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Diane Dreher's Tao Leadership Blog

When to Say Yes, When to Say No

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The Tao Te Ching tells us:

 

Be careful with commitments.

Do not begin something

You may not want to finish.

                    (Tao, Chapter 63)

 

How many of us fill our lives with conflict by saying yes to too many people, too many commitments? This energy draining habit can cause stress overload, rushing, tension, anxiety, and, ultimately, exhaustion. The Tao reminds us of an important lesson: to balance the alternating energies of yin and yang, self and other. To do this, we need to watch our timing: knowing when to say yes, when to say no.

 

Growing up in a dysfunctional family, I developed a habit of mindlessly reacting to others, putting their seemingly "urgent" demands before my own needs. But after answering family members' demands and interruptions, I had very little time and energy left for what was really important to me. This made it especially hard while I was in college. After classes, daily chores, and cleaning up the kitchen after dinner, I'd go to my room to study, only to be told that I had to go to bed at 10 o'clock. To live my own priorities, I finally got a job at the local newspaper to support myself and moved out on my own to gain more control over my studies and my life.  

 

But even though I packed up and moved out of my parents' house, I took the old reactive habit with me. In many a new context, with jobs, friends, and relationships, I felt I had to get others' demands "out of the way" before I could do what I really wanted. And at the end of the day, I was left with little time and energy for what mattered to me.

 

If this sounds familiar, then it's time to develop a new personal pattern. Instead of automatically agreeing to a commitment whenever you're asked, remember to follow the Tao:  to pause and take time to look within in order to avoid energy drains and honor your own priorities.

 

To do this, think of a commitment or invitation you've received lately. Take a few moments to pause, take a deep mindful breath and ask yourself these questions:

 

  • How do I feel about this commitment?
  • What does it mean to me?
  • Is it necessary?
  • Do I feel personally called to do it?
  • Do I really want to do it?
  • Do I have the time?

 

Your answers should reveal whether you're making a meaningful commitment or not. If so, embrace it with heart. If not, then why do it?  The Tao reminds us to say no to energy drains in order to say yes to our lives.

 

I wish you joy in the process.  

 

Reference

 

Some of this post appeared in an earlier version in

Dreher,D. (2000). The Tao of Inner Peace. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam.

 

 

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Seeing Beyond Problems to Possibilities

In this new year, my wish for all of us is that we learn to see beyond current problems to discover new possibilities, new solutions to benefit us all. We can begin by looking for connections, by seeing the larger patterns, by recognizing the cycles of yin and yang that comprise our world. As the Tao Te Ching declared over 25 centuries ago:

 

The Tao person helps others

So no one is lost,

And uses things wisely

So nothing is wasted.

                   (Tao, Chapter 27)

 

Recently, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown how profoundly we are all connected. "We're all in this together," the saying goes. What affects one of us can affect all of us in our health care, supply chains, and communities.

 

Since we are all connected, research has shown that small acts of kindness can be healing for ourselves and those around us. With what psychologist Barbara Fredrickson (2013) calls "micro-moments of connectivity," we can connect not only with close friends and family but with the grocery store clerk or anyone else we encounter in daily life. A simple acknowledgement, eye contact, perhaps a kind word—that's all it takes. These connections benefit both people—to give is to receive. They can relieve stress, improve our health, raise our mood, and reduce inflammation to promote greater physical and emotional well-being. Research has also shown that these small acts of connection can create a positive ripple effect, spreading through entire communities.

 

Recognizing how everything is connected can help us find new solutions to the problems we face. The Tao teaches us that everything is part of a larger process in the cycles of life, that the byproducts of one thing can be valuable components of something else. By becoming more aware of these larger cycles, we can discover greater possibilities.

 

One of my favorite examples is the pneumatic pipeline system used in Swedish cities since 1969 to dispose of household trash. When many people were seeing trash as a problem to get rid of, the resourceful Swedes saw it as a possibility. In each unit of an apartment building they installed pneumatic tubes that carry the trash down to the cellar, where it is separated into waste and recyclable items. The waste is then burned in an incinerator, producing warm air which rises in another set of pipes to heat the building. As the Tao says, they "use things wisely so nothing is wasted."

 

In Taoist problem solving, the most important natural resource is our consciousness, our awareness of the natural cycles. By actively participating in these cycles, you can come up with new ideas, new insights. With this new awareness comes responsibility to take action and share your vision with others. And together, with our new visions of possibility, we can bring greater hope to our world.

 

Now it's your turn.

 

  • Take a few moments now to close your eyes and think of a current problem.
  • Focusing on your heart, take a deep, mindful breath and slowly release it.
  • Continue to breathe slowly and deeply as you visualize someone or something you appreciate.
  • Feel that sense of appreciation flow through your body.
  • Now ask yourself, "What is the larger cycle that includes this problem?" "How can this problem be part of a greater possibility?"
  • Then listen. The answer will come either now or later.
  • Smile as you slowly open your eyes.

 

References

 

Some of this material appeared in an earlier form in Dreher,D. (2000). The Tao of Inner Peace. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam.

 

Fredrickson, B. (2013). Love 2.0: How our supreme emotion affects everything we feel, think, do, and become. New York, NY: Hudson Street Press.

 

The closing meditation was inspired in part by the work of the HeartMath Institute. For more information about their research and programs, see https://www.heartmath.org/

 

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Returning to Our Roots

The Tao Te Ching tells us

 

Let your roots go deep

Into the source.

With attitude build a firm foundation

Of peace in the Tao.

 

                     (Tao, Chapter 59)

 

Many conflicts occur when we're not living deeply enough. Dashing frantically from one commitment to another on the surface of life, we can lose touch with our deepest values.

 

I used to have conflicts between my work and my relationships. Over the years, people and situations changed but the painful pattern remained. The night before an exam, my college boyfriend would shout angrily, "You'd rather study than be with me." Years later, when I had papers to grade, another man in my life would complain, "You'd rather grade papers than be with me." Torn between competing polarities of love and work, I was not at peace with myself (Dreher, 2000).

 

Our lives are symphonies of many parts. Each day we have needs for food, sleep, exercise, love, work, inspiration, and renewal. It's not a question of either/or, discord and division. If we neglect any of our parts, we become imbalanced and unhealthy.

 

The Tao teaches that peace comes from transcending polarities with a vision of the larger whole. Beneath the surface differences, it is the One that includes us all. To live with the Tao as our guide means to reach beneath the surface to connect with our deeper reality.

 

These days, America is painfully polarized between two political factions: red and blue. We can get so carried away reacting to "the other side" that we forget the larger reality that connects us all. Yet as Abraham Lincoln reminded Americans in his first inaugural address:

 

"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature" (Lincoln, 1861).

 

When we're anxious and confused, we can easily ignore those better angels. Falling into polarization, reducing our choices to two polarities, we can project our inner conflicts onto the world around us. Yet when we're at peace with ourselves, we can see more clearly, act more effectively, and create new patterns of peace within and around us.

 

Is there an area of conflict in your life—either personally or politically—that feels painfully polarized? Taking time for reflection may seem like self-indulgence when we're in the midst of crisis and conflict, yet it's one of the most responsible things we can do. The next time you find yourself in such a place, before doing anything, take time to reflect.

 

  • If possible, go off by yourself where you won't be disturbed
  • Take deep breath and release it.
  • Then, focusing on your heart, breathe a little slower and deeper than usual.
  • Ask yourself "Where is the larger reality in this?" "What is the Oneness that connects us?"
  • Listen for the answer, which may come right away or later as you go about your daily routine.

 

"Let your roots go deep

Into the source."

 

I wish you joy in the process.

 

 

References

 

Some of this material appeared in an earlier version in Dreher, D. (2000). The Tao of Inner Peace. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam.

 

Lincoln, A. (1861). First Inaugural Address https://ap.gilderlehrman.org/resources/president-lincoln%C3%A2%E2%82%AC%E2%84%A2s-first-inaugural-address-1861

 

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Solving Problems with the Tao

The Tao Te Ching says that:

 

Wise people seek solutions.

The ignorant only cast blame.

 

Tao, Chapter 79

 

If we confront problems when we're not centered, we can become defensive, turning problems into blaming games.

 

When I was in graduate school, I worked for a year as a medical receptionist. One day while the office was filled with patients, workers were laying carpets in the examining rooms.

 

The phone rang incessantly, patients came and went, when suddenly I smelled smoke. The workers had gone to lunch, leaving a hot iron plugged in that was beginning to burn down into the floorboard. I went into the room, pulled the plug, set the iron upright, and returned to my desk.

 

Then the commotion began. The doctor smelled smoke and began shouting at the nurses, who shouted at the office administrative assistants. Their faces grew red, their voices strident and defensive. "Whose fault was it?" they shrieked. "Who should have checked the examining rooms?"

 

I wondered to myself, what difference does it make whose fault it was. The point was to solve the problem.

 

In far too many conflicts, both interpersonal and international, people become so busy blaming others and defending their egos that they forget to solve the problem, which in this case was as simple as pulling the plug.

 

The next time you face a problem,

  • Take a deep breath.
  • Center down to look beyond blaming and shaming.
  • Then follow the Tao to seek an effective solution, drawing upon the wisdom within and around you.

 

I wish you peace on the path.

 

Reference

 

An earlier version of this story appeared in

Dreher, D. (2000). The Tao of inner peace. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam, page 6.

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The Power of Presence

The Tao Te Ching tells us:

 

The path of Tao is simple,
Yet people take many detours.

                      Tao, Chapter 53

 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, we've all been experiencing increased stress. Whether we're working remotely or essential workers struggling to keep our healthcare system and economy running, many of us have been feeling overwhelmed. We've been multitasking, trying to do two or three things at once. But research has shown that our brains lose vital information when we shift back and forth between tasks, that multitasking actually makes us less efficient.

 

This is true in our work and especially true in our relationships. Have you ever caught yourself checking your email when talking to someone on the phone? Do you recall seeing a couple at a restaurant staring down at their cell phones, not present to the meal or to each other ? Or have you tried to talk to someone whose attention was divided, distracted by some electronic device?

 

It takes intention to be present. Like a Zen archer, we must be focused. Our intention, like the arrow, must be aimed at one target, one task at a time. When our minds aren't focused, we will miss the mark.

 

Each day we are confronted by external demands. Friends and family members, employers, newscasters, politicians, and advertisers are telling us what to buy, what to think, and what to do. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a longtime student of Eastern philosophy, realized how such outside influences threaten to reduce us to reactive subservience. "You will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it," he warned.

 

Yet as citizens in a democracy, we cannot surrender to outside influences. We must think for ourselves and be present to those around us. This means coming back to center, knowing where to focus, where to aim our intention.

 

What about you? How do you stay on the path, navigating through the demands around you? How do you remember who you are and why you are here?

 

Wherever you are, take a moment now to return to center.

 

  • If it's convenient for you, close your eyes.
  • Take a deep, mindful breath and slowly release it.
  • Breathing slowly and deeply, feel your body relax,
  • Feel the rhythm of your heartbeat.
  • As you focus your attention
  • And intention
  • To be right here
  • Right now.

Then slowly breathe out as you return to the present moment. By becoming more present and balanced, you will be doing your part to create a more balanced and peaceful world.

 

References:

 

Some information in this lesson appeared earlier in Dreher, D. (1996). The Tao of Personal Leadership. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

 

The Emerson quote from "Self-Reliance" in Emerson's Essays (1926). New York, NY: Thomas Y. Crowell, p, 38. Originally published 1841.

 

For insight into how multitasking affects our brains and makes us less efficient, see Foerde, K., Knowlton, B. J., & Poldrack, R. A. (2006). Modulation of competing memory systems by distraction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103, 11778-11783.

 

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Cultivating Compassion

The Dalai Lama says that

 

"Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries.

Without them humanity cannot survive."

 

Have you been rushing around, too busy to feel compassion for the people around you? These days, when dealing with the Covid pandemic, divisive politics, and economic uncertainty, our capacity for compassion can be sabotaged by stress.

 

How does this happen? Let's go back to a classic experiment at Princeton Theological Seminary. Years ago, on a cold day in December, a group of ministerial students was assigned to give an impromptu speech. The students met individually with the researcher, who gave them their speech topics: either their future career or the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). Then they were told to go to the lab next door to record their talk. For some students, the researcher added another factor: telling them to hurry because they were already running late.

 

One by one, the ministerial students went to the lab on this cold December day, walking through an alley to the next building, where a young man was slumped in a doorway, coughing and groaning. Some students stopped to ask if he needed help; some even took him inside and tried to get medical help. Others ignored him and walked on by.

 

What made the difference? Not whether the students were going to talk about their future careers or the Good Samaritan, but whether they were in a hurry--rushing because they were running late. The researchers even found that "on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way" (Darley & Batson, 1973, p. 107). These well-meaning ministerial students had been hijacked by the stress reaction.

 

Chronic stress undermines our compassion, our health, and our relationships, but we can transcend it by adding brief compassion breaks to our days. Taking a few moments to release all the toxic stress opens our hearts to a deep source of peace and renewal.

 

For your own good and the greater good of our world, you can begin taking compassion breaks. Here's how. For the next few moments, turn off your phone or computer, and take time to just BE.

 

  • Close your eyes, take a deep breath and slowly release it, breathing more slowly and deeply than usual.
  • Focus on your heart as you breathe in, saying silently to yourself: "breathe in calm."
  • As you breathe out, say silently, "breathe out peace."
  • Feel your shoulders relax and tension slowly melting away as you focus on your breathing.

 

After a few moments, open your eyes as you open your heart to greater peace and compassion.

 

 

References

 

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. Quote from http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/d/dalai_lama.html

 

Darley, J. M. & Batson, C. D. (1973). "From Jerusalem to Jericho": A study of situation and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27, 100-108.

 

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Information and Inspiration

Our technology brings us a world of information—news, gossip, external demands, TV, radio, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and more. But we need much more than information. As astrophysicists remind us, we are made of the very elements of the stars. The light of inspiration is essential to our nature. Without inspiration, that sense of meaning that lights our lives, something within us dies.

 

Great leaders have always communicated inspiration, bringing hope to the people around them. In the dark days of the Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt affirmed that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." During the Battle of Britain, Churchill raised his people's spirits, affirming that this was Britain's "finest hour." In the 1960s, John F. Kennedy's inaugural challenged Americans to "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," and Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech touched the hearts of a nation.

 

A vital task for any leader is to communicate with heart, inspiring those around us. All of us have a sense of who we are and what we believe in, values often hidden beneath the surface. A wise leader can discern these unspoken beliefs and articulate them, holding up a beacon of hope to light our path to the future.

 

Now it's your turn--to discover the light of inspiration within and around you.

 

Take a moment to pause, close your eyes, and ask: "Where do I find inspiration? When do I feel vividly, vitally alive?"

  • Think of a time when you felt a deep sense of joy—centered, energized, most authentically yourself.
  • Now ask, "What can I do to tap into this well of inspiration today?"

As a citizen in a democracy that calls us all to be leaders—how can you communicate inspiration:

  • Listen more mindfully to the people around you?
  • Discover our essential common ground?

When you can listen for inspiration within and around you, and communicate with heart, you will bring the light of healing to our world.

 

 

 

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Healing the Hurry Sickness

Even in this Covid pandemic, many of us find ourselves rushing through our days, trying to work remotely, care for our families, and take care of all the household tasks. Juggling too many commitments, we find ourselves tired and frustrated at the end of the day.

 

Meditation teacher Eknath Easwaran called this frantic pace "the hurry sickness." And it's become a way of life for too many Americans. Constant hurry compromises our health, makes us less effective, and robs us of joy in our days.

 

All this constant rushing produces chronic stress. Our bodies tense up, preparing for fight or flight, producing tight, sore muscles and back pain. Our glands churn out adrenaline and corticosteroids, which shut down our digestive and immune systems, increase inflammation, undermine our ability to think clearly, and block our sense of compassion. And all this chronic rushing undermines our relationships, making us ignore the people around us.

 

The hurry sickness can even be fatal. At a street corner three blocks from my house I saw piles of flowers and hand-written notes, a memorial to one of my neighbors, a single father with a young daughter. One afternoon, he was standing on the sidewalk beside his bike, waiting for the light to change. Suddenly, in a few moments of careless hurry, a driver in a gray SUV came racing down the street, passed a line of cars on the right, and jumped the curb. Careening onto the sidewalk, the car killed our neighbor, leaving his little girl all alone.

 

Have you been caught up in "the hurry sickness" lately? If so, for your own good and the good of those around you, take a moment now to rediscover the place of peace deep within you.

 

  • Close your eyes
  • Take a deep breath and slowly release it.
  • Feel your feet on the ground, as you
  • Breathe in peace, and
  • Breathe out compassion
  • For yourself, your neighbors, and our world.
  • Then gently open your eyes.

 

I wish you peace on the path

 

Reference

 

For more information on curing "the hurry sickness" with meditation, see Easwaran, Eknath. Passage Meditation. Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press, 2008 or check out the website www.bmcm.org.

 

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The Empty Space

The Tao Te Ching tells us:

 

Thirty spokes meet at the wheel's axis

The center space makes the wheel useful.

Form clay into a cup;

The center space gives it purpose.

Frame doors and windows for a house;

The openings make the house useful.

Therefore, purpose comes from what is there

Because of what is not there.

 

                              Tao Te Ching, Chapter 11

 

In one of my favorite passages, the Tao Te Ching reminds us of the essential power of the empty space, what the Japanese call yohaku. In these days of Covid, stress, and confusion, connecting with the empty space can open our hearts to a deep source of peace.

 

In an old Buddhist legend, a young man came to a teacher seeking enlightenment. He introduced himself, reciting his list of accomplishments while the master poured tea. As the man talked on, the master continued to pour until the tea spilled over the sides of the cup.

 

"Stop!" said the young man. "Can't you see what you're doing?"

The old master smiled, eyes twinkling as he replied, "You cannot fill a cup that is already full."

 

The young man was full of himself, full of ego. To learn anything new, he would have to empty his cup.

 

Likewise, in this challenging time, to remain centered and aware, to learn, grow, and flourish, we must empty ourselves of preconceptions and expectations, suspend judgement, rumination, and resentments, clearing away the clutter of our minds. This is the vital lesson of yohaku, the Japanese term for the "white space," the background in an ink painting, which adds balance to the whole.

 

An expression of yin, the "empty space" so much a part of the Tao, yohaku is the space of contemplation, insight, and creativity.

 

What about you?

 

Take a mindful moment now

To close your eyes,

Take a slow, deep breath and slowly release it.

Then ask yourself,

"Do I have enough space in my days?"

 

Looking beyond all the surface clutter, anxiety, and confusion, ask yourself:

 

"Where do I find my yohaku?"

 

I wish you joy in this process of discovery

 

 

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Keeping the Flame Alive

Deep within each of us is the flame of our own uniqueness.  Renaissance philosophers saw this as a spark of the eternal flame, the divine light of inspiration. It leads us to make our own creative contribution to the world—from writing poetry, composing music, creating visual art, and making scientific discoveries to coming up with new insights, new solutions to life's challenges. We all have that source of inspiration.

 

Yet as many of us have experienced in this dark season of the Covid pandemic, divisive politics, racial injustice, and economic uncertainty, difficult external conditions can snuff out the flame. We can feel like victims of circumstance, with no control of our lives. This combination of external threats can not only destroy our creative vision but make us doubt our sanity.

 

Yet as the Buddha realized, when painful conditions arise, suffering is optional. The power of mindful awareness can reignite the flame, transforming oppressive circumstances with the light of inner liberation. With this inner light, this power of choice, we can create new possibilities for ourselves and our world. Viktor Frankl discovered the power of choice in a Nazi concentration camp, surviving to inspire millions with his book, Man's Search for Meaning. Nelson Mandela emerged from 27 years in prison with a vision of the new South Africa. And today, I'm grateful for the millions of brave men and women--doctors, scientists, concerned citizens, and essential workers--who are healing the sick, liberating the oppressed, and feeding our nation in these challenging times.  

 

Like these and centuries of other creative men and women, we are each keepers of the flame, the sacred source of our inspiration. Who knows the power and possibilities that lie within you?

 

 

Take a moment now to connect with this source. Focusing on your heart, ask yourself:

 

  • What in my life snuffs out the flame? These are situations to avoid, transform, or transcend.
  • What ignites and strengthens the flame? For many people it is contemplation, beauty, play, time spent in nature.
  • Focus on your heart, feeling the flame burn brightly as you visualize what nurtures you.
  • Feel this creative energy warm your heart, healing, nurturing, inspiring, flowing through your body and out your fingertips, preparing you to make your own creative contribution to the world.

 

I wish you joy in the process.

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