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Diane Dreher's Tao Leadership Blog

Restoring and Building Our Hope

Restoring our hope begins by managing our stress reaction. When we feel fearful, angry, or anxious, we're in  the survival mode of fight, flight, or freeze that Hopeful Mindsets experts (iFred, 2021) call the "Downstairs Brain." We feel threatened and defensive, cut off from our higher cognitive functions in the Upstairs Brain, and cannot think clearly. When our stress becomes chronic, which is understandable with all the challenges of the pandemic, we can get stuck in our Downstairs Brain, unable to come up with solutions to our problems.

 

We can restore our higher brain function and return to a more balanced state by recognizing when we feel stressed, then using stress skills like taking a 90-second pause, breathing slowly and deeply, exercising, connecting with nature, talking to a friend, or listening to calming music.

 

But that's not enough. Building hope, like building our muscles, requires consistent exercise and training. By cultivating more positive feelings with Happiness Habits (iFred, 2021), we can spend more time in our Upstairs Brain to build a more hopeful mindset. Some Happiness Habits include:

 

  • Having a positive morning routine
  • Eating healthy food
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Playing a musical instrument
  • Learning new things
  • Spending time in nature
  • Connecting with our faith
  • Practicing kindness
  • Expressing gratitude, and
  • Spending time with friends.

 

What Happiness Habits do you include in your life? Do you have a positive routine to begin your day? A regular exercise program? A creative hobby you enjoy? Do you meditate? Spend time in nature—taking walks, hiking or gardening? Do you have energizing fun in your days? Spend time with friends? Practice gratitude and acts of kindness?

 

What is one Happiness Habit you'd like to do more of?

 

Take a moment now to close your eyes and visualize yourself doing this.

  • What does it look like?
  • How does it feel?
  • Breathe in that feeling of energizing joy right now.

Then open your eyes and make a plan to add this new Happiness Habit to your life.

 

I wish you joy on the path.

 

References

 

Happiness Habits (2021) from  Hopeful Mindsets International Foundation for Research and Education on Depression (iFred) https://hopefulmindsets.com/about-hopeful-mindsets/ and Hopeful Cities https://hopefulcities.org/know-the-five-keys/

 

Hopeful Mindsets (2021) from International Foundation for Research and Education on Depression (iFred) https://hopefulmindsets.com/about-hopeful-mindsets/

 

 

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Finding the Path of Hope

The Tao Te Ching tells us:

 

Analyzing others is knowledge.

Knowing yourself is wisdom.

         (Tao, Chapter 33)

 

Today, this lesson is crucial. With all the chaos and uncertainty in our world, too many of us are stressed, confused, depressed, and exhausted. Research reveals alarming rates of depression and anxiety worldwide with 84% of American adults experiencing prolonged stress and 40% experiencing anxiety or depression (American Psychiatric Association, 2021; Nochaiwong, et al., 2021)Panchal, et al, 2021). What we need now is hope.

 

Recently, I participated in the new Hopeful Mindsets Program, which offers 5 powerful keys to hope: Stress Skills, Happiness Habits, Inspired Action, Building a Hope Network, and Overcoming Hope Challenges.

 

The first key-- Stress skills-- is essential because when we're stressed our bodies react with the survival mode—fight, flight, or freeze, that the Hopeful Mindsets Program calls the "downstairs brain." Focused on survival and cut off from our higher brain functions, we cannot think clearly to come up with solutions. We react defensively, feeling threatened, too often seeing people with different views as "the enemy," and falling into the painful polarization that divides this country.

 

But we can restore our higher brain function with stress skills that include: recognizing when we feel stressed and taking a 90-second pause, breathing slowly and deeply, exercising, connecting with nature, talking to a friend, or listening to calming music.

 

Restoring hope personally and politically begins with each one of us. We can practice one of the stress skills right now. If you'd like to join me in this,

  • Take a moment to put your hand on your heart,
  • Close your eyes if you wish, and
  • Breathe in slowly and deeply, focusing on your heart as you slowly breathe out.
  • Do this again, breathing in, then slowly breathing out, finding your own natural rhythm.
  • Feel your body relax, your mind clearing as you continue focusing on your breathing.
  • And when you're ready, gently open your eyes.

The Heartmath Institute calls this practice "Heart-focused breathing," which relieves stress and returns us to a more balanced, coherent state (Childre et al, 2016) where we can begin feeling more hopeful.

 

This first key to hope is as close to you as your next breath. You can breathe this way whenever you feel stressed and between activities during the day to begin cultivating a more hopeful mindset.

 

I wish you joy on the path.

 

References

American Psychiatric Association. (2021, February 2). U.S. adults report highest stress level since early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2021/02/adults-stress-pandemic

 

Childre, D., Martin, H., Rozman, D., & McCraty, R. (2016). Heart intelligence: Connecting with the intuitive guidance of the heart. Waterfront Press.

 

Nochaiwong, S., Ruengorn, C., Thavorn, K. et al. (2021). Global prevalence of mental health issues among the general population during the coronavirus disease-2019 pandemic: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Scientific Reports, 11, 10173. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-89700-8

 

Panchal, N., Kamal, R., Cox, C. & Garfield, R. (2021, Feb 10). The implications of COVID-19 for mental health and substance use.KFF. https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/

 

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Expanding Our Vision: The Wisdom of Yin and Yang

The Tao Te Ching affirms the dynamic balance of yin and yang, telling us:

 

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, chapter 2)

 

Yet it's all too easy to forget this Tao wisdom these days when we're caught up in so much stress. Do we see balance, do we recognize the larger harmony of yin and yang? Probably not—when we see all the division and discord around us in areas from public health to politics.

 

We can forget the larger unity because when we're stressed, we see a challenging situation as a false dilemma with only two alternatives—either/or: right or wrong, all or nothing, win or lose.  Actually, we live in a multidimensional universe—we are all individuals with different points of view. Yet how often do you hear people say, even on the news, "let's look at both sides of the issue?" Are there only two sides? Really?

 

In my Tao workshops, I ask people to center down with slow deep breathing, then ask them to find the larger pattern for each pair of opposites.

 

Let's do this now. Take a long, deep breath and slowly release it, finding your own natural rhythm. You can place your hand on your heart if you wish. Relax, focusing on your breathing--breathing in and slowly breathing out.

 

Now for each of these pairs, think of a larger whole, a larger concept that includes them both.

  • Dark and light
  • Open and closed
  • Speaking and listening

 

What did you discover? Dark and light could be a black and white photograph, a zebra, the cycle of the day from dawn to dusk. Open and closed could be a door, a business, a mind, a heart. Speaking and listening could be a conversation, communication, or understanding. There are many possibilities.

 

The next time you find yourself caught up in an all or nothing false dilemma, take a deep breath, center down and remember the wisdom of yin and yang—not either/or but both and. Look for the larger pattern of meaning and you will find it—if not right away then later in a moment of intuitive insight.

 

I wish you joy in the process.

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The Wisdom of Authenticity

"Hold to the Tao within

And joy will surely follow"

                           (Tao, Chapter 35)

 

We can achieve the joy of Tao by returning to our original nature, which the Tao calls "the uncarved block," natural wood without carving or embellishment. To live this way is to be without pretense. When we know who we are and live authentically as ourselves, we're not affected by flattery or criticism. We don't fear exposure or ridicule. We simply are.  Holding to the Tao within, we transcend ego, riding the currents in the sream of life without being caught up into them.

 

Too often, people look for happiness outside themselves, which leads to endless rushing, compulsively competing, and distress. They're restless and dissatisfied, always searching for more.

 

As our lives fill up with endless activity and we rush through our days, we can lose our balance. Life becomes a dizzy blur. By slowing down, we can return to our essential nature.

 

The Tao invites us to slow down, to ask how we feel and if what we're doing makes sense.

 

Take a few moments now to practice this Tao wisdom.

 

  • Take a deep breath and slowly release it.
  • If it's possible where you are, gently close your eyes.
  • As you breathe slowly and deeply, ask yourself, "How do I feel?"
  • As you become more aware of your body and your emotions, notice. Are you tired. anxious, bored, restless, hungry, or something else?
  • Name your feeling to yourself.
  • Then ask, "What do I need?" and listen for the answer. This can be anything from a break, a meal, a walk outside, a nap, a connection with a friend.
  • What do you need right now?
  • Extend care and compassion to yourself as you would to a dear friend. Take another deep mindful breath and see yourself taking one simple action to give yourself what you need.

Now open your eyes and take that step to live more authentically, in greater harmony with yourself.

 

I wish you joy on the path.

 

 

 

 

 

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Dealing with Chaos: Tao Wisdom for Challenging Times

A photo from my aikido days by wonderful Mardeene Mitchell

As we emerge from over a year of Covid lockdown, many of us are facing multiple changes and challenges in our homes, workplaces, and personal lives.

 

When we're used to stability and control in our lives, these challenges can feel like a randori, a multiple attack in the martial arts. The word randori in Japanese literally means "taking chaos," combining tori (to take) with ran (chaos). The ultimate leadership test for us in our world of rapid transition is how well we can "take chaos," deal with a rush of unexpected forces. These forces can be demands and deadlines, changes, conflicts, and crises coming at us all at once.

 

How can we successfully take chaos?

 

I learned how years ago when training in aikido, the most Taoist of the martial arts. After successfully demonstrating a range of techniques, a candidate for an aikido black belt must face the final contest, the randori or multiple attack. This candidate faces a group of opponents, all experienced black belts. "Hajime!"—begin! The head sensei calls out, and the black belts rush at the lone contender from all directions.

 

How do you handle a randori? By not getting fixated on any one attacker or overwhelmed by the size of the group. Instead, you'd center down, watch for the energy patterns, keep moving forward, and flow with a natural rhythm while moving from center to deal with the challengers one at a time.

 

When we face a randori in our lives, we, too,  need to stay centered so we won't be overwhelmed. We need to take chaos one challenge at a time. Getting too caught up in any one of them would leave us unprepared for the rest. By practicing focus, flow, and follow through, we can remain centered and flexible, affirming the strength of bamboo, the wisdom of Tao. For as the Tao Te Ching reminds us:

 

Persevering on the path is strength.

To keep your center is to endure.

                                   Tao, chapter 33.

 

Are you facing multiple challenges in your life? If so, try this short meditative exercise.

 

Close your eyes and take a deep mindful breath.

As you breathe into your hara, your center of power just below your navel,

Feel your body relax, your mind clear.

See yourself standing in a centered position, your knees slightly bent,

Ready to respond.

Now visualize each of your challenges coming at you,

One from the left, one from the right.

As you begin to move forward,

Let your energy flow through your hands as you reach out,

deflecting and defusing the challenges.

See them tumbling away from you,

As you respond with your intuition, your inner strength,

Finding a natural rhythm,

Flowing with the wisdom of Tao.

 

In these challenging times, remember the lesson of randori. For when life brings us a randori and we pass the test, it will give us a new sense of mastery, the equivalent of a black belt. We can then move forward in life with greater wisdom and strength.

 

 

An earlier form of this post appeared in Dreher, D. (1996). The Tao of Personal Leadership. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

 

 

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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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