State of grace

I’ve been thinking a lot about grace recently.  Grace as a concept of forgiveness, redemption, of righting past wrongs and moving forward

I need the sea by jesuscm
I need the sea by jesuscm

At the same time, I have been working to better understand ideas about beauty in relation to this idea of grace.  As a creative person and spiritual thinker, I see beauty and grace as an expression of Soul, of qualities such as gentleness, purity, perfection and forgiveness.  I like how these qualities, when expressed, give us a higher vision of beauty of ourselves and, especially, help us to see each other in our true light.

I’ve thought often of this as I’ve wrestled with the challenges, failures and mistakes that I’ve made along my journey.

The Christian concept of grace is of ‘the free and unmerited favour of God…the bestowal of blessings; the condition or fact of being favoured by someone’.  I love that!  It seems to say that all goodness is ours to be had, that no matter what mistakes or errors of judgment we have made, the goodness continues to flow and is ours to receive.

I was particularly inspired by an excerpt from an oral history of Hua Dan that has been

Photo from Hua Dan archive
Photo from Hua Dan archive

put together this past year.  We’ve been fortunate to have the support of the amazing Linda Yi, a student from Duke University, who has interviewed many past and current beneficiaries, staff members and supporters.  Linda has compiled her findings into a beautiful oral history project which will shortly be available online, as a testament to the contribution we have tried to make to China’s growth and development – and lessons for improvement into the future!

“There’s something about that situation where people are coming together and admitting their flaws, admitting their weakness, admitting that they all, as a group, can’t handle this thing that they’re addicted to [Hua Dan and using art for social change]: there’s something about the spirit of that group that produces what he calls grace. A has told me (about a sermon that she heard when she was in Central America) that grace is always present, it’s always right here, but we don’t always pick up on it, we don’t always accept this gift that’s freely offered by the world. But if we gather together in a certain spirit, then it appears. It seems to me that’s what’s happening at these Hua Dan meetings. The ostensible purpose is to build certain soft skills, or to do something about art and theater, but that isn’t really what’s important, and that isn’t really what’s happening. The important part (the solid heart) is the relationship building. And if that happens (and it almost has to happen), then the thing is a success, whether there’s any art or theater, whether people build skills or not.” (Correspondence between Linda Yi and David Guy, Hua Dan Oral History 2013)

I am humbled and inspired that an outside observer to our little band of Hua Daners, who have experienced huge challenges in moving our work forward in China, has recognized that the experience of grace is, fundamentally, what our work is really about.

Fruit store by Jarod Carruthers
Fruit store by Jarod Carruthers

This focus on relationships as an expression of grace was also brought home to me with a small incident that occurred on Sunday afternoon.  On returning home on the metro, I stopped by the ATM to withdraw 20 euros before proceeding to the market to buy some cherries and bananas. Just as I was about to pay, I realised I had absent-mindedly just taken the ticket from the ATM and not the money. I dropped everything to run back to find that the money wasn’t there. On returning to the market stall to explain that I wouldn’t be buying the fruit after having lost the money, the market stall owner handed me my fruit. I was so overcome, I burst into tears – and couldn’t stop crying, so humbled I was at his expression of generosity. He then handed me a bottle of water and gently told me to keep my chin up, whereupon I said, I’ll just go and get more money out to pay you. He stopped me, told me not to worry about it – ‘another time, another time’. He handed me the fruit – with some apricots and peaches thrown in too.

I was blown away and in awe of this expression of grace, a reminder that whatever we think we’ve lost, the universe has it’s way of coming back to us with blessings in abundance – with extra thrown in for good measure too!

Photo from Hua Dan archive
Photo from Hua Dan archive

Spirituality and Mindful Leadership in Myanmar

Schwedagon Pagoda by Ku5hi
Schwedagon Pagoda by Ku5hi

At the upcoming Young Global Leaders Annual Summit at the World Economic Forum for East Asia in Myanmar (Burma), I, along with two of my colleagues, Shoukei Matsumoto and Thura Ko, will be running an Impact Journey on Spirituality and Mindful Leadership for our fellow YGLs.

I was first inspired to propose a workshop on this after feeling disappointed that the majority of discussion on this topic at Davos tended to focus most on what I consider to be the politics of religion, rather than the power of spirituality.  After one particular panel discussion, I posed to the audience the question of what it would mean if global leaders with a commitment to spiritual thinking were to share their experiences of bringing healing to their communities.  After all, what else is the purpose of religion and spirituality if not to bring healing?

I was further encouraged after reading an article, Freedom from Fear, by Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s celebrated pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace laureate.

Aung San Suu Kyi by Prachatai
Aung San Suu Kyi by Prachatai

In the article, Aung San Suu Kyi articulates the need for there to be a ‘revolution of the spirit’ if we are to overcome the challenges of leading in today’s world.

In my own life, spiritual vision has been fundamental to my leadership journey.  Like many others, I take the approach of ‘servant leadership’, that I feel compelled to do what I do [in my case, using arts for social change] as part of a bigger vision of healing for the world.  I have come to learn, through the trials and tribulations of my own experiences and observing the experiences of others, that what defines a leader is not so much the particularities of what he or she does, and the successes and failures, achievements and mistakes they encounter along the way, so much as their individual commitment to continue to strive for this higher vision of humanity, irrespective of the material circumstances and ‘crucibles’ they face.  Aung San Suu Kyi, as we know, is an exemplary model for such leadership.

The schedule for our Impact Journey will take us to the Myanmar Institute of Theology, Schwedagon Pagoda and the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy and will encompass an opportunity for meditation and reflection on the following two key questions:

1)   How have you used spirituality in your leadership?  What universal ‘principles’, that transcend any one individual faith, have enabled you to bring healing to your communities?

2)   What ‘value’ do spiritual and religious institutions hold in society today?  And how can we ‘measure’ that value?

We are also aiming to weave in the concept of feminine leadership to the discussion, in light of Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership, and the imperative that exists to bring gender issues into the discussion.

In anticipation of a fruitful and inspiring Impact Journey, and in a spirit of inquiry to prepare us for the experience, I invite you all – friends, family, fellow YGLs and colleagues – to leave your comments and thoughts on these two central questions.  We’d love to hear your stories of how you have used spirituality in your own leadership journey and to further the discussion of what value spiritual and religious institutions have in society today.  Please leave your comments below and we look forward to the continued sharing of these ideas.

 Myanmar by bsmethers

Myanmar by bsmethers

The Charter for Compassion

I had the privilege of attending a talk by the religious historian Karen Armstrong on her Charter for Compassion the other day in Paris.

Photo of Karen Armstrong by Seamus Rainheart
Photo of Karen Armstrong by Seamus Rainheart

A former nun, Ms Armstrong is best known for her books on the major world religions.  In 2008, she received the TED prize and was asked to make one wish that TED would support her to achieve.  She chose to launch the Charter for Compassion, which was compiled by several academics and authorities in the field and has now grown into a global movement.

Within the context of the Charter, Ms Armstrong draws on the fact that all great religions have enshrined the importance of the Golden Rule – ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.  And, by extension, ‘do not do to others what you would not wish them to do to you’.  Given my upbringing in China, I was also interested to learn that it was Confucius who first enunciated the Golden Rule, long before Western religions did so.

Photo by Deone Higgs
Photo by Deone Higgs

During her talk, Ms Armstrong mentioned the importance of going deep into the pain of one’s own suffering in order to understand the suffering of others.   We must look deep into our own hearts to see what causes us pain, and refuse to inflict it on others. She said that this empathy was critical to this process of exercising compassion.  I especially liked her call to ‘dethrone’ ourselves from the centre of our own world and put the other there.

I was also inspired by Ms Armstrong’s reminder that we always have a choice about another way of being in the world.  That we can frame our behaviour and daily actions by spending our time relieving the sufferings of others.

At the end of her talk, I asked her what she felt was the difference between compassion and love.  She commented that love had come to be an overused word in our society, and that it tended to symbolize emotions and feelings which, to her, didn’t accurately convey the active call to express compassion to our fellow man.

This seems like an accurate observation that made me wonder whether, in that process of connecting love to emotion, or even just solely to romantic love, we have lost that wider understanding of love as a state of being, love as our original, natural identity.  Love as an expression of all that is pure, perfect and complete in who we really are.  Love as our reflection of the Divine. Surely, if we were able to truly see both ourselves and others in this way, would this enable us to more easily transcend the images of suffering we see around us and thus naturally express compassion in everything we think, say and do?

I’m inspired by the work of Karen Armstrong and what she is doing with the Charter for Compassion project and hope, too, that whilst we go through our daily lives expressing compassion, we continue to remind ourselves that the source of these actions have their origins in Love.  Love that is not something outside of ourselves or that has to be summoned up with effort, but a quality of being that is naturally, abundantly and beautifully expressed by us all.

Photo by AV Dezign
Photo by AV Dezign

Copyright Caroline Watson

The call for feminine leadership

A friend recently related to me a story of how a female colleague of hers, a brilliant and articulate public figure, had been completely overshadowed by the forceful persuasion techniques and aggressive stance of her male interlocuters on a televised debate.  She expressed disappointment in this as the seeming evidence of men’s greater power over women and how far we had yet to go in the equality of men and women.

Photo by cheesy42
Photo by cheesy42

I suggested to my friend that perhaps what we most needed was a redefinition of what ‘women’s leadership’ meant.  And, perhaps, to also understand the difference between ‘power’ and ‘influence’ – the authority, perhaps commanded by something akin to the ‘still, small voice’, to be a force for change in the face of violence and aggression.

In the light of the recent death of Margaret Thatcher, much has been made of the debate as to whether Baroness Thatcher was a shining example of the barriers that women could break to achieve political success, or if she was a traitor to her sex in espousing values that traditionally go against the grain of what women most value.  The jury is still out for me on that one.  But I do believe that what we most need is a better understanding of what it means to bring the feminine into leadership and to elevate the conversation to one that is not simply about the promotion of more women in the political and economic sphere, as important as that is.  Whilst it is important and necessary work to focus on the material aspects of gender equality, I feel somehow that the conversation needs to go further on a more nuanced understanding of what it means to truly empower both women – and men.

To me, this is as much a call for liberation of the feminine qualities of compassion, collaboration, creativity, nurturing, beauty and empowerment, as it is also about the expression of masculine qualities of justice, order, discipline, integrity and trustworthiness.  We know that none of these qualities are the exclusive preserve of men or women and, thus, it is important to focus on how we might find their expression in the highest vision possible of what men and women, expressing BOTH, are able to bring to the world.

Nebsen and Nebet-ta by Wallyg
Nebsen and Nebet-ta by Wallyg

Pioneering spiritual thinker of the 19th century, Mary Baker Eddy, herself a woman who broke many boundaries in her professional achievements, had this to say:

‘Union of the masculine and feminine qualities constitutes completeness’

To me, she was getting away from the specifics of male and female and moving towards a higher vision that underlined the imperative of both feminine and masculine qualities to be expressed to bring our world to its complete state of perfection.

In my own experiences as a modern women, I have often experienced a struggle in understanding the practical implications of what this means.  We are all familiar with the debates that rage around us: as career women are we neglecting our wifely and maternal instincts?  Have those of us who have chosen to be full-time mothers let the side down for our feminist sisters?  Should a man hold a door open for a woman to pass through?  Is this a sign of politeness and respect for a woman?  Or an insinuation that she is somehow ‘the weaker sex?’  Are our corporations, social structures and working lives at odds with the way we – as men and women – with relationships, families and personal goals, wish to live our lives?  And what kind of leadership is necessary to solve the huge problems our world faces?  As with most debates, real life continues on in the midst, often leaving us confused as to how to be a meaningful, practical, force for change in the everyday.

So, I would invite women to consider themselves as custodians – not owners – of that idea of ‘feminine leadership’ and that, whilst continuing to work on the practical implications of women’s role in society, we must first and foremost lead by taking THOUGHT in new directions about the qualities that make up a truly harmonious model of feminine and masculine leadership.  We must ask ourselves if, in all this, we are truly finding the feminine in leadership, irrespective of whether we are a man or woman. And, by extension, by modeling that higher model of feminine leadership we are thus calling into being a higher model of masculine leadership too.  What we should be aiming for is the opportunity for each individual, irrespective of gender, to be able to bring forth in themselves the full expression of masculine and feminine qualities in both the professional and personal spheres, enabling everyone to live up to their highest potential.

It is my deep belief that when we change our thought of what it is we are really trying to achieve, the necessary changes that hinder the advancement of both women and men to truly progress in society, will naturally and inevitably come into being.

Photo by World Bank Photo Collection
Photo by World Bank Photo Collection

Returning Home

Well, here I am, on the plane to Chengdu, my first trip back to China in over a year.

I’ve missed the Hua Dan team.  It’s been a rocky road for all of us, in one way or another, and I’m eager to be together again, after so long.  I’m excited to be working with the team on the development of the Dumpling Dreams project, a long-cherished vision of ours to develop a performance as a team that could potentially be brought to the Edinburgh Festival next year.   And I’m looking forward to listening and talking through ideas and plans for the next five years and to hear what the team most wants to do in taking the organization forward.


Photo credit by korafotomorgana
Photo credit by korafotomorgana

Distance of time and space lends itself to reflection on experiences that have defined and shaped who we are and the journeys that we all find ourselves on.  My journey with Hua Dan continues to unfold and I am grateful for all those who have ever crossed our paths in helping us to build the legacy that we have today.

This is the first time that I have come back to China with no agenda, no strategy, no list of ‘to dos’ that have defined more recent trips.  I come, this time, with a heart laden with love and a humility that defined my first tentative steps at the beginning of our journey in 2003, nearly 10 years ago.   Back before fundraising, proposal and report writing, annual audits and board meetings all threatened to make us forget what this was all supposed to be about.  I had one goal then – to share my deep love for theatre with the women of China, in the hope that they would glimpse new views of themselves and their perfection and allow love to express itself in them through the creative process.  That vision is what I hold to now, this, my first trip back, after more than a year.

Photo credit by Billie Hara
Photo credit by Billie Hara

I think back to those early days in China, of the innocence and purity of vision of our team, as Dong Fen, Zhong Na, Yang Yang, me and all the others began to shape Hua Dan, and reflect how all too easy it is to allow the practical machinations of running an NGO to overshadow the original idea that seeded the organization in the first place.  I know that the foundation to the success we have achieved so far can only come down to one thing – love for our fellow man and the insistence of love as our only true identity.  It was that mutual understanding that got us started and helped see us through all the twists, turns and tumbles that have followed, providing the foundation for our values, even when the hold was almost too tenuous.   It is that love that will help us to move forward on the next chapter of our journey.

I have written often of my own purpose being to learn and express a vision of love over fear.  That vision has been tested greatly this past year and I find myself now with a renewed commitment to living that love, step by step, day by day, hour by hour…..committing myself to actions, not words.  We cannot rely on past legacy to move forward but must re-commit ourselves daily to forward movement and new views on the continuing journey.

I strive to carry forward that commit to love in my heart as we seek to listen and understand for our next steps in the coming weeks.

Photo credit by ItalianPsycho
Photo credit by ItalianPsycho

Does fear get us closer to love?


I had lunch with a friend today who, when I told him the title of my blog and my interest in love and fear, shared with me that, when he was falling in love with his now-wife, a good friend of his suggested that this relationship might last because she scared him.

This fascinated me.

It made me reflect on the close relationship between love and fear.  Instead of seeing them as polar opposites, were they, in fact, closely related?

Photo credit ky0ko0 Irene Zaccari

Why do we call it ‘falling in love’?  Everything is in free-fall and we are suddenly more aware of our vulnerability, our nakedness and how much we have to lose.  But isn’t it precisely at this point that we also glimpse the beauty of what it means to let go into Love?  The exquisite freedom that comes with surrendering to something higher than ourselves.  Doesn’t that revealing strip us of all our previously-held certainties about things?  Doesn’t it challenge us to develop the humility, authenticity and clarity of who we really are when we let go of the ego and reveal our true beauty?

Perhaps that, then, is fears true purpose, whether it’s in romantic relationships or in any area of life.   To lead us to higher and deeper views of who we are and our potential for growth and progress.  To help us see the unreality of fear in having any hold on us if love is the underlying force that holds more power when we are tempted to believe in anything else.

We begin to realize that it is not our job to protect, own, nor control or act from fear.  But to allow Love to work it’s magic on us, to transform our world and enable us to be all that we were created to be.

We have only to let go and ‘fall’… allow Love, Divine Love, to catch us.

‘Catch the fall’ by dolcedo

Achieving personal transformation through the arts

(originally published at

I have seen the transformative power of working from a view of the world that places love at the heart of our actions and the power of the arts to facilitate this experience.

In the last 10 years, I have witnessed the extraordinary power, courage and tenacity of a group of impoverished migrant women in China who have taken their love for theatre to over 24,000 women and children to build one of the most respected socially entrepreneurial theatre companies in the country. Despite financial challenges, opposition and the fear of failure, the love for that moment of transformation that occurs when a small child starts to see herself in all her beauty, potential and creativity in a workshop has kept the vision alive and thriving today.

At the upcoming Summit on the Global Agenda in Dubai, the World Economic Forum will be launching a new Global Agenda Council on the Role of the Arts in Society. I am, along with other Council Members, already exploring linkages between the arts and education and skills, design, women’s empowerment and neuroscience, and looking to build bridges with many of the other Councils.

In a time of austerity and political crisis, the discussion on the role of the arts in society seems like a luxury few can afford. Actually the opposite is true.

As the world looks now, we have built our norms for progress along the lines of Mazlov’s hierarchy of needs – basic food and shelter being of utmost importance; self-actualization and the quest for spirituality a rare priority in the everyday scramble to ensure we all manage to get by.

Yet, I would suggest that the need for art lies at the very heart of the world’s most intractable problems and it is through the arts that we can best experience the transformation that brings about progress in all areas of human endeavour.

What I saw during my years of working with theatre and migrant women in China was that arts truly can transform a human being – the way a person thinks and feels and how one considers their place in the world.

Zhong Na, a migrant woman from Shandong, has pursued her dream of being a theatre teacher of children in the face of pressure from her parents to return to her village and marry. Her personal transformation lays open the possibilities of what this shift in perception of a woman’s role in society could mean for China’s future. What would happen if more women followed in Zhong Na’s footsteps?

This is just one example of the role the arts has in transformation; there are countless others all over the world. And I look forward to the role of this new Council in showcasing and highlighting such examples of best practice.

For me, the case is fundamental. The more we continue to wallow in the mud of ignorance, fear and corruption of power, the less we will find the genuine authority and leadership needed to bring the world forward in the way we all at our core know to be our rightful heritage. This honours both those we lead as well as ourselves as leaders who are committed to acting with the integrity that lies within each one of us. We cannot stay within the confines of the problem. Rather, we must work from the love within us to break through the barriers that prevent us from singing, dancing and expressing our highest vision for humanity.

Caroline Watson is Director and Founder of Hua Dan ( and Chair of the Global Agenda Council on Role of the Arts in Society. 

L’Amour, pas la peur

Tout en jouant, un petit garçon exubérant  m’a jeté son manteau, s’attirant ainsi la colère de sa grand-mère, qui l’a obligé à s’excuser.

Plus tard ce soir-là, il a refusé de me parler, et ne voulait plus se joindre à nous pour écouter comme d’habitude l’histoire du soir avant de se coucher. Il boudait sous sa couette, et tentait de me faire quitter la pièce.

Mais je ne l’ai pas accepté. J’ai tenu bon dans mon amour pour lui. J’ai refusé d’entretenir l’hostilité qu’il avait l’air de vouloir à tout prix me manifester. A genoux par terre, je lui ai demandé honnêtement si je lui avais fait de la peine et si c’était le cas, ce que je pouvais faire pour arranger les choses. Je lui ai dit que je l’aimais, que je lui pardonnais, et que je désirais qu’il participe de nouveau au rite de l’histoire du soir.

Il ne voulait pas venir. Retranché dans son lit, il refusait d’écouter. Je suis restée à côté, patiemment, choisissant de ne voir que sa perfection, sa pureté, son innocence. Puis j’ai décidé que nous nous rendrions auprès de lui. Nous prendrions ma couette et l’apporterions dans sa chambre à lui, et assis par terre, on commencerait l’histoire, ce qui lui fournirait l’option d’être inclus dans le groupe puisque nous allions près de lui , au lieu d’attendre qu’il revienne près de nous. « l’amour non payé de retour, mais restant toujours l’amour. »*

On avait à peine entamé le chapitre suivant de  Charlie dans l’usine de chocolat  qu’il est descendu de son lit, se pelotonnant près de ses  sœurs pour partager le contentement  et la chaleur, l’amour de la famille qui n’exclut personne. Un visage souriant, des rires partagés, l’harmonie restaurée.

Une leçon apprise. Un cœur assagi. Pas le sien, mais le mien.

Nous allons avec amour à la rencontre de l’hostilité ; point n’est besoin que la crainte nous pousse à la retraite…et nous trouvons que l’amour seul est là. Et y était toujours, et à jamais.

(*Mary Baker Eddy)


A little boy playing around, rather exuberantly threw his coat at me, incurring the wrath of grandma and a forced apology to me.

Photo by dhammza

Later that evening, he refused to talk to me, no longer wishing to be part of the bedtime story routine, sulking under his duvet, trying to push me out of the door.

But I didn’t accept it.  I stood stedfast in my love for him.  Refusing to entertain the hostility he seemed bent on giving me.  I sat there, kneeled on the floor, asking him honestly if I had done anything to upset him and, if so, what I could do to make things better.  I told him I loved him, that I forgave him, that I wanted him to be a part of our storytelling.

He wouldn’t come.   Hunkered down in his bed, refusing to listen.  I remained there patiently, choosing only to see his perfection, purity and innocence.  Then, I decided we would go to him.  We’d take the duvet off my bed and bring it into his room, sit on the floor and begin our story, giving him the option to be included, going right to where he was, instead of expecting him to come back to us.  ‘Love meeting no response, but still remaining love.’ *

No sooner had we started the next chapter of Charlie in the Chocolate Factory, but off he came from his bunk, nestling beside his sisters to settle in for shared happiness and warmth, the love of family that excludes no one.  A smiling face, shared laughter, harmony restored.

A lesson learnt.  A heart chastened.  Not his, but mine.

We go with love to meet hostility, no need to retreat in fear….and find that love is all that’s there.  And always ever was.

Photo by archangeldeb

( *Mary Baker Eddy)


Loving it forward

Photo by Vistavision

I had been reflecting recently on how my commitment to living a life of love not fear too often focuses more on the fear part!  Weeding out of my thinking and acting those limitations that threaten to drag me down has been crucial in my journey in realizing this vision but I now feel increasingly compelled to focus only on living outwards from Love.  To focus not on removing the fear so much but to be so gloriously, boundlessly living authentically from my heart with freedom to give, to create, to praise and to inspire, that fear has no foundation and dissolves into nothingness.   I am finding that holding attention to Love alone is what liberates.

It’s that glimpse of true freedom that compels me to be using the arts for personal and social transformation in my professional life.  As a little girl, I was fascinated by that moment of transcendence that occurs in an experience of great art, when you are so absorbed in expression and giving outwards that all else falls away and you are moved purely to express your highest vision for your life and your contribution to the world.   Coming home from the theatre, or my drama class, or listening to an inspiring piece of music would leave me soaring with vision and a heart full of love for the innate spiritual and creative energy that we have all come to this world to express.   I knew that I wanted my life to be about discovering that within myself, and supporting others to do the same.

Photo by madlyinlovewithlife

I believe that liberation from fear through a profound understanding of living Love is the answer to the world’s most intractable problems and am more convinced than ever that the arts are a doorway into this way of being.  They enable us to reveal our real selves in all our innocence, purity and authenticity and are a powerful agent for change in our own lives and the lives of others.

I am so grateful for the love and support I have had and continue to have in helping me to move this vision forward.