8 Taoist quotes we can all use right now

Those ancient Chinese philosophers earned their insights.

A taoist priest (C) wears a face masks during the ceremony to mark the Lunar New Year of the Rat in Wong Tai Sin Temple in Hong Kong on January 24, 2020.

Photo by Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images
  • Classic Taoist wisdom about the nature of change addresses this current moment well.
  • Taoist philosophers teach a path that exists between polarities, making it harder for the Western mind to grasp.
  • Taoism's three jewels—compassion, frugality, and humility—are essential practices in the age of COVID-19.

A well-circulated meme features a depiction of the Buddha with the quotation marks around "I didn't say that." There have been many false attributions to this Indian sage over the years. In some ways, this makes sense: he was a practical thinker who taught timeless wisdom during his discourses. While behind the scenes he was as much politician as philosopher, he did his best to offer instruction in a manner that everyone could understand.

Taoism is a different animal. Unlike its contemporary counterpart, Confucianism, Taoism eschewed rigid orders by expressing more flexibility and color. An extreme emphasis on "naturalness" pervades many texts, which are intentionally ambiguous. The "Way" is, in essence, many ways. It reminds us that every response is dependent upon the circumstances. That's made it much harder to pin down in a culture like America, where polarization is the norm.

There is much knowledge to be gained by reading these amazing texts. In one sense, Taoism is more akin to Hinduism. It's not one particular system, but many schools falling under an umbrella term. Below I chose eight statements that are applicable in the age of COVID-19. They're like mirrors reflecting back how we're reacting to our circumstances. The first four are classical Taoism, while the latter four are modern interpretations.

The Dao of Letting Go (or Not Trying)

"Exterminate the sage, discard the wise, / And the people will benefit a hundredfold; / Exterminate benevolence, discard rectitude, / And the people will again be filial; / Exterminate ingenuity, discard profit, / And there will be no more thieves and bandits. / These three, being false adornments, are not enough / And the people must have something to which they can attach themselves; / Exhibit the unadorned and embrace the uncarved block, / Have little thought of self and as few desires as possible." — Lao Tzu, "Tao Te Ching"

"The Scripture of the Way and Its Virtue," popularly know as "Tao Te Ching," is one of the two foundational texts of Taoism. Written by Laozi (Lao Tzu), an older contemporary of Confucius, this collection of aphorisms features a wide range of techniques for self-cultivation as well as thoughts on government—the two were not necessarily separate. This book has been heavily influential in our culture. Ronald Reagan quoted from it during one well-known speech. Meanwhile, "The Matrix" and "The Tao of Pooh" used Taoism as a basis for new artwork. I've always loved the above passage as it reminds us of that long-held view: the more we crave, be it status or money, the more we suffer. That seems especially pertinent during this pandemic, where the focus is on healing and loved ones, not consumerism.

"Anything that smacks of exaggeration is irresponsible. Where there is irresponsibility, no one will trust what is said, and when that happens, the man who is transmitting the words will be in danger. Therefore the aphorism says, 'Transmit the established facts; do not transmit words of exaggeration.' If you do that, you will probably come out all right." — "The Book of Master Zhuang"

Popularly known as Zhuangzi, this passage is from the other foundational text of Taoism. Whereas Laozi was known as a serious cat (his name means "Old Master"), Zhuangzi was a trickster. His stories are more wide-ranging and humorous, though still pointed. I posted this quote on social media before publishing this article. Someone immediately replied that it could have been written today, not in the 4th century BCE. We're not as advanced as we think. We certainly still need instruction.

"What we mean by strength of deeds is / responding with alacrity when encountering alterations; / pushing away disasters and warding off difficulties; / being so strong that there is nothing unvanquished; / facing enemies, there are none that are not humiliated; / responding to transformations by gauging the proper moment; / and being harmed by nothing." — "Master of Huainan"

This collection of scholarly debates was presented to the King of Huainan, Liu An, in 139 BCE. As with many texts influenced by Taoism and Confucianism (with some Mohist philosophy thrown in), these sentiments require that the seeker remain flexible, as different circumstances require nuanced responses. I was particularly struck by "gauging the proper moment." As I've written previously, too many people are doubling down on their biases and ignorance right now instead of treating this pandemic head on.

"The Way has no fixed position; / It abides within the excellent mind. / When the mind is tranquil and the vital breath is regular, / The Way can thereby be halted. / That Way is not distant from us; / When people attain if they are sustained. / That Way is not separated from us; / When people accord with it they are harmonious." — "Inward Training"

If you're wondering where the Mandalorians came up with their saying, "This is the way," look no further than Taoism. Mando realizing he must rebel against the prescriptive course in order to ensure order (by saving The Child, aka Baby Yoda) is his recognition that there is no "fixed position." Everything is contextual, as this passage from a 4th century BCE collection of self-cultivation practices reminds us.

Laotsze riding an ox

Circa 550 BC, Laotsze, Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism (c 604 - 531 BC) riding an ox.

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

"Change is not something that is carried out abruptly and irrationally. It has its fixed course in which the trends of events develop. Just as we confidently count on the sun rising tomorrow and on spring following winter, so we can be sure that the process of becoming is not chaotic but pursues fixed courses." — Helmut & Richard Welhelm, "Understanding the I Ching"

The "I Ching," or "Book of Changes," is an incredible system that reminds us everything can become its opposite. Yet, as with COVID-19, these changes are not abrupt. They only feel abrupt because we weren't prepared. As I wrote about last month, we were warned about the potential for a coronavirus pandemic starting in a Chinese wet market in 2007. Change is inevitable, but we can see it coming, if we know where to look.

"Is a long life such a good thing if it is lived in daily dread of death or in constant search for satisfaction in a tomorrow which never comes?" — Alan Watts & Al Chung-liang Huang, "Tao: The Watercourse Way"

Alan Watts was the foremost translator of Taoist and Buddhist thought in the fifties and sixties. This wonderful collaboration with Al Huang is one the first serious inquires into Taoism in the West. As with the foundational texts, they provide a bit of humor alongside insights. Watts once said the problem with the God of the West is that he takes himself too seriously, whereas the gods of the East are playful and dynamic. Be here now, as it goes.

"The main problem with this great obsession for saving time is very simple: you can't save time. You can only spend it. But you can spend it wisely or foolishly." — Benjamin Hoff, "The Tao of Pooh"

Sure, Hoff's feel-good classic is Tao-ish, but I'm pretty sure Laozi would nod his head in agreement with this timeless piece of wisdom. Right now, using your time wisely implies doing your duty in trying to protect our fragile health care system and those most susceptible to disease. To use it foolishly—well, log onto social media. It's rather easy to spot.

"The Tao Te Ching teaches of three jewels, or characteristics, that man should cherish. They are Compassion, which leads to courage, Moderation, which leads to generosity, and Humility, which leads to leadership." — RZA, "The Wu-Tang Manual"

Who better to sum up the essence of Taoism than one of hip-hop's great masterminds? Three qualities that would make this entire pandemic at least a little bit easier to manage. Nothing is easy right now, yet we don't have to suffer as much as we are when proper leadership arises. Right now, we have to be those leaders.


Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
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  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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