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Inner Peace: The Path with Heart
by Diane Dreher, Ph.D.

"Why did the ancients cherish the Tao?
Because through it
We may find a world of peace,
Leaving behind a world of cares,
And hold the greatest treasure under heaven."
(Tao Te Ching 62)

For centuries people have found inner peace by following the Tao Te Ching. Translated more than any book but the Bible, Lao Tzu's volume of five thousand words has helped men and women live through turbulent times by revealing the deep source of peace within. As we face the challenges and rapid changes of our time, the enduring wisdom of Tao has become more relevant than ever.

Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching over twenty-five centuries ago as a handbook for leaders. In ancient China, to lead wisely meant to live wisely, to seek personal balance and integration with the cycles of nature. Lao Tzu's teachings assume special importance to us today as we seek peace of mind for ourselves and new patterns of peace for our world. While searching for harmony in everything from holistic health, psychology, and physics to ecology, politics, the workplace, our homes, relationships, and the patterns of our lives, many of us are discovering valuable insights in the ancient way of Tao.

Peace, Lao Tzu realized, is an inside job. Only when we find peace within ourselves can we see more clearly, act more effectively, cooperating with the energies within and around us to build a more peaceful world. The Tao Te Ching teaches that our actions have far-reaching consequences, underscoring the importance of balance and the intimate relationship between ourselves and our environment.

Peace Begins Within

We can begin to transform our world by first transforming ourselves. This cannot be accomplished by merely reading or thinking about peace. Living the Tao is more than an intellectual exercise. It is the path with heart.

The Chinese character x_ n means both mind and heart, the source of all thought, feeling, and motivation. Following the Tao, there is no inner split, no agonizing struggle between head and heart, no discord or division in spirit. For, quite simply, when we are divided within ourselves, we cannot be at peace.

Instead of waiting for the right guru or political leader to bring us the peace we seek, the Tao asks us to take responsibility for our lives, to follow its mindful blend of action and contemplation. Through a shift of attitude, we can begin to experience greater peace right now.


Let's begin by identifying any areas of our lives where we're not at peace. Do you feel out of harmony in any of these areas:

  • your health?
  • your career?
  • your relationships?
  • your family?
  • your finances?
  • your world?
  • yourself?

The Path with Heart

The next step is responding compassionately. If discord and division have brought you pain in any area of your life, compassion for yourself initiates a healing process. This means accepting your feelings, even "negative" feelings, acknowledging what you feel right now, not smiling and pretending things are OK if they're not. Denying our feelings only divides us from ourselves. Emotional honesty brings greater insight.

Focus on Your Feelings

As strange as it seems, many of us get so busy, we lose touch with our feelings. Or we try to force ourselves to feel what we "should" feel, our hearts and minds going off in different directions. This builds up tremendous internal tension and undermines our peace.

  • Take a moment to ask yourself, "Where am I not at peace?" Focus on this area.
  • Whatever situation or feelings come up, acknowledge them. Take another deep breath and focus on what you feel.
  • Then breathe in compassion for yourself. Love yourself whatever you're feeling whether it is pain, frustration, exhaustion, anger, or disappointment. Breathe into your feelings and slowly surround yourself with the warm, healing light of love.
  • Say to yourself silently, "I love and accept myself right now."

After acknowledging where you are not at peace, gently shift your attention to what peace feels like. The simplest way is to breathe out tension and breathe in peace.

Breathe in Peace

  • Relax, take a deep breath, and say to yourself as you breathe in, "Breathe in Peace." Remember the last time you felt a deep sense of peace and oneness. Let that feeling flow through your body.
  • Breathe out any fear, confusion, insecurity, or whatever is troubling you.
  • When you feel relaxed, affirm, "I choose to live in Peace."

Your conscious choice opens up new possibilities for a more peaceful life. As you draw upon the infinite source of peace within, new insights will come to you, perhaps now, perhaps later. But know that with these simple steps you have already begun a powerful process of renewal.

The Tao of Self-Acceptance

Many of us are not at peace because at some deep level, we do not accept ourselves. While trying to fit someone else's expectations, we go against the grain, defying our own nature. The natural wisdom of Tao calls us back to ourselves. In the natural world everything is valuable, everything has its place. Only human beings suffer from low self-esteem. A rose, a daisy, a lark, a squirrel--each manifests its potential differently, yet beautifully. Each form has its own expression, each flower its own fragrance, each bird its own song.

Personal Exercise

Too often we feel inferior because we don't fit some stereotype. Greater peace comes when we embrace our own uniqueness.

Ask yourself: what makes me different from other people I know? What is my special contribution to this life?

  • Are you happier taking a quiet walk by yourself or joining a bustling crowd?
  • Do you express yourself with pencils, paints, words, or colorful yarns?
  • Are you a practical person, proud of your home repairs and building projects?
  • Are you musical? Mathematical? An athlete? A gourmet cook?
  • What is your special gift?

We each have some talent that makes us unique. What is yours? Acknowledge and nurture that part of yourself with a special activity this week.

The Tao of Personal Balance

We can bring greater peace to our lives by maintaining our own personal balance. Each day we meet our physical needs: eating and sleeping at regular intervals. People who follow the Tao also make time for spiritual renewal. If we neglect our bodies, they become imbalanced and break down. If we neglect our spiritual needs, we become emotionally imbalanced and our world breaks down in continual conflict.

There are many ways to nurture our spirits from traditional religious practice to regular meditation, devotional reading, or quiet walks in nature. Some people find spiritual renewal weaving tapestries, singing, or working in their gardens. What nourishes you? Remember to nurture your spirit this way on a regular basis.

Most spiritual practice takes us away from the noisy, busy outside world, returning us to the center of peace deep within us. Moments of reflection enable our roots to go deep to the source, drawing upon the infinite power and wisdom of Tao. This month, remember to give yourself the gift of peace by following your favorite spiritual practice, cultivating periods of contemplation, and taking short "inner peace breaks," to breathe in peace and listen to your heart.

Seeking the Silence

Taking time for contemplation may seem like self-indulgence when we're caught up in a busy rush of activities. Yet it's one of the most responsible things we can do. When we're confused and uncentered, we make foolish choices, over commit ourselves, and project inner conflicts into the world around us. When we're at peace with ourselves, we can see more clearly, act more effectively, bring greater harmony to our relationships and greater peace to our world.

The early Taoists revered tortoises because they know when to withdraw unto themselves, when to restore their energy. Thus, they live to an advanced age. Believed to have mysterious powers, tortoise shells were used in divination, inspiring the hexagram patterns of the I Ching. We can cultivate inner peace by following the lesson of the tortoise, setting aside brief periods for peace and renewal.

For most of us this means seeking out times of silence. Gandhi kept a day of silence once a week. No matter what happened or who came to visit, he would spend that day quietly, communicating to others only in writing. Most of us are unable to maintain an entire day of silence, but we can establish regular periods of meditation.

There are many forms of meditation from zazen to raja yoga, vipassana insight meditation, the relaxation response, and the Catholic tradition of centering prayer. Some forms are described in my book, The Tao of Inner Peace; others are explored on this web site. In every form of meditation I've practiced, slow, conscious breathing focuses our energy. The mind slows down and channels deep beneath the noise and surface clutter of our lives. After meditation, we emerge renewed and refreshed, our tension released, our hearts and minds at peace.

You can begin by choosing a meditative practice and setting aside as little as fifteen minutes a day, extending that time to suit your needs. Many people meditate the first thing each morning, others do it at the end of the day. Give yourself a daily gift of peace by beginning a regular practice of meditation. You'll notice a subtle difference in your life as you gradually become more balanced, more at peace with yourself and your world

Inner Peace Breaks

When you're stuck in traffic, caught up in commitments, or when frantic people in your midst take out their impatience on you, you usually can't stop what you're doing and go off to meditate. But you can give yourself an inner peace break.

  • Take a deep breath, breathing into your hara or center, the part of your body just below your navel.
  • Then let it out, releasing all the tension you've collected.
  • Take another deep breath and say to yourself, "Breathe in Peace."
  • Gently exhale, feeling more at peace with yourself and your world.

Listening to Your Heart: Making Mindful Choices

In the way of Tao, "less is more." Following the Tao means making choices mindfully and following them with heart rather than cluttering up our lives with overcrowded schedules and mindless routines. One pathway to greater mindfulness is to ask yourself these questions before making another commitment:

  • How do I feel about it?
  • Is it necessary?
  • Is it healthy?
  • Will it bring greater peace to my life or the planet?

During this busy season, remember that "less is more." Let your heart guide you to choices you can embrace with joy and wholeheartedness.

My wish for you during the holidays and throughout the new year is the gift of greater mindfulness and renewal as together we discover new levels of peace to bless our lives, our loved ones, and this beautiful planet we call home.

Adapted from The Tao of Inner Peace © Diane Dreher. 1990, 2000. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc. 2000. Used by permission.

Dr. Diane Dreher is a writer, educator, and consultant specializing in new paradigms of peace, balance, and personal empowerment. She is the author of The Tao of Personal Leadership (HarperCollins, 1996), The Tao of Womanhood (William Morrow, 1998), and The Tao of Inner Peace, which has just been released by Penguin/Putnam in a new 21st century edition. Diane lived in the Far East in early childhood and has studied Eastern philosophy most of her life. She has a Ph.D. in English from UCLA, credentials in spiritual counseling and holistic health, and trains in aikido. Her newest book, Inner Gardening, coming out in May 2001 from HarperCollins, focuses on the tradition of gardening as spiritual practice.

Diane has received fellowships from the Mellon, Graves, and Danforth Foundations and the National Endowment for the Humanities. A popular speaker and workshop leader, she gives talks and workshops on leadership, balance, and personal growth to business and community groups throughout North America. Diane teaches literature and creative writing at Santa Clara University and makes her home in the San Francisco Bay area. DianeDreher.com.


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