Though the Tao Te Ching isn’t among the planet’s most talked spiritual texts, at least relative to the amount of attention the Bible, Quran, and Buddhist and Hindu doctrines receive, Laozi’s slim volume of directions has massively influenced the way we think about Eastern philosophy.
The cornerstone of Taoism is embedded within his series of brief and punchy ideas which are rooted in, at times, paradoxical thinking.
Take one of the most famous aphorisms:”The Tao does nothing, and yet nothing is left undone.” The “nothing” is wu-wei, frequently interpreted as”non-action.” One translation of Taoist ideas, Tao: The Watercourse Way, composed by British philosopher Alan Watts and Chinese philosopher Chungliang Al Huang in 1975, say that the concept shouldn’t “be considered inertia, laziness, laissez-faire, or mere passivity.”
Like people who think meditation is”doing nothing,” wu-wei isn’t a readily graspable concept when approached from a mindset of continuous action, i.e. the endless distraction our brains (and by extension, technology) afford us. Instead, the concept is not to battle yourself, at times, let the plan of life have its way with us. Since the authors put it,
Wu-wei as”not forcing” is what we mean by moving 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 educate seasoned professionals to utilize their opponent’s force. By waiting for the challenger to overextend himself, you harness their effort and use his own body weight to overthrow him. To achieve this, you need to keep calm and composure in the midst of potential violence and chaos.
That’s the reason Nick Hobson, a research psychologist and lecturer in the University of Toronto, recently suggested implementing wu-wei as an antidote to our increasing rates of depression and anxiety. Rather than discovering a singular cause because of our growing dissatisfaction with our own lives, ” he points out the reasons are myriad: smartphones, sleep deprivation, a lack of purposeful social connection, and inadequate motion. He does not mention diet, however lots of study implicates poor eating habits too.
While the causes are numerous, Hobson points to our penchant for overanalyzing each scenario as the elephant in mind. Rather than holism, a cognitive characteristic he associates with Eastern psychology, we choose the trees over the forest, resulting in a obsession with overthinking.
This stark cultural gap was supported by people like social psychologist Richard Nisbett, who devoted an whole book to the subject. One of the most revealing examples involves the ways in which Easterners and Westerners–those terms are broad and generic, but function to provide a little bit of yin to our yang, at least as a metaphor–see art. Americans find a topic, an overarching detail which illustrates the”purpose” of the painting. Asians, by contrast, try to comprehend the relationship between everything in the scene. Their focus is more on interdependence compared to independence.
Hobson utilizes the”triad test” to make this point:
Suppose you are presented with a dog, a rabbit, and a carrot, then asked which two belong together. The analytical thinker chooses the dog and bunny because both fulfill the internally held principle of “animal category.” The holistic thinker, on the other hand, selects the bunny and carrot due to the interconnected and practical connection between the two: A rabbit eats carrots.
Western”rule-based reasoning” leads us to think every problem has a solution. Research in cognition and narrative has revealed when we aren’t offered a resolution to a story, we will devise one, often to our detriment–your partner is cheating on you if they haven’t texted, while the reality is anything but. After we’re not supplied a response, we have a tendency to overanalyze the circumstance, heaping stress upon anxiety.
That’s why Hobson proposes two Laozi-era methods to calm our overactive imaginations. Wu-wei is your very first, which he says means”we shouldn’t hurry to action.” While he prescribes”to not do anything at all,” that is slightly different from Watts’s and Al Huang’s translation, Hobson urges an”intuitive style of thinking” to cool our over-analyzing heads. Meditation and visualization exercises are just two methods for rerouting our psychological habits.
The next entails dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), an evidence-based therapy made by Dr. Marsha Linehan. Among its many programs, it’s intended to promote skills for bettering “mindfulness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness.”
To make this connection, Hobson points to Taoism’s good export, the yin-yang emblem, which describes mutual dependence is present in everything. Hobson continues,
Two things can be opposed, and at the same time, mutually connected. You can be, for instance, in an anxious state and have perfect control of your situation and your life. Thinking in this manner makes it possible for a individual to tolerate contradictions and to take the uncertainties that inevitably present themselves.
Hobson writes that DBT has shown more effective than cognitive behavioral therapy (Linehan considers DBT a form of CBT) and pharmacological interventions. The target is to make incremental adjustments by recognizing a) not everything will be exactly how you want it, and that is alright, b) certain changes might need to be executed, so practice those changes and c) realize that life is worth living. From the equilibrium between nations that afflict people experiencing psychological ailments –complete management and lack of control–an emotionally salient mindset can be achieved.
Not that any of this is easy, however as Hobson mentions, neuroplasticity is really a phenomenon. Seeing the landscape rather than the singular figure walking through it is crucial for breaking loose of isolationism and the overwhelming lack of stress. As Watts and Al Huang phrased it,
Is a long life such a good thing if it’s lived in daily dread or in continuous search for gratification in a tomorrow that never comes?
Most of us intuitively know the solution. Placing that instinct into actions, paradoxically through a little bit of non-action, may only be a significant key to curing our anxious thoughts.