Karen Tse and a Definition of Healing

Hear Dan read this post.

Recently, Siona van Dijk sent me a reference to the extraordinary leadership work of Karen Tse, director of International Bridges to Justice (IBJ), a human rights organization that trains public defenders in China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Karen grew up in LA’s Chinatown, went to UCLA and, later, Harvard Divinity school, and has worked with both the oppressors and the oppressed in Cambodian prisons and with the Khmer Rouge. Siona highlighted these beautiful words by Tse from a recent article about her:

If you sit within the silence of your soul, and give it the time and the space, I think you know where to go–you know where to lead. You can read a thousand books and have a thousand people tell you what the right methodologies are–but to be anywhere, you have to start from your center and your core. It’s from that place of stillness where you’ll know how to move forward and how to move others with you.

You must seek to find the Christ or the Buddha in each person. Then you must work with that Christ or Buddha.

Thank you so much, Siona, for sharing this story. It certainly does resonate with my own principles and my sense of what leadership really is all about. I encourage readers to take a look at the article before going farther with this post. Karen Tse’s story is testimony to the remarkable potentials we all hold within.


Her story emphasizes the power of “transformative love” to heal the world and its wrongs, starting from healing those who have power to make things better. The story of how Tse works with a prison director in Cambodia is almost an emblem for all the good work that is possible. Her vocation doesn’t seem to be about “the law” or “rights,” though these pieces do figure prominently, so much as it seems to be about the human paintbrush creating new life in the face of an old darkness.

Thinking of those I regard as good leaders, I find myself defining leadership itself in terms of its offer of healing — healing of communities (community broadly defined from countries down to families), healing of the earth itself, and of people as individuals, from which at an inner level, all the trouble can be sourced. This is so much different than the more intellectual views of leadership that often circulate, focusing as they do on power to accomplish majestic, business-oriented goals. And yet don’t the best leaders also know there is nothing so important as the reclaiming of what has been lost to us — and how that reclaiming best occurs with understanding, compassion and inclusion?

The other day I was reading a blog declaring that it is time for white males to take back their birthright to power and social control. The author seemed deeply convinced that once this happened, when women and people of all other backgrounds finally acknowledged the superior intelligence of white males, all would be right with the world. As I read his words, I felt nothing but anger and sadness — and fear that someone with this perspective might end up in a powerful role. We can say his words are simply ludicrous, but that belies the seriousness of the perspective and its underlying violence. Yesterday, I also happened to read about Kathy Sierra’s troubling personal confrontation with misogyny and death threats. And it reinforced the sense I have that unless the healing powers of “transformative love” play an increasingly strong role, the dark threads woven into the fabric of our culture will create a very different society than the one we have today. We easily forget — in the wash of People magazine, TV game shows, and trips to the mall — that cruelty is not that far off. As my good friend, Joe McCarthy has said to me any number of times, “The internet is just a reflection of the world. Whatever you want to find there, you can find.” I guess that means confusion, unconsciousness, and violence, as well as light.

And you see, Karen Tse, is already there, and she leads as a healer; she heals as a leader.

I have found myself asking many questions lately about this process of “healing.” What is it, really? Perhaps it is just, to use Tse’s words, to find the Christ or Buddha in each person. And then to believe in that vision of the human spirit, to know that whatever darkness we find in others and within ourselves, whatever wounds, “lost” awareness, crippled understanding, there is something else that is more. That beside the loss of whatever wholeness was our actual birthright coming into this world and beside whatever violence that has lately shaped us, wholeness is still there in this moment, perhaps in shock or hiding but still capable of being found again. Whatever has injured us is not final. We hold the stars in our bellies, even under the grimmest of conditions. There is craziness; there are tragedies, but the human spirit at its core is greater than its self-injuring parts and will find its way to recover, if not as an individual, then as a society. It must. I hold this truth to be self-evident: that we contain nobility and courage, and we are eminently capable of compassion — for others and for ourselves, and this discovery — that we can put things right, put ourselves right — this discovery is made only through love and is, for what it’s worth, my own, personal definition of healing.

All last night I dreamt of frightening wars and invasions and I literally awoke this morning to a radio report saying that probably 400,000 people have been killed in Darfur in the last four years. We wound ourselves so deeply, so persistently and ferociously, with such fervent self-destructiveness and spellbound revenge, and yet one person, a single example, working with the director of a prison in Cambodia shows how radically different it all can be. The demons we harbor within us run for the shadows in the face of such an immense light.

We know, even as any war begins, that we are greater, and yet — and this is the wounding — we seem not able to claim our nobility without the suffering, without the loss of our innocence and our self-betrayal [this is the only poem I know by heart]…

Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

The majesty and burning of the child’s death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

Dylan Thomas,A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London

It seems that our real stories always begin with a loss, begin in a dark time. Our real stories begin with a scar. And we then necessarily become searchers for the essential thing that has been taken away from us. We must make the journey through the underworld. It seems as a race we must touch anger and revenge.

If we look for them, we find teachers. But as part of the cosmic sleight of hand, we also discover at some point that we were geniuses and yet never knew at all what we thought we were looking for. And what is this loss, and what is to be found? It really has no name other than our own, and once we find this “object of the search,” we are given back a cherished treasure, the capacity to love ourselves and one another.

It is the first of April, the day of fools. Siona also reminded me of how important it is to remember the power and importance of the fool, one of our most important affirmations. From BellaOnline she shares a bit of Tarot:

The Fool represents the ‘everyperson’ – the essence of us all embarking on the journey of life, self-discovery and mastery. He is the innocent, the whimsical, the ‘inner child’ mixed with the ‘inner sage’ that lives down deep inside of us all. He faces life and his journey unafraid, trusting, the perfect example of total and utter faith that all will be well, that every experience has a deep essential meaning. He traipses along the crags of life, regardless of any hidden peril or disappointment, his eyes are turned to the heavens and he knows that he will be kept safe and whole along his travels. Key words associated with the Fool are new beginnings, important decisions and optimism.

Ah, such faith! We start and end our journeys the same. We lose our innocence in order, with wisdom, to win it back once again. In doing so, we are healed and able at last to leave a prison of our own making.

When we let Spirit
Lead us
It is impossible
To know
We are being led.
All we know
All we can believe
All we can hope
Is that
We are going
That wherever
Takes us
Is where

Alice Walker, When We Let Spirit Lead Us


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  • Dan: you’ve woven a rich tapestry of threads of darkness and light, injury and healing, anger and compassion, cruelty and kindness. Taking the larger view that encompasses China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Darfur, it seems to make the unfolding of recent blogospheric events less important … and yet, as I write this, I can hear the voice of Dan saying “No, actually, these threads are important wherever they manifest themselves, as we are all connected.”

    In any case, the recent “coordinated” statement by Kathy Sierra and Chris Locke manifests many of these threads — both the dark and the light — and gives [me] hope in the transformative power of love. I’m reminded of a quote by Grover Washington Carver that I first encountered on Jane McGonigal‘s home page: “Anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough”. Let’s hope so…

  • Yes, I believe that’s right, Joe — the threads are connected…violence is violence, threat is threat. Krishnamurti said it this way in Freedom from the Known (see right sidebar):

    “…let us ask ourselves, can this society, based on competition, brutality and fear, come to an end? Not as an intellectual conception, not as a hope, but as an actual fact, so that the mind is made fresh, new and innocent and can bring about a different world altogether? It can only happen, I think, if each one of us recognizes the central fact that we, as individuals, as human beings, in whatever part of the world we happen to live or whatever culture we happen to belong to, are totally responsible for the whole state of the world.”

    Surely there are degrees…but the structure of threat and of violence is largely the same wherever it exists…and that means to me that single examples, such as Kathy Sierra’s recent situation, are fractals of the larger scene. Which is more important, a leaf or the larger tree? The point is that the leaf is the tree.

  • I’ve met Karen in person once, at a conference. She’s pretty amazing. 🙂 She’s very down to earth and matter of fact about big, emotional issues. Very inspirational.

  • John

    It looks like you are doing fabulous work at Project VIEW. Many blessings to you.

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