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How a 4th-century Taoist concept is treating anxiety
The concept of non-action might just be the most powerful action to take for curbing anxiety.
While the Tao Te Ching is not one of the world’s most discussed religious texts, at least relative to the amount of attention the Bible, Quran, and Buddhist and Hindu doctrines receive, Laozi’s slim volume of instructions has massively influenced how we think about Eastern philosophy. The basis of Taoism is embedded in his series of short and punchy ideas that are rooted in, at times, paradoxical thinking.
Consider one of his most famous aphorisms: “The Tao does nothing, and yet nothing is left undone.” The “nothing” is wu-wei, often translated as “non-action.” One translation of Taoist ideas, Tao: The Watercourse Way, written by British philosopher Alan Watts and Chinese philosopher Chungliang Al Huang in 1975, state that the concept should not “be considered inertia, laziness, laissez-faire, or mere passivity.”
As with those who believe meditation is “doing nothing,” wu-wei is not an easily graspable concept when approached from a mindset of constant action, i.e. the perpetual distraction our brains (and by extension, technology) afford us. Rather, the idea is to not battle yourself, to, at times, let the course of life have its way with us. As the authors put it,
Wu-wei as “not forcing” is what we mean by going with the grain, rolling with the punch, swimming with the current, trimming sails to the wind, taking the tide at its flood, and stooping to conquer.
They compare the practice to judo and aikido, two martial arts that teach seasoned practitioners to use their opponent’s force against themselves. By waiting for the challenger to overextend himself, you exploit their exertion and use his body weight to overthrow him. To accomplish this, you need to maintain calm and composure in the midst of potential violence and chaos.
Which is why Nick Hobson, a research psychologist and lecturer at the University of Toronto, recently suggested implementing wu-wei as an antidote to our rising rates of anxiety and depression. Instead of pinpointing a singular cause for our growing dissatisfaction with our lives, he points out the reasons are myriad: smartphones, sleep deprivation, a lack of meaningful social connection, and not enough movement. He doesn’t mention diet, though plenty of research implicates bad eating habits as well.
While the causes are many, Hobson points to our penchant for overanalyzing every situation as the elephant in the mind. Instead of holism, a cognitive trait he associates with Eastern psychology, we choose the trees over the forest, leading to an obsession with overthinking.
This stark cultural difference has been confirmed by thinkers like social psychologist Richard Nisbett, who devoted an entire book to the topic. One of the most revealing instances involves the ways in which Easterners and Westerners—these terms are generic and broad, but serve to supply a bit of yin to our yang, at least as a metaphor—view art. Americans seek out a subject, an overarching detail that exemplifies the “purpose” of the painting. Asians, by contrast, seek to understand the relationship between everything in the scene. Their focus is more on interdependence than independence.
Hobson uses the “triad test” to make this point:
Suppose you’re presented with a dog, a rabbit, and a carrot, and then asked which two belong together. The analytic thinker chooses the dog and rabbit because both satisfy the internally held rule of “animal category.” The holistic thinker, on the other hand, chooses the rabbit and carrot because of the interconnected and functional relationship between the two: A rabbit eats carrots.
Western “rule-based reasoning” leads us to believe every problem has a solution. Research in cognition and narrative has shown that when we aren’t offered a resolution to a story, we’ll invent one, often to our detriment—your partner is cheating on you if they haven't texted, while the reality is anything but. When we’re not provided an answer, we tend to overanalyze the situation, heaping anxiety upon anxiety.
Takeshi Sasaki (L) throws Keita Nagashima in the Men's -81kg match on day two of the All Japan Judo Championships by Weight Category at Fukuoka Convention Center on April 8, 2018 in Fukuoka, Japan. (Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)
Which is why Hobson suggests two Laozi-era practices to calm our overactive imaginations. Wu-wei is the first, which he says means “we shouldn’t hurry to action.” While he prescribes “to not do anything at all,” which is slightly different from Watts’s and Al Huang’s translation, Hobson recommends an “intuitive style of thinking” to chill our over-analyzing minds. Meditation and visualization exercises are two ways of rerouting our mental habits.
The second involves dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), an evidence-based therapy created by Dr. Marsha Linehan. Among its many applications, it is designed to promote skills for cultivating "mindfulness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness."
To make this connection, Hobson points to Taoism’s great export, the yin-yang symbol, which denotes mutual dependence exists in everything. Hobson continues,
Two things can be mutually opposed, and at the same time, mutually connected. You can be, for example, in an anxious state and still have perfect control of your situation and your life. Thinking in this way allows a person to tolerate contradictions and to accept the uncertainties that inevitably present themselves.
Hobson writes that DBT has proven more effective than cognitive behavioral therapy (Linehan considers DBT a form of CBT) and pharmacological interventions. The goal is to make incremental changes by admitting that a) not everything is going to be exactly how you want it, and that’s okay, b) certain changes will have to be implemented, so practice those changes, and c) recognize that life is worth living. In the balance between states that afflict those suffering from psychological disorders—complete control and lack of control—an emotionally salient mindset can be achieved.
Not that any of this is easy, but as Hobson mentions, neuroplasticity is a real phenomenon. Seeing the landscape instead of the singular figure walking through it is essential for breaking free of isolationism and the overwhelming burden of anxiety. As Watts and Al Huang phrased it,
Is a long life such a good thing if it is lived in daily dread or in constant search for satisfaction in a tomorrow which never comes?
We all intuitively know the answer. Putting that intuition into action, ironically through a bit of non-action, might just be an important key to healing our anxious minds.
A new study finds that dogs fed fresh human-grade food don't need to eat—or do their business—as much.
- Most dogs eat a diet that's primarily kibble.
- When fed a fresh-food diet, however, they don't need to consume as much.
- Dogs on fresh-food diets have healthier gut biomes.
Four diets were tested<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTU5ODI1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NjY0NjIxMn0._w0k-qFOC86AqmtPHJBK_i-9F5oVyVYsYtUrdvfUxWQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="1b1e4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="87937436a81c700a8ab3b1d763354843" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="960" />
Credit: AntonioDiaz/Adobe Stock<p>The researchers tested refrigerated and fresh human-grade foods against kibble, the food most dogs live on. The <a href="https://frontierpets.com.au/blogs/news/how-kibble-or-dry-dog-food-is-made" target="_blank">ingredients</a> of kibble are mashed into a dough and then extruded, forced through a die of some kind into the desired shape — think a <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_extrusion" target="_blank">pasta maker</a>. The resulting pellets are sprayed with additional flavor and color.</p><p>For four weeks, researchers fed 12 beagles one of four diets:</p><ol><li>a extruded diet — Blue Buffalo Chicken and Brown Rice Recipe</li><li>a fresh refrigerated diet — Freshpet Roasted Meals Tender Chicken Recipe</li><li>a fresh diet — JustFoodforDogs Beef & Russet Potato Recipe</li><li>another fresh diet — JustFoodforDogs Chicken & White Rice Recipe.</li></ol><p>The two fresh diets contained minimally processed beef, chicken, broccoli, rice, carrots, and various food chunks in a canine casserole of sorts. </p><p>(One can't help but think how hard it would be to get finicky cats to test new diets. As if.)</p><p>Senior author <a href="https://ansc.illinois.edu/directory/ksswanso" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Kelly S. Swanson</a> of U of I's Department of Animal Sciences and the Division of Nutritional Sciences, was a bit surprised at how much better dogs did on people food than even refrigerated dog chow. "Based on past research we've conducted I'm not surprised with the results when feeding human-grade compared to an extruded dry diet," he <a href="https://aces.illinois.edu/news/feed-fido-fresh-human-grade-dog-food-scoop-less-poop" target="_blank">says</a>, adding, "However, I did not expect to see how well the human-grade fresh food performed, even compared to a fresh commercial processed brand."</p>
Tracking the effect of each diet<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTU5ODI1OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3NjY1NTgyOX0.AdyMb8OEcjCD6iWYnXjToDmcnjfTSn-0-dfG96SIpUA/img.jpg?width=980" id="da892" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="880d952420679aeccd1eaf32b5339810" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="960" />
Credit: Patryk Kosmider/Adobe Stock<p>The researchers tracked the dogs' weights and analyzed the microbiota in their fecal matter.</p><p>It turned out that the dogs on kibble had to eat more to maintain their body weight. This resulted in their producing 1.5 to 2.9 times the amount of poop produced by dogs on the fresh diets.</p><p>Says Swanson, "This is consistent with a 2019 National Institute of Health study in humans that found people eating a fresh whole food diet consumed on average 500 less calories per day, and reported being more satisfied, than people eating a more processed diet."</p><p>Maybe even more interesting was the effect of fresh food on the gut biome. Though there remains much we don't yet know about microbiota, it was nonetheless the case that the microbial communities found in fresh-food poo was different.</p><p>"Because a healthy gut means a healthy mutt," says Swanson, "fecal microbial and metabolite profiles are important readouts of diet assessment. As we have shown in <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jas/article/92/9/3781/4702209#110855647" target="_blank">previous studies</a>, the fecal microbial communities of healthy dogs fed fresh diets were different than those fed kibble. These unique microbial profiles were likely due to differences in diet processing, ingredient source, and the concentration and type of dietary fibers, proteins, and fats that are known to influence what is digested by the dog and what reaches the colon for fermentation."</p>
How did kibble take over canine diets?<p>Historically, dogs ate scraps left over by humans. It has only been <a href="https://www.thefarmersdog.com/digest/the-history-of-commercial-pet-food-a-great-american-marketing-story/" target="_blank">since 1870</a>, with the arrival of the luxe Spratt's Meat Fibrine Dog Cakes—made from "the dried unsalted gelatinous parts of Prairie Beef", mmm—that commercial dog food began to take hold. Dog bone-shaped biscuits first appeared in 1907. Ken-L Ration dates from 1922. Kibble was first extruded in 1956. Pet food had become a great way to turn <a href="https://www.dogfoodadvisor.com/choosing-dog-food/animal-by-products/" target="_blank">human-food waste</a> into profit.</p><p>Commercial dog food became the norm for most household canines only after a massive marketing campaign led by a group of dog-food industry lobbyists called the Pet Food Institute in 1964. Over time, for most households, dog food was what dogs ate — what else? Human food? These days more than half of U.S. dogs are <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/03/magazine/who-made-that-dog-biscuit.html" target="_blank">overweight or obese</a>, and certainly their diet is a factor.<span></span></p><p>We're not so special among animals after all. If something's healthy for us to eat—we're <em>not</em> looking at you, chocolate—maybe we should remember to share with our canine compatriots. Not from the table, though.</p>
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Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.
- A massive new study confirms that five servings of fruit and veggies a day can lower the risk of death.
- The maximum benefit is found at two servings of fruit and three of veggies—anything more offers no extra benefit according to the researchers.
- Not all fruits and veggies are equal. Leafy greens are better for you than starchy corn and potatoes.