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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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A neural crêpe

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So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

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