How To De-Escalate Holiday Tension

In a world of increasing polarization, there has never been a better time to learn the art of peacemaking. Most of us aren’t taught to manage our emotions or the emotions of others, especially people who see the world very differently. In this respect, we are emotionally incompetent and have difficulty coexisting with people who hold different values.

These days, families can be torn apart over conflicting beliefs. Peacemaking is a skill that takes practice. According to Doug Noll, author of De-Escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less (whom I recently featured on my Pathways interview program), it can be learned, and can greatly improve your emotional intelligence.

What better time to practice this fine art than during the holidays? Imagine this: You’re sitting down to a feast with relatives, a group that includes a cantankerous right-wing uncle (the Republican elephant in the room). Suddenly, this uncle says something obnoxious and hateful. Your first instinct is to problem-solve – to set things straight about the facts, dispute what he’s swallowed from Fox Fake News, etc. But things only get worse and he becomes insulting. An ugly argument ensues and you wonder if you can tolerate holidays with extended family anymore.

In our Pathways interview, Doug reveals how recent advances in neuroscience confirm that we are still largely emotional creatures, with a newer and less compelling rational brain. Emotional intelligence is a learning process, not a facility that is intrinsic by nature. The only way to calm your uncle down is to speak to his emotions, not logic. Never argue against an emotional belief, Doug says, because logic and reasoning cannot change an emotional mind. Arguing against emotional beliefs only strengthens, rather than weakens, them.

Imagine being able to withstand your uncle’s insults, provocations and misinformation without losing your cool. With a little skill, such holiday dread can be avoided. Using Doug’s three easy steps, you can increase empathy, reduce reactivity, increase enjoyment with family, and restore peace at the dinner table (and elsewhere in your life).

First tip: Ignore the words (or so-called “facts”) and listen only to the underlying emotions behind what the person is saying. Express a guess at what they are feeling; the most common emotional reactions are anger, frustration, betrayal, anxiety, fear, sadness or feeling unloved. Label their emotion in words (as in, “you are feeling frustrated”). This helps them gain clarity and provides them the emotional satisfaction of being heard. Rapidly, you will discover that your uncle (or whoever) is calming down and maybe even able to listen a little bit. Only now might there be an opening for problem solving, coming to some level of agreement or understanding.

In essence, the art of emotional intelligence is being able to listen for emotions and using language to keep yourself centered, help you navigate through conflict successfully, resolve issues of contention, and develop deeper empathic connections. With this simple method you can continue to care for someone whose perspective clashes with your own, without becoming derailed or upset. We can feel heard and respected despite differing beliefs, and do the same for others. (There’s so much more in the Pathways interview with Doug Noll… I hope you check it out!)

Change is My Friend

We are living in a time of accelerating change and uncertainty, which can feel chaotic and threatening. Animals, including us humans, have an instinctive tendency to automatically react to sudden changes as threats. Throughout most of humanity’s existence, life-threatening dangers were prominent and a hair-trigger reactivity served to protect us in a world that included saber-toothed predators. Humans haven’t changed much biologically in the last hundred thousand years. Our nervous systems are wired to fight, flee, or freeze at a moment’s notice.

When triggered by fear or anxiety, we react as though we are face-to-face with real danger even if there is none. This may be our automatic way of operating, but it is not the only way. We can learn to intervene with a beam of conscious awareness and interrupt our automatic reactions. We can train our tricky brains to go beyond fight-or-flight. There is another way, however.

The situations we face nowadays rarely, if ever, involve life-or-death, split-second decisions. In the absence of real life-threatening danger, we are free to become more creative and develop potentials that go beyond merely ensuring survival. Rather than feeling threatened, we can come to regard change as a friendly force. “Change is my friend,” is a visionary belief that is promoted in the Belief Engineering chapter of my book, Great Decisions, Perfect Timing.

People who see change as a positive force are more optimistic and can enjoy the up-and-down flux of life. In order to embrace change, we need to develop a more fluid relationship to time. People who fear change essentially want time to stand still. Their subconscious wish is for the illusory safety of a fixed and stable universe. The mechanical division of time into hours, minutes, and seconds – brought about by the recent invention of clocks – clogs the spontaneous flow of life energy. In order to fully relax, visionaries find ways to free their minds from the domination of linear time. They understand the value of “time outs” to intentionally loosen that domination by society’s over-controlling mechanical approach. This is good, but in actuality, there is nothing to escape, because if we take our eyes off the clock, our experience of time has a natural plasticity to it.

When we enjoy life, time seems to go too fast. When we are in resistance to circumstances, it seems to crawl. As so many great teachers have shown, the secret of joyful living is to maintain awareness of what is happening in the one time that is real – the present moment – and forget about future and past. To improve our strategic thinking and decision-making, we need to let go of trying to control things long enough to give our intuition a chance to be actively receptive.

Visionary decision-makers stay aware of how life is always in flux. The ultimate solution to “time management” is to develop a lifestyle where we can better transcend the measuring and parceling of time, and strengthen our intuitive sense of timing. Good timing, a fundamental component of every strategic decision, is the secret of surfing unpredictable waves of change. When we come to regard change as a friendly force, the success brought about by our improving sense of timing will provide encouragement to cultivate intuitive intelligence all the more … and life becomes an adventure rather than a hunkering down.


Discovering Divination: A Story

The I Ching, or Chinese Book of Changes, is the oldest of books and a system channeled 3000 years ago by sages to help emperors make better strategic and timing decisions. For thousands of years, this Taoist classic influenced campaigns, relationships, literature and art. I discovered it at age 19 and it has played a profound role in my life, providing guidance for decisions that logic can’t handle (and we know there are many of these in life).

My first encounter was as personally earthshaking as it was hilarious.  A carefree philosophy undergrad at UC, Berkeley, one day I was flirting with a cute girl who showed me the ancient book.  Furthermore, she offered to demonstrate how the system works. Although I was skeptical of what appeared to be a fortune-telling game, I was intrigued by her charms, so I agreed (but secretly making fun of the whole thing).

She asked me to jot down a personal dilemma or subject of interest and toss three coins six times. As I did, she drew a “hexagram” based on the way the coins landed. My first I Ching reading ignored my flippant question and caught me off guard with its response. I got Hexagram No.4, entitled “Youthful Folly,” about “the foolish student who lacks respect for the teacher.” I was expecting something I could have a laugh about, but not at my own expense! Indeed, the dignified I Ching reflected my shallowness and offered me a bit of wisdom about growing up. I was making fun of it and it came back and made fun of me!

Now my curiosity was aroused. I asked my beautiful new friend if I could try it again. My next query was just as trivial, but my attitude was different. This time I was testing the I Ching to see what would happen. Yup. Once again it ignored my trivial query and replied with text “questioning the sincerity of the seeker.” Somehow I was not too surprised the I Ching was reflecting my energy again. I tested it and it tested me back!

That’s when I surmised that the I Ching provides an energetic mirror from its set of  64 hexagram “archetypes,” and reflects motivation and attitude as much as anything else. It can deliver helpful insights and advice only if the seeker is sincere. I learned that the value of an I Ching reading is not about the future or even specific instructions. Rather, it stimulates the intuition. By forcing you to read between the lines, you think outside the box and have to trust your own intuition.

That fateful college day was certainly pivotal to my future as an I Ching author and multimedia I Ching developer. I lost the girl but I fell in with the I Ching! This transformational education did not happen in philosophy class, but it was a learning experience that changed my life more than all of my classes.

Since that day some 40 years ago, I’ve used the I Ching as an intuitive decision-making aid to help me venture beyond black-and-white thinking and develop superior timing. I credit the I Ching for helping me make better decisions throughout my life, including success as an entrepreneur, and more gracefully muddling my way in and out of relationships. As the I Ching says, “Love and no blame.”

The Beliefs that Govern our Lives

Your beliefs — about yourself and the world you live in — are the lens through which you experience life. Every thought, every feeling, every decision and every action you take, arises out of your beliefs. Many are so deeply ingrained that we take them for granted as representing reality and rarely question their validity. We act on beliefs as though they are a fixed part of us; while our subconscious selects information that reinforces what we already believe.

Eastern masters have long advised, “Cease to cherish opinions.” From the Zen perspective, all beliefs are little more than current opinions — based on the best perceptions we can make, given our upbringing and conditioning, and what we would like to believe. Around age 3 or 4 we begin to make conclusions about our environment and form core beliefs to make sense of the world. Such deeply entrenched opinions can continue to operate subconsciously for a lifetime.

Looking at beliefs as opinions illuminates their impermanent nature. As I discuss in my book, Great Decisions, Perfect Timing, every belief is a choice — one we are making now or made years ago. Recognizing the nature of beliefs helps us be more open and flexible; and able to allow our beliefs to naturally evolve based on new learning experiences. If we want to make better decisions for ourselves, we must be willing to reconsider what we think is true and grow beyond the limitations imposed on us by our current beliefs. The important question now is: How aware are you of your beliefs, especially your fears? Often the vigor with which we defend against our fears unwittingly locks us into the belief behind them. More than any other mental structure, your beliefs and the attitudes they derive from define what is possible for you. Beliefs can be a major limiting factor in getting what you want.

An important part of self-knowledge, it is necessary to take full ownership of what you believe – something most people actually never do. For one thing, it requires the courageous humility of self-examination. To make things more difficult, many of us were taught that certain beliefs are sacred and that even to question them is a sin. Well, the wise and the brave are willing to question and test everything they believe in order to make better, more conscious decisions. Can your current beliefs pass two critical tests? Are they 1) based in reality as best you understand it now (have you studied?) and 2) do they help the realization of your higher desires, your aspirations? If you answered no in either case, it’s time for some more experimenting and learning! Nothing is more important than having success-functional beliefs!

A skillful way to look at beliefs is to take them as current operating assumptions, rather than ‘facts’ or articles of faith you must cling to. They should work for you, not you for them! Ultimately, we are responsible for our beliefs and the decisions we make from them. Believing itself is a choice, so decide wisely. Be sure to upgrade your beliefs as needed. Try and learn new things.

A Desperate Need for Wisdom

As I point out in my book, Great Decisions, Perfect Timing, one of the benefits of living the “synchronistic lifestyle” is wisdom–a rare quality that no longer gets the respect it deserves. Wisdom is the learned ability to calm down and make great decisions–based on experience, common sense logic and intuitive intelligence.

Lack of this profound quality handicaps our personal and cultural evolution. Nowhere is this more evident than in polls that show almost half of American voters are so emotional they might be willing to risk further damaging government by electing a con-artist demagogue.

Wisdom requires resisting the pull of strong emotions like fear and anger, the attraction to magical thinking or addictions to instant gratification. As Wikipedia puts it, “Wisdom is a disposition to find the truth coupled with an optimum judgment as to what actions should be taken.” The pursuit of wise judgment is why my life and work are focused on visionary decision-making.

Wisdom is both a function and result of skillful decision-making. You only have to listen to Trump for two minutes to see how critical a bit of wisdom is to good decision-making in these crazy times. Rather than make ridiculous xenophobic decisions about building walls and banning peoples, wise leaders humbly enlist creative intuition and good advice to make decisions that will benefit everyone in the long run.

When you practice fine-tuning your intuitive sense, you more easily notice meaningful synchronicities and insights that arise. Everything that happens shines with a greater sense of meaning, which provides a basis for even more wisdom. As wisdom is cultivated, it helps you balance taking care of yourself while attending to the common good. Things are out of balance, on the other hand, when our point of view is narrow or self-obsessed–constrictions of consciousness that can happen due to lack of self-esteem or an inflated sense of self-importance.

As Aristotle put it, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” It is important to be able to call upon a strong ego that is ready to defend boundaries, but the ego should never allowed to run the show. The ego is properly a lieutenant who should take direction from a higher consciousness, the spiritual self. The ego can be maniacal and does not provide good leadership.

Establishing an appropriate relationship between your ego and higher consciousness is the fruit of self-knowledge. Experience is a great teacher, and the single experience that most helps develop wisdom is strategic decision-making–provided we are brave enough to creatively and proactively step up, go through and move past our fears and make the important decisions).

The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, answered “Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present, the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”

Could anyone could sum up the hazards of neglecting wisdom better?

Yin-Yang: The Symbol of the Tao

The symbol of the Tao — a circle enclosing two equal interlocking paisleys — is referred to as the “tai chi” symbol, or sometimes as the “yin-yang.” The outside circle represents the universal Tao, the “way” or “path” associated with a life lived in harmony with the cycles of change. It is also the closest thing in Chinese metaphysics to western concepts like ‘God,’ because the Tao also implies infinite potentiality. The dark paisley within the circle is the yin energy, which contains a white dot in the middle representing a yang aspect, to remind us that nothing is all yin or all yang. The same but opposite is true about the white paisley with its black dot. The circle is shaped like a wheel to convey cyclical movements, such as seasons and orbits, but also karmic returns.

Yin is conceived of as the feminine principle, (soft, tranquil, dark, receptive, flowing and containing) while yang is the masculine principle (hard, aggressive, light, focused and solid). Everything, including every individual personality, contains elements of both. The world, or the ‘Tao,’ is a mixing of black and white into myriad shades of gray.

The Chinese call the world’s oldest book “I Ching”, which translates as “Book of Changes.” This greatest of the surviving Taoist classical works was designed to serve as a divination system — for reading and interpreting life changes wrought by the constant interplay of the yin and yang universal energies. (Incidentally, I composed my first modern version of the I Ching text in 1989.)

The Taoist/Confucian tradition posits that juxtaposing a set of the possible permutations of yin and yang with elements of Chinese creation mythology produced the foundation of the I Ching. Pairing up the various combinations of yin (the literal ancient meaning of which is the shady north side of the hill) and yang (meaning the sunny south side of the hill) gives you four primary symbols. With the addition of another yin or yang line, the eight trigrams emerge.

The earliest composition of I Ching interpretations is attributed to King Wen. Toward the end of the Shang Dynasty, when the unjust emperor Zhou Wang imprisoned Wen, he reportedly used his confinement to meditate on the trigrams, pairing them up to produce sixty-four possible hexagrams. Each pair of trigrams took on a meaning specific to their combination. In what we might assume was an enlightened state of mind, King Wen assigned each of the sixty-four hexagrams a name, adding a few sentences to explain its meaning. It is said that his son, King Wu, added additional interpretative text, bringing the I Ching closer to its current form.

In every chapter of the I Ching, we have six lines consisting of a unique mix of yin lines and yang lines, making up 64 patterns. Each of these 64 hexagrams is an archetype of the human condition or human situations, based on the placement of yin and yang lines within it. The I Ching has for thousands of years been considered a sacred tool, a system that was originally only used by the nobility and sages to coordinate human activity with the natural rhythms of the Tao, the cycles of change.

When I first incorporated Visionary Software in 1989 to publish Synchronicity, the first ever I Ching software, we developed a company logo that incorporated the Tao symbol, knowing that our business had to be about balance and integrity if it were to be of real service. The pioneering subatomic physicist Neils Bohr also used it when he was knighted in 1947. His family had no coat of arms, so he created one. He chose the yin-yang symbol and inscribed it Contraria sunt complementa (opposites are complementary).

The yin-yang symbol of the Tao is always good to have around, for it provides a clear visual reminder of how change, which is the only constant, operates in the world. As human beings have a special role to play in this world, the I Ching was encoded to help us interpret the patterns of change in society as well as our individual human lives, giving us a greater ability to anticipate and, indeed, play a co-creative role in positive or ‘lucky’ changes that sometimes just seem to happen. It is said that the symbol of the Tao and the use of the I Ching support within us the “Three Jewels of the Tao” — love, humility and moderation. Here’s to the emotional intelligence of Taoism, one of the most uplifting and practical philosophies of all time!

Channeling Your Own Creative Power

Spring in full bloom is a perfect time to spread your creative wings — including through playfulness, joy and humor — with some playful monkey business. If you’re feeling more creative or playful than last year, it might have to do with this being the Chinese Year of the Monkey. This nimble, playful and oh-so-clever primate wants adventure or to seek out more creative solutions (in contrast to the energy of last year’s Goat, which was more about careful footing and diligence).

How can we channel creative energy this year that supports our learning and productivity? Well, truly fruitful creativity requires focusing your attention and doing things in the right order. Ironically, these boundaries free up creative power so it can flow through us. Hardly anything is more joyful than creative productivity!

Focus On Goals

Creative power is unlimited, but requires focus to produce effective or pleasing results. If you want to creatively design or produce something, make your goal enough of a top priority to work toward it every day. That’s how I finished my book, Great Decisions, Perfect Timing. I wrote an hour or two upon waking every morning for over four years — every day of the week, no matter where I was. In spite of the disciplinary aspect of making myself do this, I found I kept discovering fresh insights!

Do Things in the Right Order

Creative Power is the first archetype of the great Chinese oracle — the I Ching, or Book of Changes. It represents the highest expression of pure Yang ‘doing’ energy. As the Visionary I Ching App advises, if your goals are in alignment with the greater good — if you assert yourself in a positive way — actions taken with good timing produce success. How do we channel creativity most effectively? We start by doing things in the right order, while creating some space for creative inspiration. A mindfulness practice like the “Letting Go” meditation taught in Great Decisions, Perfect Timing, is an easy way to release mental roadblocks, “priming” your mind for better intuitive reception. It’s critical to learn how to clear your mind of distractions and emotional clutter when you need a creative solution the most!

Work Can Be Fun!

If you are focused on a creative pursuit, make sure to take in the pleasure and joy of the experience. A recent article in Current Biology by Patrick Bateson noted that “acting playfully” and “coming up with new ideas” and being humorous are linked. Interestingly, playful creativity was defined as an internal human attribute — as opposed to being motivated by external rewards, which were shown to actually inhibit creativity! Organizations should take note that it is beneficial to profits and customer satisfaction for staff members to be playful and creative at work. Bateson points out that companies like 3M give employees a portion of each day to engage in “speculative ideas” to help spur their creative juices.

Channeling Creativity

Let feelings of deep pleasure sink in … let yourself enjoy the process — whether you’re writing, playing music or making art. If you feel distracted or frustrated, do a quick “Letting Go” meditation, or just put creative work aside and escape into something you enjoy. By combining focus, timing and playfulness, you will be able to joyfully channel creative power. So, plant some wild seeds and manifest some monkey business!

A Synchronistic Lifestyle

Often we are our own worst enemy. We resist painful realities or avoid difficult situations; or we become overwhelmed by taking on too much. Pain is a normal part of life, but the extent of our suffering is largely governed by attitude. We do not have to resign ourselves to being helpless victims, always defending against possible dangers. One way of managing personal challenges is to look at life as a game of strategy and timing, like chess or the game of ‘Go.’ Of course, our lives aren’t games that we can ever really lose — at least not as long as we keep improving. But it can be hard to grow while managing our responsibilities, as well as unexpected occurrences that could knock us over!

Awareness of synchronicity can help tremendously. This is a higher awareness of timing, a stronger sense of being in the flow of life and essentially trusting life’s process of evolution. The happy result of this approach is the realization of a “synchronistic lifestyle.” Below are some benefits that describe a synchronistic lifestyle, wherein we learn to make better decisions and ride the waves of change rather than flounder.


Inspiration is the mental connection between a receptive intuitive sense and an idea ready to be adopted by someone who can appreciate it enough to do something with it. Stress and distractions block receptivity to creative inspiration, but our brains are hard-wired to seek solutions to problems. The best approach, however, is a calm mind and a quiet heart. How can you follow inspiration if you’re on high alert? There are mindfulness exercises to “calm” the mind (see the book Great Decisions, Perfect Timing). Sometimes it’s enough to just remember what you enjoy or find meaning in, acknowledging the importance of your creative side.

Develop Confidence in Your Own Intuition

Once you have identified the meaningfulness of what you enjoy, celebrate your competence! You are much more capable than you generally give yourself credit for. Believe in your inner strengths—and assert your desires. We can quickly feel overwhelmed if we never say “no” to co-workers, friends, and even strangers. Being assertive while doing what you are good at will make you more visible to key people. The exercise of confidence reduces stress levels over time.

Wisdom and Contentment

Think of contentment as a “ripened state of happiness.” Based on an unconditional acceptance of reality, contentment arises from conscious feelings of gratitude and compassion — for yourself and all beings. Cultivate contentment by appreciating all the ways that things in your life are going right. Contentment usually arrives after you have had time to digest insights and unlock their meaning. That’s when you have achieved some wisdom, the culmination of learning from experience. Wisdom helps us balance our needs with the greater good. As Aristotle put it long ago, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”

You will feel less stressed just by knowing what is possible. If you cultivate the synchronistic lifestyle, you will have more access to creative powers that influence life’s ebbs and flows and your reactions. The more you trust your intuition and take the risks that grow you, the more accurate and trustworthy your intuition will become. Your understanding of people and human nature will dramatically improve. You will learn that the more you trust yourself — and the Universe — the more confident and happy you automatically will become.

China Awakens to Spiritual Heritage

Sometimes perfect timing happens the minute you make a great decision and sometimes it takes years. My recent trip to China in October illustrates the point. Amazing synchronicities proved out the truism that “everything happens for a reason!”

Attending this year’s International Holistic Centers Gathering, held outside of Beijing, I was asked to talk on my new book, Great Decisions, Perfect Timing. Now, Beijing is fascinating, but what hits you upon arrival is a thick and suffocating smog that makes it difficult to see further than a city block. Add traffic gridlock in a city of 20 million people and, in spite of great historic sites, the place is barely livable.

The conference was held at a resort community known as “Jackson Hole, China” (search articles online). A billionaire developer, Mr. Liu Xiangpiang, developed the gated community a decade ago, adding in a personal growth center and spa. He and his wife, Annie, were most gracious hosts.

The 1500-home village is modeled on Jackson Hole, Wyoming and is a veritable monument to the American dream of conspicuous consumption. The homes are log castles of 4,000 to 5,000 square feet that cost $1 to $8 million, and they are selling as fast as they are built. The town center reminded me of a Wild West theme park. To make it even more westernized, they built a church with a cross in the center of the town, which is popular for weddings.

Tai chi is a passion of Mr. Liu’s and he led an excellent Tai chi class at our conference every morning. A CNN article quoted Mr. Liu as saying, “Those who can afford to buy houses here, have enough money … they want spiritual fulfillment.”

One can hope that injecting a spiritual element into materialism will lead to greater awareness in China of its own amazing heritage of Taoism, Tai Chi and the I Ching. My experiences with Chinese people lends weight to such hopes, as I found myself in the ironic position of bringing concepts back to a modern China that knows very little about its own noble spiritual traditions.

After giving a talk about my ‘psychological’ I Ching, I took questions. Mr. Liu himself asked me if my Visionary I Ching was influenced by personal growth experiences. I responded recounting many of the trainings I have undertaken. He asked if I had a Chinese translation of my I Ching. When I said “Not yet,” he said he would like to publish it if I did. (I thought, “Maybe that is the reason I am here!”) The next day I met with nine PhD. candidates doing dissertations on the I Ching. When I explained Jung’s synchronicity and archetypes as a way to understand the I Ching, they too thought I was a genius!

Years of refinement of my modern I Ching (beginning in 1989 up until the current Visionary I Ching app now available) have enabled the program to enter China at the right time. Sometimes perfect timing takes a while. In the case of returning a 21st century version of the I Ching back to its roots, it only took 25 years!