In the past two years with the COVID pandemic, political polarization and conflict, our lives have been turned upside down. Most of us have been in a state of chronic stress. As I write in The Tao of Inner Peace, the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching can help us recognize when we're triggered by stress and restore our peace of mind to deal with our challenges more effectively.
Stress puts our brains and our bodies in an emergency reaction that bypasses our higher brain centers. Cortisol and adrenaline flow through our bodies, our heartbeat and breathing rates increase, our blood pressure rises, our immune and digestive systems shut down, and our muscles tense up—to deal with the perceived threat. This survival reaction can save our lives when we're walking in the woods and run into a wild animal or when a car speeds towards us in the crosswalk—and we jump out of the way.
But when stress becomes chronic, it becomes problematic. It can impair our health, resulting in anxiety, depression, metabolic and inflammatory disorders, and cardiovascular disease. Bypassing our higher brain centers, stress can undermine our perception—our ability to see, hear, and understand the people around us. It can impair our judgment, triggering defensive reactions whenever someone disagrees with us or does something unexpected. It can weaken our memory and cognitive ability—so we can't recognize patterns of cause and effect, engage in long-range planning, or see the larger implications of our actions. And, ultimately, stress can sabotage our relationships with ourselves and one another.
In The Tao of Inner Peace, I explain how to create greater peace around us, we need to create greater peace within us. By dealing with stress in our own lives, we can begin to restore our peace of mind to think more clearly and create new possibilities for our time. In the book I offer several that involve taking slow deep breaths and focusing on peace.
The Tao Te Ching asks us:
"Can you go through your days
Holding fast to the Tao?
Releasing your tension
As you focus your breathing?
Can you clear your vision
And open yourself to life?"
Recent research shows how we can begin relieving our stress by focusing on our breathing. The national Hopeful Mindsets Project recommends pausing for 90 seconds when we feel triggered, then taking slow deep breaths to get ourselves back to a state of calm and clarity. Research at Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education has found that slow, mindful breathing is the first step to developing greater understanding and compassion for ourselves and one another.
I invite you to try this practice:
- Take a slow, deep mindful breath and release it.
- Focusing on your heart as you slowly breathe in, say silently to yourself, "Breathe in peace."
- Then slowly breathe out anything you need to release.
- Continue this practice, slowly breathing in peace and breathing out a few more times until you feel yourself becoming more peaceful, relaxed, and centered.
As the Tao Te Ching reminds us, we can make a difference in our lives by consciously cultivating greater peace within us. And now, more than ever, our world needs us to do this.
 From the Tao Te Ching, 10. An earlier version of this passage appeared in Dreher, D. (2000). The Tao of Inner Peace. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam, now available as an ebook. A new audiobook edition was published by Penguin Random House in January 2022.
 For information on the Hopeful Mindsets Project, see https://hopefulmindsets.com/experts/
 For information on Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, see http://ccare.stanford.edu/