I’ve had a few people turn up here searching for problems that a melancholic might experience in learning.
I tried writing a reply, but the attempt to be thorough killed my motivation.
So there’s the first clue: motivation for a melancholic is vital.
I learn best when I have a single burning question to answer, an intuition to explore, or an idea to develop.
So I really get Confucius:
The Master said, “Ts’ze, you think, I suppose, that I am one who learns many things and keeps them in memory?”
Tsze-kung replied, “Yes,-but perhaps it is not so?”
“No,” was the answer; “I seek a unity all pervading.”
An alternative translation refers to a single thread that binds all of his knowledge together. That’s what melancholics need, I think, at least when we’re trying to learn.
A single thread
A few weeks ago after martial arts practice, I asked a friend about his learning process.
His explanation of how he learns was completely foreign to me.
He said that the martial art we learn is made up of lots of different components that need to be developed in parallel. When he focuses on any given component he can tell that out of ten repetitions, some will be better than others. That gives him a clear sense of how he needs to improve. He simply knows what direction to head in.
By contrast, I find it confusing to think of lots of different components that each needs strengthening. I prefer to think of these components coming together to form a coherent whole. And this means having a highly-developed theory of how the martial art works. I seek a unity, all pervading.
Likewise, the idea of simply recognising when one repetition is better than another is outside my experience. I don’t know what direction to head in unless I have a theoretical framework to guide the way.
Why do I need strong theoretical support for a physical activity?
Well, remember that the melancholic is characterised by being unexcitable, with enduring impressions. It’s hard to learn anything when you aren’t excited, and that’s why melancholics need a strong motivation in the form of a question, an idea, or a problem to solve.
Without these things, the pointlessness and tedium of study and practice becomes unbearable. It is so much harder to retain 100 pointless facts, than to solve an interesting problem, even though you might learn the same 100 facts along the way.
With physical activity the approach to learning is similar. Instead of pointless facts, we have an array of sensory data that makes no sense without a theoretical context (like a question or a problem) to help us shape and frame it.
Without a theoretical framework, all the information from my body streams in like a torrent, and I can’t tell what is relevant and what isn’t.
There are days at training where my whole theory has burst like a bubble against some countervailing revelation from my teacher. I try going through the motions, but it feels as though I have no idea what I’m doing.
After a while I remember the parts of the theory that haven’t been shattered. I slowly piece it back together and try to reconcile it with the new data. Eventually I’m back on track.
From an outsider’s point of view it would look like I’ve suddenly forgotten years of training in an instant.
So that’s one aspect of the melancholic learning style. It sounds pretty bad.
The positive side of it is that once you’ve mastered your theoretical grasp of the subject, you know it inside-out. You can take it places no one else may have even thought to take it. And you can quickly see the connections and the contrasts with other theories, systems, and ideas.
In other words, whatever you have learned becomes a part of the greater all-pervading unity.