Chapter 3
Emotional Equilibrium

Relax, Be Healthy, Have a Long Life

Emotions often seem to behave like the weather: somewhat unpredictable and beyond control. In the West, there has been considerable concern about the social and relationship problems associated with pent-up emotions (particularly in women) and with habitual non-expression of emotions (particularly in men), so that the very concept of "controlling" emotions is looked upon with suspicion. By contrast, keeping emotions within certain reasonable bounds is an issue at the forefront of Asian religions and healing arts; the primary concern there is adopting habits that help one to remain relatively calm. When tranquility of mind is attained, emotions do not vanish: they are still experienced and expressed, and emotions remain unpredictable, but their intensity is usually lessened and their potential impact on both physical and mental health is curtailed. The emotional equilibrium that is desired by the Asian philosophy translates to spiritual freedom and the ability to flow with nature, as described in the previous chapter. Many people today have looked to Asia for help in this area, though too frequently the simple methods advocated there are ignored, with more interest shown in those methods surrounded by mysticism.

This subject of emotional calm has been an important topic in the field of Chinese medicine. Based on a long history of seeking good health and longevity, there are specific means of attaining balance and harmony for emotions that have become incorporated into the Chinese culture, at least for those who show interest in it. An example of the Chinese approach to having a healthy emotional life is presented in The Mystery of Longevity by Liu Zheng Cai (1):

The Canon of Medicine (Nei Jing) advises, in summing the experiences of centenarians in remote times: 'Do not be weighed down by perplexing thoughts; strive to be calm and optimistic; be complacent [calm in the face of situations that can cause anger]; keep sound in body and mind. This way, one can live to the age of 100.' The Canon of Medicine recognizes that emotional and psychological factors are important causes for illness. It indicates that excessive emotion impairs the internal organs of the human body. 'Anger hurts the liver, joy hurts the heart, brooding hurts the spleen, and melancholy hurts the lungs.' Hence, it proposes regulating the emotions by 'keeping the heart calm and cheerful and the mind free of worries.' 'Where can disease come from when the emotional state maintains inner composure?' Scholars on the art of healthy living in subsequent generations set forth many specific methods of maintaining optimism in accordance with this principle.

A project of The All-China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine in the 1980s led to publication of the English-Chinese Encyclopedia of Practical Traditional Chinese Medicine, published as a 20 volume set. Volume 9 is dedicated to "Maintaining Your Health;" the first chapter begins with mental health care, and the first section deals with "being open minded and optimistic." The section is presented here; it represents an overview of the traditional literature on the subject (2):

As the proverb goes, 'Optimism will help you forget sorrow.' An optimistic stable mood and good mental balance will calm the vital energy and spirit, aid the circulation of blood and qi, and improve health. The ancient book Guan Zi states, 'The quality of one's life depends on maintaining a positive happy state of mind. Anxiety and anger lead to confusion of the mind. There can be no mental balance when anxiety, grief, joy, and anger exist. Thus, desire should be subdued, and disorder be checked. Happiness and luck will arrive on their own if there is no disturbance of mind.' The book Nei Jing also points out that one should strive for tranquility and happiness, remaining free from anger, resentment, and troubled thoughts. It indicates that by avoiding angry moods and a troubled state of mind and by cultivating tranquility, optimism, and happiness, one will obtain longevity with a sound body which will not be easily degenerated and with a sound mind which will not be easily distracted. The book Huai Nan Zi advocates 'happiness and cheerfulness,' which is said to be part of human nature. The book Zun Sheng Ba Jian also maintains that to tranquilize the mind one should have a happy mood. These statements indicate that good health is always based on happy and tranquil moods. To keep a happy mood, one must have a noble spirit, high ideals, an expanded outlook, a sanguine and lively disposition, and an open and broad mind. While dealing with daily affairs and people, one must not be disposed to feeling extremely depressed from personal losses. As is said in the book Ji Zhong San Ji, 'Cultivate a good temperament for the sake of mind; tranquilize the mind for the sake of life; avoid emotional extremes and adopt a care-free attitude.' If one can achieve such equanimity, he will be safe from unnecessary worries and enjoy an undisturbed mind and a sound body.

Also, to keep a happy state of mind, one should be able to tackle a problem in a composed manner. As the book Sou Shi Qing Bian says, 'Don't worry about a problem before it has actually manifested don't worry too much after it has existed, and don't cling to what has already passed; instead; one should adopt a detached attitude towards coming or going, leaving it alone and checking all emotions such as anger, fear, desire, joy, and anxiety. That is the way to health and longevity.'

Happiness lies in contentment, which is important not only for physical and mental health, but also in keeping a happy mood. The book Dao De Jing says, 'There is no sin greater than discontent, and no error greater than covetousness.' Therefore, knowing what contentment is means constant satisfaction. The book Zun Sheng Ba Jian maintains, 'Contentment will bring neither abuse nor danger.' Both statements express the ideal that lasting happiness can be achieved only through contentment. In our actual life, most anxieties and worries result from going after and coveting fame, a higher status, and material comfort. In face of such desires, one should always keep in mind: 'There are many others who have less than I' In so doing, it will be easier for one to refrain from excessive desire and competition, to remain content with what one has, and to be cheerful and open-minded, so that anxiety will be expelled, tranquility of soul obtained, and the mind maintained in an optimistic and stable state.

The self-cultivation of one's sense of morality is another important method to maintain optimism, to which the ancients paid great attention. They professed, 'The kind will enjoy longevity.' The kind here mean all those who have a well-developed sense of morality. The cultivation of morality involves devoted attention. The methods discoursed upon by the ancients, such as moderating desires, remaining content, and being tolerant, kind and courteous are all essential for that purpose. They also believed: 'A person of great morality is sure to obtain longevity.' The reason why such a person lives a long life lies in the fact that he is 'apt to cultivate the great-qi', being broad-minded and strong willed as well as having great ideals and aims; meanwhile, those who respect others will receive respect from others, and those who are content will enjoy lasting happiness…all of these factors, together with tolerance and avoidance of anxiety, contribute to a balanced mind and a cheerful mood.

One guarantee of maintaining an optimistic frame of mind is to continuously enrich one's life by cultivating a great variety of interests and hobbies, such as reading, meeting friends, traveling, fishing, playing chess, practicing calligraphy, painting, reciting poetry, singing, playing musical instruments, watering flowers, growing bamboo, etc. There are many discussions handed down from the ancients, maintaining that such activities can bring on cheerful mood and refine one's sensibility. The book Yi Qing Xiao Lu says, 'One should always enjoy simple pleasures such as sunshine in winter or shade in summer, beautiful scenes on a bright day, walking cheerfully with a stick, watching fish in a pond, listening to birds singing in the woods, drinking a cup of wine or playing a stringed musical instrument.' What is meant by this quotation is that one should relax the mind, choose and cultivate one's own hobbies, and increase continually one's interest in life so that comfortable feelings, a stability of mind and cheerfulness will result, all of which contribute to good health and longevity.

In short, open-mindedness and optimism are important principles in regulating the mind and in health care. As it has been explained in the book Nei Jing: 'That is why the sages did not concern themselves with purposeful actions. They cultivated tranquility and developed emptiness of mind. Their way of health care brought about a substantial longevity.' This points out that those competent at health care will not do anything they feel reluctant to do, remaining free from whimsical and improper thoughts, keeping a cheerful and happy mood, cherishing a rich variety of interest, leading a tranquil and undisturbed life, maintaining a mind which is relaxed, happy, open, and optimistic, this contributes to longevity.

The book continues with some additional description and advice, with a focus on being careful about desires, which cause disorder of the body and mind, both in distracting one from essential tasks by trying to fulfill them and causing one anguish if they are not fulfilled. Although not mentioned in the text, Buddhism has been one of the dominant sources of the philosophy of maintaining equanimity by controlling desires through practicing moderation in living and meditation; Buddhism arose in response to Indian practices that emphasized asceticism as an extreme method of overcoming desires.

The advice about controlling emotions by calming the mind presented in the Encyclopedia was further developed and described by Yuan Liren and Liu Xiaoming of the Beijing College of Traditional Chinese Medicine as part of their series of articles on health preservation published in the Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine (3). They refer to the "seven emotions" (qiqing) which are first outlined here:

Chinese Term Typical Translation Terms
Xi joy; also: happiness, excitement, pleasure, elation
Nu anger; also: irritation
Si anxiety; also: over-thinking, pensiveness, brooding
You melancholy; also: sorrow, grief, worry, anxiety
Bei grief; also: sorrow, sadness
Kong fear
Jing fright; also: terror

Their description of the nature of emotions and their depiction of traditional methods for dealing with the emotions is quoted here at length. It will be noted that they have simplified and reduced the meaning of shen to mind, in keeping with the modern Chinese avoidance of reference to spiritual matters:

In traditional Chinese medicine, all such concepts as consciousness, feeling, and thought are referred to as shen, meaning mind, which is considered to be stored in the heart and to govern all the activities of the organism. Regulation by the mind is necessary in all physiological functions. In fact, the so-called three treasures [shen, jing, qi] are: mind, essence (which constitutes the material basis of the human body), and qi (which is the motive force of all life activities). A sound mind is considered the basis of health and longevity; similarly, scarcity of essence, deficiency of qi, and weakness of mind are the main causes of illness and aging. Since mind plays the role of governing life and commanding all the physiological functions of the primary internal organs and those of the rest of the body as well, it is easily depleted or impaired. Hence, taking good care of the mind is particularly important.

The activities of the mind can be classified into two kinds: emotional and mental. The former refers to changes of mood, known in traditional Chinese medicine as the seven emotions, i.e., joy, anger, melancholy, anxiety, grief, fear, and terror; while mental activities refers to consciousness and thinking. Since the activities of the mind are the general responses of the organs in conforming with the outside environment under the guidance of the heart, maintenance of the mind is bound to involve many aspects, which include roughly the following: preserving the tranquil mind, easing the mind, and regulating emotions. A brief account of these methods is given below.

Preserving a tranquil mind. Tranquil here refers to the state of mind being peaceful, tranquil, free from excessive desires and distracting thoughts, unaffected by outside changes. Such a state of mind will harmonize the organs and maintain a smooth circulation of qi and blood, benefiting the health. This consists of the following aspects:

  1. Minimize egoism and personal desires: Excessive egoism and unbounded desires tend to deplete one's mentality, causing disharmony between qi and blood, and with the organs as well, inviting disease, whereas, less egoism and desires helps remove unnecessary mental burdens, enabling one to take a calm and nonchalant attitude toward fame, wealth, and other desires, hence, the mental qi will be preserved and health protected. Here are two points that are essential. First, one should be aware of the harmful effect of excessive egoism and desires so that the mind may be rationally controlled in a tranquil state; second, one should take a correct attitude toward personal gains and losses. An ancient book entitled Health-Preservation Skills Developed by Taishang Laojun points out: 'Those who are expert at health preservation will always first try to eliminate the six harmful elements, namely: fame and profit, the desire for which should be suppressed; the desire for sex, to which one should not abandon oneself; wealth, for which one should not be greedy; rich food, which one should not eat with abandon; unrealistic fantasies, which should be got rid of, for they distract one's thoughts from reality and are harmful to one's mind; and jealousy, which should also be eliminated.' Eradication of the above-mentioned six harmful factors has since ancient times been considered essential for health preservation and is therefore worthy of our attention.
  2. Be broadminded in conducting oneself in society: When faced with undesirable things and situations, one should be broadminded and try to look on the bright side. In handling various kinds of complicated problems and abrupt changes in one's daily life, a stable state of mind and an optimistic attitude toward one's life is very good for preserving a sound mind. This includes the following aspects: first, set a lofty goal in life-health preservation requires first and foremost that one should cherish hopes, love life, and keep a lofty goal, a noble ideal, and sound morality, all of which guarantees for a sound mind; second, be content and be happy, for it keeps one satisfied with what one has, caring little about temporary setbacks and failures, and this, in turn, will bring about both physical and mental health.

Easing the mind. Moods are the responses of people to their surroundings, and everyone experiences the seven emotions and six desires [six harmful elements, described above]. If not properly regulated, the emotions will cause stagnation of qi and blood, and disharmony between the organs, leading to illness, even early death. Those who lived a long life, according to historical records, are almost all people apt to regulate their moods, the essence of which is to cultivate the mind with virtuous and elevated ideas and mold the temperament. Various methods have been developed and described by people in the past, which can be boiled down to the following: creating a happy mood by engaging in a great variety of carefree, light, and lively activities in which spirit is heightened, intelligence is increased, muscles and tendons are exercised, and circulation of qi and blood is activated so that health preservation is achieved in the midst of amusement and sports, achieving the aim of nurturing the mind, strengthening the body, and prolonging life. Some traditional methods employed for this purpose include taking up hobbies, such as playing the piano and chess; raising flowers, plants, birds, or fish; sightseeing; and chatting with friends.

Adjusting emotions. In one's daily life, the complicated situation is bound to influence one's moods such as from joy to anger, grief, etc. When one is in a bad or abnormal mood, one should try to adjust and control it lest it go to an extreme. As a mental means of health care, the following methods are used:

  1. Exercising self-control: Traditional Chinese medicine holds that the seven emotions, i.e., joy, anger, melancholy, anxiety, grief, fear, and terror, are, in the extreme, one of the main causes of illness. Therefore, timely adjustment of one's emotions with a view to preventing them from going to the extreme is an effective method of health preservation. Ever since ancient times, experts in health preservation have believed that anger is the chief pathogenic factor, for great anger may impair the liver and also affect the heart, stomach, and brain. Hence, control of anger is an important method of adjusting the emotions. The essence is to control emotions by rational reasoning, that is, to cultivate one's morality, train one's will, consciously control one's mood, and overcome emotional impulses with reason. As the ancients put it: 'When faced with something exasperating, one should calmly consider which is more important-anger or health?' This comparison will enable one to gradually eliminate anger.
  2. Providing outlets for anger. This is to help regain one's psychological balance by finding proper outlets for detrimental emotions accumulated in one's mind. This method can be explained in three parts. First, direct release: When one is in great sorrow, he should have a good cry so that he may feel comfortable after his sorrow has been fully given vent to. This is a measure beneficial to health care; it helps regulate the circulation of qi and blood and, consequently, prevents depression. Other measures are: a loud cry when in great pain; a thorough pouring out of one's heart when in great anger; a deep sigh or moan when worried; or hearty singing when in great joy. Different forms of expression are used for different emotions, all to restore the mind to a peaceful and tranquil state. Second, there is controlled release: in contrast to direct release, this measure stresses a controlled and gradual release of pent-up emotion in one's mind when in bad moods. For instance, one may confide in relatives or good friends the bitterness or grievance, or express feeling by saying poems or writing articles. The advice and consolation of one's relatives and friends and the release of emotion will enable one to acquire psychological comfort and support, broaden the mind, and finally become happy and at peace. This is a good method for eliminating detrimental emotions. Third, there is the method of diverting one's attention. This is also known as diverting one's emotion, that is, changing the focus of excitation, the principle of which is to free a person from entangling emotions by taking certain measures to separate oneself from harmful stimulating factors....For instance, when in great distress or depression, one may listen to a favorite piece of music or when one is in great sorrow following some misfortune, one may stay with relatives or good friends for a period of time; the change of surroundings and atmosphere may divert bitter emotions, allowing one to restore normal life after calming the mind. Or when one is afflicted by troubling thoughts, one may take a walk so that the surroundings of nature may relax and refresh the mind, and thinking ability will be restored.

This summation by Yuan and Liu shows that one should respond promptly and effectively to emotional distress rather than allowing the emotions to manifest over a period of time and thus damage the whole person, and should cultivate habits and thought patterns that help one avoid frequent experience of emotional excess.

Shi Tianji, a scholar on the art of healthy living in the Ming Dynasty, proposed 'Six Always' for maintaining a calm and cheerful state of mind, relayed in the book The Mystery of Longevity (1):

  1. Always be peaceful in mind. Remain peaceful in mind without vain hopes. Do not covet, do not indulge in vain wishes, do not worry about personal gains and losses. Hence, Shi Tianji said, 'If one has few desires, his mind will naturally be peaceful. Just look at secluded hills and remote valleys! Most people there enjoy long life spans because they have few desires and always remain peaceful in mind.'
  2. Always be kind-hearted. A kind-hearted person often takes pleasure in helping others and has no desire to harm others. Whenever he conceives an idea, makes a remark, or does a deed, he always ponders whether it is beneficial or harmful to others. 'When others are evil, I remain upright; when others are vicious, I remain kind-hearted; when others stir up troubles, I strive to alleviate troubles; when others harm people, I serve people. If I act in this way, I shall have a clear conscience and naturally feel calm and tranquil in mind.'
  3. Always uphold justice. Distinguish between evil and virtue and between right and wrong. Virtue and evil are antagonistic, and right and wrong are not to be confused. If one maintains his awareness, upholds integrity, and remains clear-headed and sharp-eyed, he will naturally be free from worries and troubles. Hence, Shi Tianji said, 'When the sun shines in the sky, obscurity is naturally cleared away. When one grasps this miraculous concept, he will be cured of disease and attain longevity as well.'
  4. Always be cheerful. Adapt to different circumstances; feel complacent at all times; avoid overdoing anything and do not hurt anyone's feelings. As Bai Juyi says in a poem: 'Be cheerful, whether rich or poor; he who does not laugh can only be a fool.' One should often have hearty laughs. A folk saying goes, 'A good laugh makes one ten years younger; worry turns the hair gray.'
  5. Always be pleasant. Harmony is paramount in human relations. Be amiable, modest and prudent, broad-minded and magnanimous; do not be calculating and do not worry about trifles. To be amiable in dealing with others will bring happiness to both the others and oneself.
  6. Always be contented: it is a rare person who avoids all adversity. One should remain cheerful despite adversities. Yan Feitai had a wise epigram on caring for life. 'Just step back to think everything will naturally be all right.' 'Contentment is happiness.' Whenever this is adversity, compare it with a worse circumstance and one will feel calm and cheerful.

Thanks to the availability of translated books, and to documents such as those quoted here, Westerners have relatively easy access to these Oriental traditional systems of dealing with emotions; additionally, they have other means of dealing with emotions, including their own religious heritage and established psychological aids.

In modern Chinese work, doctors specializing in cancer therapies often comment about their sense that emotion contributes to the health status of the patients, affecting the outcome of treatment, which is life or death. For example, Sun Binyan writes in his book Cancer Treatment and Prevention (4):

According to our understanding of the tumor patient, most have suppression of the emotions. They tend to hold in their anger. Although some patients have good results after treatment, emotional stimulation may cause them to decline again and then the previous treatment would have been in vain. Some people have a severe phobia about cancer. Before they know the real disease, they have a lot of suspicion. Once they know they have the cancer, their whole spirit breaks down. This kind of spiritual state is very bad for the treatment.

Pan Mingji, in his book Cancer Treatment with Fu Zheng Pei Ben Principle (5), presents a section on etiology of cancer; he notes that (5):

A lot of evidence proves that those who are optimistic and undertake exercises [in China, this refers mainly to taiji and qigong, along with similar types of practices, as well as hiking in the woods] tend to have healthy and sound function of the nervous system, strong physiques, and naturally great anticancer ability and immunity. Even if those people come into contact with outside carcinogens, they will not develop cancer. On the contrary, those who have mental injury, who are disheartened, or often have a fear of cancer, and who do not undertake exercises at all or are overtired, whose daily life is irregular and unsanitary, whose spirit and nerve function is disorganized, tend to reduce their defensive ability. As a result, the rate of cancer occurrence among those people is higher.


  1. Liu Zheng Cai, The Mystery of Longevity, 1990 Foreign Language Press, Beijing.
  2. Xu Xiangcai (chief ed.), The English-Chinese Encyclopedia of Practical Traditional Chinese Medicine, (Vol. 9) 1989 Higher Education Press, Beijing.
  3. Yuan Liren and Liu Xiaoming, Health preservation by mental means, Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine 1993; 13(2): 144-147.
  4. Sun Binyan, Cancer Treatment and Prevention, 1991 Offete Enterprises, San Mateo, CA.
  5. Pan Mingji, Cancer Treatment with Fu Zheng Pei Ben Principle, 1992 Fujian Science and Technology Publishing House, Fujian.