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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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

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  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

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