There was a time in my life when I was content to be “normal.” I worked, I socialized, and for the most part I lived in an unconscious vacuum. I did things out of habit, lived without thinking. If ignorance is bliss, I was happy. Except that I was wearing myself down. I noticed and ignored little things at first: small stresses.
At this time I experienced tension headaches and severe sciatica. It was harder to wake up in the mornings and to stay awake in the afternoons. I was always agitated. Instead of slowing up, I worked harder. I wore myself down.
I thought my problems would go away, then the dam broke and my stress was finally too much to ignore. My panic attacks from earlier in life returned as I found myself in new and uncertain circumstances (having moved to another state), and for months I reeled from my phobias and anxiety.
I was forced to look into myself to figure out what was wrong, because nothing on the outside was helping. To me, this meant venturing on a spiritual path.
When I was 18 I stumbled upon Taoism. I lived in Florida by that time, was in counseling, but living in a cocoon. I had always had an inclination toward the spiritual, but my attempts at studying major religions like Buddhism and Hinduism were coming up short. Nothing I read—mostly commentary from modern practitioners—made sense to me or seemed practical at the time.
I needed to go to a source and I finally found it in a short book of poetry called the Tao Te Ching (the Way and its Power, written by Lao Tzu around 500 B.C.E.), the preeminent book of Taoism. Taoism was not a major religion—it has just 30,000 followers in North America, and only a couple of million throughout the world—but it was just what I needed at the time and what I continue to use today.
Taoism is a philosophy/psychology of ancient China brought to a small prominence in the West during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by scholars like Alan Watts, Huston Smith, and James Legge—the first translator of many Chinese works into English.
What immediately drew me to Taoism wasn't necessarily what the Tao Te Ching said, for I didn't understand much of what it was saying the first time I read it, but the sense of quiet peace that I fell into as I read it. This relaxed state was something I had never felt before, as if years of tension were released all at once and I was calm for the first time. Today, I can still pick up a copy of the Tao Te Ching and read it and experience this peace.
It was an easy jump from there to deciding to take up Taoism on a deeper level. Anything that made me feel calm, when finding calm was like finding the fountain of youth, must have been worth more than a cursory glance.
This put me on a journey to using Taoism as a way to cope with my panic and generalized anxiety disorders. In the coming years I have completely overcome generalized anxiety, something that was a great burden throughout my teenage years, and though I still have occasional panic attacks, I can shrug them off like so many dried leaves from a warm coat.
If the Tao Te Ching contains a theme, it is simply that the world is what the world is, and that instead of fighting against what happens to me, I should flow with it (this was new to me, as I had always fought against everything, making life a constant struggle). It took me years to verbalize this theme, but at the time I understood it intuitively.
The Tao, the way of the world, is often compared to or symbolized by water for water's ability to overcome hard objects by seeming passivity—though in reality water's virtue is that it does not give up or turn back, but seeks the easiest path against difficulties, never forcing its way through rock, but overcoming it in time to form great canyons.
As someone in a state of constant worry, this new worldview was enlivening. As I searched deeper into Taoism, studying Chuang Tzu (a near-contemporary of Lao Tzu) and Alan Watts (a twentieth century philosopher), I found more meaning and deeper explanations of what I was reading in the Tao Te Ching.
There were many stories and parables explaining what it was like to simply be. Chuang Tzu expresses the idea that we can live without outside influences effecting our emotional state of mind. This is not unlike Western cognitive psychology—except 2,000 years older. Reading and listening to Alan Watts, I learned to find unity with the world.
I realized that as a teenager I lived closed off from “others.” That I was living in a vacuum, where I could not connect and feel like I was part of anything. This lead eventually to my phobias, exacerbating my anxiety symptoms. What I found in Taoism was a way of life that desired unity—that went a step further and showed why unity was not only possible, but was the way of the world.
It's difficult to put it into words exactly how Taoism effects anxiety, because I “live” it more than I “think” it. It's a feeling, an intuition, and the right words are seldom there for me to describe the experience. But it has worked for me and continues to work for me today. I'm no longer a worry-wart, my anxiety attacks have all but vanished, and I hope that some day this will help me overcome my phobias.
But perhaps Taoism's advantage is not what it has given me itself, but how it has worked in tandem with cognitive psychology. It fits everything behavioral psychologists have to say about anxiety. As a tool alongside cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) Taoism is an excellent gift.
Each has given the other a different, fascinating perspective. I feel that, in light of Taoism, I understand CBT better; how it works, why it works, what it can accomplish for me. And in light of CBT I understand Taoism better; why the ancient Chinese latched onto it, and that it is an accurate and practical way of thought and life.
Tao of Anxiety: Series
Tao of Anxiety: Series