Scroll down for a transcription of this episode.
War veteran and country music singer Sal Gonzalez tries the Taoist practice of Wu Wei to improve his relationship with anger.
Link to episode transcript: https://tinyurl.com/yavaw23d
For Iraq war veteran Sal Gonzalez, relying on anger had become second nature — and while this emotion was beneficial for him on the battlefield, Sal found it difficult to manage his anger when readjusting to civilian life. For our show Sal tried a 5 step practice of Wu Wei. Rooted in the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism, Wu Wei is focused on setting strategic intentions and accepting difficult situations, rather than resisting them. After trying the practice, Sal reflected that he doesn’t have to give up anger entirely, rather, he can be more intentional about choosing when to use it. We later hear from Dr. Doris Chang, the clinical psychologist who developed a 5 step methodology of practicing Wu Wei, to learn more about the impact of acceptance and non-action.
Articulate: Identify your goals and values in life.
Self-Assess: Take note of your role and the role of others within a particular situation in order to clearly outline your options.
Accept: Begin by recognizing any circumstances of your life that cannot be changed. Instead of resisting or trying to control the situation, try to accept the situation.
Action, non-action: Based on your evaluation of the situation, determine whether it is more beneficial to act, or choose not to act.
Allow: Give yourself the opportunity to move with the situation, recognizing that it is easier to flow with a situation than against it.
Sal Gonzalez is a country music singer and an Iraq war veteran who was wounded in combat.
Listen to Sal’s music: https://salgmusic.com/
Follow Sal on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/salgmusic/
Follow Sal on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/officialsalgmusic
Doris Chang is a clinical psychologist and professor at NYU. She developed a five step process of Wu Wei.
Learn more about Doris and her work: http://dorisfchang.com/about
Follow Doris on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dorisfchang/
Resources from The Greater Good Science Center:
What You Think About Your Emotions Matters: https://tinyurl.com/9akpm7u6
Just One Thing: Accept Difficulty: https://tinyurl.com/mrknbj8b
How to Deal with Feeling Bad About Your Feelings: https://tinyurl.com/2zf7njh4
How to Overcome Destructive Anger: https://tinyurl.com/49zu6whw
More Resources for A Good Night’s Sleep
Harvard Health - Go with the flow: engagement and concentration are key: https://tinyurl.com/bp66krnw
CNBC - A 2,000-year-old Chinese mindset can make you more successful—it ‘takes almost zero effort,’ says psychologist: https://tinyurl.com/mr3n4a8b
TED - Wuwei and Flow: https://tinyurl.com/3jmcjp68
Atlantic - How to Not Try: https://tinyurl.com/mr2nwufj
Have you tried to accept a difficult emotion in your life? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the hashtag #happinesspod.
Help us share The Science of Happiness!
Rate us on Spotify and share this link with someone who might like the show: https://tinyurl.com/mpnacwv7
Sal Gonzalez: Anger has a way of stealing happiness from the rest of your life. It distracts you from the reality of the moment and what’s going on. And a lot of those moments are important to me now. You know, I have little kids who are not gonna be little kids for very much longer, and I want to enjoy their chubby little faces for as long as I can.
Because when I’m angry, I can’t just be happy. I’m either happy or I’m angry.
I would find that if I had a bad morning that all day would be terrible. I’d drive, I’d get behind the wheel angry. I’d go to work angry. And I would write angry songs. I got a lot of songs about fighting for no reason. I had no idea why.
Well, I know why. It’s because my day was messed up. Because some jerk — whatever in the morning, it was always somebody else’s fault. It was a weird realization, that I was in charge of my own happiness.
Dacher Keltner: Welcome to the Science of Happiness. I’m Dacher Keltner.
When many of us experience a difficult emotion, like anxiety or sadness, our first instinct may be to fight, to try to change it, or control it. But what if accepting the feeling is the way to a better mental space?
Today on our show, we’re going to talk about how to accept what we cannot change, and about how and when to act.
That’s one of the core concepts of a Chinese philosophy called Taoism and what our guest today tried to do in his own life.
Sal Gonzalez is a country music singer based in Nashville, and a veteran wounded in Iraq. For our show, Sal tried a Taoist practice called Wu Wei, which fundamentally, is about acceptance, and setting intentions without forceful effort.
Later in the show, psychologist Doris Chang explains Wu Wei in five steps and the Taoist philosophy behind them.
Doris Chang: Wu Wei contradicts everything we wanna tell ourselves about the world, which is that we can control things if we try hard enough. We can achieve any outcome as long as we keep trying.
Dacher Keltner: More, after this break.
Welcome back to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner.
Today on our show, we’re going to talk about a Taoist philosophy of acceptance — with Iraq war veteran Sal Gonzalez. Sal lost his left leg below the knee in combat, and when he came back to the States, he found that while anger helped him on the battlefield, it was not helpful in his new life back home.
We asked Sal to try Wu Wei, a concept that helps people sort through a problem while at the same time, accepting their circumstances.
Psychologist Doris Chang, who we’re going to hear from later, broke down the concept of Wu Wei into five steps.
Articulate goals and values. Assess situations, and ourselves, honestly. Accept the things we cannot change. Decide whether or not to act. And finally, allow things to naturally unfold.
Sal joins us from Nashville, Tennessee. Welcome to The Science of Happiness Sal.
Sal Gonzalez: Thank you for having me.
Dacher Keltner: So for our show, you did this clinical approach that really is grounded in Taoist philosophy called Wu Wei. It has five steps and it really is oriented towards accepting – maybe in your case, anger, you know, grappling with the difficulties of life.
The first step of Wu Wei is articulating your values and goals and intentions. And there’s a lot of science that shows, you know, when you set intentions, it helps you attain your goals and it helps kids with adhd, you know, sort of stay calm better.
It helps with academic performance. What goals did you articulate for this practice?
Sal Gonzalez: My main goal was to try and eliminate my anger while driving. And although it’s not perfect, it really has reduced it quite a bit.
I grew up in Los Angeles. I learned to drive in a real hectic part of the world. And almost immediately after I got home from Iraq I hated traffic. It’s part of the reason why I left Los Angeles. It was dangerous for me and others.
I was the instance that I knew I had to leave. I was driving from Hollywood to east LA and it was rush hour traffic. Nobody was moving anywhere and the guy behind me laid on his horn. I’m not sure for how long, because when I came to, I was on the interstate with a butterfly knife in my hand looking at that guy’s car.
Dacher Keltner: Seriously?
Sal Gonzalez: Seriously. And I looked down at my hand and I saw there was a knife, and I looked at the driver that was behind me and he was terrified. And I put my knife away and I got back into my car and I – yeah, that was a real wake up call for me. I was not only scared for what I could have done, but scared for what could have happened to me. You know, it’s Los Angeles, regardless of what laws they put in place, there’s a lot of people that carry guns there.
Dacher Keltner: How do you place that in the context of coming out of Iraq, you know, the trauma that ensued?
Sal Gonzalez: I don’t know, there’s a lot of anxiety built up around the car because the last time I was driven around in one by somebody else, I got blown up and lost a leg. And in the military, when you deal with threats in a combat zone there’s no time to deliberate whether you have the correct move or not. You — violence and as extreme as possible so that the threat is over and you and your friends go home alive. And learning how to detach myself from the immediacy of that emotional response has been a lifelong journey.
Dacher Keltner: I hear you. That’s real trauma. You know the hard one for me in this, and it’s so rich in this exercise too is acceptance. Where you recognize what is in your control, what’s out of your control. What was acceptance like for you in this exercise?
Sal Gonzalez: It just, just like anything, once you start doing something, you start seeing it in other things, right? You start realizing it in other forms of your life. I started doing this just with my driving and then, it slowly permeated its way into the rest of my life. I started using it as a father.
So like, hey my goal is not to yell at my child today, regardless of how irritating that child may be, because he is my son and we are good at irritating people. So using that and setting that intention and accepting the fact that he’s four and he doesn’t know any better and he’s not trying to be malicious in any of his actions. He’s just a kid. Is, uh, as a parent is hard at times, especially when you have a one year old behind him yelling at you for food or whatever else and yelling children is a trigger for me, turns out. I didn’t realize that. so, you know, I’m a better father because of it. I stopped being so angry or not, I stopped. I’m getting better at handling my anger with my children.
Dacher Keltner: How did this other step of the action, inaction part of Wu Wei, of thinking strategically by whether or not to act, I mean, it’s so fundamental to anger, right? Is this the right moment to act, like, to take on the bully or the wrong moment, the guy beeping his horn on the highway. How’d that go for you?
Sal Gonzalez: It went great. It went great because it’s dangling the candy to my anger. You know what I mean?
Dacher Keltner: Tell me more.
It, it’s, it’s like, okay I’m very fond of my anger. It’s my warm blanket that keeps me wrapped in safety and because of that, I always just wanna wrap it around. And that’s the first thing I go to. My brain goes zero to 60 right away and it’s a drug. And I’m addicted to it because it is so comforting. And it was my safety blanket for so long. But getting rid of it entirely scares me to death, because who am I without that, the fighter in me, right?
And I’m realizing that I’m not throwing it away. It’s just, it’ll always be a part of me and being able to dangle that candy in front of it and say like, is this a good time to use you? No, uh, no, not Maybe next time. Maybe next time.
And that candy just gets me a little further down the road as I’m like, okay, I’m not getting rid of the anger. I might be able to use it one day. Okay. All right. We’re good.
So I’m so much happier. I’m a better person, I’m a better father, I’m a better husband. I’m a better human by getting my own emotional stuff in order.
Dacher Keltner: And I have to ask how it was in this final step of going of with the flow or allowing, and I’m curious how, like building up this Wu Wei philosophy towards the complexities of anger in your life from your background to being a Marine and the like, how is it for you going with the flow now with your anger?
Sal Gonzalez: I’m nowhere near as angry of a person as I used to be. I get angry and I’m able to drop it and let it go, whereas before, if I got angry in the morning, that anger would color the rest of my day.
So this practice of accepting what’s going on and letting go of that anger and being able to let go of that anger has been a big focus in my mental health.
Dacher Keltner: Wow, Sal, thank you so much. Thank you for your work and thanks for being on our show.
Sal Gonzalez: You’re very welcome.
Dacher Keltner: What you’re hearing is some of Sal Gonzalez’ Music… Which you can find on itunes, Youtube, and by searching for @SalGMusic on your usual social media channels.
Sal Gonzalez song: Spinning round spinning around the sun. It’s a carousel ride, it’s the race we run. Tick tock the clock doesn’t stop for no one.
Dacher Keltner: When Sal’s not on the road performing, he’s working with the Wounded Warrior project, an organization that helps other veterans like him.
Up next, we’ll hear how Wu Wei helps people accept their circumstances, and harness their unique gifts and strengths.
More, after this break.
Welcome back to The Science of Happiness. I’m Dacher Keltner. We’ve been talking about how a Taoist philosophy called Wu Wei can help us accept our circumstances, and think strategically about how to act.
Doris Chang: The Daoist metaphor is really like, for example the mouse doesn’t try to compete with the tiger.
Oftentimes we feel bad that we can’t be enough of this or enough of that instead of really harnessing our particular gifts and strengths.
Dacher Keltner: Dr. Doris Chang is clinical psychologist, and professor at New York University. She developed the five step process of Wu Wei, which she uses at the Soho CBT Therapy and Mindfulness Center in New York City. She’s also an outspoken advocate for Asian American mental wellbeing.
She joins us to explain how the ancient ideas of Wu Wei all work together to promote wellbeing. Doris, thanks for being on the show.
Doris Chang: Thanks so much for having me. I’m happy to be here.
Dacher Keltner: Doris, let’s start by you telling us how you would explain Wu Wei.
Doris Chang: So it does begin with its idea that there is a natural way og=f things in the world. So this is the idea of the dao. So that each of us has a particular inner nature that we exist in complex environments that also are unfolding. We’re part of those environments. So it’s about acting with insight and awareness and also acceptance that there is a larger reality that we are part of. And I think one of the reasons why it’s so difficult for especially for American or Western audiences to kind of grapple with that is that it contradicts everything we wanna tell ourselves about the world, which is that we can control things if we try hard enough, we can achieve any outcome as long as we keep trying. And this says something different. We have to accept that we ourselves have limitations. And so Wu Wei is about this sort of effortless behavioral response that is in harmony with those realities.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah. So such a departure from, you know, focused on your agency and these internal beliefs within your mind and how you can correct their rationality. I mean what a shift. You talk about five steps that really are part of Wu Wei and our guests for the show tried them and you’ve really laid them out as articulation, assessment, acceptance, which you’ve mentioned, action or non-action, and allowing, and I wanna start with the really powerful idea of acceptance. There’s new work by Aris Moss here at Berkeley that, you know, when undergrads can find some acceptance for the hard emotions they work through, they show less depression and anxiety and greater wellbeing. And I’m curious, like, how do you teach a person in your clinical practice or a friend to cultivate this Wu Wei principle of acceptance?
Doris Chang: It’s not basically saying that we have to just roll over and let the world happen to us. I think it’s really about discerning, you know, what are the really difficult truths and the difficult realities, that are painful, that are frustrating, that are difficult to accept? And yet if we really look at our ability to change those things, we might realize like, you know what, as much as I hate that I can’t do anything about it, and yet there are things I can. IIt’s like, well, is, you know, what can you do and what really is outside of your control? And the beautiful – maybe the core Daoist metaphor is out of water.
So we think about water, I think water is the best metaphor for Wu Wei because water is really soft.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah.
Doris Chang: It’s very yielding, but it’s also extremely powerful. You know, on the one hand, if you think about how water behaves when it encounters an obstacle. It often will just kind of flow around it, unless it can’t. In which case it it can sort of stop because it can’t proceed further. But the whole time it’s applying steady pressure.
Doris Chang: Right. And if you think about what happens when water applies steady pressure over time, it’s gradually eroding that rock, right? We can sort of act where we can act, and we can pause when we need to pause, but at the same time, we are keeping our goals in mind and we are looking for an opportunity to move in that direction.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah so powerful. I guess a follow up question about the idea of acceptance and you know, I suspect this is relevant to your work on Asian American mental wellbeing is when you teach someone this deep philosophy of Wu Wei and its principle of acceptance, how do you get people to differentiate between the emotions they feel and then the complicated societal circumstances?
You know, you have an Asian student who is subject to hate crimes or bias or discrimination, and those are kinda these deep historical circumstances. And then the feelings that arise out of that, the, you know, the anger or shame or what have you, is that important to the discernment of Wu Wei and the principle of acceptance?
Doris Chang: It is important to acknowledge that we do have painful reactions and emotions as part of coming to acceptance. That it has to be part of, we have to give space to that. Out of every harmful action there is something, you know, good that arises, right? And so even in those dark moments, we can rest in the idea that there’s something else here besides that darkness/
Dacher Keltner: Tell us about the principle of articulation.
You know, I know there’s a lot of research on the benefits of, you know, listing values or setting intentions.
Doris Chang: So I think it is important to begin by identifying what matters most to you. You know, to define your goals. For your life, what you care about, what’s important to you, your values, and also your intentions.
And so it’s important to begin with identifying what those are. What, what do you care about?
Dacher Keltner: All right. So I’ve accepted my complicated circumstances. I’m articulating my core values. And then a key element of this is self-assessment. Uh, big part of Wu-Wei and, and really a lot of eastern traditions of kind of unbiased view of the self.
And, and I’m curious what is, how is that important in this, this philosophy of Wu Wei this sense of self-assessment?
Doris Chang: It’s not just about assessing yourself, it’s also about assessing others, seeing them clearly. Seeing the situation in front of you clearly as well, and really then what your options really are.
So one example I might offer is I live in New York City and we rely on the subway, right? To get from place to place. And so we often find ourselves in these really busy, chaotic subway stations where there’s, you know, thousands of people trying to get from point A to point B.
But if you stop and you watch, and especially watch a seasoned a New Yorker, you can watch them subtly altering their path to account for all of the obstacles in their way. They’re calculating, okay. There’s a tourist stopped in the middle of the platform. Oh, there’s a big crowd gathered around a bunch of dancers, you know, there’s a fruit vendor over here. And so they’re keeping in mind,the environment they’re in, where they need to go, how fast they can walk, the shortcuts available, and they are making these subtle behavioral shifts in their path and what they don’t do is just say, “Oh, I’m so annoyed.”
I mean, we all, we’re a little bit annoyed. Don’t stop in the middle of the path because someone’s in our way. Right? We just accept that this is, this is what it means to commute in New York City. And we flow with it. We go with it.
Dacher Keltner: I think that’s a terrific example. So what are you conveying here with this fourth principle of action, non-action?
Doris Chang: I think it’s really about flexibility, right?
So we have goals. They’re things that we want. There’s things that we have to offer and there are things that are outside of control. And when er we put all those pieces together, we might see that, you know what, as much as I want this to happen right now, as much as I want to go up for promotion now, or whatever it is that the
that the stars are not aligned. This is actually a terrible time to act, whether it’s like the stock market or buying your first home or having a child, right? That you might go, you know what, the best course of action when I put all these pieces together is really to wait.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah. So this all builds, I think, Doris to the last core idea, which is allowing, And when I think about it in my own life, this one feels really compelling. You know, just the natural unfolding of being, or however we might phrase going with the flow. Can you enrich our understanding of this last principle of wu wei, of allowing?
Doris Chang: Building on the water metaphor, you know, I think we can think about the way that water moves us. Let’s say we are we’re in a boat and we are traveling on, on the ocean, and at a certain point, know, the waves are gonna take us in a particular direction.
We can fight, we can swim against it, we can turn on the motors. Isn’t it easier to kind of work with the directional flow of that, of the waves? Right? And so much of this is about living a life of ease. And after we’ve done all these steps and we’ve, you know, articulated our goals, we’ve assessed the situation, we’re accepting what we can’t control, and then we’re deciding on something to do about it. At that point we’ve done everything we could do. And at that point we have to just let what’s gonna happen happen, and then we can start that process all over again.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah. Well, Doris Chang, thank you so much for being on the Science of Happiness.
Doris Chang: Hmm. Thank you so much for having me. This was really fun.
Dacher Keltner: On the next Happiness Break, I’ll guide you through quiet the mind, by focusing on our breathing.
Deema Altaher: And what can trying improve theater do for you? And your relationships?
Deema Altaher: There’s a big philosophy around saying yes and. So you have to say yes to what the other person is saying in that moment. And then you also have to say, and. Like, what can I contribute? What can I bring to, to this experience, to this idea.
Dacher Keltner: We explore the science of improv on our next episode of The Science of Happiness.
I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
Our producer for this episode is Pauline Bartolone. Our Executive Producer of Audio is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Haley Gray. Our Sound designer is Jennie Cataldo of Accompany Studios. And our associate producer is Maarya Zafar. Our Editor in Chief is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.
Take care, and have a great day.