Table Speech

Apply Laozi’s Philosophy to Mental Health Therapy

November 27, 2019

Mr. Soichiro Nomura
Vice Chief Director,
Japan Depression Center

 I am a psychiatrist, but not a medical authority. I devote myself to clinical care, examining patients, day in and day out and searching intuitively what will be beneficial for clinical therapy. In doing so, I was fascinated by Laozi’s philosophy of ancient China, though I am not an expert of Oriental philosophy nor have a profound knowledge of psychology or psychotherapy.

 Let me first tell you why I got interested in Laozi. Laozi was an ancient Chinese philosopher who had written only one book in his life, Tao Te Ching (meaning The Book of the Way and of Virtue) which consists of only 5,500 characters, so you can read it in a few days. It is amazing that such short scriptures, written in a form of beautiful Chinese poems kept giving enormous impact to mankind.

 We all question ourselves how we should live. Laozi’s philosophy is exactly the answer to this universal question. It can be summarized as: “Better to stay weak”, “Don’t be too ambitious”, “Don’t be obsessed with fame”, “Know yourself” and “Follow nature”. It is filled with irony and sarcastic paradox. Though Laozi’s philosophy is reserved and unobtrusive, and not taught in school education, it has kept giving a large impact on Japanese culture. In the daily conversation of ordinary Japanese people, many Laozi’s idea and words are quoted such as “Stay inconspicuous like water,” “God knows everything,” “Look carefully where your own footsteps fall,” “Learn to be contented,” and “Great talents are slow to mature.”

 Laozi’s words are often used to encourage or comfort people at the time of distress or failure. I guess that is why they gave enormous influence and remain deeply rooted in Japanese consciousness. On the other hand, Confucius who is considered as a rival to Laozi living in the same age, preaches legitimate, orthodox ideas, such as “Always strive for the people and society.” They are effective when things are going well. In other words, Confucius was used as an official teaching whereas Laozi was quoted as an unofficial lesson. In South-East Asian countries, including Japan, people have been using both of them depending on the situation.

 Now, how can we apply Laozi’s philosophy to the therapy and prevention of mental health issues? Our mental health is disturbed when the following 4 mental conditions overlap:
1 Suffer from inferiority complex.
2 Feeling victimized or obstructed.
3 Haunted by perfectionism
4 Be obsessed with your own pace or way.

 A feeling of defeat and comparison with others would aggravate the situation. I am trying to encourage those who suffer from mental disorders not to compare with others and stay “judgement free” by quoting Laozi’s words as follows:
•“Heaven’s vengeance is slow but sure” or “The meshes of Heaven’s net are as wide as the sea but let nothing through.”
•“Live a quiet life by effacing oneself” or “Mingle with the world by hiding one’s true talent or knowledge.”
•“If you are useless like a bent wood you can complete your life.”

 There are many more wise and witty sayings in Laozi’s Scriptures. But as they are also full of contradictory and irrational phrases, it will need some more time and devising to complete as a modern time mental health theory.

 Now let me tell you how to conduct Laozi’s style counseling referring to a book entitled “Laozi’s Words” by Mr. Yoshifumi Taguchi, a scholar of Oriental philosophy. He advises that when someone is going to make an action, we should examine its objective, motivation and goals:
•Target of your action: Aren’t you too greedy or avaricious?
•Motivation: Aren’t you aiming at attracting attention or becoming famous?
•Status: Put aside your status and titles, such as your family linage, school you attended or company you work for.
•Effort: Aren’t you making too much effort which could be tiring and inefficient?
•Past success: Aren’t you complacent with your past successes?
•Social activities: Are they serving to the world? Aren’t they for your own interests?
•Way of living: Are you living with an unconcerned state of mind? An attitude of unconcernedness is best.
•Mind setting: If you set your mind in a wider environment like the universe or deep in the mountains, what seems to be a problem may no longer be one.

 I must emphasize that I am not saying that Laozi’s philosophy can be applied to any mentality at any time under any circumstances, but they can be flexibly used as a basis of counseling.

 This January, I published a book entitled “There is No Victory or Defeat in Life” based upon Laozi’s philosophy. I must say it is not a best-selling book but I’ll be happy if it can be useful as a practical guide on mental health.