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Diane Dreher's Tao Leadership Blog

Breaking Through the Clouds

One dark, cloudy day, I was flying with my father, an Air Force pilot and flight instructor, in his single engine Cessna.  I wondered to myself why he would fly in this weather. Then he climbed the plane through the cloud layer to a space where the air was clear and bright. He smiled over at me. The clouds were far below us. We had found a source of light.


This vision has stayed with me—the feeling of amazement flying through the dark gray clouds, emerging into a world of light.


My father also taught me that weather moves in dynamic patterns—with fog layers and cloud cover close to the ground, clarity and light above. The weather patterns are constantly changing with hot and cold fronts moving in and out, carried by winds aloft. You can observe this movement for yourself by watching the clouds drift overhead.


Like the weather around us, the weather within us is constantly changing. Sometimes we feel hemmed in by clouds--disappointment, frustration, fear, and anxiety. Yet above and beyond these clouds, there is still a source of light.


The next time you feel the clouds closing in on you:

  • Take a deep breath and slowly release it.
  • Close your eyes,
  • Continue to breathe slowly and deeply, focusing on the area of your heart.
  • Then ask yourself, "What is this?"
  • Label your feeling, then release it with a slow outbreath.
  • Feel the clouds recede
  • As you realize that the weather around us, the weather within us is constantly changing

Remember that you can always look beyond the clouds to discover the source of light.


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You CAN Make a Difference

When we create with words, images, and ideas, we participate in powerful patterns of transformation. When we release our creations to the world, we never know how far they will travel, how many souls they will reach.


In 1848, a young man spent a night in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax, protesting against slavery and the Mexican-American War. The next morning, a friend paid his tax and he was released. A small action, unremarkable, perhaps. Yet this action inspired Henry David Thoreau to write Civil Disobedience, which later inspired Mahatma Gandhi's campaign of nonviolence, liberating India from colonial rule; Martin Luther King's campaign of nonviolence that began liberating African Americans from oppression and segregation; and countless other acts of nonviolence, large and small, that continue to liberate the human spirit.


We are all connected in the intricate pattern of life. Never doubt that your call to create is part of a process of transformation in which our individual actions can ripple out to change the world.


A few years ago, I was inspired by people in the Occupy Movement, raising their voices against corporate greed, injustice, and economic inequality. Maxina Ventura of Occupy Berkeley created a way many of us could connect in support and solidarity. She founded a "knit-in for the sit-in," inviting people to knit at the Berkeley farmers' market and send hand-knit hats, mittens, and scarves to help Occupy members keep warm during their social justice work.  For months, I knitted over thirty hats which were sent to Occupy Wall Street, Tahrir Square, Newfoundland, Fukushima, Japan, and to workers in Seattle and other cities throughout the country who've been campaigning for a living wage. Knitting these hats became a spiritual exercise, affirming my personal connection with this courageous campaign for change.


Because we are all connected, everything we do makes a difference, continuously creating the world we know.


Take a moment now to center down, take a deep breath, and ask yourself:


How can I make a difference in my own creative life?


The answer will come—either now or in the days ahead. Following your heart will show you how.


Together, we CAN make a difference, creating new possibilities for our world.



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Give Yourself a Mindfulness Break

Wherever You Go, There You Are, the title of Jon Kabat-Zinn's (2009) book on mindfulness, offers a powerful reminder: wherever you go, your energies and awareness inform everything you do. Today, when so many of us are dealing with the stress of COVID-19, we can benefit from taking short mindfulness breaks.


In these uncertain times, millions of us have been feeling distressed, fearful, and anxious. Yet research has shown that chronic stress not only weakens our immune system (Cresswell & Lindsey, 2014), but undermines our ability to respond to the people and situations around us. It prevents us from seeing the larger patterns, engaging in long-range planning, and coming up with new solutions to the problems in our lives. It triggers defensive reactions when other people disagree with us, sabotaging our relationships at home and at work (Dreher, 2015; Lupien, McEwen, Gunnar,  & Heim, 2009). Does any of this sound familiar?


Studying how our attitudes and energies affect those around us, researchers in Singapore measured the mindfulness of 96 supervisors along with their employees' health, well-being, and job performance. They found that the employees with leaders who practiced mindfulness were not only significantly healthier and more balanced, but also demonstrated better job performance—a win-win on all counts (Reb, Narayan, & Chaturvedi, 2012). Like the ripples from a pebble tossed into a pond, the mindfulness of these leaders rippled out to touch everything and everyone around them.


Beginning a daily mindfulness practice can make a positive difference in your life. Whenever you feel stressed, you can take this brief mindfulness break:


  • Pause for a moment. Take a deep breath and, if possible, close your eyes.
  • Ask "What am I feeling right now?" Name the feeling—stress, anger, fear, disappointment. Whatever it is, naming it makes it manageable.
  • Then return your attention to your breathing, noticing the awareness that lies beneath the feeling, beyond the feeling.
  • Now expand your attention to your body as a whole. How are you feeling—your shoulders, your neck, your muscles, your breath? Just notice this and let it go.
  • Take another long, deep breath and release it, feeling your body gradually release the tension you've been holding, as you experience a new sense of presence and wholeness.


With greater mindfulness, you can transform the atmosphere around you, bringing greater clarity, compassion, and cooperation to our world. The answer is as close as your next breath.




Cresswell, J. D., & Lindsay, E.K. (2014). How does mindfulness training affect health? A mindfulness stress buffering account. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23, 401-407.


Dreher, D. E. (2015). Leading with compassion: A moral compass for our time. In T. G. Plante (Ed.). The psychology of compassion and cruelty: Understanding the emotional, spiritual, and religious influences (pp. 73-87). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.


Kabat-Zinn, J. (2009). Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hachette Books.


Lupien, S. McEwen, B. S., Gunnar, M. R., & Heim, C. (2009). Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behaviour, and cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10, 434-445.


Reb, J., Narayanan, J., & Chaturvedi, S. (2012). Leading mindfully: Two studies on the influence of supervisor trait mindfulness on employee well-being and performance. Mindfulness, September 4, 1-10.



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Cultivating Inner Strength

The Tao Te Ching tells us:


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


                       (Tao, chapter 33)


Descriptions of leadership usually refer to the leader as manager, strategist, commander-in-chief, emphasizing instrumental skills of communication, planning and problem solving.


But beyond these skills, beyond externals, there is the one essential strength we need to cultivate: knowing ourselves. "Know thyself," Socrates taught in ancient Greece. The Tao Te Ching reminds us that effective leadership requires us to recognize our own strengths and weaknesses, and strive to become more balanced, more centered more whole.


Only then can we meet our challenges without being reactive, without falling into excesses of ego—fear, anger, and defensiveness. Only then can we see more clearly, act more wisely, responding to the energies around us from a center of balance within us.


How do we develop the knowledge that will provide our center of balance? The answers come from sources as old as the Tao Te Ching, as new as research in neuroscience: from a commitment to contemplative practice.


Contemplative practice is now more vital than ever. Chronic stress from the COVID-19 pandemic to racial injustice and economic insecurity can put us on constant alert, blocking our vision and our compassion for ourselves and others. Unable to focus or be fully present, we can become frantic and defensive, making hasty decisions that only increase the suffering within and around us.


Neuroscience research has shown how contemplative practice cultivates mindfulness, enhancing our cognitive function, strengthening those areas of the brain that regulate emotion, bringing us greater clarity and compassion for ourselves and those around us (Condon et al, 2013; Hölzel et al, 2011; see also Goleman,  & Davidson, 2017).


Do you have a contemplative practice? Whether you do or not, you can join me for a few moments to center down:


  • Sit down in a comfortable place where you won't be disturbed.
  • Take a deep breath,
  • Then slowly release it.
  • Continue to breathe slowly and deeply.
  • Close your eyes and feel your body relax
  • As you focus on your breathing,
  • Saying silently to yourself, "Breathing in, I smile,"
  • "Breathing out I am at peace."
  • Feel your body relax more with each breath.
  • When your mind wanders, note the thought--"worry," "anxious," "planning."
  • Then go back to focus on your breathing.
  • After a few minutes, gently open your eyes.



Take this practice with you for a few moments each day and notice the difference it makes in your life. 


I wish you joy on the path.




Condon, P., Desbordes, G., Miller, W. B., & DeSteno, D. (2013). Meditation increases compassionate responses to suffering. Psychological Science, 24, 2125-2127.


Goleman, D. & Davidson, R. J. (2017). Altered Traits: Science reveals how meditation changes your mind, brain, and body. New York, NY: Avery.


Hölzel, B. K., Lazar, S. W., Gard, T., Schuman-Olivier, Z., Vago., D. R., & Ott, U. (2011). How does mindfulness work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 537-559.


Some information in this post appeared earlier in Dreher, D. (1996). The Tao of Personal Leadership. New York, NY: HarperCollins and  Dreher, D. E. (2015). Leading with compassion: A Moral compass for our time. In T. G. Plante (Ed.). The psychology of compassion and cruelty: Understanding the emotional, spiritual, and religious influences (pp. 73-87). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.


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What Does Peace Look Like?

The Peace rose

What does peace look like?


How can we find peace in the midst of a global pandemic while dealing with centuries of racial injustice? Our problems seem overwhelming. At times, there is so much darkness that it's hard to see the light.


Focusing on our problems, we can become obsessed by the drama on the daily news, which makes us even more stressed, anxious, and despondent. In a democracy, journalists perform a vital public service, pointing out problems we need to address. Yet, if we remain fixated on our problems, it's hard to find solutions. To create a more just and peaceful world, we need not only to acknowledge the darkness but to look towards the light, creating a vision of hope and aspiration.  What does peace look like? Sometimes we need a symbol to remind us.


In the late 1930s, a French botanist developed a new hybrid tea rose with petals of golden ivory tinged with pink. As World War II began, samples of this rose were sent to growers in Europe and America. Robert Pyle, a Quaker in Philadelphia, grew the American sample. Under his care, the rose bloomed and flourished. He named it "Peace" and introduced it at the Pacific Rose Society Exhibition in Pasadena, California on April 29th, 1945.  That same day, the war in Europe ended and Peace became one of the best-loved roses of all time.


Peace. Like my friend Judy Nadler, I've been growing peace roses in my garden as symbols of hope. These beautiful roses appeared at the end of a war that had brought Nazi death camps, devastation, pain, and suffering to millions. Their radiant blossoms are a daily reminder for me to pause and look for peace within and around me.  


If you've been saddened, anxious, and distressed by all the pain and suffering from Covid-19, racist oppression, and economic deprivation, you're not alone. These problems are real. And yet, by summoning up a vision of hope, we can look toward the light, asking ourselves: What would peace look like in this situation? What do I want to see in its place? What kind of world can we create with greater compassion and understanding? What small step can I take to create more peace in our world today?


Your vision of peace can become a guiding star to light your way. Taking one step at a time, you can follow the light, sharing your vision with others, cultivating greater peace in our time, creating new hope and possibilities for our world.


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How Hope Can Blossom in Troubled Times

The Tao Te Ching tells us:


The Earth is everlasting

Because it does not live for self alone

But exists as one with life.

The people of Tao transcend self

Through loving compassion

And find themselves

In a higher sense.

                            Tao, Chapter 7



The Tao reminds us to look for the lessons in the natural world around us. This week, wild roses are blooming in my back yard. Unlike hybrid tea roses, these roses bloom only once a year. And this year, their bright blossoms are all the more precious.


Like the wild rose, life brings us surprises, some welcome, some not. For the past few weeks, people all over the world have been suffering from fear and uncertainty, experiencing the challenge of the COVID-19 Coronavirus. The virus has brought much suffering and loss, as well as mental health challenges since lockdowns and closures have narrowed our lives. Schools, workplaces, restaurants, theatres, and local shops have closed, familiar routines have been disrupted by lockdowns and social distancing, and each day's news brings frightening statistics as we worry about how to stay safe.


Cut off from our normal routines, family and friends, there is so much we cannot do. Yet although we cannot go out as we used to, what we can do is go within. In this period of enforced monasticism, we can take the time to read, reflect, and get to know ourselves on a deeper level. Here are four simple but powerful practices to support your inner journey.


Nonviolent Communication. We can find greater peace of mind by applying psychologist Marshall Rosenberg's nonviolent communication (2005) to ourselves.  My friend Juan Velasco and I have been showing people how to do this in our retreats and workshops, now offered online. To begin this practice, Pause and take a slow mindful breath, then slowly exhale as you ask yourself these three questions:

  1. "How do I feel?""Am I calm, relaxed, anxious, confused, worried, tired, hurt, disappointed, sad, lonely, excited, happy"—or something else? Whatever you feel, just recognize and label the feeling without judging yourself.
  2. "What do I need?"  Our needs can range from food, rest, and security to emotional needs for love, acceptance, understanding, joy, play, creativity, inspiration, and meaning. What do you need right now?
  3. "What are my options?"  As you become more mindful, instead of merely reacting, you will notice more options, more possibilities. Consider your options and choose the one that feels right for you now.


Self-Compassion. The next time you're feeling stressed or anxious, instead of spiraling into incessant worry and self-criticism, you can find greater peace of mind with this simple practice:

  • Put your hand on your heart.
  • Recognize how you're feeling and label the feeling.
  • Then treat yourself with compassion as you would a dear friend.
  • Reassure yourself with words like "Poor dear, I know you're scared and worried (or whatever you're feeling). I love you. I'm here for you. You're not alone." (Neff, 2003; 2004; Shapiro, 2020)


Gratitude. Spend a little time at the end of each day to count your blessings, to focus on what you're grateful for. Research has shown that this practice can improve your physical and emotional health (Emmons, 2008; Hill et al, 2013; Petrocchi & Couyoumdjian, 2016).

  • At the end of each day, think of three things you're thankful for. You may choose to record these reflections in a gratitude journal.
  • Pause for a moment in the midst of the day to focus on something you're grateful for. For example, you might smile at someone you love, enjoy the playful antics of a puppy, or appreciate nature's artistry in  the songs of birds, the beauty of a Spring sunset, or the fragrance of roses in your garden (Emmons, 2008; Carroll, 2017).

Sharing Compassion. Even with social distancing, there are still ways to reach out to friends, family, and the larger community in your heart and your actions. You might:

  • Connect by phone with a friend, neighbor, or family member. Ask how they're feeling and what they need. Even if you cannot give them what they need, knowing that you care will make a positive difference to them.
  • Express compassion and gratitude for frontline health care workers and essential employees. You might send them gratitude by making a sign, sending a card, or joining your neighbors in collecting masks for essential workers.
  • Instead of thinking of all you cannot do, focus on what you can. Each time you wash your hands, you could practice the Loving Kindness Meditation, saying: "May I be filled with loving kindness. May I be safe, May I be well, May I be peaceful and at ease. May I be happy" and then "May you—thinking of someone you know—be filled with loving kindness. May you be safe. May you be well. May you be peaceful and at ease. May you be happy."


In this time of challenge and change, may new hope blossom in your heart like the wild rose.





Carroll, K. (2017). A moment's pause for gratitude. Carlsbad, CA: Balboa Press.


Emmons, R. A. (2008). Thanks: How practicing gratitude can make you happier. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin;


Hill, P. L., Allemand, M., & Roberts, B. W. (2013). Examining the pathways between gratitude and self-rated physical health across adulthood. Personality and individual differences, 54(1), 92-96.


Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85-10.


Neff, K. D. (2004). Self-compassion and psychological well-being. Constructivism in the Human Sciences, 9(2), 27-37. For more about Dr. Neff's research and self-compassion exercises, see


Petrocchi, N., & Couyoumdjian, A. (2016). The impact of gratitude on depression and anxiety: the mediating role of criticizing, attacking, and reassuring the self. Self and Identity, 15(2), 191-205.


Rosenberg, M. B. (2005). Nonviolent communication: A language of life. Encinitas, CA: Puddle Dancer Press.


Shapiro. S. (2020). Good morning, I love you. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.



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Finding Peace in the Cycles of Nature

With all the confusion, anxiety, and fear in response to the Coronavirus, we can find consolation and peace of mind in the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching, which tells us:


Empty your mind of clutter,

Maintain an inner peace.


Ten thousand things move around you.

In detachment, perceive the cycles.

Watch each return to the source.

Returning to the source is harmony

With the way of nature.


Knowing the cycles brings wisdom.

Not knowing brings confusion.

                                                 (Tao, Chapter 16)


This month, as spring returns, bringing new buds and blossoms, and new life, take a moment to step outside to look at your garden. Or simply look out your window at the green world outside or the shifting patterns of clouds in the sky. Then breathe in that vision of nature into your heart with appreciation and gratitude, feeling a sense of oneness.


And in the days ahead, whenever you're feeling out of sorts, remember this simple practice to find harmony with the cycles of nature.




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One Step at a Time

The Tao Te Ching tells us that "the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.And that's how we will get through this Covid-19 Coronavirus crisis.


Not so long ago, we had busy schedules with plans, work projects, deadlines, appointments, meetings with friends, and familiar routines. Then everything changed.


A fearful invisible threat entered our lives. Now we are told to stay home, shelter in place, work remotely, and go out only for essential activities. Schools, restaurants, theaters, gyms, and local shops are closed. Sporting events are cancelled and all our plans are gone. What was predictable and familiar is no more.


We've entered an empty space of waiting and uncertainty, frightening statistics on the news, and rumors on social media. Many of us feel lost and alone.


We venture out to the grocery store to find that shelves are bare, looted by people desperately hoarding toilet paper, paper towels, and essential food supplies. Overcome with fear, some of our neighbors have become compulsive hoarders.  


Those of us who've become successful by setting goals, planning, and persevering need to learn new skills of patience, flexibility, and self-compassion.


Setting our intention, we can learn to live more mindfully, taking each day one step at a time, living in the present moment.  Aware of what is happening around us, we can listen to our hearts, our inner guidance to reveal the next step, taking one step at a time.


To be present with the process, take a moment now to:


  • Take a long, deep breath and slowly release it.
  • Close your eyes as you focus on your heart, slowly breathing in and out,
  • Recognizing how you feel,
  • Asking, "How am I feeling?" and naming that feeling. Is it fear, worry, frustration, restlessness, loneliness, or something else?
  • Then ask yourself, "What do I need?"
  • Put your hand on your heart, focusing on your breathing as you see yourself taking one small step to meet your need.
  • Then gently open your eyes.


As you practice this process, taking one step at a time, the path before you will open up. And together we will get through this challenging time. For as the Tao Te Ching says,


"The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."







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The Power of Water

"Nothing on earth

Is more gentle and yielding than water

Yet nothing is stronger."


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 78 


Water nurtures all life on earth. Falling from the sky to the ground as precipitation—rain or snow—it flows as surface water through rivers into lakes and oceans, or percolates deep into the earth through layers of sediment, becoming aquifers, vast underground lakes. With the sun's heat, surface water evaporates, rising as vapor to form clouds, and the cycle begins again. There is always the same amount of water on earth. We drink the same water that the dinosaurs drank. The golden wheat fields of the American Midwest are irrigated by water from the Ogallala Aquifer, a massive underground lake that dates back to the Pleistocene era


Throughout its cycle, water takes many forms--from snowflakes, tiny lace mandallas from the sky, to shimmering icicles, to a summer's day heavy with humidity, to the rapids of a roaring river.


Water can be beautiful or destructive. Water is essential to life, yet climate change has brought fear and destruction, violent rain storms and floods to some parts of our world and drought to others. 


The water cycle includes us all, and there's a powerful parallel between water and the energies of our lives. Some energies are creative, life-sustaining; others, destructive streams of fear or greed. Each day, we contribute to the collective energy of the planet, the cycle of life within and around us.


Living creatively means becoming more mindful of our energies. Take a moment to ask yourself:


  • Am I adding to the currents of fear flooding our planet?
  • Or does my heart open in currents of compassion, loving kindness, to nurture and create?



Whatever challenges you are facing in your life,


Take a moment now to


Breathe out fear.


Breathe in love.


Connect with the eternal cycle of life




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Finding Hope in Dark Times

The flowering quince blossoms by my front gate bring their bright beauty to the darkness of winter.


Why do these small blossoms affect me so deeply, more than the abundant wildflowers, honeysuckle, and roses on long summer days?  Now when most of the trees and shrubs are bare, these tiny rose-colored blossoms are a rare exception, a harbinger of hope.


Reacting to the political turmoil around us, rushing from one task to another, moving mindlessly through our days, we can become habituated to the good and beautiful in our lives (Siegel, 2007). We focus instead on what's wrong with our world, in our politics, our jobs, our health and relationships, caught up in what Shakespeare called "the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to" (Hamlet, 3.1.64-65).


But a moment of unexpected beauty can wake us up. Winter blossoms, a shaft of sunlight through the clouds, or a rainbow arching overhead can fill us with a sense of awe (Keltner & Haidt, 2003) and gratitude (Emmons, 2016). These positive emotions can heal us, activate our immune systems, broaden and build our personal resources, and enable us to see new possibilities so we can take positive action to begin solving our problems, looking to the light (Fredrickson, 2001). As Emerson, Thoreau, and centuries of poets have realized, a moment of beauty can transform our whole world view.


So if you're experiencing a winter of discontent during these dark days, try connecting with the beauty of nature. Step outside, slow down for a mindful moment:

  • Look at the sky. Notice the shapes in the clouds.
  • Look closely at tree or perhaps a winter blossom.
  • If it's deep winter where you live, look at the patterns in the snow or sparkling icicles.
  • Or spend some time with a living creature—a dog or cat.

Take a long, deep breath. Breathe in the beauty around you and breathe out stress. And remember you are always free to connect with the healing power of beauty to help you find new hope beyond the darkness.



Emmons, R. A. (2016). The little book of gratitude: Create a life of happiness and wellbeing by giving thanks. New York, NY: Hachette.


Fredrickson, B. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.


Shakespeare, W. Hamlet, quote from Greenblatt, S. (Ed.). (1997). The Norton Shakespeare. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company. 


Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17, 297-314.


Siegel, D. J. (2007). The mindful brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

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