Brief bio sketch

Lloyd Haft (1946- ) was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin USA and lived as a boy in Wisconsin, Louisiana and Kansas. In 1968 he graduated from Harvard College and went to Leiden, The Netherlands for graduate study in Chinese (M. A. 1973, Ph. D. 1981). From 1973 to 2004 he taught Chinese language and literature, mostly poetry, at Leiden. His sinological publications include Pien Chih-lin: A Study in Modern Chinese Poetry (1983/2011; published in Chinese translation as 发现卞之琳: 一位西方学者的探索之旅 in 2010) and Zhou Mengdie’s Poetry of Consciousness (2006). His most recent sinological book, a liberal modern Dutch reading of Laozi's Daode jing, was published as Lau-tze's vele wegen by Synthese in September 2017. His newest book of poems in Dutch, Intocht (Introit) has been available as a POD from the American Book Center since June 2018.

He has translated extensively into English from the Dutch of Herman Gorter and Willem Hussem, and from the Chinese of various poets including Lo Fu, Yang Lingye, Bian Zhilin and Zhou Mengdie.

Since the 1980s he has also been active as a poet writing in Dutch and English. He was awarded the Jan Campert Prize for his 1993 bilingual volume Atlantis and the Ida Gerhardt Prize for his 2003 Dutch free-verse readings of the Psalms (republished by Uitgeverij Vesuvius in 2011). His newer poems are published (some republished) on this blog. His newest book of poetry in Dutch is Intocht (Introit), issued by the American Book Center in June 2018.

After early retirement in 2004, for a number of years Lloyd Haft spent much of his time in Taiwan with his wife Katie Su. In addition to writing and translating, his interests include Song-dynasty philosophy and taiji quan. For many years he sang in the choir of a Roman Catholic church of the Eastern Rite in The Hague.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Why Is Mad So Specially Bad?

(Scraps from a Sinological Scrapbook 漢齋閒情異誌, fragment 20)

One of the things that surprise many Western students coming to tai chi, qigong, or related disciplines for the first time is that in the theoretical framework of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), it is axiomatic that ‘excessive emotion’ is bad for your health. This applies even to what we normally think of as uplifting or ‘positive’ emotions like, just to give one example, Joy. (I hesitate to give Love as an example, since (1) it is not on the commonly seen medical list of Seven Emotions 七情, and (2) on the whole I support what Ted Kaptchuk writes in his book on TCM: ‘Love is not usually thought of as a positive feeling, cognitive state, or passion in Chinese thought with the exception of the Mohist idea of “universal love”...[1])
        One of the Western qigong writers who are sold on this ‘don’t get too excited, it’s not good for you’ model is Daniel Reid – although he does, to my mind very oddly and paradoxically, advise us to ‘try to hug someone at least half a dozen times per day,’ and to make it ‘a real bear hug’![2]
Stressing the virtues of emotional equilibrium in general – he refers several times to emotion as the Chief Hooligan – Reid devotes a special paragraph to the dangers of anger. ‘Avoid anger like the plague,’ it begins; anger ‘...generates highly volatile, very destructive energy, and the person who suffers most from anger is the one who expresses it...In terms of chi-gung, a brief burst of anger totally negates the cumulative benefits of many weeks of practice...’[3]
        At this point, my reaction is: if anything at all can nullify in a few seconds what ‘many weeks of practice’ have built up, then that doesn’t say much for your practice! But since anger is being singled out here, the question becomes: what is there about anger specifically that makes it apparently even more of a ‘plague’ than the other six of the Seven Emotions?
        As soon as I finished reading Reid’s passage, I sensed the answer. The especial horror of anger is based on non-medical considerations. It is sociological. It is because in the Chinese world, getting angry with somebody, especially where other people are around to witness it, is a very big behavioral no-no. In Chinese social situations, if somebody does suddenly ‘blow their cool,’ fails to cap their anger and really ‘lets them have it’ in the presence of other people, the other people can be observed to be very uncomfortable. Some, it appears to me, actually pity the person who is expressing the anger and thereby suffering a pretty serious loss of image and reputation. They feel such behavior, regardless of what evoked it, to be shameful by definition, almost as if it were a momentary loss of bowel continence in public. Others may actually fear their own health and well-being are being threatened by sudden exposure to such a disharmonious and solidarity-destroying ‘biomagnetic field’ or ‘qi-field.’[4] Whatever their individual reasons, the bystanders are not likely, as some Westerners would do, to admire the flare-up as indicating an admirably strong individual ‘character’ which ‘doesn’t just sit back and take it.’[5]
        So, as for the supposedly catastrophic effects of even momentary anger on health, I immediately suspected this whole idea was just a qigong transcription of the more general East Asian lifestyle motto that says Don’t Rock The Boat.
        Soon afterward, I was delighted to see that Giovanni Maciocia, a very experienced practitioner of TCM and author of The Psyche in Chinese Medicine, had published a blog post saying essentially the same:

Maciocia says that among TCM practitioners there is ‘over-emphasis on anger among the emotions.’ He adds: ‘It is easy to see why that would be as anger is the most disruptive of the emotions: if you are angry, you rebel and that is not done in China...’
        Mind you, I do believe that anger can be deleterious to health, and I would claim it is not only harmful to the one who expresses it. My point is that if we are talking about emotions that can be ‘malefic’ in their effects, Anger should not be specially privileged. Maciocia’s blog mentions Sadness and Grief. My personal nominee would be Fear.
        And I definitely and outspokenly think that in this Joy- and Love-starved world, it must surely take a lot of Joy to be truly ‘excessive’...

[1] Ted J. Kaptchuk, Chinese Medicine: The Web That Has No Weaver. London etc.: Rider, 2000, p. 169.
[2] Daniel Reid, A Complete Guide to Chi-Gung: Harnessing the Power of the Universe. Boston: Shambhala, 2000, p. 304. Actually, it’s not paradoxical or un-qigong-like at all, since he advises us, even while the hug is going on, to keep the breath ‘deep and slow,’ the mind ‘still and empty.’ We are not told what effect that attitude is likely to have on the person being hugged! But strange or not, Reid’s hugging proclivities at least remain within a frame of overall non-bizarre behavior. Perhaps in the minds of some, the same could not be said of a technique I recently read in the Chinese translation of The Art of Becoming Immortal by Souichirou Takafuji. (See 高藤聰一郎著, 陸明軒譯, 仙人成仙術. Taipei: 大展出版社, 1996, pp. 60-61.) In a section on how to absorb qi from the environment, the author advises the male reader, while riding the bus, to select a suitable ‘young’ and ‘vital-looking’ girl as ‘object,’ go stand next to her, and without actually touching her (lest she might, Heaven forbid, think he is a ‘lecher’), quietly ‘absorb’ her qi. It is very important, while doing this, to get a clear impression of her face so that upon arriving home or at the office, you can quietly sit down, temporarily avoiding conversation with family or colleagues, and spend five minutes ‘thinking back to the girl’s face,’ thereby causing the qi you have absorbed from her to be ‘maintained permanently.’ Actually, this raises the question, or I should say the Great Bugbear common to very many qigong writers, teachers, and practitioners, of so-called Qi Leakage and how to prevent it. Important as this subject undoubtedly is, to pursue it here would go beyond the scope of this present Fragment.
[3] Reid, p. 304.
[4] Thanks to Cynthia Chin for calling my attention to this attitude as a widespread possibility.
[5] I suppose we all know some Westerners, though at least in my case they are unlikely to have become our best friends, who seem positively to cultivate cantankerousness as if it were a virtue, perhaps even a mark of their excellence as alert citizens in a democratic society.