The Tao Te Ching: Ancient Wisdom for Today’s World

Holistic Health | 0 comments

Gerald Pollack

Written by Diane Dreher, PhD

April 30, 2022

Over 25 centuries ago, during the warring states period in ancient China, Lao Tzu found renewed hope by connecting with nature. Discovering vital lessons in a mountain stream and the cycle of the changing seasons, he recorded his insights in the Tao Te Ching, which reveals the wisdom of living systems, the patterns of energy within and around us.  These enduring Tao lessons that can help us find peace in our challenging world today.

The Tao Te Ching tells us that we can release tension and clear our vision by focusing on our breathing, and current research confirms this.

balance nature

1. Relieving Stress

In the past few years, millions of us have been in a state of chronic stress.[i]  When we’re stressed, our muscles tense up, our heartbeat and blood pressure increase, and our immune and digestive systems shut down to deal with a perceived threat. This survival reaction can save our lives when a car speeds towards us in the crosswalk and we jump out of the way. But when stress becomes chronic, it can lead to anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease, and inflammatory disorders. Bypassing our higher brain centers, stress undermines our perception and impairs our judgment. It weakens our cognitive ability and can trigger defensive reactions whenever someone disagrees with us or does something unexpected.  And, ultimately, stress sabotages our relationships with ourselves and one another. [ii]

The Tao Te Ching tells us that we can release tension and clear our vision by focusing on our breathing, and current research confirms this. [iii] In my book, The Tao of Inner Peace,[iv] I encourage people to notice when they’re stressed, then pause and take slow mindful breaths, affirming “I am peace.” And as Lao Tzu discovered so many years ago, by connecting with nature, we can cultivate greater peace of mind and begin renewing our hope.[v]

breath meditation

2. Finding Our Balance

The Tao helps us recognize that we are part of nature’s cyclical pattern of growth and renewal, yin and yang. Moving from day to night, spring to winter, active yang is inevitably followed by quiet yin, which gives birth to new yang.

Too much yin and we experience stagnation. Too much yang, rushing from one task to the next, and we become confused, drained, and exhausted.

So it is for us. 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.

Western culture is extremely yang—active and busy, with nonstop commitments, noise, and external stimulation. Many of us were rushing through our days until the Covid pandemic interrupted our habitual yang activity.  Since then, we’ve had more yin time to reflect, to ask if what we’ve been doing makes sense. Many people have quit their jobs, gone back to school, seeking new professions, and new directions in life.

Following Tao wisdom, we can balance the energies of yin and yang in our lives by:

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

When contemplating any new commitment, we can ask ourselves:

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

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

3. Connecting with Community

Following the Tao expands our vision, helping us see ourselves as part of an overarching Oneness, intrinsically connected to nature and one another. 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. [i]

We need personal connection. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has found a powerful healing effect in “micromoments of connectivity,” brief moments of connection with others, not only with close friends and family but with our neighbors, the grocery store clerk or anyone we encounter in daily life. A simple smile, eye contact, presence, perhaps a kind word—that’s all it takes. These connections bring a surge of positive energy that benefits both people, dramatically improving our health, raising our mood, relieving stress, and reducing inflammation to promote greater physical and emotional well-being. [ii]  

community connection

In The Tao of Inner Peace, I offer steps to help us transcend isolation and build greater community which  include:

 

  1. Asking yourself what you can do now to strengthen your current community—your circle of supportive friends, family, and neighbors. This could involve connecting with a text, email, or call, arranging to meet for coffee, or something else.
  2. Considering your natural community, the plants and wildlife around you. How can you learn more about the local birds, animals, and plants, recognizing your part in the network of life?
  3. Taking one action step this week—it can be as simple as taking a walk outside, introducing yourself to a neighbor, or calling up an old friend. Remember, relationships, like plants, are living, growing things that need cultivation.

4. Resolving Conflict

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 describes life as a dynamic balance of both yin and yang, day and night, mountain and valley, self and other.

Seeing how yin and yang are part of the larger whole, we can combine apparent opposites into a vision of new possibilities. International conflict resolution facilitator Dudley Weeks has worked with this wisdom to help people in conflict become partners who create new solutions together. His process involves listening mindfully to ourselves and one another, recognizing our shared needs, and building solutions together.[i] This includes:

 

  1. Releasing your initial stress reaction by pausing to take several slow, deep breaths.
  2. Listening to yourself, asking what you really need from the situation.
  3. Asking what the other person needs, listening mindfully. You don’t have to agree. Simply reflect, repeating back the main points, letting them know they’ve been heard and you’re trying to understand.
  4. Looking for common ground. Find one thing you can agree on.
  5. Coming up with one small step you can take together. As you develop greater trust and understanding, each step will lead to another, creating new patterns of harmony within and around you.

5. Developing Greater Patience and Perseverance

In contrast to the quick solutions and instant answers on the internet and social media, the Tao offers a vision of life as an ongoing process of growth and discovery. In the Tao Te Ching, we learn of the fluid power of water—gentle and nurturing, the source of all life. Yet with focus and perseverance, water can cut through solid rock as the Colorado River has carved the magnificent Grand Canyon in the American Southwest. The Tao reminds us that with focus and perseverance, we, too, can overcome challenges and create new possibilities in our lives.

 

 

6. Renewing Our Hope

The Tao Te Ching tells us that “the way to greater light leads through the darkness.” [i] Instead of hiding from our challenges in denial or endless distractions, the Tao encourages us to look within and listen to our hearts.  Relating the wisdom of Tao to times like these, we can find renewed hope by spending time in nature and practicing kindness to ourselves.

nature hike
  • Connecting with nature helps restore our hope as we realize we’re part of something larger than ourselves. Researchers have discovered how the beauty and grandeur of 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.[i]

 

  • We can be kind to ourselves in this challenging time by giving ourselves daily gifts that bring bright moments of joy to our 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.[ii] We can seek support from a wise mentor, counselor, or therapist. We can also spend more time in nature, meditate, connect with friends, play with our cat or dog, listen to our favorite music, engage in a hobby we enjoy, or do something else that lifts our spirits. Like the stars shining in a dark winter sky, these bright moments can help us find our way.

7. Beginning a New Cycle

nature trees forest

As we become more aware of the Tao’s vision of life as process, we will realize that we are a vital part of the process, that our actions shape our future and can create greater peace within and around us. And we can begin this process right now.  For as the Tao Te Ching says:

A tree that grows beyond your reach

Springs from a tiny 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)

References:

[1] Abramson, A.(2022, January). Burnout and stress are everywhere. Monitor on Psychology,  53 (1). https://www.apa.org/monitor/2022/01/special-burnout-stress; Brunier, A. (2022, March).COVID-19 pandemic triggers 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide. https://www.who.int/news/item/02-03-2022-covid-19-pandemic-triggers-25-increase-in-prevalence-of-anxiety-and-depression-worldwide

[2] McEwen, B. S. with Lasley, E. N. (2002). The end of stress as we know it. Washington, D. C.: Joseph Henry Press; LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

[3] In Chapter 10, the Tao Te Ching says we can release tension by focusing on our breathing. For research, see Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology78(2), 169–183.

[4] Dreher, D. (2000). The Tao of Inner Peace. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam. A new audiobook edition was published by Penguin Random House in 2022. 

[5] Bratman, G. N. , Hamilton, J. P., & Daily, G.C. (2012). The impacts of  nature experience on human cognitive function and mental health. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1249, 118-136.

[6] Holt-Lunstad, J. (2017). The potential public health relevance of social isolation and loneliness: Prevalence, epidemiology, and risk factors. Public Policy & Aging Report: 27(4), 127-130, 

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

[8] Weeks, D. (1992). The eight essential steps to conflict resolution. Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher.

[9] From the Tao Te Ching, 41. In Dreher, D. (2000/2022). The Tao of Inner Peace. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam. All quotes from the Tao Te Ching are from this text.

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

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

 

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