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.

How a 4th-century Taoist concept is treating anxiety
People practice tai chi on a snowy afternoon in Prospect Park on January 17, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Facebook and Twitter.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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