How Taoist philosophy deals with the concept of anxiety

Perpetual worry doesn't have to be your default mindset.

  • Anxiety doesn't exist for someone who has a life lived in the present.
  • Our concerns for a spectral future fuel anxiety.
  • Taoist philosophy teaches us a new way of living.

Varying degrees of anxiety awash over millions. Whether it's stress from the workplace, fretting for a future that never comes or getting tangled in the ceaseless political drama of the day. At the root of this issue is the constant need to live for the future and it is here where our anxiety stems from.

One of the solutions for anxiety, and other assorted mental ailments, set forth by Taoists is the idea of mindfulness or being within the present moment. It is from within this philosophy which emerges the art of meditation. The concept of presence flows throughout the Eastern idea of being within the now. It's been repeated so many times that the words often read as platitude and banality. But the concept cannot be overlooked because it is the missing key toward living a fulfilling life devoid of angst and anxiety.

Here's how Taoist philosophy rids us of anxiety.

Taoism takes us back to what is real     

Our insistence on staying secure in a fluid and metamorphic world is an absurd concept when you get down to the bottom of it. Change is ever constant. The future doesn't exist. These adages are all ignored. And as they will be continually ignored by the masses in perpetuity — then it will come as no surprise that the concept of anxiety will stay with us.

Though, decide not to ignore this timeless wisdom and one will find a new way to live freely without anxiety. One of the great translators of Taoist ideas, Alan Watts, codified this way of living in his seminal work: The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for An Age of Anxiety.

In this book, Watts argues that our primary way we delude ourselves from the present moment is by leaving the body and retreating behind our minds. The boiling pot of countless worries, thinking, categorizing and calculating space where anxieties and thoughts pouring over thoughts remove us from any truth of the real moment at hand. This is where Watts states that "the 'primary consciousness,' the basic mind which knows reality rather than ideas about it, does not know the future." In other words, our thinking facilities are divorced from the actuality of experience.

Our more methodical thinking processes on the other hand creates memories, which we use for making predictions on what is to come. These predictions prove to be relatively accurate and we begin to rely on them. The future begins to take on as Watts says, "a high degree of reality — so high that the present loses its value."

But the future is still not here, and cannot become a part of experienced reality until it is present. Since what we know of the future is made up of purely abstract and logical elements — inferences, guesses, deductions — it cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard, or otherwise enjoyed.

Rephrasing the way we think about future events then is one such way that the Taoist philosophy does away with anxiety. It's really that simple. But as practice or non-practice, it is something that our modern civilization lacks. After all, the anxiety riddled addict is probably already thinking, "What are we to do!"

To pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all the affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more.

Applying the concept of wu-wei 

Laozi's Tao Te Ching is a small book filled with immeasurable wisdom. It has instructed us on the basis of Taoism. From within this book comes an interesting concept called wu-wei, which literally means "without exertion." There are plenty of famous aphorisms from this text that explain this concept fully.

If you try to change it, you will ruin it. Try to hold it, and you will lose it.

Wu-wei is the act of not going against the natural rhythms of the present, while learning to get out of your own way. Again, meditation and a silencing of the over analytic mind is what wu-wei proposes to offer us. It is also within this way that we begin to see what Buddhism, Tao, yoga and other assorted religions of the Ancient East offer us — a renewed psychology of the mind.

Psychotherapy as philosophy in the Ancient East

There are many similarities between Eastern philosophical ways of life and Western psychotherapy. Both deal with the concern of changing our consciousness for the betterment of humanity and availing us of negative ailments such as anxiety. Although, where they converge is within their categorization of what is considered a well-suited and enlightened individual. Alan Watts put it as:

"The psychotherapist has, for the most part, been interested in changing the consciousness of peculiarly disturbed individuals. The disciplines of Buddhism and Taoism are, however, concerned with changing the consciousness of normal, socially adjusted people."

Modern Western approaches to mental well-being largely focus on the symptoms and not the root causes. The mechanization of mental health treatment often muddies the water even further. Contrast this to the way that Ancient Eastern religions have approached self-care for thousands of years. Through the act of meditation, breathing exercises, and a yogic life, those who are adept at centering themselves "in the now" are continually living in a state of self-directed care.

These approaches to emotional distress and anxious turmoil recognize that the issue stems from the delusion of self and future — two ironclad concepts we, in the West, still hold very close to our identity in our culture. From this renewed Taoist perspective, we become the arbiters and shrinks of our own psychology. When worries about scenarios that may never manifest are substituted with grounded, thoughtful deliberations, we regain a sense of potent agency.

This all said, it seems that an integrative Taoist philosophy may, indeed, reduce anxiety when followed by an individual.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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