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Diane Dreher's Tao Leadership Blog

What Are Your Strengths?

To flourish, we need to respect our essential nature. Unlike machines, which can do the same repetitive task over and over, as human beings, we can't do this. We get bored, make mistakes, get repetitive stress injuries. But unlike machines, what we can do is learn, grow, and self-actualize. This is our essential nature.

 

To become most fully ourselves, we need to value our essential nature and our own personal strengths. I write about discovering our strengths in my book, Your Personal Renaissance, and ask all my coaching clients to take the free positive psychology survey at www.viacharacter.org to discover their own character strengths and use them to reach their goals.

 

You can discover your character strengths by taking the survey as well. You can also begin getting more in touch with your strengths with this brief meditation.

 

  • First close your eyes, take a deep mindful breath, and slowly exhale.
  • As you breathe a little more slowly and deeply than usual, feel your shoulders relax and any tension gently release.
  • Then think of a time in your life when you felt a sense of joy and vitality, feeling deeply and fully yourself.
  • As you visualize that time, notice where you were and what you were doing.
  • Take a moment to breathe in that feeling, to enjoy reliving the experience. What did it look like and feel like?
  • Notice what strengths you were using.
  • Was one of your strengths courage? Compassion? Creativity? Teamwork? Feeling a deep connection with nature, another person, or an animal companion? Was it curiosity? Learning? Perseverance? Or something else?
  • Breathe in a deeper awareness of your own personal strengths as you name them to yourself..
  • And think of one way you can use these strengths more often in your life today.
  • See yourself doing this in your imagination.

 

Now gently open your eyes and begin using your strengths more often to discover greater joy and meaning in the days to come.  

 

 

 

 

 

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The Strength of Bamboo

The Tao Te Ching tells us:

 

Combine the assertive strength of yang

With the heart of compassionate yin.

In this valley of possibilities

Live your life like a river,

Strong and true.

        Tao Te Ching,28

 

Transition times can be especially challenging. As we re-enter our wider personal and professional worlds after over a  year of Covid lockdown, we can feel confused, anxious, and even overwhelmed by all the changes and choices we face. It's something I've been experiencing lately.

 

Living creatively is an ongoing journey of personal development, which influences everything around us. The ancient wisdom of the Tao Te Ching combines the polarities of yin and yang in which wise leaders balance the Socratic wisdom of knowing ourselves with a keen awareness of the energies around us.

 

By cultivating the inner life, the Tao, like many spiritual traditions, helps us acquire balance. We become  more aware of our values and the energies within and around us. If we're too outer directed, we can get so caught up in external energies that we merely react—fight, flight, or freeze. If we're too inner-directed, we may never venture forth to deal with life's challenges. But by maintaining dynamic balance, we develop the strength of bamboo. Open at the center, bamboo is flexible--it bends with the wind and does not break.

 

In our busy lives, it takes courage and compassion to attend to our own needs and discipline to set aside contemplative time. But wise individuals are stewards of their energies and respect their own personal resources. They set aside time for reflection and renewal,  spending time in nature, meditating, taking a walk at the end of the day. They often pause throughout the day to take a deep breath and ask themselves how they feel and what they need.

 

 To experience this balanced awareness for yourself, try this brief meditation:

 

  • Close your eyes and take a deep breath,  slowing releasing it.
  • As you breathe more slowly and deeply than usual, find a rhythm that feels natural to you.
  • Now imagine your breath flowing in and out of the region of your heart, putting your hand on your heart if you wish.
  • As you breathe this way, imagine yourself standing beside a river.
  • See its water flowing by, sparkling in the sun,
  • Feeling that river of energy flowing through you as you slowly breathe in and out.
  • Now ask yourself, "How do I feel?"  And listen for the answer.
  • Next ask yourself, "What do I need right now?" Listen to your heart, your inner guidance.
  • Your need may be simple—a drink of water, a break to exercise, a time to listen to your favorite music or check in with someone you love, or something else.  It may be a new insight to take action on a project or decision.
  • What is it that you need right now?
  • Then, with a deep mindful breath, gently open your eyes and move forward to meet your need and bring greater balance to your life.

 

I wish you joy on the path.

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Finding Our Balance in Nature

 

The Tao Te Ching tells us:

Tao leaders live close to nature.

Their actions flow from the heart.

In words they are true,

In decisions, just,

In action, aware of the timing.

                           (Tao, Chapter 8)

 

Over 25 centuries ago in ancient China, Lao Tzu discovered the wisdom of Tao by wandering in the woods, observing the water, the wind, and the changing seasons. We can experience nature by walking in a nearby park or finding solace in our gardens as many leaders have done, including Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill.

Although spending time in nature seems far removed from our personal and professional responsibilities, it can provide us with greater insight into the cycles of energy within and around us, enabling us to make wiser decisions.

 

Psychological research has also revealed nature's profound effect on our physical and emotional well-being. Relieving stress, dispelling depression, and aiding recovery from physical illness, nature can strengthen and heal us on many levels.

 

So for today, you have a choice. You can step outside and breathe in the fresh air, look up at the sky and feel your spirit soar. You can take a walk around your garden or a nearby park and notice the signs of life around you, feeling one with the natural world.

 

Or you can close your eyes and visualize your own favorite natural space. Return to it in your imagination as you breathe in the healing power of nature, and breathe out anything you need to release. Let it go. Feel the healing energies of nature flow into your heart and you breathe slowly and deeply, relaxing into the process, one with nature, one with life.

 

Enjoy the practice.

 

 

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Finding our balance in a turbulent world

From the violence in the Middle East, to political conflicts in our nation's capital, too often we can get caught up in the logical fallacy of the false dilemma. It's all around us-- on the news, in our personal lives, our communities and relationships. This false dilemma limits our choices, reducing the complexity of our lives to only two alternatives—either/or—either right or wrong, good or evil, my way or your way, all or nothing. And too often what starts out as a difference of opinion divides people in painful conflicts.

 

Yet in the natural world, opposites are part of the larger whole—day and night, sunlight and shadow, earth and sky. We participate in nature's cyclical patterns in which opposites blend in dynamic balance. For humans and animals breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide while plants do just the opposite. Breathing in and breathing out, we balance each other.

 

The ancient wisdom of the Tao Te Ching, written over 25 centuries ago,  reminds us to transcend conflict by looking for the larger patterns, the dynamic balance in the opposites around us, for:

 

When some are called beautiful

The rest are seen as ugly.

When we prize one quality as good,

The rest becomes inferior.

Yet each extreme complements the other

Large and small,

Light and dark,

Short and tall,       

Beginnings and endings

Bring balance to life.

 

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 2.

 

We can each do our part to create greater balance within and around us. By making more mindful choices we can avoid falling into the pit of polarized thinking, avoid the mental trap of the false dilemma, and reduce the violence and suffering in our world.

 

Whenever you face a potential conflict, pause to take a deep breath and slowly release it. Then, as you continue to breathe slowly and deeply, remember this wisdom of Tao. Ask yourself, "Where can I find the greater balance?"

 

Where is the harmony of sunlight and shadow in this part of your life?

 

I wish you joy on the path.

 

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Time to Plant New Seeds

As we emerge from a long, dark season of Covid lockdown, it's time to pause for a moment of gratitude. Take a deep breath. Look around you to notice the signs of life—new buds and leaves on trees that have been bare all winter, vibrant spring blossoms.

 

Spring is a time to plant new seeds in our gardens and our lives. I've been planting snow peas, watching them climb up stakes with their natural intelligence. In many parts of the country, it's time to plant a new season's vegetables and herbs. Some of my favorite herbs are

 

Rosemary, long believed to improve memory, a natural anti-inflammatory with several health benefits. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/266370.

For a delicious side dish, roast new potatoes with olive oil, salt, pepper, and sprigs of fresh rosemary.

 

Parsley, often used as a garnish, is rich in vitamins. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/284490#diet.

Sprinkle parsley on your foods to add more flavor and vitamins to your meals.

 

Lavender is used in aromatherapy for calmness and peace of mind. People used to put lavender under their pillows to promote a good night's sleep. For the health benefits of lavender, see https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/266370. Their bright violet blossoms could grace the garden of your life this spring. 

 

Whether you're planting herbs or a new season of vegetables, for all of us, it's time to plant new seeds of possibilities.

 

After a year of lockdown, you might feel like getting outside--to exercise, work in your garden, walk around your neighborhood, even hike in a nearby park—while maintaining public health guidelines, including social distancing. Is this a time for you to begin a new exercise practice?

 

After the long dark winter, you could use the energies of spring for a new beginning. What would that look like for you? Would you like to clear away household clutter, refinish a piece of furniture, start a home improvement project, rediscover an old hobby, sign up for a class, or adopt a new kitten or puppy?

 

Take a moment to ask yourself what you feel called to do, then follow your heart. Set a goal, write it down along with steps to your goal. Then take the first step to embrace your own personal renewal this spring.

 

For as the Tao Te Ching tells us:

 

A tree that grows beyond your reach

Springs from a tiny seed.

A building over nine stories high

Begins with a handful of earth.

A journey of a thousand miles

Begins with a single step.

 

I wish you joy in this new season.

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Regaining the Sense of Oneness

Yin and yang, sea and sky--the beautiful beach at Villa Maria Del Mar in Santa Cruz

The Tao Te Ching tells us:

 

In ages past, people followed the One.

The heavens were bright and clear,

The earth was in balance,

The spirits rejoiced,

The valleys were filled with life,

The ten thousand things flourished,

The leaders were wise,

And people lived in harmony.

All this came from oneness.

                        Tao, Chapter 39

 

This message of oneness echoes throughout the Tao Te Ching, which portrays the earth and sky, darkness and light, yin and yang, our lives and all that we know as part of the larger whole. The sense of oneness is intrinsic to the human condition, appearing in religious traditions throughout the ages (Van Cappellen, & Saroglou, 2012). Our ancestors felt a deep sense of oneness as they gazed in wonder at the stars, shining symbols of aspiration high above them.

 

Have you felt a sense of wonder when you looked at the stars, watched the ocean waves rushing in to shore, or responded to a radiant sunset, symphony, or remarkable work of art? Then you have experienced awe. Psychologists have discovered how the beauty of nature, music, poetry, and art can bring us this transcendent feeling. In what Abraham Maslow (1971) called a "peak experience," this feeling takes us beyond ourselves into an expansive sense of oneness with all creation, changing our lives in profound and meaningful ways (Keltner, & Haidt, 2003).

 

Research has shown that experiencing awe can bring us greater hope. It can improve our health, transform our perception of ourselves and our world, and increase our generosity, trust, and connection to community (Piff et al, 2015).

 

One way to experience greater awe is by appreciating beauty and excellence, one of the character strengths common to humankind (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).

 

Ask yourself where and when you feel this transcendent sense of joy and oneness.

Is it in appreciating the beauty of nature, music, or the work of your favorite artist?

 

You can experience awe more often, experiencing greater hope and connection to the world around you, by pausing to appreciate the daily beauty in your life.

 

References

 

Keltner, D. & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17, 297-314; Piff, P. K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D. M, & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108, 883-899.

 

Maslow, A. H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York, NY: Viking Books.

 

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

 

Piff, P. K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D. M, & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108, 883-899; Rudd, M., Vohs, K. D., & Aaker, J. (2012). Awe expands people's perception of time, alters decision making, and enhances well-being. Psychological Science, 23, 1130-1136.

 

Van Cappellen, P., & Saroglou, V. (2012). Awe activates religious and spiritual feelings and behavioral intentions. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 4, 223-236.

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Restoring Our Vitality

The Tao Te Ching tells us:

 

The Tao is the one.

From the one come yin and yang,

Sunlight and shadow,

From these two creative energy,

From energy ten thousand things

The forms of all creation.

                   (Tao, Chapter 42)

 

The Tao Te Ching affirms the power of creative energy, but these days, under the shadows of Covid-19, many of us are feeling emotionally exhausted. Some have called this pandemic fatigue. How can we bring more light and creative energy into our lives? Research has revealed three ways to increase our joy, energy, and vitality.

 

Get Regular Exercise: Research has shown that regular exercise builds vitality and helps relieve feelings of helplessness and depression (Rethorst & Trivedi, 2010).  Choose an exercise practice that works for you.

  • If you already have an exercise practice you enjoy—running, hiking, dancing, working out, tai chi, yoga, or something else—commit to doing this exercise at least three times a week to increase your vitality and stamina. Check out online exercise classes or exercise outdoors, following public health guidelines.
  • If you don't have a regular exercise practice, just walking around your neighborhood is a good way to begin. Just mask up and begin walking. As the Tao reminds us, "the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" (Tao, Chapter 64).

 

Share Positive Events with Others: Research has also revealed that we can increase our vitality by sharing our goals and positive experiences with others (Niemiec, 2018). You can do this virtually by phone call or Zoom link:

  • Spend time with a friend sharing your goals, challenges, and progress.
  • Join a group to work on a cause you believe in.
  • Work with a coach or counselor to overcome roadblocks and develop greater vitality.

 

Spend Time in Nature: Research has shown that just being out in nature can raise our mood, lift our spirits, and increase our vitality (Ryan, Weinstein, et al, 2010).  How can you spend more time in nature?

  • If you enjoy hiking, backpacking, or camping, plan to do this more often, checking out possibilities and observing public health guidelines.
  • If you'd rather stay close to home, mask up and take a walk around your neighborhood or in a nearby park.
  • If you'd rather stay even closer to home, you can spend time gardening, growing flowers or vegetables in your yard or apartment balcony, watching them grow, and enjoying the harvests.

Whatever way you choose, cultivating your relationship with nature world can help restore your vitality and build your hope.

 

I wish you joy on the path.

 

References

 

Rethorst, C. D.& Trivedi, M. H. (2010). Evidence-based recommendation for the prescription of exercise for major depressive disorder. Journal of Psychiatric Practice, 19, 204-212.

 

Niemiec, R. M. (2018). Character strengths interventions: A field guide for practitioners. Boston, MA: Hogrefe Publishing. Discussion on pages 129-130

 

Ryan, R. M., Weinstein, N., Bernstein, J., Brown, K. W., Mistretta, L., & Gagne, M. (2010). Vitalizing effects of being outdoors and in nature. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30, 159-16; Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrated framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15, 169-182.

 

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The Way of Creativity

Each Spring, these golden daffodils blossom with the creative power of nature. We now know that creativity is essential to life. It's not limited to artists, writers, scientists, and musicians. It's essential to our human nature (Amabile, 1983; Richards 2007). Our  creative capacity enables us to not only survive but thrive, to discover new solutions and shape our individual and collective futures.  Humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow (1971) saw creativity as an expression of our highest human potential. And in over three decades of research, positive psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly (1996) has found that when we live creatively, we live more fully, experiencing greater joy and meaning in life.

 

As children, we are all naturally creative, reaching out to explore, learn, and grow (Simonton, 2009). Creative adults retain the openness, curiosity, and mindful awareness of childhood with what psychiatrist Ruth Richards (2007) has called "everyday creativity." They follow their curiosity, try different options, and improvise to discover new possibilities. Research has connected this creative approach to life with greater health, happiness, success, and well-being (Connor, DeYoung, & Silvia, 2016).

 

You can nurture your creativity by making time for your own creative practice--not for any external reason but for yourself, for fun, for the sense of joy and discovery. Do you enjoy drawing, painting, photography, gardening, cooking, wood crafts, knitting, quilting, needlepoint, dancing, playing a musical instrument, or something else. Research has shown that a simple creative practice can relieve stress, depression, and anxiety, strengthen our immune systems and increase our well-being (Kaimal, Ray, & Muniz, 2016).

 

How can you pursue your own creative practice this week? If you already have a creative practice, make time to enjoy it. If you don't have one, then take time to:  

  • Close your eyes now and take a deep, mindful breath. 
  • Recall a creative practice you enjoyed as a child—was it drawing, painting, playing a musical instrument, weaving, making mosaics, or something else?
  • See yourself doing this, remembering how it felt and embrace that feeling now.
  • Feel yourself enjoying the process, playing with color, sound, or form.
  • When you're ready, gently open your eyes, ready to take the next step.

 

This week, I invite you to get back in touch with this feeling by making time for a creative practice you enjoy or rediscovering one you enjoyed in childhood. Take that old guitar out of the closet or buy yourself a box of colored pencils, pens, or paints. Sign up for a class in art, music, cooking, or dance at your local community center. Then explore, be present, enjoy the process and discover where it leads.

 

I wish you joy in the process.

 

References

 

Amabile, T. M. (1983). The social psychology of creativity: A componential conceptualization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45 (2), 357-376.

 

Connor, T. S., DeYoung, C. G., & Silvia, P. G. (2016). Everyday creative activity as a path to flourishing. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 13, 181-189.

 

Csikszentmihaly, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

 

Kaimal, G., Ray, K., & Muniz, J. (2016). Reduction of cortisol levels and participants' responses following art making. Art Therapy, 33 (2), 74-80;

 

Maslow, A. H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York, NY: Viking Books.

 

Richards, R. (2007). Everyday creativity: Our hidden potential. In Richards, R. (Ed.). Everyday creativity: and new views of human nature: psychological, social, and spiritual perspectives (pp. 25-53), Washington, D. C.: American Psychological Association.

 

Simonton, D. K. (2009). Creativity. In C.R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.). Oxford handbook of positive psychology. 2nd ed., (pp. 261-269).  New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

 

 

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Do You Have an Energy Drain in Your Life?

The Tao Te Ching tells us:

 

Lead with the Tao

And negativity has no power.

The energy is not repressed

But redirected

So that it does no harm.

             (Tao, Chapter 60)

 

Have you ever walked into a room and felt the energies of the people there—from a warm welcoming feeling to cold, hostile reception?

 

As the Tao Te Ching affirmed centuries ago and current research in physics and psychology has confirmed, our thoughts, our attitudes, our emotions are all forms of energy, constantly influencing the world around us.

 

As we share the energy fields of the people around us, we're also affected by their actions and attitudes. Spending time with other people means sharing the same atmosphere, breathing the same air, experiencing their energies. Some interactions are energizing. Others deplete us.

 

If someone you know is currently going through a hard time, you can support your friend with compassion. But if this person is chronically anxious or depressed, the kindest thing you can do is to refer them to a therapist who can provide them with the professional help they need.

 

But some people habitually dump their problems on others. Is there someone in your life who constantly drags you down? If you feel exhausted after being together, this person could be an energy drain. Imbalanced, uncentered, and out of touch with their own sources of renewal, such people subsist on energy transfusions from others.

 

Energy drains are immersed in black holes of negativity. Whenever something goes wrong, they run to a strong friend to rescue them, complaining, blaming others, and acting so needy that you may feel guilty saying no. Attaching themselves like barnacles, these people can become increasingly demanding and dependent.

 

Do you have an energy drain in your life? Does being with a particular person leave you exhausted?  Here are some strategies that could help:

 

  • Before you see this person again, take steps to limit the interaction. Set a time limit for your meeting and then keep to it.
  • When you meet with this person, pause and take a deep mindful breath, breathing slowly and deeply into the region of your heart. Research at the HeartMath Institute  has shown that this heart-focused breathing can help return you to a centered, balanced state.
  • If you feel yourself  being drained, say to yourself, "This is not my energy. I am at peace."
  • After seeing this person, you may want to do another short heart-focused breathing exercise. You may want to wash your hands as a ritual of release..
  • You may want to ask yourself  why you've attracted this unhealthy relationship. What is there in you that perpetuates this pattern? Does this remind you of something in your childhood?

 

Take steps to release this negative pattern to create a more positive cycle. You can begin this now with a simple loving kindness meditation.

 

  • Take a deep breath and slowly release it, saying to yourself, "May I be filled with loving kindness. May I be safe, may I be healthy, may I peaceful and serene. May I be happy." 
  • Then take another deep breath and release it as you think of this person and say, "May you be filled with loving kindness, may you be safe, may you be healthy, may you be peaceful and serene. May you be happy."
  • Finally, take another deep breath and as you release it, say to yourself, "May all beings be filled with loving kindness. May all be safe. May all be well. May all be peaceful and serene. May all be happy."

 

I wish you joy in the process.

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Cultivating Community

The Tao Te Ching tells us:

 

To follow the Tao

Is to dwell in peace

Living in a community of heart,

Regarding all that lives

As one family.

    (Tao, Chapter 49)

 

With all the division and discord in our world lately, this message from the Tao is more relevant than ever. For regardless of our western belief in individualism, we do not live by ourselves alone. "Look around you," I ask people in my workshops. "How many people have touched your life today?" The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the shoes on our feet link us in a bond of interdependence with the forces of nature and people we may never meet. We participate not only in nature's living network but in a vast community of farmers, inventors, artists, engineers, construction workers, writers, production workers, teamsters, merchants, and more. No person, no country in the world is truly independent. We're all linked in an ongoing exchange of energies. Our interdependence is a fact. Recognizing that fact and strengthening our bonds can promote greater peace for us all.

 

To strengthen your own bonds of community, take some time to consider these questions.

  • Take a deep mindful breath, slowly releasing it. As you continue breathing slowly and mindfully, ask yourself:
  • Outside of my primary relationships, where do I find a sense of community, a feeling of belonging to a larger whole: in my neighborhood? at work? in my church, synagogue, or mosque? in a community group?Somewhere else?
  • What positive feelings does my community bring me?
  • What can I do to strengthen my community—or if I've recently moved or lost touch, what can I do to create greater community in my life?
  • What is one step I can take to build community this week? Anything from greeting a neighbor to calling up an old friend. Relationships, like plants, are living, growing things that need cultivation.

Finally, consider your natural community—the native plants and wildlife that share your world. What is one way you can strengthen your bond with the plants, birds, and animals around you—planting a garden, spending time with a pet, putting up a bird feeder, putting out nuts to feed the squirrels, or something else?

 

Visualize yourself taking one step to cultivate your human community and one step to cultivate your  natural community. Breathe in what this feels like to you. Now commit to taking these steps this week. 

 

Reference

 

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

 

 

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