that openness and that creativity. And really, I think also the openness we’ve been talking about — that kind of awakened heart openness. It’s like what is our life really about, but it’s offering to others. If we talk about making the world a better place that old saying, but our offering to the world to other beings. And so being really in touch with that and — and loving that. And I think it’s the most meaningful thing we can do and you can — what that looks like? Anything — you know anything. It can look like anything. I don’t think there is a category of the way being of benefit shows up. We all find our way, but that willingness to tap into the raw heart and to lead with the question and that curiosity and the creativity of freshness. I think that’s what ideally students are taking away with them.

DAVID:
Yeah. Awesome. Thank you.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Or what do you feel about the — I should ask you — you graduated. LAUGHS. What have you taken anyway?

DAVID:
What have I taken away?

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Yeah, in terms of how would you answer that question?

DAVID:
Mm hmm. What I’ve taken away from contemplative education is it’s ok to not know. And it’s ok to feel extremely comfortable in myself. I would suggest one of the best places that it showed up for me was when I was in a job application process. And I was in the interview and they were asking me all these questions and I was really nervous and I can tell I was nervous, but at the same time I was just like I know who I am. I know who I am. I know who I’m going to be. And I was just really owning it and I would answer every question to the fullest I can. And then I would just allow them to answer. And then every question they would ask me I would actually like sit with it and think about it. And think — think about the moment. I didn’t come prepared. My preparedness was the education — you know. So, when someone asked me a question I don’t just like spit off an answer right away. I actually sit with it for like a hot second and be like how do I feel right now? How does that make me feel? What is my authentic answer? Not just like oh I know the answer — it’s five, you know it’s — math is very like easily answered. But when it comes to like emotional base uniqueness — everyone’s going to have a different answer. But like understanding who you are and where you’re at and where you’re feeling — and I’ve found that to just be engaging in the world, knowing who I am, feeling extremely confident even when I’m not feeling confident — I’m feeling confident. I’m confident in not feeling.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
It’s great. Yes.

DAVID:
You know what I mean? So, there is this a way of like spinning things and internal investigations is a really good one. Being able to sustain one’s self, being able to have the tools to understand my emotional states and my physical states. And just relatability — being able to relate to the world and to the people around me. And it’s super beneficial in the like career aspect of it. Because knowing who you are, being a good person goes a long way. Weird — it’s not about like knowing the answer all the time — it’s about knowing who you are and being relatable and having people like you.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Yeah it is so much about connection, you know. I think I’ve come to appreciate that more and more is — when we connect people it can be super simple, but just that sense of one human being being with another — something opens and in that. And then we warm to that. And we want more of that and we want to engage more and then it’s like okay well what should we do together? You know just like you’ve told me about stories with holistic life and like we just enjoy being together. Like — and then all these great ideas come out of that and new projects come out of that and that’s that kind of coming back to that space of not knowing we were talking about earlier and creativity that comes out of that. So, it’s beautiful to hear from your own experience.

DAVID:
Hey! So, I got one more question.

So, what is your favorite thing about teaching at Naropa? What do you like about it? And what is your favorite topic as well?

Charlotte Rotterdam:
I think my favorite thing is the students — because they’re obviously — this is you know sort of simple. They’re always different, but they’re always uniquely different. And so, every time I walk into a — you know the beginning of the semester — it’s like who am I gonna get to know this semester?

DAVID:
Yeah interesting. It’s like a new deck of cards every semester for you.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
And you know and it’s not just newness like I realize at this point — it’s like I’m gonna fall in love with each one of the human beings. It’s almost guaranteed. It kind of is, but in a completely new way. And I’m gonna get to know what it means to respect them and know them in a whole new way as well.

And so that keeps it incredibly fresh and exciting and is the ultimate gift to me as a teacher — you know sometimes I feel like I’m getting more out of it than they are. Hopefully they’re getting a lot out of it. But I get so much from them. So yeah, and in terms of topics — I don’t think there’s one topic. I think it’s about creating the space in which whatever the topic is of that week or that class comes alive. And there’s a way in which there’s a freshness maybe that I’m bringing to it or that a student will ask a question in a certain way or say something from a new perspective and it lights up — that’s my favorite.

DAVID:
Oh. Okay, I can see that.

All right, so that is our time and I just would like to say it was such a pleasure speaking with you. I’ve been wanting to speak with you for like a couple months now and like finally found some time and just that one class experience made me realize like how contemplative you could be and how presence really holds an educational setting. And I just really want to appreciate you and admire you for that. So, thank you so much for just like inviting me in your classroom and inviting me to talk to you. And it was just such a pleasure.

Charlotte Rotterdam:
Wonderful to be with you David. Thank you so much.

DAVID:
Mm hmm.

So, I’d like to thank my guest, Charlotte Rotterdam. Charlotte is an instructor teaching in the core contemplative classes here at Naropa. Also teaching in the Graduate School of Psychology and she is also the director of CACE which is called the Center for Advancement of Contemplative Education. So, thanks again.

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On behalf of the Naropa community thank you for listening to Mindful U. The official podcast of Naropa University. Check us out at http://www.naropa.edu or follow us on social media for more updates.

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