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Diane Dreher's Tao of Inner Peace Blog

Dealing with Problems

When dealing with problems,

the Tao Te Ching tells us that

 

"Wise people seek solutions; The ignorant only cast blame."      

 

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 79)

 

As I write in The Tao of Inner Peace, by studying nature, we discover the principles of Tao. And by cooperating with these principles, we can learn to solve problems more effectively. Taoist problem solving helps us see our place in the larger pattern and not let fear and ego demands narrow our perspective.

 

All around us, we see people reacting from fear: blaming others, playing the victim, having tantrums, making demands, or seeking revenge—doing everything but solving the problem. Neuroscience research tells us why—When we experience problems as a threat, we get swept up into the primal fear reaction of fight or flight. This makes us defensive, falling into shaming and blaming instead of focusing on solving our problems.

 

The first step in Taoist problem solving is to recognize when we're stressed, PAUSE, and take slow deep breaths to break the stress reaction. Then we can look to the larger patterns, perceiving the Taoist vision of Oneness, the common ground we share.

 

When I was in graduate school at UCLA, I lived in Santa Monica, a few blocks from the beach. As a first generation college student in the PhD program, when I felt stressed by my studies, I'd walk down to a hill overlooking the beach, breathe in the salt sea air, and realize that I was part of a source beyond my ego, a source of infinite inspiration. Then I'd walk back to my apartment, with an expansive sense of possibility and new answers, new solutions would come to me.

 

If you'd like to begin this practice now, please join me in this brief meditation:

 

Take a deep, mindful breath and slowly release it.

Close your eyes and focus on your breathing—

Breathing in peace, breathing out tension.

Breathing in.

Breathing out.

In your mind's eye, visualize yourself standing by the ocean,

Looking out to the sea and sky,

Breathing in the salt sea air,

Feeling one with the ocean,

One with the sky,

One with the infinite creative energies of nature.

 

As you breathe in that awareness, one with the source.

Hold out your hand and offer your current question or problem to that source,

Releasing it to the shining waves of the ocean as you slowly breathe out.

Now smile as you take a long deep breath and release it.

When you are ready, gently open your eyes.

 

The answer to your question, the solution to your problem will come.

Either now or later

As the tide turns and the ocean waves flow on to shore.

 

I wish you joy in the process.

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Discovering New Possibilities with Yin and Yang

Our Western minds too often see conflict as a choice between two opposites—either/or: all or nothing, win or lose. This happens especially when we're stressed. But the Tao Te Ching draws upon the wisdom of nature, describing life as a dynamic balance of both yin AND yang, day and night, mountain and valley, BOTH/AND, not either/or.

 

The Tao tells us:

 

"All life embodies yin

And embraces yang.

Through their union

Achieving harmony."

              (Tao, Chapter 42)

 

The holistic wisdom of Tao offers a range of possibilities instead of reducing all our choices to the false dilemma of either one extreme or the other—your way or my way, win or lose, all or nothing. .

 

By expanding our perspective, the Tao liberates us from either/or thinking. We see the larger patterns in nature. Recognizing how mountains and valleys are part of the landscape, we can respond to conflicts more creatively. Seeing how yin and yang are part of the larger whole, we can combine apparent opposites into a new vision of possibility.

 

Have you been stuck in a false dilemma, feeling like you have to choose between one extreme and the other in your personal or professional life? While stress limits our thinking, the Tao expands it. To experience this, you can join me now in a brief meditation.

 

  • Close your eyes, and take a long, slow breath, slowly releasing it. Breathing in and breathing out.
  • Feel your body and mind gradually relax as you continue to take each mindful breath. Breathing in and breathing out.
  • Now ask yourself what you need from this situation.
  • Not what you expect, demand, or fear but go deeper.
  • What do you really need?
  • As you continue to breathe slowly and deeply, think of a larger whole, a both/and pattern that includes your need as well as the other person or situation.
  • Continue to breathe slowly and deeply as you embrace your need and trust that it will be met.
  • You will receive a new insight on how to do this either now or later as you go about your daily activities.
  • Now gently open your eyes, and feel a deeper sense of peace within and around you.

 

I wish you joy on the path.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Way to Greater Light

Night Sky Stars Forest Trees "ForestWander Nature Photography http://www.forestwander.com/

For so many of us, the past two years have been dark times. Many of us have lost loved ones, jobs, relationships, familiar routines, our sense of security and peace of mind. Yet as the Tao Te Ching tells us:

 

"The way to greater light leads through the darkness.

Going ahead feels like falling back.

The even path seems rugged and hilly,

The highest power, a yielding valley."[1]

 

The Tao tells us not to hide from this reality in denial with distractions but to look within, to listen to our hearts, to recognize what we're feeling—"the way to greater light leads through the darkness." Relating the wisdom of Tao to times like these means spending time in nature, taking time to listen to ourselves, and being kind to ourselves.

 

Connecting with nature helps restore our hope as we realize we're part of something larger than ourselves. Researchers have discovered how nature can fill us with a sense of awe, a flow of inspiration that restores our hope, broadens our perspective, and builds our capacity to deal with challenges.[2]

 

How can you connect with nature today?

 

You can pause throughout the day to listen to yourself, to ask:

--What am I feeling?

--What do I need?

--What can I do?

Then wait for the answer to the last question. By listening to your heart, you can begin creating greater harmony within and around you.

 

Finally, you can be kind to yourself in this challenging time, giving yourself daily gifts that bring bright moments of joy to your days. Research has shown that responding to hard times with "mixed feelings"—times of joy amid the suffering—can bring us a deeper sense of meaning and build our resilience.[3]

 

What are some gifts you can give yourself in this time?  You can share your concerns with a wise counselor or therapist. You can also begin spending more time in nature, meditating, connecting with friends, playing with your cat or dog, listening to your favorite music, engaging in a hobby you enjoy, or something else that lifts your spirits. Like the stars shining in a dark winter sky, these bright moments can help you find your way.

 

 
[1] This quote is from the Tao Te Ching, chapter 41. 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 and a new audiobook edition, published by Penguin Random House in 2022.

 
[2] 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.

 
[3] Berrios, R., Totterdell, P., and Kellett, S. (2018). When feeling mixed can be meaningful: The relation between mixed emotions and eudaimonic well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 19(3), 841-861.

 

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The Healing Power of Nature

During the Covid pandemic, many of us have been spending more time outdoors—taking walks with friends, spending time in parks or in our own yards, and gardening. Renewing our relationship with nature can bring us important lessons.

 

The Tao Te Ching affirms nature's dynamic balance of the energies of yin and yang.

"The Tao is the one.

From the one come yin and yang,

Sunlight and shadow,

The forms of all creation."

(Tao, 42)

 

We can develop greater peace within and around us by recognizing that we are all part of nature's pattern of growth which renews itself in cycles. Moving from day to night, spring to winter, active yang is inevitably followed by quiet yin, which gives birth to new yang.

 

So it is for us. My book, The Tao of Inner Peace, shows us how to find our balance. Too much yin  and we experience stagnation. Our lives become dull and monotonous. Too much yang, rushing from one task to the next, and we become confused, drained, and exhausted. We need to recognize our inner rhythms to cultivate our own dynamic balance.

 

As we recognize our inner rhythms, Tao principles also lead to greater self-acceptance As each plant has its own cycles, so do we. Judging ourselves in comparison to others is unnatural. Daffodils bloom in early spring while chrysanthemums blossom in autumn. A wildflower blooms for only one season, an oak tree may live for hundreds of years, and California's giant sequoias have endured for thousands. Like the trees and flowers, we each have our own personal cycles.

 

To experience the wisdom of your own cycles, take a moment now to close your eyes.

Take a deep mindful breath, slowly release it as you feel your body relax.

 

Now think of one area of your life—your personal life, professional life, or creative life—as you breathe slowly and deeply.

 

Focusing on that area, ask yourself, "What cycle am I in now?"

Is it a quiet contemplative time of yin?

Or a springtime of emerging yang?

 

See and feel yourself embracing the wisdom of this current energy cycle.

What is it telling you?

Breathe slowly and listen.

 

The answer will come, either now or later

As you follow the natural wisdom of Tao in your life.

 

I wish you joy on the path.

 

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Tao Leaders for Today

Lately, we've seen too many people who lead with ego. These are shadow leaders, who try to impose their will upon others which can have  disastrous results. 

 

As I write in The Tao of Inner Peace, the Tao Te Ching offers a holistic and creative vision of leadership. Instead of exercising top-down power, Tao leaders work with the cycles of nature, respecting the energies within and around them.

 

They include, inspire, and empower people. As the Tao Te Ching tells us:

 

"With the best of leaders,

When the work is done,

The project completed,

The people all say,

"We did it ourselves."  

                           (Tao Te Ching, 17)[1]

 

Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers carried this quote in his wallet. In his person-centered therapy and peace negotiation, he saw his own role in the Taoist tradition of leader as facilitator.

 

Tao leaders bring out the best in people. They cultivate a culture of inclusiveness, trust, and empowerment where people can flourish and think more creatively. This is especially important as we face the complex problems of today's world. With Tao leadership, everyone's perspectives become part of the process, leading to more effective solutions than any one person—no matter how well meaning—could come up with alone.

 

If we look beyond the shadow leaders who often fill up the news, Tao leaders are all around us. Think of someone in your life—a teacher, family member, coach, minister, or mentor who brought out the best in you. This person is a Tao leader.

 

Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching as a handbook for leaders, inviting us all to be leaders. So when you take on leadership roles at home and at work—as a committed employee, professional, manager, parent, community leader, or engaged citizen—ask yourself:

  • How can I help create an atmosphere of greater trust and commitment?
  • How can I help others do their best?
  • How can I work with the natural energy cycles within and around me to create greater harmony?

Our world needs your leadership now more than ever.

 

I wish you joy on the path.



[1] From the Tao Te Ching, 17. 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 and a new audiobook edition, published by Penguin Random House in January 2022. 

 

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To Relieve Stress, Breathe in Peace

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?"

                               (Tao, 10)[1]

 

Recent research shows how we can begin relieving our stress by focusing on our breathing. The national Hopeful Mindsets Project[2] 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.[3]

 

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.

 

References

[1] 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. 

 
[2] For information on the Hopeful Mindsets Project, see https://hopefulmindsets.com/experts/

 
[3] For information on Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, see http://ccare.stanford.edu/

 

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Creating Connections and Community

With the COVID pandemic, many of us have been feeling lonely and isolated. The rates of loneliness and depression have increased exponentially during the past two years. [1] We've been cut off from our usual work and leisure activities, deprived of in-person interactions with friends, neighbors, coworkers, and loved ones.  No wonder so many people have adopted dogs during the pandemic.

 

Research has shown that social isolation and loneliness are hazardous to our health, associated with a weakened immune system, increased inflammation, high blood pressure, poor sleep quality, eating disorders, metabolic syndrome, and depression.[2]

 

The Tao Te Ching encourages us to find ways to reach out, to recognize our part in the larger whole, saying:

 

"The Tao person creates harmony

Reaching out

From the heart

To build community."[3]

 

My book, The Tao of Inner Peace offers steps to help people transcend their isolation to build greater community. Some of these are to:

 

  1. Pause for a moment to ask where you've found connection and community in the past—in your family, your neighborhood, at work, in a church, synagogue, mosque, or community group, or somewhere else?
  2. Think of something  you can do now to strengthen your community. Can you re-connect virtually with a text, email, or call? Join your group online? Something else?
  3. Consider your natural community, the plants and wildlife around you. How much do you know about them? Find out more about the local birds, animals, and plants, recognizing your part in the network of life.
  4. Take one action step to connect with your community this week. [4]

 

These connections are incredibly good for our health.  Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has found this healing effect in what she calls "micromoments of connectivity," brief moments of connection with others. You can make these connections not only with close friends and family but a neighbor, the grocery store clerk or anyone you encounter in daily life. A simple smile, eye contact, presence, perhaps a kind word—that's all it takes. You can feel  the effect of these connections with a new surge of energy and positivity. And these connections benefit both people, dramatically improving our health, raising our mood, relieving stress, and reducing inflammation to promote greater physical and emotional well-being.[5]  

 

I've been making more of these connections lately on my daily walks and routine errands, connecting with words of appreciation for my neighbors working in the local hardware store and grocery store. While walking my dog Ginny around the neighborhood, I focus on reconnecting with nature—noticing the subtle changes in the trees, the first spring daffodils, and the birds flying overhead. I practice micromoments of connectivity—by saying "hi" to neighbors working in their yards or waving at them as they drive by. And more often now, they wave back, reinforcing our connection.

 

Now it's your turn.

  • Close your eyes,  take a deep mindful breath and release it, then another.
  • As you connect with the rhythm of your breathing, ask yourself "What is one way I can connect with my local community today?" It can be as simple as taking a walk outside, introducing yourself to a neighbor, or calling up an old friend.
  • What will you do?  Choose one simple action.
  • Visualize yourself doing this. What does it look like and feel like?
  • Now gently open your eyes and begin taking that one simple step to nurture your community.

 
[1] Ettman, C.K., Cohen, G.H., Abdalla, G.H., Sampson, L., Trinquart, L., Castrucci, B.C. et al. (2022). Persistent depressive symptoms during COVID-19: a national, population-representative, longitudinal study of U.S. adults. The Lancet, 5, 10091,Https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanam/article/PIIS2667-193X(21)00087-9/fulltext

 

 
[2] Cacioppo, J. T., Hawkley, L.C., Crawford, E., Ernst, J.M., Burleson,M.H., Kowaleswski, R.B., Malarkey, W. B., Van Cauter, E., & Berntson, G.G. (2002). Loneliness and health: Potential mechanisms. Psychosomatic Medicine 64, 407-417.

 

 
[3] From the Tao Te Ching, 49. An earlier version of this article 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. 

 
[4] Dreher, 2000/2022.

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

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Tao Wisdom for Our Time

The Tao Te Ching can offer new insights about what we've been experiencing during these past two years of Covid restrictions. Ordinarily, American culture is extremely yang—active, busy, with nonstop commitments, noise,  and external stimulation. For many of us, rushing from one thing to the next had become a mindless habit. Then with Covid, we've been shocked out of our habitual yang activity. One friend of mine says we've been under "house arrest,"

 

We've had more yin time to ourselves, to reflect, to ask if what we've been doing makes sense. With the Great Resignation, many people have quit their jobs, gone back to school, seeking new professions, new directions in their lives.

 

The Tao reminds us that contemplative yin time brings awareness and yang is action. Without yin, yang is mindless action. Without yang, inaction leads to stagnation. We need balance.

 

As we emerge from these many months of enforced yin time, we can create more mindful action, asking if what we've been doing makes sense, fits our spirit, in our jobs, social activities, and relationships.

 

The Tao Te Ching tells us:

 

"The Tao person

Seeks inner wisdom,

Lets go of excess,

Affirms truth."

                   (Tao, chapter 12)

 

To live your truth, you can ask yourself these questions:

  • What have I been missing? What activities and relationships do I really value?
  • What do I not miss at all? –activities and relationships that were only habits.

 

You can cultivate the balance of yin and yang in your life by:

  • Seeking out periods of silence each day, time to reflect on our lives
  • Spending some time in the natural world.

 

And when contemplating any new commitment, you can ask yourself:

  • Is it necessary?
  • Is it healthy?
  • Will it bring greater joy and peace to my life and my world?

If it doesn't fit these criteria, then why do it? Living the Tao means living mindfully and creatively.

 

The Tao teaches the wisdom of the seasons. You can emerge from this long Covid winter ready to make more mindful choices, to plant seeds for personal renewal in a springtime of new beginnings.

 

I wish you joy on the path.

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Connecting with Nature's Healing Power

If you've been feeling down, frustrated, anxious, or low energy lately, you're not alone. Research at the National Institutes of Mental Health has reported a dramatic increase in depression and anxiety during the COVID pandemic. [1] Millions of us have lost our sense of stability, hope, and personal security.

 

Long ago, in another time of stress and upheaval, 25 centuries ago during the warring states period in ancient China, Lao Tzu found renewed hope and peace of mind by connecting with nature and wrote the Tao Te Ching.

 

Today, research has found that connecting with nature can heal us on many levels. Research in a Philadelphia hospital found that abdominal surgery patients with a view of trees outside their windows suffered from fewer complications, needed less pain medication, and were discharged sooner than patients with the same surgery and hospital conditions whose rooms looked out at only bare brick walls. [2]

 

Recent research has shown that connecting with nature can bring us feelings of awe, renewing our hope by expanding our vision beyond ourselves.[3] We can feel awe when we see a radiant sunset, the grandeur of snow capped mountains, or giant redwood trees towering above us. We can also be inspired by small green signs of life as spring bulbs emerge from the cold winter earth.

 

This week I was feeling drained by all the challenges in my life.  But as I walked out my back door, I noticed that the snow pea seeds I'd planted last week had sprouted. Now  tiny seedlings were raising their green heads above the soil. Their small green leaves connected me to the renewing power of nature and brought new hope to my day.

 

What is one thing you can do to experience nature's healing power--

  • Take a walk around your neighborhood or in a nearby park?
  • Look up to watch the clouds overhead or gaze at the stars in the night sky?
  • Plant seeds of spring flowers and vegetables and watch them grow?
  • If the ground is still frozen where you live, grow herbs on a sunny kitchen windowsill
  • Put a bird feeder near your window and watch the birds fly in to enjoy a meal.
  • Find some other way to connect with nature?

 

Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and visualize yourself doing this.

 

For as the Tao Te Ching tells us:

 

"When we value ourselves

As part of nature

And value nature

As ourselves,

We're at home

In the oneness

Of Tao."

(Tao, 13)[4]

 

Now open your eyes and reach out to connect with the healing power of nature.

 

I wish you joy on the path.

 

References



[1] Hossain, M. M., Tasnim, S., Sultana, A., Faizah, F., Mazumder, H., Zou, L., McKyer, E., Ahmed, H. U., & Ma, P. (2020). Epidemiology of mental health problems in COVID-19: a review. F1000Research, 9, 636. https://doi.org/10.12688/f1000research.24457.1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7549174/

 
[2] Ulrich, R. S. et al. (1984). View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science, 224, 420-421.

 
[3] Keltner, D. & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17, 297.

 
[4] An earlier version of this article 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.  To preview the audiobook, click here.

 

 

 

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Returning to Center

The Tao Te Ching tells us:

 

"The solid earth is our foundation.

The calm center prevails in a whirlwind.

Those who follow the Tao may travel all day

And still feel at home.

However events may whirl around them,

They remain centered and calm."

(Tao Te Ching, chapter 26)

 

Centering focuses our energies so we can respond with greater calm, clarity, and power. Years ago, while training in the nonviolent martial art of aikido, I learned how to throw an opponent twice my size by moving from center.

 

In these stressful times, being able to return to center can help you connect with new power and possibility. To do this:

 

  • Go off by yourself for a few minutes, taking time to refocus your energies.
  • Stand with your knees slightly bent and your arms relaxed, held out in front of you at waist level.
  • Focus your attention on your hara, your center of power two inches below your navel.
  • Take a deep breath and release it, letting go of all tension.
  • Breathe in slowly and deeply, focusing on the hara, taking in new energy.
  • Now release this breath, feeling more centered, relaxed, and at peace.

 

After some practice, you'll be able to return to center by merely focusing on the hara while taking a deep mindful breath. Swiftly, effortlessly, you can center yourself in any situation.

 

I wish you joy on the path.

Diane

 

If you'd like to sample the new Tao of Inner Peace audiobook, click on this link

 

 

 

 

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