Stagnation, euthymia and flourishing

One of the most frequent diagnoses in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is ‘stagnation’. It is a concept which is rendered in the English language literature as ‘stagnation’, ‘depression’, ‘blockage’ or ‘constraint’ but, as Volker Scheid explains, its representation in traditional Chinese through the character 鬱 has meanings which “allude not only to dense luxuriant foliage, lush verdant growth, fragrance, and elegance but also to gloomy, depressed, and dejected moods, or pent-up frustration”. As he goes on to write, “Its original definitions include that of a thicket that hinders movement and of a tone that does not carry, readily explaining its apparently opposite connotations”.

This is a powerful way to represent “emotional and physical feelings of blockage that are a common symptom of emotion-related disorders” because it captures what is being constrained in the diagnosis of the constraint. The sodden feeling of tramping through the rain in what you hoped would be a relaxing walk in the sun or the gnawing sadness of an important conversation which has gone badly wrong. Scheid points out how the concept “readily cuts through the psyche/soma dichotomies that inform modern western conceptions of mental illness” but the same can be said of the virtual/actual dichotomy in the sense of the counterfactual outcomes which stagnation precludes.

This has Aristotelian connotations to me insofar as stagnation can be understood as a constraint on flourishing. This would be one response to Scheid’s observation that there’s a lack of clarity about what is being constrained. I’m unclear from this paper about the degree of equivalence between stagnation (滯 zhì) and constraint (鬱 yù) though Scheid states explicitly that 鬱 is often translated as stagnation. I find ‘stagnation’ a much more resonant term because it conveys a sense of blocked movement, impeded growth and frustrated progress. Scheid quotes from the The Annals of Lü Buwei 呂氏春秋 (239 BCE):

Flowing waters do not stagnate and door hinges do not get mole crickets. This is because they move. It is the same with respect to the bodily frame and qi. If the bodily frame does not move, the vital essences do not flow and the qi constrains. 

What does it mean to flow freely? It’s a superficial comparison but I find it hard not to think of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow: being creatively immersed, fully present and profoundly engaged in an activity. My experience of what TCM calls stagnation is that such immersion becomes difficult because there’s a sense of being weighed down, sluggish and moving through mud. There’s a sense of lag rather than impossibility, a feeling of being existentially heavy on your feet rather than spiritually on your knees. It manifests cognitively as the repetition of past patterns rather than a creative response to present circumstances.The sense that you’re playing out a script rather than being what you could be in the situation in which you find yourself. I can see a link here to Nietzsche’s concept of Amor Fati (love of fate) in the sense that stagnation swamps the reality of the present moment in expectations formed of past experience. Perhaps one way to think of stagnation is as that which prevents us from meeting the reality of our present moment:

“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.

Underlying everything I’ve written here is a preoccupation with how we characterise the unconstrained and non-stagnant condition in general terms. The antonyms of stagnant are flowing, running and fresh but I would like more phenomenological detail. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the Greek concept of euthymia, defined here by Fava and Bech:

The term euthymia has a Greek origin and results from the combination of ‘eu’ meaning ‘well’ and ‘thymos’ meaning ‘soul, emotion’. This latter term encompasses however four different meanings: life energy; feelings and passions; will, desire and inclination; thought and intelligence. Interestingly, its verb (euthymeo) means both I am happy, in good spirits and I make other people happy, I reassure and encourage. The definition of euthymia is generally ascribed to Democritus: one is satisfied with what is present and available, taking little heed of people who are envied and admired and observing the lives of those who suffer and yet endure [11]. It is a state of quiet satisfaction, a balance of emotions that defeats fears. The Latin philosopher Seneca translated the Greek expression of euthymia with ‘tranquillitas animi’ (a state of internal calm and contentment) and linked it to psychological well-being as a learning process. Happiness is not everything and what is required is ‘felicitatis intellectus’, the awareness of well-being:

Happy is thus the life that is in accordance to its nature, and this is possible only when the mind, first of all, is healthy at any time; then, if it is strong and energetic, definitely patient, capable of mastering everything; concerned with the body and its belongings, but without anxiety; lover of what is life, but with detachment; willing to take advantage of the gifts of fortune, without being its slave. [Seneca: De Vita Beata, translation by G.A.F.]

The populariser of stoic philosophy Ryan Holiday suggests this can be seen in terms of staying the course. It’s a sense of self-belief that we’re heading in broadly the right direction which frees us from the tendency to undercut ourselves with spiralling deliberations or comparing ourselves to others. I’m slightly cautious about Holiday because there’s a prosperity gospel feel which creeps into his stoicism but I like the sense of purposive movement he builds into the concept of euthymia.

This is a sketchy initial attempt to articulate an idea brewing within me but I’d like to unpack the connections here because it feels there’s something valuable in bringing together confidence in our existential movement with how we meet the reality of fate and the stagnation which hinders this process. It reminds me of something the cybernetician Stafford Beer wrote to his children in a Christmas letter about poise:

As I wrote here I think poise can be understood in terms of taking ownership of our line of flight, the skill and confidence to steer our own becoming in an uncertain, mysterious and recalcitrant world which inevitably resists attempts at direct control. This requires an existential agility to adapt to changing circumstances which is precisely what stagnation renders difficult. If what I wrote about in my PhD as personal morphogenesis is conceived as a flow of becoming then stagnation is what impedes that flow.

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