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Diane Dreher's Tao Leadership Blog

Your Heart is Your Inner Compass

The ancient wisdom of the Tao Te Ching tells us:


"Tao leaders live close to nature.

Their actions flow from the heart."


                               Tao Te Ching, Chapter 8


During the Renaissance, Ignacio Lopez, a young Spanish knight, discovered the wisdom of the heart. He had been defending the fortress of Pamplona from a French invasion. Struck in the leg by a cannonball, he was taken home to his family castle of Loyola, where he suffered repeated settings of his shattered leg.


Lying in bed for the long, painful months of recovery, he asked for books of chivalry but there were none in the house, only a life of Christ and a book of saints' lives. He read them, drifting off in his imagination, recalling his life at court—the duels, adventures, and deeds to impress the fair ladies. But these thoughts brought him only fleeting pleasure, then a sense of emptiness.


Practicing what he later called discernment, he listened to his heart for guidance. He continued reading about the saints, and when he imagined living like St. Francis or St. Dominic, he felt an enduring sense of joy.


Ignacio recovered, becoming a changed man. He gave up all the glory of his life at court to go on a spiritual pilgrimage. Leaving his sword and armor by the altar of the chapel at Montserrat, he gave his rich clothing to a poor beggar, put on sandals and a sackcloth tunic, and journeyed to Manresa, where he spent long hours in meditation. He traveled to Jerusalem and Paris, where he studied theology and shared his discernment practice with other men and women in what became the Ignatian Spiritual exercises.


Ignacio became St. Ignatius Loyola. Using discernment to guide his life, he founded the Jesuit order. The Spiritual Exercises are still used by men and women today to help them make important life decisions.


Setting Your Compass.


In discernment, your heart is your inner compass. The two settings on the compass are love and fear, joy and pain, what St. Ignatius called "consolation" and "desolation."


Consolation is a deep sense of communion with life, bringing feelings of love, joy, peace, inspiration, insight, authenticity, gratitude, altruism, trust, oneness with others, openness, creativity, spirituality, and expansive growth.


Desolation cuts us off from others, closing us in on ourselves, bringing dark feelings of fear, isolation, anxiety, defensiveness, despair, hopelessness, worry, hate, hostility, self-pity, turmoil, failure, guilt, self-hate, selfishness, compulsiveness, depression, and lack of meaning.


Discernment means looking not only at your feelings but also the direction in which they lead.
As Ignatius would say, "Do your feelings lead you toward or away from God," from grace, from fulfillment in life? Pleasant feelings can be shallow and fleeting, like the nostalgia he felt for his old life. Restlessness and dissatisfaction can be signals that you're going in the wrong direction, telling you to get back on the path.


Practicing Discernment


Do you have an important decision to make? Are you standing at a crossroads in your career or relationship?  Looking for a new direction in life?


Think of an area in your life where you could benefit from greater discernment and take some time to reflect.


Close your eyes, slow down, take a deep mindful breath, and release it. Take another deep breath, feeling your body relax. Then imagine yourself approaching your crossroads, reflecting on your choices.


Listen to your heart, noting how you feel.


  • Where do you find consolation?
  • Where do you find desolation?
  • What are your feelings telling you?
  • What direction do they point to?


If you get a clear sense of direction, open your eyes and prepare to take the next step. If the path is still unclear, keep listening to your heart for new insights in the days ahead.





An earlier version of this meditation appears in Dreher, D. (2008). Your Personal Renaissance: 12 steps to finding your life's true calling. New York, NY: Da Capo.


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Ripples of Hope to Heal Our World

With today's complex problems, it's easy to feel hopeless, wondering, "What can I do when the problem is so overwhelming?"


Yet the Tao Te Ching tells us that we can make a difference. Because everything is connected, our actions can ripple out to transform the world around us.  The Tao leader prevails "By small actions/Accomplishing great things" (Chapter 63).


Years ago, Bobby Kennedy identified this ripple effect, saying that:


"Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

    Robert F. Kennedy, June 6, 1966 (quoted in Lopez, 2013, p. 216)


How can we do this? According to psychologist and hope researcher Shane J. Lopez "To spread hope, you have to get off the sidelines" (2013, p. 217). We have to begin taking action. We can begin creating our own ripples of hope with these three steps:

  1.  Convert wishing into active hope. If you've been thinking, "I wish this situation were different,"  "I wish someone would do something about this," turn that wish into a hope: Ask yourself, "How would I like it to be instead?"
  2. Connect with other people, one or more like-minded friends to create a positive synergy. Brainstorm together to come up with possible steps and solutions. Combine your resources and build your energies to create a positive momentum.
  3. Change the situation by taking one small step to address the problem. Your positive action will increase your hope, improve the situation, and inspire others, leading to more steps, more ripples of hope to heal and transform our world (Lopez, 2013)

As the Tao tells us:


Cultivated in your soul,

The Tao brings peace to your life.

Cultivated in your home,

It brings peace with those you love.

Spreading to friends and neighbors,

It brings peace to your community.

Spreading through your communities,

It brings peace to your nation.

Spreading through the nations,

The Tao brings peace throughout the world.

                                 Tao Te Ching, Chapter 54






Lopez, S. J. (2013). Making hope happen: Create the future you want for yourself and others. New York, NY: Atria Books.

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Finding Hope in the Middle Season

"The Tao leader

Lives fully in every moment"


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 14


Most of us love beginnings and endings, starting new projects and celebrating their completion. But this month, after planting tomatoes, my vegetable garden is in the long middle season. The fruits of summer will come later, and the most abundant harvests only after summer has passed. Now progress is so slow nothing seems to be happening.


Sustaining hope in the middle season can be challenging when we're highly motivated, intent on reaching our goals. But patience with process is essential for maintaining our peace of mind. For we spend most of our lives  in the time known in classical epics as in medias res—in the middle of things—between the excitement of new beginnings and the fulfillment of conclusions. Our projects, careers, and relationships all have long middle seasons. In time, enthusiasm for new projects can diminish, the glamorous new career can become daily routine, and courtship settles down into daily life with the one we love.


If we focus too much on future goals, we can miss the present—the vital gift of this day. At my university, I hear students talk about getting all their required classes "out of the way." But graduating seniors often say they wished they'd spent more time enjoying college because these years went by so quickly.


When you find your mind racing ahead of you, you can cultivate greater patience and hope in the middle season by slowing down, taking a deep breath, and bringing yourself back to the present moment.


  • Are you in the middle season with a project, career, educational process, or relationship?
  • Have you been rushing, impatient, trying to push things?
  • If so, take time to reframe the process: focusing not so much on getting this moment over with as experiencing what it has to offer.
  • Take a deep breath and remind yourself:


 "The Tao leader

Lives fully in every moment."


Then look for the gift in the present moment. Enjoy the process.




An earlier version of this lesson was published in Dreher, D. E. (2002). Inner gardening: A seasonal path to inner peace. New York, NY: HarperCollins Quill.

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Ripples of Peace for Our World Today

The Tao Te Ching tells us:


Follow the Tao,

Cultivate its ways,

And find yourself at peace.


And yet, sometimes peace is hard to cultivate, hard to find. This week I've been shocked and saddened by all the disheartening violence in the news. There is so much suffering in our world today. It can make us wonder what we can do, how we can cultivate the peace we long for.


The prayer of St. Francis asks us to be "instruments" of divine peace. We can begin by tuning our instruments to a higher key with a metta or loving kindness meditation.


To try this, put your hand on your heart and take a long, deep breath, slowly releasing it. Continue to breathe slowly and deeply as you say silently to yourself:


May I be filled with loving kindness.

May I be well.

May I be peaceful and serene.

May I be happy.


Now send metta to someone you love, visualizing that person as you say silently:


May you be filled with loving kindness.

May you be well.

May you be peaceful and serene.

May you be happy


You may choose to send metta to a difficult person in your world. If you do, visualize this person as you say silently:


May you be filled with loving kindness.

May you be well.

May you be peaceful and serene.

May you be happy


Then reach out to send metta to all sentient beings, saying silently:


May all beings be filled with loving kindness.

May all be well.

May all be peaceful and serene.

May all be happy


Feel the peace flow from your heart in a powerful ripple effect to begin healing the world, for as the Tao tells us:


Cultivated in your soul,

The Tao brings peace to your life.

Cultivated in your home,

It brings peace with those you love.

Spreading to friends and neighbors,

It brings peace to your community.

Spreading through your communities,

It brings peace to your nation.

Spreading through the nations,

The Tao brings peace throughout the world.

How do I know this?

Because it begins with you and me.

                                   Tao Te Ching, Chapter 54

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Where Are You Not at Peace?

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

Many of us are at war with ourselves and one another.  Our days are filled with stress We spend our days in competition, confrontation, and frustration, driven by the fear that we're "not good enough." With our politics divided, environment imbalanced, and future uncertain, we wrestle with each new set of challenges and each new crisis on the daily news.


Yet the timeless wisdom of the Tao Te Ching offers a simple, transformational path to peace. Instead of waiting for the latest self-help celebrity or political leader to save us, the Tao asks us to take mindful responsibility for our lives. Through a shift in attitude, we can begin experiencing greater peace right now. Then, as our vision expands to reveal the larger patterns, we can bring greater peace to the world around us, one step at a time.


Where are you not at peace? Do any of these statements sound familiar?

  •  I'm not at peace in my body. It's too fat or too thin, too short, too tall, too young, too old. It breaks down, knots up in tension, gets tired, stressed, run down, and sick. I feel anxious, conflicted, and powerless.
  • I'm not at peace in my career. It's filled with demands, deadlines, mindless routine, obnoxious people, and one problem after another. I feel stressed, nervous, trapped, angry and fearful or bored and unfulfilled.
  • I'm not at peace in my relationships. I can't be myself with the ones I love. I feel obligated, trapped, bored, dominated, manipulated, anxious, and off-balance.
  • I'm not at peace in my finances. I'm worried about money, overwhelmed by bills and obligations. There's never enough to go around. I feel anxious, fearful, and insecure.
  • I'm not at peace with myself. My life is filled with compulsive working, eating, shopping, drinking, or drugs to fill up the emptiness inside. I feel frustrated, guilty, and confused
  • I'm not at peace with my world. I'm filled with anxiety and mistrust, seeing people from a different race, religion, or political party as enemies. I'm afraid of the future, seeing our country, economy, and environment deteriorating. I hide behind busyness, numbness, or cynicism, feeling powerless to make a difference.


Now choose one difficult area of your life to begin transforming into greater peace.


  • First, remember a time when you felt a deep sense of peace and oneness—in communion with nature, meditation, involvement in a creative process, or a special time with someone you love. Take a deep breath as you recall that experience.
  • Say to yourself, "Breathe in Peace" as you breathe in that deep sense of peace and oneness, flowing like a relaxing wave through your body. Breathe out any fear, confusion, insecurity--whatever has been troubling you. When you feel more relaxed, affirm to yourself, "I Now Live in Peace."
  • Think of that difficult area again. Only now see it transformed into greater peace and harmony. How would it look like and feel like? Ask yourself, "What is one small step I can take to move toward this vision of peace?" Could you get more information, consider your options, call a friend, do something you've wanted to do but keep putting off, sign up for a class, begin a mindfulness or exercise practice, write or call your congressional representative, volunteer for a cause you believe in? How can you follow your heart to step out of the shadows and into the light? See yourself taking that step, affirming to yourself, "I Now Live in Peace."
  • Then take that step, creating a new positive momentum with the wisdom of Tao which tells us that:


A tree that reaches past your embrace

Springs from one small seed.

A building over nine stories high

Begins with a handful of earth.

A journey of a thousand miles

Begins with a single step.      


                            Tao Te Ching, Chapter 64

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Facing New Challenges

The Tao Te Ching tells us:


"What you desire

And what you fear

Are within yourself.   

. . . .

When you know nature as part of yourself,

You will act in harmony."


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 13


The wisdom of Tao teaches that becoming more mindful of our emotions can help us face new challenges with greater insight and empowerment.


When you face a new challenge, what do you feel? Fear, anxiety—or excitement? However you label it, it's a rush of energy that can help you focus your attention. 


Before getting her Ph.D. in psychology, My friend Tracey was a ski instructor in Taos, New Mexico. The lessons she taught people learning to ski reflect Taoist wisdom for facing any new challenge—a mindful blend of intention and attention.


Get clear on what you want to do. Before attempting a new ski run, Tracey would size up the situation, asking, "Where do I want to go?" When facing a new challenge in your life, ask yourself, "What do I want?" What is your intention?


Consider the conditions. Pay careful attention. Ski slopes can vary from day to day. It could have snowed last night or the trails might be icy. Melting snow may have exposed hazardous rocks or tree branches. On the ski slopes and in life, knowing the conditions you face can help you take right action. What are current conditions like for you?


Tune in to your body. Don't let tension and fear paralyze you. Since you cannot be tense and relaxed at the same time, do a relaxation technique when you face a new challenge. Take a deep breath and release it, feeling the energy in your body. Then focus on your intention, telling yourself, "I CAN do this."


Don't concentrate on what you want to avoid. Where do you focus your attention? People often focus on hazards. Tracey knows from skiing that if she concentrates on the sharp rocks jutting out at the end of a trail, she'll run right into them. In your own current challenge, don't fixate on obstacles and visualize failure. Take hazards into account and consider how you'll handle them, but keep your eyes on your goal.


Choose your course of action and follow through. If the conditions aren't right or the timing is off, say "no" and find a way to withdraw. If you say "yes" to the challenge, then follow through to the best of your ability. Either way, commit to your choice with intention and attention, remaining centered so you can make adjustments if conditions change.





Some information in this post appeared earlier in Dreher, D. (1998). The Tao of Womanhood. New York, NY: William Morrow.


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Natural or Normal?

Winter Sunset--14 January 2005 of an amazing sunset. Photograph by Andrew Crouthamel. Wikimedia Commons.

The Tao Te Ching tells us:


When you know nature as part of yourself,

You will act in harmony.

When you find yourself part of nature,

You will live in harmony."  


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 13


Growing up in the Far East, I learned to love contemplative time, finding a private place beneath a flowering hibiscus bush or climbing a flame tree to watch the changing panorama of the sky.


Sometimes we're all so busy now we rarely notice the sky at all. Yet with its glorious clouds and colors, it is nature's dynamic fresco right above our heads.


In today's industrialized society, contemplative time in nature can be perceived as deviant behavior. One summer, after graduation, my husband and I took two students, Mike and Kelly, out to dinner to celebrate their accomplishments and Mike's departure for medical school. After dinner, we walked across the parking lot to a nearby field to watch the sunset. The clouds changed colors, streaks of pink turning to gray as the sky gradually became a deeper blue and the first few stars appeared.


Then our reverie was broken by a uniformed security guard.  "You can't be here," he said. "You're loitering and that's against the law."


Loitering? Apparently standing in a field watching the sunset is suspicious behavior in a culture where compulsive action and consumerism have become the norm. Our behavior seemed natural enough to me, but to avoid being arrested, we headed back to the car.


Natural and normal are two different things. What is normal in our fast-paced consumer culture may not be natural, may not be healthy or harmonious according to the wisdom of Tao.


You might pause to ask what is natural for you.


  • When do you "find yourself part of nature?"
  • How can you find greater harmony in your life today?




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


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The Path is Simple But Not Easy

The Tao Te Ching tells us:


If we had the highest wisdom,
We would walk the path of Tao.
The path of Tao is simple,
Yet people take many detours."


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 53


"The path of Tao is simple"--but not easy.


Many of us live by multitasking, trying to do two or three things at once, our days filled with detours and distractions. 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 especially true in relationships. At work, have you ever caught yourself checking your email when talking on the phone? Or seen a couple at a restaurant, each staring down at their cell phones? Or tried to talk to someone whose attention was divided, distracted by an 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 are focused, we cannot miss the mark.


Each day our minds are assailed by the messages around us. Family members, neighbors, advertisers, entertainers, politicians, newscasters, employers, and corporate officers are constantly sending us messages, telling us how to think and what to do. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a longtime student of Eastern philosophy, realized how such outside influences can become authoritative forces threatening to reduce us to childlike 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 navigate your way through the maze of messages around you? How do you remember who you are and why you are here?


Take a moment now to return to center.
Close your eyes.
Take a deep, mindful breath and slowly release it.
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 open your eyes.


Add this simple practice to your leadership toolkit to help you become more centered, more balanced, more whole, and to share your center of presence and peace with the people in your world.

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The Empty Space

The Tao 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 an old Buddhist legend, an accomplished young man came to a teacher seeking enlightenment. He introduced himself, reciting his list of achievements as 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, to keep learning and growing, we must empty ourselves of preconceptions, suspend judgement, clear away the clutter of our minds. This is the vital lesson of yohaku.

Yohaku is the Japanese term for the "white space" or background in an ink painting. This space is essential, adding balance to the whole. An expression of yin, the "empty space" so much a part of the Tao, it is the space of insight, inspiration, and creativity..

What about you:

Do you have enough space in your days?

Where do you find your yohaku?


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The Tao of Balance and Self-Respect

The Tao Te Ching tells us:


Analyzing others is knowledge.
Knowing yourself is wisdom.
Managing others requires skill.
Mastering yourself takes inner strength.


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 33


The Tao lesson of respect is holistic. We must first respect ourselves before we can respect others. And respect is an ongoing process as each day, each interaction, can bring us this lesson on a deeper level.


There are many books, many aps, many websites about leadership. But as the Tao teaches, leadership is a process, a lifelong commitment to self-mastery—and "mastering ourselves takes inner strength."


In the Western world, we are surrounded by machines, clever, ingenious devices that can locate information, navigate for us, even turn our lights and appliances off and on. These machines can perform many functions.


But they remain our instruments and we must be careful not to let them change the way we see ourselves. Computers can multitask, but neuroscience research tells us that human brains cannot. When we try to juggle too many commitments at once, something valuable gets lost in the process. And conscientious people too often fall victim to compulsive work habits, treating themselves like machines, pushing themselves to finish a job while denying themselves vital nourishment, rest, and recreation. This unhealthy paradigm is out of harmony with nature. It is not the way of Tao.


The Tao upholds the wisdom of nature, the vital principle of balance. In my garden, with too much sun and too little water, plants can die of drought. But the opposite is also true: too much shade and too much water are equally unhealthy. And each plant has its own needs, its own sense of balance. Tomatoes need at least six hours of hot sun a day, while more delicate plants will wilt from that much sun.


In the garden of life, you, too, have your own needs for nourishment, rest, and recreation, sunlight and shadow, yin and yang, action and contemplation.


Living the Tao means respecting your own need for balance while respecting the needs of the people around you. Yin and yang, sunlight and shadow, self and other—all part of the dynamic harmony of life.


What can you do to affirm greater balance in your life today?


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