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Diane Dreher's Tao of Inner Peace Blog

Where Are You Not at Peace?

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

Many of us are at war with ourselves and one another.  Our days are filled with stress We spend our days in competition, confrontation, and frustration, driven by the fear that we're "not good enough." With our politics divided, environment imbalanced, and future uncertain, we wrestle with each new set of challenges and each new crisis on the daily news.


Yet the timeless wisdom of the Tao Te Ching offers a simple, transformational path to peace. Instead of waiting for the latest self-help celebrity or political leader to save us, the Tao asks us to take mindful responsibility for our lives. Through a shift in attitude, we can begin experiencing greater peace right now. Then, as our vision expands to reveal the larger patterns, we can bring greater peace to the world around us, one step at a time.


Where are you not at peace? Do any of these statements sound familiar?

  •  I'm not at peace in my body. It's too fat or too thin, too short, too tall, too young, too old. It breaks down, knots up in tension, gets tired, stressed, run down, and sick. I feel anxious, conflicted, and powerless.
  • I'm not at peace in my career. It's filled with demands, deadlines, mindless routine, obnoxious people, and one problem after another. I feel stressed, nervous, trapped, angry and fearful or bored and unfulfilled.
  • I'm not at peace in my relationships. I can't be myself with the ones I love. I feel obligated, trapped, bored, dominated, manipulated, anxious, and off-balance.
  • I'm not at peace in my finances. I'm worried about money, overwhelmed by bills and obligations. There's never enough to go around. I feel anxious, fearful, and insecure.
  • I'm not at peace with myself. My life is filled with compulsive working, eating, shopping, drinking, or drugs to fill up the emptiness inside. I feel frustrated, guilty, and confused
  • I'm not at peace with my world. I'm filled with anxiety and mistrust, seeing people from a different race, religion, or political party as enemies. I'm afraid of the future, seeing our country, economy, and environment deteriorating. I hide behind busyness, numbness, or cynicism, feeling powerless to make a difference.


Now choose one difficult area of your life to begin transforming into greater peace.


  • First, remember a time when you felt a deep sense of peace and oneness—in communion with nature, meditation, involvement in a creative process, or a special time with someone you love. Take a deep breath as you recall that experience.
  • Say to yourself, "Breathe in Peace" as you breathe in that deep sense of peace and oneness, flowing like a relaxing wave through your body. Breathe out any fear, confusion, insecurity--whatever has been troubling you. When you feel more relaxed, affirm to yourself, "I Now Live in Peace."
  • Think of that difficult area again. Only now see it transformed into greater peace and harmony. How would it look like and feel like? Ask yourself, "What is one small step I can take to move toward this vision of peace?" Could you get more information, consider your options, call a friend, do something you've wanted to do but keep putting off, sign up for a class, begin a mindfulness or exercise practice, write or call your congressional representative, volunteer for a cause you believe in? How can you follow your heart to step out of the shadows and into the light? See yourself taking that step, affirming to yourself, "I Now Live in Peace."
  • Then take that step, creating a new positive momentum with the wisdom of Tao which tells us that:


A tree that reaches past your embrace

Springs from one small seed.

A building over nine stories high

Begins with a handful of earth.

A journey of a thousand miles

Begins with a single step.      


                            Tao Te Ching, Chapter 64

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Facing New Challenges

The Tao Te Ching tells us:


"What you desire

And what you fear

Are within yourself.   

. . . .

When you know nature as part of yourself,

You will act in harmony."


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 13


The wisdom of Tao teaches that becoming more mindful of our emotions can help us face new challenges with greater insight and empowerment.


When you face a new challenge, what do you feel? Fear, anxiety—or excitement? However you label it, it's a rush of energy that can help you focus your attention. 


Before getting her Ph.D. in psychology, My friend Tracey was a ski instructor in Taos, New Mexico. The lessons she taught people learning to ski reflect Taoist wisdom for facing any new challenge—a mindful blend of intention and attention.


Get clear on what you want to do. Before attempting a new ski run, Tracey would size up the situation, asking, "Where do I want to go?" When facing a new challenge in your life, ask yourself, "What do I want?" What is your intention?


Consider the conditions. Pay careful attention. Ski slopes can vary from day to day. It could have snowed last night or the trails might be icy. Melting snow may have exposed hazardous rocks or tree branches. On the ski slopes and in life, knowing the conditions you face can help you take right action. What are current conditions like for you?


Tune in to your body. Don't let tension and fear paralyze you. Since you cannot be tense and relaxed at the same time, do a relaxation technique when you face a new challenge. Take a deep breath and release it, feeling the energy in your body. Then focus on your intention, telling yourself, "I CAN do this."


Don't concentrate on what you want to avoid. Where do you focus your attention? People often focus on hazards. Tracey knows from skiing that if she concentrates on the sharp rocks jutting out at the end of a trail, she'll run right into them. In your own current challenge, don't fixate on obstacles and visualize failure. Take hazards into account and consider how you'll handle them, but keep your eyes on your goal.


Choose your course of action and follow through. If the conditions aren't right or the timing is off, say "no" and find a way to withdraw. If you say "yes" to the challenge, then follow through to the best of your ability. Either way, commit to your choice with intention and attention, remaining centered so you can make adjustments if conditions change.





Some information in this post appeared earlier in Dreher, D. (1998). The Tao of Womanhood. New York, NY: William Morrow.


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Natural or Normal?

Winter Sunset--14 January 2005 of an amazing sunset. Photograph by Andrew Crouthamel. Wikimedia Commons.

The Tao Te Ching tells us:


When you know nature as part of yourself,

You will act in harmony.

When you find yourself part of nature,

You will live in harmony."  


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 13


Growing up in the Far East, I learned to love contemplative time, finding a private place beneath a flowering hibiscus bush or climbing a flame tree to watch the changing panorama of the sky.


Sometimes we're all so busy now we rarely notice the sky at all. Yet with its glorious clouds and colors, it is nature's dynamic fresco right above our heads.


In today's industrialized society, contemplative time in nature can be perceived as deviant behavior. One summer, after graduation, my husband and I took two students, Mike and Kelly, out to dinner to celebrate their accomplishments and Mike's departure for medical school. After dinner, we walked across the parking lot to a nearby field to watch the sunset. The clouds changed colors, streaks of pink turning to gray as the sky gradually became a deeper blue and the first few stars appeared.


Then our reverie was broken by a uniformed security guard.  "You can't be here," he said. "You're loitering and that's against the law."


Loitering? Apparently standing in a field watching the sunset is suspicious behavior in a culture where compulsive action and consumerism have become the norm. Our behavior seemed natural enough to me, but to avoid being arrested, we headed back to the car.


Natural and normal are two different things. What is normal in our fast-paced consumer culture may not be natural, may not be healthy or harmonious according to the wisdom of Tao.


You might pause to ask what is natural for you.


  • When do you "find yourself part of nature?"
  • How can you find greater harmony in your life today?




Some information in this lesson appeared earlier in Dreher, D. (1996). The Tao of Personal Leadership. New York, NY: HarperCollins.


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The Path is Simple But Not Easy

The Tao Te Ching tells us:


If we had the highest wisdom,
We would walk the path of Tao.
The path of Tao is simple,
Yet people take many detours."


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 53


"The path of Tao is simple"--but not easy.


Many of us live by multitasking, trying to do two or three things at once, our days filled with detours and distractions. But research has shown that our brains lose vital information when we shift back and forth between tasks, that multitasking actually makes us less efficient.


This is especially true in relationships. At work, have you ever caught yourself checking your email when talking on the phone? Or seen a couple at a restaurant, each staring down at their cell phones? Or tried to talk to someone whose attention was divided, distracted by an electronic device?


It takes intention to be present. Like a Zen archer, we must be focused. Our intention, like the arrow, must be aimed at one target, one task at a time. When our minds are focused, we cannot miss the mark.


Each day our minds are assailed by the messages around us. Family members, neighbors, advertisers, entertainers, politicians, newscasters, employers, and corporate officers are constantly sending us messages, telling us how to think and what to do. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a longtime student of Eastern philosophy, realized how such outside influences can become authoritative forces threatening to reduce us to childlike subservience. "You will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it," he warned.


Yet as citizens in a democracy, we cannot surrender to outside influences. We must think for ourselves and be present to those around us. This means coming back to center, knowing where to focus, where to aim our intention.


What about you? How do you navigate your way through the maze of messages around you? How do you remember who you are and why you are here?


Take a moment now to return to center.
Close your eyes.
Take a deep, mindful breath and slowly release it.
Feel your body relax,
Feel the rhythm of your heartbeat.
As you focus your attention
And intention
To be right here
Right now.
Then slowly open your eyes.


Add this simple practice to your leadership toolkit to help you become more centered, more balanced, more whole, and to share your center of presence and peace with the people in your world.

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The Empty Space

The Tao tells us:

Thirty spokes meet at the wheel's axis
The center space makes the wheel useful.
Form clay into a cup;
The center space gives it purpose.
Frame doors and windows for a house;
The openings make the house useful.
Therefore, purpose comes from what is there
Because of what is not there.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 11

In one of my favorite passages, the Tao Te Ching reminds us of the essential power of the empty space, what the Japanese call yohaku.

In an old Buddhist legend, an accomplished young man came to a teacher seeking enlightenment. He introduced himself, reciting his list of achievements as the master poured tea. As the man talked on, the master continued to pour until the tea spilled over the sides of the cup.

"Stop!" said the young man. "Can't you see what you're doing?"
The old master smiled, eyes twinkling as he replied, "You cannot fill a cup that is already full."

The young man was full of himself, full of ego. To learn anything new, he would have to empty his cup. Likewise, to keep learning and growing, we must empty ourselves of preconceptions, suspend judgement, clear away the clutter of our minds. This is the vital lesson of yohaku.

Yohaku is the Japanese term for the "white space" or background in an ink painting. This space is essential, adding balance to the whole. An expression of yin, the "empty space" so much a part of the Tao, it is the space of insight, inspiration, and creativity..

What about you:

Do you have enough space in your days?

Where do you find your yohaku?


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The Tao of Balance and Self-Respect

The Tao Te Ching tells us:


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


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 33


The Tao lesson of respect is holistic. We must first respect ourselves before we can respect others. And respect is an ongoing process as each day, each interaction, can bring us this lesson on a deeper level.


There are many books, many aps, many websites about leadership. But as the Tao teaches, leadership is a process, a lifelong commitment to self-mastery—and "mastering ourselves takes inner strength."


In the Western world, we are surrounded by machines, clever, ingenious devices that can locate information, navigate for us, even turn our lights and appliances off and on. These machines can perform many functions.


But they remain our instruments and we must be careful not to let them change the way we see ourselves. Computers can multitask, but neuroscience research tells us that human brains cannot. When we try to juggle too many commitments at once, something valuable gets lost in the process. And conscientious people too often fall victim to compulsive work habits, treating themselves like machines, pushing themselves to finish a job while denying themselves vital nourishment, rest, and recreation. This unhealthy paradigm is out of harmony with nature. It is not the way of Tao.


The Tao upholds the wisdom of nature, the vital principle of balance. In my garden, with too much sun and too little water, plants can die of drought. But the opposite is also true: too much shade and too much water are equally unhealthy. And each plant has its own needs, its own sense of balance. Tomatoes need at least six hours of hot sun a day, while more delicate plants will wilt from that much sun.


In the garden of life, you, too, have your own needs for nourishment, rest, and recreation, sunlight and shadow, yin and yang, action and contemplation.


Living the Tao means respecting your own need for balance while respecting the needs of the people around you. Yin and yang, sunlight and shadow, self and other—all part of the dynamic harmony of life.


What can you do to affirm greater balance in your life today?


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Cultivating a Community of Trust

The Tao Te Ching tells us:


Cultivate community
Where people are neighbors
And life is in balance.
. . .
Weaving together
The fabric of peace.


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 80


We live in an increasingly confusing, challenging, and stressful world. Many people spend their time frantically multitasking, dashing around, trying to keep up. Although connected 24/7 on the Internet, we are feeling increasingly disconnected from ourselves and one another. Over 40 million Americans have anxiety disorders, 16 million suffer from depression, and the annual suicide rate has increased by 24 percent.


As the Tao reminds us and current psychological research confirms, we need community, people we can count on, people we can trust. A community of trust is essential to our mental and physical health (Umberson & Montez, 2010).


Decades ago, more people knew their neighbors. With less mobility, they had people nearby they could call by name, exchanging greetings and the local news, people to do favors for each other, to celebrate with, to share the harvests from our gardens, to count on for mutual support. But now many people spend more time on Facebook than with personal friends, more time on text and email than actually talking face to face. I see people walking down the street--even crossing the street--staring down at their phones, or couples out for dinner together, yet disconnected, each staring down at a phone. Our sense of community is eroding away and with it our sense of trust.


Yet we can help bring it back. And it doesn't take much. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has found that "micro-moments" of warmth and connectivity shared with another individual can dramatically improve our health, reducing chronic inflammation, building physical and emotional well-being (Fredrickson, 2013). These micro-moments of connection can be shared not only with close friends and family members but the grocery store clerk or anyone else you encounter in daily life. A simple smile, eye contact, presence, perhaps a kind word—that's all it takes.


We can make a difference, cultivating a community of trust with small daily actions, as we would cultivate a garden. To heal the stress and anxiety in our world, we can begin by practicing these micro-moments, reaching out to connect with the people around us.


How can you begin building your own community of trust today?


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The Tao of 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 Te Ching, 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, is the one essential strength: knowing ourselves.


"Know thyself" Socrates taught in ancient Greece and as the Tao Te Ching reminds us, 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 inevitable 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 can we develop 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 more vital than ever today. The chronic stress in our world can put us on constant alert, blocking our vision and compassion for ourselves and those around us. Unable to focus or be fully present, we can become increasingly defensive, making reactive, hasty decisions that only increase the suffering within and around us.


Neuroscience research has shown how a contemplative practice cultivates mindfulness, enhancing our cognitive function, strengthening those areas of the brain that regulate emotion.


Mindfulness brings us greater clarity and balance while improving our capacity to respond empathically to the people around us (Hölzel, Lazar, Gard et al, 2011; see also Goleman, & Davidson, 2017). And it doesn't take much. Research has shown significant results after only two months of practice (Condon, Desbordes, Miller, & DeSteno, 2013).


How about you? Do you have your own contemplative practice? If not, you might begin by checking out one of Jon Kabat-Zinn's short mindfulness meditations on Youtube.


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Beyond Theory X

The Tao Te Ching tells us:


With the best of leaders,
When work is done,
The project completed,
The people all say,
"We did it ourselves,"


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 17


The Tao remind us that leadership involves bringing out the best in people. Unfortunately, some companies still treat clients like commodities and employees like replaceable parts. This is what management scholar Douglas McGregor called "Theory X," a hierarchical approach to management that considers the institution more important than the people within it (McGregor, 1960, p. 50). In a corporate version of the caste system, micro-managers look down on workers, expecting them to mindlessly follow orders, subordinating themselves to the "common good" or profitability of the corporation.


For leaders who follow the Tao, such an approach is ridiculous. The Taoist vision is holistic: we cannot separate the parts from the whole. For Tao leaders, the individual members are the institution. And current research supports this Tao vision, showing that positive work cultures are far more productive (Seppala & Cameron, 2015).


Reducing employees to mere functionaries not only stunts their growth as human beings but makes the institution stagnate as well. By increasing positive emotions and well-being, supporting the personal and professional growth of the people around them, a Tao leader builds the health of the institution. Just as a lake is the sum of many drops of water, an institution is only as healthy as the individuals within it.

What about you? How healthy is your organization?


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When Respect is Missing. . .


The Tao Te Ching tells us:


When people lack respect,
Trouble follows.


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 72


The Tao remind us of the subtle energies that make up all existence. Consciously or unconsciously, people sense these energies and know when respect is missing, when they are being devalued. Morale suffers. Productivity declines. A company that does not respect its employees and clients will not keep them. An atmosphere that lacks internal harmony invariably drives people away.


When I was in graduate school at UCLA, I worked in a new Creole restaurant in Santa Monica. With its spicy food and upbeat atmosphere, the restaurant made a promising start. The waiters were aspiring actors who would often dance, burst into song, and exchange lines from popular shows. Working as cashier was a pleasant diversion from my studies.


But then then restaurant owners had an argument and stopped speaking to each other. Things fell apart. First we didn't get our paychecks on time. Then the customers stopped coming.


"How did they know?" I wondered. The place looked the same, the staff was the same, and the food hadn't changed. But something was wrong with the energies. In three months, the little restaurant closed its doors. The lack of respect between the owners had destroyed it.


What about you? Are the energies at your workplace respectful or disrespectful? How can you tell—and is there something you can do about it?


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